The history of popular music never stands still. Our appreciation of it shouldn’t either
In April 1983, as luck would have it, I happened upon the greatest album of all time, on sale for just £2.99 in a Birmingham record shop. I’d just received my pocket money – £5 for the week – and there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity. Better still, the copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the plasterboard display behind the counter was a picture disc. So pretty!
That this was the greatest album of all time was something I didn’t question. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t heard it. My copy of Paul Gambaccini’s 1978 book Critic’s Choice: Top 200 Albums – collated from the lists of approximately fifty British and American critics and broadcasters – placed it at the very top. That was good enough for me. All I needed to do was go home, listen to the Fabs’ crowning achievement and make it my business to understand why its supremacy was a matter of indisputable fact.
The following year, things got a bit more complicated. Echo & The Bunnymen placed adverts in NME and Melody Maker announcing that their new album Ocean Rain was “The Greatest Album Ever Made”. Well, why would you make a claim like that if it wasn’t true? I bought the record. With its grandiose strings and elliptical lyrics, it sounded like it might be the most important album ever made. And, aged 14, I had yet to untangle “important” from “greatest”. However, a year later, the confusion merely intensified. NME published their Best Albums Of All Time list and neither Ocean Rain or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were in there – this despite the fact that the latter had topped the magazine’s equivalent chart in 1974.
Apparently, the greatest album of all time was now Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I dutifully went out and bought Marvin’s 1971 masterpiece as soon as I could afford it – as indeed, over time, I would with several records on the list. This is probably as good a time as any to extend my thanks to anyone on the paper who had a hand in putting Patti Smith’s Horses, Are You Experienced? by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica in there. I fell hard for Jimi; Patti Smith took a few years longer, but I got there eventually; and, well… I still hold out hope for Captain Beefheart.
But, mainly, we should be grateful for all such lists. Even the bad ones. Perhaps especially the bad ones. Such as NME’s 2013 list and Melody Maker’s 2000 list which, in many ways, make for a more troubling read than the 1985 NME one. In these newer lists, you had to move your forefinger all the way down from The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead to number 17 before getting to the first record by a Black artist – in both cases Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.
In looking at those lists – or even Uncut’s effort in 2016, which gives us all-white artists until Marvin Gaye and Miles Davis pop up at 13 and 14 – and imagining the furore that might greet them now, one inescapable truth comes into focus: to try and list the best records of all time at any point is to unwittingly tell a story about who we are at that moment in time. This doesn’t just apply to music. It applies to all sorts of lists. The contents of a restaurant menu in 1970. IMDB’s 2012 list to determine the greatest films of all time (Gone With The Wind almost certainly wouldn’t sit in seventh place now).
And in music, the changes that have occurred between 2013 and 2020 have been greater than they have during any equivalent period. We need a list that updates the story. It’s a story in which streaming has become the default listening mode and, in the process, has democratised the playing field. The curatorial clout of the music critic started to ebb away as soon as music fans were able to listen to a record for themselves before committing to buy it.
We need a list that celebrates a renaissance period in the story of Black American music. The ascent of Compton’s Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s unflinching self-interrogation Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, has taken in three of the most inventive albums of the century – latticed with internal conflict and political perspicacity – leading the Guardian to describe him as “the only MC who can unite teenage hip-hop fans, Golden Age aficionados and people who barely follow the genre.” Lamar’s 2018 album DAMN. even earned him the Pulitzer music prize, the first non-jazz, non-classical record ever to do so – although perhaps the true measure of its brilliance is the fact that it inspired US basketball star LeBron James to lead a 26-point comeback win for The Cleveland Cavaliers during the NBA playoffs. Asked how he did it, he said, “I just listened to DAMN. and got amped.”
The new global hierarchy of sonic expeditionaries might inhabit different genres, but (with the exception of Billie Eilish and Lorde who seem to thrive in relative isolation) their willingness to appear on each other’s records has created an ad hoc community of super-innovators: Lamar and James Blake on Beyoncé’s Lemonade; Beyoncé, James Blake, Tyler, The Creator and Pharrell on Frank Ocean’s Blonde; Kamasi Washington releasing his triple album magnum opus The Epic in the same year as he lined up alongside George Clinton, Snoop Dogg and Thundercat on Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Washington’s Afrocentric cosmic jazz blueprint found its own equivalent in the new British jazz boom, which in the past two years alone has yielded astounding work from Ezra Collective, Sons Of Kemet, Nubya Garcia and Sarathy Korwar.
We need a list that reflects the way grime has fragmented into subgenres that themselves reflect the differing origins of the young Black British musicians who have led the charge. In his book Black, Listed, writer and teacher Jeffrey Boakye describes grime as the soundtrack to a hitherto unprecedented “soundtrack to… unification” between Black youth from backgrounds – Caribbean, African – that once treated each other with a certain amount of suspicion. You can hear the result of that unification in two of the most celebrated British albums of the past decade: Gang Signs & Prayer by Stormzy (second-generation Ghanaian) and Psychodrama by Dave (second-generation Nigerian): both artists used high-profile slots at Glastonbury and The Brit Awards to draw attention to systemic racism against Black Britons of all backgrounds and the part it had to play in the Grenfell tragedy; both records aligned themselves to the growing global dominance of the Nigerian afrobeats sound which has made Burna Boy one of the most in-demand musicians on the planet.
Of course, there are other metrics by which to measure the greatness of an artist. What if you’re predominantly a singles artist? Perhaps that was the rationale which prompted NME to feature compilations in their 1985 chart. Sometimes, I feel minded to go one step further and place K-Tel’s 1979 chart compilation Hot Tracks in my own personal top ten, featuring as it does gems by Sparks, Janet Kay, Hot Chocolate and XTC. But there’s something about a studio album that speaks to the creative ambitions of any artist. As reggae star Dillinger put it, “Most artists, I tell you, grateful for an LP, cos a 45 little like a slug from a gun, but the LP like a rocket launched long distance missile that shoot far.”
That being the case, right at this very moment in time, Sault are nothing less than a self-sustaining music artillery system. The past 18 months alone have seen a flurry of universally garlanded albums – four in total – by the mysterious outfit, whose only confirmed contributors seem to be Inflo (who has also worked on albums by Little Simz and Michael Kiwanuka) and London-based singer Cleo Sol (who recently released her own brilliant solo album Rose In The Dark).
It’s hard to overestimate the enormity of Sault’s achievement. All four albums – 5, 7, Untitled (Black Is), Untitled (Rise) – met the foremost criterion that all great records have to meet. You place them on the turntable and you never want them to end. Secondly, though, it’s worth pointing out that they manage to pull off an altogether more elusive feat. Sault appear to have almost entirely erased rock from the history of popular music. And the results don’t appear to be any the worse for it.
In a way, that seems symbolic of this most recent chapter in the story of music. It’s not that rock musicians have forgotten how to make good records. And, of course, originality in itself is no determinant of excellence. But, with a few honourable exceptions, the ability of musicians from a rock background to innovate in any meaningful way seems to have ground to a halt.
I don’t need to ask if rock’s current stasis has any bearing on the story of popular music. Music history – like all history – should be something we check in with once in a while to see how it’s changed. Not a dead weight to be dragged around, getting heavier the more of it there is, slowing us down in the process. That’s why we need to keep updating the list. Every record, no matter how iconic, has to earn its place. Even Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Because when music changes, music history changes.
Join Pete Paphides and British musicians at our ThinkIn tonight at 6.30pm GMT. We’ll be deciding which albums should go down in history as some of the greatest ever.