Any sort of list is just one version of the truth, an attempt to wrangle order from chaos, a coherent narrative out of a jumble of stuff that all happens at the same time. Such is the case with the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, which even at its size – the largest list of Greatest Albums Ever – is prone to certain exclusions, bias and perplexing entries. Its contradictions define it, to an extent: it’s broad and sprawling, finding room for such peculiarities as Throbbing Gristle, John Zorn and Napalm Death, but it’s written with an eye on the dad market who’ll buy it, and therefore has a fairly heavy slant on the middle of the road. Though it’s written by committee, to a set of criteria, it still reflects some of the personal tastes of its authors.
On the other end, of course, it rubs up against the tastes of its listeners. It’s unlikely that one person would like all 1001 albums on the list, even if they could see the argument for including all 1001. But it’s not really meant as a conclusive, final list of every album you must listen to. For a start, new music keeps being made, meaning that the list is revised every couple of years (usually removing albums added on the previous revision which haven’t held up to the test of time). Secondly, though, even if you don’t like every album on the list, it offers enough in-roads for further study.
Here’s some things I learned from the project.
I really like some artists I wasn’t expecting to.
I’d never really heard Neil Young, one of the most represented artists on the list, and always imagined him playing a sort of rustic Americana that I’d find tedious. Young does indeed play a sort of rock tinged with folk and country, but there’s a fragility and a roughness to his stuff that I really liked. Nick Drake was another that I thought would probably not be my thing, but in fact I found his albums – especially ‘Bryter Layter’ really charming. So the lesson here is: try something that might not be within your comfort zone.
Some artists I’d written off can pull off some great records too.
U2, UB40, Primal Scream, The Boo Radleys – plenty of artists turned out to punch above their weight when you were expecting a slog. This is probably the most rewarding thing, as albums you enter with low expectations turn out to be classics. Of course not every record by U2, for example, is good, but it’s also easy to write off an artist’s entire back catalogue on the strength of a lousy record.
There are still some genres I can’t get into.
Country music has yielded some gold on this project but I wouldn’t call myself a convert to the genre. I was more suspectible to albums tenuously tagged alt.country – Wilco, Lambchop – and one of the country albums is among the worst of the list. Funk metal also sounded mostly awful, with the trebly guitar and everything-on-full drums production style of the 1980s causing problems throughout. Still, I tried.
The list really doesn’t like some genres.
World music is represented in spades but when you break it down into specific genres, it’s less present. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Buena Vista Social Club don’t really have anything in common, and their respective genres only get an entry level placing. Reggae seems to be the least favourite genre of the list: a mere half-dozen entries, most of which are by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh or both.
And it really likes some others.
Despite its deviations into a variety of different sounds and genres, if I had to describe what the list basically sounded like, it would be a Steely Dan album. There’s a lot of late 60s and 70s rock drawing from soul, blues, jazz or all three; there’s a lot of albums at Fillmore West or East with lengthy solos. Much of this sounds alright but by the end of the list it was feeling like I’d been around these blocks many times before. Singer-songwriters are represented in spades with multiple placements for Dylan, Joni, Randy Newman and others; the most obvious example is Elvis Costello, whose six entries on the list mean he has more entries than almost anyone else on the list despite his relative lack of commercial and critical success.
Problematic artists can do great music.
Not too much of a surprise that somebody having lousy personal politics, or otherwise being a garbage human, doesn’t prevent them being able to make great art. Apart from obvious examples (Randy Newman’s ‘Rednecks’ and Eminem’s ‘Ken Kaniff’), people’s degrees of tolerance regarding the actual content vary from person to person, and I’m wary of mentioning specific examples in case I’m overlooking others. Most artists’ fractious personal lives aren’t always obvious from their music and again, it’s hard to mention specific examples without excluding others, but for example Jerry Lee Lewis, Dr Dre, John Lennon and The Fall all made music that sounded good to me. Separating the art from the artist was necessary in order to do the list at all – although it doesn’t mean that you have to, dear reader.
There are loads of great records on the list.
The long and the short of it is that there’s a reason most of these albums are on the list and that’s because they’re all at least pretty good examples of their genre. By my reckoning, there are 225 great albums on the list, which means that one in every five albums is worth listening to; given I was listening to one a day, that means that there were about six great albums every month. It’s that hit rate that kept me going: even when momentum was flagging during the end of the project, there were still records like the Pretenders’ first and the Replacements’ ‘Let It Be’ that made it worthwhile. Plus, it meant that I became familiar with some artists who I then explored separately, and found even more great albums by.
Here are some lists that cover some of the most frequently asked questions about this project.
Best albums I’ve heard as a result of this project:
- Television, ‘Marquee Moon’
- Todd Rundgren, ‘A Wizard, A True Star’
- The Modern Lovers, ‘The Modern Lovers’
- Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, ‘Architecture and Morality’
- Herbie Hancock, ‘Head Hunters’
- Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’
- Neil Young, ‘After the Gold Rush’
- Nick Drake, ‘Bryter Layter’
- Charles Mingus, ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’
- Dr Octagon, ‘Dr Octagonecologyst’
The albums I least enjoyed listening to:
- Mariah Carey, ‘Butterfly’
- Dwight Yoakam, ‘Buenos Nochas From A Lonely Room’
- Jamiroquai, ‘Emergency on Planet Earth’
- Simply Red, ‘Picture Book’
- The Cult, ‘Electric’
- Os Mutantes, ‘Os Mutantes’
- UB40, ‘Signing Off’
- U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’
- Van Halen, ‘Van Halen’
- Judas Priest, ‘British Steel’
- Fats Domino, ‘This is Fats’
- Boo Radleys, ‘Giant Steps’
Albums I wish had been included:
- Neutral Milk Hotel, ‘In the Aeroplane Over The Sea’
- King Tubby and Augustus Pablo, ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’
- The Ronettes, ‘The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica’
- Minnie Riperton, ‘Come to My Garden’
- The Upsetters, ‘Super Ape’
- Ornette Coleman, ‘The Shape of Jazz To Come’
That, I think, rounds up the list. Thanks to everyone who’s read it, supported it and shown an interest in the last two years. It’s been an adventure, I’ve listened to some of the best albums I’ve ever heard (as well as some of the worst), and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. You can enjoy my own music here, here and here and follow my writing here.