Are Great Albums Always Great?

On my previous post I wrote about how I liked The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead precisely because I was not a fan prior to that album, whereas true fans were not as enthusiastic about their new album. How and when one hears a piece for the first time, the second, and the hundredth truly shapes our impressions of music.

Cocteau Twins - Aikea GuineaI recently played Cocteau Twins and Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark – pieces from the 80’s – for my 14-year-old daughter, who is as into music as I was at her age (which is to write, a lot). She was enjoying both, but the question I asked her was, “Did this music sound old to her?” She hadn’t heard them before, so it wasn’t a question of repetition or familiarity; it was whether the music had a distinct place in time. It is pretty easy to identify doo wop from the 50’s as from the 50’s based on the way it was composed and recorded. Was Cocteau Twins as distinctive of their time? To me, their sound seemed very removed from the contemporary music of the day (U2, Def Leppard, The Cars, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, R.E.M., The Police, etc.).

Her answer was that Cocteau Twins didn’t sound old, but OMD did … because the instruments they played sounded dated to her ears. Ditto when I played Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Going Down” as compared to Vampire Weekend’s cover of the same song – the instruments and recording style sounded old. (She is also a big fan of Vampire Weekend, which certainly colored her impression of the original.) All of which is interesting to ponder:

  • Would Dark Side of the Moon be hailed as a musical milestone if it was released as it sounds in the original recording in 2011?
  • Led Zeppelin IV?
  • Abbey Road?

Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the MoonIt is impossible to remove the impact these albums had on following music; had they not been released music history likely would have a very different set of great albums subsequent to them. But if one could somehow pluck Dark Side of the Moon from being released in 1971 and drop it today in 2011 – with all of music’s history in between intact and the same – would the compilation be as highly regarded? Probably not; it likely would be seen as derivative of Wish You Were Here, Animals, or The Wall rather than progressive. But regardless of the instrumentation, the recording and song structure seem timeless to me. Plus, “Money” would be as pertinent a hit today given our recent economic woes. However, would Arcade Fire’s The Funeral be as highly hailed if it was released in 1969? I’m sure the production would have been regarded as astounding, but the album’s music would be heard in a vastly different cultural milieux than that of the mid-00’s.

The Baby Boomer Generation is enthralled with leaving its mark on the world, and our culture tries hard to celebrate itself by marking “important” events – in music, film, fashion, you name it. Yet very little of what we mark as great will be so regarded 50, 100, 200 years in the future. I’d bet that Bach and Beethoven will still be names in music, but I’d not bank on Arcade Fire (one of my favorites please note), Bruce Springsteen, or Pink Floyd having the staying power. The only two I’d invest in with any hope of a return are The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and they likely will join names like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane as icons of our time, rather than U2 or Michael Jackson.

I wonder if Cocteau Twins will still sound as timeless then? 😉

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