Author Topic: Crux of the "best" debate  (Read 1192 times)


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Crux of the "best" debate
« on: November 24, 2003, 10:25:00 am »
This seems to get to the heart of a number of topics discussed here...from today's NY Times.  I had a chance to submit the survey for the Zagat's guide, but didn't even bother as I knew (1) the results are probably pretty much rote as people praise "the best" based on what they're supposed to say, and (2) my best list would be subsumed into the more mainstream.  
 November 23, 2003
 The Music Guide: 'Unreadable,' 'Average'
 Here's a complicated question with a simple answer: What are the 10 best albums of all time?
 And here's a simple question with a complicated answer: What are the last 10 albums you listened to?
 The first question carries with it all sorts of endless debates about the meaning of "best," and maybe even the meaning of "all time." (On his new album, "1,000 Years of Popular Music," the singer-songwriter Richard Thompson sketches a history of song that begins in 1068.) And yet it's that first question that is likely to generate pretty predictable results: you can expect to hear a lot of talk about blue-chip acts like the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder.
 The second question should, in theory, generate no debate whatsoever: iPod-enabled listeners, for example, could look up the answer with a few mouse clicks. But assuming you could get people to tell the truth, their responses would be much more unpredictable, revealing all sorts of hidden favorites and subterranean trends.
 To create the new Zagat Survey Music Guide, the editors polled more than 10,000 listeners in order to pick the "1,000 top albums of all time." These aren't the albums people really listen to; these are the albums people tell people they listen to. Yes, all the usual suspects turn up: six Beatles albums are included, as well as five Bruce Springsteen albums and three Stevie Wonder albums. It's a sensible list, on the whole, although everyone will have complaints. (My first question: Where's R. Kelly?) But this is also an unreadable book ?? browsing through it is like being stuck at a party with some self-proclaimed expert whose taste in music is, literally, average.
 In this case, "average" doesn't mean mainstream. In the introduction, the editor, Holly George-Warren, allows herself to gloat a little bit: "This guide is almost as interesting for who didn't make it in as for who did. Sorry, Avril, Britney and Mariah." Instead, average means just left of mainstream: the book warmly embraces the musical prejudice that some people call rockism; it eschews the supposed superficiality of mainstream pop in order to savor something older, louder, more authentic.
 Of course, when you tell someone what albums you listen to, you're also telling them something about yourself. And the entries themselves, which skillfully string together snippets of listener comments, may make you more curious about the listeners and their agendas than about the CD's themselves. The entry on the singer-guitarist David Bromberg has one listener calling his 1971 self-titled CD "profoundly underrated." Other listeners seem to agree, thereby disproving the point: the album gets an "overall quality" rating of 26 out of 30.
 In small doses, this may make for interesting armchair sociology, but it's hard to imagine how anyone would find it useful. If you're a metal fan, you've probably already made up your mind about the "supreme bass playing" on Iron Maiden's 1982 album "Number of the Beast"; if you're not a metal fan, this guide is unlikely to convert you. Each album gets four ratings, on a scale of 1 to 30, for overall quality, songwriting, musicianship and production, but it's hard to think of these numbers ?? especially the last three categories ?? as anything more than trivia. It turns out, for example, that Earth Wind & Fire's "That's the Way of the World" and Coldplay's "Rush of Blood to the Head" have exactly the same level of musicianship. Can you guess what level that is? (Hint: it's between 26 and 28.) Do you care?
 In the back of the book, there's a "special feature index," which is presumably meant to make the listings more user-friendly but ends up doing exactly the opposite. For example, Samuel Barber, Gloria Estefan and Fatboy Slim all wind up in the "Crossovers" category, information that will no doubt prove invaluable to . . . future Zagat editors. Gorecki is a "one hit wonder," the "Funny Girl" soundtrack is recommended as "work-out music" and Snoop Dogg is listed as "make-out" music. All true, in one way or another, but hardly informative.
 It's not quite fair to blame the editors for all of this. Music is a tough subject for a Zagat survey, in part because you don't need to plan a CD-shopping expedition the way you plan a night out. (Mistakes are less expensive, for one thing.) If you're feeling curious, you can get more personalized recommendations in stores, and more detailed recommendations (as well as previews) online.
 While the book itself is pretty useless, the list of albums stands as a canon of the most well-respected popular music, circa 2003 ?? the ones that seem to connote status or taste or intelligence or individuality. No doubt some enterprising sociologist in the future will have a field day with the Zagat Survey Music Guide in particular, and with Zagat in general.
 The notion of a musical survey is nevertheless intriguing, and it would be useful if someone got around to asking the simple question to get the complicated answer: What are people actually listening to? To be thorough, you'd have to include not only the albums people buy and the songs they download and the radio stations they listen to, but the theme music they hear on television, the snippets they hear blaring out of passing cars, the off-key renditions their friends sing. A survey like that would make an even lousier consumer guide than this one, but it would come a lot closer to capturing the cacophonous world that most listeners have learned to live in, learned to negotiate, maybe even learned to love.