Anxiety of Influence
By Jeremy Shatan, on 01 Jan 30, 2013
A website with the URL www.influentialalbums.com has been making the rounds, asking folks to take a survey of how many of the 100 listed albums they own. The taunting tag line is: "Very few people own 70 or more. How many have you got?" When this cropped up in my Facebook newsfeed, my first thought was: "Influential? Sez who?" So I did a Whois look up on the domain name but came up dry - the owner's name is privacy protected. Based on how quickly the quiz has spread, and my knowledge of how much social media integration can cost, I figure it has to be a company with some marketing dollars behind it.
Update: In comments that he later deleted, the creator of the list had this to say: "This is hilarious! "I figure it has to be a company with some marketing dollars behind it". The rest of it is quite accurate. I didn't really put a great deal of thought into it. I didn't foresee this thing getting as big as it has. I just wanted to have a go at a Facebook app. It is really a 'best albums' thing compiles from other lists and some of my record collection. I couldn't find a decent domain name so stuck with 'influential'. Nice article/blog, though." See below for more of his thoughts.
While I certainly think a discussion of influential albums is a good idea, if only to carve out some space for music that distinguishes itself by something other than sales, one has to ask what the agenda behind this list is. Upon even a cursory look, it definitely has a "rockist" bent, some might even say a white bent. Of the 100 albums listed, only four are what might be called black music: What's Going On, Innervisions, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Blue Lines. If I wanted to be generous and include bands led by African-Americans, the number would increase to six, with the inclusion of Axis: Bold As Love and Forever Changes. But that's a stretch.
Whoever put this list together should be ashamed on that count alone. Where is the Robert Johnson, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, Ike & Tina, The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Marvelettes, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Albert King, Sly Stone, P-Funk, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Lee Perry, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, The Meters, Chic, Donna Summer, Prince, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Run DMC, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., OutKast, Mobb Deep, Missy Elliott, 50 Cent, R. Kelly, Dr. Dre, D'Angelo, Jay-Z, Kanye West - I have to stop now because I'm just getting angry. Do these people even listen to music?
Also completely ignored is the world of Jamaican music, which, between the production innovations of dub and the idea of "toasting" over music, has transformed the world of popular music over the course of the last 40 years. Jazz is pitifully represented by a single album, Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Good thing Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and, oh yeah, Miles Davis have good old Dave's cocktail hour classic to represent their 100 year tradition of innovation and syncopation. Classical music is not on the radar either, even though Terry Riley's In C, Steve Reich's Come Out, and Phillip Glass's Glassworks, not to mention the 1,000 years of music from Hildegard von Bingen to Gyorgy Ligeti, are in the DNA of much that followed.
Some of these sins of omission are due to the myopic time frame of the list. The oldest record on there is Bert Jansch's self-titled debut from 1964.That brings up a host of issues as it disinherits such minor characters as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, not to mention Jerry Lee Lewis. The blues and early country music, widely recognized as the very foundations of rock music, are also absent.
One thing they get sort of right is the idea that an album doesn't have to sell a lot to be influential. To some who have commented on the list, I would say that just because you haven't heard of it doesn't mean it's not influential. Perhaps the list will do some good by turning people onto some things they were unaware of. Remember, the classic line on influential music is that only 100 people bought The Velvet Underground's first album but each one of them started a band. Naturally, the "Influential Albums" people screw that one up by including the third VU album instead of the first. And that's not the only time they make an error like that, either. Including Donovan is debatable, but I think you could make a better case for Sunshine Superman over A Gift From A Flower To A Garden - and I could go on.
Seeing Gerry Rafferty's City To City on the list caused a passing thought that I was being punked.
Finally, as much as I applaud their effort to include more recent music (Radiohead, The Strokes, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver certainly deserve to be there), that it comes at the expense of hugely important artists like the ones listed above - not to mention The Yardbirds, The Who, The Doors, Black Sabbath, Elvis Costello, The Specials, Metallica - is NOT OK. But then little about this cheesy list is OK. Back to the drawing board, people!
Now, did I take the quiz? Of course I did, I'm as much a sucker for these things as anyone else. I clocked in at 48 out of 100. Out of the 52 that I don't have, there are some where I have another record by the same artist, some that I need to get, and many more that I have no interest in owning. Frankly, I thought 48 was a solid number - if you have many more than half, I might start to wonder how discerning your taste is, or if you ever pay for music. But that's a rant for a different day.