Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A good album or a great album? What matters most?

This is something of a philosophical question but I would argue that, as such, it is one well suited to 'Thoughts on Music'.  That this topic, or versions of it, has surfaced in a number of different guises and situations in the last six weeks or so made me curious (simply as to why at first) but subsequently to think about it more seriously.

There were discussions with both friends and strangers that touched on such things, even if only tangentially; the inevitable lists, both of 2010 acts and those of whom great things are expected in 2011, and the reality of the fact that indeed all such choices are ultimately personal ones. As such they cannot, indeed should not, be dispassionate as that would defeat the whole point and so the selection will over the years change with the passage of time but, equally importantly but rather differently, also from week to week and even day to day.
Some say that 'great' albums simply grow on you with time while those merely 'good', perhaps as a result of timing that could simply be the result of personal circumstance and/or part of a current trend that appeals and that one wishes to espouse, are more immediate but ultimately ephemeral in comparison.

My inclination, born in part of experience, is to think that this thesis is a gross simplification.  To believe that it is not reduces the entire appeal of music to the level that, were it indeed true, in its widest form which includes dance (the activity, not just the music) it could never have achieved its broad cross-cultural eminence.
The would-be-global music industry might have wished that it were not so;  notwithstanding the fact that while, as individuals and nations we may not understand and fully appreciate the music and dance of other cultures, the human condition seems to be that fundamentally it matters:  In fact it matters more than almost anything - music, and in particular rhythm, is more universally recognizable than language.

So what does this all mean for me?  Three things come to mind as pointers:

  • Great albums have lasting appeal - not every day but over the course of several years. They may have specific mood or memory issues, or indeed other associations, but I will tend to return to them.
  • They may not be generally well known and lauded - probably slightly more than half of those that I consider great albums are in this category.
  • I can adopt albums in this category in almost any way. I have discovered them from new (and not tired of them), I grow into others with time and I can add old albums that either I have never heard before or just occasionally ones that I grew out of and, often very much later, back in to.
I have, quite deliberately, not mentioned any from the various categories here.  That is important and not least because I am still thinking my way through this realization.
They may be indicative, up to a point, but what they certainly all do is point back in time.  Whatever relevance it might have to appreciation of  music in the future is probably perfunctory - possibly that, the sheer unpredictability, is something that actually matters the most.  I should, perhaps, post a suggestion as to what I mean.

It is always going to be dangerous to do it but I'm going to do it anyway. Nothing could match the feat that I'm about to mention. If one album from the first decade of the twenty-first century deserves an accolade this is it and it wasn't an attempt to grab attention by a little-known act.  It came several years after a potential career-suicide-moment by a major act and just as it had accomplished something that few if any, let alone an all female act, had ever achieved before. It did something else too - potential self-destruction on a scale that few could have imagined but for once it was not drugs - it was politics and that made it all the more important in the new millennium and it happened live, and in London. 
I rate the album 'Taking The Long Way' by Dixie Chicks as a truly great album of the last decade.  It defined change and, in time, that really matters.

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