- Paper boi
- Jane Adams’ crazy-ass agent lady, or alternately Justin Bieber.
(Comedy podcasts because while I listen to a handful of non-comedy podcasts, I don’t really think of them in the same light, and I pretty much never revisit them. Also honorable mention to the Comedy Bang! Bang! episode “Pow! Pow! Power Wheels,” in which Jessica McKenna predicts Leonard Cohen’s death.)
- Oh No Ross and Carrie – “Ross and Carrie Audit Scientology” (it might not technically count as a “comedy” podcast, and it’s also ten episodes (counting the interview episode), but it is funny, and gives a really useful look at the sort of street-level goings on of Scientology, which aren’t covered as thoroughly as the higher-level stuff)
- I Was There Too – “The 50th Episode Squib Spectacular”
- Doughboys – “Rocklobsterfest Part 4”
- The Flophouse – No Depo$it
- With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus – “Generations” (with Paul F. Tompkins & Scott Aukerman)
- Sports, in their entirety, still
- The billion dollars YouTube did or did not pay to the record-selling industry
- The entirety of the 2016 Presidential Election
- Train’s Led Zeppelin II cover album
- Either of the major Country Music awards shows
(This list, in the last couple of days, has expanded to eight because I didn’t know who to get rid of. Nevertheless, I don’t think I have anything unique to add to the conversation about them, although that may change, and also I couldn’t really last-minute pull anybody off of the “dead folks” list)
- John Glenn
- Carrie Fisher
- Gary Shandling
- Gene Wilder
- Richard Adams
- Richard Lyons
- George Michael
- Public Image Ltd – Metal Box
- Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Pond Scum
- Swans – White Light From the Mouth of Infinity
- Close to the Noise Floor: Formative UK Electronica 1975-1984
- Pere Ubu – Architecture of Language
- Merzbow – Cloud Cock 00 Grand
- Children Coup d’etat – Fear of Liberty
- Eugene the Oceanographer – The Tigers of Mount Paektu
- Black Francis & Two Pale Boys – Frank Black Francis (mostly just the second disc, the one that actually has Two Pale Boys on it. The other disc is just more Pixies demos, which isn’t quite as interesting)
- The Isley Brothers – Go For Your Guns
- The Sadies @ The Beachland
- Craw @ The Grog Shop
- Sunn0))) @ The Grog Shop
- Comedy Bang Bang @ The Royal Oak Theatre
- Savages @ The Grog Shop
(Obviously major spoilers for Rogue One follow. This is a last-minute addition to the list, because Rogue One was TOTALLY FUCKING RAD and I felt like I had to amass some stuff. This is also leaving aside that it closes one of the biggest plot holes in A New Hope – to wit: why is there an unshielded exhaust port that goes directly to the main reactor?)
- Darth Vader totally straight up murderizing a bunch of dudes (he kills a dude with another dude! He lightsabers a bunch of other dudes! Darth Vader being Darth Vader is the best! It totally makes up for his dad joke earlier in the movie!)
- That part where you think Chirrut Imwe is totally going to be able to use the force to flip that switch, and then he doesn’t, he just walks out and does it himself.
- People who have actively joined a rebellion that is, increasingly, without a single chance of winning and then, because they were the people that bucked authority in the first place, rebelling against the scared senators and totally going out and getting the plans on their own. Going Rogue, as it were.
- Crashing a hammerhead corvette into a Star Destroyer and then using that Star Destroyer as a bomb to take down the shield
- Everyone (like, everyone) dies. There were actual stakes for the characters! And they know that’s what’s going to happen the whole time!
And so we come, at the end of the year, to Spotify. The streaming giant has, according to recently-published figures, double the streaming customers of its nearest competitor 1, thus, we can argue, represents more than the rest of the services put together the will of the streaming customer.
And, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s also the streaming service that I subscribe to regularly 2. Which means that, even if it doesn’t have anything on Drag City (the label’s decision, not Spotify’s), it’s still clearly where I’ve cast my lot, streaming-service-wise.
At the end of every year 3 Spotify publishes their roundup of the biggest stuff on the service and I, your intrepid investigator, endeavor to divine what it all means, exactly. Because I’m here for you people, and also because I love year-end lists. Specifically, I love this kind of measurement of what, exactly, people are listening to.
In this case, I went with their “top artist” playlist, for a couple of reasons, both of them practical. The first is that “everything is a playlist” is a useful way for Spotify to categorize their stuff, but it makes it much harder to be analytical about, and the other is that the other playlists have literally 100 things in them, and nobody wants to spend the rest of their life reading this blog piece.
In 2016: Drake is in a sort of weirdly bullet-proof position: I don’t see a whole lot of actual support of him, and in fact he’s a punchline in a lot of ways 5 but his music is completely ubiquitous, regardless of the fact that there’s no way anybody can still think he’s cool. It’s not bad music, for all that, and I suppose I am a contributor here, as I listened to Views a couple of times. I didn’t much care for it, but I listened to it.
WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT US (WISAU): That we’re all a little sad, I guess. Sad and Canadian.
In 2016: Beebs spent 2015 trying to bring his reputation around, but in 2016 he seemed pretty happy to resign himself to having done as much repair work as he could, and to just focus on being Justin Bieber. Given that that’s a lucrative position, it’s hard to fault him, even if “being Justin Bieber” seems like it would be a punishment for almost anyone else. Can’t be easy to be that dude, is what I’m saying. I mean, unless you’re completely lacking in apparent self-awareness which, I guess I cracked the code here. If Drake’s position on this list is a triumph of amiability and general hook-singing ability over a lack of coolness, Bieber’s place is a sort of inverted triumph of familiarity and reasonably-strong hooks over, well, anything not objectionable.
WISAU: That we’re all children, I guess. Children and Canadian.
In 2016: RIhanna took a long break (precipitated by or possibly unrelated to a label change) between records, which was, prior to that point, pretty much the antithesis of her production ethos, which saw her release seven albums in eight years, and pretty much constantly working singles and touring and whatnot. She featured a bunch in the years between albums, and then this year made Anti, a record that seems to be garnering reviews in a more positive direction than other Rihanna albums, and one that has some space to breathe. Obviously it worked 6 and here she is, just under the two Canadians (one of which featured on her biggest song of 2016).
WISAU: That singles-oriented artists are the ones that thrive the most in 2016, as are those that make eye-catching videos (because a lot of people listen to music primarily through record-selling-industry bogeyman YouTube), and Rihanna is sort of a perfect storm of both.
In 2016: Here’s a confession: despite listening to music all year, and writing about them for seemingly every awards show, I know surprisingly little about Twenty-One Pilots, so in looking them up for this write-up, I discovered that their Wikipedia page is oddly insistent about two things: they don’t belong to a prescribed genre 7 and that despite writing songs about Christian stuff and being Christians, they are not a Christian band. I dunno, man. They’re from Columbus, there’s two of them, they have a bunch of hits, I can’t account for any of this.
WISAU: It’s kind of old-fashioned, the way these dudes became big. They toured relentlessly, they signed to Fueled by Ramen, they had a big hit from a movie soundtrack. So that stuff can still work in a one-off flukey way, but nobody’s really doing it that way anymore (because bands that tour relentlessly are enjoying an audience that can always have heard them, and therefore shows up to their performances, plus the creative control that comes with not signing to a label that has only a financial interest in them. Truly why anyone signs to Fueled by Ramen, or any other corporate-backed label, at this point remains beyond me). Also, I guess I can totally account for any of this. I’m a liar.
In 2016: 2016 was peak Kanye, culminating as it did in an extreme public meltdown (actually a series of extreme public meltdowns, or a series of facets in one long extreme public meltdown), followed by hospitalization, and a constant, gleefully-churning rumor industry. It is, in a lot of ways, very much the bed he made for himself, even if it’s sad to see him succumb to what appears to be, at the very least, some deeply unhealthy behaviors. He also released The Life of Pablo, which was released to Spotify months after its release on Tidal, 8 which brought him up here near the top, while some other streaming-exclusive folks weren’t.
WISAU: Well, it has a ton of listens, so it tells us that while it’s true that the public mostly wants Kanye West to be a punching bag, and there’s a whole lot of people who are waiting to see him fail, and also he’s a genuine actual bona-fide genius, and he makes great records that people want to listen to, even as they despise his public goings-on.
In 2016: Did you know it’s been almost ten years since Chris Martin sang on “Homecoming” for Kanye? The past is another country. Anyway, since his divorce, Chris Martin’s personal life has been significantly less in public, which means I think about Coldplay far less. The song that Spotify put on the list is a remix of their song “Hymn For the Weekend,” which is one of the b-sides to a single from A Head Full of Dreams.
WISAU: My initial impulse was to say that it means that the people that still listen to the vestiges of radio rock are slow to move on to a new thing (or at least to give up the old thing, anyway), but the fact that it’s a remix of the song itself means that I guess…Coldplay has a lot of name recognition? That Seeb (the remixer) might be more popular than I think? Or maybe just that people checked that song out so it got a lot of listens, and the bulk of the rest of their listens were the aforementioned slow-to-move-on radio rock people.
In 2016: I’m not going to pretend to understand anything about the culture that gave rise to the Chainsmokers, so I can only evaluate them as a pop act. A lot of their thing seems to be talking and/or making up songs about how fucked up they get, and how cool it is to be rich and young or whatever. I’m not opposed to derivativeness per se, but this all seems awfully boring, and every time I’ve heard them (or seen them on television or whatever), the only thing I can think is that 1) these guys are a colossal waste of a pretty good band name and 2) I am not hip to the musics of today.
WISAU: Every generation gets the Aerosmith they deserve.
In 2016: 2016 was the year Ariana Grande seemed least-objectionable. She sort of went all-in on being a full-blown weirdo, and scream-sung her way back into, if not my heart, then certainly something like one of my good graces (although not all of them – her voice still makes me feel like I’m having a panic attack). I mean, her music remains the same, but the persona around it has pivoted into something that seems a little bit less manicured.
WISAU: That the good people of the music-listening public are not as put off by scream-singing as I am.
In 2016: in January, Sia made a record of songs that she wrote for other people, that were not included on the other peoples’ albums, and that ended up working well for her. She continued to have one of the more obnoxiously-founded but still visually-interesting stage presences 9 which, as always, got her talked about, given that she also embarked on her first tour as a solo-artist.
WISAU: I mean, Sia is a pretty good songwriter, and people love when professional songwriters get out in front of the microphone, even if they insist that they don’t want to be in front of the microphone 10. Actually, that sort of coyness, mated with the visual intrigue of her existing performance style, probably only helped. So basically it says that we want what we have always wanted, really.
In 2016: Well, their only recorded contribution to 2016 was a godawful song with Justin Bieber, but their most recent record came out at the end of last year and they made a bunch of television appearances. I mean, I guess that’s enough to do it? That Justin Bieber song really was pretty big.
WISAU: That it pays to be Diplo’s less-objectionable recording project? 11 That more people pretend to like reggae than I could possibly account for? That Justin Bieber has such loyal fans that they’ll prop up any act he works with?
In 2016: Either The Weeknd got the kinks worked out of his new “slightly edgy popstar” thing, or I have just gotten used to the fact that he’s never going to be The Weeknd who made mixtapes in 2011, but whichever is the case, Starboy is the best of his label-affiliated records. He’s managed to get people aboard his hype train for the last five years continuously 12, and he finally made a record good enough to back up that hype. I mean, again. Like, because the hype train started with House of Balloons, which is still better than Starboy. You know what I mean.
WISAU: That we have a surprising appetite for grimey sex R&B 13
In 2016: Eminem did not actually do so much in 2016! He had an old song in Suicide Squad? He was on that Skylar Grey song? He released a song at the tail-end of the year? Possibly after the data for this list was gathered? I guess it’s a testament to the durability of Eminem as an act that not really even doing much would get you on Spotify.
WISAU: That some things are eternal.
In 2016: “The New Justin Bieber,” they call him. He’s Canadian, he’s very young, he started on Vine. I would not have guessed that his career would actually outlive Vine 14, but here we are. 2016 is a weird place. Anyway, it’s all anchored to “Treat You Better,” a song that I would have believed was a parody of nice-guyism, but is, in fact, a regular pop song by a regular pop guy. More interesting to me is that between this guy and The Chainsmokers (he wrote their song “Don’t Let Me Down”), 2016 was also a big year for songwriter Scott Harris, which is probably bad for the world, as his songs are terrible.
WISAU: That Justin Bieber is now too old. And still we are all secretly Canadian 15
In 2016: He broke up with Taylor Swift, and then continued to do what he always does. Weeee.
WISAU: I guess what it says is that you can’t beat name recognition when you’re listening to boring-ass EDM.
In 2016: In 2016 Adele continued to be the world’s biggest pop star. She played some shows, was generally endearing in public, and sang impeccably. As usual.
WISAU: That we like good singin’. And also Adele.
In 2016: I am actually unclear, since the song on this playlist is from Future’s equal-billing album with Drake, if the artist here is Future and Drake, or just Future. Since Drake got a solo entry above, I’m going to talk about Future by himself down here. Future continues to make some of the best major bummer hip hop going. His current run is nigh-untouchable 16, thus 2016 was the cap on a two-year run of extremely impressive releases.
WISAU: We are all sad robots. In the case of the Drake collaboration, sad Canadian robots.
In 2016: They broke up? I mean, they went on hiatus last year and then in January made it official that they’re totally not a thing anymore. And yet, here they are. Truly they were an indomitable force.
WISAU: That everybody wants One D, and that Joni Mitchell was totally right, and you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.
In 2016: Well, mostly he stayed off social media, pulling out of everything at the end of last year, and only recently returning to tell people all about the world of Ed Sheeran. He also mostly toured on last year’s X, an album that, given his placement here, clearly had some legs, at least pop-music-wise.
WISAU: That it simply is not possible to be too bland for public consumption.
In 2016: He mostly did what he always does. I’m genuinely kind of surprised to see him here. One of the things that’s always been fairly interesting about G-Eazy is his ability to build associations with all kinds of folk – he came up associated with Lil B, and is still on this list long after Lil B’s thing has stopped being particularly captivating to the public. He was a Warped Tour guy, which is a crowd that tends to be pretty loyal. He has early features with Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne. He did that song with Britney. He toured with Logic and YG this year, which would seem to be the least high-profile thing he’s done, and yet this is the year he’s one of the most-played artists on Spotify.
WISAU: I’m nearly, but not quite, cynical enough to draw some conclusions about white rappers (even in 2016!), but I suppose really it’s just a case of the dude clearly works hard to be very famous (he has a degree in Music Industry Studies, for crying out loud), and it appears to be paying off.
In 2016: I still sort of feel like we would be better off if David Guetta were replaced by a lump of goetta, because at least goetta is delicious.
WISAU: That, again, to repeat myself, you simply cannot beat name recognition in the crowded EDM field.
In 2016: I mean, it’s easy enough to chalk all of this up to him playing the Olympic Closing Ceremonies, right? I mean, that’s kind of the best way to be exposed to a huge audience that’s liable to check you out on Spotify. He also remixed an Ed Sheeran song, but honestly, it’s probably the Olympics thing.
WISAU: It says that there are a lot of ways that people are hearing about music, and Spotify makes it super-duper easy to listen to things. Or, alternately, that creating a popular 17 remix of an Ed Sheeran songs holds real rewards, in terms of Spotify listenership.
In 2016: As we get down toward what I presume is the bottom of this list 18 it becomes apparent that one monstrously-successful single can outperform the entirety of other people’s outputs. Which, y’know, makes sense and all, but seems to be presented here in the clear light of day, because “Work From Home” is pretty much all Fifth Harmony’s got.
WISAU: That there is always going to be an appetite for gloriously, almost impossibly-dumb pop songs, and this year that appetite consumed “Work From Home” a whole lot.
In 2016: This is another one of those that, while it’s true that Wiz Khalifa has many songs, and some of them are even pretty good, proves that you really only need one really big one to get to the bottom of the most-played for the year. In this case it’s also a song from a film soundtrack, which seems, once again, to boost sales in a major way.
WISAU: That people were really sad that Paul Walker died.
In 2016: Still the EDM thing. Still the Justin Bieber thing. At a certain point, there’s only so much to say here.
WISAU: Dance music, everybody!
In 2016: It is decidedly true that, in 2016, Beyonce made her most personal and artistically ambitious album, Lemonade. And it made headlines and garnered praise for its accompanying visual album and its television appearances. And, of course, it’s not on Spotify. Not one little bit. So she made it to the bottom rungs of the artists that were most listened to on the strength of an album that no Spotify user could hear on Spotify.
WISAU: That Beyonce is bigger than all of us, really.
- Spotify has 40 million subscribers, while Apple has 20 million, according to these reports. ↩
- others come and go for the currently-mothballed, but still theoretically-ongoing A Streaming Pile of Truth series – stay tuned for Amazon’s thing, and also Deezer, sometime. Eventually. Probably. ↩
- see previously, and also previously (part 2). I took a couple of years off because their year-end reports weren’t very interesting. ↩
- warning: autoplaying audio from that link, because that aspect of Spotify’s web player is the absolute worst. ↩
- he’s especially heavily meme’d and gif’d, mostly for being extra-sensitive (in the case of the former) and always looking bored and/or distracted while attractive women grind on him in music videos (in the case of the latter). ↩
- this isn’t really a stealth pun, but I guess I would be ok if you thought it was. ↩
- The weaselly “many fans” (which usually means “the guy who wrote the wikipedia article,” especially since the citation goes to a 404 page) are quoted here as saying they’re “schizophrenic pop” when, clearly, the “schizophrenic” is completely unnecessary. ↩
- 2016 turned out to have a kind of running subplot of streaming-service exclusives, with varying public and critical receptions of varying service-exclusive releases, sort-of culminating in Frank Ocean’s double release of Blond(e) and Endless to fulfill a label contract, and pushing Universal (Ocean’s label) out of the streaming-exclusive business entirely. ↩
- to wit: if you don’t want to be seen onstage, don’t be onstage. People do it all the time. Most songwriters don’t have to ostentatiously flout how little they like being watched while they perform, in fact. That said, at least she does neat staging things and whatnot. ↩
- seriously, who is forcing this woman to go out onstage? ↩
- remember how great Diplo used to be? That MIA record? That Santogold (now Santigold) record? Man, Diplo used to be great. ↩
- If anybody out there started being a Weeknd fan circa Kissland come talk to me! I have some questions! ↩
- That’s (grimey)(sex R&B) not (grimey sex)(R&B) ↩
- RIP, Vine. ↩
- but we are not all Secretly Canadian, the record label that brough us all of Jason Molina’s records, and also the most recent of Tig Notaro’s ↩
- His non-collaborative records, specifically (his album with Drake was fine, and his album with Gucci Mane is pretty decidedly touchable) – Monster/Beast Mode/56 Nights/DS2/What a Time to Be Alive/Purple Reign/Evol/Project ET ↩
- admittedly, a wildly popular ↩
- The playlist itself isn’t really presented attached to any numbers or anything, but the headlines associated with it all put Drake at the top, as he is in the playlist, so I’m assuming that they’re in descending order of popularity. ↩
What makes an album a gajillion-seller is a combination of factors so incoherent that it’s more-or-less impossible to list or talk about them in any real sense as a class – each gajillion seller is different in its genesis. At a certain point, however, the primary force behind a record selling a bunch of copies is momentum. More copies sold means more chart presence which means more press presence means more people exposed to it means more people hearing it means more copies sold. These records have reached a point where they have a kind of gravity – they accrete sales at this point, rather than achieving them, planetary bodies around which other records orbit, touchpoints for people to find and recognize while they find other, more personal planets.
That said, many of the best-selling records of all time are not specifically good or bad. I’m not going to bat for most of them here, but there’s usually a reason. What that reason is is sometimes anybody’s guess (and sometimes it’s more a success in marketing and stuff than it is in actual music). So, in the interest of figuring it all out, I listened to them. All of them. Even when it was painful. Even when it was really painful.
So I bring you part 3 this extensively-researched, closely-examined regarding of the biggest-selling records of all time 1. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 can be found here.
Linkin Park – Hybrid Theory
WHAT IT IS: The debut album by one of the last massively-popular rock bands to date. Sort of the dying commercial gasp of nu-metal.
WHY IT’S HERE: Hybrid Theory is, in many ways, the very apotheosis of post-alternative-radio nu-metal success: They were a rap-inflected 2 heavy metal band that had their own, distinct sound, at least superficially 3, and wrote songs that were worked to radio hard. And, as noted many, many times, that shit used to work.
AND…? You know, this is genuinely not as bad as all that. There are worse records that have sold more copies. It’s not anything I can imagine ever putting on of my own volition, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Interstingly, despite being in this band’s target audience, and even vaguely liking them at the time, I’ve never actually owned a copy of this album. I suppose I should be thankful for small favors.
THE BEST SONG: “Points of Authority”
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Legend
WHAT IT IS: There were actually a bunch of releases in the Legend series, and this is the one that’s stuck. Probably because it’s kind of the only Bob Marley best-of with any weight – there are many others, but this one stuck. It’s also interesting to consider that this is literally the only reggae album a lot of people have heard.
WHY IT’S HERE: Well, people seem to feel like they need to spend time listening to reggae, and this is the easiest way to do that. Plus, in the thirty-plus years since it was released, it’s become synonymous with dudes who smoke a lot of weed in college, as well as a whole sort of general hippie-ish vibe. Basically, it’s one of those records that brings with it a whole set of easy associations, and is unlikely to be dethroned as such any time soon.
AND…?: I mean, part of the reason it ascended to being the most prominent reggae album in the world, and being associated with the yadda yadda yadda, is that most of it is, genuinely, pretty great. Bob Marley was a great songwriter, but also an even better singer, and this set of recordings, doing a credible job of capturing he and his band making music, is pretty much beyond reproach.
THE BEST SONG: “Get Up, Stand Up”
Carole King – Tapestry
WHAT IT IS: Yet another surviving artifact from the period of California rock that is always the best example to point to when people claim that music was somehow better in this specific pocket of the past.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because Carole King has always been feted by the music industry, from her days writing songs with Gary Goffin 4 to her ascendancy as a sort of elder-stateswoman in music, all of which leads to her selling records because people know the songs and feel that she’s some sort of necessary part of a musically well-balanced diet. There’s also an aspect of the “woman flaying herself and confessing to all of her flaws in public” thing that is basically the worst part of a certain type of authenticity-obsessed classic-rock mindset that I’m not going to get into here except to say that this is pretty much ground zero for it.
AND… ?: I mean, Carole King certainly seems like a reasonable person and all that, but as a musician, she’s a sort of spruced up, highly commercial cut-rate Joni Mitchell. Or James Taylor. Or any other of a dozen people who worked hard and came by this honestly, rather than acquiescing to be force-marketed into existence and then treated like musical royalty.
THE BEST SONG: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” but generally when performed by somebody else.
Madonna – Like a Virgin
WHAT IT IS: My thoughts on Madonna are well-documented, certainly. Her greatest hits album was a few entries ago, and here we are with her best-selling album proper.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because Madonna was really hot, sang about doing (or not doing, as it were) sex stuff, had ubiquitous music videos, and took full advantage of familiarity bias.
AND…?: Well, it re-united the production team behind David Bowie’s in-every-way-superior Let’s Dance, which means it’s less objectionable than other Madonna records 5. That’s some comfort when I have to listen to two Madonna records in a row (spoiler alert!).
THE BEST SONG: “Into the Groove”, which wasn’t even on the original issue of the record. Seriously.
Madonna – True Blue
WHAT IT IS: The follow-up to Like a Virgin.
WHY IT’S HERE: All the same reasons as Like a Virgin, except this one also includes some highly-marketable fences-swinging “social issues” material, which, blergh.
AND…?: I think “blergh” about covers it.
THE BEST SONG: I have to say, I did not think I would ever find myself saying in any form that “Open Your Heart” was the best song on anything, in any capacity, but here I am saying: the best song on True Blue is “Open Your Heart.”
Mariah Carey – Daydream
WHAT IT IS: It is, unaccountably, another Mariah Carey album, because I am in hell. This is the follow-up to Music Box. This album is when she started having rappers on her remixes. It’s the last album of the “married to Tommy Mottola” years.
WHY IT’S HERE: I think if the last four (actually five, see below) albums have taught me nothing it’s: if you’re a pretty lady who’s willing to contribute to a sales-friendly personal narrative and go along with pretty much whatever, then you were able to have radio success right up until the late nineties or so.
AND…?: I mean, it’s really bad. But it’s not necessarily worse than Music Box, so I was prepared for it this time.
THE BEST SONG: “Fantasy,” but that’s only because I quite like “Genius of Love,” which it samples.
Norah Jones – Come Away With Me
WHAT IT IS: In a lot of ways, Norah Jones was sort of proto-Adele: an agreeable-enough singer whose marketing push emphasized “authenticity” 6 and the amiability of the singing lady.
WHY IT’S HERE: Well, the amiability is real, and also music-industry nepotism is almost always worth something, and here at the tail end of the period where people were buying a lot of records 7 it was worth quite a lot, if you paired it with a traditionalist style.
AND…?: I didn’t think very much of Come Away With Me when it came out, but I kind of liked it when I listened to it for this entry. Vocal jazz (which inflects much of the music here 8) isn’t really my bag, but she is a very good singer, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. It’s extremely likable music.
THE BEST SONG: “Cold, Cold Heart”. It would take a lot for there to be a better thing on many, many records than a well-sung Hank Williams song.
Phil Collins – No Jacket Required
WHAT IT IS: The exemplar of oatmeal-rock, a term I just made up to describe this album 9.
WHY IT’S HERE: I would love nothing more than the ascribe the popularity of Phil Collins’ godawful music to his own affability as a person. He seems great, doesn’t he? He’d be fun to hang out with. Maybe he’d have a bunch of cool stories about Genesis. But no, I think this actually sold in the low gazillions because people actually like listening to it, and it is completely beyond my ability to explain.
AND…?: Completely beyond my ability to explain. This sounds like mushy nothing. There’s no flavor, no texture, nothing. It’s just sound that was assembled in ways that sound vaguely like songs. Even the drumming – Phil Collins is, even uncharitably, a capable drummer – is trapped in gates and generally just sounds like it was assembled by a robot who didn’t know what music actually sounded like. There’s tones in sequence and little else.
THE BEST SONG: “Who Said I Would” is the shortest song on the album, and is therefore the best by dint of there being less of it than any other song.
Queen – Greatest Hits
WHAT IT IS: Glam rock’s greatest commercial achievement, and the soundtrack to about 50% of all bars and/or sporting events in the country at this very moment.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because everyone is, regardless of circumstance or personal inclination, familiar – deeply, intimately, unavoidably familiar – with at least half of the songs on this album, due in no small part to the handlers of the Queen legacy’s willingness to let them be used in every single ad campaign, film soundtrack, and other and sundry commercial use that could be conceived by mankind, and familiarity sells records better than literally anything else.
AND…?: My issues with Queen aren’t actually issues with the way their music sounds. It’s fine. The songs are fine. Some of them are funny, and that’s great. As instrumentalists, they’re all very good, and Freddy Mercury’s voice is one of those things that’s genuinely not overhyped even though it’s the most hyped thing in the world. But it’s only fine. It’s overproduced, most of the songs aren’t much more than catchy, well-performed novelties, and years of people explaining to me, at great length, the non-musical reasons for their musical greatness has ensured that I can’t listen to them without hearing literally dozens of people intoning things about the “The Show Must Go On” and astrophysics and flamboyance. So it’s not objectionable inherently, merely contextually.
THE BEST SONG: “Bicycle Race,” which was once expertly parodied in an episode of the unjustly-forgotten Savage Steve Holland masterpiece Eek! The Cat, and which therefore makes me think of Eek! The Cat, which is a thing I enjoy thinking about.
Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
WHAT IT IS: The final Simon & Garfunkel record. It’s also the weirdest Simon & Garfunkel record, which may have something to do with the fact that Art Garfunkel was Shelley Longing 10, and trying to make movies and stuff.
WHY IT’S HERE: This is more extremely likable music, made by people (or at least person) who were (was) more than willing to play the game at every step. The sixties were a much less-established time for said game, so most of it really is on the merit of their music, which is very pleasant and easy to like.
AND…?: I actually have less strong opinions about Simon & Garfunkel than almost anyone else on this list. It’s just sort of wallpaper-y. It’s fine music – Paul Simon is a pretty good guitar player who can write the hell out of a melody, their voices are famously perfectly-paired, all the usual stuff you hear about them – but it’s hard to think of it as anything other than someone else’s music, and it’s hard to really notice most of it.
THE BEST SONG: “The Boxer.” It’s the exception to the wallpaper thing. After all, I’ve got two ears and a heart, haven’t I?
U2 – The Joshua Tree
WHAT IT IS: U2’s biggest album, and also the album that marks the end of their time as hyper-earnest post-punk dudes and begins their period of being megafamous weirdoes 11.
WHY IT’S HERE: They were a great band that played along to a great extent, and, as a result, got to sell a gazillion records. U2 were a sort of signpost that bands could build their fame (insofar as it’s possible for Joshua Tree-level sales to be “built” in any sense of the word) by simply selling more records every time you make a record. The usual stuff – radio play, videos, etc. – comes into play here, and it’s all as close to the by-the-numbers as megasellers can be.
AND…?: It’s a great record, pretty much wall-to-wall. It’s a great big record with great big production that only sounds a little dated because a bunch of records would go on to sound just like it. I unreservedly love The Joshua Tree.
THE BEST SONG: It’s a difficult choice, but I think it’s probably “With Or Without You”
Whitney Houston – Whitney Houston
WHY IT’S HERE: I find myself genuinely wondering what the, say, opinion on the street is of Whitney Houston. Most of my genuine musical existence has been rather after her real heyday – I was two when this album came out, and four when it’s follow-up came out. Hell, I was nine when The Bodyguard came out. So while this is all something that I technically lived through, I don’t really have a good grasp on what was actually going on there. Nevertheless, she had a huge, impressive voice, a reputation for singing live that persists, and, in the pre-drug-weirdness days, was a genuinely interesting combination of complete pop-star head case and amiable-seeming normal person. All of which probably had something to do with sales I guess? Sometimes these things are really hard to explain, I think.
AND…?: This is the first time I have ever listened to a Whitney Houston album from beginning to end, and I have to say: aside from her voice, there’s very little to distinguish this from any other pop record made in 1985. Whatever it was that Whitney was selling on the back of, it’s not apparent from listening to the record.
THE BEST SONG: “How Will I Know”
- according to Wikipedia ↩
- Mike Shinoda is certainly rapping, and they had a dj, which seemed to be obligatory in the year 2000, but there’s really very little else going on that’s rap-related, and most of the things you probably remember about Linkin Park are more likely to be their other vocalist anyway. ↩
- This is, honestly, something I haven’t talked about much in this series, because it doesn’t come up as often as you think, but sometimes the aid to sales is that people can remember which band is which, especially if they have a name that’s specifically chosen and designed to sound familiar (i.e The name “Linkin Park” was chosen because, surmised the members of the band, lots of cities have a Lincoln Park, so it will seem familiar and, I suppose, vaguely like they could be from around there) to the buying public ↩
- They wrote much of Tapestry together, but also the truly abysmal “Locomotion”, the execrable “Some Kind of Wonderful” and, of course, the entirely unforgivable and genuinely evil “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” ↩
- it also means, on a technicality, that Madonna is one of those people whose best-selling record is also her best quality-wise. So yaaaaay. I guess. ↩
- SEE: lots of elsewhere for my feelings about musical “authenticity” ↩
- or, perhaps, depending on how you draw the line, the very beginning of the period where people weren’t buying a lot of records anymore ↩
- in fact, it was released on Blue Note records, which was mostly home to archival releases to classic jazz performers, and Norah Jones’ work since then has been much jazzier. ↩
- you think that’s cheating, but guess what? It’s not. So there. ↩
- well, given that this happened in 1970 and Shelley Long left Cheers for her similarly-unillustrious film career in 1987, but sometimes the originator isn’t the strongest example, you know? ↩
- a period that includes much that is interesting, if spotty, and ends with their actual greatest album, Achtung Baby. ↩
- The soundtrack to The Bodyguard appeared earlier on the list, but that had a bunch of other people on it. ↩
- the second is technically just called Whitney, and you’ll hear about it in a future installment. ↩