Sunday, March 15, 2009

Thoughts on the problems with (music) lists: a response to the Guardian/Observer song list

I'm a sucker for a good list, something most readers here will have noted from previous rants on the topic.

So how to respond to the already deeply flawed two parts of seven the Guardian/Observer has so far granted readers in its '1000 songs everyone should hear'?

1) at whom is a list such as this aimed? I doubt many young readers (under 25, say) will care for the intentions and purported breadth of such a list -- and those of the younger age that will are probably likely to have heard a significant proportion of the list. Older readers are potentially likely to complain about the absence of many songs written pre-1940 (hell, I would complain, and I don't feel as if I am in the Guardian's 'older reader category' just yet..) Judging from the comments so far, at least one of these points seems proven.

2) there's way too many examples that, frankly, unless you have lived in a cave for the last 30 years, you will have already heard endlessly (see 1 above). I know that 'God Only Knows' by The Beach Boys is a classic love song - placing it in this list is stating the bleeding obvious to those already aware and will sail calmly past everyone else. Is anyone really going to respond by saying 'I never thought of that track being a great love song before' or 'my word, I must catch up on this popular beat combo: they sound rather charming...' ???

3) despite claims for breadth from the full range of popular music (extending to jazz, blues, folk etc), there's a poor range of tracks outside the pop chart canon. And let's not think about much diversity beyond the English language...

4) if you're talking about songs, shouldn't there be more room for those which have been contributed by the great songwriters and which have garnered multiple versions - many of which may be great in their own unique ways? There are smatterings of the tin pan alley contributers to the Great American Songbook, but even within the narrower pop archive there were some ropey choices of versions listed.

5) if you're going to include very recent songs/performances, you're gonna need a much higher standard of proof for their inclusion in my opinion.

6) why not more off-beat choices? (see 2, above) - I don't mean the journalists having their little in-house 'so-bad-it's-good' fad (Phil Collins), but actual 'alerting readers to excellent tracks that may not be on the readers' radar'.

7) organising these lists in themes allows for far too much dispute about categorisation - I know it probably keeps readers hanging on before wading in with their comments about what was missing ('have they just plonked it in a different category than I would?') but really, we'd all be better placed to tell the list compilers where they've gone wrong if they just created a single alphabetical list by track title. Not only would this also allow for multiple versions of the same track by different artists (which if you are showcasing songs makes sense - see 4 above) but you'd more easily be able to tell where they've missed a classic.

8) if you must have sidebar articles, at least make them have something purposeful to say: Simon Napier-Bell, I'm looking at your miserably annoying piece.

I'd come up with 10 thoughts if I had the energy, but instead here are a few initial thoughts on songs missing in action either in terms of the versions I prefer or just plain missing artistes [admittedly I am basing this on only two days coverage but I'd have expected tracks from them already].

  • Gorecki - Lamb (just plain beautiful)
  • I lost you but I found Country Music - Ballboy (with or without the divine Laura Cantrell - of whom, hello, where is she?!)
  • The Only One - Billy Bragg (though I love the Bragg-meister's whole repetoire, those who only know him for his political/social material are missing a treat with his songs of about love and relationships)
  • I get along without you very well (I'm especially fond of Chet Baker's version)
  • The Luckiest - Ben Folds (pass me the hankies: it's a blubfest) 
  • Don't get me wrong - The Pretenders (played this morning on John Richardson's show with enthusiastic glee - and instinctive tearful eyes from me: it's a glorious track about being/falling in love and always makes be cry with delight)
  • Just in time - Nina Simone owns this track
  • Leave You Behind - Sleater-Kinney (a personal favourite this)
  • TheOne - Lambchop (and there could be plenty more where that came from in the 'chop collection)
  • Then I Met You - The Proclaimers (points to Guardian for getting in with 'Let's Get Married' via which song, *ahem* ... but even so, the uplifting 'Then I Met You' or the glorious 'Sunshine on Leith' surely deserved a place)
  • Don't Let The Teardrops Rust Your Shining Heart - Everything But the Girl (I can't hear this track of betrayal without crying)
  • Keeping the Weekend Free - Liquorice (yes, I know I'm virtually the only person who cares about this song, let alone this version, but still.  It's gorgeous).
  • Forest Fire - LLoyd Cole and the Commotions ('it's just a simple metaphor, for a burning love' - too damn right, but it still roars loudly to me)
  • Only You - Portishead (gutting, as is much of the Portishead's output)
  • Unfinished Sympathy - Massive Attack (I'd happily welcome in Safe From Harm as well)
  • Miss Otis Regrets - Ella Fitzgerald (though I also love the version that Kirsty MacColl did with bagpipe band one Xmas on Jools Holland)
  • Love is a Wonderful Colour - The Icicle Works (if you need to include eighties pop at least make it this kind of sublime contribution)
  • The Day I See You Again - Dubstar (not least for the sublime line 'and if the man you've grown to be/'s more Morrison than Morrisey' which can be read as Jim or Van to your own choosing and still make you wince in recognition)
  • Bewitched - so many versions to choose from (and there is of course the inspired revisitation of this by The Wedding Present)
  • The Way You Look Tonight - the original version from the film Swing Time is pretty darn fine
  • Nina Nastasia and Regina Specktor - seriously, guys, are you lot NUTS to have missed out having any songs by these two?  Perhaps two of the finest songwriters around at present - shame on you...
  • Magnetic Fields - seriously, nothing from Stephin Merritt, in any of his guises? If I have to rave about 'As You Turn to Go' as sung by Momus one more time, I may explode...
  • Prefab Sprout - an entire oeuvre which could fill these two sections [Love and Heartbreak]. Enchanted, We Let the Stars Go, Cruel, Couldn't Bear to be Special, Talking Scarlet - and the masterpiece that is the Steve McQueen album
  • Jacques Brel - just the most obvious non-English-speaking omission so far
  • The Divine Comedy - surely something from the exquisite 'A Short Album About Love'?! 
  • Rufus Wainwright - no room for Vibrate, or The Art Teacher? I could list more...
  • The Wedding Present - masters of the bitter break-up and the angry relationship
  • The Decemberists - so many of their delightful story songs to choose from, but The Engine Driver would surely have to gain some place?
And - even if we stick with very obvious artistes - so far, wot, no Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, Bruce Springsteen? Huh?

I have to stop now before I give this too much time and thought!

(Cross posted to Music is Our Hot, Hot Sex)


chrissie_allen said...

This post is a real joy Lisa ;-)

soozzip said...

Good feedback, Lisa - I haven't read through the Guardian/Observer article yet (probably won't ever get to the whole thing) but I agree with you so far. The categorization is ridiculous and so simplistic as to render the categories irrelevant. And any mainstream publication is going to have gaping holes in what should be considered timeless songs that fall just outside its narrow reach.

But really, what it comes down to is that I'm madly in love with your record collection.