The Greatest LPs of All-Time . . . kind of.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

We're not talking about the, say, My Aim Is True, which was the starting gun on a long and inspired career. We're not talking about the Nevermind, which was a perfectly-timed, but hugely derivative, LP that defined a generation. We're not talking about a You're Living All Over Me or a Diary, which appealed, despite their greatness, to a small group of particularly discerning fans--and still do. We're not even talking an Exile on Main St. or a Led Zeppelin IV, which stand out as a distinct highpoint in a long career of vast influence on popular music overall.

The Life Pursuit -- Belle & Sebastian
London Calling -- The Clash
The Soft Bulletin -- Flaming Lips
OK Computer -- Radiohead
Pet Sounds -- The Beach Boys

Something about these LPs--and I have no doubt there are many others, too--connects them. They are the best work the bands have done (obviously that is debatable, but I have a suspicion that if I checked sales numbers, they're at least the best-sellers*), and they seemed to come from nowhere. Example: The Flaming Lips were, despite renown on the college radio scene, essentially a psychedelic punk band known as much for their strangeness and inability to cross over as for their sound. Their biggest hit before 1999 was "She Don't Use Jelly." In fact, it remains their only hit in the States. But in 1999, they released The Soft Bulletin. Many longtime fans (including myself) were surprised (and, yeah, disappointed) by the drastic change in their sound. We eventually came around--or most of us did. But more importantly, the Lips were suddenly critics' darlings. They were all over the Mtv. The Soft Bulletin was called the third best album of 1990s by Pitchfork, and the best album of 1999 by NME.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots followed for the Lips. In my opinion, it is an uninspired follow-up to The Soft Bulletin. It's a good record, sure, but I'd rather listen to--I don't know--Clouds Taste Metallic or Hit to Death in the Future Head. It doesn't hold up to repeated listenings, and no one was talking about it as a groundbreaking, career-changing release.

Radiohead's OK Computer. Where the hell did that come from? Seriously, did anyone expect that after the tepid Pablo Honey, "Creep"'s success notwithstanding? The Bends was a stronger record, I suppose, but Radiohead was--to me--another mopey group of Brits, one of whom (lead singer Thom Yorke) looked an awful lot like Martin Short doing a mopey Brit. Then one morning in 1997, getting ready for work with Mtv on, I caught a new video but missed the opening credit. I didn't move from the couch till it ended. It was "Paranoid Android." (Not an embeddable clip, but worth clicking over if you haven't seen this video.)

OK Computer was a daring and brilliant record. Radiohead found fans they never had before, in the public and the press. It made nearly every best-of-the-year list, in the US and the UK, and won a Grammy. (I kind of get a kick out of how much Robert Christgau of the Village Voice didn't like it. Scroll down to Dud of the Month.) But the point: this was a daring, sparse, experimental, unfamiliar album. No one outside of the band's inner circle could have predicted this musical shift. But there it is, and it's brilliant, and everything since for Radiohead doesn't come close. Sure, the Kid A lovers exist (I'm not among them), and they continue to sell LPs and fill halls, but they never again saw a career-exploding popular and critical success like OK Computer.

I am not a Clash fan. I am a huge fan, though, of London Calling. In 1979, these guys recorded an album that explored ska, reggae, punk, rockabilly, and good old rock 'n' roll. It turned out to be the breakthrough they'd been looking for in the US, and went on to appear on not just the best-of-the-year lists by many rags, and not just best-of-the-decade (often making best of the '70s and best of the '80s list, despite being release in 1979), but best of all-time lists. Rolling Stone called it the eighth best record ever. They never had the same success again. They never pleased the critics or the public in the same way. Of course, hardcore Clash fans exist in great numbers, and they swallow up the discography like delicious foodstuff. But for most music fans, I think, London Calling is as deep into that discography as we need to get.

I won't go into detail on The Life Pursuit, except to say that B&S fans who have been around since Tigermilk will tell you that simply everyone who never much cared for B&S adored The Life Pursuit. Well, they've put out their follow-up, and it's . . . good. But I'm not listening to it repeatedly.

Or Pet Sounds. You want a WTF moment? I can only imagine what happened when a bunch of Jan and Dean fans slipped this slab of wax on their Victrolas, maybe expecting to hear the ilk of "Surfin' USA" or "California Girls." This is the album Paul McCartney played for John Lennon--over and over and over--and that was after they'd already done Rubber Soul. Come on!

And Pet Sounds is a great place to stop, because it highlights well the problem with such records: what followed for Brian Wilson--the LP's mastermind--was a "lost" LP called Smile. It was simply never good enough, and it didn't see the light of day until 2004, nearly 40 years after Pet Sounds was released. And that's the only truth about all these LPs I can figure: every artist I've mentioned simply never did it again. They struck absolute greatness--created some of the best and best appreciated music of all time--and then slipped toward mediocrity once again.

Why? Is it the grasping for greatness, having touched it once, that makes it impossible to hold (like soap in the shower, if you will)? That's the best explanation I can give. Of course, what might be more valuable is an answer to this: How did they hit greatness to begin with? The bands above didn't give any indication that they'd someday create such start-to-finish masterpieces, albums I would, at a moment of weakness, even call flawless. But they did.

I guess if we had an answer to that, we'd all have framed platinum records hanging in our living rooms.

*I checked, and Yoshimi is gold, while Soft Bulletin is not. My best guess is that Yoshimi was released to a public suddenly familiar with the Flaming Lips. Also, "Do You Realize?" was frequently used in commercials.