Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Same Rag You've Always Known

No one asked, but here it is: a list of the 11 albums that Rolling Stone gave five stars during the 2000s, baring any late entrants. The only remaining 2009 disc that seems like a contender is that weird-seeming Dylan Christmas album, which doesn't have the glow of a five star album about it, particularly after the turgid Together Through Life. In chronological order:

Bob Dylan-- "Love and Theft" (2001)
Mick Jagger--Goddess In The Doorway (2001)
Beck--Sea Change (2002)
Bruce Springsteen--The Rising (2002)
The White Stripes--Elephant (2003)
Brian Wilson--SMiLE (2004)
Beastie Boys--To The 5 Boroughs (2004)
Kanye West--Late Registration (2005)
Bob Dylan--Modern Times (2006)
Bruce Springsteen--Magic (2007)
Bruce Springsteen--Working On A Dream (2009)

Seven of these albums, distributed over just four musicians, are by artists who in any reasonable estimation of their work peaked sometime between 1965-1975. I'd add that Beck and The Beastie Boys peaked long before 2002 and 2004, respectively.

Anyways the most notable of these reviews is Jann Wenner's five-star write-up of Mick Jagger's Goddess In The Doorway. The review, possibly written by Wenner because even hacks refused to award a Mick Jagger solo album five stars, strains mightily to praise the album. In 974 words, it embodies almost every conceivable qualm one might have with Wenner's publication, presenting them with--and this is the most shocking part--a completely straight face. Is it even worth my time critiquing it?:
In terms of consistency, craftsmanship and musical experimentation, Goddess in the Doorway surpasses all his solo work and any Rolling Stones album since Some Girls

Goddess in the Doorway resembles the Stones' best albums in that it's a varied yet cohesive collection of ballads, hard rockers and one country song

Making the most of this opportunity to stretch himself, Jagger has recruited some outstanding guests...Rob Thomas...Lenny Kravitz...Bono...Joe Perry

It may seem a truism, but it's worth noting that he is - along with John Lennon, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Bono - one of the great male rock voices of this age
These statements wear their self-parody as unknowingly as the real Mick Jagger!

But what of the other ten? I suspect that about half of these albums will make the magazine's Decade Top 10. Personally, I've heard most of them--many of them on the strength of the RS reviews, I confess--all, in fact, but the Jagger disc and the three Springsteen albums. I doubt I'll hear any of those four, ever: though I love the Stones, I have no desire to hear Doorway, and while Springsteen fans seemed to love The Rising and Magic, I am not of their ilk.

Aside from Goddess in the Doorway, To The 5 Boroughs stands out as this list's other big misfire. It may have seemed natural at the time--responding to 9/11 helped net The Rising five stars, the Beasties hadn't released an album since the 90's, the singles were pretty fun, and RS does adore the Beastie Boys. But as a long-player, it's unexciting, surely the group's worst.

I can understand the Dylan reviews better. Note that 2 albums represents half of Bob's 00's output, and the magazine, which exists in large part to worship at the shrine of Dylan, picked the right two. "Love And Theft" is the weaker of the pair, but still quite good, one of three great records to be released on the 00's-defining, above-mentioned date (the other two being Jay-Z's The Blueprint and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which are both better so go figure). I do love Modern Times, however. Aside from its deeply ironic title, the album shows a reflective, lonely Dylan, with an arsenal of sharply written tunes. Still, it's a four-and-a-half star LP, tops.

Beck's Sea Change is another album on the list a half star short of RS's ultimate honor. It meant a lot to me when I first heard it, and the first five tracks will blow your mind. But Beck's transformation into a Nick Drake-like singer-songwriter arrived just in time to capitalize on the massive goodwill lent that particular mope in the early 00's, and the second half of his album drags. Plus, it sucks that Beck's vocals are always dirge-y now, even when his musical surroundings aren't. Wasn't that way before Sea Change.

The vocals on SMiLE bother me as well. Wilson's voice is audibly strained a number of times--most noticably on rerecorded but only slightly inferior versions of "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations"--and we can still only wonder what it would've sounded like had Brian been able to keep it together in 1966. But the old man and his many collaborators' take on a teenager's symphony to God is wonderful, complex stuff. RS surprised no one with the review, but they weren't too far off, either.

Which leaves the two best albums that Rolling Stone awarded five stars, the only two given to youngish artists. The Late Registration review might be the more surprising of the two, and not just because a black person got it. Previously, the magazine hadn't seemed particularly keen on Kanye--College Dropout, which won the Village Voice critics poll, got just 3.5 stars (which Ye later called them out on), and he'd never landed a big profile or anything. But Late Registration is not only an incredible record, but one that also caters to rock crit tastes (I mean, having Jon Brion co-produce your album?). A lush, hip-hop White Album, with enough subtle production tricks and facets of Kanye's then-interesting persona to make 70 minutes go by fast.

And finally: self-indulgence is the name of Jack White's game these days, but there was a time when he'd indulge his audience as well. That Rolling Stone would love the White Stripes was a foregone conclusion, but to award Elephant five stars took at least a small amount of balls in 2003. I vividly remember the issue, the first RS I got via my subscription: it was "The Cool Issue" and featured Lisa Marie Presley on the cover, along with a small blurb about the Stripes album. Elephant is where it all congealed for the Stripes: a blues-punk barnstormer that envisioned the Brill Building as a rickety garage, lower frequencies as the apocalypse, and a glorious coexistence of country-kitsch and multitracked screeds. The best album to receive five stars from Wenner's rag this decade and just enough to make me thankful that Rolling Stone existed in the 00's, if only for personal reasons.


  1. I've only heard Smile, the Dylans and the Kanye, all of which are either worthy, or good enough that a well-written review could convince me are worthy. But still, that complete list is pretty sad. RS's 4.5 reviews are no less a novelty (and probably don't require a greenlight from Wenner), and I have to respect a magazine that would give one to New Adventures in Hi Fi. That was a long time ago though...

    Didn't we talk about 9/11 releases once, until I got confused about what day we were talking about? You forgot Ken Stringfellow's Touched, which begins in full-on 21st century trauma mode, with a song about suicide averted by a lover's suicide.


  2. I might be wrong, but wasn't the first Strokes album part of the 9/11 club as well?

    If only we could classify that moment where Mick Jagger's solo album got five stars as the magazine's nadir. We all know it can go lower. I remember many years ago you telling me that you were predicted 4 1/2 stars for "A Bigger Bang" weeks before it came out--and you were right.

    What could be remarked upon a bit more is the glaring omissions in albums that should have been five stars. By that I mean the magazine's editorial policy of mandating that pretty much every album get three stars. Jim Derogatis has written a bit about how Wenner really frowns on one-star ratings in addition to five-star ratings, and likes to keep everything in the nondescript middle in case history (or prevailing critical thought) proves him wrong (which is all the time--case in point, Nirvana's "Nevermind").

    This is having a negative effect on other music publications. For instance, Pitchfork Media used to give new releases 10.0 ratings all the time. That hasn't happened I think in at least 5 years, unless the album in question is a reissue. This reinforces the notion that music used to be better than it is now, which is an attitude I hope we all are old enough to find repugnant and wrong.

    It is of course an apt metaphor for Wenner and the magazine he runs: Rolling Stone has produced some good work in its time, but I bet that in the future it will be remembered for the following: its lack of any objective critical standards; its frighteningly sycophantic attitude towards pop stars (Kanye West was right to be sickened by that question about how many times he had had sex that year); its ideal of rock music as an avenue for careerism and commercialism; its blind deference to anything that we can blandly label "liberal"; its unimpeachable ability to put the most irrelevant possible "flashes-in-pans" on its cover; its continuing insistence on being decades behind in recognizing artists or movements of prominence; and its belief that musicians form some sort of aristocracy that we must be appreciative of but never question.

    In other words, RS is the un-punk.

  3. Yeah, as a magazine RS gets 2.5 stars. Them firing Jim Derogatis for a negative Hootie and the Blowfish review gets zero stars--which I'm not sure RS gives, but whatever. DeRo's personal attractiveness also gets a very low mark, his enthusiasm for rock music a higher one.

    I think the Strokes album was after 9/11--didn't they remove "New York City Cops" b/c they were worried it would offend people?

    Geoff: I'm certain you'd like "SMiLE" and pretty sure you'd enjoy "Sea Change". I do recall the confusing conversation about 9/11 releases.

  4. I had forgotten about "New York City Cops." One of the true crimes of 9/11 was that awesome songs like that were left on the back burner.

    I personally love "Sea Change" and I think it meant a lot to me as a high schooler as well. You may have noticed something about the album that I think applies to more of Beck's work than you realize: more than "Sea Change," I think of "Guero" as an album that starts out brilliantly and ends with several duff tracks in a row.

    Also, I humbly request an AM track-by-track review of Bob Dylan's Christmas album on this blog.

  5. You're certain I'd like "SMiLE"...because I do!