L'Osservatore Romano, the Holy See's inside source for all things Pope-related, has been doing its part in recent months to rehabilitate the Catholic Church's public image, particularly when it comes to the Church's history of opposing adult themes in popular media such as music, film and literature. As we know, though, even Bishops have to eat occasionally. What do do when you're a Catholic newspaper that wants more blog traffic? Well, the first thing you do is write an article calling Avatar overrated. And, like that other magazine catering to the whims and prejudices of those who have let modern culture pass them by, they know that nothing redirects web traffic like a numbered list.
In this case, L'Osservatore has determined the ten best pop albums of all time. The resulting list is way more interesting than Rolling Stone's. But are these really the sort of jams Pope Benedict should be kicking out to while going through his morning prayer-and-hat-shopping routine? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the newly installed eighth sacrament of the Catholic Church: Rock music!
1. The Beatles, Revolver. It makes sense that the Catholic Church would be about ten years behind VH1 in choosing the exact same contender for best album ever. Of course, Revolver ranks among the four or five greatest Beatles albums (I have always slightly favored the White Album over the rest), and therefore belongs somewhere on this list. As far as Catholic bona fides go, George Harrison's "Taxman" rejects government taxation without explicitly calling for the Church as an alternative; "Eleanor Rigby" could be used as an unofficial theme song for Catholic liberalism, which doesn't really gibe with the Reign of Benedict; "I'm Only Sleeping" subtly illustrates the Catholic work ethic; "Tomorrow Never Knows" is about drugs, and how awesome they are. Lennon's vocals for "Tomorrow Never Knows" would work well as a Gregorian chant, though.
2. Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon. L'Osservatore was wise not to choose the explicitly anti-authoritian and anti-organized religion albums The Wall and Animals; similarly, the narrative of Wish You Were Here includes songs lauding acid burnouts and condemning capitalism. Piper is too schizophrenic, and has songs about Lucifer, and Meddle is too bass-heavy. Dark Side is the safe choice by comparison, and it tackles some big, religious subjects. But does anyone in the Church have the gall to support songs calling money the "root of all evil today?" This is probably the pet favorite of Vatican astronomers.
3. Oasis, What's The Story (Morning Glory?). Apparently the Catholic Church has finally taken sides in the Britpop wars. I'm fully prepared to begrudge this, picking a middling album from a band whose reputation for childish antics far exceeding their songwriting. Perhaps they like Oasis because their lyrics are so confused, lacking any remote form or subject, that there's no way one could cull any sort of anti-religious message, or any message at all. Britpop fans and Catholics are alike in that respect.
4. Michael Jackson, Thriller. This makes sense. The title track, and its accompanying video, serve as an amusing throwback to the Hollywood reign of Father Daniel Lord and Hays Code horror movies (where no one is brutally murdered, except offscreen, and monsters tend to run around looking terrifying as opposed to dishing out wanton slaughter and gore). L'Osservatore says that they like the "illuminating simplicity and musical thrust" of the album, and they might as well be right: if they wanted to get away with a pop album that was as sexless as it is ubiquitous, they made the right choice.
5. U2, Achtung Baby. U2 was a sure shot for this list, but what do we make of their choosing Achtung Baby over The Joshua Tree? Only that they're interchangeable, for the purposes of staking out one's dubious claim of being a fan of alternative rock. It's worth noting that Bono, the Edge, and Larry Mullen, Jr. were (are?) all evangelical Christians.
6. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours. This is basically an album about how infuriating adultery can be, and how insufferable it can make you when you decide to write songs about the people you work with. The Vatican understands that Fleetwood Mac were no paragons of virtue, but ranting about infidelity, when accompanied by smooth grooves, surely rings of condemnation. I'm one of those people that prefers them with Peter Green, but I realize that Rumours better fits a narrative at once popular and moral-ish.
7. Donald Fagen, The Nightfly. My personal favorite choice here, mainly because I love imagining the conversation that went into it. What I think happened was that the Vatican has some major Steely Dan fans that nevertheless may have had problems with their dark sarcastic lyrics, so they decided to look further into the oeuvre of Dan and found this classic to be less dark and sarcastic by comparison. The Nightfly may have the first (and last) instance of an unabashed love song in the Dan catalog, "Walk Between Raindrops," and some of the other songs ("I.G.Y.," "New Frontier") could, at first glance, be less sarcastic than their predecessors. In any case, any person or group that lists this album at No. 7 is automatically cool in my book, no matter how they choose to pad the rest of it. Even Santana.
8. Santana, Supernatural. Others may find this appalling, when Abraxas is so clearly the superior choice. Is it, though? I find myself unable to care, but color me disappointed that the Vatican adds itself to the list of institutions propagating this myth that Carlos Santana is the world's preeminent guitar legend. Not an egregious sin, but a sin nonetheless.
9. Paul Simon, Graceland. Of all the articles I have ever written on the Internet, none have caused so much continual negative feedback as this particular post I wrote on Paul Simon. I will still get an email or so every couple of months admonishing me for my obvious jealousy, lack of talent, ignorance, etc. So I don't have much more to say about Paul Simon. While I still can't see what some people get about Graceland, at least the Vatican didn't choose Still Crazy After All These Years.
10. David Crosby, If I Could Only Remember My Name. My theory: The Magisterium contains many a closet CSNY fan, but if you only have one slot left, which do you choose? Stephen Stills is a rockin' multi-instrumentalist, but he was also a Democratic delegate for Florida during the 2000 election; Graham Nash has been in many great bands, but he's also a complete fruitcake, and he's been know to collaborate with a-ha; Neil Young is a Canadian lefty who sometimes distorts his electric guitar. Crosby is, by elimination, the safe choice.
Many thanks to the Vatican for inspiring me to listen to my first David Crosby solo album. Will we see more lists of its like? That depends on whether the Church continues to take its cues from the Pope and use its power for censorship, or whether it comes to see that there's nothing wrong with a religion that embraces culture of New, rather than trying to regulate it. I hope it won't be the former, because that would be some papal BULLSHIT.
UPDATE: Apologies to Greg for probably misrepresenting the church he used to attend before he grew up and came to know better. Happy Ash Wednesday!