Rolling Stone magazine’s October 2020 issue features an all new list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s a fresh take on the magazine’s first such list published in 2003. I pulled out my mint condition copy of that 2003 “Special Collector’s Issue” and sat down to compare the two lists. And what an interesting comparison it is!
First observation: only two albums released since 2003 made it into the 2020 Top 20, and neither made the Top 10. The 20th Century musical canon remains strong (further tidbits – only 17% of the albums on the 2020 list are from this century, and nearly one-third of the list is from the 70’s). Second observation: despite the lack of infiltration of new albums into the Top 20, the 2020 versions of the Top 10 and Top 20 are almost unrecognizable from the 2003 versions. Only two of the 2003 Top 10 are in the 2020 version, and only eight of the 2003 Top 20 survived to make the 2020 list. So, why the wholesale reshuffling of the view of 20th Century music? It’s all about the voters.
The group of voters Rolling Stone assembled to create the 2003 list was dominated by music critics, recording industry execs, broadcasters and the like. Only 70 or so artists were polled, few of them women and few artists of color. The 2020 voters included a much more diverse and inclusive pool of over 170 artists, and while older artists and non-artists were still represented, the new list creates a much more balanced picture of the breadth of musical influences that have shaped popular music.
The #1 album of all time? What’s Goin’ On by Marvin Gaye. The album was #6 on the 2003 list, behind no fewer than three Beatles albums. Here’s the famous lead single and title track.
Vaulting to #3 from a #30 ranking on the 2003 list is Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I’m not surprised that this masterpiece, which Rolling Stone characterizes as “a still-unmatched standard for confessional poetry in pop music”, got the recognition it deserves once more women singer-songwriters got the franchise.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had only been out for five years when the 2003 list was published, and slotted in at #312. The 2020 list places it at #10. Hill broke all sorts of records at the time with this, her first, solo album: most first week album sales by a female artist ever, most Grammy nominations (10) and awards (5) for a female artist in one night ever. Here’s the #1 single.
HAIM just released their third album, Women in Music Pt. III. Sisters Danielle, Este and Alana Haim arrived on the scene in 2012 with their first album Forever and the hit single “The Wire”. It’s official video is an awfully entertaining girl power trip. The video for “Summer Girl”, one of three singles released from the new album, adds new meaning to “layering” and gives a big boost to the baritone sax.
Forty years before HAIM released Forever, Fanny, fronted by sisters June and Jean Millington, covered Marvin Gaye’s hit “Ain’t That Peculiar” (click through to YouTube to watch the video and forward to 1:30 to skip the studio chatter). If you want to compare Fanny’s version to the original, check out Marvin Gaye’s live performance at New York’s legendary club, The Bitter End.
About half way between the launchings of Fanny and HAIM came the formation of the best selling female group of all time, TLC. Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas joined forces in 1991. One of four #1 charting U.S. hits from their second album, CrazySexyCool, was “Waterfalls”. It may be their signature tune, and the video won MTV’s Video of the Year. It’s a very heavy song and video with a super-infectious chorus.
Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland Corporation, died on April 1st at the age of 87. Roland has produced a huge range of electronic musical instruments and effects since its founding in 1972, and Kakehashi developed MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface that sits at the heart of electronic instrument communication. But no product or invention by Kakehashi and Roland has had more impact on popular music than the TR-808 drum machine.
Manufactured for three years beginning in 1980, the 808 has been used by innumerable artists for nearly 40 years, and it’s said that the 808 is to hip hop what the Fender Stratocaster is to rock and roll. The 808 was built just before sampling became widespread and produced 16 synthesized approximations to sounds from a bass drum to a handclap.
The first hit record to use the 808 appears to have been Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” from 1982. Listen to the opening bars and you’ll immediately recognize the iconic sounds.
Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock”, also from 1982, is credited with cementing the 808 into hip hop’s early vocabulary.
Whitney Houston used the 808 to set the beat for her 1987 hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.
In 2008, Kanye West built his fourth studio album around the sounds of the 808, and even named the album “808’s and Heartbreaks”. The drum loop in “Say You Will” is all 808.
If you want to get the full scoop on this history of this important piece of technology, here is the trailer to “808” the movie!
It is oddly prophetic that my last post, four months ago, covered the band Hiatus Kaiyote. Hiatus indeed! Well Happy New Year to all, and allow me to begin the year with a trip way back to the early 70’s.
A few months ago I watched the movie “Searching for Sugar Man” for the first time. Hard to believe it took me so long to see the 2012 Academy Award winner – thanks for the DVD, Margaret! It’s a great flick if you haven’t seen it, and one little snippet from the movie is the basis for this post.
It seems that on Sixto Rodriquez’s first album “Cold Fact”, which included the track “Sugar Man” from which the movie title was taken, his producer hired some top notch Motown session men to back Sixto’s vocals and guitar. Among them was bassist Bob Babbitt.
Babbitt was part of The Funk Brothers, studio musicians who backed most of Motown’s hits from 1959 to 1972. A little research on Babbitt reveals that he played some of the most recognizable bass tracks in history, including those on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” and “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations, “War” by Edwin Starr, “The Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye, and many more. In all he played on more than 200 Top 40 hits including 25 gold and platinum records.
Below is more than my usual number of videos, but turn up the bass and appreciate Babbitt’s genius. You’ll wonder what these songs would be without him.
Babbitt passed away in 2012 at age 74, some years after winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. The 2002 documentary on The Funk Brothers, “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” is now on my “to watch” list.