No one forgets an indisputably great year of music, especially if they were alive to experience it first hand. Leaving the late ’60s aside, there a handful of years (1975, 1987, and 1994 all come to mind) where I can imagine it was difficult to live through them without feeling like a world-stopping, classic record was being released on a near seasonal basis.
Of course, even your average year turns out at least something worth remembering. A great example is 2006, the resident year of (ugh, here it goes) perhaps my all-time favorite record, Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio; but when considered on the whole and as objectively as possible, there weren’t too many musical “events” from 2006 worth any special note. The best one I can think of was when Jack White was somehow made musical curator of the VMAs for that year, in which he decided to cover “White Light/White Heat” with Lou Reed. That made for one of the strangest moments of my TV watching life, though even amongst the most devout Lou Reed acolytes, I’m probably the only one who finds that weird happening anywhere close to important.
Official The Greatest cover art.
As record releases went, Cat Power’s The Greatest caused some stir with critics early on that year, and seems to have aged amicably since. I also vividly remember every fellow camp counselor at the day care where I worked that summer loving Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale with a unifying resolve, even if I can’t find a single Wu-Tang completist who could be bothered to write home about it these days. On the radio, Justin Timberlake proved a boy band prince could make quality dance music, and the Chili Peppers spent a double album showing off how many times they could re-write “Californication”. Lastly, let’s not forget KT Tunstall, (and this is especially true if you had a girlfriend at that time who was really into The Gilmore Girls) who spent 2006 making perfectly enjoyable, and dare I say, mostly guilt-free radio pop for the masses. Not so bad, right?
Then there are those years where, simply put and with rare exception, nothing really happened. That isn’t to say that for 365 days every FM station and record shop shoveled only debris onto the ears of the world, but more so that little sounded particularly inspired. By the very nature of art, there are times when the aesthetics of a cultural landscape can seem terribly out of balance and completely lacking excitement, and that’s okay. They can’t all be 1984 (aka, the year of Purple Rain and Born in the U.S.A.) or the almighty 1967, even if it can not be said that we music fans relish in waiting.
Which inspires sympathy for underrated records that came out in years where the competition is just unfair. For instance, I’ve always felt that if Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street shuffle came out in 1974 instead of 1973, he would have had a much better shot of getting noticed by the mainstream rock-listening public, but that’s just not how the pop gods would have it.
1973 was the year of Dark Side of the Moon and the continued domination of America by Led Zeppelin and Ziggy Stardust. On the critical front, few releases matched the taste-makers’ frothing at the thrash of Iggy & the Stooges’ Raw Power. From the low brow, Kiss fascinated a literal small nation’s worth of fans and with them commanded a proportionally parallel sound all just after the word “disco” was plucked from the French “discotheque”. Perhaps more than any other time since, rock, if not all of music in 1973, was supposed to be larger than life. Unfortunately for the Boss to-be, I don’t think anyone had 10-minute operatic jazz fusion tributes to Van Morrison in mind when they meant larger than life; they were talking about the necessary size that they needed their escapism and fantasy to be, pure and simple.
Official Heart Like a Wheel album art.
So, what was going on in 1974? Well, Linda Rondstat put out Heart Like a Wheel, one of the tastier documents of pop country from which I can hear so much of today’s Nashville, Taylor Swift and Gretchen Wilson in particular, loud and clear. Alas, it was the year between prog and punk that lays curiously silent, an appropriate quiet before the maelstrom of 1975; or the year of Horses, Blood on the Tracks, Physical Graffiti, Born to Run, Wish You Were Here, A Night at the Opera, and too many more.
Categorizing any year as the “worst” or “most forgettable” is too unfair, unjustly and inevitably sinking into clichéd discussions about the decade to which it belongs. The best example here might be 1983, the year The Village Voice‘s annual Pazz and Jop Poll was so desperate, they picked a record from 1982 (Thriller) to lead their year’s end best albums list. Perhaps this says the most about what a “quiet year” in music really represents– perhaps not so much a sign of tired muses too exhausted to find any geniuses if it’s been spent still fascinated by the jaw-dropping feats of the year prior. Again, some might point to the late ’60s as the exception that proves the rule here, but that’s for a much longer essay. Thriller might have been released in November 1982, but all of its five prize top 10 hits skyrocketed up the singles charts in 1983. It was by the same forgivable logic that Rolling Stone named London Calling the best album of the 1980s, despite the fact it was released in the last breath of 1979.
But outside of these games of numbers, did 1983 even stand a chance? For toxic sludge, there was Metal Health and any androgynous new wave frontman for your liking, but those reasons aren’t enough to call 1983 the lowest of low — the competition just wasn’t fair.
Come on feel the noise! Official Metal Health cover art.
It’s not difficult to classify blockbuster statements like Thriller as events the same way that Titanic (notice how I didn’t say Avatar) or any celebrity death is an event: happenings in which everyone and their mother owns a copy or has some mutual access to, and thus it appears the entire world is sharing in the experience. The instance itself is so rare and spectacular that its occurrence alone may be more important than dwelling on the quality of sophistication therein, or lack thereof. I’ll submit that while saying so may remain a logical fallacy, it is an experience where one has to truly “be there” to truly comprehend its glory. Yet how well Thriller holds up into eternity will depend on if everyone who isn’t old enough to remember its release, like me, can still understand its aura through sonic appeal as opposed to hyperbolic clip-show nostalgia or other generational grand-standing.
If there were any years of my own life where pop felt lost, (and by proxy, my understanding of it) 1999 seems as good a time as any. It was the year most girls my age spent life listening to “Baby One More Time” while we boys were too busy headbanging to Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff”. Wait, was that only me? Apologies, adolescence in the late ’90s was weird. Ten years later and life brought with it appropriate perspective. Being old enough now to be secure in my own masculinity (and thus, my relationship with the mainstream media), I can hear more good memories in “Baby One More Time” then bad. In somewhat unsurprising contrast, it’s the corporate rap and butt-rock I loved back then (Fuel, Korn, you name it) that still reminds me of what being a wallflower felt like, in a complete reversal to how any of this music felt then.
Granted, a lot of my argument here comes from an album-oriented perspective, but why not? From that vantage point, it’s not hard to see how the last few years of pop and indie have been quite generous. It will always be too early to judge the past decade or even the past year, but that’s why everyone makes sweeping generalizations on their quality year after year anyway.
For my money, 2010 was the last year that felt extraordinary. I remember taking an extended lunch break from my job at a nonprofit in May of that year just to purchase the new and last LCD Soundsystem record. My friend’s dad always likes to brag about how he bunked school to buy The White Album the day it came out, but I hope that’s not the closest I’ll ever come to being part of the synnergy of an album-as-event occurrence. A few months later, Janelle Monae would take over my ears with a leviathan record called The ArchAndroid. By year’s end, Kanye West would rule both commercial and critical ears with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a pantheon long-form musical statement that, even a year later, sounds painfully difficult to hate.
2011 may not have been quite as exciting, but I have a feeling I’ll have many of my favorite releases (City Center’s Redeemer, I Am Very Far by Okkervil River) will remain on my own personal heavy rotation for quite some time. After all, they can’t all be 1984, but here’s hoping for 2012.