You can daydream with music … it takes you away and creates a new world. – Tim Buckley
I’ve always wondered about the word well-read, and by extension what could be called well-watched, or well-listened. How do we exactly cover all bases with these distinct areas of knowledge? Who decides what constitutes being well-listened? Am I well-listened if I can remember note for note all of Beethoven’s symphonies? Or am I well-listened if I say, “Megadeth makes my ears bleed. And I can confirm this because I’ve listened to ALL their albums, and they’ve consistently made me reach for fresh bandages.”
Say, you have a plumbing problem. You pick up a How-To on plumbing. You find it fascinating, and then move on to The History of Plumbing. Things get too intense, and your kitchen pipes are not working yet. That’s when you find a 1001 Ways to Solve All Your Plumbing Issues. More than a thousand may seem intimidating at first, but it makes thing more interesting and doable than a lengthy history book.
Not that I didn’t find 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die [Edited by Robert Dimery] intimidating. I only picked it up because I have been following Geoff Stephen’s excellent blog 1001 Albums in 10 Years. He has been hosting a weekly quiz on the ‘Artist of the Week’, and that taps right into my geeky love for music and quizzing. You could say at nearly 1000 pages, this was both preparation for that, and a general ‘How do I become Well-Listened.’ I read it cover to cover (anyone else reads reference books cover to cover? Just me?), which is not the best way to go about a book like this. This is more of a life resolution thing, and ideally you should pick it up at your own leisure, read a bit till you find something interesting, and then make good of your music streaming subscription and listen to that album. If you are interested in doing something like that, this book is for you.
There is a lot of pop music criticism jargon, which can get annoying if you read things at a go. There’s an awful lot about The Byrds in the first 200 pages or so. Really. If they’re not reviewing The Byrds, they are referring to The Byrds, which given that this period of time also had The Beatles as active, contemporary players, makes me question the making of the universe.
They’ve made considerable effort in providing you with an idea for each album within a short space. They contextualize it both in its social and cultural history, as well as the history of the genre. I also appreciate their efforts to list those responsible for art direction on each album. I would have found things easier if they had mentioned genre, but this layout suits me fine.
All the albums would qualify as popular music from the 1950s till present day, popular in North America and the UK, whether they be indigenous or ‘world’. You get to read about them chronologically, where every section is divided by decade, except for the noughties and the 2010’s, which makes a slim 100 pages when compared to the 200 of the nineties. The book is quite regularly updated. Mine was a library copy of the 2014 edition with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures on the cover, while the latest is from 2016 that has David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane on the cover. This is noteworthy, because the selection of 1001 albums vary considerably on each updated edition.
Which defeats the whole purpose of calling it “Before You Die”. I would never pick up a book that tells me about the business of my own death. Like Who Will Cry When You Die ? (How will I know? I won’t be there.) or You’re Dead (Actually, I would read a book called that). But despite these updated versions of dying, what I most got out of the book was finding an album here and there that might not be by a big-name artist, may not have influenced many or sold millions, but has been deemed valuable/listenable by these critics, and I, in turn, have found them interesting too. I believe that’s one of the most valuable aspects of anthologies like this (yes, yes, I’ll get on with The Byrds), more than simply repeating all the awesome bigness of the Awesomely Big.
My only, MAJOR gripe is the extremely disparaging review of the one Bollywood album they condescended to include. There’s some Indian classical here and there (ticking all the big, contemporary names), but it’s as if the critic picked one random Bollywood album from a bargain bin or the pavements of Kolkata while he was on holiday because he recognised the name of composer R. D. Burman, and then chose to include it as his Indian popular music entry, because it’s the only thing he ever heard. I am personally offended, and I ask anybody wanting to listen to Indian popular music from the 1950s onwards (which includes much, much more than Bollywood) to not listen to this, or pay any heed to what that guy said. I’ll provide you with a list of choice, essential listening. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.
To end on a more positive note, here’s a quote by John Lennon mentioned in the book:
Well, you make your own dream. That’s The Beatles’ story, isn’t it?
What kind of music do you like to listen to?