In 1989, as I discovered an obsession with music that ran as strongly as any other obsession I had in high school, college, or after, I had two guides that kept me hunting for albums that I hadn’t heard, or might not otherwise have heard. Both were mainstream, unconcerned with too much out of the ordinary or in what Neil Young might have called “the ditch.” Any time I found myself in a bookstore, I searched for books of “the best albums of all time” or comprehensive collections of reviews, but it was these two lists – probably because I owned them – that I came back to more than others, that I read over and over, that, in the end, I almost memorized. Both were from Rolling Stone: in 1987, in celebration of the magazine’s twentieth anniversary, the staff published a list of “The Greatest Albums of the Last Twenty Years,” and in 1989, it published its list of “The Greatest Albums of the 1980s.” It’s that first list that I’m concerned with now.
Obviously, it’s limited by the two decade boundary, as well as by the magazine’s boomer bias and its insistence on focusing almost entirely on rock. But I’m not interested in complaining about that, really. Instead, now that I’ve heard, over the course of my own two decades of listening, all of those “Greatest Albums,” I want to go back and listen to them again and think about not only what they’ve meant to me (if anything), but what they mean now and to what extent they hold up.
I’ll choose albums more or less randomly.
But I’ll start with the magazine’s number one: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Everyone’s heard it. Everyone knows it. It’s as enshrined as The Beatles themselves in rock ‘n’ roll history.
But it’s really not that great.
Now, I love The Beatles. I’ll stump all day for Please Please Me and Revolver as phenomenal collections. I’ll make a case for Rubber Soul and Hard Day’s Night as a tiny bit flawed but still great. I’ll argue for “Twist and Shout” as fundamental to what it means to be human. I’ll listen to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Help” absolutely anytime. I’ll take Lennon’s vocals on “You Really Got a Hold on Me” over Smokey Robinson’s, even.
But I can’t get behind Sgt. Pepper’s. Not at this point. In high school, I loved it, but mostly because I felt like I was supposed to. I thought “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was clever. Trippy, even – whatever that means. I figured “Fixing a Hole” had to be a wild metaphor for self-investigation and that therefore it was awesome.. I justified my love of it by pointing to the album’s supposed “concept,” and to the sound effects, and to the way that instruments moved around the stereo spectrum. In college, I stopped listening to anything on it beyond “A Day in the Life.” Now, I find myself most drawn to a couple of tracks that I tended not to like twenty years ago: “Lovely Rita” (mostly for the introduction; after that, it’s maybe a little too cutesy) and “Good Morning” (for the rhythm shifts and for the way it runs perfectly into the title track’s reprise). I still love “A Day in the Life” and probably always will. “Getting Better” is a solid song, but it’s the first one on the album and it’s the fourth track in.
“When I’m 64,” though? Awful. “Will you still need me / will you still feed me.” That’s what McCartney actually sings. “Will you still feed me?” As if the relationship is already one of medical dependence. Meanwhile, “Within You, Without You” is insufferable. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is a throwaway, a solid vocal melody obscured by sound effects and silliness. And “She’s Leaving Home” is maudlin and about four minutes too long.
I know that the album has fallen from its lofty mid-80s position as the great rock record, and I know that it was a big part of that Kill Your Idols book, but, even given that, it’s still overpraised. Should it make a list of the 100 best albums of 1967-1987? Maybe. Especially if “importance” is at all a factor in the judging. But should it be number one? Absolutely not.