“Entertainment Weekly” Best-Albums List Reveals Every Problem With (And Advantage Of) General-Interest Listicles

noah | June 20, 2008 7:30 am

Despite sagging page counts, general print-media malaise, and the fact that they’re still saddled with that Diablo Cody column, Entertainment Weekly found reason to celebrate this week: It’s the magazine’s 1,000th issue, and in honor of that milestone the editorial team there put together a buttload of lists of “New Classics,” arbitrary best-of rundowns that supposedly quantify the best pieces of pop culture of the past 25 years. The list-craziness is apparently the latest step in EW‘s plan to turn itself into a printed-and-stapled blog, which has resulted in more meandering first-person front-of-book pieces and, well, Cody’s occasional game of “Spot The Reference.” The centerpiece of the issue’s music-related offerings is a 100-album list that’s supposedly meant to count down the best albums that came out between 1983 and now–it’s bookended by the soundtrack to Purple Rain and George Michael’s Faith–and because I needed something to do, I organized it by year.

1983 (2 albums) 5. Madonna, Madonna 94. Synchronicity, The Police

1984 (6 albums) 1. Purple Rain, Prince and the Revolution 41. Legend, Bob Marley and the Wailers 72. 1984, Van Halen 75. Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen 79. Let It Be, The Replacements 83. Learning to Crawl, The Pretenders

1985 (3 albums) 16. Rain Dogs, Tom Waits 32. Life’s Rich Pageant, R.E.M. 84. Low-Life, New Order

1986 (5 albums) 8. Graceland, Paul Simon 38. Raising Hell, Run-DMC 53. King of America, Elvis Costello 73. The Queen is Dead, The Smiths 88. So, Peter Gabriel

1987 (4 albums) 30. Appetite for Destruction, Guns N’ Roses 61. Paid in Full, Eric B. & Rakim 63. The Joshua Tree, U2 100. Faith, George Michael

1988 (2 albums) 55. It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy 58. Surfer Rosa, The Pixies

1989 (4 albums) 14. Disintegration, The Cure 22. 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul 43. Paul’s Boutique, Beastie Boys 54. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet Jackson

1990 (1 album) 18. People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, A Tribe Called Quest

1991 (4 albums) 3. Achtung Baby, U2 67. Metallica 78. Vs., Pearl Jam (NB: Pretty sure they mean Ten here, since Vs. came out in 1993) 86. Loveless, My Bloody Valentine

1992 (2 albums) 57. Harvest Moon, Neil Young 66. The Chronic, Dr. Dre

1993 (3 albums) 42. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Clan 47. Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair 91. Siamese Dream, Smashing Pumpkins

1994 (10 albums) 11. MTV Unplugged in New York, Nirvana 28. Illmatic, Nas 36. CrazySexyCool, TLC 40. Ready to Die, The Notorious B.I.G. 60. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement 70. My Life, Mary J. Blige 77. Dummy, Portishead 81. The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails 82. Grace, Jeff Buckley 99. Live Through This, Hole

1995 (2 albums) 35. Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette 68. Wrecking Ball, Emmylou Harris

1996 (6 albums) 17. Odelay, Beck 20. Tidal, Fiona Apple 39. Sheryl Crow 45. If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle and Sebastian 51. The Score, Fugees 87. All Eyez on Me, 2Pac

1997 (5 albums) 24. Come On Over, Shania Twain 26. Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan 46. Homogenic, Björk 62. OK Computer, Radiohead 93. Either/Or, Elliott Smith

1998 (3 albums) 2. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill 44. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams 59. Ray of Light, Madonna

1999 (3 albums) 23. The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips 92. The Writing’s on the Wall, Destiny’s Child 74. Play, Moby

2000 (7 albums) 12. Stankonia, OutKast 15. The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem 37. The Moon & Antarctica, Modest Mouse 64. Mama’s Gun, Erykah Badu 76. Heartbreaker, Ryan Adams 89. Bachelor No. 2, Aimee Mann 96. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, PJ Harvey

2001 (5 albums) 7. The Blueprint, Jay-Z 34. Is This It, The Strokes 71. Rock Steady, No Doubt 90. Toxicity, System of a Down 97. Britney, Britney Spears

2002 (5 albums) 25. Turn On the Bright Lights, Interpol 48. American IV: The Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash 49. A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay 56. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco 85. Home, Dixie Chicks

2003 (6 albums) 13. You Are Free, Cat Power 19. Dangerously in Love, Beyoncé 65. Elephant, The White Stripes 69. Give Up, The Postal Service 95. Trap Muzik, T.I. 98. Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie

2004 (4 albums) 4. The College Dropout, Kanye West 6. American Idiot, Green Day 27. Funeral, Arcade Fire 29. Breakaway, Kelly Clarkson

2005 (1 album) 21. The Emancipation of Mimi, Mariah Carey

2006 (2 albums) 31. FutureSex/LoveSounds, Justin Timberlake 80. Back to Basics, Christina Aguilera

2007 (5 albums) 9. Back to Black, Amy Winehouse 10. In Rainbows, Radiohead 33. As I Am, Alicia Keys 50. Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem 52. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon

Arranging the list makes the fact that what EW is actually presenting is little more than what a friend of mine called “literally a list of 100 albums” a bit more glaring. And there are a couple of other unwitting revelations as well:

Institutional memory is a fleeting thing. While 1994, with its 10 worthy albums, was apparently the year that Entertainment Weekly‘s writers really got into their record collections, looking at the average number of placing albums per year reveals something odd: The ’80s averaged 3.7 albums a year on the list, the ’90s 3.9 a year, and the ’00s 5 per year. Has this decade really been that great for new releases? Or is the bloom of newness still on that Kelly Clarkson album, and when EW makes its next version of this list in 20 years it’ll be lost to time, and therefore relegated to the same also-ran status of, say, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual?

The closer you get to the present day, the more you see how music has fragmented, and how the professional-writer class has turned away from the mainstream. There were a lot of critically respected rock albums–in genres like metal, emo, and even pop-rock–that came out in the ’00s, but you wouldn’t know it from these picks. The rock leanings of EW‘s writing staff, which are pretty “Hey, I went to college“-ish to begin with, lean ever further indie-ward the closer you get to the present day; with a couple of tweaks and clean versions of albums thrown in, this list could be easily retitled “Top 100 Albums Every College-Rock DJ Should At Least Check Out Before She Gets Her Own Show.”

Sure, at its core it’s pretty dumb, but it’s hard not to think that this list also represents another stage in the death of the listicle that Matos mentioned earlier today, as well as a sign that maybe EW‘s music writers should pull themselves out of the indie-yuppie ghetto and check out, I don’t know, Decibel or AbsolutePunk or Nah Right for some listening tips. But the glaring problems with this list don’t mean that people won’t type until they’re blue in the fingers about how OK Computer was lower than Jagged Little Pill–so EW will come out smelling like lots of pageviews anyway. Hooray?

The New Classics: Music [EW]