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Crosstalk: Defining the Definitive 200

Keith: Last week, The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame museum, in conjunction with—this is important—the National Association Of Record Merchandisers, released its list of the "Definitive 200" albums. The music blog Idolator has a pretty good breakdown of what it's all about. We've made discussion-starting lists a cornerstone of our site here, so we know there's no way to keep everybody happy. But we also know when something stinks, too. These are, per the Rock Hall's site, "200 ranked albums that every music lover should own," and by any standard, it's a pretty screwy list, weighted toward mega-selling albums in an attempt to make them even mo' mega.

According to Variety, "Unlike lists compiled by critics, musicians, magazines or Web sites, the Definitive 200 is full of albums everyone has heard of and, instead of showing a historical bias, 81 of the discs were released between 1990 and 2004." True enough. But what's the point? Is it designed simply to reconfirm these albums' popularity? Well, kind of, but there's also the not-so-hidden agenda of reminding music lovers how fun and awesome it is to go buy a great album, rather than, say, downloading it. So why is it even worth talking about? I'm not sure, apart from the fact that for the foreseeable future, we'll see Definitive 200 branding every time we walk in a record store. So as long as that's out there, we might as well figure out what it means.

I'd like to start this at the bottom with Grand Funk Railroad's We're An American Band. As an owner of Grand Funk Railroad's greatest-hits album, I'm not going to front and pretend I'm above the charms of Don Brewer and company. But, really? One of the "definitive 200" albums of all time? On a list that includes no Velvet Underground?

Funny side note: The site provides Amazon.com reviews, which aren't always super-flattering. Here's Jerry McCulley on Grand Funk's pre-We're An American Band work: "Having garnered a confounding mix of loyal fan base and universally bad reviews for the plodding, predictable blues rock that powered its seemingly endless tours at the dawn of the '70s, Grand Funk Railroad spent the next couple years retooling both its line-up and sound."

A confounding mix of loyal fan base and universally bad reviews… That describes much of the list too, doesn't it Noel?

Noel: Man, does it ever. We could fill a whole column just listing the dubious inclusions: Shania Twain's Come On Over in the Top 25? Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back all the way back at 156, behind Will Smith's Big Willie Style? Matchbox Twenty's Yourself Or Someone Like You on the list at all?

Look, I understand the "critical corrective" impulse behind this list, and I even respect it in a crazy way. It's sort of like what our own Steve Hyden was arguing for a few weeks ago: A "winner's history" of rock 'n' roll. Hardly any critic ever puts Boston's debut album on a "greatest of all time" list, but "the people" have made it a perennial, because many of "the people" lived the best years of their lives to a soundtrack of "More Than A Feeling" and "Hitch A Ride."

But at the same time, "the people" don't really care about lists like this, do they? Is "The Definitive 200" helpful to anybody besides record-industry bigwigs, who by their very job definition, think quality equates to record sales? For that matter, if sales are such a big factor, why not just trot out the all-time sales chart and be done with it?

Okay, maybe that's too many rhetorical questions. Let's consider a more concrete one: What are lists like this for? As you and others have noted, this list seems to be about making sure the rich get richer. ("Hey, you know that album that's sold 10 million copies? Well, if you don't own it yet, here's a chance to buy it with a special sticker on the front!") But for me, lists have always been—and should always be—an important part of a young person's aesthetic education. My ex-hippie 9th-grade English teacher made a list of his favorite albums for me when he found out I liked older rock, and for a while, I carried it with me to my local used-record store, using it like a checklist. I had that teacher again in 11th grade, by which time I'd graduated to Rolling Stone lists, and was asking him to record albums for me that he didn't personally like. (He was all about Moondance, not Astral Weeks; Harvest, not Tonight's The Night; Imagine, not Plastic Ono Band. He was like "The Definitive 200," basically.)

Then came Rolling Stone's "Top 100 Albums Of The '80s" list, which turned me onto The Soft Boys, The Feelies, and Gang Of Four, among others. Maybe those bands really are "lesser" because they didn't sell as much as Journey's Escape. But I didn't need a list to find out about Journey. They were just always there. Pitching this list to "fans" is weird, because real "fans" go beyond what's topping the charts. This is more a list for the kinds of people who walk into an indie record store and ask for a copy of "I Just Called To Say I Love You."

What do you think, Keith? Is there a good way to make a list like this that doesn't come off like an exercise in snobbery?

Keith: Hmm… It sounds like you're pitching me a story idea. Does anyone out there want to see The A.V. Club's alternative definitive 200? How about next week?

But I have a sneaking suspicion that unless we made a list entirely from albums not on the Definitive 200, it would end up looking a lot like other publications' all-time best lists. On the one hand, I'm suspicious of canons, but on the other, there's no denying the greatness of Revolver, Nevermind, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, etc., etc. One reason we conceived our Inventory features the way we did—as loose, non-definitive, lists of irregular numbers—is that the whole all-time-best thing has been beaten to death by the Rolling Stones and Mojos of the world. I'm not saying "never" here. We might do an all-time greatest albums list next month. But for now, it's easier to destroy than create. So let's start with the weird inclusions, then move on to the conspicuous absences. Correct me if I'm wrong, Noel, but I don't think any of these belong on any kind of top 200 list:

26. Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill: I know everyone bought this album, but does it hold up at all? At the very least, can we all agree that it isn't a better album than Kind Of Blue, at #34?

99. The Dirty Dancing soundtrack: Yes, it sold a bazillion copies. Maybe two bazillion. And I'm not going to object too much to anything that got '80s kids listening to Mickey And Sylvia. But I have to object to anything with "(I've Had) The Time Of My Life" and the Patrick Swayze-sung "She's Like The Wind," which was, bafflingly, recently revived as an R&B hit.

107. Kenny G, Breathless: Oh, gag. For me, this just invalidates the list outright. Never mind that it falls above Rubber Soul.

I can't go on. You must go on. What's missing?

Noel: One more bogus inclusion first: The Eagles' quasi-live album Hell Freezes Over? Even in the "All Eagles All The Time" classic-rock world, I don't think too many songs from that one are in regular rotation, outside of maybe "Get Over It," a tacked-on new song that represents Don Henley's "vaguely angry list" songwriting style at its worst. I could grumble about stuff like Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet (at #44!) and Creed's Human Clay (at #95!), but I know there are people out there who genuinely love both those bands and both those albums, even if I don't. But Hell Freezes Over's presence on this list (at #71!) smacks of pure number-crunching. It sold a lot and it's from the '90s, so it makes the list look more "balanced," even though it's just a reunion-tour cash-in. (Also, it barely skates past the list's own stated criteria of "no Greatest Hits or Best Of collections.")

It's hard to get into what's missing from the list without sounding like a total rock nerd, but there are whole genres—like British post-punk and new wave—that are given a miss for no valid reason. I mean: two albums by Def Leppard and nothing by Depeche Mode? Or The Cure? Or The Smiths? Those bands weren't exactly lightweights in the sales department, you know. Two Van Halen albums and nothing by Elvis Costello? I guess David Lee Roth's famous put-down that "rock critics like Elvis Costello because rock critics look like Elvis Costello" really resonated with these list-makers, who seem to be studiously avoiding looking too studious.

And that extends to the "Definitive 200" official site, which as you point out, swipes its commentary from elsewhere. Since actual music writers weren't consulted about the list, I guess they couldn't ask any of them to write some original copy. (What would they say, anyway? "Really? Hell Freezes Over? Are you kidding me?")

I mean, check out this official statement from Rock Hall President and CEO Joel Pereseman: "The Definitive 200 honors a very diverse group of releases, and encourages fans to look to their own record collections and see what they are missing. Many of the Definitive 200 albums are by artists we have inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and others are by artists we may be inducting in the future. In fact, this year's induction ceremony on March 12th, will honor two bands with albums on the list: R.E.M. and Van Halen."

Talk about spit-shining a dirt pile! He almost sounds surprised that two actual hall-of-famers made it onto this half-assed list. And what's with this "encourages fans to look to their own record collections" nonsense? I envision music fans everywhere looking at the "Definitive 200" and saying, "Jewel's Pieces Of You? Didn't I sell that a few years ago?"

Keith: I guess I don't have too much to add, except that even in a world with too many lists, this is one list too many. But it has a deep-pocketed marketing money behind it so people will be seeing it for a while. Assuming anyone still goes to record stores, that is.