Let’s say you’re like me, and anytime you have a few extra bucks, you roll on over to your favorite used record store for a few hours and bask in your hipster glory. One of my favorites to visit during such (rare) times is Jerry’s Records in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. Jerry’s is a vinyl geek’s dream. Walk in and you will find boxes on top of boxes full of records spanning the entire lifetime of the format, covering all genres. Let’s say you go to the rock/pop section, which in itself takes up a quarter of the warehouse. You start thumbing your way through the stacks, in hopes of finding something by The Beatles, Prince, Bowie, maybe Springsteen. Instead, you would likely be able to find massive stacks of music by relatively unknown pop bands from the sixties, or a plethora of Barry Manilow records. You’ll be lucky if you find a Bowie covers album, or maybe a scratched Capitol Records version of one of the Fab Four’s early releases.
This is not because these records don’t exist. They aren’t rare. The Beatles are one of the most popular bands of all time, selling millions of LPs and singles over the course of the past 50 some years. The fact is, people don’t get rid of these records often, and when they go on sale, the folks at Jerry’s put them right up at the front so that the costumers will see them and snatch them up within minutes of being on the shelf.
That is because these albums are true “classics.” Their influence has lasted for decades. Despite the fact that the Beatles broke up in 1970, they continue to draw new fans with every generation, and hence are more difficult to find at record stores than a band like Bread. My question is, what makes an artist or an album stand out in this way? What qualities of popular music continue to draw people in and stay relevant for years? Why does Walmart sell Pink Floyd merch? What is up with the resurgence of Fleetwood Mac in popular culture?
I would argue that there are three broad categories of classic albums. As a disclaimer, I’m not saying that all “classics” fall into these categories. There is such a thing as an “underground classic,” or artists that have a dedicated cult following long after they are gone. I’m not devaluing that. Additionally, artists could have multiple albums that exist in any of these categories, or sometimes albums might blur the line between two, or all three. But, in terms of popular culture, there are three categories of “classic” albums that stand out to me.
Mastery of a “tried n’ true” method
These are albums that demonstrate a deep knowledge of a tradition. Yet, instead of being boxed in by that tradition, and making a paint-by-numbers folk album for example, they add something new to the conversation through their work. Think of artists like Johnny Cash. Cash knew country music better than anyone. Country, folk, and blues were genres that had existed prior to his career. His music was not “re-inventing the wheel” so to speak. He just wrote really damn good songs in a genre he had a mastery of. Often times, as was more common in the fifties and sixties, his albums even included many covers of other people’s songs. Yet he is still one of the most revered American musical artists.
So what sets Cash’s work apart from the countless mimickers that followed, all of the covers of his songs, and the lookalikes in the industry? Although his sound was not necessarily groundbreaking in the way that later artists would be, Cash managed to add something newto the conversation through his unique image, presence, voice, and writing style. His country background melded into the rock-n-roll aesthetic and persona that he had acquired by working with Sun Records, putting a unique spin on what qualifies as “country.” It is not always easy to put your finger on what makes these artists stand out, but it shows in the influence that follows their career, even after their death.
Examples: Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A’ Changin’, Whitney Houston’s self-titled album, Nirvana’s Nevermind.
A tasteful combination of genres
Sometimes, an album comes out that attempts to cover every genre under the sun. These albums tend to come off as cheap imitations of the original form. Think about the current Island and Latin sounds that have been popular on the radio over the past few years by artists like Drake, Cardi B, and Twenty One Pilots. A song like “Hot Line Bling” may be catchy, but sounds like a week imitation of the reggae genre, under the guise of being “influenced.” This type of song usually turns out to be a fad replaced when the next trend comes in. Another example is in the early 2010’s when all you heard on the radio were singles by Mumford And Sons, The Lumineers, and Gotye.
Amidst this slog, an artist will occasionally make a record that tastefullycombines genres to make a unique piece of art, that has mass appeal, while also showing a loyalty to the forms that it is influenced by. I would argue that The Beach Boys’ Pet Soundsfalls into this category. The record creates a unique soundscape through by writing pop tunes with classical arrangements. Music critics continue to gush over every aspect of this album, even just listening to the instrumentals alone. The combination of classical and pop does not come off as hokey or just someone trying to mesh things together that don’t belong; rather it listens as a unique piece of art by someone who had a deep respect and understanding of both traditions.
Examples: The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past, Sufjan Stevens Come On, Feel The Illinois!, and Bon Iver’s self-titled album.
Something totally different
Let’s be real, anyone can make a noise record. It’s easy to hook up a Stratocaster to a bunch of delay petals and brag about how artsy you are. Many albums have been released that are “different” from most music people have heard, but different doesn’t always equal good. What sets apart the noise as something that listeners will latch on to and discuss for years to come?
Think about the Beatles reallytrippy stuff from the Sgt. Pepper era. Tracks like “A Day In The Life,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” come to mind. The mainstream world in 1967 had never heard anythinglike that before. While it could be argued that these songs come through a combination of multiple genres, I would argue that the contrast is so harsh that it was more something almost entirely new. These songs were weird, but still had a mass appeal. Songs like these tend to be ones that we look at as bench marks by which we measure how popular music has changed overtime. Albums that are total game changers but still have pop sensibilities are remembered and loved for generations, making them difficult to come by at your local record store.
Examples: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless,Radiohead’s Kid A