As we approach the new year, lists of the best music of the decade are spilling out from all angles. Many of these lists attempt to include albums that aren’t just ‘good’, but that are ‘significant’ and ‘important‘. But ‘significant’ and ‘important‘ to what exactly? As NPR explains:
These are the game-changers: records that
signaled some sort of shift in the way music
is made or sounds, or ones that were especially
influential or historically significant.
This is an arbitrary qualifier, because how can we really know if a record created a change or shift in music without placing it among the music around it? This got me thinking: Is it necessary to contextualize music? Surely, how music develops is important, but when the average listener sits down, aren’t they just looking to hear something pleasing to the ear? Thus, when a song or album is contextualized, it becomes less about the music itself.
Many comments I recently viewed in the discussion section of NPR’s “The Decade in Music: ’00’s” revolved around why Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising (2002) wasn’t included. This, however, has more to do with why an album that focused on 9/11 wasn’t included because surely 9/11 was the most or one of the most important events of the decade. But music with lyrics have the advantage of conveying a period of time or event with much greater ease than instrumental music does. So why should The Rising be important just because it talks about 9/11 right after 9/11 happened? If I released an album next year chronicling the Panic of 1819, I doubt it would be deemed culturally significant. And if Bruce Springsteen had released The Rising tomorrow, I am sure it would be considered less significant. So does its place in time make the music more important?
Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-95 (1992) is universally considered ‘important‘ because of the bridge it built between Ambient and Techno music, but today it sounds rather timid. So is it still worth listening to? Perhaps only if we consider its place in musical history. Ambient isn’t exactly supposed to be ‘exciting’ music, but I find much of Brian Eno’s work to be equally significant and to have aged and weathered much better than Aphex Twin’s work.
Someone attempting to check out Billie Holiday for the first time might unknowingly pick up Lady In Satin (1958), which features the singer a year before her death when her voice was significantly withered and she had lost much of her pitch. This album is almost guaranteed to disappoint someone who is not aware Holiday’s physical state at the time of recording, or of her attempt to reminisce about and communicate her extremely troubled past more through emotion than pitch. Only after the story behind this recording is understood does the its beauty emerge.
So considering all this, is it necessary to contextualize music? I’m still not quite sure. I certainly think Lady In Satin is a good album, and at the same time I am kind of frustrated that people think The Rising should be considered musically important just because of the issues it covers. And how about this for contextualization: The Rising ended an almost two-decade long dry spell for Springsteen and led to him becoming one of the most commercially successful artists of the 2000’s, which essentially means he profited from 9/11. And Selected Ambient Works 85-95 is actually technically a compilation of songs, and as soon as it brought Aphex Twin into the spotlight he completely changed the type of music he made (“Flim” is not ambient).
But maybe I am just biased.
Some of the albums that were commonly mentioned on “Best of the 2000’s” lists weren’t necessarily important so much as they were just good, somewhat different, and executed with serious, artistic intentions. In reality, none of us can know how important many of these albums really are because they haven’t had enough time to significantly effect the development of music. Yet we try to form these lists with this disclaimer anyhow, so maybe ‘important‘ music isn’t ‘important‘ anyway…