The American Canon is Here

Just been looking at Rolling Stone‘s new Top 500 list properly for the first time. I’ve not had the time or patience until now to scroll through it all, instead just quickly skimming the top 100 and noting the howls of apoplexy on Twitter and in the comments. Apparently Antifa are responsible for Marvin Gaye’s rise to the top of the list. Yes, some people actually say that out loud.

It shouldn’t need saying, but just in case it does, the list is not the product of heavily armed wokerati seizing control of the Rolling Stone offices and locking Jann Wenner in a stationery cupboard. It’s much simpler than that. Rolling Stone is no longer run by Wenner and it’s no longer aimed at his generation. It’s pivoted to pop because if it doesn’t it soon won’t exist. The Penske Media Corporation that now owns it needs to make Rolling Stone credible again, and this list is a step towards making that happen. It’s a statement about what Rolling Stone stands for in 2020 (or at least, what it wants to be seen as standing for) – an outlet where you can read about Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift all in one place. Of course, that doesn’t make it radical; it just catches it up to where the majority of critics (at least British ones, who from my vantage point embraced poptimism more fervently more quickly than American critics) got to in around 2004 or so.

To the list itself, then. For all that fans of classic rock gasped at it, only three records surprised me at their inclusion: Shania Twain’s Come On Over, Eric Church’s Chief and 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Shania because I’d thought her pop/country hybrids were too cynical in their ear-worminess to have won lasting favour; 50 Cent because I thought he was a complete joke when In Da Club came out and assumed everyone else did too; and Eric Church because, really? I mean, OK, if that’s your thing, but really? I didn’t realise.

I was more taken aback by records that I’d assumed would be higher. Neutral Milk Hotel’s beloved-by-everyone-but-me In the Aeroplane Over the Sea all the way down at 375? I thought it’d be top 100. Joy Division’s Closer at 309 and Unknown Pleasures at 211? They’ve never been a band I care for, but again, I imagined their records would be way higher. Maybe I’ve just spent spent too much time listening to KEXP.

Of course, the list has flaws. It doesn’t have, sitting resplendent at the top, Judee Sill’s first album. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is not second. No Fred Neil, no John Martyn (not much British folk generally, actually). Jazz is treated as an afterthought, and reggae even more so: the highest-ranked reggae album, unless I missed one, is Bob Marley’s Legend.

I suspect that generational turnover will mean that when the list is next revised, it will look very different again, probably with a lot of boomer warhorses still there but fewer choices from the 2010s and 2000s. Time will tell. In the meantime, it seems pretty representative to me of the pop consensus in 2020, and why would it be anything else?

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