I've been asking friends and strangers all week on Twitter about the best albums of the past decade. (A mixture of the joy of conversation and research: I'm discussing the decade's albums tonight - Tuesday, December 1st 2009 - on RTÉ's Arena program at 19.30 GMT, with Luke Clancy and others.)
In a spirit of internetty openness, here's a copy of the email I sent last night to the producers of the show, with some thoughts on the subject of music, albums, decades, technology, Twitter, and the Long Tail...
Please do add your thoughts and comments...
"Hi Penny, hi Luke,
That sounds fine. Here's a rough overview of my thoughts: I'd quite like to step back and talk about the whole idea of an album, and how it changed over the past decade. I suspect this might be a bit more original, and interesting to the listener, than my own personal taste in a top three (though I will give that too!)
That would mean talking a little about the technology. It's technology which secretly shapes musical eras. Pop music as we know it became possible with the 45rpm single, and the pop single. Then the 33rpm, 12" vinyl disc made albums possible, so people bunched some songs together. Then multi-track recording allowed the Beatles to happen (and thus allowed rich, complicated, overdubbed albums to happen). Transistorised electronics allowed Kraftwerk to happen. Digital technology allowed techno to happen. And so on.
But you could argue that the invention of the CD meant albums were suddenly a bit too long for listeners to comfortably pay attention to all the way through. (The human brain can only stay focused for about 45 minutes before it needs a break.) And that, in the noughties, with the rise of iTunes, iPods, and the iStore, the album as a collection of songs in a particular order is beginning to disappear, as people download individual songs off an album, or listen to their music at random, on shuffle. (As the great music site Pitchfork pointed out, the decade is a few months younger than Napster and only a year older than the iPod.)
So lists like the NME's favour quite a retro thing, the old-fashioned, short sharp rock album. The Strokes, at number 1 in the NME poll, are incredibly old-fashioned. They're rich kids who met at a Swiss finishing school, and pretended to be a gritty, streetwise New York 1970s band. It's absurd to say they sum up the noughties. In fact the NME's list is full of young bands knocking off old bands. Interpol, Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bloc Party. They knock off specific 70s and 80s bands! Interpol are a Joy Division tribute band.
I've read a lot of these lists, thinking about this, and the big problem is, where can anyone stand - on what sacred gold mountain - to take their view?
The noughties was the decade of the obscure album that you stumbled on and loved. A Top 10 made sense in the 60s when only a few hundred albums came out each year, and you could, with a bit of effort, hear most of the music released. But for the past decade, a top ten would be misleading and wrong. It was the decade of the top ten thousand. I put up a hashtag on Twitter, and got a fairly random bunch of lovely people to name their favourite album of the decade. The range of albums suggested on Twitter was astounding. The vast majority were not on any of these best of lists. What has happened is the same as what has happened to books with the rise of Amazon, and the rise of the long tail. The majority of Amazon's sales and profits don't come from selling loads of the top ten books. They come from selling a tiny number of copies of each of the bottom two million books. It's very democratic. Likewise, many more people are recording albums, and finding small, loyal bands of followers.
The forties had Sinatra. The fifties had Elvis. The sixties had the Beatles. We don’t have a Beatles, and it's possible nobody will be able to dominate a whole decade like that ever again. Which is fine.
And that ties into a final point: We probably haven’t heard the greatest albums of the decade yet. The people that do the thing that is new are not instantly recognised. If you look back at the lists from previous decades, they are full of forgotten bands. But truly influencial bands like, say, The Velvet Underground - the band the Strokes want to be - don't appear on any of these lists. It took twenty years for the first Velvet Underground album to go gold.
Meanwhile, guys that were already out of time, out of step with fashion, have aged really, really well. Maybe Tom Waits made the album of the decade. Maybe it was Johnny Cash, with The Man Comes Around.
As for legacy... it was a transitional decade. I suspect the noughties will be remembered more for its computer games than its music. But there were many, many wonderful gems, in all genres. So, a golden age of democracy, with no real king of pop.
I'll send you a top three tomorrow! Still thinking about it.