A local public radio station has spent the last few week promoting a contest to determine the greatest year in music, a silly if fun exercise trying to measure that which is unmeasurable.
Their on-air, and maybe off-, personalities have volleyed back and forth, like dueling jazz saxophonists trying to woo the audience, on whether Dylan’s Highway 61 (1965, ninth) is greater than Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991, 13th) which is greater than Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979, 15th) which is greater than Prince’s 1999 (1982, 19th).
The winning year was 1969 (The Who’s Tommy, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, The Doors’ Soft Parade, The Band, Abbey Road), which no doubt didn’t offend the sensibilities of any of the Baby Boomers who are the dominant audience demographic. It’s safe to say 1969 didn’t win for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Don Cherry’s Mu or Jan Garbarek’s debut album as a leader, Esoteric Circle.
Instead of The Greatest Year in Music, it was really The Greatest Year of the Music We Listen To, and 1969 was selected for the same reason political viewers watch either MSNBC or Fox: it reinforces what they already think they know.
It’s akin to the sports fan of a certain generation who thinks Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete ever, because ESPN did a documentary on him. If Jackie Robinson (baseball MVP, major-college football player, Olympic-caliber track athlete) was as good, he’d have been featured. To say nothing of Jim Thorpe.
We’re the product of the times we live; I grew up not listening to Sinatra or Billy Eckstine or Louis Jordan because who would want to when The Kinks had a new album. Forget about Duke Ellington or Tchaikovsky.
Roll over Beethoven indeed.
There wasn’t much support for 1959, which jazz historians identify as that genre’s greatest year (Miles’ Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Horace Silver’s Blowin’ The Blues Away or Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come) or 1824 (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) or 1875 (Carmen).
I’m not sure what’s the greatest year for music or even the greatest generation for it, but my favorite vote in the aforementioned contest was author/record producer Josh Rosenthal’s. He chose 1928.
That year had as much chance of winning as Al Smith did of beating Herbert Hoover in the ’28 presidential election (and look how that turned out). But Rosenthal’s essay (link here) wins by a landslide.
“… in 100 or 1000 years, if there are still human ears to hear,” wrote Rosenthal, “the distance between the earliest blues, country and jazz recordings and the music of the 60’s, or of today, will become so compressed that the seemingly wide chasm between 1928 and 1969 will become non-existent. There are only 39 years separating Zep’s ‘The Lemon Song’ and Skip James’ ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor.’ The distance between this week’s new Neon Indian record and Led Zeppelin’s debut is 46 years. Yet, presumably because of its scratchy, archaic recording quality, Skip’s song seems ancient, while Zeppelin’s seems perfectly modern and relevant.
“So stop your dismissive harrumphing when I state that 1928 was the best year in recorded music history.”
Maybe it was, because of Jimmie Rodgers and Tommy Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt or the Carter Family or Blind Lemon Jefferson or Blind Willie McTell or Charlie Poole or Lonnie Johnson, all of whom Rosenthal linked to and only some of whom most of us know, or because of Ellington’s The Mooche or Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, whom he didn’t.
As Rosenthal wrote in introducing Blind Willie McTell: “As Dylan said, no one sings the blues like BWM (except maybe Tommy Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.”)
I’m not sure whether Rosenthal is right or wrong, or if there is such a determination to be made. But music is infinite, and nothing against 1969, which may have been a great year for music and for the Mets, but I’d rather learn about Charlie Poole than listen to that which I’ve already heard over and over and over.