# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Miscellaneous - February 2011

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 21 / 1 / 2011

Miscellaneous - February 2011


Ben Howarth in ‘Condemned to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ writes of the surprise addition of Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ to Q’s latest Greatest Album Ever poll which compiled together the best albums since 1987

Brian Eno once said that everyone who bought ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ on vinyl in the late 1960s seemed to have started a band by the end of the 1970s. Two decades later, it seemed like everyone who bought a CD reissue of ‘Astral Weeks’ went on to vote for it at least twenty times in myriad glossy- magazine Greatest Album Ever polls. Yet, the most recent of these vitally important polls, in last month’s 'Q', doesn’t give 'Astral Weeks' its usual spot. It selects only the favourite albums of its compiler’s lifetime. That means starting at the rather arbitrary point of 1987, not what we’d call a monumental year in rock folklore, allowing for ‘Strangeways Here We Come’ (the earliest album in the final list), but not ‘The Queen Is Dead’ (a year too early for 'Q'). Now, it’s easy to be cynical about ‘greatest album ever’ polls. The flaws, after all, are manifest - the predictability of the choices (Radiohead, Oasis, U2 and Nirvana) and the habit of lesser albums by popular acts grossly over-performing (surely the largely tune-free 'Pablo Honey' wouldn’t be many people’s favourite on merit?). My feeling remains that the individual pleasure of loving an album is often over-ridden when music is judged on its ability to pull large crowds. But cynicism is rarely healthy. Let’s not have any pop-elitism here: voters will have thought carefully about their choices and these polls tend to reward albums that have stood the test of time, even if they also spring anomalies. The brilliance of the poll’s winner 'OK Computer' is, frankly, unquestionable. There are people who don’t like Radiohead, but the compelling weight of evidence suggests that they (like the mad minority of Beatle-haters) will simply have to breathe in deeply while the cultural tide washes over their heads. I’m a fan of polls. It’s not a coincidence that last month's 'Q' was the first edition I’d bought since the last time they did one. The vagaries of the public taste are intriguing, even when extra salt is required to help stomach the almost complete dominance of white rock bands with guitars. I was, for example, rather pleased to see Gomez’s 'Bring It On' and Kula Shaker’s 'K' included. These are two albums that critics of all shapes and sizes have spent a decade writing out of history. I’m a huge fan of Gomez (utterly indifferent to Kula Shaker), and these findings prove that public tastes aren’t so easily manipulated as many music journos of a certain age tend to think. Equally pleasingly, a handful of albums that owed their popularity to word-of-mouth and the internet were chosen, despite not having been championed by the British music press at the time of their release. 'Older ‘cult’ albums generally owe their reputation and their popularity directly to enthusiastic critics. Certainly, that is the case with 'Astral Weeks'. Increasingly, these days, it is the critics who miss out on the slow-burners while fans notice first. The National’s critical reputation has had to catch up with their devoted fanbase in recent months, while Modest Mouse have never been truly acknowledged. Both bands sneak in here. There is one remarkable result in the list, which justifies the poll’s existence. It seems as if the late 1990s has its own 'Astral Weeks', an awkward, discordant, seemingly unmelodic curio that, despite commercial irrelevance on release, has devoted fans in great numbers. Placed at 16 (above the Verve, Arcade Fire, Gorillaz, REM and the Killers) are Neutral Milk Hotel. Now, it’s true that their second album ‘In An Aeroplane Over the Sea’ is increasingly well known, and clearly influential (not least with Arcade Fire, who have borrowed extensively from it). And it wasn’t a failure, as such , on release - though nor for that matter was Astral Weeks'. It had sold over 100,000 copies before being reissued in 2005, which makes Jeff Magnum much wealthier than I’ll ever be. Indeed, Magnum’s subsequent retreat from the public eye was, in fact, partly motivated by dislike of fame. But, it has never been championed by the British music press or industry, and didn’t make a single British album of the year poll when it came out. Q’s hacks must surely have been surprised as the results came in, so little have professional critics in Britain had to say about this strange, simple, off-key folk record. Neutral Milk Hotel’s popularity seems to suggest that internet message boards and blogs are now more effective at altering public taste - I don’t remember seeing Jeff Magnum’s story told extensively in any of the glossy monthlies. If any critics deserve the credit for winning so many people over to ‘In An Aeroplane Over the Sea’, it is the semi-professional bedroom critics of Pitchforkmedia and its ilk. The NME’s staff must be worried that the bands they have monkishly championed in recent years (most notably, the Libertines) enjoy nothing like the same devotion. There’s something romantic about ‘In An Aeroplane Over the Sea’. I suspect many of the people who voted for it know how to play the whole thing themselves, so simple are the guitar parts. Most could probably do a better job, technically, at the vocals, so ‘untutored’ is Magnum’s caterwaul. Few could give a coherent explanation of why they love it. There are, it has to be said, plenty of equally devoted message-boarders who can’t stand Neutral Milk Hotel (just as there are plenty of people who don’t ‘get’ 'Astral Weeks'), but there comes a point when popularity speaks for itself. In an unlikely place, 'Q' found justification for running its poll. ‘In An Aeroplane Over The Sea’ is no longer just influential, it is a classic.

Also In Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll

Visitor Comments:-
400 Posted By: Dee Angeuse, Ottawa, Canada on 08 Feb 2011
why do i love this album? fantastic melody poetic lyrics great production courtesy of Robert Schneider(Apples in Stereo) amazing album artwork and, yes, I can play all the songs on guitar...part of its charm lies in its simplicity

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