Sunday, October 27, 2013

A wasteland of curators: the NME's top 500 albums and the problem with indie

I know, it's a little unfair to judge the NME's best 500 albums of all time on its Top 10. The full list is a lot more eclectic.* 

And I appreciate the Top 10 will represent an aggregation of music writers' opinion en bloc, rather than what any one of us might individually consider to be truly great albums. Passions are individual, taste is collective.

But if these ten records are the cream of the canon - the set musical texts for indie rock - then we have a few problems.

1. The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead
2. The Beatles - Revolver
3. David Bowie - Hunky Dory
4. The Strokes - This Is It
5. The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground & Nico
6. Pulp - Different Class
7. The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses
8. Pixies - Doolittle
9. The Beatles - The Beatles (White Album)
10. Oasis - Definitely Maybe

The obvious point to begin with is that this top ten are pretty male, pale and stale. For every nine men in the bands, I make it roughly one woman, for example. While the Top 20 is marginally more diverse - bringing in Patti Smith, PJ Harvey and Public Enemy, these are all well-established exceptions to the rule. 

And only one album here was released after 2000 - if The Strokes have made the best album of the twenty-first century then I'll eat my flat cap.

To make these points is not to argue for a quota system. Yet they begin to show how narrow the doors to classic status have become for a magazine like the NME. Or, if you like, indie-rock as a whole. And this mono-culture is symptomatic of a broader lack of ambition and narrowness of taste that the choice of albums displays. 

When the Beatles and the Velvet Underground are as experimental as your Top 10 gets, then you know you've got serious ancestor-worship problems. Especially when another three of your slots are taken up with late 80's and early 90's variations of the Fab Four and NY art-punk templates (hello Oasis, The Strokes and The Stone Roses), you're talking about a very narrow canon indeed.

And if Bowie, Pulp and the Roses are as close as this records get to soul and electronic music, it's fair to ask whether this list is afraid of dancing as it seems to be.

If you think I'm calling this a bad list - you're missing my point. I love Hunky Dory, Revolver and the first VU record. I might feel they picked the wrong Smiths record, and that the Pixies are a trifle overrated, but they're good picks from the 80's underground, allowing for the nature of lists.

What the problem really is here is that the NME is advancing the kind of terrible orthodoxy I'd expect from guilty-pleasure 'old man magazines' like Uncut and Mojo. 

Indie or whatever you want to call it has long risked becoming fundamentally backward-looking - a wasteland of curators - mostly white, male, middle-class - who prize recreating the past over experimentation, style and seeming over personal truth (See Simon Reynolds' excellent Retromania for more on this). Lists like this do nothing to correct the impression of ossification.

* Although: no Stereolab ?!? Seriously? 

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