Counterbalance Special Report

After more than three years of covering the Great List, Mendelsohn and Klinger have decided to shake things up. See what they’re planning, why they’re doing it, and what they’ve learned in this week’s Counterbalance.

After three-plus years of covering the most acclaimed albums of all time, based on the mathematical formulations and algorithms of Swedish mathematician Henrik Franzon, the Counterbalance team has decided to shake things up. Our esteemed editors have prepared a few questions for Klinger and Mendelsohn that should help apprise readers of the new paradigm. Do not be alarmed.

Counterbalance is about to undergo a revamp. What’s the situation?

Klinger: Essentially, we’ve decided that we’ll be moving away from covering the Great List from top to bottom. Instead we’ll be talking/discussing/debating the albums that mean a great deal to at least one of us. They may be albums that are featured on the Great List, but they might be albums that at least one of us thinks should be reassessed. I suspect that we’ll continue to refer back to the list in our discussions, since it’s pretty well ingrained in our thought processes now.

Mendelsohn: Klinger and I enjoy talking about music in general, but we enjoy talking about music we like more. At a certain point on the list, we moved out of what we would consider to be the Canon — the highly regarded, well-respected, must-listen albums — into a section of well-regarded records that, while they paint a more detailed picture of modern popular music, may not be considered essential listening. This section goes on and on. And there are some great albums in that section but there are also a lot of records neither Klinger nor I feel strongly about.

I also don’t think Klinger wanted to talk about Tricky’s Maxinquaye (number 163 on the Great List) and this “shake up” provided the perfect excuse to duck out of listening to another trip hop record.

What can readers expect from Counterbalance Mark 2?

Klinger: I think readers might notice a good bit more arguing. Mendelsohn and I have always had more fun writing about albums that we disagree on, and I’d like to think that’s made the columns more fun to read. For example, I’ll defend Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story until the day I die, so Mendelsohn’s stubborn inability to acknowledge its brilliance was an exhilarating opportunity for me to do just that. (Mission accomplished, I might add.).

After combing through one hundred something-odd of the most acclaimed albums in music history, what conclusions have you come to about the pop music canon, its makeup, and its future?

Mendelsohn: Good pop music will always rise to the top. No matter what form it takes, be it the Beatles or Bruce Springsteen or Radiohead. When you boil away the extraneous material, what you are left with is the pop music constructs that emerged in the infancy of pop music in the 1950s. The fascinating thing about the Great List is being able to see how innovation pushed those constructs in all sorts of different directions.

The future of popular music is full of promise. Some years will be better than others. Some artists will have a greater impact than others. But I think, for the most part, music will continue unabated — mixing and matching whatever it can to create new and beautiful sounds. Sure, the Canon is closed. No one will ever get near the top 25 and for the most part, everything in the top of the Great List is nearly 40 years old. The music industry has changed in unimaginable ways since the Beatles forced the world to rethink music but that doesn’t mean there still won’t be great albums to delight our ears.

What were the most surprising discoveries you made about the Great List along the way?

Klinger: I came into this project as someone who pretty completely bought in to the idea of the pop music canon—the notion that there were indispensable albums that required serious consideration. But as we’ve gone through the first portion of the list and seen so many of the same names come up again and again (by a lot of artists whom I love dearly, mind you), I’ve come to think of it as a closed loop. Between the first wave of critical darlings like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, on through the ’70s guys like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen up through what appears to be the final wave of canonical artists like Radiohead, there’s just so much consensus as to what the great albums are that it’s as if the discussion is more or less finished. (Those six artists alone make up 16% of the albums we’ve covered, in case further proof is needed.)

Mendelsohn: The critical industrial complex has set into stone the names needed to succeed when it comes to the Canon. It’s a little sad but not all that surprising. Look at the list within the list. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, followed by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. These artists are the cultural touchstones, the currency in which critical acclaim is traded. Escaping the gravitational pull of these artists is nearly impossible.

Before we started this project I thought I had heard it all. Spending a week with a new album makes you realize just how large the Canon can be. Even when we were listening to a record I had heard a hundred times, I normally came away with some new insights and a renewed appreciation for their contribution to popular music. Granted, there were albums that I still believe have no business being in the top 200 of the Great List, let alone being recognized as “music”. Looking at you Rod Stewart.

The one thing I did not like was the rock-centric nature of the Great List. I’ve complained about it off and on through our musical adventure, but when you get right down to it, rock music dominates the Great List. The reasons for this are lengthy. But I think, while the Great List is probably the best primer for the past 50 years of popular music, it does have its shortcomings, especially in regard to music that isn’t part of the US/UK, old, white baby boomer rock sphere.

If you could each move one album you have discussed up in the rankings and another down, what would those records be, and why?

Mendelsohn: I would move Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story out of the list completely, just so I didn’t have to look at that smug grin on your face anymore.

I had wanted to see a Beatles’ album at number one. Thankfully the math took care of that one, pushing Revolver to the top spot while moving the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds down to number two. I would then place a Radiohead album at number three if for no other reason than to watch my compatriot have a minor meltdown.

Klinger: My meltdown would still pale in comparison to your bursts of Zimmophobia that would erupt in the flood of Dylan albums that would flow forth later in the top ten. Although I do stand by the idea that Bringing It All Back Home is the criminally underrated Bob LP. It may lack the iconic track (like Highway 61’s “Like a Rolling Stone”) or the sweep of Blonde on Blonde, but it has that joy of discovery that it turns out I’m always a sucker for. Prior to starting this, I don’t think I would have picked Bringing It All Back Home as my favorite, but here we are.

Mendelsohn: Hey, remember that one time you came over for dinner and I started playing Dylan and you were like, “Wha?!” The look on your face was priceless. I like Dylan, more than I ever thought possible, but I like saying mean and uneducated things about him, mostly because it tends to liven up the proceedings.

Klinger: In that case, I’ll be sure and stick Empire Burlesque into the mix just for you. But to answer the rest of the question, I’ll be dead in my grave before I understand why we had to cover two Oasis albums, though. Beat it, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory.

Mendelsohn: I second that.

Finally, what do you think of the Canon’s viability as a Cliff Notes primer on popular music?

Klinger: As grumpy as I may have seemed about it earlier, I really do think that this list—and all of the individual lists that comprise it—have served as an incredible guide for young people looking for a way in.

When I was about 10, I had a major epiphany. My family was driving home from some holiday party or something, and it was getting late. I was lying down in the back of the station wagon looking out the window into the darkness of the night sky. My parents had the radio on, and for the first time in my young life, I really heard what I was supposed to be hearing in rock music. I don’t know what song it was (which is probably for the best, since knowing might have steered me down a path of Boston fandom), but I was hooked. The next morning I told my parents I wanted to listen to rock music on the radio, but it was Sunday morning and all the stations were busy fulfilling their community service programming. There was no rockin’ to be found. So like all nerdy young boys, I made it a point to look for more information at my local public library. There I found books like The Rolling Stone Album Guide and The Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. Those guides helped me navigate my way into a music that might not have understood otherwise, and for that I’m really quite grateful.

My hope is that some portion of young people will always look to the type of lists for inspiration and discovery. To think that someone might find Television’s Marquee Moon or Love’s Forever Changes because critics have presented it as one of the Greatest Albums of All Time—without radio airplay or a widespread fan base—tells me that we need a critical industrial complex to keep pop music moving into the future by keeping an eye on its past.

Mendelsohn: I agree completely. The Great List is the best place to get a clear idea of where music came from and find some incredible music that isn’t widely known. However, I do not think the Great List, at least not the top 100, provides an accurate portrayal of music in general. Hip-hop, electronica, jazz, blues, and country artists are completely underrepresented. I don’t even like country music and I’m a little upset that we never got to talk about it. And don’t point at Gram Parsons. The Great List isn’t the be-all and end-all of great music, because, as I’m sure will become clear in the coming weeks, music is a completely subjective experience.

Klinger: Damn it, Mendelsohn, I thought you had started to turn on that issue. I agree, though, that this list could stand to hear from other voices besides the hordes of (mostly male, mostly white) critics in their pit-stained Superchunk t-shirts. Maybe we’d also hear more about pre-rock vocalists as something other than a reason why rock ‘n’ roll had to happen in the first place. But ultimately that’s not the Great List’s job. It only reflects the information in front of it. It’s up to listeners everywhere to process it, engage it, and maybe someday even change it.