The How

Ground Rules: Or, “How These Lists Were Created And Why Certain Things Are Or Are Not Where They Are”

Right out of the shoot I need clarify a few things in terms of, well, terminology. When I say “album” or “record”, I am of course referring to the overall recorded work, not necessarily a silly plastic disc with grooves in it. Get in the game. I haven’t owned a record player in about 15 years and barely used it when I did. And try as I might I can’t get myself to say, “hey, man, have you heard the latest 3 Doors Down CD?”. I still say, “hey, man, have you heard the latest 3 Doors Down album?”. That’s how I roll. I also tend to intermix “group” and “artist” at will, just to keep things fresh. Either way, it means the person or people who made the album. Plus, “track” equals “song”. This isn’t rocket science.

Now obviously, putting together such an extensive list wasn’t going to be easy. It’s not like I could just start thinking of the albums I own off the top of my head and say things like, “John Mellencamp’s Whenever We Wanted is my 532nd most favorite album”. And it also wouldn’t be fair to try and compare Billy Joel’s The Stranger with his Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2 considering 7 out of the 10 tracks on The Stranger are also on Greatest Hits. So I needed to set some ground rules if I was going to make it through things with my sanity intact.

BASIC GROUND RULES

1. Artist Compilations

Best Of’s, Greatest Hits packages, retrospectives, anthologies, boxed sets… whatever you want to call them, they’re out. For one, they’re not real albums. They weren’t put together by the artist with flow and style in mind. They were cobbled together by PR people, often in chronological order because they’re lazy. Plus, the songs weren’t written and recorded in one session or with the intent of being on one album. They’re great for collecting songs you desperately must have, which is why I own so many, but they’re not really ratable. So I’m leaving them out of the big picture. I’m still gonna list the ones that I own out of a sick need to be complete about the whole thing, but they won’t get a grade and they won’t be ranked.

2. Soundtracks and Various Artists Compilations

Also out. Even worse than a Best Of, these weren’t even put out by a single artist. It’s the whoring out of music on the most obnoxious scale. There are of course some exceptions, such as tribute albums or soundtracks that contain all new material. They’re still difficult to rate, but on occasion I’ll let one slide into contention because at least they were created with a premise in mind. But those, “Hits of the 80’s” comps that are out there? Yeah, not gonna happen.

3. Live Albums

Live albums are in because while they may represent an artist’s entire career, in most cases they were recorded at one concert (or tour), so the songs have changed somewhat from when they were originally recorded. If nothing else live recordings often bring a different energy to a song. Plus there’s an art to choosing a set list just as there is to sequencing an album. Most live albums suck because the sound is never as good as the studio and I tend to be a guy who likes all the bells and whistles the studio brings, but on occasion a live recording can take a song or an artist to another place. So I’ll rate them and rank them, knowing full well that most live albums, even those by artists I love, aren’t going to climb very high.

4. Pop, Rock & Metal only… for now

So I went through a pretty extensive country phase in the early 90’s. I also have been known on occasion to purchase a folk record or two, and the odd jazz or classical disc also litters my collection. For now I’m gonna be leaving these out of the big picture. For one, I just don’t listen to them enough to really have a feel for them. The country were bought with singles in mind while the other stuff is just generally there for *really* specific moods. They’re kept separate in the physical collection so they’ll be kept separate here. Maybe someday I’ll get around to at least ranking the country within their own space, but who knows. That being said I do have a small handful that I’m including in The Project due to the sheer amount of listens they’ve got over the years. Also, I have a pretty substantial stand-up comedy collection, but they’re a nightmare unto themselves. What little rap I have will fall under the “pop” umbrella and I’ll do what I can with them.

5. Reviews

As insane as it sounds, I someday hope to be able to do a brief review (explanation really) for each album I own to let you know why it resides where it does on the great list. That of course requires a whole buttload of time I don’t have at the moment, so what little I get to will be coming in drips and drabs. In the meantime, peruse the lists and fire me off questions if you really want to know the story of how Bryan Adams’ Into The Fire came to be my favorite album of 1987.

RANKINGS VS. RATINGS

My goal was to both rank every album I own, 1-to-infinity, and to rate each one on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest (funny how that works). To get there I needed to start in small groups and work my way up, so I started with rankings, which begat ratings, which begat more rankings. Being the anal retentive collector that I am, I have long kept a detailed spreadsheet of every CD I own (shocker!). It’s a bit of a necessity when you move as often as I have over the years. It’s also helpful when the whim hits me to switch from alphabetical to chronological to whatever. (Tangent: Yes, I’ve seen High Fidelity, and yes I laugh when the dude says, “not alphabetical” with great disdain. I get the joke. I also want to be able to find what I’m looking for as I’m rushing out the door and need a new disc for the car, so yes, alphabetical is just fine me be, thankyouverymuch).

I started by taking each year and attempting to rank each album released within that year. Since I bought my first album in 1983 and didn’t really start hording until 1991 when I got my first CD player, my collection from the 70’s is very light and the 80’s, while bigger, is considerably smaller than the 90’s. So I started with 1980 and then just moved on from there, rounding back to the 70’s and years prior at a later date. It helped me get my legs under me so to speak. The idea was to ask myself the question, “if I was forced to give up one of these two albums from my collection, which one would I keep?”. I did that with each album until I found where it slotted in a given year and before I knew it the year was ranked. ‘Twas actually easier than I had anticipated.

With the year ranked and now staring at me in the face, I was able to assign the 1-10 rating pretty easily. I tend to think of each rating as a plateau. The rankings made it clear where the plateaus were, so the ratings fell right into line. I didn’t force myself to necessarily have every plateau represented (there were no 10’s in 1980, for instance), but for the most part they did.

On the ratings themselves. As I said in the introduction, I’m not a critic. I’m not here to tell you what’s good or bad or what’s worth owning or avoiding. I like everything I own to some degree. So a 10 doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a masterpiece that MUST BE PART OF YOUR PRIVATE ARSENAL OF MUSIC. Instead it means that it’s an album that *I* happen to love. Conversely, a 1 isn’t the mark of a stiff, it just means for whatever reason I never listen to it and can’t remember much about it. These tend be things I either took a total chance on based on name recognition or some tangential connection to something else I liked. Below is quickie outline of what a rating *probably* means. It’s not a hard and fast rule, more of a guideline.

10 – Essential to my collection for any number of reasons. I can play it a lot, never get sick of it, even consecutively. It usually takes me back to a certain moment in life, often a specific time of year (records that remind me of spring get a lot of love). I generally don’t dislike any songs on these albums even if all of them don’t wow me. Just crucial to my being, really.

9 – Almost a ten, but generally just lacking that little something that makes me think I can’t live without it. Sometimes these are albums that started out a ten but didn’t wear well over time and now I hardly play them. I give them credit for being huge back in the day, but the loss of luster means a loss of a rating point. Otherwise they’re things that just didn’t quite reach pantheon-level greatness in my ears but are still among my favorites.

8 – Awesome albums with a minor flaw or two. Or more likely, really solid and consistent albums that I like all the way through but that don’t have that high point for me emotionally. You’ll find a lot of stuff here (and in the 6 -7 range as well) that is from groups I love but from whom I own so much music that it’s hard to distinguish anymore.

7 – Really good, but again, lacking oomph. Probably doesn’t remind me of any particular time and when I first got it I played it, but not obsessively. The kind of records I dust off on occasion, play, then say, “hey… this is REALLY good!”, then don’t play again for another year.

6 – The lower echelon of records from bands I really like but which don’t cut the mustard compared to the rest of their stuff. Also you’ll find albums in here for which I absolutely LOVE one or two tracks but don’t give the rest of the disc much thought. Hard to rates those the most. How far up the scale they go depends on how deeply I love those one or two songs.

5 – Tipping the midway point we’re into stuff where I like the artist somewhat, but the album in particular leaves me flat (see also 3’s and 4’s). Also stuff where I like a handful of tracks, but don’t consider them epic. A lot of these are probably really excellent albums in their own right, but for whatever reason (time usually) I never really played them enough to truly absorb ’em. The Rolling Stones find themselves in this pile a lot.

4 – Either crap from good artists or mediocre stuff from great ones. Either way they suffer from sitting alongside more imposing stuff from the catalog. Also to be found here are a lot of bands that fit nicely within genres I like (hair metal, if it needs a name) but which didn’t really connect with me. When I think of a “4”, I think of Keel.

3 – Kinda like a 4 but I remember even less about them. If it’s an artist I love and its dwelling down here then the odds are I think the album’s crap.

2 – Albums in the 2 range are basically those which I never listen to, don’t have any desire to listen to, but can’t find it in my heart to drop to a 1 because I either like the artist too much or can find salvation in one or two memorable songs. Hell, one good guitar riff or a really catchy chorus probably saves you from being a 1.

1 – The lowest of the low in terms of my personal memory bank. Basically, if it’s a 1, I don’t remember it. I bought it, I’ve listened to it (at least three times), and yet when I think about it I can’t remember anything significant. It might be brilliant for all I know, I just don’t care anymore.

Ratings in place I went back and attempted to piece together the Master List by cobbling together all the 10’s and doing a re-evaluation. Or at least that was the plan. In doing so I quickly realized I needed to dig deeper into the collection to really spell out the differences, which is where the idea of the blog kicked in. By forcing myself to sit down and really think about each album, I thought I’d have a better chance of ranking it appropriately. This is the part of the whole mess that has and will take time.

Since my moods shift pretty often and I generally listen to music in stylistic blocks, I came to a conclusion that there would be no particular order in which things would be reviewed. Starting at my favorites and working down wouldn’t cut it because I’d lose interest before I got halfway through. Starting at the bottom and going up sucked because I’d lose patience as I slagged through the crap. Chronological wasn’t going to happen either. So what you’ll get is a random sputtering of reviews based on my whims. I may try and bang out blocks of a particular artist or genre, or I may not. I really have no expectation. I also don’t expect to ever finish. Even if I did a review a day it’d take me something like 6 years to get through everything I own and let’s face it, I ain’t writing one a day. So we’ll just take it as it comes, alright? Excellent.

A Word About “Taste”

As revealed in the intro, the first album I ever bought was Def Leppard’s Pyromania. Following that were Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports and Michael Jackson’s Thriller and soon after that The Police’s Synchronicity. I don’t remember what came after that. The point is, as should be obvious by now, I was and am heavily into pop/hard rock (Thriller has guitar in it… work with me here). I grew up listening to whatever my brother or sister were into, which means I was weaned on late 70’s and early 80’s arena rock, or what is generally referred to now as “classic rock”. I *really* like guitars. They’re my favorite sound. In the mid-to-late 80’s I picked up on the pop metal craze (Bon Jovi, Kiss, Ratt) and eventually graduated into more serious metal (Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Metallica) thanks to guys who I went to high school with who actually played music and knew more about it than I did. I have always been pretty susceptible to the musical whims of others. Along the way I picked up an appreciation for country thanks to, of all people, my mother. That morphed into adult contemporary when the radio station that was playing country suddenly changed formats and it took me a couple of months to notice (hence all the David Wilcox in my collection).

As a mopey teenager I was obsessed with the idea of the power ballad and made countless mix tapes built around sappy songs meant to remind me that I wasn’t getting anywhere with the ladies. If I say nothing else positive about the alternative/grunge movement of the early 90’s, let me at least give it credit for breaking me free from my ballad debauchery. Then came 1992, the year when everything went haywire for me and for music as we know it. Nirvana hit it big (called it actually, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been right about that kind of thing), hair metal bands were suddenly persona-non-grata and I got my dream job working in a record store. Suddenly there were TONS of new types of music both on the market and in my head. I was also driving by now and as a result discovered a new vice – the used record store. My collection became what it is largely because of that one four year stretch from 1992-1995.

(Back to High Fidelity for a moment. I lived that life. I *was* John Cusack. I knew a Dick and a Barry and a variety of other characters. It was a fun time, even if I had no social life to speak of.)

So here’s the thing about working in a record store. For openers, you get a decent employee discount. Being in my early 20’s and having no bills, no other hobbies, and no dates, I tended to pump a lot (I mean a LOT) of my paycheck back into the store. Number two, the amount of promotional (read: free) product that floats around a record store (particularly a chain like Tower Records, R.I.P.) is RIDICULOUS. I was able to score a lot of stuff I might never have heard just because nobody else wanted it. Being the only guy willing to admit I loved cheesy hard rock and hair metal meant that any of the bands that were still trying to cling to their fame during that uneasy time in music soon found their way into my hands. It was a golden time. The flip side is that I also got exposed to so much stuff I never would have even considered thanks to in-store play (the nightly battle that it was) that I soon started developing tastes I didn’t know I had. It’s the only explanation I can give as to why I own something like five Phish records even though I don’t really like the band; ditto Primus.

After I decided to get a life, go to school, and leave retail behind, my music purchases curtailed a bit. Suddenly I was paying for an education, a new car, and rent, so music didn’t matter as much. Plus, it was the late 90’s and music SUCKED, as anything that might be remotely catchy or melodic was ridiculed right off the airwaves. I didn’t really feel I was missing anything by not picking up the latest pseudo-alternative flavor-of-the-month. Instead I loaded up on shitty albums from bands I liked, hoping beyond hope that they would realize it was too late to wash the stink of the 80’s off and just go back to playing music I liked (by the 2000’s most of them actually did). Plus something called “alternative metal” hit the scene, with a rash of bands busting through that all kinda looked and sounded the same and wrote like the bands of my youth did, except instead of singing about how much they loved to have sex and party, they sang about how angry and depressed they were. It’s a tradeoff I’m still not 100% happy with, but at least they brought back good riffs and guitar solos.

Somewhere in all that mess I managed to become a huge Billy Joel fan, along with any number of other more mainstream (and yet artistically acceptable) acts that keep my collection from reeking completely of a misspent adolescence. Cuz here’s the thing – its music. It’s meant to entertain and inspire and provide a little melody to the rhythm of life. While I can appreciate clever lyrics and dexterous playing, when all is said and done I just want to enjoy myself and rock music helps me do that. I get that a lot of what I like is considered crap. It doesn’t bother me. It does what I need it to and helps to keep me out of the dark places I don’t want to go (or takes me to them if I decide I suddenly do). Whether your tastes mirror mine or not isn’t really important. My ratings aren’t meant to reflect your opinion or even popular opinion. They’re meant to reflect mine. As to why I choose to share them, I dunno. It seemed like it might be fun. And that last thing you really want to hear from me is talk about politics.

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