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Second Grades

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As an American philosopher who wasn’t Marilyn Manson once said, ”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — or, in my case, hit the ”repeat” button on my CD player. About five years ago in this very space, I revisited some records I’d reviewed and realized that in retrospect, I’d misjudged now and then. Several albums I’d initially loved didn’t sound so enthralling a few years on, while ones I had blithely dismissed had become regulars on my home stereo. Anyone who buys records with any frequency knows this phenomenon is unique to music: You can form a lasting opinion of a movie or book the instant it’s over, but albums and singles sometimes require time (or different listening environments or moods) to sink in. I had thought I had learned my lesson in this regard — until I found myself in church this summer.

Actually, it was the church’s basement, and it was in Dublin, and the room was being used for a theatrical production. Before, during, and after the play, Radiohead’s OK Computer blared over the PA. I had reviewed the album about a month earlier and, after intensive headphone sessions over a two-week period, had come to like it and admire it, even though I was still grappling with its art-rock intricacies and subtleties. All that nit-picking changed in that dark cellar. As I let myself be enveloped by the guitars and sonic textures and Thom Yorke’s plaintive voice, OK Computer finally did compute; in fact, it sounded magnificent, almost epochal. The lapses — the bombastic single ”Paranoid Android,” the occasional pretensions — felt forgivable. Suddenly, that B+ I had just given it seemed absurdly skimpy. How could I have been such a…critic?

Over the ensuing months, OK Computer grew even richer, so much so that it eventually became my album of the year. With that, I also realized it was time to once again ponder the errors of my rock-critic ways. OK Computer, it turns out, wasn’t my only stingy grade. Whatever flaws I dwelled on in three other B+ grades — Hole’s Live Through This (occasionally thin production), Urge Overkill’s rock-classicist Exit the Dragon (too many songs), and Daft Punk’s Homework (witty but often overlong techno tracks) — faded with time; these were As. I’ve never been a major Pearl Jam backer and warily gave Vitalogy a B+; looking back, this sloppy but forceful record should have been rated higher.

Likewise, as much as I was (and remain) a fan of Dr. Dre’s slinky West Coast G-funk, I had enough qualms about Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle, especially its cold heart, to slap it with a B-. Four years later, the lyrics feel secondary to what may be Dre’s sonic masterpiece. I recall writing something lukewarm about Sheryl Crow: In 1993, the last thing we needed was a retread of a SoCal singer-songwriter, courtesy of a reformed Michael Jackson backup singer to boot. But months after its release, the homey melodies and production craft of Tuesday Night Music Club kicked in. (Then it became a huge hit, and I grew really sick of hearing it.)

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