David Browne flips through his EW back pages and realizes that when it comes to rating records, sometimes the replay's the thing
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.)