Serious question: What was the last truly great rock album?
By now, you’ve probably combed through Entertainment Weekly‘s All Time Greatest issue, which features our humble picks for the 100 best albums ever made. (Within certain paremeters—the lack of jazz or, you know, Beethoven should have tipped you off to the list’s limitations.)
Though I’m proud of the amount of hip-hop, R&B, and pop featured on the final tally of 100, the list is dominated by rock albums. That’s to be expected, as rock music (and particularly the albums made by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan) set the template for what an album was and what it could be, and there have been few variations on that template since the ’60s. (For all its forward-thinking and genre-hopping, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is structured and paced an awful lot like a Beatles LP.)
Plus, traditional rock music had a few decades’ worth of a jump on other genres we incorporated into our list, so Rubber Soul and Blonde On Blonde have had an extra 20 years to constantly re-entrench themselves, while the legacies of the first wave of great hip-hop albums are only now just being established.
But another pattern emerged as we were putting the list together: As we considered newer albums to incorporate into the conversation, fewer and fewer of them were rock albums.
The newest straight-ahead rock albums on the list are Queens of the Stone Age’s 2002 release Songs for the Deaf (number 98) and Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut Funeral (56). (Though Funeral would certainly fall under the genre tag of “indie rock,” that album’s adherence to orchestral flourishes and church organ make it almost a series of anti-rock gestures.) The rest of the “newer” rock albums are few and far between—in fact, the White Stripes’ 2001 album White Blood Cells is the only other 21st century rock album that we put on the list (and you can have PJ Harvey’s 2000 Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea if you really want to argue about it, but considering Harvey’s ’90s output, that doesn’t necessarily qualify as rock either). Several others were considered, including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever To Tell, the Strokes’ Is This It? and Green Day’s American Idiot, but nothing felt transcendent enough to be included (Fever is too inconsistent, Is This It? is aging poorly, and American Idiot tends to get tripped up by its narrative).
A writer friend of mine once referred to grunge as “rock’s last best thing.” What he meant was it was the last time guitar-based music would find itself at the center of any kind of monoculture (mostly because the very idea of monoculture, especially in music, is pretty much dead, “Get Lucky” notwithstanding). But was that also the end of consistently great rock albums? Or has the long shadow of those ’60s greats made it harder to consider the greatness of a rock album?
More importantly, I ask you a simple question: What was the last truly great rock album? And what does a rock album need to do to go toe-to-toe with all those canonical legends from half a century ago? Sound off in the comments and listen in Tuesday afternoon at 2 PM Eastern on Entertainment Weekly Radio (SiriusXM 105) when our music staff discusses the picks in our All Time Greatest issue, on stands now.
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