Best Albums By Decade: Rationale and Rules
What? Why?! And other reasonable questions answered.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve embarked on a series of lists of best albums by decades. Some of you may say, “cool!” Many more of you may say, “wtf, why?” So I thought I’d try to answer that second response as best I can, and/or explain some of the ground rules.
I started this last year when a site I was working for commissioned a list of best 90s albums, and then of best 80s albums. Those lists aren’t exactly available now though…and after doing them, I was like, “I should do one for every decade!” It’s taken me a while to get to that, but now I have recommitted myself, for better or worse.
For pity’s sake, why?
I’ve fallen backwards into a project like this before; I wrote a whole book on the best albums of all time. But! I don’t think anyone read it, first of all. Second of all, I’m a neurodivergent weirdo who likes obsessively making lists and maybe finding new music while I do. And finally, I feel like it’s worth thinking about the way that canons (even personal canons!) are mutable works in progress, rather than one and done declarations.
I don’t think that’s a ground-breaking insight or anything. But at the same time, best of music lists do often tend to have a certain sameness; there are albums that by consensus belong on those lists (be they Beatles or Radioheads) and albums that by general consensus don’t.
But what’s the point of bowing to the consensus when the best album on your list one day might not even be on the list at all the next? Canons should free you up to find new things, not nail you to the same five artists someone has decided are the most important forever.
In short, don’t take musical canons so seriously!
By which I mean, you know, maybe we need to take them a bit more seriously. The albums you love the most are just your favorites. But (as Rolling Stone editor and garbage person Jann Wenner recently made clear) when institutions start to codify canons, they often also can codify unfortunate prejudices about which people are thought to make great art (ie, white men) and which people are not (everyone else.)
The best of all possible genres
Best of lists are generally not just lists of the best albums; they’re lists of the best genres. Before people decide which musician they think is the tip top, they make decisions about which genres are most credible and which are less so. For example, rock music has in the past been (and still to some extent today is) considered the most important or canonical music—more important than pop or disco or electronica or R&B.
The problem is that genres aren’t just defined by formal considerations (ie whether you’re playing guitars.) They’re also defined by social factors—ie, by whether the person playing a guitar is white.
In the 20s, music executives separated records into hillbilly and race records for marketing purposes, and the use of race to determine genre has been ubiquitous in popular music ever since. Rock and roll was invented by performers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but as it became popular it quickly became identified with white performers (Elvis, the Beatles) and Black performers who played rock-like music were segregated off into R&B, blues, or other bins. Something similar, if not quite as drastic, often happens with woman performers, who get categorized as pop or girl group, or other designations that are seen as less central or serious or valuable.
Making a less racist, less sexist, less insular best of list means trying to pay attention not just to albums that don’t get enough attention, but to genres that have been neglected or less celebrated—girl group, Bollywood, New Age, pop, R&B.
Of course, no one can have an encyclopedic knowledge of all music from Thai luk thung to Norwegeian black metal. When you stop assuming one genre is the best, you suddenly are confronted with the extent of your own ignorance. How do you know that the best album ever isn’t a Nigerian disco collection you’ve never heard? That’s part of the fun, though. A best of list should be eclectic enough to make you realize how much more eclectic it should be.
So the first rule for these lists is, don’t get in a rut! I try not to get bogged down in a single genre, or a single national tradition, or a single idea of what a good album might be. That means I didn’t want lists that were all one genre, or all artists from one country, or all white guys who Jann Wenner knows personally.
—Decade is Decade. The album, not the recordings, have to be from the decade in question. So, if I wanted to include the Disco Not Disco compilation, it would go in the 2000s, when it was released, not in the 70s/80s, which is when most of the tracks came out.
—No duplicate artists. A lot of best of lists work from the assumption that if one artist (like Bob Dylan) is the best artist, it makes sense that many of their albums will be better than the next thing. In contrast, I work from the belief that there’s tons of great music out there, and it’s silly to think any one person is so much better than the next thing that they deserve multiple slots.
But then, of course, I got obsessive with it, and started rejecting albums because they had session musician overlap. I’m sure if you look closely you can find someone somewhere who’s on more than one of these albums, but I did try not to let that happen. Because I have trouble doing anything by halves.
—Every year. I tried to have at least one album from every year in a given decade. Again, I probably didn’t manage this every time, but I was keeping an eye on it.
I think that’s about it. It’ll take me a while to work through every decade, but hopefully the trip will be enjoyable, and maybe you’ll find a new album that can be your best for a minute along the way.
An index of all posts in this series is here.
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