Monday, January 5, 2015

Don't Call it a Classic

Have you ever picked up an issue of Q magazine? I used to be something of a regular reader, and while I eventually got sick of reading features about Oasis, I must admit that the mag's album reviews informed many of my early purchases. For example, I bought Blinking Lights and Other Revelations solely on Q's recommendation, and that was the beginning of a major love affair with the Eels and their music.

Still, even in those days, I did have one problem with Q's reviews, and it concerned their 5-star rating system. As in many other publications, every Q album review was accompanied by a score of 1 to 5 stars; 4-star albums were further decorated with a little 'Q Recommends' badge, while the rare 5-star albums got a little gold rectangle that said 'Q Classic'.

And therein lies my complaint. For me, the word 'classic' means more than just 'really good'; it denotes a work that has weathered trends, stood the test of time, and proven its exceptional qualities by defining (or redefining) the boundaries of its genre.

Of course, the matter of whether or not an album is 'good' is completely subjective - I considered starting some kind of Album Wall Hall of Fame to create a definitive list of 'classic' LPs, but that seemed like a rather totalitarian measure and, besides, my tastes are far too narrow for that sort of thing (my personal Hall of Fame would be very heavy on American rock from the nineties and noughties, and embarassingly short on hip-hop and soul).

Still, I thought I might at least lay down a few guidelines. Before you describe another album as a 'classic', please ensure that it meets these two criteria:
  1. It is at least 10 years old. My main issue with Q's use of the word 'classic' was the fact that they were reviewing brand new albums, most of which hadn't even been released at time of writing. What those reviewers were doing - knowingly or otherwise - was predicting whether or not each album would prove to be a classic later on; you can't know a classic until you're looking back on it, and I believe that this kind of hindsight needs at least a decade to ripen.

    For example, Arcade Fire's Funeral may reasonably be called a classic album at this point - it clearly made a huge impact, and many of its constituent tracks now number among the best-loved in the indie rock canon. The Suburbs, on the other hand, is not a classic; not just becuase it's nowhere near as good as Funeral, but also because it's still too new for us to know what its legacy will be.

  2. It is more than just a bunch of good songs. Interpol's Antics is a fantastic album, but I wouldn't call it a classic. Turn on the Bright Lights, its predecessor, is most certainly a classic, even though I've spoken to several people who prefer Antics.

    The important difference is that Antics is a collection of great tracks that made a big impact on the indie scene upon their release, while Turn on the Bright Lights made a big impact as an album. A quick way to test this one is to ask yourself whether, when people talk about the artist at hand, they talk about that artist's tracks or about their album(s). If it's the former, you're probably not looking at a bona fide classic.
Those are my rules. I've no way of enforcing them, and frankly I suspect that nobody else is this concerned with semantics, but at least you'll know just what I mean if I ever use the word 'classic' from now on. 

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