Yes, Apple’s 100 Best Albums List Is Ridiculous and Exists Almost Expressly to Make You Mad

Feeling angry about Apple’s ranking of the 100 best albums of all time, are you? Good. (From their point of view.) That’s exactly how you’re supposed to feel, given a list that aspires less toward any semblance of an informed or authoritative voice than a seeming sense of randomness that can only be explained away as rage bait. “Nailed it!” is not the desired response, as if there would be a soul in the world who’d say that in response to a list that pits millions of works from dozens of disparate genres across a 70-year period against one another and pretends they can all be evaluated on the same scale. “Nailed it!” would just represent a failure of virality. (And Apple is not in the business of failure, no matter what you remember about the Newton or Cube.)

To quote the Internet at large, in the hours since the final top 10 was released: I demand satisfaction, sir!… on behalf of the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Frank Sinatra, Van Morrison, Tom Petty, Dua Lipa, Paul Simon (with and without Garfunkel), Johnny Cash, Fiona Apple, Ray Charles, Shakira, Queen, Willie Nelson, Al Green, ABBA, Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello, Janelle Monae, Billie Holiday, Liz Phair, Alicia Keys, R.E.M., Juanes, Randy Newman, Curtis Mayfield, Childish Gambino, Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Cohen and effin’ Kylie…

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Now, when you can fuel anger like that (times 10,000 other artists who’ll be cited on Reddit boards or chat rooms by day’s end), that’s a measure of success. So, bravo — if only we could somehow apply all the anger generated today to the nation’s power grid, it might actually be a worthwhile exercise.

Bob Dylan’s advice is probably best: “Now ain’t the time for your tears.” (To quote one of the greatest albums of all time that did not make the list, although he did have one that did.) But maybe it’s the time for, oh, just a moderate amount of eye-rolling about the risible relativity of what did and did not make the top 100. And maybe questions about whether it’s youthful naivete or aged cynicism that was responsible for some of the picks in the upper ranks.

Remember when Adele spent her Grammy night in 2017 apologizing for winning album of the year, even though this was not her fault? Maybe she will be similarly tempted now to apologize for having “21” come in in 15th place, which would not be a completely ghastly pick if, say, recorded music as we know it had begun in 2010 or so. But, reader, it did not. And I have to wonder if there was something deliberately perverse in putting “21” exactly one spot ahead of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” which tends to land in the top 10 of more consensus all-time album lists than not. Apple’s apparent statement: Yes, we know “Blue” changed a vast swath of the landscape of popular music for the rest of eternity, and it holds up as just a great listen besides. But also: Fuck you, “Blue”! We’ll show you and your tyrannical 1960s cultural superiority complex! (Sorry, Joni.)

And then “21” — which, again, is quite a good album — is rated two spots above Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which topped the most recent Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and is presumably not in the top 10 here solely for the reason that it topped the most recent Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. And then a record that any sane person with ears recognizes as one of the most mind-boggling albums ever, the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” lands at No. 20 — below contemporary works like “OK Computer” and “The Blueprint” — having thus been docked 10 or 15 places presumably for the sin of already having a fixed place in a long-established orthodoxy Apple thinks it would be boring to reiterate.

The phrase “recency bias” feels applicable throughout the list. It reads as if a group of well-intentioned 25-to-35-year-olds were surveyed about the greatest albums of their lifetimes… and then to supplement that, the list’s arbiters went through the top ranks of Rolling Stone’s 500-best list to try to figure out what older classics they’d get absolutely slaughtered for not including, and put in a healthy selection of those, too, but in mostly random order. There are absolutely zero surprises when it comes to the pre-2000 albums that got picked; it’s not as if anyone decided to throw a curveball by saying, “Hey, let’s put in ‘Swordfishtrombones,’ ‘Marquee Moon’ or ‘Good Old Boys’ to show how with-it we are.” No, it’s a lot of “Led Zeppelin II” and “Rumours” and “Sign of the Times” and “The Dark Side of the Moon” (not to complain about their being in there, even if most of them are ranked less highly than they should be, in a list of actual classics) — and nothing so left-field as to foster the illusion that anyone involved in the selecting had any deep knowledge of the deep cuts of those generations. You get the feeling that the editors considered the classic-rock realm to be a necessary boredom, without ever considering the possibility they could have made some non-boring “classic” choices.

Much will be made, deservedly, of Bad Bunny’s 2022 “Un Verano Sin Ti” being — hilariously — the sole representation of the last 65 years or so of Latin music. Similarly, there was apparently never a single great country album recorded until Kacey Musgraves went pop with “Golden Hour.” The great concept albums Willie made in the ‘70s? Non-starters. As for anything by Dolly or Loretta in the culture-moving moments when they were real forces in feminism for a generation of American women … sure, they were good, but they were no Lorde-at-16. Just to put it back into the rock realm for a moment: What chance did the Who, one of the key album acts of all time, have of landing “Tommy,” “Who’s Next” or “Quadropenia” on the list, when those opuses had to man up and face the clearly superior 21st-century likes of the Strokes and Arctic Monkeys?

Of course, a lot of the complaints that will come in about the list will be a result of the polar-opposite problem from recency bias. The Apple voters or editors weren’t wrong in making it at least part of their mission to shake up Wenner-era orthodoxy. And if there’s one area where they at least went some way toward getting things right, it’s in the acknowledgement and placement of hip-hop classic throughout the list — something it’s easier to get right than rock ‘n’ roll because the era it represents is much shorter, for one thing.

Also, it’s not wrong to want to see contemporary pop on a list like this… but even so, some of the choices are odd. Taylor Swift, one of the greatest artists in pop history, absolutely belongs. But it’s odd to see her represented solely by “1989 (Taylor’s Version),” as if even the fans who listen to the “Taylor’s Version” editions out of loyalty would tell you that the re-recordings done years later are vastly superior to the originals. It’s absurd to say so, and is transparently political. You have to feel for Apple being between a rock and a hard place on that one — they can’t send their listeners toward Big Machine’s coffers, for obvious reasons — but it undermines the integrity of the list.

And then we’re to believe there was actually a voting bloc that selected an album most people have never heard of, Burial’s “Untrue,” over, say, “Rubber Soul.” Yet everyone understands why it has to be there: electronic music must be represented. It wouldn’t stand out if there was virtually anything else on the list that seemed like fun, oddball or truly culty choices.

What of Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” as the top pick? Undeniably, a great album, and yet not one that you often hear fans citing as the single greatest album ever recorded, over any other. Which actually kind of makes it a brilliant choice here, in a certain way of thinking. It’s like the Oscar-nominated movie that wins in ranked voting because it was No. 2 on everyone’s ballots, versus the more polarizing picks that are selected either as a No. 1 or not at all by voters. No one could possibly have a problem with Ms. Hill getting further celebrated, and this is the farthest thing from a crime. Yet the fact that it feels like a left-field choice to almost everyone says something. Maybe it says music fans have been sleeping a little on this being the obvious GOAT. Maybe it says people have questions about the process.

Maybe it’s possible we’re ascribing too much cynicism to Apple here. Maybe they thought the list would be inspirational to music fans across the board. Listen, they also thought everyone would want “Songs of Innocence” on their phones, right? But what I said earlier about the list being designed expressly to make angry isn’t right. Any list compiled by a streamer is designed less with chat room virality in mind than just to make you… stream. (Duh.) And that’s where the real disappointment lies, if not any true anger, because there’s lost opportunity here: Apple’s list doesn’t feel put together to prompt discovery… except maybe for the site’s very, very youngest users. It’s designed to get you to re-listen to what you already know and love. Does the DSP benefit more from promoting an album that might seem musty or obscure to a youngish core… or by concluding that “SOS” is already one of the great masterpieces of this or any generation, because the mention of it will remind you that you haven’t heard it in a week?

Leaving the host org’s obvious commercial considerations out of it, it’s reasonable to say that any survey that cuts across this wide a swath of genres and generations, comparing literally millions of apples and oranges, is inadvisable, this late into the history of popular music. At least until Variety finally caves in and publishes its own list of the 100 greatest albums of all time, anyway, at which point we will get it exactly right.

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