I don't even have a CD player anymore, except for the one incidentally lurking in my desktop; it strikes me that what's perhaps most interesting about music listening these days is the incomplete but irrevocable replacement of the album by the playlist. The album had its rule from about 1963-2001, the Beatles to Britney, the rise of the Wall to the fall of the Towers.
So I am tempted to generate playlists that are adequate to that shift, which is also a shift in who we think "the artist" is: a list of 20 tracks produced by Timbaland, say, or written by Max Martin. Both would certainly be in my Top Five within that framework.
But I understand that, as with poetry, this assignment is interesting because it has certain formal constraints. In that spirit, I'll offer five playlists, but limit each to a single name-on-the-jukebox performer, and none longer than the 78 minutes a blank disc can hold at CD-quality sample rate. Moreover, I will admit that the choices are haunted by that fading form, the album. The carefully ordered bundle of about a dozen songs was invented by a specific technology, and just because we are now technologically freed from that form doesn't mean that the choices which artists made within those constraints didn't have contextualizing effects one might wish to preserve. Okay, those are the rules I can live with, on my desert island. Onward.
PLAYLIST ONE: Sign O' the Times, Prince. Can't improve on this; wouldn't want to. Like plenty before him, Prince is doing a decent job of compromising his memory by being just as fecund after losing his genius as he was before. It's worth holding onto what it was, though. I believe, without a doubt, that he was the Mozart of pop music, and it's staggering how many virtuoso touches flicker under the album's sheen and sinuous, polymorphous perversion: the restless inventions about where in the arrangement the rhythm comes from; the way that chords get produced by three different instruments playing a different note in the triad; and on and on. I recall thinking late at night and pretty high that late modernity was made so that there could be this record.
PLAYLIST TWO: Mostly The Clash (US Version), The Clash. The full run of the green and eponymous The Clash, plus selected tracks from London Calling and Black Market Clash. Enough has been written about the band that I haven't much to add. I am, however, interested in the considerable effort to discredit the band's politics backhandedly and retroactively: it was all a publicity scheme, it was fashion, they were poseurs, etc etc. I'm not sure what one hopes to accomplish by such revision, except for salving a critic's conscience or two by dully "seeing through" to that universal place which is, if petty and crass, at least free from the awful stain of commitment. But one thing at least is certain, when one compares "Protex Blue" and "Should I Stay or Should I Go" to the body of work that comes between those two charming songs. Whatever the sincerity value of the Clash's anti-racist left stance, it called them to about twenty-five of the greatest rock songs recorded — songs that required both the passion and the cultural syncretism implied in their position. If that's the only claim that can be made for such politics...I'll take it.
Clash City Rockers, I'm So Bored with the U.S.A., Remote Control, Complete Control, White Riot, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, London's Burning, I Fought the Law, Janie Jones, Career Opportunities, What's My Name, Hate & War, Police & Thieves, Jail Guitar Doors, Garageland///London Calling, Spanish Bombs, The Right Profile, Wrong'em Boyo, Clampdown, Guns of Brixton, Death Or Glory, 1977, Pressure Drop, 1-2 Crush on You, Gates of the West, Capital Radio One, Armagideon Time
PLAYLIST THREE: Paid in Fuller, Eric B and Rakim. The debut plus assorted tracks. This was perhaps the easiest choice, as difficult as it is to pick only one hip-hop album and have it not be PE, Jay-Z, Missy, or Paul's Boutique. I've worn this disc out and never gotten tired of it; I think it's probably tired of me. Rakim utterly remade the field of possibility for rap, in ways analogous to what Dylan did for rock: by figuring out how to stretch complex sentences across metrical units and sound like he was speaking in a freely conversational way, while still making the rhymes show up in the right places. This turns out to be exactly what "flow" means. My account verges on the mystical, I think: whatever the thing is about hip-hop — the relationship, going both with and against the grain, between the voice's profoundly human character of rhetorical inflection and the mechanization of a sampled rhythm track — no one ever did it like this.
I Aint No Joke, Eric B Is On The Cut, My Melody, I Know You Got Soul, Move The Crowd, Paid In Full, As The Rhyme Goes On, Chinese Arithmetic, Eric B Is President, [cut Bonus Beats]///Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness—The Coldcut Remix), Follow The Leader, Microphone Fiend, Lyrics Of Fury, The R, Let the Rhythm Hit'em, In the Ghetto, Juice (Know the Ledge)
PLAYLIST FOUR: Blue Roses, Joni Mitchell. Blue and For the Roses, two of the most beautiful and heartsick records I know, laid end to end — still fits! Putting them in sequence (as they were released) has several interesting consequences. The biggest loss is that "The Last Time I Saw Richard," art's last best chance to give '68 nostalgia a good name, is no longer the last track. But in recompense, you now get a 60+ minute descent into the depths of melancholy and delight until you reach to "Blonde in the Bleachers," and the tragic, mysterious moment when she tapes her regrets to the microphone stand. I always think it should be demands, for the rhyme. She tapes her demands to the microphone stand. Ah.
PLAYLIST FIVE: Kala Funds Terrorism, M.I.A. If the history of modern pop, from the Fifties on, is continuous with the collapse of high and mass culture, somehow this allowed the dialectical inversion whereby a new pop can manage to be the clearest critical account of that new world situation, and still be pop. Kala is a soundtrack to, and gloss on, the Mike Davis book Planet of Slums; that doesn't begin to get at how thrilling it is, and how it succeeds in knowing things about globalization that Davis's empiricism leaves aside. Intellectual dance voodoo. Everything this millennium, with the exception of a few moments of Lil Wayne and Robyn, pales in comparison.
Bird Flu, Boyz, Jimmy, Hussel, Mango Pickle Down River (with The Wilcannia Mob), 20 Dollar, World Town, The Turn, XR2, Paper Planes, Come Around (with Timbaland)///Bird Flu (Caveman Remix), Paper Planes (DFA Remix), Galang (original white label), Bucky Done Gun (Piracy Funds Terrorism mix), Fire Fire (Piracy Funds Terrorism mix), Pull Up the People, Goodies, Ciara featuring M.I.A. (Richard X remix)
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Joshua Clover's book 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About, is newly published by University of California Press.