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Mission Impossible: My 'NME 500 Greatest Albums' Voting Hell
Johnny Sharp , October 24th, 2013 06:00

NME veteran Johnny Sharp (formerly Cigarettes) contributed to the magazine's 500 Best LPs Of Old Time. Here, he muses on the worth and mechanics of such a thing, and concludes there's only one thing for it: drink

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A few weeks ago, I was proud and privileged to be among numerous current and former contributors to the New Musical Express asked to send in their votes to help decide the magazine's (sorry, multi-platform media brand, pop-up restaurant and cultural discourse hub) recently published list of 'The 500 greatest albums of all time'.

And why not? I'm not one of those tedious prigs who haughtily disapprove of the idea of judging or even ranking musical works' relative value as if it were tantamount to slapping price tags on renaissance statues. And I don't really have a beef with the natural human inclination to make lists. I'm sure there's a cave somewhere on which our ancestors once took it upon themselves to rank "best Buffalo kills I done".

In fact, I've always quite liked a list. I seem to remember spending much of my 11th year noting down which bands were "mods", which were "punks", which were "new wave" and which were "rockers", and which football teams they probably supported, based entirely on guesswork. It's a perfectly healthy human pastime, if perhaps more so for an 11-year-old than a man in his 40s.

It also makes perfect publishing sense for a magazine (sorry, media-neutral entertainment orb, international comment toaster and ever-rotating news sponge) to periodically publish something that will get it talked about beyond the dressing rooms at Leeds Cockpit.

However, the experience did bring home to me just how hard it is to ensure these lists have much real meaning. My own contribution to it involved spending a weekend trying to compile my top 50 albums and singles of all time (from which lists, as you might expect, they compiled the final '500 Greatest' chart.)

I and the rest of the NME alumni were simply told to vote for our 'favourite' albums – Ideally a top 50 but really anything we could rustle up by the following Monday.

And herein lies a flaw inherent in all such lists: The results are bound to be slanted towards the choices of the voters who they happen still to have contact details for, which will inevitably be the more recent contributors (Still, having first written for them over 20 years ago, they didn't do too badly tracking me down).

Inevitably, with the whole thing being a bit last-minute and no-budget, the votes were also those of individuals who could be arsed to sweat over a difficult task in their free time for no financial reward. Welcome to 21st century publishing.

Yet the same problems arise when you get readers or radio listeners to vote on these things. When you see readers' polls such as Q Readers' top 100 albums (as compiled in 1998, 2003 and 2006), you're ultimately looking at the choices of the kind of people who can actually be arsed to fill in a poll form and send it in, which tends to be those who really don't get out enough, plus members of a Muse fansite who have launched an online campaign to get their sorry arses in there. Do you really want to pay any heed to these people's recommendations?

Meanwhile, you do wonder: In this age of mass communication, do people still need to be told that It Takes A Nation Of Millions or Is This It? are classic albums that might be worthy of seeking out?

But then I remember scouring second-hand record shops seeking recommendations from the NME's top 100 all-time list from 1986. It didn't do me any harm, apart from puzzling over the appeal of Donald Fagen's The Nightfly for the next 25 years.

And without making this some sort of Channel 4-screened, laboratory conditions, demographically correct exercise, or a Mercury Awards-style judging-panel bunfight, you're always going to have the other problems mentioned above. So let's crack on.

The problems kept coming though: I started questioning the rules of which albums were eligible, and which weren't. Live albums? Soundtracks, even if they're composed of a bunch of singles from the title artist and a few others (eg. The Harder They Come)? And what about compilations that aren't best ofs or studio albums but are seminal collections: Hatful of Hollow was the album that got me into the Smiths, and I prefer the radio session versions of the songs on it – so it remains the first album of theirs I'd listen to, long before the Queen Is Dead (the officially canonised Best Smiths Album, and as it turns out, NME writers' officially crowned Best Album Of All Time).

"Anything you fancy", came the reply when I asked which would be eligible. And this free and easy approach is far from unprecedented. A quick google unearths other magazines' 'greatest' lists, some of which included Greatest Hits compilations. Immediately, the shadow of Alan Partridge citing his favourite Beatles album as The Best Of The Beatles looms large. But of course most respondents will instinctively not include a lot of these collections, once again influencing the nature of the final list.

Anyway, now we'd got that straight, I had to wonder if we were talking personal favourites, or the albums we think are objectively great works of art? Well, the original email calling for votes did say 'favourite' albums. But the title says 'Greatest', like some official judgement of indisputable quality.

Which is when you run into what can best be described as "The Sergeant Pepper problem". Now, I would not dispute the received opinion that this Beatles album was a hugely significant work of art in terms of production, ambition, generic diversity, sonic invention and cultural impact. And much of it still sounds pretty tidy. But when I'm scanning the 'B' section of my shamelessly alphabeticised CD collection, how often to I pick it out to play? Once every lunar eclipse. Not least because you regularly hear tracks from it everywhere anyway.

Evidently, Rolling Stone's respondents weren't thinking along the same lines when they compiled their updated 2012 list of Top 500 albums, voted by critics and musicians. The mighty Pepper (No.87 in the new NME list) remained entrenched in top spot, like a day-glo carving on Mount ROCKmore. And looking at their 500, when the only album in their top 10 less than 40 years old is London Calling, I think I prefer the NME's less critically-correct approach.

But maybe, I thought, now I'm taking part in this kind of exercise, I should feel at least a small weight of history on my shoulders. I can't risk screwing up here. I mean, I could end up choosing a record of recent vintage that seems worthy of eternal deification now, but which may not seem so special in future.

The final NME list bears that out: Good as it is, if PJ Harvey's Let England Shake is in the top 10, or even the top 50 the next time a list like this is attempted, I'll eat my backwards baseball cap. Meanwhile, as I trawled the web for inspiration, I found Q's top 100 British albums from 2000. No disrespect to Old Goalkeeper Hands and his friends, but I suspect Stereo MCs' No.55 spot for Connected might not be repeated it they took the poll again now.

But GOD DAMN IT. That HAS to be the wrong attitude. From this kind of thinking, soulless, canon-centric lists of the same tired old titles (like Rolling Stone's) are born. So I concluded that notions of objectively 'great' albums could whistle, and I'd make a list from the heart.

But then I started thinking: 'What exactly is the point of me putting The Rain Parade's Explosions In The Glass Palace at Number 24 on my list? It would basically be a wasted vote. If a man in a forest of hacks announces that an early 1980s psychedelic revivalist record is his 24th favourite album of all time, and nobody hears him, has he really said it?

It was around this point that the sleazy concept of tactical voting reared its head. Because when you're deciding your personal list you think, "If I put my least popular choices in the top 10, they might just win enough points to earn them a chance of making the top 500, especially if there's a chance that a couple of others might give them a mention." So best put If You Want Blood and Imperial Bedroom in the top 10, then, and pampered old Pet Sounds will survive just fine languishing in the 30s, regardless of what I really think.

Which is when my conscience inevitably piped up: What if everyone did that? Well, to paraphrase the faultless philosophy of Yossarian in Catch-22, if everyone did that, then I'd be a damned fool to do anything else. And if everyone voted tactically then we'd probably end up with the same result, because people will just vote for the albums they like best from the canon of accepted classics, and the canon are the ones that are going to be up there anyway, so you're arguing over which goes where.

Meanwhile, the dark (not in that way) shadow of tokenism also started to loom across the back of my envelope. Had I put enough black artists in there? Women? Non-rock albums? After all, there's always the chance that your personal top 50 will be made public and you will be outed as a racist, sexist, rockist enemy of music who enjoys The Cardigans' Long Gone Before Daylight more than any Marvin Gaye album.

So the upshot of all this self-editing was that I put Songs Of Leonard Cohen at Number One (The greatest album of all time? Perhaps not, but certainly my favourite, and I like to think I was at least half-responsible for it crashing into the final chart at number 232. You're welcome.) and found myself whittling the rest down arbitrarily from a "short" list of about 185. It was 10.30pm on Sunday night, I was increasingly drunk and there were clearly going to be casualties.

Then I remembered: I was also asked to come up with my top 50 singles, for NME's Top 500 singles list, coming soon to a newsagent / content pocket / conversation smog near you. Welcome to a whole new planet of impossibility.

I mean, how do you decide which you like more: 'Holiday In Cambodia' or 'I'd Rather Go Blind'? 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More' or 'Rebel Without A Pause'? It's like comparing a punch with a kiss. Or Tuesday with a piece of toast. And what if I couldn't remember if they'd even been released as singles, or only came out in the US? Jesus.

There's only one thing for it: I got drunk, spun the wheel of my iPod a few times and wrote down whatever favourites came up. I got to about 27 and knocked them brutally into some sort of order. And clicked 'send'.

This, my friends, is how history is made. Until next month, when another list comes out.

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John Doran
Oct 24, 2013 10:33am

It didn't take IPC long to lose my contact details!

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Oct 24, 2013 10:38am

'The final NME list bears that out: Good as it is, if PJ Harvey's Let England Shake is in the top 10, or even the top 50 the next time a list like this is attempted, I'll eat my backwards baseball cap.' true

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Oct 24, 2013 10:41am

The greatest albums list of all time was created by one Grant of Feeder. The passion and insight present in that masterwerk will echo through the ages.

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Oct 24, 2013 10:41am

Great article and I feel the pain, compiling a list of 50 Best Albums is impossible and to some extent pointless as you are very likely to come up with a complete different list a week later.
However, I kind of enjoyed the NME list, it has it's wtf moments (PJ Harvey's Let England Shake) and there is an unsurprising come-back love for David Bowie (he is if I am not wrong the one with more albums in the list). But less Oasis than Blur is a good sign and arguably the top 3 albums are all to some extent worth their placing (although I prefer Low to Hunky Dory and The White Album to Revolver).
Just a shame that electronic music didn't quite get the full respect it deserves but it's the NME... oh and Aphex Twin's Druqks? How the hell did that one get in???

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Oct 24, 2013 10:47am

I didn't even get past the 400 mark in the NME list....the comments are truly awful 'Mmmm great record, influential!' seeing Mystery Jets in there confirmed the whole thing as a grand farce

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Oct 24, 2013 11:01am

So the NME relaunched with this whole new look, new magazine deal the other week then immediately reverted to top 500 lists and the like. It's like nothing is happening - can't they just make some bands up or something?

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Oct 24, 2013 11:05am

The NME never recovered from the 'Anatomy of a Rock Star' era, which is a shame as it largely shaped what I listened to in the late 80s/early 90s. Damn you Connor McBollockchops.

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Oct 24, 2013 11:18am

The Quietus is fond of the odd list too I think?

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The Righteous
Oct 24, 2013 12:02pm

I thought the list was a bit "meh" because it included clearly sucky albums from Kings of Leon(seriously?), Metronomy and Mystery Jets like they made masterpieces to stand the test of time... Well, that is my opinion and maybe NME thinks this way, but I expected that the list would include REAL masterpieces (which it does, mostly) but then again, maybe they should take a bit more time to compile such a list, or is it even right to make a list, what do you guys think?

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Richard Edwards
Oct 24, 2013 12:21pm

"'re ultimately looking at the choices of the kind of people who can actually be arsed to fill in a poll form and send it in, which tends to be those who really don't get out enough, plus members of a Muse fansite who have launched an online campaign to get their sorry arses in there." This made me laugh a lot. Reminded me of one of these polls when the Manics' 'Holy Bible' won one of these things a few years ago, clearly only as it had been given a push by the people who post on their forum.
That first Q readers vote in 1998 was truly one of the worst things ever. The best albums in the history of the universe, according to people who own 50 CDs. OK Computer only won as the people who voted were too thick to distinguish between int being a poll for the best of the previous year, when the album was released. And thus the legend was born of that terrible album being an all-time classic.

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Oct 24, 2013 12:39pm

What? NME? When? No, really? Are you serious? Well bugger me!

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Oct 24, 2013 12:50pm

I'm just grateful the theQuietus has enough faith in its readership to not use numerical scores for reviews. Lists are an infrequent farce, but mapping every musical release from umpteen genres to a 10-point scale is the definition of repeated insanity.

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Oct 24, 2013 1:01pm

Half the current staff writers probably think Nick Kent or Lester Bangs are villages in Dorset.

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Oct 24, 2013 1:11pm

Prince 1999 >>>>>>>>>>>>

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Oct 24, 2013 1:14pm

Are you a McCabe & Mrs Miller fan, Johnny?

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Oct 24, 2013 1:21pm

The value of these kinds of lists for me is (and, most importantly as a teenager, was) not really in the relative ranking, but just a starting point for indicating what is/was out there (and that it didn't/doesn't always have to be popular). I still think that for all the boring pissing contests from the most boring people they tend to inspire, that recommendation is really their function, and I think they work better when taken that way rather than the "WHY AREN'T MY TASTES BEING VALIDATED!?" that often predominate in both comment sections and thinkpiece responses to lists - it's surely just as easy to say "this other album is also good and worth checking out" as "THEY LEFT OUT MY FAVOURITE RECORD CUZ THEY'RE RACISTS/HIPSTERS/PLANNING POORLY FOR THEIR RETIREMENT".

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Sharp Chris
Oct 24, 2013 1:23pm

That's not even the best Rain Parade record you earless fanman.

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Oct 24, 2013 1:46pm

In reply to :

That's the truest thing I've read all day.

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Peabody Ramirez
Oct 24, 2013 2:42pm

Ha! Excellent article on the futility of imposing subjective audio pleasures onto a largely apathetic & indie-chic readership in their desperate bid to halt declining sales.

Love the term 'ever-rotating news sponge' - reminiscent of Day Today speak.

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Oct 24, 2013 2:57pm

I want to see your list of which bands are mods rockers punks or new wave?

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Oct 24, 2013 3:53pm

Seeing as the NME/Q/Rolling Stone canon tends towards white, mostly heterosexual, males with guitars voted for by white, mostly heterosexual, males, maybe we should have a list where white, heterosexuals males aren't allowed a vote at all and see what the result is?

I'm not dissing WHMs, it's just that we clearly know their opinion on albums. Might be fun to see what survives from their list in the Other list.

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Johnny Sharp
Oct 24, 2013 4:36pm

In reply to :

McCabe and Mrs Miller? I should say so, Aaron. The Stranger Song is so perfect for that film.

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Johnny Sharp
Oct 24, 2013 4:39pm

In reply to Sharp Chris:

Sharp Chris,
Regarding The Rain Parade,
I refer the honourable gentleman to the remarks I made some moments ago. Neither Emergency Third Rail Power Trip or Crashing Dream are a patch on EITGP in my humble opinion. Quite like the phrase "Earless fanman", though.

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Johnny Sharp
Oct 24, 2013 4:45pm

Regarding the list of mods, new wave, rockers and punks, it was a pressing issue at my primary school, as I recall. Especially the question of whether The Police were mods or new wave (quiet at the back there, please). I myself was a rocker, and I remember being stunned at seeing a Tygers of Pan Tang sleeve where they appeared to have daubed the words 'Mods are shits' on a wall at a service station. This, of course, signified that they were almost as hard and cool as AC/DC, whose guitarist, as we know, stabbed himself with his own guitar LIVE ON STAGE on one of their sleeves.
If only my criteria for liking bands had stayed that simple.

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Stuart Huggett
Oct 24, 2013 4:52pm

In reply to Johnny Sharp:

'Explosions In The Glass Palace' was on my longlist too. It hit the floor along with 'Rattlesnakes', 'Steve McQueen' and The Slits' official bootleg LP (among others).

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Oct 24, 2013 6:24pm

They should've asked Dave Berry. He knows his oats.

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Colm McCann
Oct 24, 2013 7:04pm

Does no one among their panel appreciate the genius of Orbital's In Sides? I mean - they managed a couple of Kraftwerk albums and far too many bloody Arctic Monkeys albums. Why no In Sides? Plus zero Tori Amos, as usual.

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Oct 24, 2013 7:55pm

Stankonia and Berlin just got in the boundary, to gaze in stupified wonder at the Libertines albums far away in the VIP section hosing each other down with champers, while Ms Jackson and Caroline share a warm can of Tesco Value lager

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Oct 24, 2013 8:17pm

Everyone thinks these lists are shite but everyone reads them. They usually reflect recent trends: it's not long since radiohead dominated these lists and pet sounds, let it bleed and sgt peppers were obligatory along with a guilty liberal vote for what's going on. To be honest, my favourite albums change on a weekly basis. anyone who loves music in all it's myriad forms will drift from fave to fave to regression to youth to new obsession constantly. Lists are cool: they get people thinking, talking, listening arguing about music and what could be better.

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Oct 24, 2013 8:23pm

Whats wrong with the Mystery Jets?

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John Doran
Oct 24, 2013 8:36pm

Let England Shake is fucking brilliant, you earless fan wo/men!

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Oct 24, 2013 10:07pm

In reply to John Doran:

Couldn't quite lift if off the shelf but anything that sees JC in the lights is fine news. Here's to 'Kool Roc Bass' disrupting the fifty next Tuesday.

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Dr Rolf
Oct 24, 2013 10:47pm

is Reign In Blood in there?

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Oct 24, 2013 11:21pm

An entertaining read sir, thanks! Great point about Sgt Peppers and having heard it EVERYWHERE. Ditto so many old albums nowadays...Marvin Gaye's lexicon may be brilliant but I've heard it in far too many fookin' commercials over the years. No way in hell any of his albums make my top 50 regardless of how great or groundbreaking they may have been at the time. And can someone tell me why the Chameleons get no love on these damn lists...ever?

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Oct 24, 2013 11:40pm

As an FYI....just went to the NME website (sorry Quietus but it was a very brief visit) and one of the features on the home page was something like "fall out boy reacts to top 500 albums". Why ask a legendarily shitty band who they think should be tops? Do the Smiths, remaining Beatles, et all, hope they aren't mentioned? And perhaps I should be easier target than fall out boy.

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Zack Jack
Oct 25, 2013 4:26am

White Chalk is better than anything Joni Mitchell put out. Whether journalism ever realizes this remains doubtful.

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John Doran
Oct 25, 2013 7:08am

I'm glad you've picked up on the fact that we've all reached consensus behind the scenes and now agree on everything. Only the really perceptive music fans realise this.

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Oct 25, 2013 7:49am

In reply to Dave :

What's wrong with Mystery Jets? They blow.

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Survival Bag
Oct 25, 2013 10:26am

Have always distrustful of lists but then remembered a top 100 albums of all time thing the NME did way back in 1985! I sought out albums on the strength of this recommendation - "Astral Weeks", "Blonde on Blonde", "Unknown Pleasures", "Forever Changes" etc, etc. So lists can be a valuable 'educational tool' I guess. Never quite got as far as the Plastic Ono Band though!

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Oct 25, 2013 12:59pm

Years ago I went for a job in a record shop and they told me to apply by bringing in a list of my 50 favourite albums. Three weeks of tinkering, trying to get the balance of classic/obscure, jazz/hiphop/krautrock/pop, bleeding edge/vintage...
Took it along to the shop. Job had gone.
Ended up working at HMV.

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Oct 25, 2013 6:28pm

The comments on the album can't be taken seriously; Tim Buckley is described as being English, Ice-T as 'East Coast' (born in NJ, moved to LA as a teenager… long before the OG album). Shoddy. Not that one should expect anything else from the NME I suppose...

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Oct 25, 2013 6:33pm

Oh dear - just read that Cocteau Twin's 'Treasure' is their 'warmest and wooziest' album - this was obviously written by someone with no idea about the subject on which they're writing about… 'Treasure' is just that; but not before 'Bluebell Knoll' & 'Heaven and Las Vegas' could anybody describe a CT album as warm and woozy. Maybe I should just stop perusing this list, like others here have experienced it just puts you in a bad mood!

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Oct 28, 2013 2:02pm

While the idea of reading (or to be more honest, skimming) yet another top 100/50/500 is immensely dull, I think it might be interesting to do some sort of analysis of how these lists change over the years. What I expect you'd see would be:

a set of near-constant 'canonical' greats (e.g. The Beatles), probably the most boring set

flavours of the moment who pop up in the year they make it big and are swiftly forgotten forever

artists/eras/genres which gradually fade in and out of favour over several years. I suspect this will be the most interesting group to see. What, if anything, could we learn from an upward trend in the inclusion of say, female artists, previously-ridiculed 70s prog or mindless escapist-pop?

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