The record industry must be hurting something awful: in its May 16 issue, without so much as an anniversary to plug, Rolling Stone published a long retrospective called "The Rolling Stone 200: The Essential Rock Collection." Abutting a cover story about Jewel on one end and a summer fashion spread on the other, the feature promised "a definitive list of the essential CDs of the rock & roll era" (that's CDs, mind you, not merely albums--you don't want to degrade yourself buying second-hand vinyl copies of these vital documents), selected by a "panel of experts" that included publisher Jann Wenner and James Henke, chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
But wait a minute! I don't remember all these records getting five stars in Rolling Stone originally. In fact, some of them weren't even reviewed when they first came out, notably AC/DC's Highway to Hell, Black Flag's Damaged, Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express, Ministry's The Land of Rape and Honey, Metallica's Kill 'Em All, Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine, N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton, the Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, Funkadelic's One Nation Under a Groove, the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted, and believe it or not, the Who's Tommy. Others on the list apparently weren't quite as essential back then, when Wenner and Co. were granting them three stars (De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, Laurie Anderson's Big Science, Nirvana's Nevermind) or a grudging three-and-a-half (Madonna's Like a Prayer, Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream). Some of the magazine's more drastic reversals are laid out below.
Of course, how often you're wrong doesn't matter as much as how often you're right, and most of the Rolling Stone 200 received fairly positive, if not laudatory, write-ups at the time of release. What doesn't square with the list is the number that were buried at the back of the reviews section, well behind the latest album from Linda Ronstadt or Huey Lewis--but that's another chart.
Essential CD: Aerosmith, Rocks
Now: The quintet's road-tightened raw power threatens to break loose on the opening cut--"Back in the Saddle" bucks at the gate like a drag racer ready to burn rubber. That tension is the source of the magnificent, electrifying charge in Aerosmith's music.
Then: While the band has achieved phenomenal commercial success, fails to prove that they can grow and innovate as their models did....The material is Rocks' major flaw, mostly pale remakes of their earlier hits....Aerosmith may have their hard-rock wings, but they won't truly fly until their inventiveness catches up to their fast-maturing professionalism." (1976)
David Bowie, Low
Now: "Low is where David Bowie steps back from trend hopping and finds his own voice; Brian Eno serves as collaborator and provocateur....The stately electronic instrumentals that make up half of Low now sound prescient--they provide mood music for people with short attention spans, a sort of ambient techno minus the beat."
Then: "Such technosheen music requires a detached master to hold the reins, and Bowie, the cracked actor, is just too much of a ham. The problem is most glaring when his Latin-mass voices are blended into the lunar mix with the subtlety of ripe blue [sic] cheese. Bowie lacks the self-assured humor to pull off his avant-garde aspirations." (1977)
Buffalo Springfield, Buffalo Springfield Again
Now: The squabbling California combo--which included Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay--pulled it together for a second go-round....Two of Young's finest songs, "Mr. Soul" and "Broken Arrow," bookend Buffalo Springfield Again....In this case, the battling egos only brought out the best in one another.
Then: What Buffalo Springfield Again though obviously lacks is cohesiveness....there is no blend, only a rather obvious alienation among the compositions...."Broken Arrow" is an attempt at the latest trend in contemporary song writing--the Beatle-esque freak out....It doesn't hold up, it becomes tiresome and loses impact. (1967)
Sam Cooke, The Man and His Music
Now: Every track on The Man and His Music will lift your spirits and make it clear why it was called soul music in the first place.
Then: The Man and His Music will probably just confirm what people already knew about Sam Cooke: he possessed a voice that could burn down the house, but he compromised it for stardom. Hopefully the next record--RCA promises a blues album--will be more of a revelation.
Cream, Wheels of Fire
Now: On Wheels of Fire, the supergroup Cream captured both its onstage fury ("Crossroads," "Toad") and its studio sophistication ("White Room"). Three virtuosos--guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker--riffed like jazzmen....Their skill, technical mastery and ambitiousness as players brought rock & roll a new respectability....Wheels of Fire is the trio's recorded high point.
Then: The Sonny Bono-ish production job adds little....It is unfortunate that the group chose to do "Born Under a Bad Sign"...the real mistake is that Jack Bruce doesn't have a good voice for blues, but he chooses to try it out on one that is currently popular in an exceptionally fine original version. Ginger Baker also ought to learn that knocking on a cowbell and woodblock does not make a song funky....[On "Spoonful"] Bruce's bass-playing is much too busy when he should be the bottom of the sound. (1968)
The Cure, Staring at the Sea: The Singles (original vinyl release, with fewer cuts, was titled Standing on a Beach)
Now: By the time the Cure had amassed enough singles to assemble this rich retrospective, the English group, led by goth glamour puss Robert Smith, had evolved from the testy guitar angst of such songs as 1979's "Boys Don't Cry" to the gauzy, intimate romance of 1985's "Close to Me.
Then: Due to the forcefulness of Robert Smith's leadership, the Cure has endured long enough to merit a singles compilation....[it] permits an accurate evaluation of their erratic career....With its indifferent stylistic changes and its reliance on emotional distance, Standing on a Beach catalogs the exaltation and fossilization of despair in postpunk rock. (1986)
The Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychocandy
Now: In this corner: neat, melodic pop, all sweetness and light. In that corner: chaotic rock noise dripping with sex and sin....Pushed past the red zone of fuzz and echo into sonic prop wash, this dauntingly beautiful album abounds with such toxic bubblegum treats as "Never Understand" and "Just Like Honey."
Then: If indeed they are a superficial and diluted version of the most hard-core and dangerous elements in the rock lexicon, maybe they are too young to care....It's obvious to the point of inanity that the Velvet Underground is the pure and adult model for the self-consciously evil xerography of the Jesus and Mary Chain. (1986)
Now: The most influential record of the '90s, Nevermind countered tired FM rock with unadulterated passion, unrelenting realism, anti-rock-star sentiments and, most important, indelible songs....Nevermind touched a new generation of rock fans with its undirected rage channeled through simple, spot-on pop tunes....[It] proved that in an era of post-everything, anger and dashed idealism were as inspirational as peace and love."
Then: "Given the small corner of public taste that nonmetal guitar rock now commands, the Washington State trio's version of the truth is probably as credible as anyone's....If Nirvana isn't on to anything altogether new, Nevermind does possess the songs, character and confident spirit to be much more than a reformulation of college radio's high-octane hits. (1991)
Bonnie Raitt, Nick of Time
Now: Bonnie Raitt's overdue success...answered a musical prayer for rock fans who had outgrown teen angst and adolescent hormones. Instead of pretending to be what she wasn't, the warmhearted veteran applies her handsomely weathered voice to insightful songs about life in maturity.
Then: Raitt has yet to succeed at either selling out or making the album that once and for all sets her apart as a great and original artist....After a strong start, the album wears thin. For almost any other pop singer, Nick of Time would be a solid victory. For Raitt, who is clearly capable of being great, it is another beautiful near-miss.
Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells a Story
Now: [Stewart's] third solo album is a perfect showcase for his raspy-voiced interpretive skill. The commitment and conviction of his performances will stun anybody who knows only his recent "efforts."...Stewart projects a winning, romantic vulnerability on his originals--the title track and 'Maggie May' create acoustic grooves that are both mellow and rollicking.
Then: Boring as half of it may be, there's enough that is unqulifiedly magnificent on the other half of Every Picture Tells a Story to make it clearer than ever before that if Rod Stewart ever allows himself the time to write himself a whole album, it will be among the best albums any of us has ever heard.
The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
Now: "One of rock's towering masterpieces, Exile, which was a double album in its vinyl incarnation, is a rhythm juggernaut. The album's triumph is its passion--Watts and Wyman make even the ballads move, Taylor and Richards lock in with the force of a drill press, and Jagger, buried in the mix, sings like a man desperate to claw his way out of a grave. Satisfaction, after all, is the Stones' great theme, and Exile on Main Street delivers it.
Then: "the Stones have chosen to sustain for the moment....I still think that the great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come. Hopefully, Exile on Main Street will give them the solid footing they need to open up, and with a little horizon-expanding (perhaps honed by two months on the road) they might even deliver it to us the next time around. (1972)
The Rolling Stones, Some Girls
Then: The Stones resumed greatness with Some Girls. Part of the band's inspiration was the challenge of punk--it's not hard to hear New Wave insurgency and glam posturing in the tough rhythms of "When the Whip Comes Down," "Lies" and "Respectable.
Then: Thus far, the critical line is that Some Girls is the band's finest LP since its certified masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, and I'll buy that gladly. What I won't buy is that the two albums deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. (1978)
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.