A glossy magazine invited Elvis Costello to compile his list of essential albums for the education of its readers. Bad move. He did so. Even worse one, says David Sinclair
A lot of people will be nervously checking their record collections in the coming days to make sure they aren't guilty of any socially incriminating lapses of taste. Having discreetly tucked away those embarrassing old favourites by Pink Floyd, Dire Straits and Alanis Morissette, they will then set about dusting off their rarely played copies of albums by Ornette Coleman, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Kate & Anna McGarrigle before setting off to track down a copy of must-have classics by the likes of Clifford Brown, Agnes Bernelle and the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Choir. That's if Elvis Costello has anything to do with it.
Throwing his hat into an already overcrowded ring, Costello is the latest arbiter of cool to supply us with a list of the recordings which in his opinion every serious music fan must have. His list of "500 Albums You Need" appears in the November issue of Vanity Fair magazine.
Not albums you "might like to have" or "would enjoy" or "ought to hear," mind, but albums you "need," presumably along with the occasional bit of food, water and sleep.
There is a certain irony in Costello of all people writing about music rather than playing it, since he has famously berated music journalists for the pointlessness of using words to describe songs.
Having said that, however, Costello himself has always been one of the most articulate of musicians when it comes to discussing the subject of music, whether it be his own or other peoples. His contributions to the old Radio 1 discussion programme Round Table were always sparkling, and his comments over the years have been informed by the fact that he pays close attention to what is going on across a broad spectrum of music.
He is a connoisseur with an intimate knowledge of the technicalities of songwriting. He understands musical theory and has studied the finer points of composing and performing in the company of artists ranging from Burt Bacharach to the Kronos Quartet. The Meltdown Festival he put together on the South Bank in 1995 had a memorable lineup.
And, far more so than any professional pundit, Costello is free to roam wherever his curiosity takes him, unhampered by record industry release schedules and newspaper copy deadlines. No sitting around pondering the relative merits of the latest Robbie Williams or Kylie Minogue albums for him. He can spend a week flitting from Stravinsky to Springsteen or anywhere else his fancy takes him.
And it leads him down some pretty exotic pathways. Abba sits next to David Ackles ("the greatest unheralded American songwriter of the late 1960s"), Chopin rubs shoulders with the Clash. Chuck Berry sits sandwiched somewhat uncomfortably between Leonard Bernstein and Bjork.
Which is all well and good, except that for all his qualifications there is something overbearingly smug and self-important about Costello's presumption to know the albums we "need." Need for what exactly? The suspicion is that they are the albums that we need in order to prove what sort of person we are.
But it's a fine line between critical rigour and puritanical zeal.
There's a character in Nick Hornby's book, High Fidelity — the Holy Grail of list-makers everywhere — who discovers that a woman he fancies rates Simple Minds as her favourite group. His passion is instantly replaced by mild contempt. Although Costello would vigorously deny it, you get the feeling that he is no less of a snob, and while I would be the last person to question Costello's credentials, there's something of the politician's Desert Island Disc syndrome in all of this. When Tony Blair went on that programme his list was carefully designed to create a Man of the People impression. Nobody thought for a moment they were really his favourite records. Costello's list is designed no less to create a certain impression — in his case that of a man for whom music must be difficult, obscure, challenging, out there, slightly different and somehow more important than the records that most people would already have in their collection. They are all relentlessly cool, chic or retro chic. You will search in vain for anything by Led Zeppelin, let alone AC/DC. And how about Paul Weller (outside the Jam), Suede, Eric Clapton, Genesis, Carole King, Oasis? Why, of course not. That's What I Call Classics 5? Don't even ask.
Rather like those school reading lists that trawl through the classics and a smattering of popular fiction but would never include anything by Stephen King or Larry McMurtry, Costello's list is designed to lead us to music that is of an esoteric and improving nature, while confirming an impression of its author as a bold and culturally informed aesthete. Good for him. But personally, I still think Mott the Hoople should have been in there.