Forget about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Exile on Main Street or Who's Next.
Those albums are all ancient history by rock standards.
What were the best LPs of the last decade?
Bill Wyman, who writes about pop music for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, raised the question recently in responding to a Times readers' poll on the all-time best albums. He felt there is too much emphasis on the past in such polls. And, sure enough, only three of the readers' top 20 choices (headed by Sgt. Pepper's) were released after 1976.
Old albums do well in the polls because most readers feel that LPs need to stand a test of time. More than any other art form, pop music is built on temporary emotions. Rock fans adopt heroes and discard them in ways that are both careless and profoundly heartfelt.
This compulsive turnover is wholly correct in terms of rock's instinctive, populist nature, but it can lead to bad judgments when measuring the 30-plus year history of rock. Like all art forms, rock is evolutionary, one generation of artists building upon the contributions of earlier generations.
Some of the albums of the last 10 years may actually prove more influential than the works — like Sgt. Pepper's and Exile — that are now considered essential, but it is going to take time for them to prove their case.
And my winner is: the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.
The rise of the Sex Pistols a decade ago didn't mark the rebirth of rock 'n' roll, as enthusiastic supporters have frequently argued. Today's rock mainstream — encompassing veterans like Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel as well as newcomers such as the Georgia Satellites and BoDeans — was in place well before the Sex Pistols and would have developed just as comfortably if the British band had never existed.
But the Pistols — the unlikeliest of heroes — triggered the start of an alternative network in rock, one that has infused the music with more imagination and spirit than any movement since the landmark days of the '60s. Rock historian Greil Marcus describes the Pistols' impact best when he writes in the Rolling Stone's Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: "(They) broke the story of rock and roll in half."
The Pistols' rowdy 'n' irreverent assault on pop sensibilities ignited a new consciousness among upcoming musicians, promoters and, most crucially, fans. Together, these forces created a whole support system of clubs, independent record labels and college radio programmers that championed this new-wave attitude.
The Pistols themselves only lasted a few months before self-destructing, but the band left a legacy that challenged every kid who ever thought about picking up a guitar: "You, too, can do it."
Thousands of bands — as different as the militant Clash, the idealistic U2, the radical Black Flag and the romantic Jesus and Mary Chain — answered that call.
But it wasn't just influence and inspiration that made Never Mind the Bollocks the most important album of the last 10 years. However calculated the Pistols' anarchy image was, the Pistols delivered musically. Bollocks stands as one of the truly incandescent moments in rock.
The easiest and least valuable Top 10 is simply a list of personal favorites: the old "here are the albums I listen to the most" test. More satisfying is an attempt to define the albums of merit that most challenged boundaries and shaped future directions.
In nominating the best albums of the last decade, the emphasis was on albums of great ambition and even greater influence — albums without which rock wouldn't have progressed as it has.
But even here a bit of perspective was demanded. The only ground rules: no more than one album by the same artist and no albums released after 1986.
My picks of the most important albums of the last decade:
1 — The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.), 1977. The seeds of the punk movement were already in place in England when the Pistols were launched in 1976 by manager Malcolm McLaren, a master pop propagandist.
At the time, working-class teen-agers in England were experiencing a disheartening feeling of helplessness as they saw little more than unemployment lines or dead-end jobs for them in economically troubled Britain. Even rock had become a closed shop of superstars and fat-cat managers and record companies who wanted only to protect the status quo. This meant rock was no longer open to — or addressing the concerns of — the young.
McLaren's genius was seeing that the record business was rotting, and realizing he could rally a constituency — at least in England — by attacking rock itself. He mocked the industry by finding a singer with no experience (John Lydon, who adopted the name Johnny Rotten) and vowing not to let up until he brought the pop Establishment to its knees.
In the end, the Pistols failed in that goal. The fact that bands like Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Ratt, Whitesnake, Night Ranger, Spandau Ballet, Boston and Glass Tiger continue to dominate the sales charts shows that the Pistols were unable to sabotage the rock machinery.
Still, the Pistols did succeed in another, unexpected way: the active network of clubs, bands, independent record labels, college radio programmers and fans was set up outside the formal — and passive — pop Establishment. Success on this circuit was no longer measured just by chart success, but by such classic virtues as originality and passion.
In discussing the Pistols' influence, however, it's important to remember the Pistols' music. The Pistols might have been dismissed long ago as a perverse joke except for the fact that the band put on an extraordinary live show and made an album as uniquely challenging and self-affirming at times as anything rock has ever produced.
2 — Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (Columbia), 1982. This haunting, mostly acoustic album was an important step for Springsteen because his songs were no longer upbeat anthems of personal determination. Previously, characters in his songs may have experienced hard times, but there was usually a moment of hope, a path by which you could follow your dreams. But Springsteen realized by the time of Nebraska that some people really had no chance in this country, that circumstances had blocked their path.
To the larger rock community, the album — recorded at home on a portable tape machine — sent an invaluable message: Here was a major seller risking his commercial standing for something he believed in. Though the album's themes about American social indifference and neglect were later presented in a more accessible form in Born in the U.S.A., this album may well be the more enduring work and the one that more clearly restored a touch of social conscience to contemporary rock.
3 — Prince's Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.), 1980. Any of Prince's Dirty Mind through Purple Rain albums could be nominated, but this collection first showcased his bold, liberating style. A brilliant musician if erratic strategist, Prince is a renegade who thrived on the controversy of Dirty Mind's sexual imagery. But his greatest accomplishment may have been reuniting rock's original black and white roots. His influence can be heard at every turn in contemporary pop music.
4 — The Clash's London Calling (Epic), 1980. The Clash's 1977 debut LP was a punk masterpiece that may stand as an even more riveting piece of music than Bollocks, but this two-record set marked the coming of age of punk: a merging of many of rock's most affecting roots (rockabilly to New Orleans-style R&B) with '80s sensibilities. Like the Pistols, the Clash also self-destructed, but not before leading the way into fertile post-punk territory.
5 — Elvis Costello's Armed Forces (Columbia), 1979. Costello stands as the most independent of contemporary rockers, a supreme songwriter whose sophistication and range dwarfs most of his rivals. He has moved freely and frequently in a variety of directions without ever bowing to commercial demands. This LP reflected much of the brutal intensity and artistic flame of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited.
6 — X's Los Angeles (Slash), 1980. Built around a social realism as powerful and frightening as the Doors', this was the first great album to come out of Los Angeles' late-'70s rock renaissance. It was also the first American album to answer the English punk challenge with equal imagination and power. X's integrity and dedication served as a model for a scene that also produced such inspired and inspiring groups as the Blasters, Los Lobos and the Minutemen.
7 — Run-D.M.C.'s Run-D.M.C. (Profile), 1983. This trio from middle-class Queens didn't invent rap — the most vital street music of the '80s — but it did help turn it into an art form. The first group to consistently use the music for more than a few interesting singles.
8 — The Pretenders' The Pretenders (Sire), 1980. Patti Smith was a key step in gaining artistic credibility for women in rock, but the Pretenders' Hynde proved to be the quintessential rock 'n' roll woman. She was smart and tough, and her refusal to be a traditional sex symbol was as profound a statement in rock as Dylan's going electric.
9 — Artists United Against Apartheid's Sun City (Manhattan), 1985. Little Steven Van Zandt was the catalyst behind this blistering attack on racial injustice. But more than 40 rock, pop, salsa, rap, reggae, jazz and R&B artists also took part in what was an all too rare utilization of the cross-cultural potential of contemporary pop.
10 — Michael Jackson's Thriller (Epic), 1982. I had planned to use this final slot to salute Talking Heads' "Talking Heads '77" and R.E.M.'s "Murmur," because the substantially different but equally invigorating rhythms of those two bands underscore the freedom and range of American rock over the last 10 years.
Yet there's something compelling about Thriller, despite the presence of several mediocre tracks. The highlights — most surely "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' " — represent an unprecedented ambition that was as revolutionary as it was preposterous: the moment Jackson said to himself, "I'm going to make the biggest-selling record in history."