Are essential albums really essential?
I often find myself reading articles around the web or watching videos on YouTube that center themselves around the idea of having a list of top essential albums of all time that everyone should have in their record collection. These lists are often long with wordy reviews of each album featured. Some begin to blur the line of essential and excessive. Elvis Costello once wrote an article for Vanity Fair in November 2000 of the “500 ALBUMS YOU NEED”. “The Current” a division of MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) posted a list on their website in May 2016 of what they call “The Current’s 893 Essential Albums”. Why is this becoming such a common trend and, more importantly, are any of these albums really essential?
Now I understand that the authors of these articles are just trying to educate the masses by writing down as many 5 star albums as they can, but after going through one or two of these lists you could easily predict the top 5, 10 or even 20 albums of any given genre. It is no surprise to see albums like Pink Floyd’s “Darkside of the Moon” or the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on any, if not all, of these types of list. They are some of the most celebrated and cherished works by some of the most celebrated and cherished artists. Some consider them groundbreaking and others revolutionary. But how many more times do we need to reiterate the notion that Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles are really great and that their albums are also really good.
I am not denying that Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin albums are great, because they are. There are many reasons why these releases are regarded so highly, but if something is great, does that necessarily mean it must also be essential?
Here’s an idea. We could look at the “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci much the same way we would look at an album by a musical artist. Would it be normal to suggest that amatuer and professional “Art Aficionados” everywhere should feel obligated to own prints of “Mona Lisa” and hang them in their homes, simply because this artwork is “essential”? Imagine going over to your friend’s house and saying, “Oh geeze Randy, lovely place you got here, but I noticed you don’t have the Mona Lisa on your wall. What gives?”. Of course, this would be a silly way for us to act, and it’s no different when we talk about music.
Should we be expecting to see albums in a collection due of their “essentiality”? Once you take the spontaneity out of which records are in a collection you begin to go against the grain of what having a personal collection is all about. Choosing between an album that you enjoy and an “essential”, becomes a chore more than a passion project. What is essential to some should not necessarily pertain to you.
Your collection should be comprised of albums that really resonate with you, the types of records that helped develop who you are today. These albums help to create and showcase your own individual musical identity. Albums filled with music that can keep you captivated throughout their duration. Every record, list and person has their own story to tell.
Your experience with an album may vary from mine. The stories and emotions in which we associate with a record are unique to the listener. Whether it’s the album that you listened to in your car when you got your license or the first record you bought with your own money. They may not always have a time or place stamped on them but they should hold a place in your heart. These are the types of albums you should start to consider “essential” to yourself. Without these works where or who would you be today?
Should you feel that your collection is incomplete or unsatisfactory for not featuring any or all of Costello’s or Current’s albums? I certainly hope not. For the most part the writers are just having fun by showcasing some great work by great artists. It’s your job as a listener and collector to decide what records are truly essential to you. Don’t focus too much on how others view your collection, after all it is your collection, not theirs. Focus on collecting albums that truly bring a sense of joy to your life. Enjoy the craft of collecting and don’t be afraid to let you uniqueness show.
James Butler February 2017