I’ve had a few debates in the comment section recently about what some (read: this ‘Dana’ character) believe is a tendency of mine to celebrate the work of new artists over established ones. Specifically, the claim is that I will consistently rank a new work by an old favorite lower than a new work by somebody “fresh.”
I have a theory about this that I’ll get to in a bit.
Admittedly, if you look at my album lists over the past six or so years I’ve been ranking them, the top albums tend to be newer artists. And while the work of my long-time favorite artists usually shows up in the top ten, it’s generally below at least a couple of releases by newer acts.
(Note: I’m going to concentrate on music in this analysis, though some of these ideas could well translate to the film discussion)
I guess the first step is to establish exactly who is on this list of favorites. With the disclaimer that lists like this are constantly evolving, here’s a look at my ten favorite solo acts (in alphabetical order):
And my favorite bands (keeping this to six because my enthusiasm drops off from there):
Belle & Sebastian
Most of these artsits have been around for awhile. The youngest/least prolific of the bunch are Fiona Apple (12 years, 3 albums), Ben Folds (13 years, 6 albums), Josh Rouse (10 years, 8 albums), Rufus Wainwright (10 years, 5 albums), Belle & Sebastian (12 years, 9 albums) and Counting Crows (14 years, 5 albums). But even that batch has at least a decade apiece under their belts.
Now here’s a look at my #1 and #2 albums since 2002:
2002: #1. Beck – Sea Change, #2. Counting Crows – Hard Candy
2003: #1 – Rufus Wainwright – Want One, #2. Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress
2004: #1 – Rufus Wainwright – Want Two, #2. Rachael Yamagata – Happenstance
2005: #1. Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine, #2. Ben Folds – Songs for Silverman
2006: #1. Belle & Sebastian – The Life Pursuit, #2. John Mayer – Continuum
2007: #1. Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars, #2. Bruce Springsteen – Magic
So eight of those twelve albums were recorded by my favorite artists, which contradicts the argument that I favor up-and-comers. However, complicating matters is the fact that all eight of those are the “young” artists I listed above. You don’t see any albums by Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., etc. in that list. Many of those artists released albums (and good ones) over the past six years, but they weren’t able to crack my top two.
Why is that? Here’s where my theory kicks in.
What is it that makes a group or artist a favorite? In my experience, it’s two or three albums in a row that knock my socks off. Maybe I hear them all at once, in the case of somebody who is established but I’m only getting around to discovering. Or maybe I hear them as they’re released.
Let’s look at some details:
I first heard King of America (a much-appreciated birthday gift from my sister) and was blown away. I immediately picked up Imperial Bedroom and that was it… he was a favorite for life. I gobbled up the rest of his catalog and found every title impressive. The first new album I heard from Costello was Spike, and I’ve owned every album he’s released since then.
But if you ask me what Elvis’ best albums are… I’m going to go right back to King of America and Imperial Bedroom, with Get Happy!! in the mix as well. He’s not one of my favorite artists because of his post-Spike output.
Similar drill. It was Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant that hooked me. They have put out some great music since then, including Automatic for the People (which could be their best work) but it’s those two that brought me on board.
Again, a similar experience: … and His Large Band and Joshua Judges Ruth were the hooks, with The Road to Ensenada in the Automatic for the People slot.
But with the newer artists, it is their recent albums (by definition) that propelled them onto my favorites list. Fiona Apple’s When the Pawn… and Extraordinary Machine are her King of America and Imperial Bedroom. Rufus Wainwright’s Want albums are what secured his place among my favorites. And Belle & Sebastian, who I already loved, put out what could be their two best albums in 2003 and 2006, erasing any doubt that they’re my favorite band.
Looking at this year… will My Morning Jacket, who put out an album that blew me away and currently sits at #2 on my list, find their way into my favorites? Well, I picked up Z, their last critically-acclaimed album, and it’s OK but nowhere close to Evil Urges in my book. So the answer is probably no. But that doesn’t mean Evil Urges isn’t worthy of its spot.
Tift Merritt, on the other hand, is lingering just outside my top ten list of favorite artists. Another album as good as her first three and I’ll have to boot somebody to make room. I feel like three albums isn’t enough to crack a list like that (though I make an exception for Fiona Apple).
Finally, I absolutely hope Elvis Costello has another King of America in him. As great as Momofuku is, it isn’t that. Same goes for Lyle Lovett, R.E.M. and all the rest. There’s a sense sometimes that when artists get fat and happy they lose the spark that helped them produce their very best work, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I look forward to them proving me wrong.