Spin magazine just came out with its list of 125 best albums of the last 25 years. I know, I know — linkbait. It’s Spin magazine, they haven’t been relevant for at least ten years, what would you expect them to do wit a list like this?
Personally I was expecting them to try to assert their relevance. Clearly it’s an organization that’s passed its prime, but they’re not hopeless, right? And after all, few publications (and 0 websites) have the perspective that comes from actually being around for a quarter century. Well, the extent to which they haven’t seized the opportunity is staggering, and makes this project a weird little curio. Here’s the list, if you don’t feel like clicking through the 13 pages across which Spin splits the list up, or are grossed out by their commentary. Of which here’s a random sample, from Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral (which may sound like an easy target, until you notice that it’s #10):
“To me, Downward Spiral builds to a certain degree of madness, then it changes. That would be the last stage of delirium.” That’s Trent Reznor talking to SPIN in 1996, a couple years after the second Nine Inch Nails album vastly expanded the sound of an artist known at the start for his rage. As Ann Powers put it in her review at the time, “Reznor also knows the value of a caress. He understands that after the basic catharsis it offers, pure, aggressive noise numbs, and he always wants to pierce another layer.”
But whatever, you’re celebrating your legacy, you have to quote the pompous crap your editors chose to publish at the time. But let’s concentrate on the picks. In addition to The Downward Spiral, you have a Smiths album at #3 (even the biggest Smiths fans in the world must be rolling their eyes at that one?). Green Day, Oasis, The Strokes, and Liz Phair have albums in the top 50. Further down, you’ll find mediocre albums by Steve Earle, Coldplay, and Moby. We have multiple albums by Elliott Smith, Arcade Fire, The Flaming Lips, and yes, Green Day. But it’s the fact that I have never heard of exactly one band on this list, The Chills (#109, 1990), feels like a warning sign.
So I looked again. There is not a single album from the last ten years in the top ten. Let me say that again: Out of the ten best albums recorded in the last 25 years, Spin Magazine thinks that zero have been recorded in the last decade. And it gets worse. How far down the list do you have to go to find something that is from the last decade? Well, it turns out to be #18 — The Strokes, Is This It (2001). So there you have it: Is This It is the best album of the last ten years, according to Spin Magazine. Better than anything by Animal Collective (#114), better than Grizzly Bear (not on the list), better than TV On the Radio (#86), better than Vampire Weekend (also not on the list). Here are a few other things not on the list, meaning that Spin thinks Moby’s Play and two different Green Day albums are better than anything they’ve done: XX, Deerhunter, Bonnie Prince Billy, Sigur Rós, Devendra Banhart, Yo La Tengo(!!!), The Unicorns, Mirah.
You could spend an hour or two talking about all the shit that Spin has overrated, but you could fill actual volumes with everything they’ve underrated. But yuck. Let’s just quickly mention three and move on. M.I.A.‘s Arular, which is (a) maybe the best dance album since the early 90s (b) the first time a third-world sensibility has broken into the US mainstream, and © a perfect fusion of girl punk, garage, and political rage, gets #103. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is in a #81 (#1 would not have been an unreasonable position for this one). And Missy Elliott. I’ve got a 5,000 word essay in me waiting to get out about why Missy Elliott is amazing, but for now suffice it to say that she’s the first person to successfully combine hip-hop and R&B (thereby saving the latter genre from the sentimental fluff it’d been mired in for over a decade). Missy gets ONE of her four essential first albums on the list, in at #86. On a personal level, Spin Magazine, let me say this: Fuck You.
At this point you might be tempted to come to Spin’s defense a little bit. You might say that it’s hard to fairly evaluate albums that have come out more recently against established classics. You’d say that Spin is guilty, at worst, of playing it safe by giving props to albums that have proven themselves over the long haul. But don’t give in to the temptation. The albums that get the nod on this list are the same albums they’ve touted over and over again, in their magazine, online, and in their 1995 book. (It’s also worth pointing out that if you don’t feel up to the task of compiling the best albums of the last 25 years, it’s a perfectly reasonable response to just not do it.) They loved them from the first, and they love them still. It’s like they knew what they liked then, and have not really felt the need to give the new shit a decent listen, because how could it possibly stack up to Nirvana and The Smiths?
So, just how badly is this 25-year list actually skewed towards the 80s and 90s? Let’s look at the graphs.
Spin believes that the three worst years in the last quarter decade were 2006, 2008, and 2009. I don’t know about you, but my impression is that these have actually been pretty fertile years, both in the indie scene an in mainstream pop. The six biggest spikes on the graph all happen before the 00s. The stinker years of 1990 and 1992 are about average for the 00s. The dramatic falling off after 1999 is, well, dramatic.
But scanning the list, I noticed that a lot of the albums from the last decade seemed to be in the bottom fifth of the list, 100-125. Was there a real end-of list tokenism going on? I wanted to know, so I cooked up a second chart, which shows the original data paired with a second set, which has had everything after #100 removed from the list. So the secondary columns are shorter all over the place, but are they more likely to be shorter over the last 10 years?
Jackpot. Nothin’ after 2007. ’07 and ’08 one album each. Well, you can see for yourself. The 80s and 90s are largely untouched, while the differences in the numbers through the 00s are startling.
So how did Spin miss the boat so dramatically? I don’t sit in on their editorial meetings, so I can’t speculate. But I will say this: in the same way that Rolling Stone Magazine, who’s heyday was in the 70s and 80s, fell into irrelevancy over the 90s, Spin Magazine has fallen into irrelevancy over the last 10 years. It’s not that Pitchfork and the music blogs are doing a better job — Spin just got worse. Partly this is the fault of the magazine model, which requires putting a big star on the cover every month, but I think it has a lot to do with falling out of touch. Maybe they didn’t hire enough younger writers. Some of the albums you’d have expected to find on this list got favorable reviews from Spin when they came out, but when the editors got together, well, I guess the same senility that keeps you from remembering what you had for dinner yesterday when you can remember that amazing summer from a few years ago set in. Just when they could have pulled it all together, they failed.
I haven’t taken Spin Magazine too seriously for a long time. But now I know for sure I never have to take them seriously ever again, which is sort of a relief in a way. One less thing to worry about.