Friday, October 20, 2017

List and You Shall Hear (III): Joni Mitchell and the Critical Consensus

Having delved into the conceptual issues with NPR's list, I move now to the more profane arena of music criticism. I now get to speak from the gut, engage in pure, unexpurgated subjectivity, and promote my personal tastes. The fun part, obviously, but also the most difficult. Listening to dozens of albums, old and new, continuously for a few months, you descend into what I would call the fog of music, where everything starts to blend into everything else and the faculty of judgment loses its grip.

Be that as it may, I am convinced that better judgments could have been made than what we see in this list, and plan to argue for some of them, while being well aware that such things are outside the realm of strict demonstration. In fact, I shall generally cast aside not only proof or logic but critical consensus, to say nothing of popularity. I don't really give a squawck if my opinions don't conform to what professional music critics think; but since they are rarely univocal in their ratings anyway I guess I stand to risk no more than siding with a small minority. But I have, at least, reasons for my critical opinions, which I will not be shy about offering.

Indeed, this post, which I sincerely hope will be the next to last in the series (I'm a bit exhausted, and have one or two other things to write about before I die) will be limited to confronting the critical consensus on the list's #1 artist, Joni Mitchell. I hasten to say that I have no intention of arguing that she should not be Number One. A Joni Mitchell fan since her second album, I own nearly every one from her first, Joni Mitchell (sometimes referred to as Song to a Seagull, words prominently seen on her artwork for the album cover) through Wild Things Run Fast - somehow For the Roses and Mingus have eluded me so far. No, if I had created the list a lot more of her albums would be on it, displacing the numerous questionable choices I will mention in my next post. My problem is with the particular albums that NPR chose to represent her. So here goes.


1 (Blue), 121 (Hejira). NPR stuck with the standard consensus in selecting Blue and Hejira as Joni Mitchell's greatest achievements. I demur on both accounts. I would demur even if it were not the case that the list makes a de facto effort to represent an artist's most important work, even though it is a putative list of greatest work. Since I think the two albums selected are neither her greatest nor her most important work, this fine distinction does not change my point of view. I will therefore present my heartfelt case that the choices should be Clouds and The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

I am aware of the critical status of Blue – it is the pick of both of the other lists of albums by women I referred to in previous posts, and consistently gets mentioned as the album in which she really came into her own; see the album's Wikipedia page for a long list of the honors it has received in lists of various sorts. Even as I was writing this, along came the latest New York Review of Books with Mark Ford's review of David Yaffe's new biography of Joni Mitchell, where Ford states: "The two highest points in her career, it is generally agreed, are Blue (1971) and Hejira (1976)..." Now, to say it is "generally agreed" is not exactly to state a scientific truth; and even if it were somehow a critical majority opinion, there are other opinions to consider. Indeed, I think the "critical" praise for these two albums says more about the critics than about Joni Mitchell's work: it shows what they were looking for, more than what she was doing. In any case, there has never been any doubt about what the critics say, selecting Blue again and again for this type of praise, while her first three albums have not been similarly recognized even once, to my knowledge. So that is what the critics say, and now I get to say what I say, and happy to have the opportunity.

But before I pursue this argument, let me be clear: I hold Blue in as much reverence as any Joni Mitchell album, nearly all of which through Don Juan's Reckless Daughter occupy an emotional place for this singing-songwriting Parrot next to Dylan and hardly anyone else. (And Shine, her latest 2007 effort which I am only just familiarizing myself with, may be on track to join that group.) Blue found its way to my stereo during a particularly melancholy part of my sophomore year in college, and remains a sort of coronary tattoo, its cover a kind of visual memory of a time when for me, as for Joni, romance occupied an essential, and fairly disastrous, part of my existence. Be that as it may, it would not be my pick as the greatest of her early albums.

Turning to Ford's review again, he says that it was only with Blue "that Mitchell's voice, music and words meshed to create a record that people still find they want to listen to again and again". I don't know which people find that they don't want to listen again and again to Joni Mitchell, Clouds or Ladies of the Canyon. If there are such people then they have a very limited appreciation of the idiom in which she was working at that time. All four of the albums are permanent milestones and eminently listenable.

What distinguishes Blue from what came before? It is not the first time she performs some of her songs on the piano; that would be Ladies of the Canyon, which would be another fine choice for the list, having several of her most well-known songs and introducing her keyboard work. But the keyboard arrangements on Blue are more confident and somewhat more complex; they have a more contemporary sound (listen to the out-of-key fills in "My Old Man" for example), and hint at what Kate Bush and Tori Amos would be doing many years later. But while her keyboard work is creative and appealing, Laura Nyro had quite brilliantly sailed that ship already, so I wouldn't call it pathbreaking. Moreover, as a kind of side effect perhaps, the guitar arrangements on both Ladies of the Canyon and Blue do not have quite the poignance of those on the earlier albums, especially Clouds; the voicings and picking style sound more standard even if the tunings are not. Of course the dulcimer adds a nice new sonority, but this would not make the album stand out.

As for her vocals, they seemed to me quite mature even on Joni Mitchell - say, in "Night in the City" or "Marcie" - and neither lose nor gain much subsequently, though they do change. There is a bit more bottom to them on Blue, but the difference is not dramatic (listen closely to her a Capella vocals on "The Fiddle and the Drum" on Clouds, they do not lack sonority in the lower range) and in any case her earlier soprano was clear and strong enough for her style of music. By comparison, on Kate Bush's 1978 albums she sounds like a squeaky toy compared with her vocals on 1980's Never For Ever. I can hear no such qualitative change in Mitchell's voice. Pointing to her smoking cigarettes as a cause of improvement, as Ford does, seems to me a bit perverse, aside from lacking evidence – the cause was probably age and hormones, not tobacco. (On Shine, on the other hand, I suspect we are hearing the throaty effects of a life of cigarette-smoking, rather than, as in Dylan's case, the results of poor vocal training.) 

There is one very significant musical difference on Blue, something I would characterize as a new sense of freedom in how she matches the melodic lines to the lyrics. I suspect that this is part of what garners the critical attention, though if so it is rarely stated. (In fact, music critic Stephen Holden seems to interpret it as a defect of her later work, as we shall see below.) This is an important feature that will only fully flower by 1975, on The Hissing of Summer Lawns; but the roots are in songs like "California", "River" and especially "The Last Time I Saw Richard" on Blue. I think this was an important and positive development, and one of the strongest arguments for the virtues of Blue; but it characterizes only a few of the later songs on the album.

Next, there is the so-called "confessional" aspect of the songwriting, which Mitchell herself has questioned, though she does not question the transparency of the emotions it captures. Oddly, this same emotional transparency is sometimes considered a key virtue of much later, and different, albums by women, such as Erykah Badu's Baduism and Beyoncé's Lemonade. I'm not sure if this sort of praise is a male-sponsored demand for women to shed everything, skin included, or a female-sponsored cry of "Yeah, she really told them where it's at". But whatever the basis for this alleged virtue, I am not convinced that it is in any way better than plain, honest, poetic songwriting, as found on practically all of Mitchell's work. So, whether you call it "confessional" or transparent or whatever, I don't buy the idea that this is some sort of overriding virtue of Blue.

Lastly, there is sometimes an allusion to technical improvements in the recording techniques. Ford says something about her having "entered Studio C at A&M Studios in Hollywood to record Blue" as if this had some technical importance. I don't know what that would be; she used the same engineer as before, Henry Lewy, and the capabilities of the studio count for very little in the relatively simple arrangements that she used in those days.

Now let's talk about Clouds for a minute. Put the record on, and it does not take 30 seconds to hear that this is something completely new, different, almost revolutionary. Nobody in 1969 was writing acoustic songs with the dissonant, complex chords that announce the song "Tin Angel" – unless it was Joni herself, in "I Had a King" on Joni Mitchell. Nobody was picking a guitar the way she does. It was not simply the alternate tunings, which she had picked up from David Crosby, though she immediately puts these to completely different uses than anyone before her. But the style of guitar picking itself is new. If there is something like a Merle Travis picking style going on, it is so radically modified that it cannot be classified as anything but Mitchell-style. After playing the opening arpeggio of "Tin Angel", she announces the end of a phrase by repeating the final chord, just for emotional effect; this repetition is ramified throughout the album, the use of repetition on "Roses Blue" being particular dramatic. She varies the direction, timing and voicing of the picking, all in contrast to traditional fingerstyle methods. The combination of a new harmonic vocabulary and a completely personalized guitar style to match have the effect of ringing in a new kind of acoustic music. This accomplishment, I believe, is not matched by anything on Blue.

As for songwriting, Clouds has two of her best, most famous and most widely covered songs, "Both Sides Now" and "Chelsea Morning" (the first of which proved quite important to the career of Judy Collins). While at least half the songs on Blue have the feel of familiar tunes for Joni Mitchell fans, only "Carey" is really in the same class as not only poetic and deep but having an irresistible hook. The lyrics to both the "hits" on Clouds are extraordinarily poetic and unpretentiously philosophical, as well as emotionally true; the melodic lines are somehow complex while still having immediate appeal. Those two songs are in no sense uniquely accessible, as songs like "I Don't Know Where I Stand" and "The Gallery" leave nothing to be desired. But it is the sense of innovation, of going outside normal expectations, that gives the album its unique quality. Not only "Tin Angel", with its aptly handled dissonances, but "Songs to Aging Children Come", which adds unusual vocal overdubs, and in particular the amazing piece of poetry-psychology-social criticism "Roses Blue". The album as a whole is a major landmark in songwriting.

Mitchell herself has referred to what she was doing then as a kind of "art song", and while their harmonic and melodic complexity might not compare with the Lieder of Schubert or Schumann, or even with the jazz inflected idioms of the Great American Songbook, for the medium of voice and acoustic guitar it was revolutionary. Her guitar in Clouds speaks through careful arrangements that are each completely unique and designed to match the rhythms and emotions of the lyrics. I would say no less of her first album, and it is a slim edge that makes Clouds the better choice. The song that really decides the day is "Roses Blue", where a relatively simple melodic line becomes a formal and emotional knockout. The song takes aim at a trend in the women's movement that tended to legitimize dubious mystical ideas as if their very unscientific character were somehow a suppressed feminist narrative. (We can see where the anti-scientific bias manifested in that ideology leads today.) One of my contentions about the list has been that albums which have particular resonance (I hate that word, but whatever) with respect to the liberation of women should have a preferred place - or rather, that the criteria for including and rating albums should include this consideration, certainly over ordinary Billboard chart positions, perhaps over some aesthetic considerations as well. That doesn't mean they have to be women's liberation anthems, just that they should have a place in the conversation. "Roses Blue" certainly has it. Though Robert Christgau mentioned this song as a high point in his review of the album, I worry that too many people overlook it as just a song about an offbeat friend. It's a devastating piece of social observation, with a sonority that no one had ever heard before in an acoustic guitar part. For anyone who wants to listen, this is a kicker that has no obvious match on Blue or anywhere else.

To put it bluntly, Blue was a safe choice, not only today but when it came out: a way to recognize Joni Mitchell's unique contribution to popular music up to that time without having to deal with the sometimes harsh but seriously innovative aesthetics of Clouds. I suspect that critics would similarly latch on to Court and Spark, another gorgeous but relatively safe album, to represent her later style, had not the intermediate option of Hejira appeared.


Well, enough said about that; I know I am fighting a tidal wave of critical opinion about Blue, an album I love and revere anyway, but not as much as Clouds. More disturbing is the supposedly settled critical consensus on Hejira, which would not be my pick of later Joni Mitchell albums by a long shot. While I have come to like it overall, this album has none of my favorite songs of hers. The best song on the album is the famous "Coyote", but for me, the re-used metaphor "prisoner of the white lines of the freeway" feels less sincere than in Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever", written 6 years earlier. (I don't understand why Ford "was surprised to learn" that the album was "largely written... while Mitchell was revved up on cocaine". Did he not get it?) 

The second best song is probably "Song for Sharon", and it succeeds precisely because it re-uses ideas from "Shades of Scarlet Conquering", which I take to be one of the greatest recorded compositions in popular music and the high point among the 10,000-foot peaks of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The original elements in "Song for Sharon" are not really to my taste, including some of the chord changes and the chorus of "De de de de de.." 

As for the rest of the songs on Hejira, while they have something of that Joni Mitchell flair, not one stands up to the best material on The Hissing of Summer Lawns: "In France They Kiss on Main Street", "The Jungle Line", "Edith and the Kingpin", "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow", the title track and "Harry's House", as well as the aforementioned masterpiece, are all better than all the other songs on Hejira. (I will grant, not to be completely one-sided, that the appealing "Blue Motel Room" is a much better take on the blues than "Centerpiece", the attachment to "Harry's House"; but the latter is a cover anyway.) Lastly, allow me as an acoustic guitarist to object to the general quality of the guitar sound on Hejira; without trying to research it, I'm going to guess she was using a plugged-in Ovation or else an acoustic with a cheap pickup rather than miking a good acoustic. This has worked well on many recordings, but here I find the guitar sound tinny and lacking in the sparkle a good acoustic guitar can bring to a song.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns sounds entirely fresh more than 40 years later. Perhaps her incorporation of African rhythms in "The Jungle Line"  has something to do with that, as artists from the Talking Heads and Paul Simon to Vampire Weekend and other contemporary groups followed her lead. The superior work of Tom Scott and the L.A. Express also has to be mentioned as a virtue of this album. Finally, tracks like "The Jungle Line" and "Shadows and Light" present her more experimental side, something not strongly in evidence since Clouds, and especially welcome in the context of the super-strong set of jazzrock songs.

The devaluing of The Hissing of Summer Lawns when it first came out was a monumental misjudgment of popular music criticism. Stephen Holden, after liberally praising Mitchell's lyrics on the album in a Rolling Stone review, represented the common view when he intoned:

          If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell's interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production...
          Four members of Tom Scott's L.A. Express are featured on Hissing, but their uninspired jazz-rock style completely opposes Mitchell's romantic style. Always distinctly modal, Mitchell's tunes for the first time often lack harmonic focus. They are free-form in the most self-indulgent sense, i.e., they exist only to carry the lyrics. With the exceptions of "Shades of Scarlet Conquering" and "Sweet Bird," neither of which boasts a strong tune but at least have appropriately lovely textures, the arrangements are as pretentiously chic as they are boring.

A retraction by Holden would at least mean he wouldn't have to carry the stigma of these tasteless comments to the grave. As I noted above, there is a newfound sense of freedom, beginning in the latter part of Blue, in setting the lyrics to music; that is literally the only grain of truth in the whole absurd diatribe. It counts as a virtue, not a defect, of this kind of writing that it is relatively liberated from regular metrical coupling while remaining highly melodic. As for writing a tune, anybody who can't sing most of the songs on The Hissing of Summer Lawns while walking down the street does not have an ear, much less a voice. The fact that she could write tunes, from Blue on, is sufficiently demonstrated by "Carey", "River", "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire", "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio", "Help Me", "A Free Man in Paris", "Raised on Robbery", and others if you care to listen. Appreciating the melody of "In France They Kiss on Main Street", "Shades of Scarlet Conquering" and other songs from this period requires having an ear that can take in more than a couple of bars at a time. To say it is not melody is like saying that Mahler didn't write melodies. Failure to appreciate them is in the ear of the beholder, not the skill of the composer. As for the putdown of the L.A. Express, since the album practically invented "jazzrock" it is worth asking what Holden would take to be "inspired" jazzrock.

Most critics neither appreciated nor understood the album any more than Holden. Many reacted to the critical social portraits in the lyrics as if their bright-eyed Woodstock child had become jaded, the sensitive lovesick girl of "Help Me" suddenly developed a backbone – a reaction they never had to Dylan's endless trail of caustic personal and social criticism. As "Roses Blue" and many other compositions show, this was the same Joni Mitchell. The new material speaks of the same type of emotional struggles in the third person as some of her earlier material does in the first person, which is really just a poetic choice, not a change of personality.

Moreover, after all she did for contemporary music, you would think that critics would have noticed that in the same year she and Steely Dan (Katy Lied, 1975) perfected a new art form, building on their earlier nascent efforts in jazzrock. The opposite was sadly the case, as critical opinion shied away from the rich new sonorities; as if the Crosby, Stills and Nash sound were going to define music forever. In retrospect, this just was the "rock" side of the fusion experiments that had been going on in jazz, where critics were not so dismissive of innovation and new sounds.

While the critics were busy panning the album, which hit the cutoff racks pretty quickly, my two musician brothers and I were playing it daily from almost the moment it came out. And among musicians, at least, we were not alone. Consider the continuation of the first quote from the Ford review above: "...but for Prince, an early fan and later ardent friend, it was The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) that stood out as her greatest achievement." Okay, glad that that was preserved for posterity. Next, please read the following from Elvis Costello's 2004 Vanity Fair article and interview with Mitchell, posted on her web site:

E.C. ...The sophisticated life you wrote about in "Free Man in Paris" and 'People's Parties" was not exactly everyone's experience... The very next record you did was, in my opinion, the masterpiece of that time.

J.M. What is it?

E.C. The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Suddenly you are talking about the isolation of wealth: "She patrols that fence of his / To a Latin drum…." And for some reason the release of this marvelous record marked a critical fracture and a break in the commercial continuity of your career. However, I think that this accidentally liberated you.

J.M. When you reach that kind of successful pinnacle, it is the nature of the business and the press and everything that they go about tearing you down.

So for at least two musicians whose opinion we would tend to respect, The Hissing of Summer Lawns outshines Hejira and everything else of that time. You can also take a look at the Pitchfork review for references to Björk and Julia Holter praising "The Jungle Line". Seems like quite a few musicians "get it" about this album.

The British are typically more attracted than Americans to popular music that contains experimental elements – witness the comparative popularity of Kate Bush in England and the U.S. Thus in Alex Macpherson's celebration of Mitchell's 70th birthday in his music blog for The Guardian, after duly referring to Blue as "Mitchell's 1971 masterpiece", he then identifies The Hissing of Summer Lawns as "my personal favorite of her albums". According to the album's Wikipedia entry, British music journalist Howard Sounes, in a review from 2006, "has called The Hissing of Summer Lawns Mitchell's masterpiece, 'an LP to stand alongside Blood on the Tracks'". Author and music journalist David Bennun begins his 40th-year retrospective with the line, "Nobody has ever made an album like this," which he repeats later in the essay. "It doesn’t really matter whether The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is Mitchell’s best album" he continues. "What does matter is that anyone who thrills to, say, Blue, as well they might, may find this even more thrilling if they’ve yet to hear it." My favorite line from the review, though, is his irreverent characterization of the irreverence with which Mitchell stepped over the line in the late 1970's: "People think Bowie, or Prince, were daring. People are right. But Mitchell risked everything, and lost much of it, and a fuck she did not give." I'm not absolutely sure that she was unconcerned about the loss of popularity after Mingus, but I am sure that her departure from the folk-pop mainstream beginning with The Hissing of Summer Lawns was one of the most courageous turns any songwriter, male or female, has ever taken; and considering that it was also one of the most musically successful, more's the pity that NPR chose to overlook it and stay with the safe choice.

Winston Cook-Wilson, the author of the Pitchfork review mentioned above, is from Brooklyn, not Britain; he sums up the album with this oversophisticated comment: "The Hissing of Summer Lawns was one of the earliest and most high-profile albums by a major pop artist—certainly by a female one—to theorize what a distinctly avant-garde-informed pop music might sound like. Its musical vocabulary—as well as its lyrical one—fell magnificently between acoustic realism and symbolic fantasy." Ahem – I'd settle for, "It's a great, deep, important album in every possible way." But he too recognizes its pathbreaking nature. Perhaps American opinion is glacially moving away from Holden's myopic review.


Now, having said all that, the question of which two albums were chosen by NPR is perhaps less important than the fact that at least Joni Mitchell, Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira all belong on the list in place of quite a few of the albums now on it; the choice of two is just a nod in the direction of "fairness" to lesser artists. Fairness to artists is not what a "greatest albums" list is about, so the omission of the other Joni Mitchell albums is inappropriate. (If the "150 greatest albums made by men" includes half a dozen Dylan albums, 10 Beatles albums, 8 Led Zeppelin albums, etc. then tough luck for all those artists with very good albums that just aren't that good.) It would have made more sense to create a list of "Greatest Female Recording Artists", to be represented by one album each, but that is not what was done. Taking the list on its own terms, you could get rid of most of the contemporary singer-songwriter albums (Joanna Newsom, Gillian Welch, Ani DiFranco, Iris Dement, etc.), to say nothing of a lot of popular trash, and replace them with any of these and the quality of the list would be improved.

This ends my effort to correct the injustices of history with regard to the critical evaluation of Joni Mitchell albums. I agree, there are more important things to debate in the world, like how to end war and poverty and racism. But I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to have my say on this, and post it on the world's bulletin board. In my next installment I will offer my reactions to the rest of the list, in much less detail (or the world's bulletin board will run out of space).

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

List and You Shall Hear (II): NPR's "150 Greatest Albums Made By Women"

In this post I continue my critique of NPR's "150 Greatest Albums Made By Women"; scroll down to the previous post for the first part.

Whose Rankings? Which Recordings?

(The heading is a reference, no doubt too obscure for many, to a book on ethics by Alisdair McIntyre, entitled Whose Justice? Which Rationality?")

It was a choice, not a necessity, to make a list of albums rather than bodies of work. It was a second choice to list them albums according to a ranking of "greatness". Both of those choices were mistaken, in my view.

First of all, choosing one or two albums by outstanding artists is very arbitrary. As mentioned below, I'm happy with ranking Joni Mitchell at the top of the heap; but I disagree with both the album choices made on her behalf, even if they happen to be critically popular choices. The problem is the same throughout popular music. For example, there is some kind of critical consensus that The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the two greatest albums ever made; the other common choice is The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. But I know rock critics and other music fans who think Sg.t Pepper is not even a good album, and certainly not The Beatles' best album, though they would agree that The Beatles are the greatest rock group ever. Ditto Pet Sounds – some think it is highly overrated, though I have yet to meet (and would fight) anyone who thinks the Beach Boys are not at least one of the greatest American rock groups (for me, hands down the greatest). So why honor this or that album when the real achievement is the artist's corpus of work?

Had this caution been taken, it would have been clear, for example, that whatever the merits of Lauryn Hill's 2.The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it is a bit bizarre to find this effort, which was followed up with nothing, as second in a list of the greatest popular music by women. The work of artists who were excluded from the list, like Joan Armatrading and Grace Slick, would be much harder to ignore if bodies of work were the subject. Picking individual albums opens the door to not only very arbitrary choices but to sidelining women whose overall contributions are greater, whether or not they have an individual album considered to be one of the "greatest".

Having decided to select albums, it was certainly not necessary to rank them #1 through #150. What does it mean to place Liz Phair's 31. Exile in Guyville 63 places higher than Sheryl Crow's 94. Tuesday Night Music Club? It seems odd in itself, but meaningless in the context of all the other possibilities. Why shouldn't Sade's 22. Diamond Life be closer to #1? Why is Bobbie Gentry's 83. Ode to Billie Joe ranked higher than Marianne Faithfull's 129. Broken English? Virtually every entry in this ranking seems debatable when compared with other entries. So what was the point?

My feeling is that the classical, folk, rock, Hip-hop, world music and jazz albums are all incommensurable with albums in the other categories. There's no picking a Pauline Oliveros recording and comparing it with Shania Twain or any such thing, no way Mercedes Sosa can be ranked in greatness with No Doubt. This is all just a big mashup: there really is no order to speak of, though you can speak of a very broad consensus that certain albums are among the greatest ever, some are among the most important, some are among the most original or unique in some way and some are of great interest to women's rights, causes, self-esteem and the like.

Lists of "greatest albums" are in general a lot of nonsense, as is obvious from a comparison of NME's "500 greatest" with Rolling Stone's "500 greatest": neither the top 10, the top 50, the top 100, nor any other grouping is even remotely the same from one list to another. NPR's list has no added legitimacy for being a list of only albums by women; it's an absurdly arbitrary ranking of women's album rather than an absurdly arbitrary ranking of all albums. This is not exactly a great leap for womankind.

Sung (mainly) By Women

The idea is that the list represents albums "made by women"; but that phrase is never defined, and no more than a handful of the selections would actually fit a strict definition of it. Just about all of the choices are collections of "songs sung mainly by women", albeit with male vocals in various harmony and sometimes lead roles, while in some cases the songwriting, production, instrumental performance, engineering, mastering, and just about every other aspect of the album was done by men. It's not the case with all the selections, but having been largely, in reality, "made by men", was obviously not reason enough to avoid including some of these in a list of albums "made by women".

Let's discuss some of the actual levels of involvement women have with these albums:

Overall artistic control by women: In some cases a woman clearly has overall artistic control of the final product - Tori Amos, Mariah Carey and Madonna are good examples. On some of her albums Sheryl Crow wrote the songs, sang lead, played about a dozen different instruments, produced the album and had female recording and technical engineers. That is clearly an album "made by women", even if there were also men involved in various important roles. Later so-called "girl groups" (I guess this NPR initiative might suggest that we re-think that term?) like The Bangles, The Go-Gos and Indigo Girls substantially controlled most artistic aspects of their recordings. I can't say exactly how many of the albums on the list fit into this category but my suspicion is that more than half do not.

Limited artistic control by women: Here the situation is more mixed. Take The Ronettes, who released just one studio album (in 1964): they were clearly in command of the vocals, and among the songwriters who contributed to the album were two women, Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil. The producer, of course, was Phil Spector, whose influence on the final product was enormous, and the other songwriters, all the session musicians, and many other participants were male. On Shania Twain's zillion-selling album Come On Over she sang all the lead vocals and co-wrote all the songs. The other writer was her husband Robert "Mutt" Lange, who produced and had overall artistic control over the album, and virtually all other musical and technical personnel were male.

Women as more or less equal partners: Many of the mixed gender groups in the list – The B-52's, the Cocteau Twins, Fleetwood Mac, No Doubt, etc. – are more or less equal partnerships between male and female members. As I point out below, if these groups belong in the list, then the #1 group in this category is Jefferson Airplane, due to Grace Slick's foundational role among women in rock; but they are not even recognized in the list. (They are, however, in the similar ListChallenges list mentioned in the previous post, where Surrealistic Pillow is #19 out of 100.) On the other hand, Evanescence is largely dominated by Amy Lee, but they are not included either. It seems that the canonizers have simply appropriated groups or albums they liked as "made by women" without any consistent criteria for what that means.

Sung by women and that's just about all: Albums that are all but the opposite of "made by women" are also represented in the list. There is little reason to question the fact that the #14 choice, Whitney Houston, introduced one of the greatest and most influential voices in the history of popular music – perhaps the greatest pop vocalist ever. That surely deserves recognition, but her own vocal style is virtually all she was responsible for on the album. Clive Davis made the executive decisions, Jermaine Jackson and a bunch of Michaels - Masser, Walden, Kashif (born Michael Jones) – teamed up to write and produce songs for Whitney to sing; add three more Michaels (Barbiero, Mancini, O'Reilly) in the engineering and mixing room, and a host of mostly male studio musicians and vocalists, and you have an album. Britney Spears had practically nothing to do with ...Baby One More Time other than singing the lead vocals (and not with one of the greatest voices of all time, either); she did not select the songs or make other key artistic decisions about the album. On her eponymous Aaliyah the singer did little other than sing: while she gets "Executive Producer" credit, almost all the songwriting and actual production were handled by men. (Missy Elliott penned the lyrics to one song and had some artistic input on the project.) Nico's Chelsea Girl was written, produced, arranged and engineered entirely by male former Velvet Underground members as well as folkies like Dylan and Tim Hardin. Nico did not even like the album, as it was far from the sound she hoped to project, and if she had fans they did not show up in droves to buy it. You could call it one of the 150 Albums Most Inappropriately Dominated By Men, but not really an album "made by women".

So the notion of "made by women" needs clarification, to say the least. Of course, an album with a female lead vocalist gives the impression that she "made" the album, but while the contribution of the lead vocals is of course very important, it can also give a misleading picture of the extent to which it is the lead singer's album. When The Monkees turned out to have done nothing but sing on their first two albums they were ridiculed for it (unfairly, since the session musicians who had played the instruments had done the same for hundreds of other recordings, without any outcry). Singing a song is quite different from the kind of artistic control that deserves the "made by" label.

Here, then, are a few options for a tighter definition of "greatest albums made by women":

1. Albums on which a woman was among the featured performers and had overall artistic control.
2. Albums on which a woman was the featured performer and is credited with writing most of the music.
3. Albums that were almost completely created by a team of women that included the performers, songwriters and key production and recording personnel.

Some of the albums chosen by NPR would not meet any of these sets of conditions, and very few would meet all of them, leaving the impression that "made by women" really came down to having prominent female vocals.

It's not always possible to know how much a female lead vocalist deserves credit for an album. Reba McEntire has recorded 29 albums, on each of which she has written at most one song and almost never plays an instrument. She occasionally receives credit for production, and I suppose the listmakers were careful to select an album (Rumor Has It) on which she is credited as producer. She presumably selects at least some of the songs she will record; or does she only exercise veto power? It would take some research to figure out exactly how much control she has over her albums, and whether they deserve the "made by a woman" label. (She at least gets the blame for both singing and "acting" on her insufferable "Back to God" video.)

1964: It Was a Very Good Year, But...

The decision to begin in 1964 and include only albums (as opposed to a body of work in any recorded format) has the odd effect of eliminating a very large number of black women who set the standard for women in music. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Eartha Kitt, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson, among many others, seem like they are being relegated to a sort of fuzzy background role for no other reason than that Powers et al. thought it would be best to only consider albums from 1964 on. Not a few critically important white women, like Patsy Cline and Mother Maybelle Carter, are apparently excluded on similar grounds.

On the other hand, some albums seem to have made the list merely because they were post-1964; how else do you explain the relatively unimportant Nina Simone album I Put a Spell On You dropping into the #3 slot, replacing the much better sung and played The Amazing Nina Simone (1959) and other earlier choices? I'm really not sure how the choice of 1964 is motivated. For example, had 1963 been chosen, the list might have included Heat Wave by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, He's So Fine by The Chiffons, and about a dozen other albums by artists who were either left off the list or are represented by later and not necessarily better work. The so-called "album era" in pop music was really ushered in by the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds in 1966; but artists have made albums since the early 1950's at the latest, and made them regularly since the late 50's, so the argument that the list should be confined to "album era" recordings has no particular force and is not actually captured by the choice of 1964.

Nor does the list of "greatest albums" consistently show a choice of great albums, as the above point about Nina Simone demonstrates. For another example, Tammy Wynette's single "Stand By Your Man" is certainly one of the most important (and perhaps "greatest") country music songs (albeit, ironically, a target of feminist ire) but the album of the same name on which the song appeared is of no special importance, being filled out largely with naive tearjerkers about emotionally wounded children and other pap; it is there simply because the single is on it. It's clear that the ill-defined criteria for being on this list could not even guide the selection of albums, leading to many mediocre recordings that contain a notable song or two getting on the list.

To return to the first point, if you want a new canon you can't exclude many of the most canonic musicians because they didn't make albums. For what exactly is a canon of albums? Something like a canon of novels? Which naturally will not include Chaucer, Flannery O'Connor or Alice Munro, since none of their most celebrated works are novels. But a canon of albums seems more arbitrary than one of novels; for even in the so-called "album era" an album may have been more than a collection of songs – a form of composition, in a sense – but it certainly was not always. An album does not have to hang together like a novel (squawck... the Parrot has perused a contemporary novel or two that hangs together about like jungle mist, but forget that for a moment). I suspect we shall soon see a companion list of "25 Greatest Pre-Album Era Recorded Legacies of Women" or some such silly acknowledgment that 1964 is not a cutoff with any real historical merit.

That albums of the woman, by the woman and for the woman shall not perish...

Why not require that the albums really be in some sense for or about women, or that they lend support to the advancement of women's rights or equality or recognition, or somehow make a statement of importance to women, or enhance the position of women in music... or something like that? Now, clearly there are albums on the list that do this; and just as clearly, there are many that do not, and have nothing more to say about women than some very boilerplate expression of a woman's side of romantic relationships. Some of these albums sold a lot of copies; but even if every household in the Western world had one they would have little to say that had not been said before, either musically or lyrically. A truly new and liberating voice in country music is hard to come by. The Dixie Chicks might be on this kind of list, maybe Iris DeMent, but most of the Nashville crowd would not be. Shania Twain, for example, makes some feints in the direction of feminist talk, but the sort of feminism that sells between 30 and 40 million copies is not going to push any buttons or break through any glass ceilings.

Some of the most clearly and consistently feminist sentiments are expressed by worthy folk artists not on the list. What sort of list is this without Holly Near or Peggy Seeger or other outspoken feminists who also have a huge recorded legacy? The idea that the list should favor albums or artists that have something to say about women's rights and struggles seems not to have occurred to the Powers That Be. Reorganize it along these lines and many things would be quite different. Tori Amos would get more than a 27th-place nod for her first album; she does everything but explicitly proselytize about women's issues in her music, and she does that in other ways. Suzanne Vega would not have been overlooked (which is unaccountable on almost any grounds anyway), and even Ferron might have been recognized. Christina Aguilera, bizarrely omitted from the parade of superstars, might have had a better claim to a slot than Mariah Carey, and any of half a dozen country singers could have replaced Reba McEntire (Carrie Underwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter would be two good choices).

To put it in a nutshell, the apparent feminist impulse behind the list and the feminist content of the albums themselves seem to diverge far more than had to be the case.
Nothing would have been lost, and some moral ground might have been gained, by at least taking into consideration what an artist or an album has done for women.

Gratuitous "Greatness"

There really is nothing to the term "greatest" in the list's title, which is why a lot of the comments I have heard both on public forums and in private are, to be nice, dismissive of the whole undertaking. To be not so nice, a good deal of the list appears to be nothing but pop fluff, recordings with absolutely nothing to speak for them other than female lead singers and high chart positions or album sales. The lack of taste exhibited in the selection of various Z100-type pop stars, country divas and disco queens leaves one guessing as to why some of these superficial recordings made the list while other equally, or perhaps less superficial recordings of the same type and caliber failed. Thumbs down on Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, for some reason, each of whom has recorded material that ought to be of some interest to creators of a women's music "canon", while others who hardly seem like apostles of anything except Gold, in all its forms, somehow adorn the list. There's no accounting for taste, but there is for judgment, and there doesn't seem to have been much of that exercised here.

In the previously mentioned exchange between Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, Morris comments that "I think that the list is trying to strike a balance between greatness and importance. But sometimes, I think it assumes that importance is a form of greatness." To which Wortham says (a little later in the exchange), "It’s literally called the 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women." Well, that's just it, and I think Morris is being overly charitable: while selling itself as a "greatest" list it tries to strike a balance between greatness, importance, fairness and mere popularity. A popular album, no matter how popular, is not necessarily either important or great. The two commentators then seem to agree that a recording by Destiny's Child doesn't really merit inclusion. But the other question is why they chose The Writing's on the Wall rather than Survivor, with its feminist anthems? (I agree that neither of these has the degree of inventiveness one finds in Beyoncé's later solo work.)

In general: if you are going to do a list like this – a curated list, not the results of an online poll or the choice of a specialized audience – it ought to have some clear criteria for "greatness", which this list doesn't. Here is one example of criteria for a list of "greatest" albums by women:

1. It should be important for its musical and lyrical qualities, not merely another blockbuster entry in a tired genre.
2. The level of women's contributions should be considered carefully: being sung by a woman is important, but songwriting, production and any other significant contribution are important too.
3. It must have some quality – in the lyrics or any other way - that speaks to the liberation of women in some important respect or other: emotionally, economically, sexually, politically, even musically, but in any case it must have something significant to say about women per se.

This is just one example of a set of guidelines for critical judgment. The choices should be based on something more than record sales, or having been listened to enthusiastically by your friends at college. Or being boldly presented by someone in the selection group and receiving nods of assent, which, I suspect, is something like how many of these choices and rankings came to be.

Political notes

The last of these guidelines deserves some comment. What I do not mean by it is that in order to be on a list like this an album should have some explicit feminist content. My worry is that Powers and her associates think that many of these albums already do. But if so, I suspect that what counts as being a feminist statement is something like Lemonade, and I have to demur from that view. A woman stating forcefully and eloquently how hurt she is by a man's infidelity, and poetically describing the pain, anger, recovery, reconciliation and redemption that follows is a great thing in itself, but it is not a political statement at all. A sensitive male who has been similarly hurt could express the same set of feelings, go through the same emotional process. (I know I have; I don't suppose I have any claim to uniqueness in that respect.) Many, many other descriptions of relationships gone bad pepper these albums, and popular music in general, but have no feminist political content on account of that.

The country song "What Hurts the Most" describes in aching detail the aftermath of a breakup: written by two men, it was recorded by both male and female groups and solo artists without change of content. Another example is "Since U Been Gone", the Max Martin-Dr. Luke song made famous by Kelly Clarkson but also covered by various male vocalists. The song is also a bit of an emotional echo of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright". Emotions like "I can breathe for the first time" and "You just kind of wasted my precious time" are not political statements. Infidelity, emotional abuse, control issues, and the like, are gender-neutral hazards of relationships.

Political claims for music have to be judged according to the context in which they are made. Neither "Respect" nor "The Greatest Love of All" are necessarily statements either about either racism or the oppression of women, but they came be perceived that way due to the larger social context. "Respect" was written by a man (Otis Redding), about a man looking to get little respect at home for working to support his family. The lyrics to "The Greatest Love of All" were written by a woman, but as the theme song for a biopic about Muhammed Ali, who had long ago adopted the title "The Greatest". But in an era when there were still serious limitations on the respect a woman could expect either at work or at home, Aretha's forceful (and slightly rewritten) version of the song rang out with an unmistakable message. So did Whitney Houston's version of the Michael Masser-Linda Creed composition, at a time when the oppression of minority women had begun to be recognized as a struggle with its own dynamics. But though this can happen, it does not mean that every time a woman sings of respect or self-fulfillment a political statement is being made. Plenty of women, like plenty of men, are too full of themselves already to be honored as apostles of feminism for being independent, sexually explicit, or critical of something perceived to be a male defect.

What my third criterion suggests (and as with the other two I do mean they are simply suggestions, conversation-starters) is that the album either (1) represents a particularly original aesthetic accomplishment that focuses attention on what women can contribute to popular music (this, I would argue, is why Lemonade belongs on the list; ditto for Horses and many others); or (2) turns our attention to the experience of being a woman (which might include explicit political issues like rape and abortion, but need not), to issues of sex role stereotypes, or to women's efforts at self-realization and the challenges that faces, in a forceful and original way. I don't know how many of the albums on the list would survive this requirement, but I do know that several albums not on the list would do so. A lot of them come from the folk music genre, whose severe underrepresentation is one of the worst things about the list. Joni Mitchell's "Roses Blue", Janis Ian's "At Seventeen", and Suzanne Vega's "Luka" are subtle but intense contemplations of particularly female experiences. The first song is on neither of the selected Joni Mitchell albums, and the latter two artists are not even represented.
Well I guess I have made enough noise about the general considerations that went into making the list. In the next (and last) post I turn to consideration of specific selected albums, and to some omissions.