robin and her pal foot-foot
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sgt. pepper

The Beatles placed 11 albums on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. This is more albums than anyone else, although it's a bit of a cheat, since both With the Beatles and its American counterpart, Meet the Beatles, are included. If you consider those two albums as one, the groups placed ten of its thirteen albums on the list, which is a great batting average. Certain assumptions inherent in the poll can be ascertained just by examining the Beatles' appearances. First, this is a poll that believes nearly every Beatle album is worthy of placement. It's a poll that believes a Beatle album is the best of all time. And the third-best. And the fifth-best. And the tenth-best. If we break down the Beatles' recorded career into three parts (more or less: raw beginnings, artful experimentation, fractious professionalism), then this is a poll that finds the middle period the group's peak (Rubber Soul/Revolver/Sgt. Pepper are #5, #3, and #1), the latter period also excellent (White Album #10, Abbey Road #14), early period wonderful but not quite up to the rest of their work (Please Please Me is tops of that group at #39). Since I think Beatle albums are valuable in pretty much the reverse of the poll's order, I'll obviously have some quibbles with their selection. I think that the early Beatles, culminating in A Hard Day's Night, was their best; that Revolver/Sgt. Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour represented a lesser period; that the White Album and Abbey Road were better but not their best.

I've ranted about the over-rated Revolver so many times, I'll leave it alone, except to note that I don't think it's the Beatles' third-best album, much less the third-best album of all time. Rubber Soul is my favorite from the middle period ... I have no complaints about its high ranking. But the notion that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the greatest album of all time is a stupid one, no less so for being so regularly stated. (One reason I'm so frustrated by the overestimation of the album's value is that it makes it nearly impossible to actually enjoy the damn thing. Despite the grouchy nature of what follows, I still like to listen to Sgt. Pepper for its shimmering pop and trendy psychedelia. But it can't bear up under the enormous weight of its reputation as GREATEST WORK IN ROCK HISTORY.)

For starters, where are the great songs? Joe Cocker did something nice in his version of "With a Little Help From My Friends," "A Day in the Life" is as good as this type of music gets, "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" is primo psychedelia. But does anyone really want to make a case for "Fixing a Hole?" And don't get me started with George ... I suppose "Within You Without You" is one of the better George-as-mystic songs, but that's damning with faint praise in my book.

But what about history? As the All-Music Guide notes, "It's possible to argue that there are better Beatles albums, yet no album is as historically important as this." If history is all that matters, though, then the greatest album of all time should be Elvis' Sun Sessions, or at least Robert Johnson's greatest hits. OK, those weren't "albums" ... Sgt. Pepper is the ur-album, the one work that, more than any other, made rock and roll into a long-playing medium. This historical significance can be seen in the influence Sgt. Pepper has had on ... well, what, exactly? "Concept" albums? If you're one of those people who thinks Tommy is a better album than Who's Next, you likely buy into this one. Me, I prefer albums with great songs to albums with a "great concept," and I betcha all those people downloading single-song MP3s agree with me. Sgt. Pepper is a case of the whole being greater than its parts, and it deserves credit for that whole. The White Album has better songs, I think, but it's almost incoherent as an album ... its only concept would seem to be "here's a preview of our solo careers," which is not something you could say for the coherent Sgt. Pepper.

So give Sgt. Pepper bonus points for history, for the gestalt, but if you do, take some of those points away for the lesser songs that make up the gestalt.

But what about the production? I'll revert to rockism here and just note briefly that I'm not convinced "great production" was a positive contribution to rock and roll history. "Talk Talk" by the Music Machine sounds pretty crappy, but I'd rather listen to it a hundred times in a row than listen to "Fixing a Hole" twice. New Day Rising sounds like garbage compared to Sgt. Pepper, but it's a far greater album (RS snuck it in at #495).

Meanwhile, I continue to believe that A Hard Day's Night is the best Beatle album. Every song is great, George didn't write any of the songs, and what the heck, the movie ain't half bad, either. The RS poll placed it at #388, just before Don Henley's End of the Innocence, which is a travesty.

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