The mythical and peerless ‘classic’ album is a term many people attribute to albums that had an impact that is still felt today, but impact can’t be the only quality that defines a ‘classic’ album, can it? Another popular term is ‘overlooked classic’. While it is possible to classify this term as a contradiction if one places a high value upon mainstream impact and cultural staying power, there are certainly many brilliant records that exist upon a golden pedestal exclusively for the obsessive and adventurous listeners; to put it more blatantly, many a great album has been released under the mainstream radar.
If we subscribe to the idea that a classic is not defined by how well known it is, the possibilities of classics are increased dramatically within each respective genre. There have been plenty of albums that received widespread critical acclaim and high sales; take for example Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, an album that has not only remained commercially successful throughout the years, but has also cemented itself (and the artist) as a household name for a long time into the foreseeable future. Many albums by artists such as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, The Who, and The Doors have had the same effect. It is likely that no one would argue against the fact that many works from the aforementioned artists are classics, but their popularity is not necessarily what makes them classics.
For example, take Massive Attack’s debut album, ‘Blue Lines’. While the album itself was critically well-received, the highest chart position any of the singles managed to garner was 13. Oddly enough, at the time of the album’s release, there wasn’t anything else like it. With the combination of hip-hop break beats, sampling, rapping, soul hooks, and dub grooves, ‘Blue Lines’ pioneered the genre later to be tagged as “trip-hop”. As time has passed and the genre has grown and developed, many look back on the album as an overlooked classic; the likely cause of this revisionism being influence.
But still, a classic album influence alone does not make. The genre of hip-hop is one of the most confusing realms of ‘classics’ that exist. The largest problem with hip-hop and classifying particular hip-hop albums as classic is the rapid growth, progression, and development of the genre. With the steady growth of technology, hip-hop production techniques have changed dramatically and it’s quite easy to hear some of those older records and immediately think “outdated”, but at the same time one can listen to those records and hear many of the pieces of later hip-hop albums. Wasn’t it those albums that laid the foundation for all hip-hop to come? Would Jay-Z have been as successful (or successful at all) if Big Daddy Kane didn’t exist? Would Kanye have made the same chipmunk-soul beats on his early records if RZA never produced “For Heaven’s Sake”? Would Nas have released the ‘Illmatic’ that we know if Rakim didn’t pioneer internal rhymes on ‘Paid in Full’? Did Kool Keith influence MF Doom to eventually take on multiple personas? Would groups like TDE or the A$AP Mob exist without Geto Boys and N.W.A.? All of this is hard to ascertain, but one thing is certain: those older hip-hop albums played an incredibly large role in the progression of said genre. Still, it is unlikely that influence alone can determine a classic. Aesop Rock’s ‘Labor Days’ has found wide praise among fans of alternative hip-hop but its influence within the genre as a whole is markedly miniscule. Could the album still be noted as a classic despite its lack of influence?
What about rock music? As rock has been around for quite a while, its pool of classics are well in place; does rock music still have artists that drop classic albums? Throughout the decades, certainly every original idea that involves a guitar, a drum kit, a bass, and amps has been done hundreds of times over? Perhaps this is true, but that hasn’t stopped the genre’s continued success. Respected artists and groups throughout the years have never been shy in “borrowing” an idea or two from other artists; as Oscar Wilde said, “Talent borrows, genius steals.” On Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”, one can hear a slowed-down version of a riff from Killing Joke’s “Eighties”, released about six years prior. On Green Day’s “Warning”, the featured riff is a near replication of the one featured in The Kinks’ “Picture Book”. Oasis was a band that was never shy about their borrowing habits: take for example their single “Cigarettes & Alcohol” and compare it to T-Rex’s “Get It On”. Even The Smiths borrowed ideas occasionally as exemplified in the similarities between their song “Rusholme Ruffians” and the very similar rhythm in Elvis Presley’s “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame”. Do these songs and their possible derivativeness lessen the credit of the aforementioned artists? Not at all; despite similar ideas, songs (completely original or not) are all about execution. Even if an idea isn’t all original, it can still be impactful depending on the foundation of execution. As a result, one can find an “agreed-consensus” classic in the rock universe. Recently a few not-widely-disputed rock classics have been released such as The Strokes’ ‘Is This It’, Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral’, and The National’s ‘Boxer’. All of these albums borrow elements from older works but yet they still resonate with people.
So then what is a classic? Perhaps a classic doesn’t need to contain any of the qualities I described. Perhaps a classic is undefinable. More than likely, every genre has different fans who would likely call some albums classic because of their bias (and perhaps knowledge) pertaining to the genre of that album. Different fans appreciate different qualities. To continue the hip-hop example: some hip-hop fans value lyrics/technique highly so they may appreciate an album by Chino XL more than a hip-hop fan who places high value upon beats and creative production. Are there definite qualities that characterize a ‘classic’ album? If so, do those qualities vary greatly between genres? Let me know what you guys think!