I’ve been going through a Rolling Stone record guide, highlighting the albums that have received five stars. It’s a lot of fun, because when I do it, I stumble onto a whole lot of artists I just wouldn’t have thought to check out. In addition to bands I knew about but just slipped through the cracks (Big Star’s Radio “Radio City” is an example), there are plenty of others that I’ve never heard of, but are now on the list (“Two Steps From the Blues” by Bobby “Blue” Bland is just one of these).
There is something about drawing as line in the sand like this that always amuses me. A five star Rolling Stone rating is the magazine’s way of saying that the album is an absolute classic, one that someone with even the slightest interest in the music should check out. Because I’m pretty much into everything, this means that apparently my life is not complete unless I listen to these before I die.
Four stars doesn’t quite cut it. Four stars means that the performance was outstanding, and that yes, if you’re a fan of the style or the artist, you can’t go wrong. Still, though, it’s not a five star album; a five star album means that even if you’re not all that into the music, it will rock your world.
Mind you this is a 2004 edition, so there’s fourteen years of music that’s not here. And because of that, certain artists get short shrift who have since became major big deals. If I just go by this book, for example, I can skip over Kanye West, because the only album that’s here is 2004’s “College Dropout,” which netted four stars ("Late Registration" would later be one of the few albums from the 2000s to collect five).
I can actually just about get up to date with this by checking out whatever albums Rolling stone awarded those precious stars between 2004 and 2018. There are a couple of websites that fill in the blanks.
One, in fact, made me see that I don’t need to waste my time highlighting these albums in my book. Rocklist.net has done it all for me. In fact, they have lists of the five star albums in each of the so far four Rolling Stone record guides: 1979, 1983, 1992, and 2004.
I could make a list out of this of every single five star album in these books. Then I could combine that with whatever else they gave five stars recently.
Rolling Stone actually doesn’t give much of anything five stars lately, unless it’s an album by Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. In fact, just about the only reasonably contemporary artists to get five stars recently were West, The White Stripes (whose "Elephant" got five stars in the magazine, but gets four and a half in the book), and Beyonce (for "Lemonade").
Doing this does make me contemplate the whole swath of music I wouldn’t listen to if I just kept my listening preferences to five star albums. Forget Iggy Pop, he doesn’t make it (though “Fun House” by The Stooges did). Forget The Police. Forget Tom Petty. Yet, at the same time, make sure to pick up “Discography: The Complete Singles Collection” by The Pet Shop Boys.
Then there are the albums that get four and a half stars. Why didn’t they get five? What is it about Outkast’s “Speakerboxx/The Love Below” that causes it to just miss the cut by half a star, while “Aquemini” makes it? Is there not a single album in the selected discography of Pete Seeger that warrants classic status? Apparently not, but there are a couple of those slightly imperfect, four and a half star offerings.
So just to be clear: all you need to know about James Taylor is “Sweet Baby James.” Listen to Talking Heads’s “Remain in Light,” and skip the rest. You don’t have to listen to anything by Taj Mahal, or Joan Baez. You do, however, have to check out “Rings Around the World” by Super Furry Animals (which, alas, is not on Spotify; a best of compilation is there, but who knows if it’s truly a five star compilation, you know?).
Check out “Psychocandy” by The Jesus and Mary Chain and forget about everything else. As for the Grateful Dead, “Workingman’s Dead,” “American Beauty,” “Dick’s Picks, Volume 4,” and that’s it.
And so on.
Ah, well, at least I can still listen to Tom Waits.
But only “Rain Dogs.”