My Review of the NEW Rolling Stone Album Guide (written in November 2004)

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Rolling Stone jumped the shark, and in all honesty I can’t even remember the last time the magazine was any good, or even if it ever was in the first place. Certainly the following events are notable in the magazine’s putrid decline in recent years:

But I digress, this isn’t supposed to be a rant about how bad Rolling Stone is, this is supposed to be a rant against the latest version (i.e. the NEW version) of the Rolling Stone Album Guide. Unlike the last guide (which was published in 1992), which assigned four writers to “review” an absurd amount of albums, many of which it was painfully obvious they hadn’t actually bothered to listen to before “reviewing” (dead blues guys automatically received 5 star reviews, or so it seemed), this guide has 70 writers chipping in. And in all honesty, some of the writers are quite good and many of the entries (such as The Drifters entry I just read) are useful and enlightening. However, when all is said and done this book is a huge disappointment (though I’m not sure why I expected any better), and for several reasons.

Amazingly, despite assembling this book with a Tom Scholz-like haste and having a seemingly endless pool of resources, the book is haphazardly compiled, almost as if it was rushed together in a single weekend. Their choices for including and excluding certain artists is puzzling to say the least. It’s bad enough that they decided to ditch important lesser known artists such as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, King’s X, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Spirit (for starters), and that they excluded newer artists not in the previous guide such as American Music Club, The Sundays, and Tindersticks (for starters; I could list many more worthy artists who were passed over who shouldn't have been), but it’s simply inexcusable to discard major artists such as Louis Armstrong, Deep Purple, George Harrison, Nine Inch Nails, and Metallica (only the biggest hard rock band of the past two decades!). Other artists such as John Cale and Fairport Convention are included but with glaring discography omissions, while negligible artists such as Paula Abdul, Disturbed, and Puddle Of Mudd are included instead of far more worthy candidates.

Also, the anti-prog and hard rock bias that Rolling Stone is known for are in full effect. They sometimes try to rectify this, like giving the first 2 Black Sabbath albums 5 stars (hilarious when you consider the one star reviews those albums got in the first guide) and giving Yes albums good reviews (cluelessly giving 4 star reviews to Tales From Topographic Oceans and Drama and only a 3 star rating to The Yes Album), but these are the exception rather than the rule, and rest assured only after any of these artists have become somewhat fashionable in the eyes of the public at large are they given their just due. Like Robert Christgau, the awful self-proclaimed "Dean of Rock Criticism", J.D. Considine shouldn't even be allowed to listen to hard rock, let alone review it, 'cause he invariably gets things ass backwards whenever he attempts to review any such artists.

Needless to say, hip-hop (Tupac, Eminem), punk (Ramones, Sex Pistols), L.A. singer-songwriters (Jackson Browne) and other genres that have been longtime Rolling Stone favorites are given their just due (i.e. are overrated), and at least having more writers makes me think that most of the critics actually listened to the albums before writing about them this time. However, horror of horrors, Rob Sheffield seems to have written about 25% of the book! Yeah, there’s a great idea, assign your worst critic to review a workload that ensures that it's all but impossible that he actually listened to all of the albums he "reviewed". Witness his Kinks, Pink Floyd, and Neil Young entries; did he bother even listening to about half these albums? Are those Pink Floyd reviews really the best he can do? (shudders)

Elsewhere, even when they get things right they get things wrong. When reviewing Jimmy Cliff the writer correctly notes that his best work can be found on The Harder They Come soundtrack. However, the writer fails to mention his one truly towering achievement, "Many Rivers To Cross." In addition, Collective Soul are rightfully singled out as being a good singles band, yet the reviewer fails to mention their signature song, "Shine" (while mentioning several others). The AC/DC, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Beatles, and Byrds entries also have their head scratching moments, though it’s nice to see that Big Black, The Carpenters, Bobby Darin, the Dead Boys, and Grand Funk Railroad no longer suck (yes, that’s sarcasm you detect there).

Granted, the book isn’t all bad, and I’m nitpicking in part because it had the potential to be good. I’m pleased to see Alice In Chains' Dirt and The Cranberries’ debut get the high scores they deserve, and some of the reviews are less superficial than in past guides. Still, after 12 years and $30 I can’t but help feel completely underwhelmed, though that’s par for the course ever since Rolling Stone “jumped the shark” (whenever that was; perhaps this book is the final nail in the coffin?).

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