Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How is Phish not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet? — Adam from Plainview, N.Y.
This is a timely question, given that Phish began its summer tour this week. It also speaks to how narrow these types of “why isn’t [ARTIST X] in the Rock Hall?” questions tend to be.
There will always be a niche of people for whom a particular artist or band’s theoretical inclusion in the Rock Hall — which signifies external, institutional recognition that somehow validates artistic worth, no matter how dubious that institution might be — is self-evident. For Phish’s sizable fanbase, it’s simply logical that this band would be enshrined with the giants of music history. They have endured as a top concert attraction for nearly 30 years, they’ve built up a discography that influenced a certain cadre of bands, and there’s nobody quite like them in rock history.
The last point, to me, is most important. Phish is genuinely unique for being an arena-rock band that has had virtually no impact on the pop world. Even the Grateful Dead had hit songs — there is no equivalent in Phish’s catalogue to a Top 40 smash like “Touch of Grey,” or even the Dead’s FM radio warhorses like “Truckin'” and “Casey Jones.” Phish has exactly zero songs that anyone who doesn’t listen to them obsessively knows. They’ve existed entirely outside of the mainstream for decades, and yet they can play multiple nights at Madison Square Garden. Of course they belong in the Rock Hall … if you happen to love Phish.
However, if you step back and look at it from a general interest point of view, all of the things that make this band special and worthy of recognition paradoxically undermine their chances of inclusion. As it currently stands, the Rock Hall is biased against bands about whom at least one of the following is true.
1) Bands with minimal pop success
2) Bands that originated in the ’80s and ’90s
Let’s just say that if Phish was a platinum-selling singer-songwriter who did coke with Rolling Stone writers in 1975, I would feel better about their immediate chances of induction. However, I suspect that Phish phans might have to wait a while, and only after they’re able to vote the band in themselves, similar to how bands like Rush and Yes ultimately made the Rock Hall.
Something my friends and I have debated: What’s the best album ever released by an artist over 40? The most consensus choice seems to be Paul Simon’s Graceland, but my personal pick is Tom Petty’s Wildflowers.
Wayne Coyne was 41 when Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots came out, but the rest of the band were still in their 30s. If you want to delve into jazz, Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson both came out when Miles was well into his 40s, and if you want to go country, you have Johnny Cash’s American Recordings or Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Stardust. But as far as pop/rock/soul, there just aren’t a lot of great choices. A few latter-day Dylan or Springsteen albums would be fine picks, and I’ve also seen people mention The Next Day (Bowie) and New York (Lou Reed). — Daniel from Ann Arbor
As a person who will be turning 41 (!) in a few months, I must admit that I take this question personally. I plan on living many more years, and I have to believe that I can write a column or book as good as Graceland, Time Out Of Mind, or Wildflowers in the years ahead.
In fact, I think you’re kind of wrong about this. There are plenty of great albums made by the 40-and-over crowd. Neil Young was in his 40s during the ’90s, when he made Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon, Sleeps With Angels, Mirrorball, and Broken Arrow. Tom Waits had a really strong run in his 40s around that same time, and he put out one of his best records, 1999’s Mule Variations, the year he turned 50. And I’ll always maintain that Warren Zevon, whose work in the late ’80s and early ’90s remains largely unheralded, put out some of his best songs during that period.
Sonic Youth put out a series of really good records in the early ’00s, after Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon sailed past 40. Robert Pollard didn’t become indie-famous until he was 35, and he put out one of the greatest Guided By Voices albums, 2001’s Isolation Drills, in his early 40s. Drive-By Truckers hit a new peak with 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, after the band’s primary songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, hit the big 4-0. And how about A Tribe Called Quest, who put out a wonderful comeback album in 2016, We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, when the group was entrenched in middle age? Or Yo La Tengo, a band led by 61-year-old Ira Kaplan, who put out the excellent There’s A Riot Going On earlier this year?
The all-time post-40 champ has to be Leonard Cohen, who turned 40 right after he released his very good 1974 album, New Skin For The Old Ceremony. Cohen actually turned 50 the year he originally released his most famous song, “Hallelujah,” in 1984, and then proceeded to release one of his very best albums, I’m Your Man, in 1988.
A caveat: As you age, you become more receptive to music made by old people. It’s just a law of nature. So this entire response might just be a sign of the rapid decay of my brain. But … these are great albums! Trust me?
I am a fan of your five albums test. I propose an anti-five-albums test of sorts. Has any band/artist that is widely considered to be good ever released five bad albums in a row? Weezer is the obvious candidate that comes to mind for me. — Kale from Springfield, Missouri
This is an extremely hard question that I initially assumed would be much easier. Surely there are plenty of artists who had bad late-career runs, but five bad albums in a row? That’s really hard to do. At some point, if you’re having that bad of a losing streak, you will have the plug pulled on your career before you reach the five-bad-album level.
Not even Weezer passes this test. I would argue they put out three bad albums in a row, from 2008’s Weezer (a.k.a. “The Red Album”) through 2010’s Hurley. Even if you include 2005’s Make Believe, which I’ve come to sort of like, that’s only four albums. Because 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In The End is actually pretty good! So, let’s cut Weezer a break.
You could maybe make a case for The Rolling Stones having a five-album run of badness, from 1986’s Dirty Work to 2006’s A Bigger Bang. But aside from Dirty Work, I don’t think any of those albums are bad really, just not up to the Stones’ standards of the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s. If you modify this slightly to a three-album standard, you might say Liz Phair passes (or fails?) this test, from 2003’s Liz Phair to 2010’s Funstyle, and Justin Timberlake’s stretch from the 20/20 Experience albums and this year Man of the Woods certainly isn’t stellar.
It really pains me to write this, but the only artist who would probably meet the five-album “bad” standard is Prince. In the wake of his tragic death in 2016, the reality of Prince’s latter-day artistic sins has been glossed over. But the truth is that in his final decade, Prince put out a lot of duds, in part because he was such a gifted, prolific musician. Most artists of his age and stature simply stop making new albums, or they wait many years between releases. But Prince kept swinging the bat, in spite of commercial and critical indifference.
See, I am going to twist this into a positive. Because I don’t feel like slagging Prince. I actually admire Prince for putting out so many forgettable LPs in his final years!