They call it “the Gateway to Jazz”—probably the best-selling jazz record of all time, and maybe the best one too. At least I think so. There’s a nice sense of confirmation when you like things that are critically acclaimed. Maybe that’s why, when it’s time for me to pick up a new book, I’m always drawn to “classics” (and I recognize that the idea of canon is also complicated and, in some ways, harmful, just for the record). But it’s less about feeling some sort of obligation to have these books as an intellectual touchstone, to merely comprehend them and be able to relate their plot to any who’s curious. It’s more about getting it, why people think it’s so important—of feeling resonance, feeling deeply touched, by the work of a genius. And that’s how I feel when I listen to Kind of Blue.
I think that thinking about art this way guided many of my other choices for top 40 albums. Because, top 40 what? How are these being ranked? I wasn’t really trying to make a list of what I think are objectively the best 40 albums of all time (which would be tricky anyway, because acclaim and artistic merit are two different things, not to mention that I don’t know enough about music to do that anyway). And there are plenty of albums—actually, probably the majority of things I listen to regularly—that I don’t think are that “good,” if “good” means that they contribute to some cultural understanding of what can be achieved through sound, so I guess I didn’t make a list of my 40 most-listened to albums, or even plainly just my favorite albums. I guess I made a top 40 list of albums I really love and think are important because they each taught me something a little different about what music can do, the power of creative imagination and technical skill, and how some art can change everything, even in times when stasis seems oppressive and inescapable. For some of these albums, maybe I only think they’re so important because someone told me they were.
And for some, no one did. Or maybe someone from Pitchfork told me they were good, instead of a professor or a book, and I don’t know if it’s pretentious or productive to discern between those two. I’ll be the first to scoff at comparing Soccer Mommy and Regina Spektor to Miles Davis, but sometimes what these albums taught me was completely dependent on who showed them to me, how I learned how much music can bind friends together, or how stunned you are that a record can sound precisely how it felt when you realized, even though you wanted it to so, so badly, that a relationship wasn’t going to work out. Or a record can sound like how it felt when your dad used to drive you in the car and put on Steely Dan or Pat Metheny and something changed in your world the way that maybe Loaded or Horses or Blonde on Blonde changed the whole world or at least New York.
So maybe I ended up with some comparisons that really shouldn’t be made. But maybe they all should be made! I wanted to avoid judging myself and just trying to make a list of albums that would make me seem like I have a really great taste in music. So what if Snail Mail is a sad girl! Lush probably is my most-listened to album. And I really do think King Krule is a genius—when The OOZ, came out, Pitchfork gave it “Best New Music,” so maybe that’s one thing the music critics got right.