Spin of the century

Rock 'n' roll is heaven if you're a bit of a trainspotter - if you don't believe me, just read Nick Hornby's Hi Fidelity, whose…

Rock 'n' roll is heaven if you're a bit of a trainspotter - if you don't believe me, just read Nick Hornby's Hi Fidelity, whose central character revels in making his own top 10 lists, and to whom a rare seven-inch collector's item is more vital than life itself. Rock 'n' rollers just love making lists of their favourite albums, singles, bands and skiffle groups.

Nothing tickles the trainspotter's sensibilities more than speculating on the all-time greatest albums of the 20th century. And this ultimate albums chart is a potential hotbed of discussion and disagreement.

Last October, Channel 4 asked the British public to vote on their favourite 33s of all time, then presented its findings last Saturday in a in Music Of The Millennium - The Final Countdown.

There's something a bit futile about trying to compile a list of the 100 greatest albums of all time, as though it were somehow possible to quantify the appeal of rock 'n' roll. Public polls usually reflect the current tastes of the day, while critics' polls are equally unreliable, since they're likely to be contaminated by pundits' pretensions. And you can't use sales figures as a yardstick of greatness - by that measure, Rumours would be deemed superior to Blonde On Blonde.


In the interests of lively debate, Channel 4 brought in a panel comprising Bob Geldof, Justine Frischmann from Elastica and pop commentator Paul Gambaccini; the show was presented by veteran rock DJ John Peel and his younger colleague, Jo Whiley. The Top 100 was counted down in cheeky pop-parade style by Alan Freeman, and a selection of celebrities were interviewed about their favourite album/artist.

Interesting juxtapositions abounded in these taped segments, particularly Fay Weldon talking about Carole King's articulation of the 1960s woman's burden, and Mancunian punk poet John Cooper Clarke waxing lyrical about Frank Sinatra. Having Loyd Grossman comment on Led Zeppelin was a little incongruous, and when he sang their praises in his plummy tones, he sounded like he was savouring a particularly deeeelicious dish.

Upstarts of the 1990s featured heavily in the poll, sometimes pushing older, more respectable albums into the lower levels. Albums by The Verve, Massive Attack, DJ Shadow, Tricky, Portishead, Bjork and Ocean Colour Scene stood alongside perennial poll-winners such as The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Patti Smith's Horses and The Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks.

Predictably, the panellists disagreed with a lot of the choices, Gambaccini showing incredulity at the low placing for Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home (Number 76), and Geldof shaking his head in disbelief at the high placing for The Stone Roses' debut album (No 2). On the other hand, the panellists were happy with the votes for The Beatles' Sgt Pepper (No 1), Van Morrison's Astral Weeks (No 9) and Dylan's Blood On The Tracks.

Frischmann was happy that Suede's Dog Man Star, featuring her ex-boyfriend Brett Anderson, was included (No 82) and that Blur's Park Life, featuring her current beau, Damon Albarn, scored respectably (No 48), but when she challenged the top 10 placing for Oasis's (What's The Story) Morn- ing Glory? (No 5), she was shot down by Geldof, who declared the album an all-time classic, and Oasis a truly great band. Strangely, no-one batted an eyelid at the high placing of Radiohead's OK Computer (No 7) and The Bends (No 4), in the Top 10.

When I quizzed Bob Geldof later about Music For The Millennium, the phone line crackled with the man's obvious enthusiasm for his chosen subject. "It was a fairly comprehensive poll," said Geldof, "I believe there were over 140,000 people responding to the Guardian, Channel 4 and HMV. I think you can be sure that if these people bothered answering the poll, then they must like music."

What piqued you most about the poll results?

"I was appalled that Exile On Main St only got to No 38, and Screamadelica, which basically ripped off Exile, got six places higher. The other ridiculous thing was The Stone Roses getting No 2 - they're just an OK group, and The Smiths getting about three albums in the chart. OK, they gave English pop a bit of a push, but they're not a pivotal group - they're just whiny bedsit music. It's good that Astral Weeks got in top 10, but I prefer Moondance.

`YOU could put the entire works of Van Morrison in the Top 10 and it would be OK by me, although the lack of Dylan in the Top 10 is unforgivable. Regardless of what you think of him, Dylan was critically important whether you like it or not."

Perhaps, I suggest, young voters are not so aware of Dylan's huge influence.

"I disagree, I think young people are very aware of Dylan. I told a story of when I was in this coffee bar, and I overheard two 15-year-old girls in the next booth who had raided their parent's record collection, found Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, put it on because the guy on the cover looked cool, and were completely blown away by the music, and freaked out by the beauty of the words. Dylan is a non-generational thing. Certain albums have transcended their time and become critical records to define the last part of 20th century. "Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed are superb records, and it's ludicrous that they didn't get in. I have some difficulty about the Beatles - it's the body of work which is monumental. What defined The Beatles was taste. I was never a big Beatles fan, I was more The Stones and Dylan and The Who, but the last 20 minutes of Abbey Road has more ideas than most bands have in lifetime, and that was their swansong."

Do you think Sgt Pepper was voted No 1 simply because it's now pop dogma to accept it as the greatest album of all time?

"No, I think people voted for it because they like it, especially the younger Beatles fans. John Peel says his kids adore Sgt Pepper, and my eldest girl constantly listens to it. That's the one young people grab hold of and really listen to lyrics." And what about the would-be successors to the Beatles?

"Oasis deserve to be there because the music is vital and vivid, maybe not original, but still great. Radiohead is beautiful music, but it's not doing much that's new, and maybe having two albums in the Top 10 is a bit much. I liked John Peel's comment that Dark Side Of The Moon is the most modern-sounding album in the poll.

"I would have liked to see Talking Heads or Roxy Music in there, but that's my personal taste. Generally it was quite accurate, except should have been more Dylan and he should have been higher."

What about the more eclectic inclusions, such as John Coletrane's A Love Supreme (No 90), Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue (No 13)?

"I think there must have been a separate section in the voting form for jazz music, because young kids wouldn't know much about Miles Davis, and it's a moot point whether he should have been included in a popular music poll. But I think he was important. Also, people like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye deserved their places. "I think the poll represented a good cross-section of the British public. You had your urban, professional Guardian readers, your students watching Channel 4, and your general punter in HMV. But you'd have to be a bit of a trainspotter to fill out these polls."

No doubt there'll be another such survey in a few year's time.

"I'm sure there will," concludes Geldof. "And The Boomtown Rats will take their rightful place at No 1, when people finally realise how great we really were!"