Like a dozen or so other major metropolitan daily newspapers across the country, the Houston Chronicle ran a story two weeks ago on National Public Radio's 100 most important musical works of the 20th century. The headline of the story was "NPR selects 100 top tunes." (Nothing wrong with this, except for the fact that it includes the word "top," which NPR spokesman Michael Abrahams says is a no-no. "We have been very careful not to use the word 'top,' " he says. "We don't know how to define that. That's why it's the 100 'most important.' ")
The Chron had picked the story up from the Baltimore Sun news wire. Author M. Dion Thompson, a veteran Sun staffer, is an undeniable straight talker. In print and on the phone. He says what we've all known all along about lists: They're great ways for newspapers to fill space (e.g., the Chron ran the entire list in its December 28 edition), they aren't very difficult to put together, and they have the potential to generate huge reader response.
But there is a problem with this list. While it is both long on space and short on story line, it is also what a list should never be: objective. It lacks a viewpoint. A bias. You know, something that pisses off readers and listeners. Everyone knows there is no greater feeling for a reader or listener than the sense of righteousness that comes from correcting a journalist's wrong, but who can argue with this compilation? It was constructed by NPR's contributing critics, independent scholars and a panel of more than 20 professionals that included Michael Tilson Thomas, Isaac Hayes (who's on the list with "Theme from Shaft") and Wynton Marsalis, with the help of NPR staffers and the 13,000 fans who voted on-line between October 7 and 17 last year. That's about 13,050 sets of hands building one list. It is so all-inclusive, it's populist.
When you open a newspaper and are confronted by a, for lack of a better word, "list" of song titles and performers, your blood should begin to boil. But it doesn't when you see NPR's. Amplified's conclusion: The only useful lists are ones that represent the opinions of a small number of know-it-alls. Those who say otherwise probably feel slighted they can't contribute.
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"The way we approached it was different," says Abrahams, who notes this is the first such list NPR has ever compiled in its 29 years of existence. "We hoped the way we approached it would give an insight into NPR."
And even though NPR's Most Important has all the characteristics of a list -- we must remember -- it is not really a list as much as it is a jumping-off point for NPR programming. "It was not a publicity stunt," says Abrahams. "It was a way to come up with interesting programming this year. We just packaged it this way." From early January until the end of this year, NPR, which can be heard here on local affiliate KUHF/88.7 FM, will air one six- to eight-minute feature on each listed artist. By mid-March, maybe even mid-February, it is possible most of the station's listeners -- which number 8.2 million weekly, 1.7 million during any 15 minutes, according to NPR statistics -- will have forgotten which artists made the cut and which didn't. It's a good thing that the stories, by virtue of the artists involved, have the substance to stand on their own.
Says Elizabeth Blair, NPR cultural programming producer: "A lot of the works on this list, many of these have been covered over the years. [The list] isn't just an excuse to talk about them."
The list can be seen at NPR's Web site, www.npr.org. A few highlights are: "Appalachian Spring," by the Norman Rockwell of American classical music, Aaron Copland (1944); "Light My Fire," by the Doors (1967); West Side Story, by Stephen Sondheim and radical chic magnet Leonard Bernstein (1957); and "Rapper's Delight," by the Sugar Hill Gang (1979). (There's a funny story behind this. NPR gives songwriting credit to Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, two guys from the long-defunct disco band Chic, because it is their music, most noticeably the bass line and piano melody of the Chic song "Good Times," that the Sugar Hill Gang samples. The lyricists, the three rappers from New Jersey who made up the Sugar Hill Gang, receive no mention.) Very few songs after 1980 made the cut.
"It's entertaining, it's necessary," says Sun writer Thompson of NPR's list. "It's one way we define what's good, what's not. Most lists, like The New York Times' best-seller list or Billboard's Top 40, are based on sales, but this one isn't. There aren't enough of these types."
A List of Our Own
Not one to let a predictable press tactic go unused, the Houston Press will follow in NPR's tracks and present our very own list. So here it is, the Houston Press's 16 Most Important Recordings That Have the Slightest Connection to Houston -- And Even Some That Don't -- of the Past 100 Years, compiled by the dozen or so people who make up the Press music staff. That's it. The main criterion for selection was impact: the effect one recorded work had on the rest of the world. Here are the listees, in alphabetical order: Duke-Peacock's Greatest Hits, various artists, 1992. "Flying Home," by the Lionel Hampton orchestra with Illinois Jacquet, 1942. "I Can See Clearly Now," by Johnny Nash, 1972. Ice Pickin', by Albert Collins, 1978. International, by La Mafia, 1993. Joshua Judges Ruth, by Lyle Lovett, 1992. "Keep a Knockin'," by Little Richard with Grady Gaines, 1957. "La Grange," by ZZ Top, 1973. Lost Cause, by Jandek, 1992. "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me," by the Geto Boys, 1991. Mojo Hand: The Anthology, by Lightnin' Hopkins, 1993. "Okie Dokie Stomp," by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, 1954. Parable of Arable Land, by Red Crayola, 1993. Reality Road, by Dave Catney, 1994. "Tighten Up," by Archie Bell and the Drells, 1968. "Why, Baby, Why," by George Jones, 1955.
And honorable mention includes: "Bon Ton Roulet," by Clarence "Bon Ton" Garlow, originally recorded for the Macy's label in Houston, 1949. "Houston Is Hot Tonight," by Michiganian Iggy Pop, 1981. Live at the Old Quarter (Houston, Texas), by Townes Van Zandt, 1977. And "She's About a Mover," by the Sir Douglas Quintet recorded by Huey Meaux in Houston, circa 1965.
Though we here at the Press hope this list inspires you to find and listen to some of this music, we secretly hope it makes you want to send hate mail. -- Anthony Mariani
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