Sound Check

There's something about us rock geeks that makes us need to organize and categorize and rank every damn piece of music we own -- and certainly no entertainment product is as fetishized as the rock album. What's more, perhaps only sports nuts rival rock fans in their obsessive-compulsive quest for useless knowledge. And I -- someone who can tell you what color pants Keith Moon was wearing the day he auditioned for the Who (brown) -- should know.

But the insatiable need of rock wonks to ingest information on their chosen subject is understandable when you consider the sheer volume of recorded material that's out there. Literally hundreds of albums are released each week; as a result, no other popular art offers as much to sort through. It's no surprise, then, that in addition to the well-known record guides put out in recent years by rival rock magazines Rolling Stone and Spin, there's room in the marketplace for four new record guides, all of which have been released in the last few months.

Just as no two albums are the same, none of these album guides offers quite the same take on their subject. An argument could even be made for why it might be useful to have all four, though only a real sicko would have use for all 4,300 pages that make up the combined books. So in classic rock dweeb fashion, here's a consumer guide -- complete with star rankings -- to help you determine which of popular music's consumer guides is just right for you.

All Music Guide (third edition, Miller Freeman Books). Released: January 1997. Pages: 1,499. Price: $27.95.

Entries: 4,100 artists; 21,350 albums. Artists' names are listed, along with their birth dates and birthplaces, as well as genre classifications for their music. This is followed by a brief career overview, then an annotated sampling of releases.

Organization: The entries are separated into 20 genre categories, and then listed alphabetically within each section. While the entries contain no cross-references, there is a comprehensive index at the end of the book.

Album ratings: Only key records are listed, and each is assigned one to five diamonds. Stars and circles highlight essential recordings and recommended first purchases.

Extras: There are no photos. Instead, graphics include somewhat dubious "music maps" that chart the development and sidebars that define the styles of each musical genre.

Resources: These include listings of mail-order sources for albums, plus an annotated bibliography of music books and magazines.

Overall grade: **** 1/2
Though Miller-Freeman, All Music Guide's publisher, also puts out Guitar Player, Bass Player and Keyboard magazines, those of us who are disdainful of the overly clinical way those publications can treat popular music shouldn't necessarily be turned off. The guide retains little of that tech-heavy approach, perhaps because there's no room for it. With listings of more than 20,000 records, All Music Guide squeezes together everything from rock (which takes up about one-third of the book), jazz, country and rap to avant-garde, New Age and gay(!) music. As a grand amalgamation and update of other All Music guides (rock, jazz, blues, country and world music, a total database of more than 300,000 records!), the book has by far the widest scope of any music guide on the market. Inevitably, though, it also offers the least comprehensive survey of any one musical genre.

While having separate sections for women's music and gay music maddeningly seems to imply that most records are made for straight men only, in truth these chapters include lots of interesting material that wouldn't normally be found in any music guide. The same can be said for the section on Christmas music, though it's questionable whether that genre's mostly throwaway albums warrant mention. Overall, the writing is accurate, though not particularly deep or engaging.

Rock: The Rough Guide (first edition, Rough Guides/Penguin Books). Released: November 1996. Pages: 1,008. Price: $26.95.

Entries: 1,200 artists; 5,000 albums. Artists' birth dates and birthplaces are provided, as are the formation dates and places of bands. Band members' names are printed in boldface, and some entries begin with a quote from the performer.

Organization: Artists are listed alphabetically, with splinter groups and solo albums either cross-referenced or included within the entry. An index of all the artists discussed can be found in the back of the book.

Album ratings: None. Key albums are listed and briefly annotated, with circles indicating CD or vinyl-only releases.

Extras: The pages contain many black-and-white photos, plus some album cover art.

Resources: None
Overall grade: ***
Rough Guide distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack in two ways: It's thoroughly British in its perspective and it's written primarily by non-professional music critics. That's a good thing only if you're an Anglophile who'd rather read about the Sabres of Paradise than the Supersuckers, or if you value a fan's perspective over critical insight. That's a bad thing if you don't think the band the Bible deserves as much space as Chuck Berry, or if you're put off by the book's many factual errors.  

Like other Rough Guides dedicated to world music, jazz, classical music and opera, the complete text of the rock guide is available on-line (at Updating the web site allows the text to stay current -- a serious problem for most of these guidebooks -- though it also begs the question: Why bother buying the book at all?

MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide (first edition, Visible Ink/Gale Research). Released: late 1996. Pages: 939. Price: $24.95.

Entries: 2,500 artists. Includes the performers' birth dates and birthplaces, and formation dates and places for bands. Also lists band members (with birth dates and birthplaces where available), their instruments and their years in a band. Following a brief overview of each artist, albums are discussed under the headings "what to buy," "what to buy next," "what to avoid," "the rest" and "worth searching for." Most entries end with a listing of influences -- both those who've influenced and been influenced by the artist.

Organization: Entries are listed alphabetically, with cross-references indicated at the end. A brief introductory section covers pre-rock roots.

Album ratings: Each record is awarded from one to five "bones," and an attempt is made to mention all of an artist's releases.

Extras: The text is interspersed with quotes from popular performers answering the question, "What album changed your life?" Also included are lists such as "Ten blues albums every rock fan should own." In addition, the book comes with a 12-song CD that promotes little-known RCA bands, but does nothing to complement the text. Equally superfluous -- though infinitely more entertaining -- is an introduction by Marshall Crenshaw.

Resources: An excellent appendix includes listings of rock books and magazines, plus an extensive guide to record labels and artists' web sites. In addition, there's a useful section on tribute albums and a producer index, as well as a not so useful category index.

Overall grade: ****
Continuing a series of dog-titled entertainment guides put out by Visible Ink (including Golden Movie Retriever and CyberHound's Web Guide), MusicHound aims to be the most consumer-oriented record guide on the market. While it succeeds, the victory is somewhat hollow: The "what to buy first" presentation makes following a band's chronology difficult and takes the recommendations out of context. Besides, couldn't we figure out for ourselves -- based on ratings and descriptions -- which albums we'd want to buy?

To its credit, though, MusicHound features a fine stable of contributors and an entry list that, though perhaps weighed too heavily toward mainstream American styles, contains a fair mix of superstars and little-knowns. And with the added frills, the book aspires to be more of an all-around rock resource than simply a listing of CDs.

The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock (all-new fifth edition, Fireside/Simon & Schuster). Released: March 1997. Pages: 846. Price: $24.95.

Entries: 2,300 artists; 8,500 records. A complete list of releases comes after each entry name, followed by a critical overview of the artist's recorded output.

Organization: Entries are listed alphabetically, with splinter or precursor bands and solo careers either mixed into the entry or cross-referenced at the end.

Album ratings: None. The text evaluates most releases critically, but there's no attempt to definitively rank them.

Extras: None.
Resources: None.
Overall grade: **** 1/2

For the fifth edition of his venerable alternative music guide, Ira Robbins and his group of topnotch music critics have scrapped the past completely and focused solely on the '90s alternative "revolution" that Nirvana portended. An opposite to the All Music Guide, The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock limits its scope in order to delve deeply into its subject matter. The undisputed champ when it comes to giving perspective to all that's changed in music during this decade, the Guide to '90s Rock is meant to work in tandem with 1991's fourth edition of the Trouser Press Record Guide, which covers all alternative rock prior to its publication.

But for all that the new Trouser Press Guide is, here's what it isn't: It's not a good source for biographical information on bands, and it's not a good place to go if you just want a record's number rating. For better or worse, you must actually read an entry to learn about a band's music. That's generally for the better, until you consider that five years from now, a large percentage of these bands won't be worth remembering.  

-- Roni Sarig

***** Pass up sex to read
**** Pass up eating to read
*** Pass up sleep to read
** Pass up Seinfeld to read
* Pass it up

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