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.

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Roni Sarig