Keane and the Gross Problem of List-Making
The nature of lists is that they often reflect a mean opinion, an average settling of general consensus. It’s the very nature of democracy except with music albums lists, there is no-one specifically highlighted to vote for. Well, there is, but more of that later. Lists are popular with readers and fans for a number of reasons, and I am referring specifically to music lists here.
They are popular to compile because they give a sense of self. They allow the maker to see into their own tastes and dissect their opinions. They breed a certain amount of lying about taste, especially in music lists, because there is a sense that they should cover the whole spectrum of your musical delectations. Many listmakers of my particular persuasion may for example choose The White Album over Sgt. Peppers or Revolver. It’s certainly true that Beatles fans often enjoy this record for more its kaleidoscopic eclecticism and I do like it the most. But I wonder when listmaking whether I like it the most because I’ve forced myself to do that in order to make lists which don’t conform to the ‘norm’.
Lists are also popular because they give recommendations to listeners. I for one love reading about the music my favourite musicians love for the purpose of then going to these records and finding new avenues to explore. During the early nineties boom in punk-funk, The Rapture’s Luke Jenner found favour with me after recommending Casiotone for the Painfully Alone in a tiny section of the NME. In the same column, Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke highlighted post-rock masters Billy Mahonie’s The Big Dig album and someone else, I honestly don’t remember, first alerted me to Godspeed You Black Emperor through that very mini-column. Lists from these folks often highlight great records you didn’t know about from a trusted musical source.
Often they don’t cause enough debate, only consigned sighs as the same old suspects continue to top the polls. The Beatles, Radiohead, Stone Roses, Dark Side of the Moon and Pet Sounds. These are the ones that so often cannot be toppled because, if you look carefully, they are too ingrained to ever fall. When these polls are advertised in Q or the NME, the pictures are of these albums and artists. It’s as if too much change could topple the entire list system. You seemingly couldn’t have a national poll that stated that The Beatles are not among the greatest ever British bands. You would have to preface the entire list by calling its ‘Greatest British Bands of All Time (not including The Beatles). To have a credible list, it seems these suspects need to remain at the top yet, when they do constantly stay there, we sigh and moan that ‘they always win these things’.
Most pertinently though, magazines like them because they broker argument and debate and provide instant publicity when a controversial choice is placed high in the rankings. Q Magazine’s recent reader’s poll, along with votes from HMV customers, has worked this angle perfectly for the blighted music rag..
Q was once the doyen of the music mag scene, standing alongside the NME as the holder of British music’s crown as the Britpop era burned in and out. I haven’t bought the magazine for a few years now and this is down to a number of issues. But one of them was its insistence on placing popular acts higher in its year-end charts. Many better records, and better by their own ratings system as well as my opinion, were missing out on promotion from the magazine because they weren’t well known enough. Importantly for this article, the key moment was the exaltation of Keane. The band’s Hopes & Fears, a truly execrable album filled with chubby-cheeked ballads and swirling piano-led nothingness, was ranked second in the magazine’s end of year poll. My bridges were burned with Q and I walked away, hat in hand, and gave away my entire collection. This was not predicated fully on the one incident, it was really just that final straw that paralysed the donkey.
This week, Q has moved again to anger the masses of music fans out there looking for some sort of revival through a double-pronged attack. First, the top-two records in its Greatest British Albums of All Time list are from Oasis. This is not surprising really given the generation we live in and the significance of Oasis for Q and its readers. I still hold true to the mantra that Oasis’ first two records are fantastic. The actual offence made here is that two more Gallagher records, Be Here Now and Don’t Believe The Truth, are in the chart too. In the top twenty-five no less. Now, I also hold that both of these are actually fairly decent records but damn, they simply don’t deserve such praise. Don’t Believe the Truth is the band’s most recent and a good comeback but it made little waves and found little adoration with fans. Be Here Now is the album most commonly associated with the fall of Britpop’s innocence; an colossal cocaine-driven epic with helicopter sounds and twelve minute reprisal of one song. This was Britpop’s coke-prog disaster and, along with Blur’s Thirteen, Pulp’s This is Hardcore and Radiohead’s OK Computer, killed the Britpop era off. Neither Oasis offering deserves its place among Britain’s best records.
But the one that’s prompted this, the one that has left me dumbfounded and in need of venting, is the inclusion of Keane’s Under the Iron Sea at eighth. We’ve just been over my dislike and distaste for Keane but this goes beyond that into sheer perplexity. I just cannot comprehend what it is about this album that could make enough people vote for it to rank above The Queen Is Dead and The Bends. The entire chart is quite ridiculous read back but griping over it will get me nowhere. These lists inspire such annoyance that it needs to be focused and it’s Keane I’m honing in on. It should also be noted at this point that Keane’s Hopes & Fears is in thirteenth place.
My confusion knocks me back with the first placing. Under the Iron Sea is the second album by Keane, considered by many to be something of a failure by any standard. Those who enjoyed Hopes & Fears generally didn’t seem to find further refuge in this slightly paranoid, post-rehab record. Critics generally felt the album, which seemed to reek of a band trying to gain an edge when previously they were oh so spherical, was an uncomfortable and poorly rendered exploration of the human condition and I thought, as many haters did, that Keane would be confined to the dustbins of Oxfam within five years and forced to make a comeback by writing the songs on Sarah Harding’s first post-Girls Aloud record (you know hers is going to be balls). But now I see this and I don’t know. How did this happen? Did Keane really connect with this many people? Did this have anything to do with their exaltation from Q which also saw Under the Iron Sea promoted to sixth in their albums of the year for 2006? To me its both incomprehensible and truly irritating but that is the nature of lists.
Because for all the wants of non-mainstream music fans to see Tom Waits, Aphex Twin or The Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band given prominence in these lists, they are about our opinions. Q’s survey is about the opinion of people who don’t debate the relative merits of Leonard Cohen and John Cale. They are voted for by people who still wait for Oasis concerts to come about, who believe the Arctic Monkeys will be the new Smiths. They are voted for by people who don’t give a shit how cool Keane are. Whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable but they don’t and if they connected with the record, then fine.