(This was originally published in The California Aggie)
I often wonder, what’s our Sgt. Pepper? What’s the album that defines our generation?
Not to compare anything to the actual album, just thinking about it as a metric for how to define success and influence on a generation.
I’m looking at the years I have been in high school and college, what my rabbi refers to as my “formative years,” 2004-2012. I really want to include middle school (for the sake of Get Rich or Die Tryin’), but don’t want to alienate my younger readers or lose ad revenue.
Between 2004 and 2012, 45 albums were nominated for the Grammy for Best Album. Of those, only a handful are candidates for our title: American Idiot (Green Day), The College Dropout (Kanye West), Graduation (Kanye West), In Rainbows (Radiohead), Tha Carter III (Lil’ Wayne), The Suburbs (Arcade Fire), Futuresex/Lovesounds (Justin Timberlake) and 21(Adele). My own additions to the list of candidates are as follows: For Emma, Forever Ago (Bon Iver), Vampire Weekend (Vampire Weekend), The Black Album (Jay-Z), Cross (Justice) Kala (M.I.A.) and Funeral (Arcade Fire).
As qualifications, the album must have captured the attention of people across genres, have multiple top ten singles and be dynamic enough so that the it can be played in a multitude of situations. As in, it’s good to party to, good to chill to, good to contemplate life to. Also, I have to be kind of okay with labeling this album as generation-defining.
The first qualification is probably the hardest. Reaching audiences that don’t usually listen to your genre is very rare. We can rule out Bon Iver (you taught me about love, Justin), Jay-Z (that album in particular), Arcade Fire (both albums, I know it hurts), Justice (This album makes me want to be French) Lil’ Wayne (I can rap every lyric to eight of the songs on this album) and Green Day (if I don’t eliminate this now it might win).
Okay so multiple top ten singles isn’t an opinion perse. This is hard to qualify for though because, as our founding fathers knew, the population is pretty fucking dumb. What’s popular isn’t always what’s good, although sometimes it is (see: Knowles, Beyonce). The albums without multiple top ten songs are In Rainbows (I know), Vampire Weekend (a lot of popular songs, but not chart toppers) and Kala (because fuck it, I want to listen to “Paper Planes” again).
I’m left with two Kanye’s, Adele and JT.
While 21 went like eight times platinum and made instagram-money, I just don’t know enough males who know much about this album besides the three singles, and this is coming from the guy who sings “Someone Like You” when he’s drunk.
I don’t really have a good argument against Justin, other than I don’t find “Futuresex/Lovesounds” as “important” enough of an album in our cultural canon as many of the already eliminated albums. It’s also oddly forgettable, as I find myself having a fonder memory of Justified. But, hey, I’m a straight male so I might not be the target audience.
Kanye, would you like your crown made from the fur of endangered Siberian tiger cubs or from King Louis XIV’s silk bed sheets at Versaille? Yes, both College Dropout and Graduation are good candidates, but Graduation takes the throne. It’s a much more dynamic album in terms of song genre and there is really a song for every moment. The first single “Stronger” may just mark the beginning of the next generation of music, as Kanye pioneered the dance-rap sample with Daft Punk into something we all could vibe to. Other collaborations on the album include Chris Martin and John Mayer, T-Pain and Dwele. Everyone I know had this album and when we weren’t getting yelled at for wearing the shutter-shade glasses while driving, we were watching movies, commercials and sporting events that featured this album prominently.
Obviously it’s hard to say an album defines an entire generation, especially while that generation is still around to argue about it. With such distinct music genres, the ability to capture an entire generation is harder than ever. Ultimately, only time will tell whether the soundtrack to your formative years is Graduation or the upcoming Hologram Tupac album.