Decades 1940-2000, Ranked by Musical Awesomeness
I’ve long argued that those of us born from about the mid-70s to the mid-80s should be given some kind of coolness handicap: extra credit for any awesomeness we’re able to achieve, given that we lived at least some of our most impressionable years during the 1990s, the armpit of modern musical history. I know there are those of you/us who are able to find redeeming value in the 90s, and I’m glad. You are more generous, and/or have significantly different music taste than, me. Personally, I got through the 90s by holing up with the Rolling Stone Record Guide and catching up on everything I missed back when I wasn’t alive.
I mentioned to someone the other night that if you put all decades in recent history in rank order from most to least musically awesome, the 90s would come out on the bottom. Tonight while walking across Loring Park, I decided to think that through—and yep, it’s true, at least in my estimation. Recorded music was still in its infancy in the 1930s, so let’s start with the 40s and go from there. In order from most to least awesome:
- The 1960s. I’m not one to say that pop music history begins and ends with the 60s, but you have to concede that this decade is basically unfuckwithable. The Beatles, the Stones, Motown, Phil Spector, the Beach Boys…what more is there to say? Pop music is still driving on the fumes of the 60s, and will be for the forseeable future.
- The 1950s. This decade gets a vinyl iceberg of credit for inventing rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley—yep. Plus an ocean of incredible R&B, jazz and Beat, and the country-music transformation that hinged on Hank Williams and then Johnny Cash. Yep.
- The 1970s. I really want to put the 80s here because of personal nostalgia, but the 70s somehow managed to cap off 60s psychedelia, spawn album-rock masterpieces galore, contain the entire classic disco period, and birth hard rock and punk rock and post-punk and power pop and hip-hop, all while maintaining an excruciatingly boring top 40. Then there’s the singer-songwriter movement that forevermore cursed bands to write their own material, and the Velvet Underground.
- The 1980s. May be the king of all decades when it comes to consistently amazing pop pleasures. (Yes, the 60s were seminal, but pull an actual top 40, especially from early in that decade, and try to listen to it from beginning to end. There was a lot of killer, but also a lot of filler.) Music in the 80s was situated in a gloriously fertile MTV-fueled pop landscape, and geniuses from Michael Jackson to Prince to Madonna made the most of it. The 80s also have the hip-hop explosion: Run-DMC, KRS-One, the Beastie Boys, N.W.A., Public Enemy.
- The 2000s. The record industry spun into crisis in the first decade of the new century, and a thousand flowers bloomed. Singles were unmoored from albums for the first time since the 50s, and the Internet made the exponentially growing variety of recorded music (legally and/or illegally) unprecedentedly accessible. It’s hard to define the sound of the 2000s, in part because it’s still recent history and in part because recorded music in the 2000s was more individualized than ever before. Whatever you wanted the 2000s to be, they were.
- The 1940s. Bing Crosby taught the world how to really use a microphone, and pop, jazz, and classical music came together in the work of Duke Ellington and others. Tin Pan Alley was in full swing and seminal performers like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were firing on all cylinders. That said, there was a lot of seriously brain-dead pop music in this decade. Even Duke Ellington can only count for so much.
- The 1990s. Grunge, okay. Not really my bag, but I’ll give you Nirvana. And? Other than that, this decade was at best a time of fruitful transition—hip-hop became increasingly integrated into pop music generally, and “college music” became “alternative music” and “adult contemporary” en route to its much more flexible and powerful incarnation as “indie rock” in the 2000s. You’ve got that, and then you’ve got a lot of completely forgettable top-40 filler. See why I took to the cave? Wouldn’t you, or didn’t you?