Everyone’s a critic

Blondie: AutoamericanYou know that group or album or song you really like that it’s not cool to like? Some go so far as to call these guilty pleasures, usually reserving that judgmental term for “likes” that are way outside the consensus view; but I’ve already told you, pleasure is something you should never feel guilty about — never ever. Especially when it comes to music you like.

I was playing Blondie’s Autoamerican (1980) the other night, and even though it isn’t considered a particularly great album by most critics, I thought it sounded really fresh. That could be in part because I hadn’t heard it in so long — it doesn’t get a lot of play these days. It isn’t a masterpiece, and it’s not their best album, but I like it a lot.

So often, people choose their favorite music based on what they think they’re supposed to like, or what will make them seem cool. So, with Blondie, for example, people will talk about the first album or Plastic Letters, the stuff that came out before they released “Heart of Glass” and suddenly everyone knew Blondie. (Those early ones are really great albums, mind you.)

There is a real excitement to knowing a good band before everyone else is on the, um, bandwagon, no doubt. That said, I sometimes question when people point to an obscure, early album as their favorite when it’s just not as good as the later, more popular (or not) stuff. Hey, I’m cool enough to know Beck put out Mellow Gold before he got famous, and a few obscure, difficult-to-like albums before that, but I’m sorry: anybody who says One Foot in the Grave is better than Odelay is just trying too hard to be hip.

Our feelings about specific recordings have a lot to do with where we were when they came out and how they figured in our lives. I heard from some slightly younger friends who disagreed with my assessment of Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits Volume 2, for example, and I see where they’re coming from…at least as regards “Magic” and “Xanadu,” if not “Physical” and the horrible songs from Grease.

It’s way too easy to dump on the big hits from Autoamerican, “The Tide Is High” (white girl does reggae/calypso) and “Rapture” (white girl raps). They’re not great songs, but they’re fine, and they were fun at the time, certainly not anything to get all worked up about. Unless I missed it, nobody complained when Eric Clapton shot the sheriff in 1974. And people seemed to like the Clash rapping all over Sandinista!, which came out within days of Autoamerican. Blondie may have been the first to take rap to #1, but she sure as hell didn’t invent it any more than Madonna invented voguing; difference is, Debbie Harry knows it.

I suspect my fondness for that Blondie album has a lot to do with what I was doing at that time in my life, but I also think there are some real musical gems on it. “T Birds” is power pop at its best; and “Angels on the Balcony,” my favorite song on the album, is just stunning. Give it a listen.

People have told me they would have a hard time being be a movie or restaurant or music critic, but I think it’s the easiest thing in the world. The key is turning off the “supposed to” in your head and being true to what you like, what turns you on, what makes you happy. That album you love that the critics don’t? Embrace it. Play it loud.

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