Mr. English-only: a criticism of rock criticism

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Andrew White Cleary, staff writer

Earlier today, I listened to a 1989 album by the name of “Veuillez rendre l’âme (à qui elle appartient).” It was released by Noir Désir, a French rock band active from the early 1980s to the beginning of the 2010s. Listening to its songs (the best of which are probably “Aux sombres héros de l’amer” and “The Wound”) brought me back to a thought I had the other day: why have rock critics listened to so little foreign music?

Look at any professional (i.e. by a newspaper or critics’ circle) list of the greatest books of all time. In all probability you will see Russian literature such as Lev Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” There may be a German book or two, like Kafka’s “The Trial” (one of my favorite books, in the way it can be read as a comedy, tragedy, warning, or all three). Spanish literature? “Don Quixote.” French? “In Search of Lost Time.” Note whenever you find a list with only English-language novels, it will have “English-language” in the title, ensuring people understand foreign works are absent simply from ineligibility.

Look at a professional list of the best movies ever made. Will there be one without the Russian “Man with a Movie Camera”? What if there’s also nothing by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman? What if there’s nothing from Akira Kurosawa (Japan)? And nothing from Jean Renoir (France)? From Béla Tarr (Hungary)? All lists like this should, once again, say something along the lines of “greatest American films” or “greatest English-language films.”

Then go on Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of the 500 best albums. Every other one in the top five is a Beatles album. There is little to no international music; German group Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” (1977) makes an appearance, but that is an English-language mix of the originally German “Trans Europa Express.” Bob Marley’s got more than one there, but in all of them Marley speaks English. Most other American publications’ lists are not much different. Where should rock critics start with foreign music?

1971 was, in all likelihood, the best year for non-English rock music. German group Faust’s eponymous debut album remains astonishing in 2014. It is something of a sound collage, harking back to Frank Zappa’s late-1960s albums with his backing band, the Mothers of Invention. With an originality decades ahead of its time, Faust bridges the gap between opera, electronic noise, glam rock, spoken word, and acoustic. Released soon after Paul McCartney’s departure from the Beatles back in the English-speaking world, it includes a distorted sample of “All You Need is Love” near the first song’s one-minute mark. Perhaps the distortion was Faust’s way of reminding everyone they would not be your usual rock band. The record’s pure weirdness could throw nearly anyone off on first listen, but with a couple more plays, some of it (particularly the middle section of “Why Don’t You Eat Carrots?”) grows on the listener.

1971 also saw a couple of French gems (both of which were far more commercially accessible than the aforementioned “Faust”). Francoise Hardy’s collaboration with Brazilian songwriter Tuca resulted in her best album, “La question.” More acoustic than much of her previous work, it displays some of Hardy’s most impressive vocal performances in songs like “Le martien” and “Oui je dis adieu.” Serge Gainsbourg’s “Histoire de Melody Nelson” greeted French shelves the same year. Its effortless fusion of rock instrumentation and orchestral elements was a key influence on the American trip hop (electronica + hip-hop/sampling) of the 1990s – particularly artists such as Beck and Portishead. Also in 1971, a German group named Popol Vuh released “In den garten pharaos,” a compelling work of ambient electronica.

That said, Popol Vuh’s masterpiece is “Hosianna Mantra” (1972). Popol Vuh came onto the German Krautrock (a minimalist genre blending rock and electronica) scene in the very early 1970s. The album’s diverse instrumentation – including piano, oboe, and violins – is responsible for the highly spiritual, almost ethereal quality of its songs. In many ways, in fact, “Hosianna Mantra” was a precursor to the new age of the 1980s, and perhaps the first album worthy of being categorized under that genre; in this sense, its innovation and importance has been overlooked over the years.

Regarding the 1990s, French musician Alain Bashung deserves more attention. In “Osez josephine” (1991) he employed classical elements for career highlights such as the song “Madame reve”; “Happe” is also well-arranged. The fact that four out of eleven songs are covers bogs it down a little, but it is still worth a few listens. “Fantaisie militaire” (1998) may be more impressive, if only for the fact that more songs are original, and for Bashung’s dynamic range: he alternates between the power ballad (“Le nuit je mens”), hard rock (title track), and soft pop (“Sommes nous”) genres with much success.

In 2000, Japanese group Acid Mothers Temple released “La novia,” composed of one 40-minute track spanning several musical styles. It starts off reminding one of Gregorian chant, but also includes several guitar jams and solos, with a touch of psychedelic, before ending in acoustic. It is some of the more ambitious music recorded in the 21st century, competing with the work of Radiohead and Kanye West.

“Faust,” “Hosianna Mantra,” “La novia”…none of these albums are in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list. None of these albums show up in Entertainment Weekly’s 2013 list. Writers for Allmusic have reviewed them, and all have given very positive reviews. But that seems to be it. How come?

Whenever sitting down and listening to one of the aforementioned albums, that thought crosses my mind. Literary critics are knowledgeable of foreign books. Film critics are knowledgeable of foreign movies. Rock critics, contrarily, are not all that knowledgeable of foreign music. They need to step it up a little, as there are a multitude of important international artists. Whether it is a German group foreshadowing new age or a French solo artist fusing pop and classical, mainstream rock critics often have too little knowledge of its historical significance.

Finally, as something of a postscript, I feel obligated to cite two great resources for learning about foreign music. One of them, Scaruffi.com, is run by a University of Berkeley lecturer who has listened to literally thousands of albums and traveled to over 100 countries. The second is acclaimedmusic.net, a site run by a Swedish statistician, Henrik Franzon, who gathers hundreds of online critics’ lists to statistically calculate (as objectively as possible) the most acclaimed albums ever.