Debate: The Beatles were fab, but are we sticking to the safe old formulas at the expense of new talent?

Sixties and Seventies bands dominated the top 1000 albums published by Virgin last week. Andy Gill argues that commercialism is dumbing down standards. Julian Rolfe believes that the best albums are made today
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YOU can tell there's something wrong with modern music by the frequency with which pop industry institutions - magazines, retailers, record labels - resort to polls to find out which artists/albums/singles are the most popular with the punters. Such polls are unnecessary when everything in the industry's Hunky Dory - which, as it happens, appears at number 16 (one below Astral Weeks, and one above Blonde On Blonde) in the most recent survey by Virgin to find their customers' 1,000 favourite albums.

This is the most worrying such list of recent years, on several counts. For one thing, it reveals the racially-biased nature of British pop fans - or, at the very least, suggests that not too many black-music fans shop at Virgin for their sounds. The only black artist to make the top 30 is Jimi Hendrix - virtually an honorary white rocker - and a mere 10 others (including Massive Attack and The Prodigy) featured in the 100 as a whole. (And no hip-hop at all, unless you count those same acts.) This may be partly due to the singles-oriented format of soul and R&B labels such as Motown and Stax, but the ever-tightening focus on white artists is none the less dubious. But what should cause more concern amongst industry insiders is the impression of conservative retrenchment given by The Beatles' securing four of the top five slots, the most narrowly-focused response of any such poll: how do you approach an audience so aesthetically ossified that they believe the White Album is better than anything except its two predecessors?

It's not simply a case of "they don't make 'em like this anymore", either. Judging by the retro-rock leanings of most of the younger entrants in the list - Oasis, Kula Shaker, Stone Roses, Ocean Colour Scene, etc - the problem is more that they're too fixated on still making 'em like this: the domination of Britpop has inculcated a culture of blandness in modern music, to the point where young musicians have all but lost the impetus to create something new and original. The British rock scene has become the equivalent of the reproduction antique furniture industry: some nice workmanship, but essentially fake.

This, in turn, is largely due to the dumbing-down of TV and especially radio coverage of pop, with playlists sculpted to ease advertisers' misgivings, and the more prickly, unusual strains of music marginalised out of earshot. I could, for instance, tell you that the forthcoming album by the American group Mercury Rev is without question the album of the year, but the chances of your hearing it broadcast are vanishingly small.

Ultimately, all the problems afflicting the industry can be traced to the focus on short-term profits, the direct result of record labels being run as ruthlessly bottom-lined offshoots of huge corporate bodies: decisions are now made more with shareholders' immediate dividends in mind, rather than the skilled A&R person's judgement. Sometimes, even moderate chart success can't prevent you being booted off a label, as Rialto discovered recently.

Hence the massive investment in a relentless cycle of lightweight boy bands (and, post-Spice, girl bands). But how many albums, do you think, will latest pop chipmunk Billie (ask your granddaughter) sell? And it's albums which, ultimately, provide the big, long-term returns on those hundreds of thousands of pounds of promotional push that are required to put pop satellites like Billie into orbit. What goes around, as Dr John said, comes around: you'll search in vain for the likes of Take That, Boyzone and even The Spice Girls in Virgin's Top 100 list. So it's not all bad news, then.

Andy Gill is the music critic for the `Independent'

"TSK, they don't make 'em like they used to, do they? John Lennon, Roger Waters, Bob Dylan, - now they made proper music. With real instruments. Their tunes were catchy, their words had depth, they could play their instruments, blah, blah, blah, blah ..."

Stop me if you've heard this before, because at one time or another, everyone's had the misfortune of being cornered by a bar-room music-bore. The denim-jacket and woolly-hair type, who witters endlessly about "how much better music used to be in the old days", while playing "Stairway To Heaven" on his air guitar.

We've heard this moaning only slightly fewer times than we've all sat through Sergeant Pepper, Dark Side Of The Moon or Blonde On Blonde. Yes, these albums are classics, but 25 years on, the guitar solo in "Money" feels stodgier than four-week-old Ready Brek, and 30 years on, "Yellow Submarine" should be torpedoed.

The bore spewing out grievances against "modern so-called-music" is ignorant, I'm afraid. There have been many great modern albums in the last 10 years, a fact borne out by a third of the top 50 albums in the recent Virgin poll.

"It's all ripped off The Beatles or The Stones anyway," the bore will claim, neatly overlooking the huge debt that they in turn owe to people like Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Of course you'll hear echoes of older songs in modern music, it's impossible to make music without being influenced by something else. People don't live in vacuums. The important thing is how influences are adapted, and what new elements are brought in.

Even modern electronic dance music, which tore up the production techniques rule-book in the Eighties, has its roots in old favourites like funk, dub, soul, disco and jazz. "Yeah, but it's all made on computers, it's got no soul and there's no real instruments on it," the bore will insist. But the studio is the instrument for today's producers. Knowing your way around the mixing desk and the sequencer has become far more important than grade four piano, and carving a soulful groove out of a wall of buttons is a trickier business than parping into a harmonica.

Music, especially dance music, is all about getting the funk to flow between the rhythm of the beats and the bass lines. Once that foundation is laid, the producer can take it in any direction he chooses.

On The Fat Of The Land, The Prodigy went for rugged guitars and aggressive vocals, Massive Attack's Blue Lines was all about smooth keyboards and soothing vocals and Primal Scream took all of the above for Screamadelica and smeared it in a layer of trippy weirdness. Modern dance music has something for everyone, and all three albums justifiably made it into the Virgin top 50.

OK, so if you had to vote for the greatest album ever, you might well choose something that had stood the test of time - a Bowie, Hendrix or Stones LP maybe - but when you're trying to rid yourself of the stresses of the day, do you really want to listen to an album where you know every note, every word and every scratch?

If you're the bar-room bore you do, because nothing's ever been as good as when you were young. But if the thought of another trawl through Van Morrison's anxieties makes you want to weep, take the plunge, head down to your local record shop and freshen up your life. Reprazent, Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers, Norman Cook, Nu Yorican Soul, Underworld, Leftfield, Orbital... there's plenty of other quality "modern" albums that didn't even make the top 50 albums of all time.

And it might even give you something new to talk about down the pub.

Julian Rolfe is the features editor of `MixMag'

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