Purely as an exercise, I’ve put together a ranked list of what is, in my not-informed-enough opinion (can anyone be?), the 25 pieces of music without which music today would be completely different. I had originally meant for this to be a hundred, then I got lazy. This list is designed so people will rip me to shreds and tell me that I have no idea what I’m talking about: perhaps because this is still entirely too classical (and Beethoven) heavy, perhaps because it's not classical-heavy enough. As impartial as lists like this are designed to be, they are also designed to be wrong. The explanations are only a few sentences long, though I suppose someone could write a book out of an idea like this...maybe even me.... But I also reserve the right to utterly rewrite, expand, and expound upon this list in a few days, weeks, months..... Finally, when I say ‘now,’ I mean now from the long view of history, in which what matters now will matter nearly as much or a little more in ten years. So NOBODY ASK WHERE’S LADY GAGA!!
1. Beethoven: Symphony no 9
Beethoven invented musical expression as we still know it today. No piece of music ever written expresses more passionately, more deeply, more universally.
2. Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro
Still the textbook definition of what form is supposed to do - form is the container in which the parts are shipped. No piece of music takes more thousands of disparate elements and fuses them with more perfect balance, it’s a three-and-a-half hour opera that has ten main characters, effortlessly glides between comedy and tragedy - form is never an end in itself, it’s what the form carries within it that matters.
3. Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier
The whole Western definition of harmony comes from this one (actually 96) piece(s). Now that the West means less and less, perhaps this piece will dwindle in influence too...but not yet...
4. Beatles: Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (album)
The day it was released was the moment when the artistic possibilities of electronic music-making incontrovertibly surpassed acoustic.
5. Louis Armstrong: Studio Work from 1923-34
It was Satchmo in his early years who flipped the musical switch on the world - composition to improvisation, refinement to rawness, harmony to rhythm.
6. Machaut: Mass for Four Voices
Eight-hundred years later, we’re still figuring out the puzzle pieces Machaut assembled from his four-voice counterpoint.
7. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
Far moreso than either Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, this album represents a new way of thinking about harmony that can be mined for hundreds of years. If anything replaces Well-Tempered Clavier as music’s harmonic future, it will be Kind of Blue - which reemphasizes modal harmonies and liberally incorporates scales from all around the world. No longer does musical harmony have its routes in the church, it is a constantly developing invention to be interpolated from whatever chord progression of which you can think.
8. Beethoven: Symphony no 3 “Eroica”
The ninth expresses the emotions of all people. The third expresses the emotions of the individual.
9. Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Rhythm, pure, animalistic, rhythm becomes music’s reason for being. The Rite wiped the palate clean for non-classical musicians to regrow something completely different.
10. Bizet: Carmen
Everything 20th century music doesn’t owe to Beethoven it owes to Carmen. Carmen was the first piece of music to posit seriously that perhaps we’re just a bundle of electro-chemical wiring which requires nothing more than pleasure to be satisfied. After Carmen, light music was serious.
11. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited
Somewhere in this album, the melody, harmony, rhythm of songs became completely subservient to lyrics. As single tracks grow more important to the history of music, the influence of Dylan will probably grow still more exponentially the years/decades/centuries go on in ways we can’t yet imagine.
12. Monteverdi: L’Orfeo
The first truly successful test of the idea that theater and music can be combined into a whole. One of the first operas, yes, but every music theater junkie owes a prayer at night to Monteverdi.
12. Beethoven: Pathetique Sonata
All it takes is one person at a good instrument to express every emotion on the planet.
13. Arcadelt: Madrigals Book 1
With the first great madrigals, all it took was a working knowledge of sight reading for any person who can carry a tune to sing in harmony with friends in his or her own home.
14. Coltrane: A Love Supreme
A single tenor saxophonist defining what a free solo improvisation means. In eras for which electronic music is ascendent, actual instrumental prowess will become rarer and rarer.
15. Palestrina: Pope Marcellus Mass
Machaut set the world on the course for counterpoint, Palestrina kept us there. Without Palestrina, we might all be singing Gregorian Chant.
16. Bartok: String Quartet no. 2
Folk music has influenced ‘art music’ for millenia before Bartok, but Bartok was the first to view art music as something that could be improved by becoming more like low folk music, not the other way around.
17. Bach: A Musical Offering
If form becomes an end in itself, this is as far as it can ever go.
18. Mozart: Don Giovanni
The ph7 of pure musical expression. Is it comedy or tragedy or both simultaneously? One of the only pieces of music that expresses every emotion at the same time.
19. Chuck Berry: Chess Record Sessions
After Chuck Berry, it was definitive. A single electric guitar could be louder and more visceral than a 150 piece orchestra.
20. Michael Jackson: Thriller
After Thriller, music became almost inextricably linked to music videos for nearly an entire generation of music lovers. Not only was music more tied to the other arts than at any point since Wagner, but it also was thought possible for music to appeal to every demographic - white and black, male and female, old and young. We’re still living all Thriller’s implications today. For how much longer?...
21. Beethoven: Symphony no 5
A long musical composition can feel completely unified, but does not need to end in the same spirit in which it began. That is another Beethovenian contribution.
22. Afrika Bambaataa: Planet Rock
The moment Hip hop and Rap became more music than poetry and the new ‘Absolute Zero’ of music’s essential elements. Spoken words set to a beat with the barest suggestion of harmonies underneath. For seventy-five years, music underwent a process of wiping the pallate clean - there is a direct line from early Stravinsky to Afrika Bambaataa.
23. The Alan Lomax Collection
Without Lomax, interest in the folk music of America and well beyond would be something approaching nill. By obsessively recording every genre of American folk music we know today, Lomax took oral history to a level only possible in the age of electronic recording. Part of appreciating the music of the past is now to do so through hearing recordings, which allows for a whole new level of influence for the past upon new music.
24. Erich Korngold: The Adventures of Robin Hood (score)
It was with Korngold that movie scoring became an art in itself. Like in Wagner, musical motifs became a way to identify characters, things, ideas - each of which should help the audience feel a particular emotion synonymous with each. But unlike with Wagner, there isn’t the added help of connecting the score to voices. The dialogue and action of movies happens independently to the music, therefore movie music requires much more precise content than in opera, where all the elements can be controlled so that the music is the most important feature. And while we're on the subject of Wagner...
25. Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
The harmonic revolution which Tristan presaged turned out to be a failed one. Tonality did not break down, it merely changed course. But the effect Tristan had on the entire music world continues to be tremendous. Before Tristan, it was a given that music had a single harmonic function - with all roads leading back to the tonic chord. Tristan changed the harmonic, I’m tempted to say poetic, purpose of music. In Tristan, a chord doesn’t resolve for hours, perhaps the chord doesn’t have to resolve at all. No longer was music a heirarchy of notes, it was anything you wanted it to be - for years Tristan was supposed to be the presage of Modernism, it is now the presage of PoMo.