The 1979 and 1983 editions overseen by Dave Marsh and John Swenson remain essential guides to numerous releases that seem unlikely ever to see digital reissue (lest anyone forget that Chip Taylor wrote both "Angel of the Morning" and "Wild Thing"), but the streamlined entries are short on deep thinking. Next to the 2004 edition, however, they look downright ecumenical.
And in the unctuous Rob Sheffield, the new guide has at its center the most self-satisfied voice in music criticism. With Sheffield's pen circling the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, the Byrds, Nick Drake, Van Morrison, Steely Dan, Elton John, the Clash, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Neil Young, David Bowie, the Velvet Underground and more than a dozen other heavyweights, the guide amounts to his personal history of rock. The result is an onanistic disaster -- tin-eared ("'Savoy Truffle' ... [is] among the Beatles' finest songs"), insight-free ("Exile was the Stones' biggest musical triumph, but all the decadence was catching up with them"), precious (the Dylan of Blood on the Tracks, he writes, is "a jack of hearts getting kicked around the simple twists of fate"), shtick-addled ("Leonard Cohen is the Jewish Bryan Ferry"; Neil Diamond is "the Jewish Elvis") and relentlessly stupid ("Is David Bowie's 'Young Americans' the greatest song ever? It could be").
A penumbra of extra-Sheffield idiocy flares as well. Keith Harris batters the Dixie Chicks for criticizing George W. Bush last year. Greg Kot, author of the Wilco hagiography Learning How to Die, writes the guide's entry for that band. Pre-grunge indie acts not dismissed outright are shrugged off; according to the guide, the Go-Betweens never made an excellent album. The shockingly slight Frank Sinatra entry not only awards just four stars to his finest album (1958's Sings for Only the Lonely) but also touts the presence on the singer's 1940s Columbia recordings of Tommy Dorsey, the RCA-contracted bandleader from whom Columbia grabbed Sinatra. And Sinatra's 1967 collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim earns five stars under Sinatra's name but only four under Jobim's.
The Jobim discrepancy suggests that the writers handled most of the individual ratings themselves. It's hard to imagine any other reason why the usually committee-driven Rolling Stone would, for example, downgrade Graham Parker's Squeezing Out Sparks from five to four stars, announce that Willie Nelson has recorded no five-star albums that aren't compilations, and dock Van Morrison's former fiver Moondance half a star. George Harrison's solo career has been wiped from the new guide. Other artists not included: Mark Eitzel (Rolling Stone's songwriter of the year in 1991), Crowded House, Split Enz, Patty Griffin, the Blasters, Dave Alvin, Chris Isaak, the Damned, the Decemberists, the Faces and Pete Townshend. Better to be a Top 40 hip-hop act circa 1990 -- Digable Planets, Kriss Kross, the Fat Boys, Naughty by Nature, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Doug E. Fresh and Tone Loc retain generous entries.