The end of 2011 saw a lot of press centered around the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind, and for good reason. Obviously, it's inarguable that if there is one record responsible for punk breaking in 1991, it's that one. However, there's another record, released just a few weeks later than Nevermind, that got far fewer retrospective column inches despite being equally influential among musicians and critics (if not in the culture as a whole). I'm talking about My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. While Nevermind is exemplary of the transition of popular music from overproduced hair/glam metal to a more “real” version of heavy music, Loveless is exemplary of the change in music that was happening just a couple notches underground, where “realness” was taken for granted. My Bloody Valentine's previous effort Isn't Anything inspired a legion of imitators. Some of these, like Ride and Slowdive, produced albums that outstripped their inspiration, but Loveless was of a higher order. It's that rare find: the definitive album.
I read in a review of Loveless one time that it was a common feeling to have “virgin envy” about it. I was confused about how the writer came to the conclusion that this was a common feeling. It sounds like a weirdly specific way to describe liking an album. But I know exactly what it means: every now and then an album can change the way you think about music. Entire genres are sometimes so well exemplified by single records that after you hear them, there’s no revisiting that virginal state of ignorance. Here’s a list of some albums I have virgin envy about, paired with the genre they introduced me to:
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (Post-rock)
Can, Tago Mago (Krautrock)
Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music (Noise)
William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops (Ambient)
Now I know that there are other candidates for each of these genres. Brian Eno is probably more likely than Basinski, Mogwai would work instead of Godspeed, and someone like Merzbow certainly deserves it more than Reed. But the point here is that, for me, these are the albums. Nothing will ever sound more like post-rock than Lift Your Skinny Fists, so every post-rock album I hear I will inevitably compare to it (even subconsciously).
So it’s not hard to see the problem. There are only so many genres of music, even if you count micro-genres like “sadcore” or “piano house” or categorize artists by country, as it’s so tempting to do with ultra-prolific genres like noise. Once you’ve heard Merzbow, Prurient is simply not going to hit you as hard, no matter where he’s from. This is an experience that is very difficult to reproduce.
Which is why it’s so tempting for critics to herald the “next big thing” in the form of a new name for a slight variation of a genre. If hypnagogic pop is defined differently than chillwave, it creates one more opportunity to find a new “first.” It’s another opportunity to define the parameters of a certain sound or set of signifiers. From 2000-2010, the most prominent of these “new” genres were chronologically: dance-punk, freak folk (or “the New Weird America”), floor-tom heavy experimental rock with lots of yelps (what I like to call the “Animal Collective School”), dubstep, and hypnagogic pop. The definitive bands of these sub-genres are respectively: the Rapture, Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective (j/k, actually it's a tie between Yeasayer and Au), Burial, and Washed Out. Ranking the albums that these artists produced in the last decade is a dicier proposition, but it's fair to say that even the best of them operate within the set parameters of their given genres more so than they create entirely new genres.
It takes a jaw-dropping, radical departure for an album to have the kind of status we’re talking about here. Loveless, for all intents and purposes, is shoegaze. And while shoegaze fits under the umbrella of “rock music,” it operates under its own conventions to a greater extent than, say, freak folk does when compared to traditional folk. So when defining the definitive album, the question to ask is: What genre exactly does the album define? It requires no hesitation to answer this question regarding truly definitive albums, and it's unlikely that the answer will be greeted with any protestation at the level of the terms of the conversation. There can be a disagreement about whether The Ramones' S/T or The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks is more punk, but not a disagreement about whether punk is a free-standing genre. The same can't be said for the critically-defined sub-genres listed above.
Loveless is unequivocally the definitive shoegaze album, as Nevermind is the definitive grunge album. It seems that after all the magazine covers and features focused on the latter in September and October, the appetite for bi-decadal commemorative think-pieces waned by November and the former's anniversary. Truly definitive albums are the fix that music junkies live for, and they are by necessity few and far between. I don't know why the anniversary of this one was seemingly so overlooked, but consider this an apologetic emendation to the record, a late love letter to Loveless.