/ 30 May 2024

Apple’s Top 100 List: A coalition of Rock and Pop, but at what cost?

Letta Mbulu
A-list: South African musician Letta Mbulu should have been on Apple’s list, the writer says. Photo: Getty Images

We South Africans know our coalitions (we’ll probably see more after our elections) and the recently released Apple Music 100 Best Albums list smells exactly like one.

Let me explain. There has been an ideological battle in popular music between “rockists” and “poptimists” that goes back decades. 

A rockist, according to Kelefa Sanneh in a famous 2004 New York Times article, “is someone who reduces rock n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. 

“Rockism means idolising the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionising punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.”

Thirteen years later, British critic Michael Hann did a tongue-in-cheek turning around of Sanneh’s definition in The Quietus magazine: “A poptimist is someone who reduces pop music to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. 

“Poptimism means idolising the latest pop star while mocking the authentic old legend; lionising disco while barely tolerating punk; loving the music video and hating live performance; extolling the lip-syncher while hating the growling performer.”

Over-simplified, the ideologues’ battle is one of rock versus pop/R&B/hip-hop and before disco. 

Over the years, that war has manifested itself in — often tiresome — supposed canon-setting best-of albums lists. They were mostly dominated by the rockists’ choice because the poptimists were more inclined to love singles over albums.

That is where the controversial Apple one is different. It is a coalition between rock and pop. 

With hip-hop (21), rock (19, but one can add three hard rock and two punk albums, plus one metal album), pop (16), R&B (11, plus two Motown classics) dominant, it is perhaps more accurate to describe it as a broad coalition.

There are the old-school rock favourites such as The Beatles and The Clash, alongside Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. Beyoncé and Frank Ocean are even in the list’s Top 10, which is a good thing.

But like my colleague, Lesego Chepape (see “Lies, damned lies and statistics”), I cannot stand the Apple list, because it is a fake diversity we are seeing here.

It is totally American-centric. There is not a single album from our continent, Asia or Latin America. No Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Letta Mbulu, Elis Regina, Gilberto Gil and so many more. And those are just a few of the veterans.

Sixty-three on the list are from the US. This is perhaps predictable from a country that calls sporting events involving just themselves and Canada “world series” or “world championships”.

Even within genres it is still very narrow — take jazz. Just one Coltrane and one Miles. No Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock or any of the South African jazz greats. Let me not get started on reggae — or even disco.

Another gripe is where artists made it onto the list: Nina Simone, De La Soul, Solange, Neil Young, Steely Dan, Kraftwerk, the Velvet Underground and John Coltrane are all far too low.

These are matters of taste, I guess.

The worst thing I can say about this list is that it is so predictable, so bland — almost as if it was compiled by a major streaming service that will hopefully be making a lot of money off it and the publicity it is getting …

Yes, that is the irony. The ponytails in Apple Music’s marketing department must be laughing at our criticism. By slamming their list, we are giving them more publicity.

As The Guardian wrote: “Along with Spotify and the other music streamers, they have done more than most to undermine the idea of the album as an artistic statement. 

“In 2024 the individual track is king, and playlists have long since surpassed albums in defining how people listen to music.”

But, with this albums list, they can coax people to download full albums too — even more money, more profit. 

Capitalism is a sly, clever beast. It even uses coalitions.