Local radio station The Current just did a March Madness style tournament to determine the best album of 1969 as voted on by its listeners. Like anything determined by consensus, the end results of the bracket were boring and obvious — The Beatles’ Abbey Road knocked off Led Zeppelin II in the finals. Meanwhile, the actual best album of 1969 — The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World — was unceremoniously eliminated in round one, picking up just eight percent of the vote against a CCR album that doesn’t even have “Fortunate Son” on it.
I wrote about the Shaggs a bit a couple years ago, recanting the oft-told story of this group of sheltered sisters that were enlisted to play music by their overbearing dad, who thought they were destined (as in literally, from a palm-reader) to be a popular rock band. Due to their lack of any training or possibly any awareness of music whatsoever, the results sounded bizarre and many people think it’s the worst album ever, while another contingent, led by Frank Zappa, think they were “better than the Beatles.” I am here to defend the latter argument and I will tell you why this is a better album than Abbey Road.
But first, because The Shaggs raise these sorts of questions for me, I think it’s worth considering what music really is on a basic level that we rarely even think about. It’s all a collection of sounds that, in and of themselves, are utterly meaningless. For I suppose brain science reasons, some sounds are more pleasurable for people than others — we don’t like the sound of nails on a chalkboard, but we tend to like the sound of a cat purring or other various ASMR things. Still, there is a clear subjectivity to the sound aspect of music and everyone has their own preferences that are hard to declare as wrong. If someone told you they really enjoyed the sound of nails on a chalkboard, you wouldn’t be able to convince them they were somehow incorrect for enjoying something you don’t like.
That is The Shaggs in this comparison, because their music undeniably does sound “bad” while The Beatles sound “good.” But I don’t think people ever really stop and think about how weird that is: that we have all decided that certain sounds are “better” than others. I always think this about those weird snobs who are really into musicians who display “technical ability.” The entire concept of developing mastery of an instrument is more about reaching a point where you conform to the arbitrary societal standards of what “good music” sounds like. So I push back a bit against the common belief that The Shaggs were bad at their instruments. I think they just play differently than we’re all used to.
The actual playing isn’t the only aspect of The Shaggs that is alien compared to other music. What really grabs me about Philosophy of the World is how radically different its intent and motivations are compared to all other recorded music. Think about why any artist forms a band, releases songs, or performs in a live setting. It’s always motivated by some sense of desiring something for themselves- they may want to make money, make friends, look impressive or cool, or make themselves feel better through self-expression. Or they may sincerely feel like they have a gift that needs to be shared with the world. Either way, there is an inherent self-indulgence to music, but it’s such an obvious part of performance that it often doesn’t even register to people.
But listening to Philosophy of the World is possibly hearing music in its purest form, made without any pretensions or aspirations. The Shaggs might be the only band to ever make an album with this mindset, though I suppose you could argue they were trying to impress their dad or had actual pop music ambitions. The word “authenticity” is thrown around a lot (by me included), usually to refer to albums that reduce the natural self-indulgence of music by having humble, genuine qualities through the music itself and/or the artist’s persona. No album could ever be more authentic than Philosophy of the World because it was made by people who didn’t know any better. And it’s so insane to hear an album without an ounce of posturing, or desire to impress the listener, that it’s almost impossible to comprehend it.
So this is an album that doesn’t sound like anything else ever made and might be the most pure, direct translation of childlike innocence and emotion into sound. People think of The Beatles as these great innovators, but all of their music was on the same basic pop music path that has been developed for centuries, and I’d argue most of what they get credit for is stuff that would have happened eventually anyways. Philosophy of the World is, unintentionally, a complete rethinking of what music even is. It raises questions and challenges preconceptions in a way that is completely unique. There has never been another album like it, and given the way society is now with the internet, I doubt it’s something that can ever be replicated.
People who think of themselves as music experts will always scoff at this album because it doesn’t fit their preconceived, constructed ideas of what a guitar or a drum beat should sound like. But people who actually understand music and art will appreciate that Philosophy of the World does things that no other album could ever do. Possibly its greatest strength is how it functions as a litmus test of sorts, an album that sparks ideas, conversation, and challenges entire notions about what music is and who can make it. As good as The Beatles were, they never did that for me.