“Philosophy of the World” is the Best Album of 1969 — And Possibly Ever

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.

The Legacy of The Shaggs

A lot has already been written online about The Shaggs, a band of sisters who released one album, Philosophy of the World, in 1969 that has gained a cult following over the years. Their story gets told frequently because it’s a compelling outsider narrative: their overbearing father, believing they were destined for stardom, put them in a band when they had no knowledge of music, and the resulting album sounded bizarre and alien. Yet, thanks to artists like Frank Zappa who allegedly proclaimed them to be “better than The Beatles,” their music has endured.

Many suspected Zappa was trolling when he praised The Shaggs — that nobody could possibly like music that is so obviously bad. It is easy to assume anyone who likes them only does so in that “so bad it’s good” way, like people who watch Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, where most of the enjoyment comes from pointing and laughing at it. I argue that The Shaggs made actual good music, or at least music that raises interesting questions about what art is and who can make it.

I’d be lying if I said I really loved The Shaggs and listened to them regularly — the truth is, it’s hard for me to really enjoy music that is so lacking in basic rhythm, melody, etc. There is plenty of weird, avant-garde music that consciously rejects those elements, but most of the time it’s by artists who know music very well and are interested in pushing its limits — they know the rules, and thus know how to break them effectively.

The Shaggs are different: they seem entirely oblivious to what music even is, much less the rules that govern it. The result is music that is unique not just in how bizarre and off-kilter it sounds, but in how unguarded it is emotionally. To listen to The Shaggs is to hear music that is entirely free of calculation or pretension. At times, they are painfully innocent, particularly on songs like “My Pal Foot Foot” or “Who Are Parents?” where they earnestly clatter in their unusual way about imaginary friends and the importance of their family. They are so sheltered and naive that it even has a darkness to it, a twisted beauty that makes their music worthwhile and memorable instead of being random noise.

It is hard for human ears to adjust to The Shaggs, which is something that fascinates me in and of itself. When I listen to them, I always end up going very deep into this existential dorm-room logic, where I begin to question everything I thought I knew about music. Because the story that is told is how The Shaggs “couldn’t play music,” but like… what makes music music, man? Why do our brains like to hear rhythm and melodies done in the way that most music is, and not in the way The Shaggs did? Aren’t these all just like… random sounds existing in space and time that we arbitrarily give meaning to? Sometimes after thinking stuff like this long enough, I begin to wonder if The Shaggs are the only band that has ever played music correctly — maybe everyone else has been doing it wrong.

I’m usually able to talk myself off that ledge eventually, but I do think The Shaggs unintentionally predicted a lot of common indie trends that I still hear today. In particular, they’re the most extreme example of a crucial indie idea: that sometimes it’s good for music to have imperfections and flaws. Tons of indie music intentionally sounds rougher and dirtier than major label products as a calculated reaction to the slickness of mainstream music. Sometimes this comes across as a cheap gimmick, especially when it’s only done because a band is trying to sound “authentic,” but it’s something I really like when it’s done naturally. Limitations can often result in more memorable music than all of the studio magic and technical ability in the world.

In that regard, this year’s band that really reminds me of The Shaggs is Girlpool, a duo of teenagers from L.A. who play music that is defined by simplicity. They only have an electric guitar and bass (no drums), and sing interlocking vocal harmonies with each other over basic chords. The title of their album, Before the World Was Big, even sounds a bit Shaggsy, and their lyrics naturally reflect a youthful (yet smart) view of the world. Before the World Was Big doesn’t reach the subversive insanity of Philosophy of the World, but it’s similarly powerful because of how restricted it is — it’s interesting to listen to music that is so boiled down to its basic parts.

To give Girlpool credit, they have real technical ability, which The Shaggs did not. But I hear a lot of the same themes in their music, especially the tension between youthful innocence and encountering the darkness of the real world.  The limitations in Girlpool’s music feel vital and genuine because it supports those ideas — a lot of what makes their music special would be lost if it was slickly produced with a full band set-up. It’s a delicate act to pull off because it can so easily sound contrived, yet Before the World Was Big never does. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it being presented in any other way — just like it’s hard to imagine highly trained musicians making an album like Philosophy of the World.

I think that is the essence of the “better than the Beatles” thing. The traditional view on this as that The Beatles were immensely talented and The Shaggs could never hope to approximate their music in any way — which is true. But this can also be flipped: The Beatles were too good, knew music too well, to ever in a million years make an album like Philosophy of the World, even with infinite resources. If that doesn’t take talent, I don’t know what does.