Too Late Book Review: Fear of Music: The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk and Disco

I recently finished reading Garry Mulholland’s Fear of Music: The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk and Disco. I picked it up to fill in the gaps of my popular music education–specifically the years between 1989 and 1999 when I was either pursuing classical music (and felt obliged to shut out pop influences, oh boy, isn’t that a ripe topic for discussion…) or too involved in some obscure corner of avant-garde/jazz/experimental/electronic/other to pay attention to what the “kids” were hearing.

It’s a fun read, thanks largely to Mulholland’s cheeky streak but even more so to his idealism. Mulholland values his pop music for its world-changing properties as much as for its booty-shaking abilities. And his disappointment as each starry-eyed group and movement sells itself short to crass commerce and popular opinion is somehow registered with eternal optimism: maybe something stuck this time around, maybe lessons were learned, maybe it will all be different next time around… Too bad it never quite works out that way.

Fear of Music is also a fun read because it’s a list, and I love lists. Some of the usual suspects appear here:

But there’s some surprising overlap with the records of the early- and mid-80s that I held dear. These were records that I kept returning to even as my circle of friends either left them behind or ignored them in the first place. Here’s a partial list:

Twenty years later, it’s reassuring to have my teenage crushes validated.

Mulholland has already turned me on to some new records or in some cases reminded me of forgotten gems including

Then there are Mulholland’s recommendations I’m still looking forward to checking out:

So far, one recommendation has fallen flat: The Human League: Dare!. I knew the closer hit “Don’t You Want Me” and expected the rest of the album to at least approach it in quality, but it doesn’t come close. Ouch. Maybe this one belongs in Mulholland’s previous book This is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco.

I recommend Fear of Music, particularly since so few books and writers focus on the post-punk era; in Mulholland’s hands 1978 seems like the most magical and musical of years in recent decades. Mulholland’s across-the-pond proclivities occasionally seem stilted (I doubt many other music writers would afford the Manchester scene of the early ’90s so much space). But I forgive him a few lapses of enthusiasm, particularly given the rest of his picks and what good fun they are to read.