So how do you tell whether a CD is any good these days? Nick Hornby, in his recently published Songbook, provides one answer, albeit with a scoundrel's grin. He suggests looking for "evidence of quiet good taste"--somber cover art, ironic song titles, classy cameos, stickers touting four-star recommendations from music journals of note. "And, of course," he writes, "you stop listening to music made by shrieking, leather-trousered, shaggy-haired men altogether." Hornby penned this by way of explaining his love for the song "Heartbreaker" off Led Zeppelin 2, a song he rediscovered after realizing his musical diet had become short on carbs and that "the rock riff is nutritionally essential." Too many years of aspiring to good taste--Joni Mitchell once, say, or Radiohead now--caused even the most die-hard fan to forget what brung him; in looking for signposts of "art" he lost sight of the pleasure of sound.
The music of Zeppelin, and Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan, endures most of all because no one ever figured out how to copy it. Because it makes you grin when you hear it. Because it swings. Because it has lost no muscle mass. Because it still sounds great when played loud. Because, as Donald Fagen explains, "they really do have a great groove," perhaps the most enduring trait in all of popular music. "Forward motion is contagious," Fagen says. "It has never failed." Not even when taking a moment to look, and listen, backward.