There are many ways to regard the past, from a source of salvation to cause for disgust. Particularly controversial is the matter of pop music’s heritage, because pop has always read from the gospel of what’s happening now. Don’t trust anyone over 24, counsels 20-year-old MTV, and everything from the electric guitar to the multiplatinum status of the Beatles’ 1 has been decried by would-be futurists. Citing the chart success of Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, and the Fabs a few months ago in Slate, Washington Post Book World Senior Editor Chris Lehmann warned that not even “our putative youth culture—once our most reliably tradition-hostile venue of expression—afford[s] any refuge from the sclerotic hand of the past.”

Maybe, but I don’t see any pop-cult Khmer Rouge massing in the hills to banish over-40 rockers. The last such group, the ravers, has been reduced to just another niche market, most notable for its favored music’s suitability for car commercials. (How many electronica-oriented festivals or package tours have been canceled this summer? I’ve lost count.)

Implicit in the glorification of the New is progress, and 2001 has not been a great year for that. Computer, Internet, and other hi-tech companies—supposed paradigms of advancement—are stalling, shrinking, and collapsing, and the putative president of the United States is bigger on ’80s revivalism than are the reunited Go-Go’s. If things are getting better, where and how? A new compilation of post-rock bands from this spring’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Camber Rye, England, matter-of-factly announces that this is “an era in which the original artform is now exhausted or in some cases redundant.”

In rock music, the last few months have been dominated by a diverse crop of compilations and reissues, including Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From the British Empire & Beyond, as well as discs by Radio Birdman, Neu!, Buffalo Springfield, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Yardbirds, Roxy Music, and Lush. Let’s talk about the latter two, not because of the music they contain but because of the way they present it: backward.

Whether you deplore 1—and/or its chart triumph—you have to admit that it followed the expected course: from start to finish. Not so The Best of Roxy Music, which opens with 1982’s “Avalon” and retrogresses, in order, back to 1972’s “Re-Make/Re-Model,” or Ciao! Best of Lush, which runs backward from 1996’s “Ladykillers” to 1989’s “Etheriel.” By flipping the traditional chronology, these two albums upend the customary notion of progress in rock—from fresh or amateurish or primitive to received or professional or fully realized.

Memento, of course, didn’t invent backward, sideways, or upside-down chronology. Modernist novelists started fracturing traditional narrative a century ago, and filmmakers began emulating them some 50 years later. Still, even anthologies of writers such as Faulkner and Joyce tend to compile their work chronologically. Although the latter toyed with time—Finnegans Wake takes the form of a mythic loop, reflecting Giambattista Vico’s theory of cyclical history—his work is usually presented with the assumption that it advanced in one direction: forward.

It’s hard to say why Roxy Music and Lush decided against taking that path. For the former, the band’s later days were its most successful in the United States: After the first track, The Best of Roxy Music has nowhere to go but down in terms of American audience recognition. But that doesn’t apply to Britain, where such early songs as “Virginia Plain” were bona fide hits. As for Lush, it was always more prominent in the United Kingdom than in the United States, but audiences on both sides of the Atlantic lost interest in the band at about the same time—when singer-songwriters Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson no longer needed a battery of effects to camouflage their limitations as guitarists. Ciao! opens with a quartet of perfectly competent songs from 1996’s Lovelife that illustrate one of the pop Luddite’s essential anti-progress scenarios: the rock band that becomes “better” and, in the process, loses most of its appeal.

Yet some sorts of progress just can’t be discounted; even the most willful primitivists learn as they go. Berenyi and Anderson really did become more skillful players, and Roxy Music became less anarchic when “nonmusician” Brian Eno departed. Expanded knowledge—about their instruments, about the recording process—can affect pop musicians’ work as much as commercial pressures, growing cynicism, simple boredom, or the flagging of their inspiration and drive.

In addition, claims of progress remain the customary rejoinder to accusations of musical frivolousness. ‘N Sync has touted its new “Pop”—produced by trance master (and former Washingtonian) BT—as a bold advance, even though it sounds like a new-jack-swing track from the late ’80s. If every “I Want to Hold Your Hand” leads to a “Strawberry Fields Forever,” then Vico was right: Pop music is an endless cycle.

If so, however, why follow it only clockwise? In their limited way, Ciao! and The Best of Roxy Music offer as credible an illustration of pop-music cycles as the 13-year theory (1954, 1967, 1980, 1993—uh, didn’t that one break down 21 years ago?). Of course, sociocultural patterns become visible only from a distance. This seemingly becalmed moment in pop’s history may actually be the crest of something. Still, at a time when nobody seems to be getting anywhere, maybe the answer is to start at the end and work forward. —Mark Jenkins

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