OK, here is another of my lists. This time the topic is all time favorite albums. As with all of my lists, it is subject to head-slapping oversights and ommisions, and would no doubt look significantly different tomorrow than today.
I grew up in the late sixties and seventies, a time when the album became the center point of the music universe. Album releases were events comparable to the releases of motion pictures and books. There were overt concept albums, like Tommy and Quadrophenia by the Who and The Wall by Pink Floyd. Other albums contained songs that were part of an overriding mood or theme that the artist wanted to convey. There was lots of brilliance, and even more self-indulgence and pretentiousness (see the Emerson, Lake and Palmer album Works – Volume One for a classic example). There were also the different genres of popular music, dominated by what has now come to be referred to as “classic rock” (a term I truly despise). There was folk, progressive, soul and country – and there were interesting artists making great music in every genre. There were hard rock and heavy metal and Rhythm and Blues bands. There were singer songwriters and there were punks. And, of course, there was disco.
Now, well into the 21st century, the album is still alive, but on life support. The internet and IPODs have changed the way music is sold, marketed and purchased. For many, albums have been replaced by individual song downloads and the creation of custom playlists. There’s a lot of good in this new model, with many artists adapting to it and getting more music to their fans faster. Some artists still approach album releases as opportunities to explore and examine themes. But the golden age of the album seems to have passed.
So my list is dominated from the years I’ll refer to as “The Album Era”, the years when I was building my album collection and developing, for better or worse, my own tastes, my likes and dislikes. I have a personal relationship with each of the albums on the list – at a minimum, they are part of the soundtrack of my life. Some of them shook my earth and profoundly changed the way I see the world.
Here is my list of my fourteen favorite albums:
#14 Copperhead Road, Steve Earle, 1988: Earle’s cross over album, from respected country songwriter to rock superstar. Whatever genre he works in, Earle is an enormously talented songwriter, and his range is on full display here, from the southern gothic, multi-generational anthem of the title track, to the deceptively plaintive love song “Even When I’m Blue”, to the rocking hillbilly perfection of “The Devil’s Right Hand”, to my favorite, the hard rocking and poignant collaboration with the great Irish band, The Pogues, on “Johnny Come Lately”. A rare combination of folk, country, hard rock, and poetry.
#13 Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan, 1975: Dylan’s “divorce album” is as raw and open as an untreated wound. A very difficult album to categorize – it’s not folk, it’s not rock, it’s not blues – it’s not acoustic, it’s not electric – isn’t solo, isn’t with a band. Whatever it is, it’s all connected, starting with “Tangled Up in Blue”, through “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” and ending with “Shelter From the Storm”and “Buckets of Rain”. Blood on the Tracks sounds like no other album by Dylan or anybody else.
#12 Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen, 1988: Released as the eagerly anticipated follow up to the mega hit “Born in the USA”, Springsteen defiantly deconstructs the all-American cartoon of his superstardom and turns inward, wrestling with his image, his Catholicism and his success. Conflicted and brutally honest, the result is some of his best and most personal songwriting, with songs like “Tougher Than the Rest”, “Brilliant Disguise”, and the achingly beautiful “Valentine’s Day” standing out.
#11 Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane, 1967 The breakthrough album that defined the San Francisco sound, this album is best known for the immense hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” – and to me, that’s a shame, because good songs though they are, they are among the weakest tracks on an album that shows the incredible range of this band that history all too often overlooks. The aching Marty Balin ballads “Today” and “Coming Back to Me”, the acoustic guitar instrumental “Embryonic Journey”, the unabashed 60s hippie pop of “How Do You Feel”, or the tight rocking “Plastic Fantastic Lover” are good songs by talented musicians with exceptional range.
#10 Live at Leeds, The Who, 1969 Without a doubt the greatest live album by the greatest live act in history. Famous for their stage antics, this album proves that the Who were great musicians – there’s never been a greater rhythm section than John Entwistle and Keith Moon, and, on this album, Pete Townsend gets to show his credentials as an electric guitar God. As good as any of the power blues by super groups like Cream, the same band that was the Godfathers of the punk movement also prove here to be a great heavy metal band.
#9 A Space in Time, Ten Years After, 1971 Ten Years After is known primarily for the power blues guitar riffs of Alvin Lee. A Space in Time shows surprisingly sophisticated songwriting, command of lovely melodies, and atmospheric production. There is great melding of acoustic and electric guitars on the justifiably famous “I’d Love to Change the World”, and also on the lovely rockers “Hard Monkeys” and “I’ve Been There Too.” The sonic love song “Let the Sky Fall” is another highlight, while there are still examples of the great blues rock that the band was famous for in “One of These Days” and “Baby, Won’t You Let Me Rock and Roll You”
#8 Red Dirt Girl, Emmylou Harris, 2000 Best known for lending her incredible voice to interpretations of other artists music, in “Red Dirt Girl”, Emmylou Harris shows off her skills as a top notch songwriter. The material is personal, confessional, atmospheric and deeply felt. The album crosses and combines genres – it isn’t quite rock, it isn’t quite folk, it isn’t quite country. It is beautiful and eloquent. Highlights include “Michelangelo”, “Tragedy”, “Red Dirt Girl”, “My Antonia”, “Boy From Tupelo”, and her emotional elegy to her Father, “Bang the Drum Slowly”, which, for me, never fails to conjure up the haunting image and feel of Arlington National Cemetary.
#7 Let it Be, The Replacements, 1984 The third album from the restless Midwestern juvenile delinquents could have been titled “growing pains”, because it shows them in transition, from the punk rockers of their first two albums to the maturity that leader Paul Westerberg was suddenly writing songs with. “Androgynous” is one of the most amazing and sophisticated love songs ever written, and “Sixteen Blue” is the archetypical teen angst song. “Unsatisfied” is an eloquent articulation of the punk mindset, and “Answering Machine” captures the frustrating loneliness for which Westerberg would become spokesman for. “20th Century Boy” proves the Mats could rock with the best of them. With “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got A Boner”, the Mats happily demonstrated that they’d never completely grow up.
#6 Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones, 1971 My son Jon thinks “Beggar’s Banquet” is the best Stones album, and he may be right – it’s right up there with “Exile” as the very best of the Stones. My vote is for “Exile”, because of the Mick Taylor / Keith Richards guitar interplay. On hits like “Tumbling Dice”, “All Down the Line” and “Happy”, and especially the often overlooked “Stop Breaking Down”, the line between lead and rhythm guitars are blurred. The Stones have spent most of the years after “Exile” trying to recreate this sound, but have largely failed. I think it’s because Taylor was a more talented and melodic guitar player than either Brian Jones before him or Ron Wood after. With Taylor manning the stratosphere, Richards was left to explore the dirt in the gutter, and the Stones never sounded tighter or rawer than on tracks like “Ventilator Blues” They explore their blues/gospel roots on songs like “I Just Want to See His Face” and “Shine a Light”.
#5 London Calling, The Clash 1980 The greatest album by the greatest punk band. On London Calling, the Clash is bursting open with creative energy and ideas and influences, from the pop of “Lost in the Supermarket”, the hard rocking “Brand New Cadillac”, the exhilarating Phil Spector-ish wall of sound and tragedy of “The Card Cheat”, the reggae of “Revolution Rock”, the political fervor of the title track, and the beautiful “Train in Vain”. It’s the raw emotional content of rage, disappointment, heartbreak and boredom that tie these disparate elements together. Punk or not, “London Calling” stands as perhaps the most eloquent articulation of the theme of rebellion that has always been at the core of great rock.
#4 The Beatles (the White Album), The Beatles, 1968 As my son Nick points out in his top ten list, the White Album contains lovely pop songs like “I Will” and “Martha My Dear” that could have fit on early Beatles albums, as well as bad-ass songs such as “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “Yer Blues” and “Helter Skelter” . To me, the White Album showcases Lennon, McCartney and Harrison at the peak of their songwriting skills. Besides “Helter Skelter”, McCartney rocks with “Back in the USSR” and “Birthday” and shows his famous skill for ballads on “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son”. Lennon contributes lovely pieces such as “Dear Prudence” and the heart wrenching “Julia”, as well as the primal scream “Yer Blues” and the eerie “Cry, Baby Cry.” Harrison’s contributions are among his best as well, with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Piggies”, and the overlooked “Long, Long Long”
#3 Are You Experienced. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967 Hendrix’s debut album truly changed everything. This has to be one of the most influential albums of all time. The over simplified myth is that this freak of nature guitar player dropped out of the sky and dazzled us with sounds we had never heard before. The truth is that Hendrix was much more. He was a brilliant songwriter (“The Wind Cries Mary” is brilliantly evocative in both music and lyrics, “Purple Haze” virtually invented heavy metal, “Manic Depression” walks the edge between sanity and insanity) as well as a wonderful interpreter of other people’s songs (His version of the traditional “Hey Joe” is pure perfection and unlike anything that preceded it). The reason he remains unparalleled as a guitar player is because his playing was an extension of his soul, and there was only one Hendrix.
#2 Bringing it All Back Home, Bob Dylan, 1964 Half electric, half acoustic, all genius – this album is as revolutionary and brilliant today as it was 46 years ago. The electric side one glides with tight rockabilly efficiency, starting with the surreal rap of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. “She Belongs to Me” is an ironically titled song of a man enslaved to his muse (“You will start out standing proud to steal her anything she sees/ but you will end up peeking through a keyhole down upon your knees”) “Maggie’s Farm” is a personal declaration of independence. There’s the comic surreal boogie “On the Road Again” (“I wake up in the morning and there’s frogs inside my socks/ your mama she’s hiding inside the icebox/your daddy walks in wearing a Napolean Bonaparte mask”) The acoustic side two is awe-inspiring: raw, personal and poetic. This is what anyone who doesn’t get Dylan needs to listen to. It begins with the epic poem to physical and spiritual exhaustion, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Next it’s the jarring juxtaposition of nightmare and paradise in “The Gates of Eden”, followed by the relentlessly bleak and angry “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” and the heartbreaking “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. It’s beyond belief that four songs of this stature can be found on the same album side – most artists would consider any one of them the crowning point of their career
#1 Darkness on the Edge of Town, the River, Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen, 1978, 1980, 1982 OK, three albums as number one might seem like cheating, but to me these three albums are so thematically linked they should count as one. Issued between the mega successes of the “Born” albums (Born to Run (1975) and Born in the USA (1984)), they combine to chronicle the journey of the same character, a character who is the embodiment of the mythic archetypes forged by the rock that had preceded him: alone, rebellious, sexual, and misunderstood. At the end of Darkness on the Edge of Town, he chooses to stay on the outside, scorned by omnipresent and nameless forces (the “they” of “Something in the Night” and “Prove it All Night”), bruised and battered but defiant and triumphant: “Tonight I’ll be on that hill cause I can’t stop/ I’ll be on that hill with everything I’ve got/with lives on the line, where dreams are found and lost/I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost/for wanting things that can only be found/in the darkness on the edge of town”).
In The River, he tries to come back to society and find love and hope, characterized by the many optimistic garage band songs that comprise most of the first disc. But even finding love doesn’t fill the void presented by the knowledge of his own mortality, as seven of the nine songs on the second disc are dominated by death imagery. The album that begins with the optimistic 12 string guitars of “The Ties That Bind” ends with the rainy acoustic guitars of “Wreck on the Highway”, while the character lies awake in the dark, clinging to his lover, haunted by his awareness of death.
It’s enough to drive one mad, and that’s where the stark and acoustic Nebraska begins, with the retelling of the Charles Starkweather murder spree of the 50s. The outsider of “Darkness” still had his defiance at the end, but at the end of Nebraska, he is left at the altar, jilted and alone, struggling to find “A Reason to Believe”.
Those who know only the bandana wearing pop icon of “Born in the USA” or the respected elder statesman of the 21st century may wonder what all the fuss is about. These albums should make believers out of anyone with a functional ear and soul.