The Ten Greatest Albums of
All Time, Until Next Week
I accepted the mission. Name the top ten albums, according to me. First I had to establish criteria for admission to my exclusive club. The album had to stand on its own merits, without regard to the rest of an artist's or group's work. This eliminated "Best of", soundtrack and mixed compilations, as well as bands with long careers who never influenced the musical soundscape.
Second, the material had to be original. This threw the likes of Michael Bolton, Britney Spears, and Mariah Carey out the window. (Ah, there's a cheerful image.) While these types of "artists" are vocally skilled, they are masters of faux emotion and have absolutely no connection with reality. I don't care how many bajillion units sold that "Billboard" reports; I DO NOT KNOW ONE SINGLE PERSON WHO OWNS THIS STUFF!
I also narrowed my choices to your basic rock-n-roll. Though I enjoy a wide range of music, most of you infotained types who read music articles don't know Handel from Hank Williams, Senior, and most of us who write these articles lack the sophistication to employ such knowing terms as "glissando" and "hoe-down." Finally, the most important criteria: I had to disregard everyone else's opinion. I'll admit, I'm a music snot.
Though I've vigorously nodded in time to AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" and tortured myself with the most twisted new alternative cacophonies, good music is judged on the same flimsy basis as audio pornography: I know it when I hear it.
Without further ado, here we go, in no particular order. Envelope, please.
*Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie. The man of multiple personae hit on this androgynous space-alien character at exactly the right time. In 1972, the acid burnouts met up with the protopunks and had a big party with this album as the soundtrack. The glittery staging sparked a whole new genre of rock theater, with Bowie holding court as the king poseur of all time. The man in the makeup was much more than a pair of skin-tight silver jeans, however.
He owns perhaps the greatest vocal range in the history of rock. He sang most of this album so high, he must have been on helium, or some lighter element. But when he descends to his gravelly bass register, the back of your neck feels a little tingle, no matter what your sexual persuasion.
All of these songs are solid hits. "Hang On to Yourself" and "Suffragette City" are absolutely thumping, and "Moonage Daydream" and "Starman" reveal Bowie wrapped in all his space-fantasy splendor. He also plays some mean, swanky saxophone on this disc. Oddly enough, the most-played song, the title track, is my least favorite. Perhaps it's from hearing too many Southern garage bands try to sing it with a British accent.
*Revolver, Beatles. I could have put all the Beatles' albums on this list and millions of fans would not argue. I know, this is what your square parents listen to. But just put this disc in your Walkman and smoke it. Poof, you are suddenly transported back to 1966, that delicate turning point where the age of innocence met the power of the flower. This album captures that time perfectly, with the optimistic pop of Paul McCartney's "Good Day Sunshine" and "Here, There, and Everywhere" as well as the psychedelic strains of "Yellow Submarine" and the absolutely groovy "Tomorrow Never Knows." This album also features George Harrison's obligatory Hindu sitar number, "Love You To" and the first non-electric rock hit, "Eleanor Rigby," which sported a string section and McCartney coming dangerously close to experiencing a dark emotion.
Even the cover art was a daring departure from the head shots that were the norm of that era. The line-drawn heads had little Beatles crawling in their hair and shows each member beginning to emerge as an individual. This album is a great cross-section of the Beatles' work, especially with the three tracks originally cut from the American album being "restored" to the CD release. One of these, John Lennon's "And Your Bird Can Sing," is a quirky song with a good lead riff that would be a college radio hit if it were released today.
*Murmur, REM. These regular guys from Athens, GA, had one of those harmonic convergence events where everything clicked on the first try. Michael Stipe was at his inscrutable, murky best and the clean Rickenbacker sound of the band was a breath of fresh air on the early '80's music scene. Of course, that jangly sound has now been used by every alternative band that ever held an electric razor to their heads. Some of these bands sound more like REM than REM does. Again, the mark of a great band is remixing the tonal colors of the times and changing the face of popular music.
If you're the lyric-loving type, you'll go nuts trying to decipher the words, which even Stipe admits (with a smirk, no doubt) are total gobbledygook. The meaning and emotions of the songs actually become deeper because you sense them instead of having them "rapped upside yo head." This album was mixed by Winston-Salem, NC, legends Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who wisely let the tape roll and the band play instead of trying any heavy-handed producer-type tricks. My favorite songs are "Catapult," "Moral Kiosk," and "Laughing" Good band, great album. If you don't own it, why not?
*Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd. Talk about standing the test of time. This album was on the charts longer than most college students have been alive. Cue this masterpiece up and watch the sunlight cut through the smoke in your mind's eye. Open with "Speak to Me/Breathe," then run through the futuristic airport to catch up with "Time." Then fire up the wailing vixen for "The Great Gig in the Sky." Side two kicks off with that classic-rock radio staple, "Money." Then you are treated to the anti-war "Us and Them" and the freaky "Any Colour You Like." Submit yourself to "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse" and complete this aural trip.
I especially enjoy the heartbeats, the maniacal laughter, and the lunatic voices that permeate the entire disc. This is a work that should be broadcast into space to prove to alien races that there IS intelligent life on this planet.
*'1999, Prince. The man, the myth, the legend in his own mind. This album displays all the creative genius and talent of Prince Rogers Nelson before he became that male/female symbol formerly known as an artist (and back again). Hey, this guy taught himself how to play thirty different instruments and twiddle every knob on a mixing board before he was old enough to shave his chest hair. Unfortunately, he forgot to have a life, and this became apparent in later work.
That does nothing to detract from this focused, funky, and fun double album. The title track takes a jab at the doomsayers who predicted Apocalypse at millenium's end, and this was back in the 1980's, before everyone knew Y2K was a flop. "Tonight we're going to party like it's 1999," sings Prince, and even lets some other band members grab a few vocal leads. The set also features the pop hit, "Little Red Corvette," a sexy number with a smooth ride and a naughty wink. There is a good bit of experimental synthesizer and sound exploration in the juicy "Delirious" and "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)." My favorite funky track is the sparse "Lady Cab Driver" and best-lyric kudos go to "All the Critics Love U in New York." In the tradition of David Letterman, here's the number one reason this album is great: it wasn't made into a movie.
*English Settlement, XTC. I'm displaying my taste for British music here. Well, they get all the good bands and we get edible food and no royalty, so it's a fair deal. This is the greatest band nobody's ever heard of. They cleverly run a gamut of musical styles on this rich masterpiece. They are socially conscious without the bitterness that consumes most bands that carry a banner. The difference lies in the wit of songwriter Andy Partridge (NO relation to the Partridge Family) and the band's pleasure in plucking notes.
"Melt the Guns" is a nifty anti-war song and "No Thugs In Our House" pokes fun at the "who, me?" attitudes of society. "Down In the Cockpit" is a pun-filled ode to women's rights. Kansas, Boston, and other "geographic region" bands never travel to this kind of territory. "Knuckle Down" and "Nearly Africa" take a knock at racism. This group is more than just a pack of holier-than-thou soapboxers, though. Fun comes first and foremost for this zany bunch.
*Are You Experienced?, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix is THE guitar god. He had more feeling in his pinky than an entire legion of long-haired, tattoed lunkers who think the guitar is an extension of their manhood and that whoever plays the fastest triplets wins. The Experience was a three-piece group for the simple reason that there was no room for another instrument. Hendrix played two rhythms, an extra bass part, and lead all at the same time, sometimes with his teeth. He was also a master of electricity who played feedback with the virtuoso of a first-chair violinist and linked multiple amplifiers together for the sheer sonic joy of hearing them fry.
Hendrix was also an underrated vocalist who let his soul slip through his tonsils into your ears. The man was truly beautiful. When he sings, "Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have," he's not just copping a line. Purple Haze," "The Wind Cries Mary," "Third Stone From the Sun," "Manic Depression" and more all on the same album. Wow. Most bands would love to write one song in their entire careers as good as any on this album.
Kind of makes one wonder what Hendrix would be like today. Would he be a marred living legend like James Brown, a self-parodying eccentric like Bob Dylan, or an aging strutter who doesn't know when to quit like Mick Jagger? Ah, no matter. Hendrix was destined to be a brief streak in the sky. Compared to the self-abusing, drunken decay of Jim Morrison, Hendrix flamed out as a supernova. At least he left a good-looking corpse.
*Who's Next, The Who. This band had everything BUT looks. When Roger Daltry is your pin-up boy, you're in sad shape. But the man can howl. I usually do not like overdriven macho, but his vocals fit The Who like a proctologist's glove. Throw in the madcap mayhem of Keith Moon on the skins and John Entwistle's straight-man act on bass, and you've got the bed for Pete Townshend's guitar-riffing and keyboard-vipping best.
This album features Townshend's trademark power chords, the same ones that drove him deaf. Most of these songs are in the rotation of classic rock stations. "Baba O'Riley" is the Who in microcosm, raving and sweet at the same time. "Going Mobile" is the ultimate road trip song, and the group gets melancholy on "Song is Over" and "Behind Blue Eyes." This is the perfect album for blowing off life on a Friday afternoon.
*Hounds of Love, Kate Bush. If Bowie is king, then Bush is queen of rock. She's a self-taught genius who writes songs, owns a studio, and does her own production. In other words, she is immune to the world of music industry image-makers. She has the looks to be an MTV darling, but avoids the limelight so avidly that few recognize her greatness.
This lush album ranges from the elegant to the bizarre. The sweet, demure Kate who sings "Mother Stands for Comfort" explodes into a screaming siren in "The Big Sky." She accents her songs with a variety of squeals, shrieks, and sighs that are so sexually enticing that she makes Madonna sound like a hung-over truck driver who just chain-smoked a carton of Camels. The difference is that Bush does not flaunt. Her sensuality and vitality naturally burst forth like buds in the spring.
She's no shrinking violet, however. She's downright creepy when she sings "Waking the Witch" and "Under Ice." The aptly-named "Jig of Life" features a brougish monologue and frantically-sawing fiddles. If you think the Spice Girls are deep, then this is not for you. Otherwise, steal this disc if you have to. Prison wouldn't be bad with these songs as company.
*Disintegration, The Cure. I tried to leave my favorite band off this list as a matter of editorial discretion. I came up with a lot of reasons why some of the Honorable Mentions were more deserving of this great honor. I simply succumbed to a moment of moral weakness. Sue me.
The opening shivery keyboards are like a splash of cold water, a great bracer for the kaleidoscopic journey that unfolds. Songwriter Robert Smith is an emotional basket case who happens to have a gift of elegant understatement on guitar. He's not a technically brilliant singer, but who else's voice would fit these songs? Certainly not Michael, Janet, or Alan Jackson's. Whenever I hear "Lullaby" and the line "The spiderman is having me for dinner tonight," I am instantly cheered.
This album also features my all-time favorite category, the dark love song. "Pictures of You" and "Lovesong" hit all the right spots with me. "Disintegration"? Well, smash a mirror with a ballpeen hammer and make it sound this musical, and you can be a rock star, too. "Untitled" is as pretentious as the title indicates: "Feeling the monster climb deeper inside of me, feeling him gnawing my heart away hungrily" as a metaphor for the pain of lost love. Is Smith a romantic genius or is he putting us on? I'll take it either way.
*Honorable Mention, Best Album Found in a Cut-out Bin: In the Element of Light, Robyn Hitchcock. This off-the-wall guy hits all the right notes with me. When Peter Buck and Michael Stipe want to be on your albums, you've got something going. Hitchcock is too unknown to be underrated. Clever lyrics and instrumental layering are his strong points. Lots of wax and insects. Definitely worth the price of a "happy meal."
*Best Album You Can Go Blind Looking At: My Aim is True, Elvis Costello. I have a soft spot for sarcastic guys who wear nerdy glasses. There are some true classics on this album, like "Mystery Dance," "Red Shoes," and the bittersweet "Alison." If anyone figures out what "Less Than Zero" means, please let me know.
Well, I could go on forever, and you are no doubt turning red in the face and screaming, "How could he leave off...?"
I look at this list and I'm already doing the same thing. The Smashing Pumpkins Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness more than makes up for its irritating title by virtue of its sonic genius. Talking Heads, Traffic, and Led Zeppelin probably belong on this list, plus a whole slew of up-and-coming bands. Lets do lunch (you buy) and debate the merits of your favorites. With a little practice, you, too, can be a music snot. Wait a second, I just thought of The Clash, The B-52s, Fleetwood Mac, Stranglers, Neil Young, Police...
(Hey, send in your nomination for Greatest Album of All Time and Ill post it here...)
YOUR FAVORITES: (in the order I received them and not what I think should be listed first):
5- The Wall (Pink Floyd), 4-Rumors (Fleetwood Mac), 2- Revolver (The Beatles), 2- The Doors, 2- Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen).
One each- Sign O the Times (Prince), Led Zeppelin IV, Sticky Fingers (The Rolling Stones), Let It Bleed (The Rolling Stones), Fight Songs (The Old 97s), Nevermind (Nirvana), , Rubber Soul (Beatles), Layla (Derek and the Dominoes), Double Nickels on the Dime (The Minutemen), Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd), Permanent Waves (Rush), Stop Making Sense (Talking Heads), Jailbreak (Thin Lizzy), Out of the Blue (ELO), And Then There Were Three (Genesis), Dire Straits (Dire Straits), Us (Peter Gabriel), Bandolier (Budgie), Foxtrot (Genesis), White Album (Beatles), Led Zeppelin II, Physical Graffitti (Led Zeppelin), Led Zeppelin I, Somewhere I've Never Traveled (Ambrosia), I Robot (Alan Parsons Project), Close to the Edge (Yes), Live at Filmore East (The Allman Brothers Band), Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus), Moondance (Van Morrison), Unplugged (Eric Clapton), Plastic Ono Band (John Lennon), Some Girls (Rolling Stones), Unplugged (Nirvana), Earth and Sun and Moon (Midnight Oil), Yield (Pearl Jam), Man Machine (Kraftwerk), Bat Out of Hell (Meat Loaf), The Lexicon of Love (ABC), Seconds of Pleasure (Rockpile), Hamburger Concerto (Focus), Tangram (Tangerine Dream), Live & Dangerous (Thin Lizzy), 1492 - Conquest of Paradise (Vangelis), Parallel Lines (Blondie), Tales From The Ozone (Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen), The Queen is Dead (The Smiths), Cake (The Trash Can Sinatras), I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (Richard & Linda Thompson), Aqualung (Jethro Tull), Even in the Quietest Moments (Supertramp), The Joshua Tree (U2), Abbey Road (Beatles), Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones), Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan), Never Mind The Bullocks (Sex Pistols), Astral Weeks (Van Morrison), Tigerlily (Natalie Merchant), Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan), A-B life (MeWithoutYou)
Scott Nicholson copyright 2001ŠAll rights reserved