A quick recap from my last entry: this list of albums I can’t live without is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen. So far, I’ve chosen 10 albums, in no particular order:
Kean - Hopes and Fears
Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
Innocence Mission - Umbrella
Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
Lyle Lovett - The Road to Ensenada
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 1 and 2)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 3 and 4)
Radiohead - The Bends
Company of Thieves - Ordinary Riches
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (sides 1 and 2)
Without further ado, here are my next twenty picks in detail:
The Pursuit of Happiness – Love Junk (1988). Probably not a perfect choice in the midst of the #MeToo movement, as much of this album could be categorized as misogynistic or at the very least demeaning to women, but for fun, angry and edgy melodic power-pop, you can’t get much better that this gem of a debut album by this Canadian power pop group led by Moe Berg. Pop songs like “She’s So Young” are countered nicely with the bitterness of “Hard to Laugh” and playful “I’m an Adult Now.” Solid throughout, and a perfect selection when you’re feeling angry or joyful alike, as long as you don’t practice what the lyrics preach.
Big Country – Peace in our Time (1988). Another release from ’88, this album produced by Peter Wolf of J. Geils fame was regarded negatively at the time. True, the opening track “King of Emotion,” with its heavy cowbell and a cheesy chorus, has Wolf’s fingerprints all over it, but it’s still fun, and there’s plenty of deeper, socially-conscious songs that one expects from this Scottish quartet, and the musicianship is impeccable. With sharp, clean production – as opposed to, say, the muddied sound of their sophomore effort, Steeltown – this release still sounds in the present. The song “In this Place” absolutely kills me.
Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 1 and 2 (1979).
Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 3 and 4 (1979). Funny, because I know Pink Floyd fans who shell out big money to see The Australian Pink Floyd who could take or leave The Wall. For me, it is quite simply the greatest achievement in rock and roll history. Yeah, you heard me. More universal than Tommy or Quadrophenia, with its theme of isolation even more relevant today than when it was first released, it’s a moving, heart-wrenching journey. Favorite track: “Mother” in addition to the seminal “Comfortably Numb.” Among my biggest regrets is not seeing Roger Waters’s initial arena tour of The Wall in 2010 (I also failed to see the stadium tour, but with less regret). That’s another release 1979. There are more to come.
Randy Newman – Little Criminals (1977).
Randy Newman – Bad Love (1999). When reviewing top albums lists by various publications, three other Newman albums are often mentioned: 12 Songs, Sail Away and Good Old Boys, but I think the best of Newman was still to come when those early 70s albums – as good as they might be – made a splash with critics and fans alike. Newman’s Bad Love is his masterpiece, a perfect blend of sardonic, witty, funny, poignant and heartbreaking songs (“I Miss You” absolutely kills me). You simply can’t do better. Likewise, Little Criminals has it all, (and even has Newman’s one and only hit, “Short People”) and sounds fresher and more urgent that his preceding albums of more notoriety.
Bad Examples – Kisses 50¢ (1995). This Chicago band led by Ralph Covert, who later went on to quite a successful career writing music for kids, is one of those unsung power pop bands that recorded in the wrong decade, as grunge was in full-force in the 90s, when subtlety in composing and production wasn’t exactly in vogue. The band’s second album is a great listen, full of melody, wit, changing moods and excellent guitar work. My favorite moment is the second half of the chorus for “Trying to Prove that the Earth is Flat,” when the energy picks up a touch with a fabulous double octave guitar line, but the whole album is solid, with “Every Poet Wants to Murder Shakespeare” and “The Mask of Mona Lisa” standout tracks.
Paul Simon – Surprise (2006). When looking back on Simon’s consistently strong output, I kept coming back to one of his lesser-known albums, Surprise, a project that gave Simon a reinvigorated sound thanks to the sonic landscapes created by Brian Eno. This album sounds fresh, exciting and fun, and there’s so much going on here lyrically that it warrants repeated listens. I find much of Simon’s earlier output to sounds tired these days. Even Graceland lacks the energy I’d expected to hear upon revisiting it recently, and aside from the title track, none of the lyrics speak to me. Simon is one of those rare artists who’s managed to put out high quality recordings even into his 70s, though I find his last two studio albums of original material to be good, not great. If I have to pick only one Paul Simon album to listen to these days, it’s Surprise.
Off Broadway – On (1979). Another entry from 1979, this may be the best power pop album ever, fulfilling all the requirements of the genre: captivating melodies, tight arrangements, heightened energy, crunching guitar and slick harmonies and production. The B section of “New Little Girl,” the chorus of “Bad Indication,” the verse of “Money’s No Good,” the unique voice of Cliff Johnson (except when he channels Buddy Holly) – it’s pure pop perfection.
Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark (1974). I like a lot of Joni Mitchell’s output between 1968 and 1976 or so. After that, she loses me, but I know people who feel that’s when her music gets really interesting. For me, that middle period when she became a little less folky and a little more jazzy and bluesy is the sweet spot, and Court and Spark is a perfect melding of those genres, with her lyrics still self-reflective but more universal: who hasn’t been at a party feeling a little insecure? Who hasn’t wondered whether the rat race in the U.S. is too much and who longed for an easy life in Paris? Side one of this album is spectacular; side two gets a little bogged down, but not enough not to choose this as my favorite Mitchell album.
Lloyd Cole – Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991). I had no clue who Lloyd Cole was when I found this cutout at Musicland, and although I’ve investigated his music before and since this release, nothing else reaches the heights of this album. Divided into two parts – a rock side and a more romantic, melodramatic side (with orchestral parts arranged by Paul Buckmaster) – track after track offers great grooves with Cole’s infectious baritone cooing acerbic wit and melancholy, and Blair Cowan’s tasty organ parts really stand out. My favorite track is “Pay for It,” whose riff is so simple but oh so irresistible, I could listen to this one happily for hours on end. The intro and outro of “Half of Everything” also stand out, a beautiful blending of rock and orchestra.
Phil Collins – Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982). Yeah, I know. I suspect that of all the albums I pick this will be the one I get the most flack for. This album is notable for being the very first album I ever heard on CD. My brother set up the player in our basement in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and we watched the CD spin through the semi-transparent door with hints of a green laser reflecting off the mirrored surface, and soon began the opening tom rhythm of “I Don’t Care Anymore.” Fantastic. It’s this track and two other dark songs that really make the album work for me: “Do You Know, Do You Care?” and, especially, “Thru These Walls” which highlights an angry and creepy side that’s fun to explore in music as long as it’s not overbearing. Collins does a nice job of intermixing moods, whether sinister, fun or sappy. Yes, “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning” goes a bit over the top with its schmaltz, but it’s a well-crafted song, and I especially like “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away.” Cheesy? You bet! But I’ve always been a fan of cheese, as long as it’s good.
The Who – Quadrophenia, sides 1 and 2 (1973). This is without a doubt The Who’s magnum opus, their musicality and storytelling reaching new heights, with all four band members making stunning contributions. The first two sides are pure perfection, with the title track and “The Punk and the Godfather” my favorites. The second two sides never held together quite as well for me, though they certainly have their high points, but when I’m being (self) forced to limit my selections, that disc has to go.
Gabriel Kahane – Where are the Arms (2011). A short Sunday morning segment on NPR clued me into Kahane, and it was a lovely bit of happenstance for me, because this album is utterly captivating. Not unlike Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters and Rufus Wainwright’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, this album builds off the heritage of classical song, but unlike Costello and Wainright (and Kahane’s more recent efforts), this collection infuses more modern elements into the songwriting and production, including some kick-ass guitar and drum performances that keep the album from getting bogged down under its own weight. The upshot is a song cycle of moving, complicated and mysterious tunes with beautiful melodies and infection grooves. The brass breakdown on “Calabash & Catamaran,” alternating between 7/8 and 4/4 is absolutely brilliant.
Supertramp – Crisis? What Crisis? (1975).
Supertramp – Breakfast in America (1979). I can’t overstate how important this band was to the young version of me, insecure and creative, the youngest child of separated parents. Hodgson’s lyrics were the empathetic voice I craved, though I can’t say for sure that I understood them all at the time. Listening to Supertramp nearly forty years on, the band’s output still holds up. I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of Davies’s and Hodgson’s respective oeuvres, one cynical and cranky, one spiritual and nurturing, and together they were greater than the sum of their parts. Crime of the Century might be their most revered album, but weak production, overexposure and a so-so second side keep this out of the top for me (for today, at least). Crisis? What Crisis? still excites me. Back in the day I learned the piano solo to “Another Man’s Woman” note for note, and “A Soapbox Opera” and “The Meaning” are Hodgson at his best. Davies only has four songs on the album, but they provide just enough edge to keep the album from sounding overly saccharine. As for Breakfast in America, Davies raises the stakes to match his writing partner’s output note for note. “Gone Hollywood” is the perfect opener, “Child of Vision” the perfect closer, and just about everything in between reaches the same level. Another fantastic album from 1979.
R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992). One year after their enormous Out of Time, the band wisely changed directions again, releasing a quirky yet moving collection of melodic tunes with lush string arrangements provided by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. Like other semi-experimental albums such as The White Album and Tusk, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” and “Star Me Kitten” may not be brilliant, but in the context of the album they work effectively. Then you add some dark, intriguing songs like “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Try Not to Breathe“ and some truly exceptional tracks like “Nightswimming,” Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon,” and, well, you’ve got yourself a gem. R.E.M.’s best.
Yes – Close to the Edge (1972). This is where things get a bit tricky, because I could easily add five Yes albums to my list, but I probably have to limit it to two. I’ll continue to struggle to determine what else cracks my top albums list, but one I know that has to be on there is the band’s fifth studio album, the last with drummer Bill Bruford and the second effort with Rick Wakeman on keys. Close to the Edge probably gets my vote for the best prog-rock album ever. From the side-long title track with distinct movements, to the bombastic climax of “And You and I” and the blistering “Siberian Khatru,” you just can’t get any better.
Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971).
Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975). Elton holds a special place in my memory, his music lingering in the background for much of my childhood. When I was twelve I finally purchased his greatest hits album and a piano book of his music, and they were both life-altering, allowing me to finally start enjoying playing the piano instead of trudging through yet another Michael Aaron book. Elton John could do little wrong from 1970 to 1976, but there are two albums that stand out. Although I’m really tired of “Tiny Dancer,” Madman Across the Water is an excellent LP, consistent, with not a bad track to be found. Even songs titled “Razor Face” and “Rotten Peaches” hit the mark, and the closing song, “Goodbye,” is so marvelously melancholy, it’s rivaled only by the bittersweet finale of what I consider to be Elton John’s best album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. The highs on this album are very high – “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Tower of Babel” – and even the lesser tracks are excellent. My only gripe about this autobiographical album is the insanely overpowering drum track with slap-back echo on “Better Off Dead,” an otherwise great track. I have no idea what producer Gus Dudgeon was thinking. The last song, “Curtains,” is tear-inducing and happened to finish off season one of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Whoever chose that song for the series deserves a medal.
That’s it for now! Next week I’ll add twenty more selections.