Ever since Rolling Stone began compiling various “best of” musical accomplishments, I’ve often thought of my artistic affinities in terms of lists, much like Nick Hornby’s character Rob in High Fidelity. Lists are in some ways the stupidest things imaginable, but they can also be really helpful; it’s nice upon being asked about your favorite bands/albums/songs/movies/books to actually have an answer. Yes, lists may be a bit contrived (who’s to say what my favorites will be next week), but they provide a lot better answer than “Um…I don’t know, I like a lot of stuff.”
As long as you approach them as temporary, fickle things, then creating lists can be a healthy and enjoyable endeavor. They may encourage you to reinvestigate that album that you remember loving, having claimed for years that you loved, but upon further review doesn’t speak to you the way it did twenty years ago. Just recently I put on the Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes, and although I remembered it being one of my favorites, it didn’t rise to the level I expected it to. Back in 1991 it really grabbed me; now it just calls out politely for my attention. Paul Simon’s Graceland is another one that no longer excites me the way it once did. Some art sounds old when it’s old. Some art never ages. On the flip side, making lists might inspire you to recall an album you’d forgotten about. In preparation for this blog, I became reacquainted with K.D. Lang’s fabulous 1992 album, Ingénue, and I’ve once again enjoyed listening to her caressing croon.
A few months back I decided to make a list of one hundred albums I can’t live without, but I quickly realized that picking a hundred albums was a bit too easy, allowing me to choose that 1984 Elton John release that really has no business being on anybody’s top anything, but I still kinda dig. Ten or twenty albums would be far too restrictive, so I settled on fifty, a nice compromise that would allow me to listen and reevaluate each selection without feeling overwhelmed, yet still include a bunch of albums beyond the usual suspects. But then I struggled with that, so I’m probably going to end up with something like seventy albums. I know, I’m failing at my own self-induced endeavor!
When compiling lists I like to abide by various rules to narrow things down and really home in on what’s important. Here are mine for the top albums I can’t live without:
1) I have to listen to all the albums I choose to confirm their inclusion.
2) I’m sticking with rock and pop. Jazz and classical would be included on my all-time desert island list of records, but I don’t want to go down those rabbit holes right now. It’s hard enough just sifting through my rock records.
3) No compilation albums of any kind are allowed unless they contain mostly previously unreleased material, which therefore excludes all greatest hits albums and most live albums.
4) Double albums count for two picks with the following exception: I can choose only two sides if I’d like, allowing me to get dinged for only one selection. The rule is a little silly, because many single CDs released over the past thirty years are long enough to qualify as a double album (say, Rush’s Snakes & Arrows), but I’m sticking with the rule: if it was originally released as a double album, it’s a double; if it was originally released as a single CD, it’s a single.
As I go through my selections, I acknowledge the following:
1) I’m afraid that my choices are going to be mostly male and almost exclusively white. What can I say except that this is the narrow lens through which I’ve come to know pop music.
2) I’m going to seek out variety to accompany me on my desert island. So, for instance, I’m going to want to have a few angry, edgy albums, a few emotional, weepy albums, a few fun, poppy albums, etc. I could easily pick five albums each by Yes, Genesis, Ben Folds, Elton John, Randy Newman and Joe Jackson and kinda call it a day, but what fun would that be?
3) There are many exceptional albums that I acknowledge are among the best ever recorded, but I simply don’t need to hear anymore. You’ll get no argument from me that Rumours, Purple Rain, Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin’s fourth are great albums. I just never want to hear them again. Like, ever.
4) There’s also a bit of a recency effect going on, where albums I was only just turned onto – even if they’re old – sound fresh and exciting to me, though they may one day sound old and stale. Such is the capricious nature of musical taste.
So there you are. To get the ball rolling, here are my first ten selections, in no particular order:
Keane – Hopes and Fears (2004). Wow, what a great pickup at the used CD store. I’d heard the track “Somewhere Only We Know” on XRT in Chicago several times and liked it, and spying the CD in the “new arrivals” rack for $5 made this purchase a no-brainer. The album is amazing, with melody overdrive, rich production, and flawless vocals by Tom Chaplin. The band’s second album, Under the Iron Sea, is terrific too, but the debut still wins the prize for me. Hard to pick favorites on this one, but “She Has No Time” and “Bedshaped” are among the best.
Aerosmith – Toys in the Attic (1975). I listened to this album recently along with Rocks and Get Your Wings just to make sure my instincts were correct, and sure enough, the band’s 1975 release continues to be their best. I like the hits off of Rocks better (“Back in the Saddle,” “Sick as a Dog” and “Last Child” vs. “Toys in the Attic,” “Walk this Way” and “Sweet Emotion”), but the deep cuts on Toys are so damn good, this album wins by a landslide. What allowed Aerosmith to stand out from other rock bands in the 70s – Foghat, AC/DC, etc – was their willingness to compliment a great rock riff with a significant mood or harmony change. Case in point: on the song “Uncle Salty,” the band offers a good mid-tempo shuffle with an exciting chorus. All good. And then they throw in a surprise – the “ooh, it’s a sunny day outside my window” section, a hypnotic half-time feel with a very interesting sharp 11 in the melody. This makes all the difference. There isn’t a bad track on the album, and “You’ve Seen me Crying,” – one of those songs I was too cool to admit liking back in middle school – is a beautiful, heart-wrenching closer.
Innocence Mission – Umbrella (1991). I fell in love with this band after seeing them on Late Night with David Letterman and attending a concert a few weeks later at the Memorial Union at the UW-Madison, and their debut album accompanied a trip to the east coast and back with my friend Todd in March of 1990. I was really taken with the vulnerable lyrics, the rich, subtle guitar work of Donald Peris, and of course the vocals of his wife, Karen. When I first listened to their sophomore effort, Umbrella seemed to lack the energy of the band’s debut, but oh how the tracks on this album grab me now, twenty-five years later. Among my favorite songs ever is “Now in this Hush.” I listened to it on repeat maybe fifteen successive times while painting my son’s room five or six years ago, and I’ve never tired of it. Lyrically, the band’s oft-repeating themes of embracing the simple joys of life and eschewing the pursuit of wealth and status speak to me now as much as they did nearly thirty years ago.
Jackson Browne – Standing in the Breach (2014). Running on Empty may be his biggest seller and Late for the Sky may be the critics’ darling, but after reviewing his catalog once more just in case I was off my rocker, I stand by my decision to include Browne’s latest release in my top fifty albums. I’ve written about this album before, a gem packed with solid melodies and superb musicianship, but what makes this collection of songs stand out are the lyrics, timely and moving, desperate yet hopeful, political yet transcending politics. I’ve listened to this album more than any other in the past four years, and it will likely be the most recent album I include in my list.
Lyle Lovett – The Road to Ensenada (1996). This Grammy Award winner for Best Country Album is a masterpiece, one of those rare instances where voters got it right. The musicianship on this collection is so pristine and tasty – there’s not a note out of place – that the album could have ended up sounding contrived were it not for the songwriting craftsmanship, infused with wit, humor, heartbreak and resignation that gives it universal appeal. The final song on the album, “The Girl in the Corner,” still gives me chills.
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk, sides 1 and 2 (1979).
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk, sides 3 and 4 (1979). You won’t get me to claim that this is a better effort than Rumours, but Tusk provides a richer listening experience for me, partially due to it not being overplayed the way its predecessor was (and is), but also because of its unique and varied content. From the opening track, a very subdued and beautiful “Over and Over,” you know this isn’t doing to be Rumours 2, a wise decision by the dramatic quintet, though I recall seeing cutouts of the double album when it didn’t sell as well as Warner Bros. expected (it still sold 4 million copies). I’ve often compared this album to the Beatles’ White Album in that it’s experimental and quirky with some terrific pop songs and a few rockers. My favorite is McVie’s “Brown Eyes,” a hauntingly beautiful song that’s even more hypnotic than the band’s 1973 hit, “Hypnotized.” This will not be the last album I choose from the amazing musical year of 1979.
Radiohead – The Bends (1995). My buddy claims that 1995 was when music went bad, but how could this be with Ben Folds Five making their debut and Radiohead releasing this masterpiece? Critics may worship the band’s subsequent effort, OK Computer, but for my taste it’s their sophomore effort that strikes gold. I recall exercising on my NordicTrack in fall of 1995 listening to The Bends and being completely blown away with its melodic landscapes. It still holds up, from the emphatic opening of “Planet Telex,” the spellbinding “Fake Plastic Trees,” to the aching “Black Star,” this album is a tour de force from start to finish, unlike OK Computer, which for me loses steam 2/3rds of the way through.
Company of Thieves – Ordinary Riches (2009). When I first heard ”Oscar Wilde” on XRT while driving down Roosevelt Avenue in Lombard, I was enthralled, and I was soon thrilled to learn that the rest of this Chicago-based band’s debut album was equally strong. With Genevieve Schatz’s quirky and mesmerizing vocals and lyrics and Marc Walloch’s superbly tasteful guitar work – with just enough edge when warranted – their first effort really stands out. I wasn’t the only one who took note of this band; Daryl Hall invited this relatively unknown act to appear on his show, Live from Daryl’s House, in 2009. “Even in the Dark” gets my vote for the best track on the album.
Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life, sides 1 and 2 (1976). Seeing Wonder in concert three years back, when he performed this album from start to finish, helped me appreciate a release that I’d forgotten about save for the amazing one-two punch of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.” From the opening of choral “oohs,” the album is one of those gems that deftly switches moods without sounding disjointed. You have Stevie doing is prog-rock fusion thing in “Contusion,” social commentary (and cool sparse arrangements) in “Village Ghetto Land,” a beautiful ballad in “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and – thanks to Coolio and, subsequently, Weird Al Yankovic – a timeless tune in “Pastime Paradise.” The album loses steam on sides three and four, but those aren’t too shabby either.
So there you have it. Ten down, many more to go. I hope you give a some of these albums a listen, and of course, if you have any that you think I’m crazy not to include, send them my way and I’ll give them a concerted listen.