Friday, June 29, 2007

No. 40: Forever Changes

Band: Love
Album: Forever Changes
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the underappreciated highlights of the psychedelic movement, "Forever Changes" jumps from genre to genre while supplying powerful lyrics.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's just another of the seemingly millions of records made between 1967 and 1975 that Rolling Stone considers to be great. It sounds like a lot of other things (Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, etc.) and doesn't really stand out as much as the 40th greatest album of all time should.
Best song: "Alone Again Or" is a lot of fun.
Worst song: "Bummer in the Summer" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Maybe.

Like a poor man's "Sgt. Pepper's," "Forever Changes" is representative of the summer of love sound from 1967. While the Beatles had a decidedly British sound to that record, Love's sound was distinctly Californian, drawing as much from the Mamas and the Papas as they did from the Beatles. The mariachi horns on "Alone Again Or" and "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale" is a leap the Beatles probably wouldn't have made, for example.

Because of this sound, "Forever Changes" has an urgency that a lot of other records from that time period have. Singer Arthur Lee's vocals sound as though he's chasing something, evident on "Live And Let Live." Syd Barrett made no secret that the early Pink Floyd sound was an extension of Love's. The psychedelic vocal tracking on "The Red Telephone" actually sounds like it could be on "Piper At The Gates of Dawn." Moreover, the actual theme of "The Red Telephone" (death) is something much more maudlin than most rock bands of the day were exploring (save for the Doors).

I'm not sure I think this is worthy of a top 40 ranking. It's an interesting record, but it barely made a dent in the music landscape of 1967 (it charted in the States at 154).

No. 39: Please Please Me

Band: The Beatles
Album: Please Please Me
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The first album by the Beatles was basically their stage act put to disc. That's to say that it was full of pop melodies and danceable rock and roll. Listening to it, it isn't hard to imagine hundreds of screaming girls.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well, the early songs aren't as seminal as the mid-career stuff ("Revolver," "Rubber Soul" and "Sgt. Pepper's") and it is littered with a bunch of covers.
Best song: "Please Please Me" is pretty great. "Do You Want to Know a Secret" is amazing. "I Saw Her Standing There" is silly, but good.
Worst song: I don't care for "P.S. I Love You."
Is it awesome?: Sure.

What can you say about the sixth album by the Beatles in the top 40? Their debut was recorded in nine days, mostly because the band had some success with their first two singles. George Martin saw this and made sure the band hastily record the album.

Along with "With The Beatles," "Please Please Me" is iconic of the band's early years. The suits, the mop tops, the harmonies. This is rock and roll of the early 60s at its finest. Some of the early Lennon/McCartney tracks are pretty amazing, specifically the title track and "I Saw Her Standing There," both classics in and of themselves. The cover, of course, of "Twist and Shout" is pretty great, too. Lennon's voice is as raw as ever and plays well to the song.

It's not "Revolver." It's not "Rubber Soul." But, it is pretty great and stands up 45 years after its release.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

No. 38: The Anthology (1947-1972)

Band: Muddy Waters
Album: The Anthology (1947-1972)
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: In the same way the standard blues of Robert Johnson was important, Muddy Waters' "Chicago blues" style of music was the next step in the creation of rock and roll. Just the insertion of phrase "Rolling Stone" into music terminology was Waters' creation.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I imagine this should be higher. The songs on the compilation just ooze rock and roll. Some of them have truly become rock standards ("I Just Want To Make Love To You," "Mannish Boy" and "Hoochie Coochie Man").
Best song: I like "You Shook Me," "Gypsy Woman" and "Got My Mojo Working."
Worst song: Some of the stuff gets repetitive, but -- like Chuck Berry -- none of the songs are bad, per se.
Is it awesome?: Yes. Ten times over.

Muddy Waters is one of the most important musicians in rock and roll history. Unlike Robert Johnson before him, Waters was around for a while and was able to enjoy some level of success during his lifetime, but, more importantly, more of him was caught on tape.

This anthology puts together 51 of his greatest songs. So many of the records you know have a sound based on the Chicago blues. The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Eric Clapton, The Animals, most metal, etc. It all comes from Waters.

Hell, just look at the songs that've been covered by other artists. "Trouble No More," "Gypsy Woman," "Got My Mojo Working," "Baby, Please Don't Go," "Mannish Boy," "Walkin' Blues" and "I Just Want To Make Love To You" have been covered by bands such as Van Morrison, Ted Nugent, Lou Rawls, The Righteous Brothers, The Grateful Dead, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Foghat.

Anyway, not to sound like a salesman, but you should buy this record today. It's a landmark collection of songs that changed the face of popular music.

No. 37: Hotel California

Band: The Eagles
Album: Hotel California
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Um.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This is middlebrow claptrap at its pinnacle. It's a bunch of rich fucks who fancy themselves philosophers by ripping their record company. The so-subtle-it-is-really-just-vague concept about "the end of the world" (whatever that means) makes no sense whatsoever. The lyrics are referential only to crap that Don Henley cares about. Total nonsense.
Best song: None. They all stink.
Worst song: The title track is abhorrent. "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave?" Come on, now.
Is it awesome?: Nope. It stinks.

A lot of popular music in the 70s was really bad, partially because this record. They opened the door for so much bullshit inoffensive "rock and roll" that is only considered that because it was on a rock label and tries to deal with topics other than love. Really, though, what's so different from the Eagles and the Carpenters? Not a lot.

Some of that stuff has some redemptive quality. I've already touched on "Rumours", but "Sweet Baby James" isn't bad. I guess I can see the draw in "Running on Empty," though I hate it.

But, "Hotel California" is the worst. It has vague references to the Church of Satan ("They just can't kill the beast") the lovely lifting of chord progression from "Fly Me To The Moon" and the third strike of Don Henley's voice. He sounds like someone's dad drunkenly singing lullabies to his baby. That's not a compliment.

Just as handsome young men like Josh Groban, Maroon 5 and John Mayer are called "mom rock" as their appeal to middle-aged women is their draw, the Eagles are "dad rock." They're fake enough to be considered interesting by stupid people, when, in reality, they're no different than the John Mayers of the world, just less attractive and older.

Also, Don Henley is the root of all evil. He's just the worst. He halfway supports the environment, yet will go for any money-grab tour that Eagles can find, even though he hates Glenn Frey with the passion of 1,000 fires. Also, he's responsible for this trash.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

No. 36: Tapestry

Band: Carole King
Album: Tapestry
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: It's hard to argue with "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "You've Got a Friend," "So Far Away," "I Feel the Earth Move," and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" Great songs all, the barking dogs could record versions of those songs and they'd still be great.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This style of music, while cool and important, isn't all that great. This is 70s singer/songwriter stuff. James Taylor, Jackson Browne, etc. Carole King is part of that. That's not good.
Best song: "I Feel The Earth Move" is a pretty great love song.
Worst song: "Where You Lead" isn't that good.
Is it awesome?: Most of the best songs were done better by other people.

There's a certain affinity of Baby Boomers to the inoffensive easy listening rock and roll of the early-mid 70s. I'm cool with this in the case of Fleetwood Mac, but most of the rest is pretty bad.

Carole King certainly wrote a ton of great songs as one of the Brill Building people in the 60s. Working for girl groups and producers, she put out some of the great songs of the 60s ("(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," being the operative one, but "One Fine Day," "The Loco-Motion," "Don't Bring Me Down" and "Oh No Not My Baby" were all King songs). Her own musical style just doesn't impress me. Her voice is pleasant enough, but her delivery is so vanilla that it's hard to really think it's anything special.

With that said, it's hard to deny the import of the record. It's sold millions upon millions of records Everyone in the 70s bought it. The songs are amazing, but the delivery is just OK.

No. 35: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

Band: David Bowie
Album: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Easily Bowie's best record, the concept album about an alien rock star messiah epitomizes a lot about the glam rock '70s. It was huge, it touched on just about every popular 70s topic (glamour, drugs sex, etc.) and it referenced several music genres. In a lot of ways, Ziggy is the glam-rock 70s.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Bowie is mostly style, not a lot of substance. Those who worship at the altar of Bowie find him interesting because he merged the theatric with rock and roll, which doesn't float my fancy at all.
Best song: "Suffragette City" is a lot of fun and "Moonage Daydream" is a cool track.
Worst song: "Lady Stardust" is mediocre. "Soul Love" isn't all that good.
Is it awesome?: Sure.

While not in the same category as U2 and Bruce Springsteen, I'm not the greatest fan of David Bowie. His style doesn't excite me (I don't find androgyny entertaining or intriguing and his recent futurish nonsense is boring and nerdy) and his music is just OK. His singles are nice, but that's about it. I have a close friend who calls this type of artist a "Greatest Hits Band" and Bowie is the picture of that.

Ziggy Stardust, to me, is the only real great record of Bowie's. The concept is kind of muddied (The world is going to end in five years, there's a god/alien in space who is sending a messiah/rock star down to Earth to show people the way, he enjoys earth, he dies on stage), but the songs all stand alone. "Starman," for example, is reminiscent of the Who's "Pinball Wizard" in that it furthers the plot of the record while still being able to be its own song.

"Moonage Daydream," for example, was released as a single and remains the standout song on the album. The hard rock guitars take from Bowie's friend Marc Bolan (of T. Rex) open the song while the soaring melody bounces off the acoustic guitars. It's an exciting song, built around the start/stop rhythms that would later invade popular culture in the 80s and 90s.

The songs stand up remarkably well when covered. Everyone under the sun has covered a song or two from this record and the Seu Jorge acoustic performances in Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" are excellent re-imaginings of the record.

Ziggy Stardust is certainly Bowie's best work and his only really fine album. The subsequent tour really showed glam rock off to the public, which had huge implications. Without Ziggy Stardust, there's no glam metal, there's no Kiss and I imagine 80s fashion would be a little different, no?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

No. 34: Music From Big Pink

Band: The Band
Album: Music From Big Pink
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: In an interesting contrast to the fake British stuff going on at the time (hello, "Beggar's Banquet!"), the Band gets roots-rock right. Dylan co-wrote three songs on the record, but the non-Dylan songs sound like a jam session between amazing musicians who know how to work off one another.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I like this rating. It's not a great, super-influential album, but it is great American rock and roll that touches on many different musical styles.
Best song: Come on. "The Weight" is it. You knew that.
Worst song: I actually like "Tears of Rage" the least of any song on this album.
Is it awesome?: Yes, it is.

It's nice to be able to write about Dylan's backing band as the center stage situation. The Band (originally The Hawks) were exactly the type of roots rock band that needs to exist in America; They build slow, they hold tempo and they're soulful. They didn't screw around trying to be Robert Johnson or Bob Dylan or both, they took from each side and they created something familiar, yet new.

"Music From Big Pink" is that. Recorded while dicking around doing "The Basement Tapes," The Band's debut contains a number of fantastic tracks. Their cover of country standard "Long Black Veil" meanders around the organ, while the lyrics from "Kingdom Come" seep with spirituality.

Of course, in classic Americana tradition, the classic "The Weight" is a fantastic road song. Telling the tale of a man traveling through Pennsylvania, evoking religious imagery in the town of Nazareth. The seminal refrain of "Take a load off Fannie, take a load for free" has become a classic among classics. Few songs have been covered by bands ranging including Dionne Warwick, The Grateful Dead, The Temptations, The Decemberists and The Wallflowers.

No. 33: Ramones

Band: The Ramones
Album: Ramones
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Punk's DIY ideology and stripped-down aesthetic are absolutely important to all music today and this record defined a lot of punk things. The sound was emblematic of the scene at the time, from the staccato vocal stylings to the quick down stroke guitar work. Outside of influence, the songs are pretty clever and referential of early rock and roll.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not a huge punk rock guy. I like the harder metal before I like this type of repetitive stuff. A lot of the songs sound alike.
Best song: "Blitzkrieg Bop" is basically seminal.
Worst song: "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement" kind of stinks.
Is it awesome?: If you like listening to repetitive punk rock, absolutely. I kid, but this record is incredibly important in the ways the Robert Johnson records are important.

Punk rock's roots are mainly secured in early rock and roll. Instead of basing everything on blues riffs, a lot of punk comes from a few selected power chords sped up. It's a nice template and one that has worked for countless bands, from Green Day to the Descendants to Generation X to the Offspring. The Ramones are responsible for that. The record was made for under $600 (even a small amount in 1976) and it contains zero guitar solos. The money quote comes from singer Joey Ramone:

"Our early songs came out of our real feelings of alienation, isolation, frustration -- the feelings everybody feels between seventeen and seventy-five."

It's easy to forget that now, as "Blitzkrieg Bop" is as popular at baseball games as it is in punk rock clubs. But, the Ramones were mildly dangerous and certainly not mainstream back when they came out.

Still, they were a pretty clever band ("Havana Affair" is a favorite of mine) and they were certainly innovative. Basically, they took the late 50s/early 60s rock template, sped it up and took out the blues riffs. Hell, they even covered "Let's Dance."

In my opinion, it gets real old, real quick. That's fine, though, as the records are fun and fun to pogo to. Punk, in general, is way important and influenced everyone from Steve Albini to Kurt Cobain to Jesse Camp to Kelly Clarkson. The Ramones, sound-wise, basically did it first.

Monday, June 25, 2007

No. 32: Let It Bleed

Band: The Rolling Stone
Album: Let It Bleed
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Wow, um, I'm not sure. “Gimme Shelter” is a pretty amazing song. “You Can't Always Get What You Want” isn't terrible.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I guess I just don't get it. These songs are all decent, but there isn't anything all that interesting about them. Sweet, blues riffs. Good work.
Best song: “Gimme Shelter” and it isn't even close.
Worst song: “Country Honk” is total sewage. It's “Honky Tonk Woman,” but in a ridiculous actual honky tonk style.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

I don't like the Stones that much. Before this project, I had one proper album (“Beggar's Banquet”) and the singles box. The singles box (a three-disc set) is pretty good as all the good Stones records are singles.

“Let It Bleed” has all of two singles on it. The first, “Gimme Shelter,” is awesome. It's a cool protest song that utilizes a pretty cool rhythm. The second “You Can't Always Get What You Want” isn't any good. It relies on a stupid proverb type phrasing that has been so overdone since its release, you got tired of it ten years ago. It also has the dumb choir singing the chorus at the beginning,

The rest is just the Stones trying to sound like American bluesmen or traveling country troubadours. Neither is interesting to me and certainly not by a bunch of suburban London kids.

No. 31: Bringing It All Back Home

Band: Bob Dylan
Album: Bringing It All Back Home
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: My favorite Dylan song is on here (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”), and that's just one of the classic Dylan tracks on here. The class struggle of “Maggie's Farm,” the love songery of “She Belongs to Me” and the trippy “Mr. Tambourine Man” all came from this record.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Again, I get it. It's Dylan. He's a great songwriter. Stop it, Rolling Stone. I'm tired of writing about Bob fucking Dylan.
Best song: As I mentioned above, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is my favorite Dylan track actually by Dylan (Like every single person on the planet, Hendrix' version of “Watchtower” and the Byrds' “Mr. Tambourine Man” are my favorite versions of Dylan songs).
Worst song: “Bob Dylan's 115th Dream” isn't particularly good.
Is it awesome?: It has its highs and lows, but I'd probably call “Bringing It All Back Home” my second-favorite Dylan album. It may not be awesome, but it's close.

Considered the first real folk-rock album, “Bringing It All Back Home” was Dylan's first attempt at bringing some uptempo rock elements to his normal folky styling. Instead of the usual troubadour with a guitar, Dylan added some more elements and really expanded his sound.

Two things are important about the recording of “Bringing It All Back Home.” The first is that Dylan wrote (mostly) and recorded the thing in Woodstock, NY, as he was holed up there for nearly all of 1964. This produced a pretty pointed record and one that certainly kept up a different sound (electric blues meets folk rock). Dylan also met the Beatles between the previous record (“Another Side of Bob Dylan”) and this one, which has led some to speculate that Dylan was influenced, music-wise, finally by the Beatles. Certainly, the Beatles were influenced by Dylan.

Dylan's early work is incredibly leftist in its lyrical content. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” wasn't directly calling for revolution, but later hippie groups took their names from the song (The Weathermen, for example). “Outlaw Blues” itself has the lyric “She's a brown-skinned woman, but I love her just the same.” It sounds condescending now, but in 1964, a lyric like that sung by a Jewish kid from Minnesota living in New York was very important at the time. “I ain't going to work on Maggie's Farm no more” was a direct jab at capitalism's exploitation of the working class (something Dylan knew from his childhood on the Mesabi Iron Range).

The second side is more of a return to Dylan's folk-rock beginnings, but the first side is more of what matters. This is Dylan going electric (though, not in concert) and that's important. “Highway 61 Revisited” is the better album, but the seeds are here. To use the old SAT analogy, “Bringing It All Back Home”is to “Rubber Soul” as “Highway 61 Revisited” is to “Revolver.”

Friday, June 22, 2007

No. 30: Blue

Band: Joni Mitchell
Album: Blue
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Like "Plastic Ono Band," Joni Mitchell's landmark record is strikingly confessional and a cornerstone of '70s songwriting.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Wow, Joni Mitchell's voice is bad.
Best song: "A Case of You" is a pretty amazing song.
Worst song: "California" doesn't float my boat.
Is it awesome?: I'd say no.

I guess I'm not getting something with "Blue." The female singer/songwriter with which I'm the most familiar is entirely different from this record. There are the indie songstresses who whisper (Tara Jane O'Neil, Julie Doiron, etc.), the angrier punkish women (Liz Phair), the middle of the road nonsense/Lilith Fair types (Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Lisa Loeb, etc.) or the damaged women who sand confessionals about things that make men extremely uncomfortable (Fiona Apple and Tori Amos come to mind). Mitchell is somewhere between the Lilith Fair types and the damaged, and her voice is so high-pitched and whiny, it's tough to get into the songs.

I tend to love female singers. I'd sign up to listen to Chan Marshall read the phone book. But, Mitchell's voice just isn't attractive to me on the more passionate vocal performances on the record. The "When are you gonna realize they're only pretty lies" portion of "The Last Time I Saw Richard" sound like Mitchell is trying to scare small animals. Similarly, I would love the references to Canada (I like Canada) in "A Case of You" are so high pitched, I needed to turn down the volume in my headphones while listening, out of fear of busting my eardrums.

But, again, the writing is interesting, if not fantastic. The overarching themes of loneliness and damage are thoughtful and honest. "Little Green" is written about a child Mitchell gave up for adoption, while the title track is one of hope and advice given to a friend (in this case, musician James Taylor).

Is it my favorite thing ever to come out? Surely not. I imagine it had some level of influence. I just don't love it. I'm clearly missing something.


One final note, from Mitchell herself. She said the following in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview:

"At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy."

Again, I respect that honesty, but that doesn't mean it's the 30th best album ever.

No. 29: Led Zeppelin

Band: Led Zeppelin
Album: Led Zeppelin
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: It's pretty much impossible to overestimate the influence of Led Zeppelin. Their sound -- evolving concurrently as Black Sabbath's, by the way -- was heavier than most of which came before them. Their blues-based riffs built on the Yardbirds-type rock and roll from the mid-'60s. Jimmy Page's bowing guitar technique was certainly unique, if not often-imitated.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Sabbath should probably be close to Zep on this list, but we all know that RS has an aversion to all things metal. Hell, Zep should be higher, but because they're a hard rock band, I'm sure the RS editors found them to be bad, somehow.
Best song: "Dazed and Confused" is a pretty wonderful song.
Worst song: I'm lukewarm on "How Many More Times."
Is it awesome?: I'm not a big Zep guy, but there are clearly great tracks on this record. Moreover, this album has been banging in teenagers' rooms since it came out and that means something.

I'm not the world's biggest Led Zeppelin fan, but they're clearly one of the five most important rock and roll bands ever. Their first record really announced the band with a vengeance and showed their heavy, blues-based sound.

Their self-titled record is not the band's most widely-known (that'd be the untitled fourth album, aka "Zoso"), but it's fitting that it's highest on the list. Zep's first record is really the template for the others. While the band branched out in a few ways (Indian sounds with "Kashmir," reggae with "D'yer Maker" and funk with "Trampled Under Foot"), the bread and butter of Zep was the hard riff and blues-based guitar work. Jimmy Page's fantastic layering -- he, at some points, used 16 (!) different guitar tracks on one song -- was evident in the hard rock of "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" and in the clear Kinks ripoff "Communication Breakdown." John Bonham's "hammer of God" drumming was the centerpiece of "Good Times, Bad Times" and John Paul Jones' bass carries the album's centerpiece "Dazed and Confused."

Robert Plant's voice (which I'll write about in future Zep reviews) is the thing that normally bugs me about Zeppelin (long story short: His voice sounds too much like an animal mating call), but I'm mostly OK with it on this record. Plant's vocals fit the songs, for the most part, as his screaming is mostly left to just the end of "Dazed and Confused."

All in all, the first Zeppelin record is fitting here on this list.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

No. 28: Who's Next

Band: The Who
Album: Who's Next
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Some of the Who's classic songs are on here, including "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." For a band in a superstar mode, the use of keyboards on the album was a major risk and produced some cool effects.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: In the same way that Nirvana is responsible for all the Linkin Parks of the world, "Who's Next" is a big reason as to why America was subjected to stadium rock during the mid-late '70s.
Best song: "Baba O'Riley" is pretty cool, as is "Won't Get Fooled Again."
Worst song: "Behind Blue Eyes" is absolutely awful. It's the prototype of stadium rock balladry.
Is it awesome?: I'm not sure. On one hand, there is a lot to like on "Who's Next." On the other, it's stadium rock at its most pompous.

Because more and more of these reviews are including my personal narrative in them, let's go through my relationship with The Who:

Like most boys in the suburbs, I was inundated with classic rock from the time I developed any interest in music. My parents played me a lot of Beatles records as a kid and as soon as I started having any control over my own radio listening (aka in my bedroom), I subscribed to the baby boomer idea of "the only good rock and roll came out in the '60s and '70s."

So, I loved Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the like. I borrowed my parents' records and listened to them on headphones in my bedroom and sought out old vinyl copies of records at garage sales.

My favorite band during these years was The Who. I worshiped the Who. I thought "My Generation" was so coolly defiant. I thought "Who's Next" was so smart. I thought the synths used on "Who Are You?" were so interesting. I thought "Quadrophenia" and "Tommy" were so much better than anything in current music. The Who could do no wrong. I even went to see one of their dreadful reunion shows.

Looking back on that time, it sounds kind of foolish. But, really, it was just youthful energy put into rock and roll. Considering that the modern popular music at the time was either West Coast hip hop (which I don't think I could've appreciated at the time) and awful alternative rock in the wake of Nirvana's demise (Green Day was very popular at the time), I probably went the right way in The Who.

I still love the Who, but I love their pre-Tommy stuff more than anything. As genius as "Tommy" is, as a concept, as each record came after, the Who were increasingly awful. "Who's Next" was the first in a series of albums of deteriorating quality.

For the uninformed, "Who's Next" is the wreckage of Pete Townshend's follow up to "Tommy," a dystopian view of a future without rock and roll called "Lifehouse." "Lifehouse" never really materialized, but the remnants made up "Who's Next."

Let me say that I'm happy the Who didn't do another double album of rock opera stuff. Double albums have lots of filler and the proposed "Lifehouse" track listing is no different. By stripping away songs like "Too Much of Anything," "Who's Next" becomes a slimmer, more impressive record.

"Who's Next" sounds like an identity crisis record, because the Who clearly were trying to find themselves in a rock and roll landscape they never really fit into. They weren't the huge pop darlings that the Beatles were, they didn't have the blues chops of the Stones and were much more popular than fellow Mods The Kinks. They weren't involved hugely in the psychedelic scene that Genesis and Pink Floyd were part of. They weren't really hippies like the Jefferson Airplanes, Hendrixes and Joplins in America.

Coming off "Tommy," it was clear that Pete Townshend wanted to continue using strings, horns and keyboards to augment the band's sound. This is why the interesting keyboards (evident in "Baba O'Riley' and "Won't Get Fooled Again" ) litter the record. However, this is also the time when the members of the band took themselves far too seriously. Songs like "The Song is Over," "Getting in Tune" and "Behind Blue Eyes" are total nonsense and simply portend the overly emotional nonsense that was the stadium rock ballad (see Journey for examples).

Is that to say that "Who's Next" is terrible? No, because it's not. "Won't Get Fooled Again" is bloated, but in a good way. It's epic and the repetitive keyboard breakdown six and a half minutes into the song is oddly moving and very, very cool. "Baba O'Riley" is a similarly bloated (in all the right ways) track based on a keyboard riff and a very simple guitar part. Are the Townshend "Don't cry. Don't waste your eyes" parts stupid? Absolutely. Does that ruin the song? Nope.

To say this is the Who's best work is silly, I think. The Who was a great proto-punk band and a great bunch of mods. Their first three albums built on that mystique much better than the shifting sensibilities of "Who's Next."

No. 27: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 1

Band: Robert Johnson
Album: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 1
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: In terms of blues singers, no one had more influence on the genre of rock and roll. Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Lucinda Williams, Cream and The White Stripes are all artists on this list who've covered Johnson's songs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Like "Kind of Blue," I'm not sure straight up blues is the way to go. Otherwise, it's incredibly important.
Best song: The most famous is "Crossroad Blues."
Worst song: They're all pretty great.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty lo-fi, but it's quite clear that this guy was hugely talented.

One of the myths surrounding Robert Johnson is that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his ability to play the guitar; It has sort of become the famous myth of all bluesmen.

Johnson's life isn't particularly well-known. He married a young girl (she died in childbirth at the ripe old age of 16), he recorded about a double album's worth of songs in 1936 and 1937. He died at age 27 in 1938. All of two photos of him exist.

Here's what we know: His guitar playing and vocals were basically unprecedented at the time. He played a style of music mostly unknown to White America until the 1950s. He set up a musical style that has endured (in rock and roll) for ages.

Two things are notable: The first is the low fidelity of the recordings. It gets tough to listen to, on that level, in that the pops and cracks are just a part of the records. The other, building off that, is that the recording might (might) have been sped up some, hence the pitch of the vocals.

Overall, though, it's amazing to think about this being recorded in the 1930s. In the same way Chuck Berry holds up, these Robert Johnson records hold up quite well.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

No. 26: The Joshua Tree

Band: U2
Album: The Joshua Tree
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: This is the album that really changed U2 from a Euro lite punk/New Wave band into one of the world's most popular rock and roll acts. The first three tracks were all top 15 singles and the videos for "With or Without You" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" are considered iconic by many.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The more famous U2 becomes, the more insufferable Bono becomes. You know my biases.
Best song: I don't like U2, so I find the whole album to be pretty crappy.
Worst song: "Bullet The Blue Sky" is awful.
Is it awesome?: People love U2. I don't.

U2 recorded "The Joshua Tree" in an attempt to Americanize their sound. The album is thematically a tribute to the United States and include varying different songs about the American experience, presumably through the eyes of Europeans.

The record's sound is very American. Bono's lyrics reference the great wide skies of the West, as do the novella-style storytelling about mining towns and "God's Country." Like many Europeans, the American West clearly fascinated U2.

Supposedly, the band befriended the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Keith Richards before they recorded this album. The influence towards a more soulful, blues and rock-based record shows. Clearly, this was U2's most rock and roll record at the time and it became their most successful.

Look, I'm not going to lie, I hate U2, but mostly because of the accolades placed on them. I don't think their music (or any music, really) is god-awful or worthless. I just don't like it. It bores me and I find it to be meaningful only to people who can't bother to change the radio dial. "The Joshua Tree" is like that. It's Tocqueville for retards. That's not America, Bono. That's cowboy nonsense.

The singles were huge. It was a turning point for the band. The album still stinks.

No. 25: Rumours

Band: Fleetwood Mac
Album: Rumours
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: There is a large portion of music written and recorded in the '70s that gave birth to the '80s AAA/Adult Contemporary music. It's pleasant, mostly vanilla rock and roll that was mostly about love and has tinges of suburban desperation. Many times, these records were about Southern California. This subgenre was hugely popular. More importantly, though, "Rumours" is a beautifully-written cadre of songs devoted to breakups and tension. It makes the proverbial chicken salad out of chicken shit in that the husband/wife duos that made up the band broke up before the songs were written and the tension fills the record. It hits divisive lows ("Gold Dust Woman," "The Chain") and wonderful, optimistic highs ("Don't Stop," "Songbird").
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well, re-read "Why Rolling Stone gets it right." "Rumours," as great as it is, paved the way for the success of a lot of artists that do not deserve to be on the radio.
Best song: I love every song on this album and I'm in the middle of listening to "Never Going Back Again" as I write this, so let's say that. As good as any sad love song, "Never Going Back Again" shows Lindsey Buckingham's best guitar work on the album.
Worst song: I'm not a big Stevie Nicks fan (I'm actually just not a "Landslide" or "Rhiannon" fan), so, "Dreams" is probably my least favorite song on the record. I still love it.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely. I love this album and place it near the top of any favorite album lists of mine.

It's easy to pile on "Rumours." The album comes from the same place as "Hotel California" (dreck), anything by Jackson Browne (sewage) and the first few James Taylor records (stinky). They're just boring, bland, rock records that take no real musical risks and are so lyrically self-absorbed and small-minded that only idiots love these records.

Except "Rumours."

"Rumours" certainly fits in those categories. It takes no particularly musical risks. The breakup song has been done a lot, so lyrically, it isn't groundbreaking. It's easy listening.

But, again, the whole album was written during a time when the two relationships that made up the group (Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks and John McVie/Christine McVie) had just dissolved. Imagine having to work, creatively, with someone you have no interest in seeing. Someone who gave you still-fresh scars. Someone to whom you were just explaining why it couldn't work out. Someone who you just wrote a song about with lyrics "I don't I've nothing to say/someone has taken my place."

Plus, this is 1977, the height of cocaine-fueled Los Angelian culture. In addition to the breakup, the whole band was high all the time. I'm not suggesting that drugs make for good music, but if the hat fits...


I didn't write this, but I figure it will work as a good thing for you, my loyal reader, to enjoy. It's Robert Christgau's review of "Rumours:"

Why is this easy-listening rock different from all other easy-listening rock, give or take an ancient harmony or two? Because myths of love lost and found are less invidious (at least in rock and roll) than myths of the road? Because the cute-voiced woman writes and sings the tough lyrics and the husky-voiced woman the vulnerable ones? Because they've got three melodist-vocalists on the job? Because Mick Fleetwood and John McVie learned their rhythm licks playing blues? Because they stuck to this beguiling formula when it barely broken even? Because this album is both more consistent and more eccentric than its blockbuster predecessor? Plus it jumps right out of the speakers at you? Because Otis Spann must be happy for them? Because Peter Green is in heaven? A"


When my knowledge of classic rock was entirely contained in the catalog of Zeppelin, the Who and Beatles, the local classic rock station in Chicago started playing more stuff from the mid- and late-'70s. I tended to turn off the radio before I could find out who played each song, so I had all these songs bouncing around in my head that I liked, but didn't stick around long enough to actually find out who did them.

When I first listened to "Rumours" (and the self-titled record) all the way through, I realized that Fleetwood Mac did every song I loved and didn't know the artist.

That's a huge compliment to them, I think.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

No. 24: Live At The Apollo (1963)

Band: James Brown
Album: Live At The Apollo
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: To include a James Brown studio album in this list would be blasphemy. Brown's live show was what defined him. At the beginning of his career -- as he was developing his crazed style -- Brown recorded the more straight-up soul songs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The James Brown most of us know isn't necessarily on here. "I Got You (I Feel Good)" isn't on here. "Hot Pants" isn't on here. None of this 70s funk is on here. No "Sex Machine."
Best song: The nine-song medley is pretty amazing.
Worst song: "I'll Go Crazy" isn't knockout great.
Is it awesome?: James Brown live? Absolutely.

What can you say about James Brown that hasn't been said yet? I saw James Brown at Taste of Chicago in 1996 whe Brown was 64 years old. He was 64 years old. I don't know that I can stress that enough. He was 64!

We were way back on the lawn, but you could see Brown busting his ass to perform. He faux-fainted and fell down, only to be revived by the crowd. He did dance numbers similar to the old Eddie Murphy "Hot Tub" sketch. He kneeled while a man put a robe-ish thing on him. You know the drill.

He ran around the stage. He sang his ass off and was on-key, which is more than we can say for the Rolling Stones at the same age. He kicked ass and took names.

Again, he was 64.

"Live At The Apollo" was recorded when Brown was a young man simply translating the gospel music he grew up on into a more popular "soul" sound. His "Please Please Please" was a hit single and he was massively popular. The Apollo Theatre was the place for him to hone his skills in week long engagements. The last night of one such week saw Brown record this album on his own dime (the record label didn't want to pay for the recording). The record blisters with energy, as you would expect from "Mr. Dynamite." He rolls through "Night Train" as the album closer and rocks a nine (!) song medley.

No. 23: Innervisions

Band: Stevie Wonder
Album: Innervisions
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of Stevie Wonder's great three albums, "Innervisions" has two of Wonder's more famous songs, "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" and the often-covered "Higher Ground." Moreover, the record is his most socially conscious record and has poignant songs about drugs, politics and urban decay.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This is something I'll get into as I write about Miles Davis, but any black artist post-1965 needs to write a record filled with protest songs in order for RS to care about it. That really doesn't matter here, as this album is quite good.
Best song: Probably "Higher Ground."
Worst song: Because of my religious beliefs (I worship the sun) "Jesus Children of America" is not up my alley.
Is it awesome?: Sure.

I had a pretty negative view of Stevie Wonder going into high school, as my childhood was littered with commercials soundtracked by the blind singer. "I Just Called to Say I Love You," "Part-Time Lover" and "Happy Birthday" were all commercial radio songs when I was a small child and I think I developed a little disdain for Wonder because of those syrupy nonsense tracks.

Due to a friend who was a big soul fan, I eventually got into the three albums I consider to be Wonder's best work: "Talking Book," "Innvervisions" and "Songs in the Key of Life." These albums, to me, are Wonder at his best: Funky and smart. It's easy to find him to be sentimental nonsense if all you know is the records he did in the '80s, but in the mid-70s, Wonder did a lot of very soulful, driving funky songs. "Living for the City" is a good example of that type of song.

"Innervisions" saw Wonder being overtly political and socially critical. In addition to the anti-drug "Too High," Wonder took on Richard Nixon in the album's closer "He's Misstra Know It All." Like "What's Going On," Wonder sees religion as a solution to the problems of urban decay and underachievement in "Higher Ground" and "Jesus Children of America."

I'm sure a lot of my generation know "Higher Ground" from the cover version the Red Hot Chili Peppers did in 1989. That cover version has been in a million movies and most recently, the video game "Guitar Hero II." It's a testament to the greatness of that song that it remains the only listenable Red Hot Chili Peppers song.

Overall, "Innervisions" is a wonderful album that slots well on the list. Clearly, Wonder's years as a young singles artist are more influential, but "Innervisions" is probably his best album, start to finish.

Postscript: As you can probably notice, I can't write on Stevie Wonder with the zeal that I do the Beatles or Nirvana. This guy, however, writes extensively about Wonder and I recommend his paper.

Monday, June 18, 2007

No. 22: Plastic Ono Band

Band: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
Album: Plastic Ono Band
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Well, to be honest, I'm not totally sure. Lennon's first solo album has a lot of critics' favorites -- and certainly some of the songs are pretty good -- but, it's a mostly uneven collection of a man considering himself an artist. There's a lot to be said of Lennon's personal-ness in the writing; Even the most honest songwriters (I'm thinking Lou Reed) weren't as blunt as Lennon was on this record.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album is mostly masturbatory therapy for a man who was deeply troubled at the time.
Best song: Probably "Working Class Hero." "Mother" and "God" aren't terrible and "Love" is decent.
Worst song: "Well Well Well" is gar-bage.
Is it awesome?: I don't think so.

Recorded after he went through "Primal Therapy" -- a technique that confronts trauma head-on and includes screaming a great deal, "Plastic Ono Band" is the first proper Lennon solo album. considered the driving force behind the Beatles' breakup (his brining Yoko into the studio all the time, his insisting on being the one to announce the split, etc.), an actual rock (as opposed to the avant garde "Two Virgins")record was eagerly awaited by the public.

The lyrics on "Plastic Ono Band" are Lennon's attempt to be more political and less subtle than his Beatles' work. The record has its hits and misses. "Working Class Hero" has the money line of "And you think you're so clever and classless and free, But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see."

Of all the Beatles, Lennon was clearly the one who wanted to put it behind him and this record screamed that loud and clear in another top track, "God." "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me" is remembered from the opening monologue of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," but it's just one in a number of loud and clear statements from a man who had mostly written in subtlety.

Critics love this album for good and bad reasons. As mentioned above, Lennon more personal and honest than anyone had previously been in their lyrics. Daring as this is, part of music is the poetry in the lyrics and I don't find the open rhymes and simple structure in the second half of "God" to be particularly enthralling. I don't care for religion either -- I worship the sun and mourn its passing everyday -- but the bluntness of Lennon's lyrics just don't float my boat.

Still, it was different. The honesty on "Plastic Ono Band" was striking, especially from a superduperstar like Lennon. That's a good reason to like the record, however much I'm not into it.

And, of course, the bad reason is that some people fancy Lennon to be a genius in everything he does. That's all good and well, but I think a lot of people gave Lennon a lot of slack. The second he started recording "normal" songs, they decided the songs were great, no matter the actual quality of the song.

That's not to say it's a terrible record. It's not. It's got some good songs. It's just not top 25 material.

No. 21: The Great Twenty-Eight

Band: Chuck Berry
Album: The Great Twenty-Eight
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Chuck Berry is as responsible for modern rock and roll as anyone and his early singles were covered by everyone in the early days of the form. When popular rock and roll music was in its infancy, Berry was one of the artists who popularized the art form. Everyone covered Berry's songs and continue to cover them today.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Being a modern music fan, one sees the similarity in a lot of the songs. Berry's formula was effective, but it was a formula nonetheless.
Best song: The first half of "The Great Twenty-Eight" is full of songs you already know. "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "Rock & Roll Music" and the incomparable "Johnny B. Goode" litter the first 14 tracks.
Worst song: The second half falls off a little. Thankfully, "My Ding a Ling" isn't on here. That song is awful.
Is it awesome?: Awesome and influential. It probably should be higher.

The inherent problem with a list of greatest albums list is that a lot of early rock and roll artists were singles artists. The art of the album was mostly relegated to the jazz artists of the mid-century. Rock and roll relied on radio play and most DJs weren't exactly going to play the whole side of a record and teenagers didn't have the attention span for it.

So, for some of the most important and influential artists of early rock and roll, these greatest hits packages end up on Rolling Stone's list. This is why Elvis' "Sun Sessions" is no. 11 on the list. There isn't necessarily an Elvis record that rivals the import of his singles. Not even close.

Ditto Chuck Berry. The St. Louis rock and roller released tons of singles in the '50s, but "The Great Twenty-Eight" came out in 1983, almost thirty years after the singles came out. Released while Sugar Hill Records had bought the old Chess Records catalog (albeit briefly) and wanted to get these tracks on one double album, all of Berry's classic early singles litter "The Great Twenty-Eight."

It's hard to overestimate the influence Chuck Berry had on the early superstar rock and roll groups. The Rolling Stones covered Berry and, of course, a couple of the great early Beatles records are Berry covers ("Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock & Roll Music").

Chuck Berry created the template: Blues-based riffs done in double-time over C&W vocals. Sing about girls, school and cars. It is/was a wonderful formula and bands continue to follow it today. Without Chuck Berry, there are probably no Beatles, probably no Stones, probably no Yardbirds and certainly a totally different musical landscape.

Friday, June 15, 2007

No. 20: Thriller

Band: Michael Jackson
Album: Thriller
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The greatest selling album of all-time, "Thriller" had seven top 10 singles. Iconic of the pop R&B genre that Jackson helped create, "Thriller" is nearly flawless. The non-single tracks are all solid and the singles, are, well, you know. You know all the words to, at least, three of the seven singles. You do. The video for the album's title track is probably the greatest video of all time and certainly cemented Jackson as the biggest star in the world. Jackson's vocal style may be the most imitated in modern music. It's hardto hear to an R&B song today that doesn't have Jackson's singing style dripping all over it.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Like "Nevermind," "Thriller" should probably be up a little higher on this list. You could make an argument for "Thriller" to be a top five album, mostly on the strength of its influence in modern hip hop.
Best song: My MJ favorite is, was, and always will be "Billie Jean." There was a time when I knew the whole dance.
Worst song: The two non-singly tracks, "Baby Be Mine" and "The Lady in My Life" aren't as good as the other songs. Also, "That Girl is Mine" has a pretty misguided Paul McCartney guest appearance, but the song is still great.
Is it awesome?: An emphatic "yes."

Forget about all the alleged child molestation. Forget about the stuff with Bubbles. Forget about the Elephant Man's bones. Forget "Jesus Juice." Forget everything that came out after "Bad." Hell, you might as well forget about "Bad."

Remember "Thriller?" Remember dancing around as a kid (I'm making the assumption that my readers are around my age)? Remember being scared/exhilirated at the part of "Thriller" where Jackson turns into a zombie? Remember that behind the scenes special with John Landis, where they showed some makeup artist putting the giant yellow werewolf contacts in Jackson's eyes? Remember "Billie Jean?" Remember the sidewalk that lit up? Remember the guitar solo from "Beat It?" You know that's Eddie Van Halen, right? Remember the hokey, Jets v. Sharks gang fight in the video for "Beat It?" Remember "Mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ma-coo-sa?"

Of course you do.

Michael Jackson was the biggest star of the '80s, only rivaled by Madonna. And while Madonna was a little too controversial for the time, Jackson didn't begin being controversial until he started sleeping with little boys. His music never really took on any important topics. He just sang. And sang. And sang.

His James Brown style "ooos," "ahs" and "ows" were delivered in a falsetto that meant something other than Brown's quasi-sexual grunts. His shout/sing delivery took as much from the Ohio Players as it did from Marvin Gaye.

Rod Temperton, James Ingram and Quincy Jones produced an album that really fit Jackson's skills as well as a record has probably ever fit a performer. "Human Nature" is the slow jam Jackson was meant to sing, while "Billie Jean" has the desperation of a man accused. "Thriller" is delightfully hokey; It's an updated "Monster Mash" complete with the ridiculous Vincent Price rap. "P.Y.T." is the '80s equivalent to a modern club jam. The type of thing Rick James wishes he recorded.

In short, it's brilliant. It's so hook-heavy and fun that I don't know if I've ever met anyone who doesn't like it.


I DJed a couple of parties when I was in college, thanks to the radio station. Our station is a typical college radio station. Lots of Cat Power, Pavement, etc. Not a lot of dance music. I do, however, believe in a very simple formula as to how to get people dancing from the DJ booth at a party: The first two Michael Jackson albums, Prince and Madonna. If you play that stuff, people will dance. They just will.

"Thriller" has, basically, seven danceable songs.


This is the first real '80s-sounding album on this list, so it gives me the opportunity to write about a pet opinion of mine. I believe a lot of great songwriting happened in the '80s that is mocked now beause the production during the time was so formulaic and, well, bad. Producers in the '80s overused certain synths and sounds in order to create a certain type of song atmosphere. I'm not anti-synth, I just think the violin synth sound that filled a lot of songs ruined them.

The Police are one of the groups emblematic of this phenomenon; Listen to Tori Amos' (shut up) cover of "Wrapped Around Your Finger." If someone went and recorded the Police catalog on accoustic guitars and pianos, you'd love the record ever more. A lot of the one-hit wonders are similar.

"Thriller," however, isn't. Because its a dance record, the cheesy atmospheric synth is minimal and the production adds to the music. "Thriller" is so good, it is enhanced by cheesiness. That, in and of itself, is pretty amazing.

No. 19: Astral Weeks

Band: Van Morrison
Album: Astral Weeks
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Morrison's transition album has some excellent storytelling, shown by "Madame George." Vocally, Morrison is uniquely soulful. To be totally honest, this is my first real exposure to it, so I'm still digesting it.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: If you're going with boomer singer/sonwriter pained records, "Blood on the Tracks" is probably better. Again, I'm not a big supporter of the "folk rock" thing, so a lot of this stuff goes over my head. Plus, "Moondance" is, in my mind, a better album.
Best song: The title track's lyrics are pretty awful, but it's a pretty good song. "Madame George" is epic.
Worst song: None of the songs are particularly terrible, but I'm not fall-down blown away, either.
Is it awesome?: I'm not sure. I'm just hearing it in full now and I do enjoy it. It's taking a bit to grow on me, but I'm leaning towards "awesome."

Some songwriters write disjointed lyrics in a way that the short clauses and sentences make sense, on the whole. Some have clever one-liners (think Pavement), while some are smart references to modern times (Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues"). Van Morrison's, however, seem to just be a phrase or two, repeated over and over.

The more I listen to "Astral Weeks," the more I believe Van Morrison when he says some of the songs were written in a "stream of consciousness" situation. "Cypress Avenue," nominally a song about the street where Morrison grew up, is like this. He says "Baby" a lot. He repeats lines. A lot. Van Morrison is one of the artists I expected to learn a little about in doing this project. "Astral Weeks" fits into this folky rock/soul thing and that's a genre to which I have never really warmed up.

With that said, one of the things I mention in my biases is that I prefer a record that experiments. "Astral Weeks" experiments. This record came out in 1967 and he took a songwriting route that only Dylan (a big experimenter himself) had done much of. His voice lilts and carries the lyrics with an intensity that most rock and roll singers can't even touch. Comparing what Morrison was doing on "Astral Weeks" to what Donovan was doing at the time, it's not even close as to who was more adventurous.

Which is to say that "Astral Weeks" is growing on me. I don't know if it belongs here, but it's certainly an interesting record and that's a huge compliment from me.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

No. 18: Born To Run

Band: Bruce Springsteen
Album: Born to Run
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Springsteen's breakthrough album has some of his most evocative songs, as well as the best production.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not a Springsteen fan. His blue collar rock anthems like "Jungleland" fail to move me.
Best song: "Thunder Road" is a well-written song and I enjoy the covers of it by Mary Lou Lord and Tortoise/Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Really, though, the piano-driven way it's recorded makes it sound like a jock jam.
Worst song: Everything else stinks.
Is it awesome?: To someone, yes. To me? No way.

You know my biases. This is the key one. I don't like Springsteen. I find his gravely, almost-Tom Waits vocals to be irritating. I find his blue collar rock songs about New Jersey or (even worse) the dust bowl to be complete nonsense. I don't care about the streets of Philadelphia.

But, I'm trying to go about this project with a somewhat open mind and I'm trying to find positives in the music. A lot of people I know love Springsteen and there is a certain poetry to songs like "Thunder Road" and "Born To Run." As I mentioned, I really enjoy the Tortoise and Bonnie "Prince" Billy cover of "Thunder Road," specifically when Oldham sings "Mary's dress sways/like a vision she dances across the porch."

But, after listening to this album three times (in a row. The sacrifices I make for this stupid project) all I can think is "wow, this sounds like the kind of album you can only enjoy in a car." It sounds like driving on an open highway at night. This is not a compliment. I've driven many times through central Illinois in the middle of the night. It's boring.

Maybe it's fun in New Jersey. It isn't fun in the Midwest.

No. 17: Nevermind

Band: Nirvana
Album: Nevermind
Why Rolling Stone gets it right:Nirvana is the most important band of the past, say, 25 years. Grunge rock brought the punk ethos and DIY styling to popular music that was sadly lost in the hair band '80s and parachute pants rap of the early '90s (MC Hammer and Heavy D come to mind).
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I personally think it should be a top 10 record, maybe top five.
Best song: "Come As You Are" is one of my favorite songs ever, but you could say "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is more important. "In Bloom" is brilliant, as is the sarcastic "Polly" and the lilting "Drain You."
Worst song: There is not a bad song on here. "Territorial Pissings" is the least serious, for what that's worth.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely, positively, yes.

Something that I only alluded to "my biases" is important to explain with "Nevermind." I'm 26 years old. I was 10 when Nevermind first came out and 13 when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I was 15 when "MTV Unplugged in New York" came out.

Thirteen is a time when you're packed with hormones, you're stupid and you hero worship. I adored Kurt Cobain and continue to do so. "Nevermind" was the first record with songs on it that I learned on the guitar ("Come As You Are," actually).

Whatever my biases, it's basically impossible to say that "Nevermind" wasn't a landmark album. It came at a time when music was dominated by focus grouped bands with giant hair who played big ballads about ex-girlfriends over heavily affected guitars and synthesized strings.

"Nevermind" came along and basically showed people what rock and roll is about. Rock and roll, on a lot of levels, is representative democracy. We make mix tapes -- and use other people's emotions to mirror our own -- for our girlfriends/boyfriends. We score our movies with old songs. Politicians seek out zeitgeist songs to reflect their voting blocs.

We "elected" rock stars as our representatives for much of the '80s as reflections of what we wanted to be. Larger than life heroes in leather vests, playing stage shows with lots of pyro. The only "everyman" singers in the '80s were dumpy white guys like Huey Lewis. That motherfucker just wanted to write songs about sports.

Kurt Cobain was the populist candidate. He looked like the slacker generation, working at video stores and playing Super Mario Bros. He wore cardigans and Chuck Taylors. He had stringy hair and a drug addiction. He was strikingly handsome, but his band mates were an ogre and a mountain of hair. He wrote lyrics of metaphor and parody.

The Sub Pop sound (Black Flag meets Black Sabbath) isn't as evident on "Nevermind" as it is on "Bleach" and "In Utero." In fact, "Nevermind" is Nirvana's least punk record. It's still hard-edged and takes influence from bands as diverse as the Pixies, Fleetwood Mac, the Meat Puppets, the Beatles, Sonic Youth and Flipper.

The track listing is phenomenal. Not unlike "Revolver," there isn't a bad song on there. The adolescent revolution of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" turns into the anti-fan "In Bloom" which flows into the heroin-soaked "Come As You Are." The mating apathy (Cobain once said the lyrics were about "Getting into Middle America. Marrying at age 18, getting pregnant, stuck with a baby - and not wanting it.") of "Breed" is followed by the drug-user-finds-God anthem of "Lithium." And so on.

"Nevermind" is rock and roll at a crossroads. It's the best record with a punk ethos since the Clash and the best pop rock record to come out of the '90s.


There is an other opinion that I imagine I should put forth, which I don't totally disagree with. The opinion (proposed by my friend Joe) is as such:

The Nirvana mystique (much like, I dunno, the Velvet Underground mystique) deserves to be cut down to size, and barring any future Spin Magazine cover stories and "I *Still* Love the '90s" specials, they'll be seen in much greater context as years go on. A band among many, instead of a band leading or creating many. The box set proves that there was a lot of chaff amongst the wheat, and in the end, that makes their story a lot cooler than any sort of "they changed the face of music" bullshit.

(Emphasis is mine)

I don't think Joe is off on the point that Nirvana was the focal point of a musical movement back towards a more punk-oriented, angsty music style. Nirvana carried the torch for a lot of "alternative" music before them (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., the Melvins, etc.) and their contemporaries. We'll focus on Nirvana because Cobain killed himself, while Pearl Jam became a boring AAA band and Soundgarden broke up. The guy from Alice in Chains died, but not that many people cared about them.

Still, I truly believe "Nevermind" was the perfect record to bring back rock and roll from the nonsense that was the '80s.


It's important to mention that Nirvana is probably responsible for the abomination that is Linkin Park, in the same way that the Who are responsible for stadium rock. The angsty suburban teenager template has been used by a lot of bands like Linkin Park, Evanescence Jimmy Eat World (they have a dash of emo in there). It woks when you're Kurt Cobain, it doesn't for these bands, fifteen years later.

Still, that doesn't detract from the genius that is "Nevermind."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

No. 16: Blood On The Tracks

Band: Bob Dylan
Album: Blood On The Tracks
Why Rolling Stone gets it right:At the risk of sounding repetitive, Bob Dylan is considered the best songwriter ever. He's smart and this is his real confessional album. The songs have a "sad love" tinge to just about all of it.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: We got it. Bob Dylan is a genius. How many more albums does he have to have in the top twenty before we get the picture?
Best song: "Tangled Up In Blue," by far.
Worst song: I'm not in love with "Meet Me in the Morning."
Is it awesome?: I guess. I tend to like sad love songs, but Dylan's voice is like knives in my ears.

Bob Dylan wrote and record "Blood On The Tracks" while in the middle of a big divorce (Jakob Dylan calls the album a conversation between his parents), so the songs are all desperately sad. "Tangled Up In Blue" is the big single that everyone knows, and while I like that song (again, you're tired of hearing this), Dylan's voice is awful.

"A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It's hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying the type of pain, you know?" Dylan said.

It's hard to dislike this record. I do like the writing, from the complexity of characters in "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" to the upbeat blues juxtapositioned with the imagery of "Buckets of Rain." It's a beautifully lyrical record.

But, again, Dylan's voice. Knives in my ears.

No. 15: Are You Experienced

Band: The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Album: Are You Experienced
Why Rolling Stone gets it right:Jimi Hendrix is considered by many to be the greatest guitar player of all time. In describing him, the New York Times said one of his shows sounded like "Heavy metal falling from the sky." Some of his classic songs occupy "Are You Experienced," in "Hey Joe," "Foxey Lady," and "Manic Depression." Also, "Purple Haze."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This is probably the best-rated album on this list. It's not a top 10 situation, but Hendrix absolutely needs to be close to the top.
Best song: I love waltzes, and "Manic Depression" is an awesome waltz.
Worst song: I'm not a huge "Stone Free" fan.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

As I mention above, Hendrix doesn't occupy the same place as the Beatles, Stones or Dylan (and, I'd add Floyd, Zeppelin, Sabbath and Nirvana to the top 10), but he certainly needs to be up there. "Are You Experienced" is probably the most well-known of the three Experience records, so this is the pick to use.

It's hard to not like Hendrix, but I'll try to play Henley's Advocate -- a phrase I'll explain in a few weeks when I review "Hotel California" -- I'll say that his hippy nonsense makes it hard to take some of the lyrics seriously. When he claims that "Purple Haze" isn't about drugs, it's hard to take him seriously. I just find his records lacking in emotion, on some level, as the only emotion Hendrix probably felt during those years was "stoned."

I'm not the world's greatest Hendrix fan; I'm more lukewarm on him than I should be, probably. I like the singles a lot ("Manic Depression" specifically, as I love waltzes), but the non-single album tracks just don't float my boat.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

No. 14: Abbey Road

Band: The Beatles
Album: Abbey Road
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Some love "Abbey Road" and some don't, but I find it to be great. The second side is an amazing medley of everyone's compositions. The first side has one of the greatest love songs of all time ("Something"), as well as Ringo's silliest/best song ("Octopus' Garden"). "Come Together" is a classic, as is "Oh! Darling." Yes, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is kind of ridiculous, but it's pretty amazing linear misanthropic storytelling. gotta hand it to Macca on that one.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: People don't love this album, though I am not really sure why.
Best song: "Something" is probably my favorite love song of all time. I also adore "Here Comes The Sun."
Worst song: I'm not really sure. I love this album almost as much as "Revolver" and almost never skip songs. Maybe "You Never Give Me Your Money?" Even that's a great song.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

On a pure enjoyment level, "Abbey Road" is rivaled only by "Revolver" in my head. I adore the Abbey Road Suite on the second side and it features the two best Harrison-penned songs in "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something." It's the Beatles' last record and it features some of their best straight-up songs. There isn't a lot of fooling around with tape loops, parody songs or sitar. It's just pretty music.

It doesn't show a changing band like "Revolver" or the band at the top of its game like "Sgt. Pepper's," but it continues to be the one album I continually enjoy every single time I put it on. There's a lot to be said for that.

No 13: The Velvet Underground and Nico

Band: The Velvet Underground
Album: The Velvet Underground and Nico
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: All that is "alternative" rests in the Velvets. To quote Jim DeRogatis (who was quoting Brian Eno), "Although the group didn't sell a lot of records in its lifetime, everyone who bought one went out and started a band of their own." Certainly the combining of Andy Warhol's vision of what a band should be and the musical excellence of Lou Reed made for some amazing records. While other records had feedback and cacophony as part of the sound, the Velvets embraced this and exploited it in "Femme Fatale" and "Heroin."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not sure they did. The record is important to all things rock and roll, but it's not in the class of the Beatles or Dylan. It probably should be in the top 10, but 13 isn't bad.
Best song: They're all pretty great. I, personally, like "There She Goes Again" and "Venus in Furs."
Worst song: I don't know that there is a worse song. Maybe "All Tomorrow's Parties?"
Is it awesome?: Absolutely, without question.

What can you say about "The Velvet Underground and Nico" that hasn't been in a movie ("I Shot Andy Warhol") or that Lou Reed hasn't said a million times? The Velvets were so far out there, so avant garde, that they basically influenced everyone who came after them. While the Beatles were trying to insinuate drug references, the Velvets did a song called "Heroin" that climaxed in a screeching viola/guitar combo. While the Stones wanted to "Spend the Night Together," the Velvets were doing a song based on a book about bondage by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

Yeah, it pushed some boundaries. Again, anyone who is anyone from the avant garde and college radio scene of the '80s cites them as an influence. They were always the no. 2 band on my college radio station's yearly top 88 countdown.

They're college radio ("I'm Waiting For The Man"), they're glam ("Venus in Furs"), they're hard rock (listen to "The Downward Spiral" and tell me you don't hear the influence of the Velvets). They embraced the "scene" with Warhol and Lou Reed embraced punk with Iggy Pop.

Important? Absolutely. Great? Even moreso.

Monday, June 11, 2007

No. 12: Kind of Blue

Band: Miles Davis
Album: Kind of Blue
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Miles' masterpiece is one of the first truly modal records and is striking in its downtempo mastery.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This brings up the question of where the list goes. Jazz is a strikingly different art form from rock and roll and the records that sandwich "Kind of Blue" ("The Sun Sessions" and "Velvet Underground & Nico") are nothing like it.
Best song: Pick it. I'll say "So What."
Worst song: They're all great. No worst songs.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely, but this list causes problems.

These type of records are hard to place. Don't get me wrong, "Kind of Blue" is considered by many to be the best jazz record ever. It's one of the 20 jazz records I actually own and that says a lot. It's clearly an amazing record.

But, one of the issues this list brings up is genre. Pop music spans a lot of genres (the big two right now being hip hop and rock and roll, with scores of subgenres), and to compare this record to "Revolver" or "Highway 61 Revisited" is comparing apples to oranges.

As well, Rolling Stone is a magazine born out of the late '60s hippy movement. This was a group of people who had little to do with jazz and now has little to do with current hip hop (outside of Enimen). Quite simply, Rolling Stone should write about rock and roll, not jazz, not hip hop. They don't know what they're talking about.

One final thing: Jazz was hugely important a while ago, but has become mostly a niche genre. I'm not saying that Miles Davis shouldn't get his due, but I'd venture to guess that if you asked a random sample of 100 music fans, 50 wouldn't know who Miles was. I'm not sure if that should matter; A lot of the music on this list isn't totally mainstream, but was important in one way or another. Popular doesn't mean "important" always. But, still. It's a jazz record. It's a great jazz record on par with any of the other 500 records on this list, but it's still a jazz record.

No. 11: The Sun Sessions

Band: Elvis Presley
Album: The Sun Sessions
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Elvis needs to be here and this is Elvis at his rawest. It has some of the great old Elvis covers like "Baby, Let's Play House" and, of course, "That's All Right."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This record brings up the question of "import" versus "awesome record." Elvis is certainly important, but it's early rock and roll. It's not a perfection of the form.
Best song: "That's All Right" and it's not even close.
Worst song: "I Love You Because" is kind of stinky.
Is it awesome?: Basically, yes.

Elvis is the king of rock and roll, but he's still an early rock and roller. The Sun Sessions are basically the beginning of the art form and they're probably the most important records of all time. "That's All Right" is widely considered the first popular rock and roll record and it's amazing. Listening to it, you can hear the rawness of the records, though they're not half as raw as the early rock and roll by black artists.

Look, this is what made rock and roll important. The black subculture was not recognized by most white consumers and certainly not on the scale that country singers were. Elvis (and Sam Phillips) could bring this black music to the mainstream.

Are these Elvis' best songs? I'd argue "no." But, this is the infancy of the form and the songs that made the form into what it is today. It's "important" in the same way that "Sgt. Pepper's" is important. For that, the record deserves to be on the list. And high.

Friday, June 8, 2007

No. 10: The Beatles

Band: The Beatles
Album: The Beatles (aka "The White Album")
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: While not at the level of "Revolver" (or, one could argue, "Sgt. Pepper's"), the self-titled album has an amazing collection of songs that spans genres and subjects. You could argue that each member has one of his three best songs on the White Album. Each writer was setting the stage for his solo career, with Paul switching between the light ("Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da") and the loving ("Martha My Dear"), Lennon's sarcasm coming to light ("Glass Onion" and "Sexy Sadie") and George Harrison finally stretching himself ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps"). Ringo even puts out "Don't Pass Me By," which is a wonderful little Ringo song.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "Experimentation" doesn't mean it necessarily works. "Revolution 9" is total gargbage. "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" is silliness, as is "Wild Honey Pie" (Hell, even the regular "Honey Pie" is ridiculously silly). The production value on "Long, Long, Long" is fitting, but it is hard to hear. The album version of "Revolution 1" isn't as good as the harder single version.
Best song: I like "Savoy Truffle" a whole lot, but it's hardly the best song on the record. "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" is awesome, with time changes and such. "I'm So Tired" is fantastic. "Long, Long, Long" -- even with the vocals low in the mix -- is awesome. The three animal songs on side two ("Blackbird," "Piggies" and "Rocky Raccoon") make for a fantastic little run.
Worst song: "Revolution 9" is hot sewage. It's total garbage.
Is it awesome?: Yes. Without question.

Let me preface this bit by saying that nothing I say is really very original. The White Album is one of the most written-about albums in the history of rock and roll. In fact, I've been reading a lot about the record and one of the things I've found to be fascinating in doing research (yes, I am doing research for this project) of both how much minutae there is to the Beatles songs. The White Album, especially, gave me plenty of pieces of trivia to digest.


I used to believe the White Album to be a bloated record (a view, incidentally, that has been transferred to Pink Floyd's "The Wall"), but I want to officially recant that view now. While the excess silliness/experimentation certainly drops it below the level of "Revolver" or "Abbey Road," the White Album is still a breathtaking group of songs.

As has been stated a million times before, "The Beatles" (the record's official name) is basically three songwriters (and Ringo, who contributed one track) doing his own thng, with the most clear delineations between John Lennon and Paul McCartney on a Beatles record. John's songs are those about suicide ("Yer Blues"), an ode to his dead mother ("Julia"), a flat-out diss song ("Sexy Sadie") and whatever the hell "Revolution 9" is. On the other hand, Paul sings about songbirds ("Blackbird"), carnival rides ("Helter Skelter") and monkeys having sex ("Why Don't We Do It In The Road?"). All the while, George continued his emergence as a songwriter with "Savoy Truffle," "Long, Long, Long," "Piggies" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

It's pretty clear from everything I've been reading that this was a time period in which the four Beatles just didn't want to be around one another. One of the things I was so struck by in listening to this record again and again is how easily Macca could write different styles of songs. As much as John experimented, Paul really hit several diferent styles of songs, sometimes even as homages to other pop acts. "Rocky Raccoon" is his attempt (a decent one) at a Dylan song, "Back In The U.S.S.R." is Chuck Berry and "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" is Little Richard-esque. He branched out into harder rock with "Helter Skelter." He constructed one of the better love songs with "I Will." Hell, he even did a old tyme-style honky tonk with "Honey Pie." Also, "Birthday," which is up there with "Silly Love Songs" and "Hello Goodbye" for the title of "stupidest lyrics by McCartney." The song rocks, but the lyrics are a little juvenile.

John also experimented, albeit in a weirder way. His messing with song structures gave us "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and his attempt at blues-rock gave us the ode to depression "Yer Blues." "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey" is a prelude to "Ballad of John and Yoko." "Glass Onion" is mostly a "fuck you" to the people trying to find meaning in Beatle lyrics.

It's really quite phenomenal how awesome these songs are. These guys were at each others' throats the whole time, yet look at the track listing. Even the ones with silly lyrics (again, "Birthday" comes to mind, as does "I'm So Tired" and "Savoy Truffle") are awesome songs. Yes, there's filler. Lots of filler. But, you can't argue with "Blackbird," "Helter Skelter," "Yet Blues," "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and the other stellar songs.

No. 9: Blonde on Blonde

Band: Bob Dylan
Album: Blonde on Blonde
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Dylan writes smart, literate songs (a phrase I use here a lot) and this one has a few of his smartest ("Visions of Johanna" being a big one). His band was just coming together, as the early version of the Hawks (aka The Band) played on this one. Also, Al Kooper, who is amazing, contributed. Musically, it's one of Dylan's best. There is enough stylistic variation to really love it.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's not all that accessible and, as a double album, there's a lot of inaccesible material on there. Eleven minute songs just don't always work. Also, it's still Dylan singing and his voice isn't good. You can call it tortured or "human" or whatever, but it's not good.
Best song: Probably "Visions of Johanna" or "Just Like a Woman." "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" is delightfully dirty, if you extrapolate that he's talking about a vagina.
Worst song: None are really bad, to be honest. Just not really accessible.
Is it awesome?: Sure, but it's not very poppy.

"Blonde on Blonde" is the kind of record you really need to sit down with. Most Dylan records are like this -- though mostly because we know so many of the songs -- but "Blonde on Blonde" is particularly lyrical. Of course, you wouldn't know it on the surface reading (OK, the chorus) of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," but, apparently, a lot of the references are largely geared towards the civil rights movement ("They'll stone you when you try and leave your seat" being the operative one.

Still, the love/sex songs are pretty great. "I Want You" is lighter, while "Just Like a Woman" is pretty and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" is, um, fun.

I defer to the greats on this one, mainly George Harrison. While in India, Harrison only brought one record: This one. Now, Harrison was friends with Dylan -- they co-write a few songs together, including "I'll Have You Anytime" -- but that doesn't change my respect for this record.

I don't always get Dylan. I think his music needs more time to sit down and deconstruct. I don't have the time for that (especially with some Elvis -- music with which I'm not familiar -- coming up), nor am I smart enough to do so. (The weakest things I write will probably be about Dylan. Please comment if you have more to say about "Blonde on Blonde.")

Thursday, June 7, 2007

No. 8: London Calling

Band: The Clash
Album: London Calling
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: It's probably the Clash's masterpiece and one of the best post-modern works ever, in my opinion. Totally referential, "London Calling" had elements of ska, rockabilly, straight up punk, and rock and roll. It showed the apex of Mick Jones' and Joe Strummer's songwriting talents. Politically charged, the boys take on crime, the Spanish Civil War, drug use and racial strife. This is punk rock at its best: Angry, smart and melodic. Entertainment Weekly named it the best rock album of all time and I'm not sure it isn't (non-Beatles category, of course).
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not sure they have. The first Clash record is probably just as good as "Longon Calling," mostly because it has more of the undefinable "energy."
Best song: Oh, man. Take your pick. "The Guns of Brixton" is great, as is the title track. I'll go with the ska/reggae of "Rudie Can't Fail."
Worst song: "Lost in the Supermarket" isn't great
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

As I've stated, I don't like blue collar rock. As well, I don't like a whole lot of punk rock and I find that political music usually falls short. The Clash go against both of all three principles because they made punk rock mature, blue collar rock cool and made smart political music. Take "London Calling" in comparison to Green Day's "American Idiot." It could be because I don't know a lot about late '70s British politics, but "London Calling" is much smarter than the moronic calling out of flyover states that is "Jesus of Suburbia." In the same way that "What's Going On" is political, "London Calling" is political. In the way that they're both brilliant.

No. 7: Exile on Main Street

Band: The Rolling Stones
Album: Exile on Main Street
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: An epic double album, most believe it to be the Rolling Stones' greatest achievement. It marked a changing of eras within the Stones, from their single-based accessible blues rock to a harder-edged sound. It's considered a landmark in hard rock, partially because of its "vox low in the mix" production style.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I guess I just don't see it. It's somewhat hard, but none of the songs really hit me. It's like "Highway 61," only with one tenth of the intellect and six years later.
Best song: A lot of people like "Rocks Off," but I'll go with the one you all know: "Tumblin' Dice."
Worst song: "Loving Cup" is dreck.
Is it awesome?: Not in my opinion. I prefer other Stones albums, but people seem to adore it.

Though I didn't mention it in the "my biases" piece, I'm not the biggest Stones fan. I am firmly in the Beatles camp and the Stones has some real blue collar rock tinges to them. Nowhere is that more evident than on this record. Certainly, it spawned "Exile in Guyville," which is good, but I prefer "Beggars Banquet." The Stones, in my opinion, are simply considered great because they hung around a long time. Kind of like music's Jamie Moyer.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

No. 6: What's Going On

Band: Marvin Gaye
Album: What's Going On
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Well, it's the standard by which almost all soul records are measured. It's one of the most socially conscious records of all time. Marvin Gaye is one of the best singers ever and this is his masterpiece. In an age where soul has been bastardized to mean some foul-mouthed kid singing a ringtone before a rapper chanted about how he's going to take a girl in the ass, Marvin Gay was singing sounds like “Inner City Blues.”
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I don't know that soul is right for this list, but I have to admit that I'm pretty ignorant about soul music.
Best song: Either “Mercy Mercy Me” or the title track.
Worst song: “God is Love” isn't great and “Right On” goes on too long.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely. I wonder about the 500 list (I think it should be just rock and roll records), but probably just my own ignorance.

I am not a Christian, so the records with more Christian overtones are always ones I won't get necessarily and this one is no different. Some of the songs have overtly religious themes – obviously, “God is Love” -- and that's not my bag.

Still, it's hard to disagree with any of these songs in context. Coming out of Motown – where most of the songs were written for Gaye – this record is amazing. He wrote introspective, socially conscious songs about problems affecting black America in the early 70s. That's hugely important, as a lot of artists weren't doing that. Black music didn't have a lot of protest songs and certainly none with the gravitas or import as Marvin Gaye's masterpiece. I mean, hell, this is “The Message” almost ten years before “The Message.”

And you know something? It sounds great. That makes it even better.

No. 5: Rubber Soul

Band: The Beatles
Album: Rubber Soul
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: “Rubber Soul” is really the first record where the Beatles experimented with different sounds, starting with the fuzz base of “Think for Yourself” and the sitar on “Norwegian Wood.” Several iconic songs litter “Rubber Soul,” including “Michelle,” “In My Life” and “Nowhere Man.”
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The record isn't as good as the other two in this period. While “Norwegian Wood” is there, it's not that different, sound-wise from the early Beatles records. It's kind of uneven sounding, probably because the band was kind of in a transition to “no drugs Beatles” to “take lots of drugs Beatles.”
Best song: They're all pretty good.
Worst song: I find “In My Life” to be absolutely dreadful, though that's mostly because about 100 people quoted as their senior quotes in my high school yearbook.
Is it awesome?: Sure. Even an uneven mid-career Beatles album is one of the top 50 albums ever.

A lot of people have commented that “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” should be a double album, though I can't really support that. Most of the best songs come from “Revolver,” though there are some real highlights on “Rubber Soul.” Certainly the two Harrison songs are top-notch. “What Goes On” is a fun Ringo song, but all Ringo songs are fun in their own way. “Nowhere Man” is awesome, and “Norwegian Wood” is beautiful. “You Won't See Me” is a great Macca record. Still, some of the songs are kind of dumb (“Girl,” even with the inhale thing, comes to mind, as does “Wait” and “The Word”). I fluctuate on “Drive My Car.” When I think about it, it's one of the stupidest Beatles songs recorded. On the other hand, “Beep beep, mmm beep beep, yeah!” is an amazing refrain and incredibly singable.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

No. 4: Highway 61 Revisited

Band: Bob Dylan
Album: Highway 61 Revisited
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: It was the first electric Bob Dylan record. It shows Dylan at his best, wherein he's not trying to sing out of his range or try to make the song something it isn't. It's fun, which is something you don't say about man albums. If Dylan is a philosopher, this is his angry phase wherein he channels Luther. Again, it's Dylan, so the lyrics are referential, literate and awesome.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: His voice is really awful. Some of the songs are a little long. It really is angry and that can be off-putting. If you sort through the layers of the record, Dylan sounds really fucking creepy.
Best song: They're all pretty good.
Worst song: I don't really love “Queen Jane Approximately.” “Desolation Row” goes on for too long.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely. I am not a big Dylan guy, but I adore this album.

I'm not a huge Dylan fan, as I think his voice is just plain awful. I'd love to someone more creative, musically, (as opposed to lyrically) do his whole catalog over, save for this album. “Like a Rolling Stone” is fantastic. “Ballad of a Thin Man” has inspired a great song (“Yer Blues”) and a terrible song (“Mr. Jones” by Counting Crowes), but remains one of the great “fuck you” songs ever. The title track is an awesome indictment of American values and the decline of civilization. Again, because Dylan is such a smart songwriter, the amount of words spilled over this record has to be the most ever. Everyone writes about it and will do so better than I. Check out the wikipedia entry.

Again, it's Dylan for people who like dark, angry records. Plus, his voice actually fits the record. It's really quite amazing.

No. 3: Revolver

Band: The Beatles
Album: Revolver
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: It's got some of the best contributions from each Beatle. The Beatles reached out significantly, sound-wise. As far as songwriting, the record spans political (“Taxman”) to the somber love song (“For No One”) to the Eastern (“Love You To”) to the straight up love song (“Here, There and Everywhere”). Also, a fantastic silly song that includes both Ringo and longshoremen sound effects (“Yellow Submarine”). Quite simply, it's a fantastic record and I dare you to find a flaw on it.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It should be number one.
Best song: Pick it. Personally, I like “Tomorrow Never Knows” this week, but I'm sure I'd love “She Said She Said” tomorrow or “I'm Only Sleeping” the next day or “For No One” the next.
Worst song: I don't really like “Eleanor Rigby” as much as the other songs, but it would still be the best song on 99.9% of all albums.
Is it awesome?: There is no argument. “Revolver” is awesome.

I'm not sure as to why people argue for “Rubber Soul” or “Sgt. Pepper's” as the best Beatles album when “Revolver” exists. I could see “Abbey Road” (largely for finality's sake) but “Revolver came out in the same period and is basically flawless. Again, I'm not the biggest “Eleanor Rigby” fan, but a lot of people fancy it the best “storytelling” Beatles song. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is in the pantheon of greatest songs ever and “For No One” is one of the few introspective, pretty, sad Macca songs (considering he's the guy who did “Maxwell's Silver Hammer”). It has the most Harrison, per album with a whopping three songs, all of which are fantastic. It has the Broadway bombast of “Got to Get You Into My Life” and the classic love song of “Here, There and Everywhere.” Again, it's beautiful.