Tuesday, July 31, 2007

No. 84: Lady Soul

Band: Aretha Franklin
Album: Lady Soul
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Lady Soul" gives you more classic Aretha. "Chain of Fools," "(You Make Me Feel like) a Natural Woman," and her covers of "Groovin'" and "People Get Ready" are among her best work.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not in love with having two Aretha records back-to-back, especially two so close in time period. It's not like she was doing country; The style of these records aren't really divergent.
Best song: "Chain of Fools" is amazing.
Worst song: "Ain't No Way" ain't no good.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely. 60s Aretha=Awesome.

I find it hard to justify putting an artist back-to-back in this list. I know this list is anything but an exact science (and total bullshit, to boot), but it just reeks of "hey, we need to get her on here. Put both in the 80s." Hell, even the Beatles don't go back-to-back up at the top of the list.

Still, "Lady Soul" is among Aretha's best work. Released a year after "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," "Lady Soul" has two of her signature songs and they couldn't be different. The Carole King-penned "(You Make Me Feel like) a Natural Woman" is a soft love song, sung with conviction and heart by Aretha in a slow burn. "Chain of Fools," however, is a bit of a rocker, as Aretha calls out a man in angry fashion. Her range is the star here.

Again, I think it's silly to put it next to "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," but it's still a great record.

No. 83: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You

Band: Aretha Franklin
Album: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Aretha Franklin is among the most celebrated vocalists in popular music and for good reason. The strength and soul of her voice is nearly unparalleled. "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" has Aretha's signature track ("Respect"), some classic standards ("Good Times," "A Change Is Gonna Come") and some beautiful reflections ("Drown I My Own Tears" and "A Change Is Gonna Come").
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm pretty content with this ranking. I'm not sure there should be two Aretha albums back-to-back, but, otherwise, Aretha needs to be on this list multiple times.
Best song: "Respect" is pretty clearly the best song.
Worst song: "Dr. Feelgood" is not a Motley Crue cover, and that depressed me.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

This is most a half-assed theory, but I figure I'll throw it out here, just to explain the reason that I enjoy women singers more than men singers...

Women in our society are encouraged to emote more. Societally, men are not encouraged to open up in any emotion, save for anger. Men are taught to be detached and "cool." The idea that "real men" don't cry or get sad or whatever is something all little boys are taught.

Women aren't. Women are certainly taught (consciously or subconsciously) to be quiet and be "seen and not heard," but when they emote, women are allowed to be more emotional.

Anyway, this works well in music. Women tend to, in my eyes, have more emotional range in their vocals. Aretha is the perfect example of that. Her vocals range from the demanding and aggressive ("Respect) to the reflective (the title track) to a straight up rocker in "Save Me." Aretha wails and she emotes and she soulfully croons. Most men don't do that and there's a real span to her emotion.

Monday, July 30, 2007

No. 82: Axis: Bold As Love

Band: The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Album: Axis: Bold As Love
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Hendrix' weakest studio album is still Hendrix. It features one of the (if not the) first stereo flange effects, as well as some of the first wah-wah type guitar sounds.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It really is the weakest of the Hendrix albums. There are no real great songs here, though a lot of people love "Little Wing."
Best song: "Little Wing," "If 6 Was 9" and "Spanish Castle Magic" are the three best songs on the album.
Worst song: "Little Miss Lover" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: I'd say no.

Jimi Hendrix certainly played a great guitar and was like no one else. He was also incredibly self-indulgent. This is good in some cases; Half of the genius "Electric Ladyland" is masturbatory. "Axis," however, suffers from Hendrix' self-indulgence.

The three best songs on the record wouldn't crack the top five songs on the Experience's other two albums and each is masturbatory in its own way. "Little Wing" is about Hendrix' dead mother (which is fine), but the naming of the song is taken from Hendrix' Native American guardian spirit, which is a little much for most white rock audiences. "Spanish Castle Magic" is a song about Hendrix' high school bands and "If 6 Was 9" is some nonsense about how conformity is bad (no way!).

Hendrix has a lot of "teenager wearing Che Guevara shirt having just read 'The Communist Manifesto' and is now declaring himself a revolutionary" in him. His drug-addled idealism, thankfully, is mostly relegated to "If 6 Was 9," though "Wait Until Tomorrow" has some strains of it.

"Axis" is a nice little record, on some level. It has a few good songs ("Little Wing" has been covered by everyone, so someone likes it), but it's nowhere near "Are You Experienced?" or "Electric Ladyland" and it doesn't deserve to be ranked 82.

No. 81: Graceland

Band: Paul Simon
Album: Graceland
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: There isn't much world music influence on the list, but "Graceland" has tones of world music tinges on it. Recorded in South Africa (during apartheid, for which Simon took a great deal of heat), Simon found the best South African musicians he could and tried to expand the sound in the studio.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I guess I'm not as big a world music fan as I thought I was. "Graceland" is a nice record, but it's mostly forgettable.
Best song: "You Can Call Me Al" is my favorite song on the record, hands down. Simon has claimed "Graceland" is the best song he has ever written.
Worst song: "Homeless" is entirely held up by the African singers.
Is it awesome?: I'd say no.

I understand the draw in Paul Simon's work. He's clearly a literate songwriter and knows his way around world music to the point of having African singers on nearly every song on this record. He's a bright guy. I get that.

But, musically, he swings from the middle of the road and typifies, to me, a very boomer quality of bohemian bourgeouis. His white guilt, to me, hurts his concept of bringing Africans into his music (that's why he's doing it, right?) and his quasi-philosophical ramblings barely say "rock and roll" to me. "The Boy in The Bubble" sounds like half-hearted reporting, while "Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes" is a mediocre love song. Certainly, "Cecilia" is a wonderful song, but what does it say? It's a song about music, self-referential as it is pretty. As smart as his records are, there's a real emptiness that I see.


While I don't agree with nearly any of the premises (mostly of deistic justice), I find Dante's "Divine Comedy" to be absolutely fascinating. There has been speculation on the Internet that "You Can Call Me Al" is based on the "Divine Comedy." My own thought is that a connection like that is genius, especially since the song is clearly about a mid-life crisis, also.

With that said, I wanted to put those connections together. So, line-by-line, is how "You Can Call Me Al" corresponds to the "Divine Comedy."

A man walks down the street
He says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle
The rest of my life is so hard.

Dante's work starts with these lines:
"Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
or the straight way was lost."

So, the simple idea of a midlife identity crisis is a theme in both works. That Simon's man is walking down the street is similar to Dante walking through the woods, as well. The journey, as it were, begins here.

I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don't want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard

Similarly, the theme of mortality is the central one to the "Divine Comedy." Dante's work is divided into the three sections ("Inferno," "Purgatory" and "Paradise"), each named after a portion of the afterlife according to his theology.

Bonedigger Bonedigger
Dogs in the moonlight
Far away my well-lit door
Mr. Beerbelly Beerbelly
Get these mutts away from me
You know I don't find this stuff amusing anymore

The bonedigger/dogs in the moonlight are a reference to the dogs Dante encounters in "Inferno." Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the gates of hell in Greek mythology, punishes the gluttonous. As well, Dante encounters a she-wolf before meeting up with Virgil.

If you'll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me
You can call me Al

Al: Short for Alighieri, Dante's last name. Betty: Short for Beatrice, Dante's childhood love who guides him through paradise. Obviously, the bodyguard is the one who protects him from the dangers in these foreign places and "long lost pal" is a reference to the fact that Dante only saw Beatrice when they were both children.

"A man walks down the street
He says why am I short of attention
Got a short little span of attention
And wo my nights are so long"

"Inferno" takes place at night, hence the night being so long.

Where's my wife and family
What if I die here
Who'll be my role-model
Now that my role-model is
Gone Gone

Virgil is a Greek pagan, so he cannot ascend to paradise, as the Catholic Dante can (and does). Hence the fear of death while in his trip through the afterlife, especially after his idol, Virgil, is gone.

He ducked back down the alley
With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl
All alone alone
There were incidents and accidents
There were hints and allegations

I have no idea how these particular lines correspond.


A man walks down the street
It's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the Third World
Maybe it's his first time around
He doesn't speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man

Simon is referencing the uneasiness of Dante, as he is is presented as a man lost. Paradise is strange place and Dante spends the first 30 lines of "Paradise" praising it with detached bliss.

He is surrounded by the sound
The sound

Again, the sound of heaven.

"Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Amen! and Hallelujah!"

The main line in this portion of the song is "He sees angels in the architecture/Spinning in infinity." In "Paradise," Dante describes the ninhth circle of heaven as such:

"'This sphere, therefore, which sweeps into its motion
the rest of the universe, must correspond
to the ring that loves and knows the most,
'so that, if you apply your measure,
not to their appearances but to the powers themselves
of the angels that appear to you as circles"

(Actually Beatrice describes it to Dante, but you see what I mean.)

The angels spinning in infinity are the last step before staring into the face of God himself.


"You Can Call Me Al" suffers from some really bad production choices. The vocals aren't great (Paul Simon isn't a great singer) and the horns sound absolutely ridiculous. Still, it's a pretty great song.

Friday, July 27, 2007

No. 80: Odessey and Oracle

Band: The Zombies
Album: Odessey and Oracle
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The only true Zombies album, "Odessey and Oracle" s consdiered the band's masterpiece. The single "Time Of The Season" is considered a classic and critics adore the album. Like "Sgt. Pepper's," "Forever Changes" and "Pet Sounds" before it, "Odessey and Oracle" is considered a "summer of love" album due to its baroque pop nature.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Wow, does this sound dated. There is not a song on here, save for "Time Of The Season," that I wouldn't skip past if I wasn't reviewing it for this project. The nasally vocals, the proto-progressive psychedelia and the strangeness (though, referential, something I enjoy) of the lyrics make for a wild ride. Not in a good way.
Best song: "Time Of The Season" is, hands down, the best song on the record.
Worst song: "Hung On A Dream" isn't very good.
Is it awesome?: It's not terrible, but it's terribly dated.

One of the problems that hangs over "Odessey and Oracle" is that of comparison. To put it up against either of the two types of record to which it is compared is foolish. It pales in comparison to the "Sgt. Pepper"/"Forever Changes"/"Pet Sounds" triumvirate; The "Summer of Love" trio here is much better than "Odessey."

The other comparison -- made mostly because of the record's lyrical content and time changes -- is to progressive rock, including the psychedelia of the first Pink Floyd album (also recorded and released around the same time), "The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn." Mostly, though, there is an inevitable comparison to the Genesises, King Crimsons and ELPs of the world and that's idiotic.

Probably the problem lies in that "Odessey" takes from both camps, in a big way. The art-rock tendencies of the band make for some interesting lyrical and musical experimentation; "Odessey" features songs about World War I, prison life and, of course, love.

Still, it's dated. It seems like the harmonies were done better by the Beatles, the strange time changes were better by Love and the overall production was superior on "Pet Sounds." If you actually wanted superior strangeness in lyrical content and musical drive, certainly "The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" could supply that for you. "Odessey" just seems to fall through the cracks.

All I could think in listening to the album is that it isn't an easy listen. I strained to find anything remotely catchy and the middle of the album sounds mostly like English folky stuff. I was not and am not impressed.

No. 79: Star Time

Band: James Brown
Album: Star Time
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: James Brown basically invented funk and this boxed set chronicles his invention of the form, basically. From the soul of "Please Please Please" to the duet with Afrikaa Bambaatta ("Unity"), Brown's career is hard to match.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Having boxed sets on here is ridiculous, especially career retrospective ones.
Best song: Well, all of disc two is great.
Worst song: Some of the later stuff is not so great. "Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses)" is particularly stupid and the idea that "It's Too Funky In Here" could actually occur (it's never too funky for James Brown) is ludicrous.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely. It's a favorite of mine.

While "Live At The Apollo" had James Brown as soul singer, pre-funk, "Star Time" spans Brown's career from his work in the '50s until the mid-'80s, when he coupled with Afrika Bambaatta. It's a fuller look at Soul Brother #1, and it's jaw-dropping.

You know my feeling on putting boxed sets on this list; I think it's stupid. "Star Time" especially seems stupidly on this list, as Brown's greatest hits collection comes in at 414. Two collections is overkill.

Brown is a hugely important figure in music, as his 1965 single "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" pretty much invented funk music. Critic Dave Marsh described it as such:

"The only way ['Papa'] could be more bone-rattling would be if James Brown himself leaped from your speakers, grabbed you tight by the shoulders and danced you around the room, all the while screaming straight into your face."

It's hard to think of a world, pre-James Brown, but it apparently existed. That's a scary thought.

James Brown's work isn't particularly varied. The funk of "Papa" isn't hugely different from the funk of "The Big Payback," a song released 15 years later. But, that doesn't take away from the brilliance of it. Four discs? Probably too much. But, James Brown? Absolutely!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

No. 78: Harvest

Band: Neil Young
Album: Harvest
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Harvest" is probably Young's best album. It's certainly his most well-known and had his first big hit in "Heart Of Gold." Poignant songs like "The Needle And The Damage Done" and "Old Man" show Young's ability to emote in his cry/whine, while his use of the London Symphony Orchestra peppers "There's A World" and the probably sexist "A Man Needs A Maid."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's a better album than "After The Gold Rush," which is before "Harvest" on the list.
Best song: "Old Man" is wonderful. "Heart Of Gold" is great. Basically, the whole album is wonderful.
Worst song: "A Man Needs A Maid" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely. It's a favorite of mine.

Neil Young hurt his back in 1971, so he wasn't able to play electric guitar as he couldn't stand up for long periods of time. So, he decided to write and record songs on his acoustic guitar. The result? "Harvest."

"Harvest" takes country influences and soft-rocks them up in a way that's wonderfully palpable. Like the proverbial spoonful of sugar, Young's whispery voice and acoustic work makes the country twang go down a little easier for me. "Out On the Weekend" opens the record in this fashion, featuring James Taylor on the banjo. "Are You Ready For The Country" takes early rock and roll honky tonk and combines it with the folk rock Young knows so well.

Lyrically, Young is more mature on "Harvest." Despite his thematic plagiarism on his response to Skynyrd in "Alabama," Young is more measured than in "Southern Man." "The Needle And The Damage Done" -- a song about the overdose and death of Young roadie Bruce Berry -- is reserved and mourning, while "Words (Between The Lines Of Ages)" is a pretty little metaphor storyline.

Young himself isn't the biggest "Heart of Gold" fan (he's called it "middle of the road"), but that doesn't take away from what is a great song. A number one single, "Heart of Gold" paved the way for much of the soft rock in the '70s. It'd be easy to hold that against the song, but it's still a fantastic number that relies on a pounding acoustic guitar riff and some interesting slide guitar.

"Harvest" is Neil Young's best work. It has a collection of near-flawless bouncing from country to rock to symphonic rock, all mixed with a heavy dash of Young's Canadian folk tendencies.

No. 77: The Clash

Band: The Clash
Album: The Clash
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Drawing from musical influence as diverse as Lee "Scratch" Perry and The Ramones, the Clash's eponymous debut is a striking collection of protest songs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's an argument as to whether this record or "London Calling" is the best Clash album. I prefer this one, but "London Calling" is not a bad choice.
Best song: It depends on the version. The American version of the album (released nearly two years after it was released in the UK) has "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais," probably the band's best song. Really, though, "(White Man)" is from "Give 'Em Enough Rope," so let's say "White Riot."
Worst song: "Protex Blue" is kind of fun, but not great.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

The Clash aren't the first punk band (that's probably the Ramones), nor are they the first big British punk band (Sex Pistols). They are, however, the best punk band.

Punk rock, is by its definition, pretty immature. The Sex Pistols record is barely coherent, the Ramones' work was mostly simplistic jokes about children. Modern punk builds off this, mostly relying on nudity and fart jokes in their videos (Blink 182, early Green Day) or gutter punk, "fuck Bush!" politics (Green Day's latest record).

The Clash weren't like that. Their first record -- recorded when principal songwriter Joe Strummer was a scant 25 -- is filled with intelligent (for a musician )revolutionary politics, unabashed enthusiasm and clever music. The record spans the gamut from a copped Sex Pistols riff ("I'm So Bord With The U.S.A.") to a rebuttal to a reviewer ("Garageland") to a Lee "Scratch" Perry cover to a young man's complaint about the economy ("Career Opportunities").

Some of the songs were horribly misunderstood ("White Riot" is not a White Pride song) and some remain misunderstood to this day ("Hate and War). Still, when the band launches into "Police and Thieves," it's easy to see why this album is great. Few bands could bounce around ska and reggae and then fall right into "48 Hours" -- as punk as it comes -- as soon as the reggae stops.

The guitar work of Mick Jones and Strummer is classic punk. Gritty, pointed and rhythmic, The Clash's guitar sound was more complex than that of the Ramones while more musical than the Sex Pistols.

Smart, hard and clever, "The Clash" is one of my favorite albums. It's fantastic.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

No. 76: Imagine

Band: John Lennon
Album: Imagine
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Probably Lennon's most accessible solo work, "Imagine" has two of his signature songs ("Jealous Guy" and the title track). Imagine is a thoroughly honest record, though so infused with strings that Lennon called it "sugar-coated."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's a great record, but if it was a Steely Dan record, it'd be in the 300s. But, it's Lennon, so it's 76.
Best song: The title track is as identifiable with Lennon as anything, though I really love "How Do You Sleep?" mostly because it's incredibly snide.
Worst song: "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama" isn't very good.
Is it awesome?: It's actually a pretty amazing record.

I think I would've liked John Lennon, had I known him. Yes, he did those stupid "bed=ins" with Yoko and that's dumb. He was way into drugs far too far into his adulthood and clearly was a bit optimistic for my tastes. But, if he was just a dude, I think he and I could have been pals, mostly because he was a petty, bitter man who had huge dreams for humanity.

I like that.

"Imagine" is a realization of that wonderful combination of those two seemingly divergent personality traits. His simple idealism can be heard on the ever popular title track, as well as "Jealous Guy," "Crippled Inside," "Oh, Yoko," and "Oh My Love" while his vindictiveness is pretty clearly the driving force behind "How Do You Sleep?" (sample lyrics: "The sound you make is muzak to my ears/You must have learnt something all those years,"). Both sides are tied up well together in "Gimme Some Truth," as Lennon demands to get answers from a corrupt government ("short-haired yellow-bellied sons of Tricky Dicky") and a society of sexists("tight-lipped condescending mommy's little chauvinists"). Only a true idealist can expect more than what he sees in the world as Lennon did.

The title track is almost synonymous with Lennon and for good reason. The song's message of societal constructs destroying humanity is decidedly anti-, well, everything, but goes down easy because of the sweetness of Lennon's voice, the majestic strings and Lennon's general standing in American society at the time. Still, take a look at the lyrics. Lennon is advocating an abolition of religion, the nation state and the capitalist system. It's an impressive list, but something I'm sure most listeners have not thought about entirely.

(With that said, Elvis Costello's criticism of Lennon in "The Other Side of Summer" -- "Was it a millionaire who said 'Imagine no possessions'?" -- is entirely valid.)

Still, it's the vindictive side I like more. Lennon was clearly a bitter, mean man and "How Do You Sleep?" is an expression of that. Though Lennon claimed he was writing about himself, the line "The only thing you did was yesterday/And since your gone you're just another day" isn't really subtle. Nor is the second couplet of the song, "Those freaks was right when they said you was dead, The one mistake you made was in your head." It also doesn't help Lennon's cause that George Harrison played slide guitar on the record, considering the most famous non-performance scene in "Let It Be" was Harrison and McCartney arguing over a guitar part.

That bitterness humanizes Lennon in a way that's very interesting to me. Despite being a clear musical genius, his maturity was easily malleable and he took out some really misplaced anger towards McCartney, who certainly didn't deserve any of it. Macca is an easy target, but that doesn't mean he should be hit like Lennon -- a supposed friend -- did.

Still, this vindictiveness is interesting to me. Lennon was certainly a flawed genius and "Imagine" shows that.

No. 75: Led Zeppelin II

Band: Led Zeppelin
Album: Led Zeppelin II
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: A furthering of the band's debut, "Led Zeppelin II" shows the band stretching its collective legs a little more. "Ramble On" examines some acoustic leanings of Jimmy Page, "Thank You" is a slow ballad, "Moby Dick" is John Bonham showing off and "Whole Lotta Love" is the band going full throttle in "we're a bunch of badasses" mode.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's probably repetitive to have this record and the first record on here.
Best song: "Whole Lotta Love" is one of Zep's iconic songs.
Worst song: I'm not really keen on "The Lemon Song."
Is it awesome?: It is, but to have it this high may be too much.

This is going to sound stupid, but I don't have a whole lot to say about "Led Zeppelin II" that I didn't say about the first Zep record. This is the fourth Zep record so far, tied with Dylan and the Stones for second-most in the top 75. That's fitting, of course, as Zep is about as important as you can get in hard rock.

"Led Zeppelin II" is mostly an extension of the first record. Save for "Whole Lotta Love," there isn't a whole lot of experimentation (and "Whole Lotta Love" basically is just dicking around in the studio). There are new takes on blues standards ("The Lemon Song," the disputed lyrics on "Whole Lotta Love"), a real riff-tastic duo ("Heartbreaker" and "Living Loving Maid"), some soft/loud dynamic stuff ("Ramble On" and "What Is and What Should Never Be") and, of course, Plant's screaming howl (just about every song, but especially pronounced on "Whole Lotta Love" and "What Is and What Should Never Be").

"Moby Dick" was something to behold. The "drummer as centerpiece" is not a concept popular rock and roll; Even The Who -- a band with a pretty amazing drummer -- never put Keith Moon on center stage. "Moby Dick" does just that. After a righteous Jimmy Page riff, Bonham just takes over. Legend has it that Bonham's drum solos would go for anywhere from 12 minutes to over half an hour. A sight to see, I'm sure.

I'm not sure it needs to be number 75, but "Led Zeppelin II" is pretty amazing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

No. 74: Otis Blue

Band: Otis Redding
Album: Otis Blue
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Otis Redding's third album contains his recording of some really well-known songs. Not surprisingly, Otis hits them out of the park, packing them with soul.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: For one, each of the good songs on the record was done by someone else in a superior form.
Best song: Some say his version of "Respect" (he wrote it) is better than Aretha's, though I'd disagree. The best song on the album is the oldie "Wonderful World."
Worst song: "You Don't Miss Your Water" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Sure, it's Otis' best record.

Otis Redding is one of the great songwriters of the '60s, penning "Try a Little Tenderness," "Respect" (on this album), and "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay." More importantly, he had one of the better voices in the history of pop music. His voice wasn't sweet like Al Green's or soft like Curtis Mayfield, it was somewhere below that, with a tinge of grit that gave his music a slightly more dangerous feel.

Most of the songs on "Otis Blue" are not Redding originals (he wrote or co-wrote only three of the 11 tracks) and one of those originals is considered the signature song of another artist ("Respect"). Still, Otis puts his stamp on each song in a way that'll have you reimagining the songs.

The Smokey Robinson-penned "My Girl" loses a little of its innocence when Otis sings it, while the line "Don't know much about history" rolls off his tongue in "Wonderful World."

Otis' versions of Sam Cooke's "Shake" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" are wonderfully divergent, with Otis, well, shaking out the former and crooning, hopefully, the latter.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Otis' version of "Respect." I'll say this: "Satisfaction" holds up under nearly ever cover I've heard (my favorite version, of course, is Cat Power's, followed by Devo's), and this one is no different. Otis seemingly makes up words ("satis-fashion," for one), but fills in the instrumental breaks with "got ta"s and "baby"s that augment the song in a way Mick Jagger only wish he could.

It's probably Otis' strongest album, front to back. And for that, it's deserving of its 74 rating.

No. 73: Back In Black

Band: AC/DC
Album: Back in Black
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the best-selling albums of all-time, "Back in Black" showcased AC/DC at its peak of popularity. Record shortly after the death of lead singer Bon Scott, Angus Young and friends enlisted former Geordie lead singer Brian Johnson to try and emulate Scott's famous wail. He did and the record spawned three top ten hits.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well, it's AC/DC. Almost every damned song sounds the same. For those who complain about sexuality in lyrics, you need not look further than "Let Me Put My Love Into You" or "Givin The Dog A Bone." Not exactly subtle.
Best song: The title track is wonderfully typical of AC/DC.
Worst song: Well, as far as lyrical genius goes, "Let Me Put My Love Into You" is not up there with "All Along The Watchtower."
Is it awesome?: Yes, but it's repetitive.

I'd like to relay a conversation I've had with my father (and to a lesser extent, my sister, who is three years my senior). It involves rap music and it goes normally revolves around the typical boomer, older white guy notion that rap music is overly dirty and "why can't they clean up this music?" That sort of thing. Violence is sometimes a part of the conversation (rap music is too violent, they say).

I don't disagree with two parts of this conversation. The first is that, yes, rap music is largely misogynistic. After all, this is the genre that gave us "pimp" as a compliment.

The second is my sister's involvement with it. No big music connoisseur, she listens to a fair amount of country music (despite the South's generally backward culture, country music isn't particularly misogynistic) and what she terms "angry girl rock" (Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, etc.). So, she's out of this conversation.

My dad, however, is a different story. He tried to argue with me that a song like "Candy Shop" is much dirtier than older rock and roll. They used subtler language, back in the day, and weren't as overt.

(Now, before we get any further, I want to say that I don't totally disagree with that, as far as low-level, non-hit rap songs go. Certainly, Three Six Mafia's "Slob On My Knob" is a testament to this. "My Neck, My Back (Lick It)" and just about anything by Lil' Kim spins that the other way -- women being the sexual aggressor -- and that, like it or not, is progress.)

I don't know exactly what type of music my dad listens to. I know he used to listen to a lot of dad rock (Clapton, the Beatles, etc.). Back when I was in high school and college, he would discover some band on VH1 (Metallica one week, Social Distortion the next) and try to explain to me how great they were.

The giant hole in my father's argument is AC/DC. My dad likes AC/DC. He's not a huge music guy, but he does like AC/DC, once even threatening to see them live. AC/DC is a band that almost defined dirt-bag filthy in the late '70s and early '80s.

"Let Me Put My Love In To You" and "Givin' The Dog A Bone" make us of the tried and true AC/DC formula: Heavy riffs, start/stop drums and overly mysoginist lyrics. They are two of the most overt filthy songs ever to be put on vinyl (and later, CD).

The idea that sexist lyrics are just of rap music and weren't around before rap is ridiculous. AC/DC does it better than nearly anyone else.


All this makes "Back in Black" a strange tribute to Bon Scott. The two songs referencing Scott's death are fittingly AC/DC. "Hell's Bells" seems to be about a fighter or some sort of vigilante ("I won't take no prisoners won't spare no lives/Nobody's puttin' up a fight") and the title track sounds like some superhero who escaped the gallows or something ("Back in a band,i got Cadillac,/Number one with a bullet, I'm a power pack/Yes I'm in a band with a gang,/they gotta catch me if they want me to hang"). Strangely, I guess it fits, as we're talking about AC/DC, a band that mostly writes songs about sex or violence.

Don't get my wrong, they're cool songs. And certainly, I'd be a hypocrite for disrespecting AC/DC while praising Guns 'N Roses for making hedonistic, chauvanist records.

In fact, most of "Back in Black" is pretty great. It's repetitive (AC/DC's formula is pretty set in stone), but it's a ton of fun. They're catchy hard rock songs set against a fantastic rhytymn section and Angus Young's interesting guitar work. It's kind of like a big, dumb movie. While you watch it, you love it. After thinking about it a day later, you realize there were 500 holes in the plot.

"Back in Black" is littered with holes in its plot. It's sexist. It's repetitive. It's strangely violent for a record in tribute to a dead guy.

Still, it's the best big dumb movie I've ever listened to. It's the first "Die Hard" movie.

Monday, July 23, 2007

No. 72: Purple Rain

Band: Prince and The Revolution
Album: Purple Rain
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Purple Rain" is Minnesota's greatest son's (take that, Warren Burger and Bob Dylan!) greatest record. Fully realizing his inner nouveau Sly Stone, Prince combined the popular genres of the day (pop, hard rock) with the music he was already making (funk, R&B) and some disparate styles (early rap, psychedelia, maybe early electronic music?) into something totally different and brilliant. The accompanying film has achieved "So bad, it's good" status thanks to the ironic love given to Morris Day recently, but the album stands up.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I imagine it should be higher, but I'm not totally sure. This is a pretty good rating.
Best song: "When Doves Cry" is, hands down, the best song on "Purple Rain."
Worst song: Well, if you're Tipper Gore, it's "Darling Nikki." For everyone else, it's probably "The Beautiful Ones."
Is it awesome?: It's close, but it falls short.

Is there a weirder state in the Union than Minnesota? All kinds of strange politicians come out of Minnesota, hence Jesse Ventura winning the governorship up there. It's cold nine months out of the year. They have a million lakes, though many are frozen. It's Midwestern in a lot of ways, but it's so far North, it might as well be Canada.

Bob Dylan is from Minnesota. Minneapolis had produced a decent punk rock scene in the '80s with bands like Soul Asylum and Husker Du.

Also, Prince. Prince is from Minneapolis. Outside of "genius," the first thing people identify with Prince is "strange." He's a very strange dude. He's brilliant, but he's clearly nuts.

The first thing that stands out is his hyper sexuality, something that has been co-opted by a lot of R&B singers since Prince, but none as well. Prince's genius in regards to filthy music was his ability to cloak/blend it with sensuality. His own bisexuality clearly gives him an edge over the overly machismo "I want to hit it from the back"-type lyrics that have come since "Darling Nikki" (sample lyric: "The castle started spinning or maybe it was my brain/I can't tell U what she did 2 me, but my body will never be the same "). His lyrics are just part of what made Prince both so influential and so popular.

Stylistically, though, Prince is one of a kind. His obsession with bright purple (and, later, bright yellow) is certainly distinctive. He's been lampooned on Dave Chapelle's show for wearing a "zorro-type outfit" or something "a figure skater would wear." Certainly, his flamboyance was something to behold in the '80s.

His personal style, especially on "Purple Rain," takes from Jimi Hendrix as much as his guitar work does. His solos on "Baby I'm a Star," "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy" showcase his guitar chops as well as his fashion sense for the strange.

Again, he's strange. A lot of people my age know Prince from his assless chaps appearance at the VMAs (an appearance which appears to be absent from the Internet) and his constant name change battle (he's "Prince," he's a symbol, he's "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince," he's "Prince" again). Certainly, the story retold on "Chapelle's Show" is even more hilarious when you read about the Carlos Boozer rental story.


Still, the music is amazing. Taking a page from Sly Stone's book, Prince added rock and roll guitar to R&B in order to add to the frenetic energy his previous albums had already featured. The result is songs like "Let's Go Crazy," a nearly unclassifiable song that mixes the funky beats of R&B with the hooks of a pop record and the guitar solos of a Hendrix track.

"Darling Nikki" was one of the Parents Music Resource Center's "Filthy Fifteen," the songs they considered to be the 15 most sexual songs getting radio airplay. It's quaint to look at the list now (considering Khia's "My Neck, My Back (Lick It)" was a top 50 single in 2002), but "Darling Nikki" was kind of dirty for the time. Just the opening lines ("I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess U could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine") are provocative enough for some parents to be upset. Still, the song rocks pretty hard and Prince's use of language is considerably better than the goofed analogies of "Milkshakes" and being a "Slave 4 U" of modern porno-rock (as Tipper would call it).

Of course, the album's zenith is pretty clearly "When Doves Cry." Covered by everyone from Damien Rice to Mushroomhead to that kid in the Leo DiCaprio version of "Romeo and Juliet," "When Doves Cry" is delightfully and unapologetically unconventional for a dance track. Instead of a quick-reaction beat, the song starts with a guitar solo and a simple 4/4 electronic beat. Prince's guttural utterings/David Lee Roth-esque moans enter, along with the sparse melody played on what sounds like a toy piano.

Probably the most striking thing, musically, is the lack of a bassline. In a genre known as well for bass players (The Family Stone's Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, etc.) as lead singers, Prince forgoes a back bassline in any context. According to legend, Prince put one in, but felt it sounded too normal for his liking.

Lyrically, it's as adventurous as it is smart. The metaphor of peace failing in a household setting (the song was written about Prince's parents separation) works well, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure birds don't cry. Still, Prince weaves family dynamics ("Dig if U will the picture/Of U and I engaged in a kiss/
The sweat of your body covers me") in with stories of his family struggles ("Why do we scream at each other?/This is what it sounds like when doves cry") all while wondering which is real. It's a wonderfully introspective number wrapped in a musical experiment that works as well as anything did in 1984.


I'd be remiss if I didn't send readers over to Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's piece for Rolling Stone Magazine's "Immortals" series. In that series (maybe I'll do a project on that piece one day), RS named what they consider to be 100 of the greatest (the greatest, maybe?) artists. Anyway, ?uestlove's piece on Prince represents a better perspective from someone who grew up on Prince's early stuff.

No. 71: After The Gold Rush

Band: Neil Young
Album: After The Gold Rush
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Neil Young's this solo album marked a period of prolificness (yes, "prolificness" is a word. I looked it up) in Young's career. He'd released two solo albums in the previous year, as well as "Deja Vu" with CSNY. Building on the ethos of the Boomers letdown of the late '60s, "After The Gold Rush" bounces from optimism to pessimism in a matter of a minute. "Tell Me Why," the title track, "When You Dance I Can Really Love" and "Southern Man" are classics.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's not Young's best effort (that'd be "Harvest," listed seven positions down at 78), nor is it his most identifiable. In the original RS review, the reviewer called it "dull" and -- save for "Southern Man" -- it is.
Best song: "Southern Man" portends the fantastic protest music that Young would write ("Ohio" in 1971 and "Alabama" in 1972 come to mind).
Worst song: "'Til The Morning Comes" is pretty bland. Thankfully, it's only a minute long.
Is it awesome?: It's close, but it falls short.

In his constant battles with his band Crazy Horse, Neil Young must have fired them 20 times. Before recording "After The Gold Rush" was the first time. So, Young built a tiny studio in his house, holed himself in there and record "After The Gold Rush."

Mostly inspired by a never-shot screenplay of the same name, "After The Gold Rush" is full of Young staples. There's a soft-ish plea for a cause (the environment on the title track), a love song with strange metaphors and an all-out attack on something (the South on "Southern Man"). What makes "After The Gold Rush" great is not just the brilliance of those archetypes, but the expansion of other songs. The storytelling of "Don't Let It Bring You Down," the country-tinged optimism of "I Believe In You" and the melancholy sad love of "Tell Me Why." It's an expansion of Young's abilities and that's to be celebrated.

At the risk of sounding like a boomer myself, "After The Gold Rush" is Young's "Rubber Soul." It had shades of brilliance before the actual masterpiece. In this analogy, "Rubber Soul":"After The Gold Rush, as "Revolver":"Harvest."

Friday, July 20, 2007

No. 70: Physical Graffiti

Band: Led Zeppelin
Album: Physical Graffiti
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Spanning musical genres, lyrical themes (OK, not really, it's still mostly Hobbit and Plant penis songs) and instrumentation, "Physical Graffiti" was the first album to go gold on pre-orders alone. Many consider this to be the record that cemented Zeppelin as the greatest rock and roll band around.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: There are a lot of mediocre songs, as "Physical Graffiti" is a double album. You can skip about half of it.
Best song: "Trampled Under Foot" is among my favorite Zep tracks.
Worst song: "Night Flight" stinks.
Is it awesome?: There are awesome parts and there are terrible parts. It's uneven.

While Zep was hitting it out of the park on their fourth record, "Physical Graffiti" is the band devolving into "let's throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" mode. After "Houses of the Holy" had some cool experiments ("Dy'er Maker" being the operative one), "Physical Graffiti" meanders, hitting on some and missing others. "Kashmir" is a wonderfully repetitive song, while "Bron-Yr-Aur" is a pretty little instrumental. On the other hand, "In the Light" sucks. "Down by the Seaside" tinkers with Page's guitar sound and it's also terrible. "Trampled Under Foot" takes "Misty Mountain Hop and expands on it, to great results. "In My Time Of Dying" goes on too long.

The classic Zep formula is hit and miss on this record, as well. "Night Flight" is boring, while "The Wanton Song," "Custard Pie" and "Houses of the Holy" are fantastic. "Sick Again" is OK, while the Delta blues of "Black Country Woman" doesn't fit Plant's shrieking vocal style.

One of the things I'm learning from this project is that double albums are rarely great. They always have tons of filler that belongs on a b-side or rarities compilation after the band breaks up. A lot of "Physical Graffiti" would make for fine b-sides. They're not good album filler for a purported great record.

No. 69: Superfly

Band: Curtis Mayfield
Album: Superfly
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Superfly" is the pinnacle, in my mind, of early 70s funk. It's better than Parliament. It's better than Bill Withers or Isaac Hayes. It's nearly as good as it gets, featuring excellent social commentary with low-laid grooves and Mayfield's trademark wah wah guitar.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: In the same way that Led Zeppelin IV is underrated, "Superfly" is underrated. It's simply the best convergence of funk, soul and rock and roll.
Best song: The C# groove of "Freddy's Dead" is among the best in the history of music.
Worst song: Zero. None. Nada.
Is it awesome?: If you do not own this record, you need to go out and buy it right now. Or, e-mail me and I'll lend it to you. I'm not even kidding. You need this album.

In my eyes, "Superfly" is in the argument for "best album ever." It's up there with "Dark Side of the Moon," "Paranoid" and others. It's just plain amazing.

It's a short record with a running time barely over 37 minutes, but Mayfield packs just about everything he needs to in that time. Maybe it just feels shorter because you listen and want more.

The opening organ/percussion of "Little Child Runnin' Wild" is set into motion 16 seconds into the album by Mayfield's signature guitar work and you feel the rhythm in a way that no other record conveys rhythm. Mayfield's sugary sweet voice juxtaposes itself onto bleak, urban lyrics ("One room shack, On the alley-back, Control, I'm told, From across the track"). While the saxophone sounds silly on 60% of rock records, the funky sax solo on "Little Child Runnin' Wild" sounds strangely evocative of a dark urban night. Grid streets, damp sidewalks and the smell of trash is what that sax solo says.

"Pusherman," the record's second track is built around a fierce bassline and a cadre of percussionists building the mood. The song's staccato lyrical style evokes the narrative of the film while also giving a totally different impression. Never mind that "Pusherman" is one of the first popular songs to use "Nigger" in the lyrics (in the third line sung in the song, no less!), just listen to the documentary-ness of the record.

The best song on the album, "Freddy's Dead" is built on a heavy, funky guitar riff. The effects Mayfield's guitar runs through are magnificent, as the lead sounds as much like a bastard accordi-organ as it does like a guitar. The bleak storytelling of the death of one of the film's main characters builds off the accented, majestic strings. It sounds like a weird combination, but it fits perfectly.

The worst songs on the record are the two instrumentals and they're both great. They only suffer because I'd listen to Mayfield read his grocery list, his voice is so amazing. The love song on the record is great, the title track is fantastic and the urban documentary that is "Eddie, You Should've Known Better" is accented by bells! Ballsy, but brilliant and beautiful.

"Superfly" is the only soundtrack to ever outgross its film counterpart and I understand that. I've not paid to watch the movie (I saw it on cable), but I certainly paid for the record and would pay again. It's "Revolver" good. It's "Dark Side of the Moon" good. It's "Nevermind" good.

If not better.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

No. 68: Off The Wall

Band: Michael Jackson
Album: Off The Wall
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Disco, pop and funk, all in one danceable package. Michael Jackson showed the world he was a man now and what a record it was.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Maddeningly uneven, "Off The Wall" is more known for its announcing of Jackson as a solo artist as it is for the songs. The first four singles are pretty great, but the rest is mostly mediocre.
Best song: "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," hands down.
Worst song: "It's the Falling in Love" is pretty bad.
Is it awesome?: It's inconsistent, but it is a lot of fun.

At the tail end of disco's reign over the American music buyer, Michael Jackson's breakthrough solo album announced his talents as a man. Just 21, Jackson spent most of "Off The Wall" trying to get people to dance and have fun. Clearly, he was having fun, working his vocal tics, yelps and "oo"s off of Quincy Jones' genius layering.

The record peaks with its first song ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"), but sustains (mostly) through the middle of the record until "She's Out of My Life." Save for "She's Out of My Life," the songs are mostly about getting down. It's a disco era specialty theme, but one that resonates with this type of music. It's dance music, plain and simple.

There are some bad songs. The wannabe Parliament-ish "Burn This Disco Out" is pretty bad and the McCartney-penned "Girlfriend" failed as a single because it is a crappy song.

Still, the message is clear. From the opening spoken words of "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" to the actual command in the title of "Get On The Floor" to the lyrics of the title track ("leave that nine-to-five upon the shelf / and just enjoy yourself"), Jackson is telling everyone: Start dancing. Look at the cover. He's ready to go, arms moving. It's tough to misinterpret that.

No. 67: The Stranger

Band: Billy Joel
Album: The Stranger
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Like it or not, Billy Joel's a fantastically popular singer. His records are played at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and various other celebrations. "The Stranger" (not associated with the Camus novel of the same name, sadly) has some of Joel's edgiest ("Only The Good Die Young," "Movin' Out") and most sentimental material ("Just The Way You Are").
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I mean, it's Billy Joel. He's just a combination of a bad lounge singer, a bad Broadway composer and a Long Island knockoff of Elton John.
Best song: I'll be honest, I really don't like Billy Joel, as I find his over-the-top arrangements to sound too much like showtunes. This is pretty evident in the album's best song, "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)." Lyrically, it's delightfully anti-bourgeois, but, musically, it sounds like something to be performed on Broadway, which it was.
Worst song: Everybody hates "Everybody Has a Dream."
Is it awesome?: I'd say no.

I really don't like Billy Joel. He doesn't occupy the same hatred space as the Eagles or U2. He isn't overrated but still not terrible like Springsteen. He's just, I don't know.


Have you ever been to an actual "rock opera" (not a concept album that tells a story, but an actual opera using rock music in an actual theater) or rock and roll musical? They're usually written by playwrights and composers, not rock musicians. They're theater people, not rock music people.

You know the type of show I'm talking about. "Rocky Horror Picture Show." "Hair." "Rent." "Jesus Christ Superstar." The music isn't really rock and roll, it's just an song from a play with a distorted guitar. It's worst when they try to make it "edgy" or "punk." Basically, it translates to what theater people think punk rock is (which it isn't). It's packaging a subculture in a way that's palpable to people who don't want to actually listen to the real thing.

This is exactly why these songs are never released as singles. Real music buyers won't deal with that bullshit.

I don't like showtunes because of this perceived inauthenticity on my part. I make no bones about it; I am a pretentious fuck. Showtunes are anything but pretentious, they're just obnoxious and a false version of rock and roll (in the case of rock musicals).

Billy Joel makes showtunes. This is his best record and it's still almost entirely showtunes. "Movin Out (Anthony's Song)" is a cool anti-bourgeois lyrical jaunt, but one that's set against a silly saxophone and a piano showtune thing (still, it remains a good song). "Only The Good Die Young" is a fun anti-Catholic song, but along with it comes the ridiculous instrumentation.

I imagine these songs could be good when they're arranged differently, but this is the record we have. It's not great.

(I'll say this for Billy Joel, though: He isn't taken as seriously as U2 or the Eagles. No one says Joel makes the records that define their lives. That's a plus, being that his music isn't great.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

No. 66: (untitled)

Band: Led Zeppelin
(The album is known by several names, though it is officially untitled. Some of the titles it has been referred to include ZoSo, Led Zeppelin IV, Four Symbols and Runes.)
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Zeppelin's finest work ranges from the soft acoustic-ness of "Going to California" to the thunderous "When the Levee Breaks," not to mention the Hobbit-inspired "Battle of Evermore.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This is a top 20 album, no doubt about it. This is a criminally low rating.
Best song: "Stairway to Heaven" is the easy choice here, though there isn't a bad song on the record.
Worst song: "Misty Mountain Hop" is the worst song on the record and it's still pretty good.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

When I tell people that I'm not the world's biggest Zep fan in the world, I almost always relay this story:

In between "The State" and "Reno: 911!," Thomas Lennon and Kerri Kenney-Silver (and Michael Ian Black, though he didn't do "Reno") had a show on Comedy Central called "Viva Variety." It was basically a spoof of East European variety shows, complete with silly accents. It only lasted a season.

Anyway "Viva Variety" had audience members come onto the stage and play some quiz-type games. In one game, the cover of "Physical Graffiti" was used as a backdrop for a game called "Plant or Animal?" In this game, a five-second sound would play and the audience member would have to guess whether the sound was an animal mating call or Robert Plant from a Zeppelin record. The audience member barely got any of them correct, because Robert Plant's voice sounds more like a whale's whistle or a spider monkey's howl than it sounds like a human being's voice.

This is not a good thing.

I've extrapolated this in different ways, eventually coming to the conclusion that Zep would be much better if only Plant wasn't the singer. If Page went on tour with John Paul Jones, Bonham's kid and Glenn Danzig, it'd be the best band ever. Danzig singing "Immigrant Song?" Sign me up!

With that said, Led Zeppelin IV (my preferred title) is a masterpiece of songwriting and production that makes Plant's voice seem irrelevant. In fact, this is the Zep record where his voice sounds the most normal, probably because he doesn't wail as much as other records. "Going to California" is a nice example of that, as is "Battle of Evermore." Both feature very little screaming and a lot of whispery Plant vocals.

My other complain with Zep has always been that every song is either about Plant's penis or "The Hobbitt." This record is certainly no antithesis to that, as the track listening goes:

  1. Song about Plant's penis with badass guitar riff

  2. Song about rock and roll, therefore partially about Plant's penis

  3. Song about "The Hobbitt" with mandolins and a guest vocalist

  4. Eight-minute song about "The Hobbitt"

  5. Song about "The Hobbitt" that features a sweet organ

  6. Song about Plant's penis as regards to "crying time"

  7. Song about Plant traveling and his penis

  8. Old blues song. Has nothing to do with Plant's penis and/or "The Hobbitt

They're not exactly doing "Blowin' in the Wind" here.


Nevertheless, this record is great. The sound that Zeppelin is known for was realized on this record. The riff-tastic "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll" (fit with a walking bass line) are the logical extensions of the Yardbirds sound. "Battle of Evermore" is a pretty little olde English folkish song, drawn on basically two chords. "Four Sticks" and "When the Levee Breaks" are showcases of John Bonham's brilliance, with "Levee" specifically having the powerful resonant bass drum.

It's the production of the drum sound that is so impressive. That is an example of production enhancing the record. This is when Page's famous 16-track guitar sounds is best. The sizable guitar sound flows on the three parts of the first side closer, the incomparable "Stairway to Heaven." Even though the lyrics are straight up D&D bullshit ("If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now, It's just a spring clean for the May Queen"), the record is great. It goes from soft to hard in an instant, rocking one of the best solos ever.


Led Zeppelin IV is the place where "Zep as hard rock/blues band" met "Zep as band that experiments too much." It's a perfect storm of strong production ("Levee," "Stairway," the echo of "Black Dog," etc.) met the new instrumentation ("Misty Mountain Hop," "Battle of Evermore," etc.), which, in turn, met the riffing and musicianship of the band. Even Plant's voice can't ruin the fourth Zep record.

Still, I'd prefer Danzig;s voice.

No. 65: Moondance

Band: Van Morrison
Album: Moondance
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Moondance" is arguably Van Morrison's best record and it features "Into The Mystic," considered one of his best.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Van Morrison's lyrics are so verbose they are hard to follow and the music is so folk bland, it's easy to get bored.
Best song: I'll say "Into The Mystic," though "And It Stoned Me" is a lot of fun.
Worst song: "Glad Tidings" is kind of bad.
Is it awesome?: I like it slightly better than "Astral Weeks," but that's not saying a whole lot.

While a big part of this project is trying to downplay the tyranny of the boomers on music opinion-making in this country, I'd say that the boomers are often right. The boomers were present at/responsible for a lot of important stuff of the past 50 years. If pressed, I'd certainly argue a Beatles record as the best of all time (most likely "Revolver") and if I had to make a top 10 list of best records ever, there would be a fair share of boomer classics.

I say this because the truly great boomer relics are the ones that stand the test of time. Jefferson Airplane is the kind of drug/protest music that hasn't held up in the way the Beatles or Stones have. Donovan? Not so much. Dylan? Tes.

The more I listen to him and the more I think about him, Van Morrison hasn't stood the test of time. His music is of a place and time that doesn't really translate now. His soul/folk hybrid sound is kind of hokey now and his Doors-esque stoner sexpot religion are kind of ridiculous.

An example: Noted baby boomer Tony Kornheiser (the man to whom I credit my entire journalism career [it's a long story]) used to use "Into the Mystic" as bumper music for his radio show often. As he'd come back from breaks, he once mentioned a near-perfect night for him: Listening to "Into the Mystic" in a dark room while drinking Johnny Walker Blue and eating cashews. TK's ridiculously devoted fanbase has even made a t-shirt design based on that segment.

But, as souful as "Into the Mystic" is (and it is), what is that song really about? Anything? Nothing? Something about a spiritual journey? Sex?

Certainly sex is a big part of the song. The "rock your gyspy soul" line is hokey as hell, though not subtle. And the final portion of the song is mostly Morrison screaming "It's too late to stop now" over and over.

In fact, I'd compare "Into the Mystic" to a movie I saw recently, "Live Free or Die Hard." It's fun while it's going on, but the more you analyze it, the more holes you find. The more I write about "Into the Mystic," the less I enjoy it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

No. 64: Back to Mono (1958-1969)

Band: Phil Spector (though, actually, it's a various artist situation)
Album: Back to Mono (1958-1969)
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: There are record producers and then there are Record Producers. Phil Spector is the second. The "Wall of Sound" technique is nearly as influential as an any single artist.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm becoming less and less interested in these greatest hits compilations, especially boxed sets. This is a triple-disc set that collects so many great singles, it's hard to even take it all in.
Best song: Because there are so many great tracks, it's tough to pick one or another. I'll say "Be My Baby," because most consider it to be the perfect example of the Wall of Sound.
Worst song: The final track on the set, "Love Is All I Have to Give" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty great.

Let's talk about what most people my age know about Phil Spector: This photo. Most people in their 20s don't know of Spector from his knob-twiddling of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" or "Be My Baby" or that he mixed "Let It Be."

What's great about Spector is that he decided the Wall of Sound to be "a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids." It's a brilliant description as we all know what Wagner did as a composer and for Spector to emulate him in the 60s was revolutionary. The sound he produced on songs like "Be My Baby" and "Spanish Harlem" was emulated on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Club Band," only the no. 1 record on this list.

Or how about "River Deep -Mountain High?" Probably Ike and Tina's best song, Spector considered it to be his best song. How about "Unchained Melody?" It's been covered almost as much as "Yesterday" or "Stairway to Heaven," and don't think that the production doesn't have something to do with that. Or "Chapel of Love?" "He's a Rebel?"

All brilliant. Wagner (anti-Semite he was) would be proud of this little nerdy Jew from the Bronx.

No. 63: Sticky Fingers

Band: The Rolling Stones
Album: Sticky Fingers
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Known as much for the Warhol-designed cover as for the actual songs, "Sticky Fingers" is considered a pop culture icon of a record. It was released during the Stones' most critically acclaimed period and remains a favorite of many.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It doesn't live up to the hype. Armed with a grand total of two good songs, the record is just more boring blues-based rock that the Stones did well, but did over and over and over and over.
Best song: "Brown Sugar" and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" are the two best.
Worst song: "Moonlight Mile" is awful. Any time a band does a song about how hard it is on the road, I turn the record off.
Is it awesome?: Probably not, though it's decent.

I love Andy Warhol's art. I think it's strangely evocative in a post-modern way. His art just screamed "rock and roll," hence this particular cover (complete with working zipper!).


It's fitting that "Sticky Fingers" is close to "Appetite For Destruction" on this list, as they're both drenched in drugs/alcohol. "Brown Sugar" has the triple meaning of race, drugs and, uh, confections, while "Wild Horses," "Sister Morphine" and "Dead Flowers" are pretty clearly about heroin. "Moonlight Mile" is an earlier version of "Turn the Page," a pimple on the ass of music.

For the millionth time, I'm not a huge Stones guy, but I do enjoy this album. Despite all the drug references, the lyrics are solid and interesting, if not brilliant. The blues riffs vary in style and length, from the slow Delta of "Sway" to the more honky tonk-ness of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking."

"Brown Sugar" is probably the most well-known song from "Sticky Fingers" and it should be. It's the smartest song on the record and the wordplay of interracial love is among the smartest lyrics he's ever written. An indictment of the slave trade (yes, a 100-year-old reference), the opening verse is sarcastic and clever:

Gold Coast slaveship bound for cotton fields
Sold in a market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver know he's doin' alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

Never mind that this was 1970. Never mind that the term "brown sugar" is also a euphemism for heroin. Just taken as a criticism of the country that was second-to-last to outlaw slavery, the lyric is great.

"Sticky Fingers" is a Stones record, meaning it has a couple of great songs and a whole lot of quasi blues rock. That's fine and the highs (specifically, "Brown Sugar") are pretty high.

Monday, July 16, 2007

No. 62: Achtung Baby

Band: U2
Album: Achtung Baby
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Achtung Baby" is the album that made U2 into the superstar band they are today. Led by three huge singles ("One," "Mysterious Ways" and "Even Better Than The Real Thing"), the record sold massively and U2 used it to to launch their giant Zoo TV tour.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: What's exciting about this album? "One" is a nice little track, on some level, but, otherwise, what distinguishes this record from anything other rock and roll record? Bono is blowing hard about some damned thing. Edge is "effect"ing up his guitar (Delay! Wah wah!) and the rhythm section is out banging supermodels.
Best song: I hate U2 and this is part of the reason. This album isn't any good, but it's considered better than, say, "Invisible Touch." "One" isn't total sewage, though that's because I have an R.E.M. bootleg where they play it and it's just OK.
Worst song: All of them, though "Even Better Than The Real Thing" is particularly bad. The song sounds like a commercial jingle and the chorus basically sounds like something out of an ad agency. "Try U2 Cola: Even better than the real thing!" Fuck you.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely, positively no.

I wish I was done writing about U2. There are few bands I despise more. "Achtung Baby" typifies this. "Mysterious Ways" is just a wah-wah disco bit love song, but it was received like a great track. "One" is, lyrically, a jaded "Imagine," but is still considered the theme song to the peace movement, the save Darfur movement, the AIDS research movement, the give Bono money movement, etc. And I've already bitched about the advertising sound of "Even Better Than The Real Thing."

This album makes me want to throw up.

No. 61: Appetite For Destruction

(original, banned cover)

(actual cover)
Band: Guns 'N Roses
Album: Appetite For Destruction
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Some stars burn brightly and burn out quickly. Guns 'R Roses are now a punchline ("Chinese Democracy?"), but this record is brilliant. While Motley Crue and L.A. Guns were too glam and Metallica was too hard, Guns 'N Roses played the hard-partying, bad boy role as well as anyone.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: For those who don't like hedonistic, dark music, this is not the record for you. "Appetite For Destruction" teeters from songs about bum wine and heroin ("Nighttrain" and "Mr. Brownstone," respectively) to a pair of hits bitching about Los Angeles ("Paradise City" and "Welcome to the Jungle").
Best song: Is there a better warmup song than "Welcome to the Jungle?" I say no.
Worst song: "Rocket Queen" isn't so great.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely, positively yes.

I don't want to say that "Appetite For Destruction" is the pinnacle of hard rock that's not quite metal (because I have no idea if we've reached the pinnacle yet), though it's close. There are few records are furiously "rock star" as glam as this one.

Think about it: You have the cowbell-tastic drumming of Steven Adler, the glam rock rhythm guitar of Izzy Stradlin, the blues-based crunch of Slash's lead guitar and the David Lee Roth-esque wail of W. Axl Rose. It's nearly a perfect storm.

The results are staggering, indeed. From the opening scream/lead riff of "Welcome to the Jungle" to the arguably best guitar solo in the history of rock and roll (in "Sweet Child of Mine"), Guns 'N Roses played the sex, drugs and rock card as well as anyone.

"Appetite For Destruction" is that. "Mr. Brownstone" makes heroin sound as glamorous as it does destructive (and includes the delightful parallel structure wordplay of "waking up" vs. the show), while "Nighttrain" makes bum wine sound like fun (despite the fact that the actual Night Train will make you violently ill). "It's So Easy" is rhythmic in the same way the Yardbirds' "Train Kept a'Rollin'," while "My Michelle" is the red-headed stepchild of the triumvirate of songs slamming Los Angeles. The other two in that holy trinity -- "Paradise City" and "Welcome to the Jungle" -- need little explanation, other than to say that they're great.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Unlisted: Invisible Touch

I know this album isn't on the list, but it's one I've been thinking about recently and it gives me a place to put one of my favorite pet topics. I'm hoping to get some unranked albums here in on the weekends when I should be ignoring this confounded project. So, here's the debut of unlisted weekend albums...

Band: Genesis
Album: Invisible Touch
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Being that it's not on the list, I'd imagine their reasoning goes as such: This record is pure bubblegum rock nonsense. Much of the album can be characterized that way.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's not all bubblegum rock and, more importantly, it's great bubblegum
Best song: "Let's Stay Together" is a classic among classics.
Worst song: "L-O-V-E" isn't all that good.
Is it awesome?: Sure.

I've mentioned before that I love progressive rock. It formed a lot of the basis of the type of music I like (Tortoise, specifically) and I enjoy the pretentiousness of it all. I'm not going to lie.

I had a period in college where I discovered -- and thus, listened to almost exclusively -- progressive rock. I picked up some Gentle Giant records, I listened to "Meddle" over and over, I dug through the non-"I've Seen All Good People" Yes records and got into King Crimson. I bought a Rush t-shirt (I still have said Rush t-shirt).

All this was spurred by a single night in Chicago during a summer weekend home whilst I was spending the off-months in my college's town of Columbia, Mo. I was drving back to my parents' house from my friend Jake's and listening to the radio. I had WXRT (a station at which I later interned) going and the title track from Genesis' "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" started playing. I was absolutely transfixed. I remember loving it and wanting nothing more than to hear more music like that.

Those who have spent a summer in a college town can understand why I jumped headfirst into buying all these records as soon as I got back into town. I went out and bought most of the Gabriel-led Genesis records. I bought the aforementioned Rush shirt on eBay. I remembered a friend (Ryan Woodsmall, who I can guarantee doesn't read this blog) mentioning King Crimson in regards to Tortoise (specifically) and post-rock (in general). So, that started my love for Crimson.

But, because of that night with "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway," Gabriel-era Genesis has been my favorite prog-rock band (non-Pink Floyd divison).

With all of that self infulgence said, I also enjoy the '80s Genesis. I see it as a fundamentally different band (it is), but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it.


Also, I have the indefensible position: Phil Collins is a good songwriter and a decent singer.

I know it's hard to agree with. He's easy to mock. He is probably the ugliest man ever to have a no. 1 hit. His voice gets nasally at times. His pop sensibilities are so gross that he even covered "You Can't Hurry Love" in what appears to be a grab at an easy chart hit. There have been charges of his being a general goon (I think my sister said he's an anti-semite or something), too.

And certainly, it's easy to blame the new guy when a band goes from almost exclusively making records about insane medieval English stuff, Greek mythology and science fiction to a band that does "Invisible Touch." Talk about divergent.

But, if you can appreciate good songwriting, it's there. There are great songs totally masked by Collins' whine (I like it, but I understand why people don't like it) and the silliness that is music production of the '80s. Reverbed drums! Compression! Atmospheric synthesized strings! Horns (possibly also synthesized)! All unnecessary elements of production!

But, when other bands cover Collins' music and/or it is stripped of its '80s nonsense, it's good stuff and the songs are mostly really bitter. One of my favorite Genesis tracks, "Misunderstanding" is particularly good in this YouTube clip. Moreover, the multiple covers of "In The Air Tonight" (GodheadSilo's is my favorite) show how dark it is. Certainly, the Postal Service's version of "Against All Odds" is fun and Mariah Carey's version of the same song is nothing to sneeze at. Notably, recently, though has been metal band Disturbed's cover of "Land of Confusion." I'm not big Disturbed fan, but I'll say that it's a good cover and the video is the ideological sequel to the Genesis song.


Speaking of which... I want, specifically, to write about my love for "Land of Confusion." Protest music in the '80s was mostly reserved for Prince' "Sign 'O The Times," punk rock that only resonated in stoners' basements and later, in NWA. I suspect Neil Young put out a protest song in the '80s, but considering he hasn't done much of worth since 1975 and he farts out a record a week, I can't imagine it was any good.

Anyway, "Land of Confusion" is a fantastic song and a fantastic protest song, augmented by the greatness that is the video.

For one, the song keeps with the hippy idea of love and the modern idea of enviornmentalism in the pre-chorus and chorus. "And not much love to go around" fits in with the boomer ideals of the '60s (all we need is love, right, you old bastards?) while "This is the world we live in" has the underlying "don't destroy the Earth" theme to it.

The video, of course, is the best part of the song. In addition to the hilarious-looking cariacture latex puppets of Peter Townsend, Mick Jagger and a cast of others, the "Reagan-as-Superman" riding on a dinosaur is just brilliant in its biting criticism at U.S. foreign policy. Not only is Raygun going trying to cowboy up the world, he's an old idiot who has to subsitute a dinosaur for a white horse as he rides to the rescue. I love that imagery.

(Also, I think it's important to remember that Reagan's acting is famous for starring opposite a chimp, hence his being in bed with the ape at the beginning of the video.)

My only issue with the song is the Rolling Stone/Forrest Gump-eque bit "I wont be coming home tonight/My generation will put it right/Were not just making promises/That we know, well never keep." That is, of course, coming from the mouth of a boomer with theidea that boomers are going to fix everything in this "Land of Confusion."

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but Phil, Mike and Tony: You didn't fix shit. Your generation was in power since the early '90s (in the U.S.) and the mid-'90s (in the U.K.). I'm not particularly familiar with the politics of Britain, but I know the current U.S. Boomer in Chief has done a crap job of just about everything. Certainly Tony Blair hasn't been a popular guy in Britain lately.


There are other great songs on the album, considering the album had five (!) top five hits in the title track, "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight," "In Too Deep," "Throwing It All Away" and the aforementioned "Land of Confusion." "Domino" wasn't a huge single, but it dealt with drug nuclear war any other Genesis song. "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" is all about getting drugs (not in the good, T. Rex way).

It's easy to pile on the title track as nonsense. Those ridiculous drums at the beginning are incredibly mockable and the lyrics aren't exactly great.

But, go and listen to it. It's incredibly catchy. You'll be humming it later, I'm sure. Yes, it's remarkably dated, but it's catchy and a lot of fun.


Do I think it should be ranked? On some level, yeah. The definition of this list is hard to wrap your brain around. Does it mean influence on other records? Does it mean originality? Does it mean best (and how the hell do you define "best?")? Does it mean best-selling?

I guess it's a combination of all those things. Certainly, the list has multiple platinum selling "Hotel California," the incredibly influential "Forever Changes" and the just plain oddball (though both great and influential, it never sold anything) "Trout Mask Replica."

The problem is that there are tons of stuff in the 350-500 range that just doesn't deserve to be there. Certainly, it could replace "Music" by Madonna or James Brown's greatest hits package (especially since the box set is on there). It's a great record that is cloaked in bad production and the general silliness that was that decade.

Friday, July 13, 2007

No. 60: Greatest Hits

Band: Sly & the Family Stone
Album: Greatest Hits
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Sly Stone was a musical genius that fused black and white music in a way that personified the sixties. His optimistic hippy outlook of the band's first few singles turned into the gritty realism of the band's early '70s work.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Greatest hits packages are never a good idea on this list if there are actual non-compilation records on here for the band. "Stand" and "There's a Riot Goin' On" are both on the list, and, like, half of "Stand" is on "Greatest Hits."
Best song: "I Want To Take You Higher" is probably my favorite song by Sly.
Worst song: "M'Lady" isn't fantastic.
Is it awesome?: Well, yeah. It's a greatest hits compilation.

While the band was on a two-year recording hiatus, Epic Records compiled tracks from the band's three albums and with three new tracks -- "Everyone is a Star", "Hot Fun in the Summertime", and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" -- to satiate the public's need for Sly & The Family Stone.

The reason for the hiatus appears to be that Sly was on drugs nearly 24 hours a day. This caused some internal strife within the band, eventually drummer Gregg Errico left the band.

Nevertheless, Sly was a genius. Because of his years as a radio DJ at Oakland's KDIA, Stone had loads of knowledge of current music trends. As a black artists in the late '60s, Sly was able to bring gospel, dance and soul into the white music of rock and roll and harder stuff (the fuzz bass being the operative thing). The church organ style of "I Want To Take You Higher" melds with the hard rock of the distorted guitar. "Everybody is a Star" is incredibly optimistic, while "Stand!" is a call to arms that predates the quasi-militancy of "There's A Riot Goin' On" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" is a furthering of the theme.

If you don't have "Stand!," this package is a must-have. Sly & The Family Stone is wildly underrated as group.

No. 59: Meet The Beatles!

Band: The Beatles
Album: Meet The Beatles!
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Beatles are the most important band ever and this was the album that introduced them to America.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well, for one, this album is simply a combination of "With The Beatles" and "Please Please Me" made for the American audience. So, why have this on the list when the other two are already there? It makes no sense to me.
Best song: Sure. Whatever. Let's say "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
Worst song: I'm not in love with "This Boy."
Is it awesome?: I guess, in that "With The Beatles" is awesome and this is basically a bastardized version of that album.

Ugh. As much as my complaints about putting greatest hits compilations on here is warranted, putting two copies of the same record on here is deplorable. "With The Beatles" is mostly an American reissue of the original British "With The Beatles" release, so why have it on here?

I'll leave my "With The Beatles" comments for when it comes up (no. 420, so we've got a ways to go). The inclusion of both records on this list
is idiotic.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

No 58: Trout Mask Replica

Band: Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
Album: Trout Mask Replica
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Probably the most important experimental record in American music history, "Trout Mask Replica" is lauded by everyone from Matt Groening to Lester Bangs. It's strange, that's for sure, but it also broke ground as to what an experimental record should be. Save for Zappa, "Trout Mask Replica" is the most alternative of alternative records.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Um, listen to it. It's not an easy record.
Best song: "Moonlight on Vermont," maybe? They're all pretty great. "The Dust Blows Forward 'N the Dust Blows Back" is amazing. "China Pig" is fantastic. It's basically amazing.
Worst song: I love it all.
Is it awesome?: Yes, but not for the faint of heart.

"A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast 'n bulbous! Got me?"

Those are some of the lyrics on "Trout Mask Replica." I do not know what they mean. I don't really care.


The cover of the record has a man, dressed in a green jacket and yellow fake fur vest/scarf thing, holding a fish up to his face. He is wearing an especially tall top hat with a shuttlecock on the top of it. He is shot against a red/purple background.


You may notice that I'm only writing short, disjointed notes about the record, because I can't coherently write about an album so very incoherent, yet so very beautiful and perfect. It's among my favorites, largely because it's everything. Beefheart tried (mostly successfully) to fuse free jazz, Delta blues, skiffle, rock and roll, folk and vaudeville into one record. All at once. With a band he holed up in a house for eight months while learning the record (so they could "live" the album). While spreading rumors that no one took drugs (they did) or knew their instruments before Beefheart taught them (they did).

Or maybe I'm just in love with the lyrical topics that range from concentration camps to rats (in one song) to music history, sexuality to strange metaphors about pie.

The first twenty seconds or so of the album sound "normal." It's a nice little song about happiness. Then, it devolves into dissonant guitar notes and drum patterns.

Every guitar solo from Jeff Tweedy, every Oval record and every Glenn Branca recording owe a lot to "Trout Mask Replica." And it's all there on "Frownland."

One of the members of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band was called "The Mascara Snake." He was Beefheart's cousin and he played bass clarinet on the album.


Lester Bangs' original 1969 review is a must-read.


Because of this project, I've learned to appreciate the succinctness of Robert Christgau's record reviews. Here is his review of "Trout Mask Replica" in its entirety:

I find it impossible to give this record an A because it is just too weird. But I'd like to. Very great played at high volume when you're feeling shitty, because you'll never feel as shitty as this record. B+

While I'd give it an "A," he's not far off.

No. 57: Beggars Banquet

Band: The Rolling Stones
Album: Beggars Banquet
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The return to the Stones' roots was a huge success and has one of the best -- and controversial -- songs in "Sympathy For The Devil." The addition of different instrumentation to the band's traditional blues rock doesn't change the vibe of the song, it simply adds to it.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: In my opinion, this is the Stones' best work. I'd rate it above "Exile On Main Street."
Best song: "No Expectations," "Sympathy For The Devil" and "Street Fighting Man" are all excellent songs.
Worst song: "Stray Cat Blues" is just OK.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

"Beggars Banquet" is my favorite Rolling Stones album, though not only on the strength of the record's two most famous songs ("Street Fighting Man" and "Sympathy For The Devil"). The album, released in 1968, was seen as a return to the band's famous blues rock sound after the psychedelic "Their Satanic Majesties Request."

Those two famous songs are great, though mostly misinterpreted. For one, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were children of the middle/upper class upbringing, so the idea that Jagger was a "poor boy" who was also a "Street Fighting Man" is pretty much garbage. "Street Fighting Man" also had the inopportunity of being released around the time of the post-MLK assassination riots in 1968. It became something of a rallying cry for the young left (despite the Stones' mostly decided silence on political issues). In reality, the song was written after Jagger attended a rally of Trotskyist Tariq Ali.

"Sympathy For The Devil" was, at the time, wildly misinterpreted. written from the point of view of the biblical devil (the trickster who made humanity fundamentally flawed), the song lists varying atrocities throughout history with Lucifer giving himself credit for them. At the time, reactionary squares and authority figures claimed the Stones were indeed Satanists.

Even today, the song is horribly misinterpreted. The National Review's list of the greatest conservative rock songs lists "Sympathy" as the third-greatest conservative rock song ever, citing a line here or there that give the devil credit for communism.

Here's the problem: It's the Stones' smartest song because the whole of the song relies on the evil of man. The lines "I rode a tank, Held a generals rank, When the blitzkrieg raged, And the bodies stank" can be thought to say that the Nazis were the devil (or evil), when Milgram's experiment shows pretty clearly that those people were human and that what we consider to be good people can do horrible things. This is the same nature of the bit where Jagger sings "I shouted out, Who killed the Kennedys? When after all, It was you and me."

This is backed up by one of the better quotes from Richards. In Rolling Stone magazine, Richards addressed the Satanist charges.
"What is evil? Half of it, I don't know how much people think of Mick as the devil or as just a good rock performer or what? There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer. Everybody's Lucifer."

It appears to be the main point of the song: We have sympathy for the devil, because evil lurks in all of us.

The most major problem, of course, with the thesis of "'Sympathy' as conservative song" is my favorite segment of the song: "I watched with glee, While your kings and queens, Fought for ten decades, For the gods they made." That bit is an atheist's dream and one that I firmly believe. We created "God" and "The Devil" in our image because we have each in every human.


That's not to say that those two songs are the only part of the record, because they're not. "Salt Of The Earth" is a wonderful cynical tribute to the working class (complete with Richards' vocals!) white "Parachute Woman" is mildly dirty. "No Expectations" is classic old time blues and probably my favorite non-single Stones song. Brian Jones' slide guitar is as good as it gets.

In fact on the strength of the non-singles, I'd suggest that "Beggars" is the best Stones album. They don't try to do too much (like, say, the wacky country of "Country Honk".

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

No. 56: Songs in the Key of Life

Band: Stevie Wonder
Album: Songs in the Key of Life
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Stevie Wonder's epic double album spanning the romantic, sweet and socially conscious, "Songs in the Key of Life" is a masterpiece. Everyone from Rolling Stone to Robert Christgau finds it to be great and it's one of (in my opinion) Wonder's three great records.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Some of the stuff doesn't really work. Still, it's mostly rated well. There is filler on there, but it is a classic.
Best song: "Isn't She Lovely?" is a very pretty little song.
Worst song: "As" is not so good and it goes on too long.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

I've mentioned the "big three" Stevie Wonder albums in my capsule about "Innvervisions" and I'd suggest "Songs In The Key Of Life" is the best of the three. While it's a double album (as in, there's lots of filler), some of Wonder's best songs reside here. The brass bombast of "Sir Duke," the snide irony of "Village Ghetto Land," the history lesson of "Black Man" and the saccharine sweetness of "Isn't She Lovely?" all populate "Songs In The Key Of Life."

There is also enough weirdness to keep one satisfied. "Have A Talk With God" isn't up my alley (again, I worship the sun), "I Wish" is just not my bag (Thanks, Will Smith) and "Saturn" shows that you don't have to see to take psychedelic drugs.

Overall, it's probably Wonder's best work.

No. 55: Elvis Presley

Band: Elvis Presley
Album: Elvis Presley
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Elvis' first proper record, "Elvis Presley" collected Elvis' early work for easy teenage consumption. It's a nice piece of work.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: In my eyes, this is a more important set of recordings than "The Sun Sessions." These are the songs that mattered, not the ones that came first ("Sun" has those), though some of the Sun songs are on here.
Best song: Three words: Blue. Suede. Shoes.
Worst song: Elvis' version of "Tutti Frutti" isn't 1/100 as good as Little Richard's.
Is it awesome?: Sure.

From Rolling Stone's writeup for the 2003 list:
In November 1955, RCA Records bought Presley's contract, singles and unreleased master tapes from Sun Records for $35,000. His first full-length album came out six months later, with tracks drawn from both the Sun sessions and from further recording at RCA's studios in New York and Nashville.

I wasn't sure where to put that, but it's important information. So, there it is.

Elvis Presley is the window through which America saw rock and roll music in the '50s. He was white, Southern, handsome and just dangerous enough for teenagers to love him. His voice, though, was great for the time and the place. It was a near perfect instrument for the burgeoning black music coming from the South based on gospel, blues and country music.

His first proper album shows the various covers he made his own during this period. Most of the time, the songs soar, as evidenced by "Blue Suede Shoes" and "I Got A Woman." It's not as good on "Tutti Frutti." Still, one can listen and imagine Presley's hips swaying and his lip sneering in a way no one had seen before and has been often imitated since.