Saturday, April 28, 2007

Top 50 Favorite Albums: Part 7

Our Journey to # 1 continues...

31. Copperhead Road - Steve Earle

For better or worse, I’ve spent nearly all of my life listening to, selling, talking and writing about music. I wouldn’t have it any other way. When Earle finally arrived on the scene with his debut “Guitar Town” I would have sworn he would never top it or come close again. I felt I’d found my “new country” album. Then one day a few years later this one arrived in the mail and it was apparent everything I knew was wrong. With this 1988 album Earle turned it up a notch and turned his back on anything going on in Nashville then or now.

The title track alone blows away any number of complete albums that I’ve heard. Re-recording “The Devil’s Right Hand” was one of the best ideas he’s ever had. Using the Pogues on “Johnny Come Lately” took that song to places it would have never found. “Nothing Like A Child” came out of nowhere but found a home on any mix-tape or disc of Christmas music I’ve ever assembled. His songwriting didn’t peak on this album, but it served notice that he could write in several genres and make you think he was the one to beat.

On “Guitar Town” he was a slightly unwashed singer songwriter trying to catch a wave in the country field. On this one he was a full blown tattooed biker with white trash roots that he not only embraced, but championed.

32. The Last Puff - Spooky Tooth

By the time of this 1970 album the original band was long gone and it was pretty much down to Mike Harrison and members of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band making up the group. While never achieving the commercial recognition of the likes of Jagger, Plant or Burdon, Harrison was easily one of the best of the sixties British blues-rock vocalists. As a band they were “also rans” to the masses, but to their loyal fans they were one of the best of the late sixties British bands. Put me down for the latter.

Relying on mostly covers, the band turned in one of their best efforts even if it wasn’t the band we had come to know. Opening with what has to be one of the most daring Beatles covers ever with their take on “I Am The Walrus” this album serves notice that they weren’t going to go quietly. They take the all but novelty tune and turn it into a galvanizing dirge that plays more like a time shifting nightmare than a sing-a-long. When I first heard this cover I thought it was cool, at this point in time it borders on genius.

Along the way they also cover Joe Cocker, David Ackles and Elton John. For the Elton cover they choose “Son Of Your Father” and while not straying from the original manage to grab some of it for their own. Then to bring it full circle, piano man Chris Stainton closes it out with a melancholy instrumental that gave the album its title. You could almost title this one “No Two Alike” and be spot on with the designation. Unlike a lot of albums from 1970 this one sounds almost contemporary. Strange, but true.

33. Laid Back - Gregg Allman

I used to work at a record store that was open on Sunday’s. The first couple of years I would open with the same person week in and week out. With no real dialog we would always stick the 8-track tape of this album in the player week in and week out. It just seemed the thing to do. All these years later it still gets a Sunday off to a proper start.

Everybody has their own blue eyed soul album to tout so I guess this is mine. From the song selection to the “laid back” performances this one is easy on the ears and shows Allman in a comfortable groove. He would never get within a mile of a Southbound freight train of matching this one in his solo career again. That’s fine, it doesn’t diminish the impact of this one a bit.

34. Soundtrack - The Harder They Come

Before soundtracks became nothing more than label samplers and boomer versions of a K-Tel compilation they were a valuable asset to a film. I would guess that soundtracks were fairly reliable up until “The Big Chill.” After that they became little more than a land grab for publishers and another tool for labels to get you to pay full price for one new song by a hot artist. Strange when you think of the rich history of soundtrack music and all of the cases where they were essentially another character in the film. “Psycho,” “The Godfather,” “Ryan’s Daughter,” “Once Upon A time In The West,” “Dr. Zhivago” and countless others come to mind.

This one introduced the world to joys of reggae music like nothing before it or since really. It’s been updated and expanded a couple of times and now serves as the “go to” reggae disc for those who want to dip their toes in the water. Jimmy Cliff in addition to being the star of the movie is also the star of the album. Every selection is solid and their placement in the film borders on perfection. The footage of Toots and the Maytals in the studio recording “Sweet And Dandy” should be required viewing. Poke around and you’ll find it on YouTube. I would never, ever say that you should only own one reggae disc. It’s some of the finest music on this planet, but if you want to get started on the right foot this is the place to hop on board.

35. Alone Together - Dave Mason

Straying into George Harrison territory here Mason was also a frustrated second banana in a popular British group. If anyone ever had any doubts as to what he was capable of they found out pretty quick with this multi-colored piece of vinyl. This is one of those albums that has only high points, there’s nothing to program around here. Mason revealed himself as a the consummate team player and assembled an all star group to back him. He would never come close to putting a complete record together again. But, so what, great albums aren’t a dime a dozen. It’s better to have one great one in a long career than a lot of average ones as far as I’m concerned.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Top 50 Favorite Albums: Part 8

Moving right along we continue our push to the top.

36. Chicken Skin Music - Ry Cooder

Cooder has pretty much been all things to all people musically over his long and eclectic career. I’ve been along for the ride nearly every step of the way and he’s provided untold hours of listening pleasure with his varied musical explorations. To narrow it down to one selection was difficult, but this album that was divided into two parts, one Tex-Mex and the other Hawaiian gets the nod. Both sides are first rate and the backing and performances are among the best he’s ever been associated with. You could hardly go wrong with any of his seventies output, but this or “Into The Purple Valley” is probably the best place to start.

37. Songs For Beginners - Graham Nash

I bought this one out of habit when it was released. I was buying anything and everything from CSN&Y (except for “C”) back in the day. Little did I know this one would mate with my turntable for days at a time. A recent listen to clear if for inclusion on this list confirmed that it is still one of my favorite albums. It exudes a calm ambiance while slipping in some pointed messages along the way. The politics add nothing to its longevity, but the craftsmanship and performances still bring a smile. Like George Harrison his voice is not strong, but makes for nice harmonies and shines on these self-penned selections.

38. Everly Brothers - Born Yesterday

This 1986 set was their second venture after reuniting in the eighties. While “EB84” is a fine album, this one edges it out at my house. All but the title track are well chosen covers. However, the title track is one of the best songs the duo ever wrote or recorded. If a song is capable of floating through the air then this cautionary tale is one of them. During the course of the album they don’t stray too far from what they had always done best. They mixed some up tempo songs around several gorgeous ballads into a seamless presentation. Their cover of Larry Raspberry’s “Always Drive A Cadillac” borders on perfection. One listen to this track and you won’t be able to get it out of your head at your next class reunion.

39. Kindness OF The World - Joe Henry

For this 1993 album Henry flirted with a country sound and came up with his best album ever to my ears. The strength of the material here is staggering. Nothing really misses, and most soar. Including a cover of Tom T. Hall’s melancholy “I Flew Over Our House Last Night” was nothing short of brilliant. A review I read when this was first released pointed out how his vocal approach was one of the best things about this recording. I couldn’t agree more, he stays just a step behind the beat and never quite lands on it. It’s a tricky tact, but he makes it work and draws you into each song. He’s made other worthy albums, but this one just gets better with each listen.

40. All Things Must Pass - George Harrison

I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve played the first two albums in this box set over the years. As for the third album of jams I am more certain: only twice. Since the box was priced as a two album set and the third album was essentially a bonus I’ve decided that I will include it on this list and not let the third album weigh the other twos merits down. In its own way if you think about it, it was the precursor to CD sets that offer a bonus disc.

Although I think Phil Spector is generally over praised this is one project where he deserves a lot of credit. George took a risk for his first full blown solo effort enlisting him but it worked. They came up with not so much a wall of sound, but more a hedge that allowed them both to show their best stuff. Essential songs abound on this one and they have aged well over the years. Each Beatle took a swing at writing a song about the Beatle experience over the years, some covert and some overt, all suffered for one reason or another. Harrison however offers up a majestic meditation with “Isn’t It A Pity.” While the other Beatles came up with something timely, he offered something timeless.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Top 50 Favorite Albums: Part 9

Continuing our climb up the ladder to number one here's another installment.

41. Crosby, Stills & Nash - Crosby, Stills & Nash

No one could blame Stephen Stills for claiming this album for his own. Other than a few writing credits and a couple of lead vocals from the others this is his show. And what a show it is. He plays nearly everything and his production touches are everywhere. This band was the American equivalent to Blind Faith. As it turned out their egos were easier to bruise and their vision much broader. A recent listen revealed how the album sounds less dated now than it did a few years after its release.

This type of breezy, almost innocent, mix of harmony and solid songwriting is sorely lacking these days. Some of the arrangements are complex, but are at the same time exhilarating. Stills may be bloated now and his voice shot beyond recognition but this album, and his first solo recording are a different story from a different time and place. Nash contributes some fine vocals and gentle songs full of the wonder lust of his relocation to the states. Crosby is the dead weight he’s always been and contributes the only real low points. The cover photo from Henry Diltz and textured paper on the original cover fit’s the mood of a Saturday spent listening to good music around the house.

42. Furnace Room Lullaby - Neko Case

This album from 2000 will be one of only a couple that came out after the Carter administration on this list. It’s about the only album in the past twenty years that has caused me to get up in the morning and push play before I have my coffee. As pathetic as that sounds I’m at peace with the routine. Case has the rare gift of having an incredible voice and knowing what to do with it. Most vocalists who are blessed with wonderful vocal chords squander their gifts on junk. Barbra, Whitney anyone? Case writes her own songs and tapers them around her voice which she wisely uses as the instrument it is.

She’s made several albums containing many essential songs, this one however is the complete package. Her voice floats through, above and around the songs like some ethereal dream. With the repeat button it’s one of the few dreams we can revisit when ever the mood strikes.

43. Welcome To The Canteen - Traffic

This album is little more than a legitimate bootleg. However, like any great bootleg once you settle into the ambiance you feel like you’re being let in on a secret. For this set current, former and future members of the band reunited for a benefit concert. The return of Dave Mason and the presence of three drummers make this a crowded field but it works for me.

Mason offers up a couple of songs from his then recent solo album “Alone Together” in a semi-acoustic setting. If you like percussion and slightly too loud acoustic guitars this one yields many rewards. The late Chris Wood also shines on flute. A way too long version of “Gimme Some Lovin’” lets the album slip away on a less than stellar note, but the previous selections rescue it and let it grab a spot in my top fifty.

44. Borboletta - Santana

Over the course of hundreds of lineups and probably a thousand or so discs this one still stands out over thirty years after its release. Working with one their most percussive lineups and with guests like Airto they fashioned one of their most ambitious works of the seventies. Carlos is everywhere, but more importantly he’s also in the mix as the vocalists and other musicians are allowed to take center stage.

The critics were cold to this one and it went nowhere on the charts, but for me it endures. Leon Patillo is a soulful vocalist and the addition of Airto and Flora Purim hold up for me. Check out the track “Practice What You Preach” for some swirling sonics and dazzling guitar licks.

45. Rockin’ - Guess Who

Like many other sixties acts that achieved fame on AM radio and the singles charts this bands albums tend to get dismissed. I can’t speak for all of the other bands, but this one consistently offered up first rate albums that happened to contain hit singles. This was their best though. Opening with their ode to aging high schoolers “Heart Broken Bopper” this album revisits their youth more than anything else. That song alone is enough to land the entire album on this list.

The band is relaxed and the selections range from all out rock to country covers and even a faux fifties jukebox medley. It’s a fairly ambitious outing that features some inspired writing and performances. More than a guilty pleasure, this one is a lost treasure.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Top 50 Favorite Albums: Part 10

Over the course of ten posts here I will reveal and discuss / defend my fifty favorite albums from over the course of my fifty one years taking up space on this planet. A newsgroup I’m in requested that everyone compile a list to see what music has been the core soundtrack of our lives thus far. An near impossible, but irresistible task for sure. We had one month to compile it. It took me about that long and on any given day I could shuffle the bottom forty and add or subtract any number of albums. However, all in all these fifty albums have served and important function for various reasons. They have been there at various stops along the way and made the bad times a bit better and the good times something that replays itself anytime one them is within the range of my failing ears.

I would never argue that these are the best albums ever recorded. My criteria in approaching this list was to simply list the albums that I’m pretty sure I’ve played the most. It’s the only way I know of to be honest and not influenced by others and the consensus of any number of other lists you see published here and there. The only other important factor that I used as a measuring stick was if I had replaced the title on compact disc or simply let the vinyl itself be the last stop. Applying that logic allowed a more accurate picture emerge.

Many acts that I have numerous, if not every recording by and consider among my favorite artists did not make the list such as The Doors, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Willie Nelson, Marc Bolan, The Bee Gees, Paul Simon, Mark-Almond Band, Waylon Jennings, Jefferson Airplane, The Kinks, Eric Burdon, and Johnny Cash to name just a few. The only explanation I can offer is that over time I’ve tended to immerse myself in the whole of their work and let the recordings meld into a massive sonic library. It’s more a reflection on my inability to focus on a singular album at this point than their ability to offer timeless material.

On a related note I chose to limit the number of entries by artists like the Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and others. Without imposing some restraint on that front I would have used up my allotted spots without showcasing single albums that mean as much if not more than some of their secondary works. Hopefully if you’re still reading this you’ve grasped that fifty is not a very big number when you’re undertaking a task like this.

I’ll offer up five titles at a time in reverse order to make it easier on you and me both. Feel free to jump in with any comments. Enjoy!

46. Live Shots - Joe Ely

There is no shortage of rock acts that have been defined by a live recording somewhere along the way. For Lubbock country rocker Ely this would be his entry in the field. He was on tour with The Clash and the energy they were projecting on stage must have worn off on him. He never played harder or sang with more conviction than on these selections. If an album ever carried a “wish I could have been there vibe” this one does from first note to last. It achieves that rare feat of offering live versions that all but buries their studio counterparts.

47. What’s Goin’ On - Marvin Gaye

It’s as though every single, album, Ed Sullivan appearance and live show from the Apollo by the Motown acts of the sixties happened just so this album could eventually exist. While most of Motown’s musical contribution remains locked in that decade this one hasn’t aged a day. It’s almost beyond our grasp more than three decades later. The opening montage and the sax intro seem as though in those few bars they are calling a meeting to order. It wants us to know that the sixties are over and we’re moving into new territory, but we need to get focused. This song along with Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” accomplish in a combined twelve minutes or so, what most rap records never come close to articulating.

In a broad sense this album was the death of Motown as envisioned by Berry Gordy. His machine finally threw a rod. Now with Marvin and Stevie free of the assembly line they showed us the reality of what it was to be black in a changing world with a frankness that was foreign to my radio. They articulated an experience that existed beyond the dance floor and would take their music to new heights. Sly’s coming out at Woodstock no doubt helped pave their way, but Marvin had just as much on his mind as any politician who professed to speak for everyone. The shame of the whole thing isn’t so much that he’s no longer around, it’s that after all this time we still hardly have a clue about what’s going on.

48. Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy - Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Most would point to “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” as the “go to” country rock album. No real argument here, I just prefer this one for it’s kinetic style and sequencing. It jumps around but somehow comes through as a complete work that I wouldn‘t change a thing about. They really found themselves with this recording and would use the template to great effect for several years. To my ears this one never sounds dated. Seeing them live several times during this era brings back fond memories.

49. Howlin’ Wind - Graham Parker

Sometimes a record just comes out of nowhere and you’re suddenly left to wonder what life would have been like if you had missed it. This is one of those albums that hooked me on the first listen. All these years later I still know the words to every song. He would go on to make a few more great albums that could have easily filled this slot, but I’m sticking with the one that got the ball rolling.

50. Benefit - Jethro Tull

Stardom beyond their wildest dreams was just around the corner for this band. This was really the last time they would show up in the studio with a set of random songs and see what they could do with them. There’s not a bad song in the bunch and several represent the best of what they were capable of. After this one it would be a decade long game of trying to top themselves and getting more and more self conscious with each release. Finally they would settle in to a major live attraction and really only record albums to prevent them being perceived as an oldies act. The US and UK version varied by a single song with the US one winning out in my opinion.