Monday, May 28, 2007

Top 50 Favorite Albums: Part 3

Just about there...

11. Northern Lights, Southern Cross - Band

At this point on the list when you see a single album from a group it’s pretty much just holding the spot for their collected works. For most of the artists now it’s almost impossible to narrow it down to a single album. For the purpose of this exercise I’ll just pick one that stands out more often than not and let it go at that.

Also, as I look at the remaining titles I should point out that everything from about fifteen to number one have topped this list at some point in my life. So don’t take the remaining rankings as gospel, take them as guidelines.
As for this album I’ve already discussed it inside a previous post and you can follow this link to my thoughts on it.

12. London Calling - Clash

This album closed out the seventies in grand fashion. I personally never cared for their first two albums. I know many others who swear by them, but they still don’t connect with me even after all these years. This one however endures and is probably the hardest rocking thing you’ll find around my disc player these days.

Nothing from the first two albums prepared me for this one. Punk was about dead at this point. The initial burst was flaming out and the groups were faced with the same things as groups in other genres: they had to continue to make new music. Most of the bands were running on fumes and trying to keep it alive anyway they could. This band decided to re-invent themselves as a more broad based band and began to explore other styles of music. Their marriage of rock and reggae is hinted at here and would burst into full bloom on their next album “Sandinista.” They also tackled rockabilly, R&B, some soul, ska and just plain old roots based rock.

With Guy Stevens producing they offered up one of the few double albums that you wouldn’t want to have one less song on. They hit the ground running on the opening cut and never let up. It’s not a concept album or broken down by sides, they simply careen all over the road on their way to musical history. The best way I know to get back in touch with your inner rocker.

13. Tumbleweed Connection - Elton John

Lyricist Bernie Taupin has never hidden the fact that this album was inspired by the music that The Band was making at the time. If you were into music at that time and interested in it at its most organic then you too would have been inspired by what The Band was doing. What Taupin and John did that was so magical though is that they just let it serve as their inspiration and didn’t try to replicate the sound of The Band. They instead had their own unique spin on what Americana meant to them and came up with a flawless album.

This is one of those albums where I could make a case for every single song, but I won’t because anyone reading this is probably in step with this one. Thirty some years later this one still unfolds like a dusty collection of short stories that you’d find in an old shop. Songs of place and home told in an uncluttered fashion that makes them powerful still today. I often wonder how many successful songwriters wish they would have written “Country Comforts.” Remembrance of years gone by has rarely been stated so eloquently in song.

Like any great album you can start with the cover and the original packaging and almost sense the type of songs waiting inside. Even the color tinting and the texturing of the paper has an old west look and feel to it. They knew that had created something special.

14. From Elvis In Memphis - Elvis Presley

For an artist with so many recordings it’s amazing how few really complete albums Presley released. When you take away the soundtracks, live albums, holiday music, and gospel sides all you’re really left with are his first couple of long players. This 1969 album is one of the few exceptions. Over the course of his career he had sung gospel, rock, country, ditties for soundtracks and MOR covers, so it was a bit of a surprise when he emerged from American studios under the guidance of Chips Moman as a blue eyed soul singer.

This was no lark, he nearly reinvented the genre with these recordings. If you live long enough (and I hope you all do) you will hear just about everything you can imagine said about him. One thing you’ll never hear though is someone saying they don’t like his voice. If there’s a male singer anywhere out there who wouldn’t trade their voice for his don’t trust them on anything.

These Memphis sessions had yielded a parcel of new singles that the public was gladly devouring and at thirty four he was on a roll. There are several disc collections that collect all of the songs from these sessions, but back in the day this album was all there was. Combining country and soul covers Moman and Presley found a groove that must be heard to be believed. This album doesn’t have one track that you would program around today, or a side that you would have played less than the other back in 1969.

Using the risky strategy of mainly recording songs that were identified with other artists Presley all of a sudden had some well known acts see their signature tunes all but taken away from them. Check out his take on “Gentle On My Mind” and you’ll see how glad Glen Campbell must have been to see him cover so many others. He takes a fine country tune and gives it a Southern spin and delivers one of his best vocals. His live (in the studio), with false starts, cover of the Eddy Arnold standard “I’ll Hold You In My Heart” may be his finest and most raw vocal though. Unadorned by strings or any real production he takes the song from a crooning lament to the depths of the blues. I can’t help but feel this is a demo that they couldn’t improve on and just let it be. A gutsy call considering how he had been handled over the years. Nearly every song here has it’s own unique story.

The one nod to the past was that RCA was still not including most of his singles on albums. You had to make separate purchases to keep pace. Thinking back if this album would have included “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain” it might have never left the charts. They almost did us a favor by not including them. We wouldn’t have been able to handle it. I know at thirteen I couldn’t have.
Over the next few years he would continue to release worthwhile material, but this album will settle any arguments as to whether he still had it or not.

15. Romeo’s Escape - Dave Alvin

For a few years after its release this was my top album. As a die hard Blasters fan this was one of the most anticipated albums in years for me. It had even more raw energy than the Blasters albums. Dave was the songwriter and guitarist of the band. His brother Phil has an amazing voice. What Dave lacked in polish he made up for with emotion.

For this album he even went back and gave us his take on some of the Blasters material. I’ll take his versions over the ones by the band for the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph. This album also debuted his first (of many) non Blasters classics, “4th Of July.” In that single song he offers everything that was great about the roots rock sound that was beginning to gain favor.

Unlike a lot of artists who debut with an album this strong this was not the end of the creative road for him. It was more of a warning shot to everyone else that there was a new kid on the block and he was going to be a permanent resident for many more years.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Top 50 Favorite Albums : Part 4

Getting closer....

16. McCartney (Solo Debut) - Paul McCartney
I once read where this album was recorded in his living room. It sounds like it, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way at all. I absolutely love the ambiance of this recording. Free from all of the studio innovations and surrounding musicians, one of the iconic musicians and composers of the twentieth century found solace between the telly and fireplace in his own home.

More than any other member of the Beatles Paul had tipped his hat on the final group recordings as to what lay ahead for him, and later Wings. A quick listen to the “White Album” (we’ll get to it later) reveals Paul stripping it all away and relying on his acoustic guitar and piano for his current recordings. Any bootleg connoisseur knows that he had tested some of this material with the Beatles and revisited it here in its more intimate form.

One, including me, could argue that had he included the single “Another Day, ” saved “Blackbird” and dumped some of the instrumental forays he would have come up with an unimpeachable classic. I think he came close enough to include it on this list. And, if it matters, this album has one of the best covers I have ever seen. As an amateur photographer and album cover junkie I have seen few that come close to this one. The values and placement of the three colors of black, white and red are stunning. Nice job Linda.

17. Kristofferson (Debut) - Kris Kristofferson
This album should probably be ranked higher, but the clock is ticking and it’s hard to shuffle things around again. When this album came out he was thirty three years old and another struggling songwriter in Nashville with rugged good looks, a smoke stained voice and a guitar case full of songs. A quick couple of years later this album was a 401K in waiting for Nashville acts looking for job security.

Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was waking country music from its decade long slumber of precision production, mannered instrumentalists and pitch perfect vocals. The “outlaw” movement was born in the grooves of this album. Country was relocated from its comfortable suburban setting and returned to the open road, by the hour motels and dive bars where it came from. The songs on this album contain no heroes or role models to cling to. These characters are dusty, windblown, burned out, looking for a place to crash and spend any available cash on booze and cigarettes. They clearly have “nothing’ left to lose.” Cash only, no checks or PayPal please.

There’s much to single out here, but “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is my universal choice. It’s more than the musings of some stoned drifter. This song is profound on several levels. Over the course of the song he touches nearly every theme that comes to mind when stepping outside on any Sunday morning and staring at the sun in any town where you suddenly realize you’re on your own. Over the past thirty plus years hundreds of artists have tried to re-write this song and have never come close. There was no precedent for this song in 1969 and any attempt since then or now comes of as just that.

I would venture to say that Hank Williams, Roger Miller, Kristofferson and later Willie Nelson have contributed to more changes in country music than just about anyone. I’m not saying they are better artists than everyone else, but what they brought to the table changed the music and helped shape its future like few others

18. Lucky Town - Bruce Springsteen
After the over the top success of “Born In The USA” and the modest acceptance of “Tunnel Of Love” Columbia somehow convinced Bruce to resort to a cheap gimmick for his next studio releases. This album along with “Human Touch” were both released on the same day in 1992. The similarity ends there. The two albums couldn’t be more different. The most glaring difference is one is great and the other is all but forgettable.

For the first time in years Springsteen forgot about where he was in the world and instead longed for the times when the next meal was going to come wrapped in wax paper and paid for with change. Free of all the trappings of his fame he simply went in the studio and made a straight ahead rock album. In an age of CD’s this one even felt like an album. Running about forty minutes and having what appears to be an intended sequencing this one borders on classic.

As with many great albums this one ended up on the scrap heap and can be bought for about the price of a happy meal on Amazon. The frat boys and hangers on who propelled him to the top had no time for more poignant subject matter. Tales of love and redemption in the arms of others had far less appeal than thinly veiled metaphors for them. No problem, Bruce was happy and so was I that he got back to where it all felt right for him again.
When these two releases came out I was in the retail music business. When my customers asked me which one to buy my reply was to buy two of this one and share it. The advice still holds today.

19. For Everyman - Jackson Browne
We’ve all heard of the “sophomore slump” in sports and of course music. We seldom hear about the “sophomore success.” On this second album from Browne he simply hits it out of the park and then some. Everything attempted or hinted at on his compelling debut is fleshed out here into one of the best albums ever from a singer songwriter.

The thing that drives this one is his wide eyed vision and perception. At the age of twenty five he came up with an age appropriate album that didn’t preach or pretend any profound observations. Instead he chose the road less traveled and turned to the rest of us and said “here’s what’s happening to me, what’s everyone else thinking.” The brilliance of the writing is how it asks so many questions without pretending to know any definitive answers.

As ridiculous as this sounds, next time you hear “Take It Easy” from either him or the Eagles take the time to absorb the lyrics. I know we’ve all been on autopilot with this one for decades, but give it a chance. It’s “Me And Bobby McGee” from a different angle. There’s no sad ending, but more a celebration of love, life and its possibilities. He also included his version of the oft recorded “These Days” and reminds us all how powerful a song about thoughts can be. By the time of the album ending title track comes along we’ve come full circle and are ready for the world.

He would go on to have some serious commercial successes and even pen some more classic songs. He would never, to my tastes, come up with another complete album like this one though. Politics and the realities of the world we all live in took their toll over the years. If I could offer him any advice at this point it would be from his own song: “Lighten up while you still can.”

20. Down & Dirty - Bobby Bare
If you know me at all, even a little bit, then you know of my admiration of Bobby Bare. Like many of the sixties country acts who recorded for RCA he as was part of the assembly line that Chet Atkins and the powers that be were churning out. Unlike a lot of those acts Bare had a voice that was suited for more than AM country radio. He didn’t write his own material, instead he interpreted the songs of others.

The thing about those “others” was that they were Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson and most notably Shel Silverstein more often than not. Those guys were all great writers who wrote songs that everyone wanted to record. The key word here though is vocalist. Bare has one of those conversational voices that is capable of either singing or speaking the lyrics. A friend I used to work with referred to him as the best friend a song ever had. I couldn’t agree more. You would have to hear him to fully understand what it is he does. He takes a lyric and doesn’t so much sing it as he caresses it. If you’ve heard him then you know what I mean. If not, pick up something and give it a listen. You could start with this one if you’re adventurous enough.

This live recording from 1979 features him in his element in a small room with an enthusiastic crowd along for the ride. The twist with this album is that all of the selections had not been recorded by him previously. A risky approach but in his capable hands it all seems natural as can be. My guess is that this was an in the studio live recording with an invited crowd. That said it sounds anything but canned. Artists considering recording a live album would do well to check this one out to see how a master works the room.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Top 50 Favorite Albums: Part 5

Half way there...

21. (Untitled) (Un-issued) [Two Disc Reissue] - Byrds

Until this came out as a two CD set this one would not have made this list. The live set was just too forced for my tastes at the time and the studio tracks showed a band going a different direction. On this reissue you get the original album as a single disc (which is still pretty cool), the second disc is all unreleased studio and live performances that make this one a keeper.

The group was of course a far cry from the original band at this point. For the previous few years this had been essentially Roger McGuinn and friends. Their base was now somewhere in Nashville and not the studios of L.A.. All of these additional cuts are simply wonderful and beg the question of what was going on with the initial issue of this set. Perceived commerce no doubt. If you prefer your Byrds with a more country slant and a sound that veers closer to Little Feat than Poco grab this one.

22. Let It Be (Either version) - Beatles

Put me in the minority of those who don’t particularly care for all that Spector did as a producer. This one has always worked for me in much the same way his singles with Lennon seemed to bring out the best in both of them. In reality I’m not sure he did all that much here based on outtakes and alternates of the songs. To fully understand the greatness of this album you have to do a bit of homework.

As someone who has chased down and listened to countless hours of bootlegs and watched endless DVD’s of these sessions I feel I can comment on this one. The first thing that you learn from those hundreds of hours and miles of tapes is this forty some minute disc is really all the usable material there is. However, to me it’s one of their best efforts, flaws and all. Even before Paul decided that it needed to be peeled away this one was already pretty bare. The addition of Billy Preston was a stroke of genius and his organ carries the day on several songs.

If it had been up to me here’s what I would have done with this redux: I would have used most of the new mixes that Paul did and also added “Don’t Let Me Down” to the set list. I then would have left intact the dialog and the original running order. Then as a bonus I would have included a second disc with the entire “rooftop concert” as a real coda to an incredible decade. For a band that started their career essentially in a basement it seemed fitting that it would conclude on a rooftop.

23. Pet Sounds - Beach Boys

This album shows up on nearly any list of favorites, long or short. It’s almost an obligatory inclusion. But, to be honest there is a reason for that, the album still sounds great and innovative and no one it seems is immune to its charms. Unlike a lot of forty year old albums this one still has many layers to peel away (mono or stereo) with each new listen.

In time I would spend years listening to their early seventies trilogy of “Sunflower,” “Holland” and “Surf’s Up” and marvel at the depth of their talents during changing times. Although it sounds silly after all these years, I still think this group is underrated in many ways. They have become such a part of the “fabric” that their initial and subsequent impact has been softened with time. I include this one because I’ve never taken it out of the “rotation” and like “Sgt. Pepper’s…” it works as a complete suite when you’ve got the time. Song for song it’s a pile of singles that you don‘t have to get up and keep flipping. It’s also one of the few albums that has perfect sequencing.

To focus on one track, the song that still haunts me all these years later is “Caroline No.” The opening verse is one of my favorite’s ever in a song. In that short verse lyricist Tony Asher captures that moment when summer ends and you return to school and learn that the girl you left in May is another person. More than her hair has changed, but it starts there.

It’s that frozen moment you step on the bus and glance down the isle and there she is all of a sudden, or maybe you get to homeroom and spot her walking in with her new look and new friends.
You have lost some ground since the last time you saw her. You’re still playing sandlot ball and she’s wearing makeup and hose. It‘s one of those moments that unfolds in slow motion like the dream where you can‘t quite dial a phone or react fast enough to impending doom. Quicksand has replaced solid ground and your arms weigh a hundred pounds. You’ll spend the rest of your life searching for that elusive moment that slipped away. You’ll never regain it no matter how hard you try. We’ve all been there.

“Where did your long hair go
Where is the girl I used to know
How could you lose that happy glow
Oh, Caroline no”

24. Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out - Rolling Stones

I know this isn’t really one complete show per say, but it has that vibe. For me this was the first time I’d heard a live album that actually made me think there had been a real concert somewhere. Some of the faux-live junk that came out in the sixties like The Kinks “Live At Kelvin Hall” and even the Stones’ “Got Live If You Want It” were simply awful. As big a fan as I was I knew when my lunch money was funding a label obligation and little else. Well, maybe I knew.

This one has the loose swagger of a band that is in total control of the moment and lets the crowd climb on for the ride. I’m probably wrong, but this was the first time I can remember a concert album not being a “greatest hits” done live. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were on the verge of putting a stake in the sixties while taking a leering, often salacious gaze at the upcoming decade. No doubt they were setting their sights on claiming it without having to worry about the Beatles ever again. Satisfaction was just a moonlight mile down the road.

25. Hidden Things - Paul Kelly

This wasn’t an intended album, but more a collection of stray songs from 1986 through 1991, save for two selections . If you’ve never heard Kelly then you’ve really missed an essential artist who is capable of some of the most memorable music that you’re likely to hear. Unique is an overused word and I’m as guilty as anyone of throwing it around. However, it’s the best way to describe him that I can think of. As a songwriter he manages to cut through all of the clichés and get to the point. It isn’t always the most flattering portrait that he paints but it’s honest in a way that most music seldom approaches.

The reason I’m including a collection on this list is because somehow this eighteen song set has an ebb and flow that most albums don’t offer. The first thought after hearing this is to wonder how songs like this didn’t make it on other albums. Then when your curiosity gets the best of you and you check out some of his other work you begin to understand just how talented he is. If you want to get in on the action with this guy then searching out this import is a great way start.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Top 50 Favorite Albums: Part 6

Moving right along....

26. September Of My Years - Frank Sinatra

In an earlier post I went on and on about how great this album was. I re-read the post and still feel the same way, so here’s a link to it that will let you know how I feel about this one. September Of My Years previous post

27. Lone Justice (Debut) - Lone Justice

Tell me an album is great before I hear it or before it’s even released and you’re going to have a harder sell. Be a label promotion man calling me and telling me how something is going to change the way I look at music and you’re flirting with the hold button. I had heard so much about this album before its release that I was almost burned out on it before I heard a note.

Then one day a copy arrives in the mail and lo and behold everything was suddenly different. It was actually better than I was led to believe. Like the beast from the wild this band was led by a child. A precocious songwriter and fireball singer that rocked my world. She had so much energy that I thought she was going to explode before she could finish a song. Like Neko Case she could control her voice and wrote songs that she could wrap it around. I’m not sure anyone could really cover one of these songs and do it any justice (pun intended).

To my way of thinking this was really the start of the alt-country movement. This band had ignored any perceived boundaries and just made a record that they liked. It would serve as the template for a whole genre. Forget the Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown posing, this band was following their muse and not stopping to label anything.

The band and Maria McKee would of course issue other recordings and some of them are excellent, but this being the first lands it here. I could make the argument that if their second album would have come out first it would have had a similar effect on me. You can pick this one up just about anywhere for under ten bucks. It’s a better deal than a few gallons of gas or a couple of lattes for my money.

28. All The Young Dudes - Mott The Hoople

By now everyone knows the story behind this album and how David Bowie rescued them from their musical malaise. It’s one of the stories that make rock and roll what it is. This was one of the most important albums of my high school years. I may have failed here and there, but this one never failed me. On album, 8-Track, cassette, countless bootlegs and two concerts. I never really let go of it, and when it was re-released a while back with bonus tracks I bit again just to see who had aged better me or it. It hasn‘t aged a day. Wish I could say the same.

It all came rushing back and made me long for the day when bands stuck together through thick and thin and felt it was all worth it for the glory of the music. They played and lived rock and roll. The mix of originals and covers are seamless in their hands. They are all given the “Mott treatment.” Ian Hunter was one of the last of the true front men in a rock band. Like Mick he had his Keith in Mick Ralphs and later Ariel Bender. He had the voice, the hair, the shades and most of the girls too I would think. One of the few albums I still play loud.

29. Rum, Sodomy & The Lash - Pogues

When this Elvis Costello produced album came out I wasn’t as sick of him as I am now. Then he was merely annoying, now I run, not walk from anything with his name near it. Enough about him though, we’re not here to bury him but to praise Shane and his drinking buddies.

Ireland has produced a slew of engaging rock and punk groups. Most of them treaded lightly around their deeper roots and offered a more urban sound and left the traditional stuff to the evening pub crowd. Those that might end the evening with a pint and a clumsy jig stumbling out the door. This band has been and really only can be compared with The Clash as far as their approach to their music. Mixing tried and true traditional tunes and covers with newly written songs this album sprang fully blown from the pubs and alleys of Ireland. They attack the music with an energy you can’t fake. They like the old songs, they just like them better the way they do them. Me too.

Led by legendary boozer and dentist’s nightmare Shane MacGowan they cut a path that went from the Irish pubs, through England and eventually to America. This album has it all and just gets better with the passage of time. Due in large part to the fact that it has a timeless quality that was present the first time I heard it. The loose almost sloppy approach gives the album a vibrancy that makes you think you’re in one of those pubs and those kids just won’t get off the stage. A couple of songs in and you hope they stay up there all night.

They are fine songwriters and have penned some classics, but on this album their own songs are upstaged by two covers for the ages. Their take on “Dirty Old Town” allows you to feel the grime, smells and soot to the extent you’ll want to shower afterwards. Like he does on the other standout cover “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” MacGowan shows that behind the façade of a drunk and rowdy punk he knows when to give a song its due. The closer of Eric Bogle’s “…Matilda” is one of those heartbreaking songs about the human costs of war that you’ll never shake once you hear it. And believe me you’ll try. Sapped of all his swagger and drunken revelry he sings this one as though he’s walking alone across the fresh battlefield leaving footprints of blood with each step and verse.

This would not be their last great album, but it remains my favorite over twenty years later.

30. The Blasters - The Blasters

There was very little in my musical past that prepared me for this album. This was probably a case of timing at its best. Being an Elvis fan I was always interested in rockabilly along with the blues, country and rock marriage of late fifties and early sixties music. I guess like others I was held in the sway of those scratchy film clips of the fifties kids rocking and rolling at some sock hop or VFW hall dance. At the heart of it all was a driving beat that the band seemed to enjoy as much as the audience.

Working the same venues as X and some of the other eighties punk bands the Blasters instead gave the audience a blast of retro done modern day. Like their song said this was American music and it was the sum of nearly everything that came before. To me they were the final great rock band. Others since have made fine music, but this band was the real deal. The impersonated no one because they were just who they were. They didn’t change to suit the younger punks and rockers, they let the crowd come to them. It’s some of the least self conscious rock that has ever been produced. One look at the cover and you know what’s going on inside the jacket.

This album goes wire to wire without tripping and essentially introduced Dave Alvin as a songwriter that we were going to hear plenty from over the years. It also introduced his brother Phil who has one of those unique voices that seems to bend but never break. He gave voice to the incredible songs that Dave was delivering. One listen to “Marie, Marie” and you’d think it’s Memphis in the fifties at some back woods roadhouse that time just forgot. It’s a shot of pure adrenaline that would fill a dance floor in any era. The first time I heard it I was sure they had dug up some obscure track while visiting Sun Studios. When I checked the record and saw that Dave had written it I hopped on board for the whole ride.

For me this was one of the few times that a group actually captured what made Chuck Berry so innovative. Like him they were churning out literate content that rock and roll had very little of in the fifties and even less by the early eighties. The songs were actually short stories disguised as, well, songs. Unfortunately over the years I think we’ve become numb to Berry’s contributions due to repeated listening on oldies radio and fledgling bar bands. Next time one of his songs comes on follow the lyrics and catch the couplets and metering that he employs. Then think of some of the other songs that were popular in the fifties. See how their lyrics compare and don’t forget that Berry was writing all of his. It’s apparent to me that Dave picked up on what Berry was doing from the very beginning. Speaking of picking things up, you should pick up this album.