Monday, May 28, 2012

My Take: the Top 50 Roots/Rock Albums of All Time (##41-50)

Recently Rolling Stone published a list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time."  In this day and age, when people get their music from the internet, almost always in the form of free-floating, decontextualized singles, such a list appears hopelessly quaint.  Indeed, one cannot but believe that this exercise in nostalgia was tacit acknowledgement of that fact.  When one looks at their list, it becomes obvious that the venerable magazine, the one-time mouthpiece of the 1960s' counterculture. clearly views the decades of the 60s and 70s to have been the high-water mark of this music.  I agree.

As I write, the age of the long-playing record album is fading farther away in the rear-view mirror.  As one who is now well along into his 6th decade and whose youth and young adulthood was spent devouring great albums from multiple genres of music, this leaves me more than a little sad.  Moreover, I view the demise of the record album/CD, like much else in today's world, as an unfortunate development for lovers of real music — creative, yet rooted in traditional forms, played by artists who play their own instruments and write their own songs, and who release whole albums of material intended to be listened to as a whole

In a series of posts over the next few weeks, I hope to provide an annotated list of my fifty favorite albums of rock and roots music — no hodge-podge, greatest hits compilations allowed (exceptions made in a few older cases when "albums" as we know them were rarely made). The difficulty was in whittling my favorites down to fifty. If I compiled the list last week, many would no doubt have been different.

One further thing: music criticism is based on both objective and subjective criteria.  It doesn't take a Juilliard-trained musician to realize the superiority of the Beatles over Britney Spears or Taylor Swift.  Nevertheless, musical styles, like food, are still subject to individual taste.  I am reminded of Ralph Vaughan Williams's respect for, rather than love of, Beethoven.  While I consider Beethoven the pinnacle of the western art music tradition, I feel somewhat less enthusiastic towards Mozart, great though I acknowledge him to be objectively.  Similarly, I find that I have some idiosyncratic opinions and unusual choices in my list.  But these are the 50 albums that have made the greatest impression on me.  My tastes are oriented to blues, jazz, and old-fashioned rock 'n roll.  Pop music, to me, should be limited to small doses.  While I can appreciate the merits of old-school country artists like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, my preferences lie rather in the blues-derived segments of the music of my era.  And the less said about disco and dance music, the better. 

Here are numbers 41-50:

50.  A Hard Day's Night (The Beatles [1964])

This soundtrack album marks the high point of the early Beatles and, indeed, the early British Invasion. From the rousing opening Gm7 add 11 chord of the title track to the somewhat haunting closer, “I'll Be Back,” the album is consistently excellent, displaying a singleness of purpose and approach by Lennon and McCartney seldom to be seen later. Two absolute classics here include “And I Love Her” and “Can't Buy Me Love.”

49.  Every Picture Tells a Story (Rod Stewart [1971])

Stewart's aggressively commercial trendiness in the mid-70s ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?") and beyond tends to make people forget that he at one time was one of the most respected vocalists in rock. This album, a solo album recorded while he was a member of the Faces, demonstrates why this respect was well-founded. Largely an acoustic, folk-rock album, it nevertheless rocks hard with the best. The classic “Maggie May” and “Every Picture Tells a Story” are unforgettable, as are the beautiful closer, “Reason to Believe,” the country ballad, "Mandolin Wind," and the blistering cover (with The Faces) of the Temptations' “(I Know) I'm Losing You.”

48.  The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (Bruce Springsteen, 1973)

Here is Bruce Springsteen before he had become "the future of rock and roll." This is the Boss at his most "Jersey," with a free-wheeling mix of rock, R&B, folk, and even jazz, with similar prolix lyrics and serpentine arrangements to those found on his debut, but with better songs and no obligation to sound like the "new Dylan." "Rosalita," the famous concert closer, is here, but the real stunners are the two songs that bookend it on the original side 2, "Incident on 57th Street" and "New York City Serenade." The contributions of jazz pianist/organist David Sancious, who subsequently left for a solo career, are especially to be noted.

47.  Chicago II (Chicago [1970])

Hard to believe, Harry, but there was a time when Chicago was considered avant-garde and didn't write the type of saccharine love songs that would sustain their popularity a decade later. This excellent follow up to their triumphant debut shows the band's sound expanding and diversifying, with excellent songwriting contributions from trombonist James Pankow and bassist Peter Cetera joining those of keyboardist Robert Lamm. Highlights include Pankow's classically-inspired suite, “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”  and Lamm's hard rocker, “25 or 6 to 4,” including a tour de force Terry Kath guitar solo his peers could only hope to duplicate.

46.  War (U2 [1983])

“War” was U2's breakout album, and arguably still their best, with a harder musical and political edge than found in their earlier recordings. The rousing opener, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” demonstrates Bono's ability to connect current issues (in this case, the notorious “troubles” of Northern Ireland) with the implications of Christianity (here he exhorts to “claim the victory Jesus won”). Even better is the Polish Solidarity-inspired anthem, “New Year's Day.” Also of note is the closer, a reworking of Psalm 40 entitled simply “40.”

45. Bridge over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkel [1970])

Simon and Garfunkel's last album is also their best, despite the increasing distance between the old collaborators.  The exquisitely beautiful title track is Art Garfunkel's finest moment, but for my money the highlight is Simon's "The Boxer," a metaphorical examination of the immigrant life in his native New York.

44.  The River (Bruce Springsteen [1980])

The late 70s and early 80s were a prolific period for Springsteen. Here he collects a double album worth of material — less thematically and musically coherent than usual — but uniformly excellent. The album is chock full of excellent straight-ahead, roadhouse rock 'n' rollers (“Crush on You,” “You Can Look [but You Better Not Touch],” “Cadillac Ranch,” “I'm a Rocker,” “Ramrod”) and Jersey rockers (“The Ties that Bind,” “Sherry Darling,” “Out in the Street”). But he introduces more mature subject matter in the Hank Williams-inspired “Wreck on the Highway,” “Independence Day,” and the classic title cut.

43. Harvest (Neil Young [1972])

“Harvest” is Neil Young's most accessible album, and this has caused some critics to dismiss it. But such critics are wrong. His most famous song, the country rock classic, “Heart of Gold,” is found here. But it is not alone. Other standouts include the shambling country opener, “Out on the Weekend,” the blues-based rocker, “Are You Ready for the Country?”, the folk-inspired “Old Man,” the sloppy rocker, “Alabama” (which earned him a rebuke from Lynyrd Skynyrd), and the live, acoustic “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Young even got the London Symphony Orchestra to accompany him on "A Man Needs a Maid."


42.  Physical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin [1975])

No album encapsulates the vast legacy of Led Zeppelin better than “Physical Graffiti.” By this time, they continued to mine the vast riches of the blues (a terrific version of Blind Willie Johnson's “In My Time of Dying”), but their range had expanded considerably. Everything from acoustic, blues-based traditional rock 'n' roll (“Boogie with Stu,” “Black Country Woman), funk (“Trampled under Foot”), country (“Down by the Seaside”), to blistering hard rock (“Custard Pie,” “The Rover”) is found here. The high points, however, are the light and shade of “Ten Years Gone” and the almost symphonic, Middle Eastern-tinged “Kashmir,” one of the great songs in rock history.

41.  Sunrise (Elvis Presley [1999 {1954}])

 Here are Elvis's history-making earliest recordings for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. The first two songs set the template: take a blues/R&B song (Arthur Crudup's “That's All Right”) and a country/bluegrass song (Bill Monroe's “Blue Moon of Kentucky”), hop them up and create something entirely new—rockabilly. This process is explicit in his recording of Kokomo Arnold's “Milk Cow Blues.” After a suitably slow intro, he stops the band and instructs them to “get real real gone for a change.” What follows is a classic of early rockabilly/rock 'n' roll. After this, Elvis would move on to RCA and worldwide fame. But he never got better than this.

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