Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Take: The Top 50 Roots/Rock Albums of All Time (##31-40)

Here are numbers 31-40 in my countdown of greatest rock and roots records of all time.

40.  Aja (Steely Dan [1977])

No band, not even Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears, ever incorporated jazz into their rock music more seamlessly or without pretension than Steely Dan.  By the time of this, their 6th album, the "group" in effect consisted of Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and an impressive assortment of session musicians.  Nonetheless, this represents their high water mark in songwriting, arrangements, and production values.  The album contains two bona fide hits, "Peg" (with a wonderful guitar solo from Jay Graydon) and the classic "Deacon Blues."  Indeed, rock is eclipsed in this song cycle by jazz, R&B, and pop, evidenced most spectacularly in the opener, "Black Cow," and the complex title track, graced with a great tenor solo by Wayne Shorter.

39.  Hard Again (Muddy Waters [1977])

 Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) was the greatest of all Mississippi-bred Chicago blues singers. His classic Chess records, recorded in the late 40s and 50s, remain the cornerstones of the genre. By 1976 the 64 year-old Waters was an elder statesman, and Johnny Winter got him a recording contract with Epic. The first fruits of this partnership was this album, which contains one Chicago blues classic after another, played brilliantly by Waters, the deferential Winter, and Waters's touring band. The pinnacle arrives at the outset, with a thrilling remake of Muddy's swaggering "Mannish Boy." HERE is the blues in all its glory.

38.  Sticky Fingers (The Rolling Stones [1971])

Though this album does not contain much of the up-tempo blues-rock for which the Stones are famous, one it does include is an all-time classic, the sleazy, tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek "Brown Sugar," based on an inimitable Keith Richards riff and containing a sneering Mick Jagger vocal. Mick Taylor provides some nice lead guitar work in the coda of "Can't You Here Me Knocking?" And the lads shine on the delta blues of "I Got the Blues," the country of "Dead Flowers," and the beautiful closer, "Moonlight Mile." But the surprise star is the beautiful, irony-free — rare for Jagger — and affecting country ballad, "Wild Horses."

37.  Hotel California (The Eagles [1976])

Before this album, the Eagles were a successful California-rock band with a string of deservedly-successful singles. For this album they toughened their sound up considerably with the addition of blues/rock guitarist Joe Walsh without losing any of their former strengths. The metaphorical and musically complex title cut (with a dueling, flamenco-inspired guitar solo in the coda by Walsh and Don Felder), the country ballad "New Kid in Town," and the tough rockers "Life in the Fast Lane" and "Victim of Love" shine, but the real star is the epic social commentary, "The Last Resort."

36.  Tonight's the Night (Neil Young [1975])

This album, to put it mildly, is not an easy first listen — inconsistent tempos at times, sloppy playing, and Young's always-shaky voice cracking and straining at the high notes — but it is one that rewards patient and repeated exposure. The sloppiness reflects the pain that lies at the heart of the record caused by the recent, heroin-caused deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and CSN&Y roadie Bruce Berry, the latter memorialized on the haunting title track. Other standouts include "Tired Eyes," the classic Crazy Horse country rocker "World on a String," and the melancholy, reflective "Roll Another Number" and "Albuquerque."

35.  Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Derek and the Dominoes [1970])

Here is the band with the greatest guitar section of all-time: Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. The two-part title song (written by Clapton about George Harrison's then-wife, Pattie Boyd) is one of the greatest songs ever recorded, with Allman's slide adding immeasurably to the appeal of the piano figure dominating the second half. The other hit is Clapton's "Bell Bottom Blues," but the real gem is their blistering cover of Billy Myles's "Have You Ever Loved a Woman?" Clapton's strained, passionate vocals convey the most profound of human emotions, and the guitar interplay of Clapton and Allman produces goose flesh.

34.  Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan [1975])

Blood on the Tracks finds Dylan in a transparently reflective mood, at times bitter, at times wistful, at times sorrowful (which may or may not relate to the breakup of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, depending if you take his word or that of his son, Jakob).  The best track is, no doubt, the multi-layered folk rock classic "Tangled Up in Blue," but classics abound: the beautiful "Simple Twist of Fate," the bitter put-down "Idiot Wind," and especially the regretful "Shelter from the Storm," chock full of metaphorical Christ references and lament over how he had thrown away the love of one who had provided shelter to him while he was "burned out," "buried," "poisoned," "hunted," and "ravaged."

33.  Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles [1967])

This record is considered by many, including Rolling Stone, to be the greatest album of all time.  No doubt it is the most historically significant in its use of innovative recording techniques and its undisputed status as the pinnacle of psychedelia.  Likewise, its sheer diversity of musical forms and influences, from rock 'n roll to music hall to Indian to classical, are noteworthy.  Nevertheless, in my view, the songs themselves are somewhat inconsistent, some being slight ("Lovely Rita"), others hardly worthy of the Beatles' talent ("Good Morning, Good Morning"), and others almost unlistenable (Harrison's "Within You Without You").  On the other hand, the opening three songs (the title cut, "With a Little Help from My Friends," and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds") are outstanding, and the closer, "A Day in the Life," is the greatest song the band ever recorded, and among the best ever recorded by any rock artist.

32.  Nebraska (Bruce Springsteen [1982])

One hundred years down the road, this album may become the Boss's most respected work. Dissatisfied by his attempts to arrange these songs for the E Street Band, Bruce decided to release these austere, acoustic demos. The bleakest of his albums until 1995's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Nebraska" is populated by lost working class characters who largely fail to navigate the streams of a hard life, even while many find some "Reason to Believe" at the end of the day. Standouts include the title cut, written from the standpoint of 1959 serial killer Charlie Starkweather, "Atlantic City," in which a man contemplates a job working for the mob in the newly-transformed gaming town," the blues-soaked, despair-filled "Johnny 99," the tale of fraternal betrayal and loyalty, "Highway Patrolman," the straight-ahead Chuck Berry-style rocker, "Open All Night," and the tense, foreboding "State Trooper," whose protagonist — implicitly on the run from police for some unmentioned crime — hopes not to get stopped by the trooper, but concludes with the nihilistic "prayer," "Hey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer/Hiho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere."

31.  The Doors (The Doors [1967])

The Doors' debut remains by far their best album. Jim Morrison's rich baritone is complemented well by Robby Krieger's tasteful, understated guitar and Ray Manzarek's funereal organ in this group of songs that mix blues, jazz, and classical elements into their psychedelic rock stew.  "Break on Through (to the Other Side)," "Twentieth Century Fox," "Soul Kitchen," "The Crystal Ship," Willie Dixon's "Back Door Man," and the overblown, Oedipal "The End" are all here.  But the undisputed highlight is Krieger's "Light My Fire," which defined the organ-driven blues psychedelia that characterized the band at its best.

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