Thursday, June 7, 2012

My Take: The Fifty Greatest Roots/Rock Albums of All Time (##1-10)

Finally, here are numbers 1-10 in my countdown of the greatest roots and rock albums ever recorded.  For numbers 11-50, see here, here, here, and here.

10.  The Great Twenty-Eight (Chuck Berry [1982 {1955-65}])

I'm cheating here, for this is a compilation of Berry sides from his 50s-60s heyday at Chess. But HERE is the place to look if one wants to know what rock 'n' roll really is, and who the greatest of its seminal artists was. One classic after another of Berry's R&B-meets-country formula, including "Maybelline" (a hopped-up remake of the Bob Wills country classic "Ida Red"), "Roll Over, Beethoven," "Carol," "Little Queenie," "Rock and Roll Music," "Memphis, Tennessee," "School Days," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Back in the U.S.A.," and the greatest of all, "Johnny B. Goode." Berry was the hero of John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Bruce Springsteen. After listening to these songs, it's easy to understand why.

9.  The Cars (The Cars [1978])

The Cars were the best of the so-called "New Wave" bands to emerge in the late '70s, and this debut album remains their best. Ric Ocasek's dry, icy, and seemingly detached vocals perfectly matched his sly and wry lyrics. This is hard guitar rock (Berklee-trained Elliot Easton shines with incisive, to-the-point solos) blended with prominent synthesizers (courtesy of Greg Hawkes) and Beatlesque harmonies. Standouts include the sarcastic and hard rocking "Just What I Needed," the minimalistic, rockabilly-inspired "My Best Friend's Girl," the heavily ironic "Good Times Roll," and the arty, almost Roxy Music-like "Moving in Stereo," which perfectly showcased the vocal talents of the late Ben Orr.

8.  Leftoverture (Kansas [1976])

Some rock critics detest so-called "progressive rock," especially following the rise of punk in the late '70s.  Sometimes they are right.  Other times, like here, they are wrong.  Kansas was the hardest rocking of all the prog rock groups of the '70s, with a distinctively American sound — due in part to Robby Steinhardt's virtuosic violin — to distinguish it from British counterparts such as Yes. It is in this, the band's fourth album, that Kerry Livgren's artistic pretensions were reigned in somewhat and a true synthesis emerged of tight, hard rock (with clear influences from boogie, folk, and country) and classical influences (in its symphonic arrangements as well as contrapuntal and fugal elements derived from Bach). The most famous song here is "Carry On Wayward Son," but the the entire album is spectacular.  Steve Walsh's compositional skills are in short supply here (perhaps contributing to the unified tone of the album), but his vocals remain the standard against which all other prog rockers must be judged.

7.  Blonde on Blonde (Bob Dylan [1966])

This double album completes Dylan's groundbreaking trilogy of rock records in the mid '60s and, for my money, this breathtaking collection is the best of the lot.  This one gets the nod, not only for its length, but for its stylistic variety.  Dylan here includes, not only rockers and folk tunes, but also straight Chicago blues ("Pledging My Time," "Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat"), achingly beautiful ballads ("Visions of Johanna," "Just Like a Woman," "I Want You," and the 11-minute long "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"), and the surreal (the heavily ironic and pun-filled "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35," including Salvation Army-style brass band accompaniment). It doesn't get much better than this.

6.  Making Movies (Dire Straits [1980])

This album is not Mark Knopfler's most popular (that would be "Brothers in Arms"). Nor does it contain his most famous song ("Sultans of Swing"). But it is here that Knopfler matured in his songwriting to expand beyond the blues- and country-based roots rock that defined Dire Straits' early sound to embrace the achingly beautiful, cinematic sound that would mark the band's (and Knopfler's) later records. Side one, consisting of "Tunnel of Love," "Romeo and Juliet," and "Skateaway," is perhaps the greatest side of music in rock history. The epic nature of the songs combines with Knopfler's tasteful guitar and Roy Bitten's (from the E Street Band) piano to add up to an essential, if underappreciated classic.  Highlights of side two include the straight-ahead rock 'n roll numbers "Expresso Love" and "Solid Rock," perhaps the hardest rocking of all Knopfler songs.

5.  Delta Blues (Son House [2003 {1941-42}])

Son House is, in my view, the greatest blues singer who ever lived. The passionate intensity of his raspy voice is matched only by the ferocity of his attack on his old national steel guitar. These recordings were made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress on the front porch of a general store in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi (one can even hear a train passing by at one point), and include such gems as "Delta Blues," "Walking Blues," and "Levee Camp Blues." Incredibly powerful stuff from one who, to quote his earliest recording in 1929, "could have been a Baptist preacher," and who lived the remainder of his 86 years a double-minded man, living between the poles of his Christian beliefs and the hard life of an alcoholic, ex-con bluesman.  One can only suppose that his unmatched musical intensity was caused by the turmoil he constantly felt within.

4.  Led Zeppelin II (Led Zeppelin [1969])

As great as their first album was, this is where Jimmy Page and company really hit their stride.  Here is blues-inflected, sledgehammer hard rock at its absolute apex, the template for a generation of inferior imitators who never understood the acoustic, traditional foundation Page utilized as the basis for his sound. 21-year-old Robert Plant's pipes still amaze, as does Page's guitar and John "Bonzo" Bonham's thunderous drumming.  The whole album is outstanding, but highlights include the hard, riff-based blues of "Whole Lotta Love" (highly reminiscent of Willie Dixon's riff-based vehicle for Muddy Waters, "You Need Love"), the light and shade of "What Is and What Should Never Be" and "Ramble On," and "Heartbeaker," with a shredding Page solo that still must be heard to be believed.

3.  Exile on Main Street (The Rolling Stones [1972])

Here is the self-proclaimed "world's greatest rock 'n' roll band" demonstrating why they deserved that moniker in the late '60s - early '70s. In this album, the Stones not only play the backbeat-heavy rock they are famous for ("Rocks Off," "Tumbling Dice"), but also pay homage to the roots genres that informed their sound: country ("Sweet Virginia," "Torn and Frayed"), gospel ("Just Want to See His Face," "Shine a Light") , old fashioned rock 'n roll (the electrifying, full-speed-ahead "Rip This Joint"), and, of course, the blues ("Turd on the Run," "Ventilator Blues," and spot-on covers of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips" and Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down," with nasty slide work from Mick Taylor).  Keith Richards even came up with the purest pop song ever recorded during the Stones' heyday, the upbeat "Happy."  The sound is as dense and murky as the songs themselves, making this an essential listening experience. With Richards's increasing heroin dependence, which wouldn't be overcome for another eight years, the direction of the group was subsequently almost exclusively determined by Mick Jagger.  As good as he was (and is), Jagger's desire to update the band's sound in accordance with more recent trends resulted in a clear downgrade in the enduring quality of their output.  This was to remain the definitive Stones album.

2.  Who's Next (The Who [1971])

Pete Townshend's songwriting matured noticeably on 1969's opera, "Tommy," and advanced no less of a degree by 1971, when this album of songs culled from an aborted project called "Lifehouse" appeared. Roger Daltrey's powerful voice rises above the thunder of Townshend's guitar, Keith Moon's manic drumming, and John "Thunderfingers" Entwhistle's unsurpassed bass. All the songs are terrific, but four rise above the rest with a majesty lifting them to the pantheon of rock's greatest songs: the opener, "Baba O'Riley," "Bargain," "Behind Blue Eyes," and the remarkable "Won't Get Fooled Again," with a powerful early synthesizer solo and the greatest scream in rock history.  The Who were the most intelligent and melodic of all hard rock bands.

1.  Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen [1975])

The Boss's string of classic albums, from 1973's "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle" to 1984's "Born in the USA," is arguably the most impressive in rock history. This album, which placed him simultaneously on the covers of Newsweek and Time, is the high point of his output and, in my view, the greatest rock album ever recorded. In an era before the rise of disco and punk, when the radios were awash in prog rock and reflective singer-songwriters, Springsteen hearkened back to the roots of rock, blending the music of Orbison, Holly, and Diddley with the lyrical sensibilities of Dylan and the sonic grandeur of Phil Spector. Born to Run marks the full maturation of Springsteen's  talent as a writer, reflecting profoundly on the intersection of youthful hopes and dreams and the often bleak reality that crushes those dreams.  Here Bruce's youthful romanticism had not yet crashed into the rocks of the disillusionment that led to "Darkness on the Edge of Town."  The album begins with the inimitable "Thunder Road" and proceeds with one classic after another, including the anthemic title cut, the R&B romp, "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," the majestic "Backstreets," and the epic closer, "Jungleland," which includes THE classic Clarence Clemons sax solo.  This is one album I play constantly and never tire of.


  1. woah... no Abbey Road or White Album or Sgt. Pepper in your 50. No "Wall" from Pink Floyd, no Cash, no Orbison, and no Jerry Lee Lewis... And did I miss SRV? Maybe I need to re-read your entire list...

  2. Sorry, missed Sgt. Pepper at #33. But maybe that's why I missed it, because I was stupefied by it's being placed *below* Chicago Transit Authority (among others).

    Are you smoking that wacky-tobacky again, Doc? Or had you gone temporarily deaf in 1967?


    1. I agree. this needs to be re-done. What an atrocity.

    2. Dave, thanks for your input. The artists and records you mentioned are all highly regarded by me. It's just that, for certain reasons I jst don't place them in the top 50. Sgt. Peppers, for instance, is a very good record (I have it ranked #33 out of the hundreds that I own, let alone the thousands I don't. As I said in my review, the first three songs are great, and the closer, "A Day in the Life," is beyond great. I just am not enamored with McCartney's pop and music hall stuff, and Harrison's Indian stuff drives me nuts. Sgt. Pepper's is undoubtedly the most culturally significant record ever recorded in that it in effect defined an era. I just don't think it holds up as well as its predecessor or such other psychedelic records as Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" or the Doors' eponymous debut. The White Album, along with Rubber Soul and their first album barely missed the cut. abbey Road, despite "Come Together," I find a bit uneven. I tend to love Lennon, but McCartney, while he is a great Little Richards-style R&B shouter, tends to the wimpy in his writing unless he hearkens back to old-time rock and roll. Over all, I rate the Stones higher than the Beatles because of their tougher, more roots/blues based material and their exponentially better rhythm section of Bill Wyman and (especially) Charlie Watts.

      Cash's "At Folsom Prison" also just missed the cut, as did "THe Wall." The latter album is similar to the Who's "Tommy" and "Quadraphenia," story-albums with a number of great songs but filler to keep the story moving. I do regard "Comfortably Numb" as the Floyd's greatest song, however.

      Of the old rock 'n rollers, the one who came closest to being included was Little Richard, though Chuck Berry was the greatest, in my mind, and the most important for the development of the music. SRV is likewise one of my favorites, and his "Texas Flood" was the last album I left off my list (I also love Clapton's "From the Cradle" and Buddy Guy's "Sweet Tea," among other albums. But I do regard Winter as the best blues guitar player of all time. Despite being born in Texas, he is the closest thing there is to a pure Mississippi blues player, and he is the undisputed master of the slide guitar and acoustic blues. His slow blues solos are simply unparalleled, and manifest an almost jazz like sensibility in his pentatonic scale improvisations.

      As to CTA, I am convinced that the lack of respect given to the band is due to the Peter Cetera-derived sappy balladry that dominated their late '70s and '80s albums. When they started in '69 and '70 they were regarded as one of the most important, avant-garde acts in rock. CTA itself contains none of what would later define Chicago to the masses. Three of the four hits on the album are based on a progressive jazz fusion, and the fourth, "I'm a Man," borders on heavy metal. The sheer instrumental virtuosity simply amazes. Hendrix himself considered Kath to be the world's best guitar player. And the horns were both tight (with remarkable charts written by James Pankow) and capable of excellent soloing (case in point: both "Introduction" and "Beginnings" on CTA -- as a jazz trumpeter in an earlier incarnation, I can vouch for their skill). After 1972, Chicago's output was more miss than hit. Before that, it was the opposite, especially in the first two albums, both on my list.

    3. Yo Jim - absolutely McGahey-esque. Loved Blond on Blond in the top ten. This is indeed his best. And I can't argue with BTR as #1. . . for a lot of reasons.

  3. These lists are hard to make. I don't think I'd have the stones to make one, me self.

    1. They are almost impossible. For me, the top 4 are set in stone, the next 20 or so are indistinguishable, the next 40 after that indistinguishable. Some days I am in the mood for blues, other days jazz, other days classical, etc. What I prefer is often dependent on what mood I'm in.