Monday, June 4, 2012

My Take: The Top 50 Roots/Rock Albums of All Time (##11-20)

Numbers 11-20 in my countdown of the greatest roots and rock albums ever recorded:

20.  At Fillmore East (The Allman Brothers Band [1971])

This is not only the greatest live rock album ever released, but also the standard against which all other "southern rock" groups have to be judged. Duane Allman's searing slide work is caught here on record for the last time, just three months before he was killed in a motorcycle accident.  Brother Greg's soulful vocals shine throughout, cementing his reputation as the best of all white blues singers. Highlights include the classic covers of Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" and T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday," as well as Dickey Betts's jazz/blues/rock instrumental, "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" and a 23-minute jam of Greg Allman's classic "Whipping Post."

19.  Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd [1975])

While not their most famous album, this is arguably their best (and is thought to be by both keyboardist Richard Wright and guitarist David Gilmour). Inspired by the mental illness of their late bandmate, Syd Barrett, "Wish You Were Here" consists of only 5 songs. It opens and closes with two suite-like versions of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond." Three more traditional songs, each dripping with the existentialism Roger Waters is famous for, lie in between. "Welcome to the Machine" and "Have a Cigar," the latter with lead vocals by Roy Harper and powerful guitar work from Gilmour, scathingly eviscerate the shallowness of the music industry.  The title cut is one of the loveliest and best songs Waters ever penned, and is a showcase for Gilmour's vocals and acoustic guitar work.

18.  Green River (Creedence Clearwater Revival [1969])

John Fogerty is perhaps the greatest singles writer in the history of American rock 'n roll (with the possible exception of Chuck Berry), but this, Creedence Clearwater Revival's third album, along with its successor, "Willy and the Poor Boys," demonstrate he could put together a great album as well. Here we find blistering swamp rock (the title cut, "Commotion"), country-rock ("Bad Moon Rising," "Lodi"), and Ray Charles-style R&B ("The Night Time Is the Right Time"). Not a bad song in the lot, and, needless to say, his songs, while appearing retardataire in 1969, have passed the test of time better than the vast majority of their contemporaries.

17.  Led Zeppelin IV (ZoSo) (Led Zeppelin [1971])

This is Zeppelin's most famous album, with its most famous song, "Stairway to Heaven," which many consider the #1 song in rock history. It indeed is a standout, encompassing everything from traditional English folk to blistering hard rock, with a famous Jimmy Page guitar solo at the close. But other songs shine as well: the opener, "Black Dog," a riff-based blues with complex time signatures and a classic Robert Plant vocal; "Rock and Roll," a sledgehammer take on Little Richard-style '50s rock 'n roll based on 12-bar blues chordal progression; "Going to California," a nice slice of acoustic folk; and the hard blues, "When the Levee Breaks," complete with Bonzo's thunderous drumming and a nice harmonica by Plant.

16.  Darkness on the Edge of Town (Bruce Springsteen [1978])

Three years in the making due to a bitter contractual dispute with former manager Mike Appel, this follow-up to "Born to Run" couldn't have been more dissimilar. The hopeful romantics of the previous album have become battle-weary due to the hardships and vicissitudes of life. The characters of "Racing the Street" and "Factory" know first-hand that there is a "Darkness on the Edge of Town" even as they know "it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive" and still believe in a "promised land." The thematic coherence is matched by the musically toughest set of songs Springsteen ever wrote, with slashing guitar work matching the blistering lyrics of "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Prove It All Night." All the songs are standouts, but the best is the opener, "Badlands," one of the Boss's all-time greatest songs. [Note: during the sessions that produced this album, Springsteen recorded dozens of tracks which didn't cohere musically or thematically with the album released officially.  In 2010, he released a two-disc set of some of these songs, offering definitive proof that the mid-to-late '70s was his most prolific and musically fertile period.]


15.  Let It Bleed (The Rolling Stones [1969])

Here is another album from the Stones' heyday. The opening and closing numbers (The terrifying, apocalyptic "Gimme Shelter," with a stunning guest vocal by Merry Clayton, and the philosophical "You Can't Always Get What You Want," with backing vocals by the London Bach Choir and a french horn solo by Al Kooper) would render this album a classic even if the rest of the album were mere filler. But it happily isn't: the country and blues inspired title cut, the remarkable cover of Robert Johnson's lovely "Love in Vain" (with Ry Cooder playing mandolin), and the murderous blues shuffle "Midnight Rambler" also shine.

14.  Damn the Torpedoes (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers [1979])

Thirty-three years down the road, this remains Petty's classic, even though his later, smoother "Full Moon Fever" would be more commercially successful. It is here that Petty's Rolling Stones-meet-the Byrds formula works like a finely-tuned engine.  Every song is a standout, particularly the minor key romp "Refugee" and "Here Comes My Girl," with spoken narration in the verses.  Other standouts include the R&B hit "Don't Do Me Like That," the straight-ahead rock 'n' rollers "Shadow of a Doubt," "Century City," "What Are You Doin' in My Life," and the country ballad, "Louisiana Rain." Would that Petty still played with the same grit.

13.  Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan [1965])

Nine classic songs that develop organically from the first side of his classic "Bringing It All Back Home." The title, named after the old road that ran from Dylan's home state of Minnesota down to the Mississippi Delta, is a statement itself that he considered his music to be a continuance of the glorious inheritance received from the bluesmen of old. And this album is a worthy successor indeed.  Dylan's greatest song, "Like a Rolling Stone" (on the short list of greatest songs performed by any rock artist) opens the set. Also included are such gems as the acoustic, folk-rock "Desolation Row," the blues "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," the scathing "Ballad of a Thin Man," the blues-rock "Tombstone Blues" and the rocking title cut. The addition of guitarist Michael Bloomfield toughened up Dylan's sound even as it outraged his folkie following.

12.  Howlin' Wolf/Moaning in the Moonlight (Howlin' Wolf [1959])

I'm cheating here, for these albums (combined on one disc) are compilations of Wolf's 50s singles on Chess (the brothers Chess didn't release albums at that time). But what a group of songs! From the early "Moanin' at Midnight" (hearing the 6'5'', 300 pound Wolf sing this song live must have been a terrifying experience) and "How Many More Years" to the later "Red Rooster" (covered by the Stones), "Spoonful" (covered by Cream), and "Back Door Man" (covered by the Doors), this album is one essential Chicago blues classic after another. Listening to these classics makes it clear that The Wolf was the real foundation for the music of Led Zeppelin.

11.  Chicago Transit Authority (Chicago [1969])

I know what many are thinking: "Chicago?" My response: Take a listen.  Indeed, this album comes as a shock to the many who associate this band with the ballad-heavy schlock rock they produced in the late 70s and 80s. This is the Chicago that Jimi Hendrix sought to be his opening act, with three quality vocalists (a la The Beatles) and virtuosic instrumentalists all capable of soloing at the intersection of blues-based rock, funk, and jazz.  Here we have a blend of progressive, jazz-inflected pop-rock ("Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?," "Beginnings," "Questions 67 & 68"), hard blues-rock ("South California Purples" and "Poem 58"), and hard rock bordering on heavy metal ("I'm a Man"). Two lesser-known tracks highlight this fusion perfectly: Terry Kath's "Introduction" and Robert Lamm's "Listen." Lamm's songwriting, the tight horn section (Hendrix claimed they had "one set of lungs"), and Kath's virtuosic guitar combine to make this a remarkable debut. One wonders, what happened?

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