26
Oct
15

Extended Listening: My Favorite Albums

I like to listen to whole albums. Sure, there are a few one-hit wonders that never get old (see Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and Exhibit C), but I generally prefer to put on a record and let the whole thing play. I feel like this habit both pays duly deserved homage to truly talented artists who work for more than hit singles and rewards me with an ongoing aesthetic experience, more like reading a good novel than like catching a thirty-minute sitcom.

That being said, there aren’t very many albums I can sit down and listen to, end to end, without wanting to skip a single song. There’s a clunker on almost every record. A record that’s engaging all the way through is a beautiful thing indeed. Therefore, I present to you some of my favorite records, albums I consider true, sustained artistic achievements.

Blood Sweat & Tears, eponymous (1968)

BST

This album blows my mind. The fusion of rock, soul, and jazz is decades ahead of its time. A bold horn section is the most prevalent instrumental presence in most songs, layered against the gravely, confident, soaring vocals of David Clayton-Thomas. The arrangements on this record are continuously interesting because of the incredible variety of instruments involved. Here’s the list of band members and their responsibilities, excerpted from WikiPedia:

David Clayton-Thomas – lead vocals except as noted
Lew Soloff – trumpet, flugelhorn
Bobby Colomby – drums, percussion, vocals
Jim Fielder – bass
Dick Halligan – organ, piano, flute, trombone, vocals
Steve Katz – guitar, harmonica, vocals, lead vocals on “Sometimes In Winter”
Fred Lipsius – alto saxophone, piano
Chuck Winfield – trumpet, flugelhorn
Jerry Hyman – trombone, recorder

There’s a flugelhorn! On a rock and roll record! You don’t see that every day.

The two most popular tracks on this record are “Spinning Wheel” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” both of which are fantastic, but my favorite is “More and More.” The vocal power and the funky horns in this track surprise me every time.

Sadly, while the band continued to record for many years, the personnel changed constantly, and they never again sounded as inspired as they did on this record.

East Nashville Skyline, Todd Snider (2004)

ENS

Todd Snider is a latter-day hippie who’s got a quirky sense of humor and a keen eye for the ridiculous and bizarre goings-on of everyday life. Most of his songs are straightforward guy-and-a-guitar Americana, but occasionally he breaks out a blues tune, a romping rock and roller, or an intensely poignant ballad. He’s a musical renaissance man, and I kind of think he’s a genius. This record is his finest work.

I don’t know that Snider has ever had what I would call a radio hit. “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” got some air time in the mid 90s, and I recall hearing “All Right Guy” a few times when I was a teenager, but I’d imagine most people don’t remember those songs very well. I’m not too surprised that Todd Snider isn’t played much on the radio. His brand of political and social commentary tends to anger people. Before you decide this is a reason to avoid him, though, listen more closely. Even as he ridicules one side, he subtly pokes fun at their opponents, too. The song “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” is plainly and obviously a criticism of the people named in the song. That’s not all, though. The chorus contrasts the title characters against “Tree huggin’, peace lovin’, pot smokin’, porn watchin’ lazyass hippies like me.” Nobody is immune from scorn.

This kind of “everyone–including me–is ridiculous” humor reminds me of Mark Twain. The artist criticizes the society in which he lives, and of which he himself is a product. It’s as much introspection as it is social commentary.

Of course, that’s not to say every song on the record is serious. Some of them are just fun. Take for example “Iron Mike’s Main Man’s Last Request” or “Tillamook County Jail.” They’re perfect driving-with-the-windows-down-and-singing-along songs.

Blue, Joni Mitchell (1971)

Blue

As I was saying to FlashCap over lunch today, if I had to choose just one album to listen to for the rest of my life, I think I’d choose Blue. It’s just heart-wrenchingly beautiful from beginning to end. The arrangements are simple. Most tracks are just Joni and one of the instruments she plays: guitar, piano, or dulcimer. The most notable secondary musician on the record is James Taylor, who plays guitar on “California,” “All I Want,” and “A Case of You.”

This is not a record most people enjoy on the first listen. Joni’s voice is high, and she modulates frequently. Of course, that’s my description. Those who don’t like it describe her voice as “screechy and warbly.” I’d encourage you to listen to the whole album at least twice before making a judgment. What I hear is total control.

My love for this record stems from one simple truth: I’ve never heard a single artist who is so clearly at the peak of her creative powers. Every song on this album stands alone as a remarkable achievement; together, they create a musical collage that perfectly captures the complex, pained, exuberant, hopeful mind of a creative genius. The stripped-down production forces Joni’s playing and singing to the forefront, and nothing else (not even James Taylor) is important.

The one track from this record that most people have heard is “River.” My favorite is “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” I feel compelled to quote the lyrics in full because they’re perfect:

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68,
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday:
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.
“You laugh,” he says. “You think you’re immune, go look at your eyes
They’re full of moon.
You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies, pretty lies.
When you gonna realize they’re only pretty lies?
Only pretty lies, just pretty lies.

He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr.
And a bar maid came by in fishnet stockings and a bow tie,
And she said “Drink up now; it’s gettin’ on time to close.”
“Richard, you haven’t really changed,” I said.
“It’s just that now you’re romanticizing some pain that’s in your head.
You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs
You punched are dreams.
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet.
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet.”

Richard got married to a figure skater,
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator.
He drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright.
I’m gonna blow this damn candle out.
I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table;
I got nothing to talk to anybody about.
All good dreamers pass this way some day,
Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes.
Dark cafes:
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
And fly away.
Only a phase, these dark cafe days.

Listen to that song and read the lyrics. Tell me it doesn’t speak to you.

Rubberneck, Toadies (1994)

Rubberneck_album_cover

A lot, and I mean A LOT, of good rock and roll happened in the 90s. Now that the dust has had 15 years to settle, I find that this is my favorite album of the decade. Here’s complete list of the reasons why I love this record:

  • It kicks ass.

Well, that was easy. To expand a bit, Rubberneck is everything I want in a rock and roll record. The playing is fast and catchy, and the lyrics beg you to sing along. There is no political undertone. There is no social commentary. There’s just the standard four-piece rock band having a good time and playing loud.

I’ve heard many people explain why they don’t love this record. They say it’s too pop-y. They say it doesn’t address important ideas. They say it’s derivative of Alice In Chains and Stone Temple Pilots. They say lots of things. They’re wrong. None of those is a good reason to ignore a killer rock and roll record. Quit thinking so hard about rocking and just ROCK, people.

The well-known tracks from this record are “Possum Kingdom” and “Tyler.” If I had my way, “I Come From the Water” would have been a huge hit, too. It’s a fantastic song. It’s got that stop/start dynamic that makes people jump around and wail on the air guitar.

Rain Dogs, Tom Waits (1985)

Tom_Waits_-_Rain_Dogs

What, you thought the 80s was all about catchy pop songs and ill-advised fashion choices? Au conrtraire! Rain Dogs is the precise opposite of 80s pop. It’s gritty, strange, raw, and kind of atonal. Tom Waits is no crooner, either. Jeff Dunn writes:

Waits’ voice was described by music critic Daniel Durchholz as “sounding like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” I’ve described him as sounding like he swallowed an angry cat that is now clawing its way out of Waits’ throat. Tony Bennent he ain’t. But that’s what makes him so real. He records songs exactly the way he wants to. He makes instruments from things he finds in junkyards and records on old tape recorders that really should be in junkyards. On his latest album he sings a duet with Keith Richards. Waits’ voice is so raw he actually makes Keef sound good. Oh, but he is real.

That sense of being “real,” being emotionally invested in the songs and not caring whether it’s pretty or not is the trademark of Waits’ sound. For a sample of Waits’ wonderful not-beautiful singing, sample “Cemetery Polka.” Many of the sounds on this record aren’t sounds you’d normally associate with music at all. For instance, the percussion in “Gun Street Girl” sounds like somebody hitting a pipe with a wrench. If you give these songs an honest chance, though, you’ll find that they’re interesting, entrancing, and even brilliant. Even while they’re jarring, many songs on this album also feature an incredible variety of instruments: marimba, bowed saw, saxophone, accordion, trombone, banjo, pump organ, congas, and violin.

Before you decide that this album is all about celebrating artistically appropriate ugliness, listen to a couple of other songs. “Time” is a beautiful poetic love song that would be at home on any radio-friendly album, and the melodic contemplation “Downtown Train” is so catchy that Rod Stewart re-recorded it 1989 to notable radio success. Mary Chapin-Carpenter and Bob Seger have also covered the song.

This album makes me thump on the dashboard while I drive, dance in the seat, and growl the lyrics in my nastiest baritone. It’s glorious and liberating. I suggest you try it.

Several other albums also fit the criteria of this post, and I’ll likely add to it in the future. In the meantime, track down some of the records I’ve listed above. Let me know what you think.

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