Below is a post I made on a forum I sometimes contribute to. It was in answer to an initial post from a younger person asking for recommendations on older (to him, anyway) rock music, and then another post asking for top 10 lists. As I stated in an even later post, I just sat down to kill a little time during a rain delay in a Braves telecast, and the pompous spewage began.
Anyone who has seen or read High Fidelity knows asking a music geek to make a list is stiffy-inducing bidness. So I cheated. I made 5 lists. Someone, as Greil Marcus once noted, must take responsibility for tradition. So sue me.
The criteria was fairly simple. Since this is basically an old fart’s thread, every release mentioned has to be at least thirty years old. The only exceptions would be the compilations, which were merely documenting sides that were cut over thirty years ago.
Also, no artist will be cited twice. So while Astral Weeks or Moondance probably deserve to be somewhere in that top 20, I opted to let Van Morrison be represented by his epochal live album. James Brown will be represented by Live at the Apollo, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a copy of 20 Greatest Hits, the single disc digest of the Startime boxset. And if it means Sticky Fingers or Abby Road is unmentioned, well, life will go on.
The first list is the main one, the one requested. It is pretty much an essential group for anyone’s rock library. They will reward repeated listening, and their expression is as strong as their influence, which, in every case, is immense. They can (and probably should) be listened to for historical and academic purposes. But, more important, they should be enjoyed.
The second list is one of compilations. Before Pet Sounds turned rock into an album-focused form, it’s greatest practitioners dealt in the idiom of the single. Artists didn’t record albums, they recorded “sides”, put out as economic, stand-alone, artistic statements. Early rock artists considered albums mere incidental collections, and that aesthetic was championed by some artists even after the album’s emergence as the dominant medium of choice. These artists deserve to be recognized, even though they may not have released albums that hung together as a cohesive statement. And the compilations listed are as essential as anything on the first list. In a few cases, more so.
As an aside, many of the artists here have, available, 3-. 4-, and more disc box-set anthologies, of varying degree and worth. For the sake of convenience, expedience, and expense, none are listed here. Although a couple, like the Bo Diddly set, are two disc compilations in an unwieldy box format.
The third list is simply the next best ten albums. But any one of them could safely be placed on the first list without much argument. The well-rounded geek will have working knowledge of these, as well.
Fourth list is of personal favorites and quirky albums that may not be for every taste, but will still reward certain listeners. And if they may not be considered essential, those wishing to understand the genre and expand their horizons would do well to lend an ear.
Fifth list is of live albums, an altogether different beast. Most live albums serve as anthological overviews at best, contractual obligations at worst. The albums listed transcend those confining parameters, and present live performances that differ enough from their studio correspondents, or just put them over with more verve, so as to make them worthy aesthetic statements in their own right.
Also, except for the first list, they are in no particular order.
Let It Bleed -The Rolling Stones
If you were to put a gun to my head and tell me to name the greatest rock and roll album (so far…who knows what awaits?), there would be no hesitation. Not just for sheer invention and expression, but for balls-out swing. “Gimme Shelter” opens the album, and I feel about it just as I feel about the album as a whole; it is the apotheosis of the a genre, from Keith Richards‘ re-engineering Chuck Berry into something far more intimidating, to the chicken skin call and response between Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton. Plus, the awesomeness of Charlie Watts, who single-handedly defines rock drumming not just by sheer wallop, but by underscoring the melody (especially on the chorus) without overwhelming it or losing the groove. And that is just the first cut. The title cut and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” are on the same level, and even such "filler" as “Monkey Man” or “Live With Me” is miles beyond what is passed off as a “masterpiece” by those of lesser heft.
Who’s Next - The Who
If you were to put a gun to my head and ask me to name the greatest rock and roll album of all time, there would be no hesitation; it would be Let It Bleed. BUT…in the back of my mind, there would be a little voice screaming “What about Who’s Next, you dumbass?” Preceded by the worthy silliness of Tommy, and followed by the lofty but soggy pretensions of Quadrophenia, Who’s Next avoids those pitfalls, and stands as a stunning and economical distillation of angst and liberation. Bookended by legitimate anthems (“Baba O‘Riley“ and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”), it never lets up. And culminates in the greatest scream in the history of the human larynx.
Bringing it All Back Home - Bob Dylan
Many will pick Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, but BIABH, free from the historical weightiness of the former and the excess of the latter, stands as Dylan’s most purely expressive and inventive work. And it rocks more effortlessly than either.
Music From Big Pink -The Band
American music done up pure and plaintive in parts, volcanic and hillbilly funky in others, then both all mixed up. This album heals.
London Calling - The Clash
A vinyl record could, at one time, allow for 24 minutes of music per side. 48 minutes an album. Sometimes, an artist would have a feverish burst of creativity, and release a “double album” two albums released together, because 48 minutes was simply not enough to contain it. Now, due to CD technology, double albums are far less prevalent; you can, after all, get up to 80 minutes of sound on a compact disc. Still, doubles were cool, because they simply had a lot of stuff to dig through. And most of the artists who released them were artists of higher stature; record companies were reluctant to release doubles by those not capable. That said: I know about Layla, Exile on Main Street, The Wall, The White Album, 1999, Eat A Peach, Blonde on Blonde, Songs in the Key of Life, The River, Trout Mask Replica, and Electric Ladyland. London Calling is still the best double album of the rock era. Lean, insightful, and vicious, it not only defined a movement, it broke through the self-imposed irony of it’s more visible but less capable adherents, and touched a genuinely raw and human nerve.
Truthfully? Between this, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, or The White Album? Just pick one. Revolver is my personal favorite for it’s overwhelming melodic hookage and it’s introduction of George Harrison as more than just a sideman thrown a bone.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs - Derek and the Dominos
Son, this is the sound of a real man crying.
In a nutshell? Eric Clapton fell in love with his friend George Harrison’s wife, and crafted an astonishing set, a bluesy two-record rumination on love and it’s consequence. As charged with personal emotion as any work listed, the album never lags, but lets up on the intensity just enough to catch your breath and enjoy the melody; then it’s back on the horse. Clapton’s guitar duet with Duane Allman on the title cut is the summit, rock guitar at it’s most highly mastered and felt.
Born to Run -Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Bob Dylan as a Jersey street urchin filtered through Phil Spector, hard rhythm and blues, and the Dave Clark Five. If you can keep from raising your hand and grinning from ear to ear when he screams “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run”, then you are in the wrong blog. Go find one about needlepoint or candle making, and take your Enya and John Tesh records with you when you go.
Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys
They were capable of rocking; their earlier sides and their 1973 live album proved that. Pet Sounds, though, is a glorious pop masterpiece, a lush and symphonic swirl of intense harmony and melodic structure that makes sense of it’s often sloppy sentimentality. May initially be a little sticky for some tastes, but the sheer musicality will eventually win you over.
What’s Going On - Marvin Gaye
One of those records that you think will sound dated, then you put it on, and it just slaps you sideways. Sonically adventurous, and James Jamerson’s finest moment. Modern Soul with a conscience that questions the inequities most modern soul and rap artists choose to ignore.
The Great Twenty-Eight -Chuck Berry
With the possible exception of the Robert Johnson box set, there is no more reliable blueprint for what Rock and Roll would become. In a recent interview, Bob Dylan cites Berry as standing alone at the pinnacle, and calls him (correctly) the genre’s “greatest poet”. For the record, yeah, he is viciously mercenary and a genuinely weird cat, and he probably stole his signature lick from his pianist, the great Johnnie Johnson. It diminishes the brilliance of these songs no less.
This sound quality of this set is not great, and there are better sounding and more comprehensive sets. But for a single disc sampler, this one is the most solid from beginning to end.
The Sun Sessions - Elvis Presley
I think it was Lester Bangs who once said, when speaking to a fellow rock critic, that “Elvis was probably the last thing we will all agree on”. And it seems criminal to ignore the great early RCA sides he did. But this set may be the most essential one on the list. The idea of Rock and Roll as a mainstream entity would not have existed without the performances here, and it retains a vibrant groove that still resonates a half a century later.
Anthology - Sly and the Family Stone
If your feet remain still while listening to this, then Haley Joel Osment can now see you. James Brown had already produced socially charged soul music, and Funkadelic would later take it to it’s inevitable transcendence, but nobody did it as smoothly or accessibly as Sly. As writer Joel Selvin stated “There are two types of black music: black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone.”
Chronicle - Creedence Clearwater Revival
Less subtle and more cynical than The Band, but no less effective, CCR put it’s faith in the music on the line as no one this side of Bruce Springsteen has been able to do. The original “roots” band, who flied in the face of what was then convention, they even made a ten minute version of “Heard It Through the Grapevine” sound less indulgent than urgent. And, John Fogerty’s cries to the contrary, the magic lies in the communal grooves, not the copyrights.
Chess Box-Bo Diddley
The most underrated of all of rock’s founding fathers, Bo took the blues in new and weird directions, the famed “Bo Diddley Beat” being merely one of his innovations. Darker than Chuck Berry, scarier than Jerry Lee Lewis, and meaner than Little Richard, Bo was the real father of testosterone drenched genres like heavy metal and rap, possessing a sly sense of humor and capable of walking a line of braggadocio that never loses it’s verve; it never has to engage in the silliness into which metalheads and rappers often lapse. Never afraid of experimentation, even to the point of picking up a violin (his first instrument, actually) to record “The Clock Strikes Twelve”. Plus, he was a surfing gunslinger.
18 Original Greatest Hits - Jerry Lee Lewis
The word “primal” was invented for Jerry Lee Lewis. Possessor of white-trash voodoo and playing a wild, gospel-inspired piano, and putting on a live show that nobody wanted to follow, he produced the cuts on this Sun sampler while in his prime, which may have burned hotter than anyone else, including Elvis.
The Very Best of Otis Redding, Vol 1 (Rhino)
Otis is still the standard against which not just southern soul, but southern music, is measured. This is just a sampler.
The Georgia Peach-Little Richard
Be careful, because the Little Richard library is littered (as are many of the early artists mentioned) with shoddy "greatest hits" packages that are not the original hits, but live recordings, radio shows, or even studio re-recordings. Frankly, I'm not even sure The Georgia Peach is still in print. The important thing to remember is to get the Specialty recordings, which may or may not be licensed out to other labels; seriously, stay away from anything that doesn't say "Specialty" on it, it is garbage.
This collection, though, influenced by jump-blues artists like Louis Jordan, will bounce out of your speakers.
The Kink Kronikles - The Kinks
Ray Davies and band were capable of producing great albums, and this collection excludes their great early sides. Still, these cuts, a compilation of stuff released between 1967 and 1970, is the band at it's best. Quirky, cinematic, and constantly walking the line between sentimental and sarcastic.
Byrds Greatest Hits (1999/Expanded)
Because they went through a few incarnations, from jangly folk-rockers to hippy experimentalists to epochal alt-country architects, one would be advised to seek out the box set to get the full picture. But there is not a car radio in the world that wouldn’t sound better with “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Eight Miles High” blasting out of it. Yes, they spawned David Crosby, and for that, they should be ashamed. That brain dead walrus went on to foment wimp-rock, and remains one of the biggest wastes of sperm the genre has produced. Still, in the Byrds, his candy-ass leanings were tempered before they got too far.
BUBBLING UNDER, BUT STILL ESSENTIAL
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You - Aretha Franklin
One of Soul’s first fully formed albums, an unintentional song cycle that inspires and empowers. Plus, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section is up to the challenge laid down by Booker T. and the M.G.s and the Funk Brothers.
Are You Experienced - The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The sonic revolution, started by Cream, made fully manifest. The Aquarian Hippy Bluesman persona had the stagecraft and vocal personality to complement his guitar virtuosity, which is still singularly heroic. Yeah, the lyrics are goofy. Doesn’t matter; they still work.
Armed Forces - Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Still the highlight of an amazing career. More of a singles act, at this point, this album (originally titled Emotional Fascism) stands as a thrilling, self-aware collection. Lyrically ambitious, with the Attractions steaming along and pushing every angry point, sometimes wrapping things up in dense contradictions that can only be fully expressed sonically.
Every Picture Tells Story-Rod Stewart
See, at one time, Rod could sing, really sing, and peeled off layer after layer of any song he put his throat to. This collection of hard (but acoustic based) folkie rock is criminally underrated today. It still snaps when you hear it, and Mick Waller’s drumming, which has been described as “cataclysmic” is as simple and soulful as anything this side of "Gimme Shelter".
I remember this one coming out of nowhere. One American Girl and three Brits craft an album of emotional contradictions and musical swagger, using tricky time signatures previously attempted (with much less nimble results) only by hoary proggers. Plus, Chrissie Hynde puts the ideas through without the clumsy aping of blues and and RnB clichés most non-punk vocalists of the time were guilty of.
IV - Led Zeppelin
Frankly, i don’t care if I ever hear it again, but only a fool would deny it’s impact.
Imagine -John Lennon
If it doesn’t quite have the melodic variety to rank with the best of the Beatle’s work, it’s only a notch below. Plus, he pretty much keeps Yoko’s trap shut, giving the album a less caustic vibe than Plastic Ono Band.
The Velvet Underground
As the saying goes, it only sold a few thousand, but everyone who bought it went on to form a band. Haunting, cynical, and minimalist, but not without a certain warmth.
Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd
Never a personal favorite, but I have had a copy in every incarnation, even 8-track. It just seems to be one you have to have for certain moments, I guess. Anything that sells twelve zillion copies has to have something going for it, beyond gimmicky sound effects and aural trickery. Like hooks, melody, and the chilling bravado of Clare Torry’s vocals on “Great Gig in the Sky”. I used to casually dismiss it as mere stoner muzak, but I was wrong.
Dusty in Memphis - Dusty Springfield
Several other albums could easily have gone on this list; Rocks by Aerosmith, or Damn the Torpedos by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, to cite a couple of personal favorites that just missed the cut. But the graceful groove of DIM, ahead of it’s time in many ways, should be heard. It is sadly overlooked today. Probably the most “grown up” record listed, with Dusty’s gentle voice rolling against the subtle percolation of the Memphis Cats, a session aggregation that had provided a more suitably muscular groove for Elvis and RnB stalwarts like Wilson Pickett.
PERSONAL FAVORITES AND ODDBALL CLASSICS
Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School - Warren Zevon
Not as commercially successful as Excitable Boy, or as mature as Sentimental Hygiene, this remains a successful failed experiment. From the orchestral interludes to the Springsteen collaboration to the spirited but quirky cover (Ernie K. Doe’s “A Certain Girl”) to the near abrasiveness of the title track, everything about this album screams “genius headed for a breakdown, and enjoying the ride”.
Marquee Moon - Television
This album was so far ahead of it's time when it was released three decades ago. Maybe now the rest of the world has caught up with it. The quirky tonalities certainly seem less jarring and more familiar, without losing their bite. Give each piece sometime to sink in, don't just toss it if it doesn't tickle your nutsack right off the bat.
Southern Accents - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
A song cycle about rednecks, from the redneck’s point of view. Often forgotten about in the Tom Petty canon, this collection ranges from the anthemic (“Rebels” ) to the elegiac (the title cut) to the just plain weird (“Don’t Come Around Here No More”) to the caustically revelatory (“Spike”) to the heart-broken bittersweet (“Wherever You Are Tonight”).
Trout Mask Replica - Captain Beefheart and His Magic band
Jarring and not for the faint-hearted, sometimes dissonant and seemingly ragged, moving through delta blues and free jazz into some weird nether world of sonic discombobulation, with “a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous” being just one of the more interesting lyrical passages, one that includes ruminations on the holocaust, depression by association, and dead bodies. Oh, and household tools and bugs. Plus, two instrumentals named after cunnilingus. All carefully structured and not the free-for-all it sounds like. It’s forty years old, and still way ahead of it’s time.
Best of the Staple Singers
This collection from Stax contains their best known secular work. Funky in the best sense of the word, but more subtle than most of their contemporaries. And no one sings like Mavis Staples. No one.
Katy Lied - Steely Dan
Obtuse lyricism and Brubeck-inspired studio rock? That sounds like a recipe for shit, but there’s enough self-aware humor and musical invention to carry it.
Good Old Boys -Randy Newman
A song cycle about rednecks, from a non-redneck’s point of view. Far more encompassing and objective than one might think. Already talked about in this thread, at length, but it was one of the first records that made me aware of the cinematic dimensions rock music could possess.
Second Helping - Lynyrd Skynyrd
A collection of songs by a bunch of rednecks. Ronnie Van Zant was Springsteen for the working class south. Actually, that’s not true; Springsteen was the Ronnie Van Zant of the working class northeast. Skynyrd fell too easily into caricature, and their bone-headed use of the confederate flag (which, according to some biographies, Van Zant never wanted in the first place and was trying to get rid of) hid a message of simultaneous community and independence. One of Pete Townshend’s favorite bands, and wildly popular in Europe, they had a universality that transcended the ugly symbolism they were saddled with. The only three guitar band that ever really realized the possible depth of their attack. This album is more efficient and focused than their debut (ain’t no “Freebird” here), and if it is a bit too broad lyrically in parts, the point still gets hammered home. “Needle and the Spoon” is no less a southern gothic classic than anything this side of Flannery O’Connor, and “Working for MCA” bit the hand that fed it as Elvis Costello only threatened to do.
Greatest Hits, vol 2 - Al Green
This Motown collection may not have the breadth of his later work, like The Belle Album, or even contain his biggest hit (“Tired of Being Alone”), but it has the hidden classic “Love and Happiness”, plus the better known and often covered “Take Me To the River”, as well as proof of Green’s mastery of song, with his cover of the Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times”.
Second Edition (Metal Box) - Public Image, Ltd.
Hypnotic, entrancing, and sometimes scary. A dissonant, quasi-hallucinatory sonic throb. Post-punk hits the dancefloor, underwater and head first.
ESSENTIAL LIVE ALBUMS
Live at the Fillmore - The Allman Brothers
Jazz-like in it’s sense of musical adventure, Fillmore may have opened the door for dozens of long, dull southern rock “guitar excursions”, but don’t hold them responsible for the sins of those less capable. There may be long instrumental passages here, much, much much, MUCH more than your standard “bridge between choruses” solo structuring would allow. But there are no wasted notes, the sense of interplay is nothing short of astounding (not just the twin guitars, but a rhythm section proves that two drummers can not only work, but thrive), and Gregg Allman is one of the great blues singers, white or black, of the last forty years.
It’s Too Late to Stop Now - Van Morrision
Spirited and orchestrally fleshed out versions of his finer works, including a dazzling live “Cypress Avenue”. Plus, a couple of covers that reveal Morrison’s blues roots. Live albums rarely achieve the sense of dynamics this record has.
The Name of This Band is the Talking Heads -The Talking Heads
Coming out before Stop Making Sense, and featuring the extended lineup they had begun to utilize, this is one of the more exploratory live albums ever. Expanding on the originals, and growing far beyond their “punk” roots, it’s versions are reworked and built upon, not just parroted. Stop Making Sense was a fine souvenir, but this is an adventure.
Live at Budokan - Cheap Trick
Never intended for domestic release, it proved so popular it caused the release of Dream Police to be pushed back, and probably, in hindsight, did more damage to their career than good. Still, spirited versions and a few til-then unreleased tracks, it has since been released in an extended version that is worth the price. One of the best live bands of the seventies.
Live and in Living Color - Tower of Power
The Oakland based funk ensemble is here due to the blistering “What is Hip” and a stunning (there is no other word) 23 minute “Knock Yourself Out” that features one of the most amazing solos of the rock era, Lenny Pickett’s astonishing alto workout (Pickett, as an FYI, is the current leader of the Saturday Night Live house band). Pretty damn amazing.
Made in Japan - Deep Purple
The classic version of the band, burning through extended versions of their catalog. Sometimes called founding fathers of both heavy metal and progressive rock, this album shows them for the white British blues mavens they were. Excessive, showy, and in your face? Yes…and those are some of the good points.
Live at the Apollo - James Brown
You may break a sweat just listening to it. Nasty stuff. It’s essentialism is not negotiable.
Waiting for Columbus - Little Feat
A mixed-gumbo, hard to categorize bands from their inception, this live set finds them augmented by the Tower of Power horn section. Soulful, gritty, and mildly experimental (I mean, Lowell George was a Mother of Invention, for Pete’s sake) and lyrically unique.
Kick Out the Jams - MC5
May be the first punk rock album. Loud, abrasive, and teetering on the edge of anarchy. Politically silly, but strong enough in their conviction to momentarily sway even the most skeptical, at least in regards to noble ideology trumping complacency. And make sure you get the uncensored version: “KICK OUT THE JAMS, BROTHERS AND SISTERS” just doesn’t have the same testicular thump of it's uncensored correspondent.
It’s Alive - The Ramones
Not available domestically for a few years after it's release. I remember paying 23 bucks for the import, a princely sum at the time. Works as a greatest hit sampler, just noisier, and has a few inspired covers, including the greatest ever of “Surfin’ Bird”. Juuuust inching out Peter Griffin.
Number of songs- 28. Album length -54 minutes.
So there ya go. Fiddy indispensable albums. And that is just for starters.
The bitch of it all? Fifty albums, no artists duplicated, and the list still has some glaring and maddening omissions. There’s no Aerosmith or Wilson Pickett. Where the HELL are the Temptations, or Buddy Holly, or Funkadelic , the Yardbirds, Alice Cooper, Patti Smith, the Stooges, or Sam and Dave? No Jethro Tull, John Prine, Todd Rundgren, Dr. John, or King Crimson, Damned, Leonard Cohen, Stranglers, Frank Zappa, Iron Maiden, Roy Orbison, or Black Sabbath? No Mellencamp (sellout bitch that he has become, not withstanding) or Cars, Richard Thompson, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Robert Wyatt, Thin Lizzy, Joni Mitchell, Roxy Music, or Van Halen? No room for lesser known cult artists like Willie DeVille or the 13th Floor Elevators? No David Bowie or Fleetwood Mac or Bee Gees (pre-Saturday Night Fever, of course) or Motorhead? My Lord, no acid stalwarts like Jefferson Airplane or Moby Grape or even the Grateful Freakin’ Dead? Founding fathers like Carl Perkins or Fats Domino, Ray Charles or Sam Cooke, all ignored? How can you have a list like this without a Neville poking around? NO SEX PISTOLS….HAVE I LOST MY DAMN MIND?
We could probably do a valid list just listing some of the omissions. And the really scary thing is, we’re only looking at a span of roughly twenty five years. Our imposed mark-off time stopped at 1980, and the oldest thing here was mid-fifties, the generally accepted time of rock’s “birth”, or, at least, it’s entry into mainstream (lily-white) America. So we didn’t even delve into blues or pre-rock pop.
At least, you can consider the surface scratched. Arguments, alternates and suggestions gleefully accepted. This is, after all, just my personal opinion.
Oh, yeah; everything on the list, with the possible exception of the first two on the first list? Subject to change tomorrow...
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