May 21, 2015
Mother’s Day fell this year on the weekend after I finished my last album entry for this project, and as usual I drove with my family up to my hometown to visit my Mom. Traffic was more than usually impossible, which was tough with two young kids. But what made it not only bearable but fun–at least intermittently–was the music. Last year, I started cultivating a playlist for my kids full of some of my favorite old songs–real music, but with some kind of a hook that will draw kids in–girl group stuff, doo wop, lots classic New Orleans R&B–a fun collection of great music, made even more exciting by the vicissitudes of shuffle mode.
And suddenly it occurred to me that although I had just completed a lengthy project celebrating the integrity of the album, listening to them as often as possible on good old fashioned LPs, here I was enjoying the hell out of music (anachronistic though it may have been) in a thoroughly modern context–digital, on the go, and as discrete, disconnected songs, randomized by my listening device. This isn’t anything new–I never disavowed such modern conveniences entirely–but it was the first time in a while that I really got into that joyous, shuffle mode groove. We don’t travel by car as frequently in the colder months, and at home, I have largely internalized the discipline of listening to music an album at a time–if only because my analog set up is superior to my digital rig. And certainly, as my slow progress through this project attests, there is something to be said for getting back to that kind of more deliberate, album at a time listening. But sometimes, it must be admitted, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to just take it a song at a time, never sure what’s coming next.
This is not, of course, an entirely modern premise. In many respects, it resembles the medium through which music was most reliably enjoyed in the period of popular music’s peak years: the radio. My dad’s a big radio guy, and often tries to steer me toward a greater appreciation for it, speaking in rapturous terms about “the serendipity of the radio.” And I get that–I see the appeal, and I have had a handful of great radio moments in my lifetime. Certainly there’s good radio out there if one looks for it, especially in this age of global streaming capability. But I will never have that same deep in my bones reverence for the radio that my dad does, for the simple reason that the basic act of turning on the radio to any given station has been infinitely less rewarding in my youth than it was in his. When My father was in high school, you could turn on the radio in your car and find “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Satisfaction” or “Mustang Sally” without much effort. In my lifetime, everything had already splintered into various stylistic formats that didn’t really speak to me, in which even “classic rock” meant more, like, Bachmann Turner Overdrive or Journey than it did Beatles or Stones. My hometown actually has a very good, very eclectic radio station, and there are lots of good college stations out there, but as a central, organizing vehicle of musical appreciation, the radio was not a real option in my lifetime the way it was for my father’s generation.
I did, however, come of age in what might well have been the golden age of the mixtape–back before the advent of the CD burner, let alone the iPod. Back when putting together a nice collection of one’s own eclectic favorites meant cueing up tracks on the record while keeping one’s hand on the tape deck’s record button, trying to make it all as seamless as possible, and always falling just a little bit, charmingly, short. And, of course, one had to make it all fit as neatly as possible on two 45 minute sides.
The modern playlist–be it on iTunes or on some even more modern streaming platform–doesn’t have quite the same romance as either the radio or the old fashioned mixtape. Indeed, part of the rationale for the recent resurgence of vinyl is the aura of integrity that comes with having a physical object with which to emblemize one’s love of music, rather than just, in Alice Cooper’s recent useful phrase, “buying air.” But, though its been around long enough to experience a bit of a backlash, there’s no denying that the advent of portable digital audio was a major and exciting development in the way people enjoy music. I was thrilled when the first iPod came out (I still have that first, oddly clunky looking model in a drawer somewhere), and if I have come to favor the home-based integrity of albums on vinyl again, I still appreciate the alternative form of music appreciation the iPod made possible (minus the compressed audio aspect, which I most vehemently eschew). In some ways, putting a playlist together resembles the making of a mixtape, minus the character building inconveniences and limitations. And if your list is large and played in shuffle mode, it brings back a bit of the radio experiences’s capacity for epiphanic moments of divine musical-situational appropriateness. My dad has the serendipity of the radio, and I have what I’ve come to think of as “the god of shuffle mode.”
In any event, driving along, having a ball as my kids sang along to songs like “Mr. Lee” and “Don’t You Just Know It,” it suddenly occurred to me that it might be fun to take one last retrospective look at the album project I just finished through the lens of songs–to put together a list of individual songs from the albums of this list that represent either particular favorites of mine, or songs that somehow distinguished themselves within the context of my project. As is always the case with me (such as with these introductory remarks), it wound up growing into something more cumbersome than I initially intended it-something a good deal longer than what might typically pass for a “playlist,” but more genuinely representative of the project as a whole. I thought about doing a more distilled short list within the list of songs I truly loved, but I figured anyone who has been following this project at all could figure out that something like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is a good deal closer to my musical heart than, say, “Homeward Bound,” or “Fuck tha Police.”
I allowed myself a maximum of one song per album (though I fudged it on the two volume girl group collection). I wound up, semi-accidentally, with 333 songs–a number that nicely echoes the 33 1/3 number that was of such underlying importance to my album-based project (as in RPMs). Some are songs I just remember being surprisingly non-loathsome, like “Faith” or “Take the Money and Run.” Others are ones that have stuck in my consciousness in the years since I heard them, which I figured counted for something. Some became a small conciliatory gesture to artists and genres I have not been all that generous toward over the course of my project (still no Billy Joel, though). Not every song is intended to be the “best” or most emblematic song on the album, or even necessarily my favorite. Indeed, especially on the albums I know well, I often wound up favoring some small gem over the more obvious masterpiece or hit on the album (and other times the hit or the masterpiece just would not be denied).
In general, I tried not to work too hard–if a song from an album didn’t easily present itself, I mostly didn’t go digging too hard to find one. Sometimes an album I liked a lot didn’t have a particular song I wanted to highlight, so it’s not represented here. I tried to some extent to hold to the ideal of the playlist in making my selections–to pick songs that aren’t too long or ponderously “album oriented,” though I failed on that score a few times. The general hope is that the songs I picked are ones that I would at minimum not rush to skip past if they were to come up on shuffle mode, although admittedly some of the more aggressive tracks–the rap ones especially–probably wouldn’t pass that test in the great majority of my actual life circumstances. Not every song “belongs” on the same playlist in the classic sense, but they all fit here because they all represent some small portion of the albums I just spent the past three and half years listening to and thinking about.
This list is not meant to be in any way definitive, let alone polemical. It was just something I thought it would be fun to put together–as a list here, and then again (at least in part) as an actual playlist on my iPod. And indeed, it was a whole lot of fun to do. If I could find a way to do this type of thing all day for a living, I’d be a happy man. A joy in listening to music was not the explicit intent of my listening project, nor the consistent reality of it. But certainly it’s the fundamental impulse that undergirds it all–the simple love of music beyond all analytical or psychosocial considerations that drove me to undertake such a project, and I look forward to reconnecting to a little bit of lightness and pleasure right at the end of this project through the medium of these songs.
- Good Morning, Good Morning – The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1)
- God Only Knows – The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (2)
- I’m Only Sleeping – The Beatles – Revolver (3)
- It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry – Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited(4)
- In My Life – The Beatles – Rubber Soul (5)
- Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) – Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (6)
- Sweet Virginia – The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street (7)
- Train in Vain – The Clash – London Calling (8)
- Absolutely Sweet Marie – Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde (9)
- Cry Baby Cry – The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album) (10)
- Tryin’ to Get to You- Elvis Presley – Sunrise (11)
- Blue in Green – Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (12)
- Sunday Morning – The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico (13)
- She Came in Through the Bathroom Window – The Beatles – Abbey Road (14)
- May This Be Love – The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced? (15)
- Idiot Wind – Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks (16)
- Lithium – Nirvana – Nevermind (17)
- Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out – Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (18)
- Sweet Thing – Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (19)
- Billie Jean – Michael Jackson – Thriller (20)
- You Can’t Catch Me – Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty Eight (21)
- Come On In My Kitchen – Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings (22)
- Remember – John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band (23)
- Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing – Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (24)
- I Don’t Mind – James Brown – Live at the Apollo (25)
- You Make Loving Fun – Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (26)
- I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2 – The Joshua Tree (27)
- Baba O’Riley – The Who – Who’s Next (28)
- Little Green – Joni Mitchell – Blue (30)
- It’s All Over Now Baby Blue – Bob Dylan – Bringing it All Back Home (31)
- Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones – Let it Bleed (32)
- I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend – The Ramones – The Ramones (33)
- Caledonia Mission – The Band – Music from Big Pink (34)
- Suffragette City – David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (35)
- Beautiful – Carole King – Tapestry (36)
- Ask Me Why – The Beatles – Please Please Me (39)
- Alone Again Or – Love – Forever Changes (40)
- Anarchy in the U.K. – The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (41)
- Time – Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (43)
- Redondo Beach – Patti Smith – Horses (44)
- When You Awake – The Band – The Band (45)
- Redemption Song – Bob Marley and The Wailers – Legend (46)
- In Memory of Elizabeth Reed – The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East (49)
- Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’) – Little Richard – Here’s Little Richard (50)
- Here I Am (Come and Take Me) – Al Green – Greatest Hits (52)
- Don’t Bother Me – The Beatles – Meet The Beatles (53)
- (Night Time is) The Right Time – Ray Charles – The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (54)
- Burning of the Midnight Lamp – The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland (55)
- Blue Moon – Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley (56)
- As – Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life (57)
- Street Fighting Man – The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet (58)
- Lookin’ Out My Back Door – Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle Vol. 1 (59)
- Moonlight on Vermont – Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica (60)
- Everybody is a Star – Sly and the Family Stone – Greatest Hits (61)
- Sweet Child o’ Mine – Guns ‘n Roses – Appetite for Destruction (62)
- One – U2 – Achtung Baby (63)
- Moonlight Mile – The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (64)
- Heartbreaker – The Crystals – Phil Spector: Back to Mono (1958-1969) (65)
- Caravan – Van Morrison – Moondance (67)
- Morning Bell – Radiohead – Kid A (68)
- Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough – Michael Jackson – Off the Wall (68)
- Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (69)
- The Boy in the Bubble – Paul Simon – Graceland (71)
- Kashmir – Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti (73)
- Hot Pants (pt. 1) – James Brown – Star Time (75)
- When Doves Cry – Prince and the Revolution – Purple Rain (76)
- You Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC – Back in Black (77)
- I’ve Been Loving You Too Long – Otis Redding – Otis Blue (78)
- Ramble On – Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II (79)
- Gimme Some Truth – John Lennon – Imagine (80)
- Heart of Gold – Neil Young – Harvest (82)
- One Rainy Wish – The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Axis: Bold as Love (83)
- Respect – Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You (84)
- (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone – Aretha Franklin – Lady Soul (85)
- Dancing in the Dark – Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (86)
- Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd – The Wall (87)
- Cocaine Blues – Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (88)
- Breakfast in Bed – Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis (89)
- I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever) – Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (90)
- Bennie and the Jets – Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (91)
- Well…Alright – Buddy Holly – 20 Golden Greats (92)
- Weary Blues from Waitin’ – Hank Williams – 40 Greatest Hits (94)
- Sparks – The Who – Tommy (96)
- A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (97)
- Pump it Up – Elvis Costello – This Year’s Model (98)
- Luv ‘n Haight – Sly and the Family Stone – There’s a Riot Goin’ On (99)
- This Will Be Our Year – The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle (100)
- I Get Along Without You Very Well – Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours (101)
- Syeeda’s Song Flute – John Coltrane – Giant Steps (103)
- Fire and Rain – James Taylor – Sweet Baby James (104)
- You Don’t Know Me – Ray Charles – Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (105)
- Sheena is a Punk Rocker – The Ramones – Rocket to Russia (106)
- Nothing Can Change This Love – Sam Cooke – Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 (107)
- Life on Mars – David Bowie – Hunky Dory (108)
- I Am Waiting – The Rolling Stones – Aftermath (109)
- I Found a Reason – The Velvet Underground – Loaded (110)
- High and Dry – Radiohead – The Bends (111)
- California Dreamin’ – The Mamas and the Papas – If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (112)
- Help Me – Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark (113)
- Sunshine of Your Love – Cream – Disraeli Gears (114)
- Odorono – The Who – The Who Sell Out (115)
- Play With Fire – The Rolling Stones – Out of Our Heads (116)
- Bell Bottom Blues – Derek and The Dominos – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (117)
- Gone – Kanye West – Late Registration (118)
- At Last – Etta James – At Last! (119)
- Hickory Wind – The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo (120)
- Everyday People – Sly and the Family Stone – Stand! (121)
- Johnny Too Bad – The Slickers – The Harder They Come Soundtrack (122)
- It’s Tricky – Run-DMC – Raising Hell (123)
- 8:05 – Moby Grape – Moby Grape (124)
- Stir it Up – Bob Marley and The Wailers – Catch a Fire (126)
- Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) – Talking Heads – Remain in Light (129)
- Night Fever – The Bee Gees – Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack (132)
- Suicidal Thoughts – The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (134)
- Rocket Man – Elton John – Greatest Hits (136)
- Here Comes a Regular – The Replacements – Tim (137)
- People Say – The Meters – Rejuvenation (139)
- Sunday Girl – Blondie – Parallel Lines (140)
- Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love – A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (142)
- Mama Roux – Dr. John – GRIS-Gris (143)
- Fuck tha Police – N.W.A. – Striaght Outta Compton (144)
- Black Cow – Steely Dan – Aja (145)
- Somebody to Love – Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow (146)
- Helpless – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – Deja Vu (147)
- Over the Hills and Far Away – Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (148)
- Evil Ways – Santana – Santana (149)
- 52 Girls – The B-52s – The B-52s (152)
- Smokestack Lightnin’ – Howlin’ Wolf – Moanin’ in the Moonlight (154)
- Brass in Pocket – The Pretenders – Pretenders (155)
- Shadrach – The Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (156)
- Rock and Roll All Nite – Kiss – Alive! (159)
- Cosmic Dancer – T. Rex – Electric Warrior (160)
- I Love You More than Words Can Say – Otis Redding – Dock of the Bay (161)
- 1999 – Prince – 1999 (163)
- Let’s Get it On – Marvin Gaye – Let’s Get it On (165)
- Alison – Elvis Costello – My Aim is True (168)
- Three Little Birds – Bob Marley and The Wailers – Exodus (169)
- Goin’ Back – The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers (171)
- Maggie May – Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells a Story (172)
- It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference – Todd Rundgren – Something/Anything? (173)
- Isis – Bob Dylan – Desire (174)
- Mr. Guder – The Carpenters – Close to You (175)
- One Nation Under a Groove – Funkadelic – One Nation Under a Groove (177)
- It’s All Right – (Curtis Mayfield and) TheImpressions – The Anthology 1961-1977 (178)
- Dancing Queen – ABBA – The Definitive Collection (179)
- Heart of Stone – The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones, Now! (180)
- Lively Up Yourself – Bob Marley and The Wailers – Natty Dread (181)
- Rhiannon – Fleetwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac (182)
- Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain – Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger (183)
- Like a Virgin – Madonna – The Immaculate Collection (184)
- Skin I’m In – Sly and The Family Stone – Fresh (186)
- In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel – So (187)
- Any Day Now – Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis (190)
- Hot Burrito #1 – The Flying Burrito Brothers – The Gilded Palace of Sin (192)
- Satellite of Love – Lou Reed – Transformer (194)
- Dirty Water – The Standells – Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 (196)
- My Babe – Little Walter – The Best of Little Walter (198)
- Last Nite – The Strokes – Is This It (199)
- Highway to Hell – AC/DC – Highway to Hell (200)
- Homeward Bound – Simon and Garfunkel – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (202)
- Smooth Criminal – Michael Jackson – Bad (203)
- When the Deal Goes Down – Bob Dylan – Modern Times (204)
- Politician – Cream – Wheels of Fire (205)
- When You Were Mine – Prince – Dirty Mind (206)
- Oye Como Va – Santana – Abraxas (207)
- Wild World – Cat Stevens – Tea for the Tillerman (208)
- Alive – Pearl Jam – Ten (209)
- Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (211)
- Hang Fire – The Rolling Stones – Tattoo You (213)
- It’s Gonna Work Out Fine – Ike and Tina Turner – Proud Mary: The Best of Ike and Tina Turner (214)
- Diddley Daddy – Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley/Go Bo Diddley (216)
- Paul Revere – The Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (219)
- Pungee – The Meters – Look-Ka Py Py (220)
- Tipitina – Professor Longhair – New Orleans Piano (222)
- Cracklin’ Rosie – Neil Diamond – The Neil Diamond Collection (224)
- Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (226)
- Mr. Grieves – The Pixies – Doolittle (227)
- Sweet Emotion – Aerosmith – Toys in the Attic (229)
- Have a Heart – Bonnie Raitt – Nick of Time (230)
- Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen – A Nigh at the Opera (231)
- Victoria – The Kinks – The Kinks Kronikles (232)
- Mr. Tambourine Man – The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man (233)
- Mrs. Robinson – Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends (234)
- I Fall to Pieces – Patsy Cline – The Ultimate Collection (235)
- I’ve Got to Get Back (Country Boy) – Jackie Wilson – Mr. Excitement! (236)
- I Don’t Mind – The Who – My Generation (237)
- Wang Dang Doodle – Howlin’ Wolf – Howlin’ Wolf (238)
- Express Yourself – Madonna – Like a Prayer (239)
- Do it Again – Steely Dan – Can’t Buy a Thrill (240)
- The Real Slim Shady – Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP (244)
- Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On – Jerry Lee Lewis – All Killer, No Filler: The Anthology (245)
- Help, I’m a Rock – The Mothers of Invention Freak Out! (246)
- St. Stephen – The Grateful Dead – Live/Dead (247)
- Drive – R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (249)
- Izzo (H.O.V.A.) – Jay-Z – The Blueprint (252)
- Hungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen – The River (253)
- Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song) – Otis Redding – Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (254)
- The Unforgiven – Metallica – Metallica (255)
- How Will I Know – Whitney Houston – Whitney Houston (257)
- Do You Remember Walter? – The Kinks – The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society (258)
- Stardust – Willie Nelson – Stardust (260)
- Ripple – The Grateful Dead – American Beauty (261)
- Suite: Judy Blue Eyes – Crosby, Stills and Nash – Crosby, Stills and Nash (262)
- Fast Car – Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman (263)
- Dire Wolf – The Grateful Dead – Workingman’s Dead (264)
- Just for a Thrill – Ray Charles – The Genius of Ray Charles (265)
- Sea and Sand – The Who – Quadrophenia (267)
- Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard – Paul Simon – Paul Simon (268)
- Beast of Burden – The Rolling Stones – Some Girls (270)
- Please Let Me Wonder – The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys Today! (271)
- Ooh Baby Baby – Smokey Robinson and The Miracles – Going to a Go-Go (273)
- Lady Marmalade – Labelle – Nightbirds (274)
- My Name Is – Eminem – The Slim Shady LP – (275)
- Night of the Thumpasaurus People – Parliament – Mothership Connection (276)
- This Song of Love – Middle Georgia Singing Convention No. 1 – Anthology of American Folk Music (278)
- My Home is in The Delta – Muddy Waters – Folk Singer (282)
- Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe – Barry White – Can’t Get Enough (283)
- Just What I Needed – The Cars – The Cars (284)
- I Love Every Little Thing About You – Stevie Wonder – Music of My Mind (285)
- Love and Happiness – Al Green – I’m Still in Love with You (286)
- Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks – Something Else by The Kinks (289)
- Jesus is Waiting – Al Green – Call Me (290)
- Don’t Worry About the Government – Talking Heads – Talking Heads: 77 (291)
- Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood) – Bob Dylan and The Band – The Basement Tapes (292)
- Famous Blue Raincoat – Leonard Cohen – Song of Love and Hate (295)
- Mother People – The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only in it for the Money (297)
- Jesus Walks – Kanye West – The College Dropout (298)
- Coat of Many Colors – Dolly Parton – Coat of Many Colors (301)
- Fight the Power – Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (302)
- I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight – Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding (303)
- Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley – Grace (304)
- 2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten – Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels in a Gravel Road (305)
- Where it’s At – Beck – Odelay (306)
- I’ll Be Back – The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (307)
- Down on the Corner – Creedence Clearwater Revival – Willy and the Poor Boys (309)
- The Greeting Song – Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik (310)
- Who Will the Next Fool Be? – Charlie Rich – The Sun Records Collection (311)
- Come as You Are – Nirvana – Unplugged (313)
- Doo Wop (That Thing) – Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (314)
- Here Comes My Girl – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes (315)
- Where is My Mind? – The Pixies – Surfer Rosa (317)
- Burnin’ and Lootin’ – The Wailers – Burnin’ (319)
- Pink Moon – Nick Drake – Pink Moon (321)
- God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) – Randy Newman – Sail Away (322)
- Spirits in the Material World – The Police – Ghost in the Machine (323)
- Lay Down Sally – Eric Clapton – Slowhand (325)
- Divorce Song – Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville (327)
- It’s a New Day – James Brown – In the Jungle Groove (329)
- It’s Only Love – The Beatles – Help! (331)
- Shoot Out the Lights – Richard and Linda Thompson – Shoot Out the Lights (332)
- Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden – Superunknown (335)
- TV Party – Black Flag – Damaged (340)
- Run On – Moby – Play (341)
- Slippery People – Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense (345)
- Eye Know – De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising (346)
- Bike – Pink Floyd – Piper at the Gates of Dawn (347)
- 99 Problems – Jay-Z – The Black Album (349)
- My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) – Neil Young – Rust Never Sleeps (351)
- So Far Away – Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms (352)
- Dark Fantasy – Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (353)
- Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield – Randy Newman – 12 Songs (356)
- Ruby Tuesday – The Rolling Stones – Between the Buttons (357)
- Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – Elton John – Honky Chateau (359)
- What Do I Get? – The Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady (360)
- Love Her Madly – The Doors – L.A. Woman (364)
- Killing in the Name of – Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine (365)
- The Beast in Me – Johnny Cash – American Recordings (366)
- Message in a Bottle – The Police – Regatta de Blanc (372)
- It’s Oh So Quiet – Bjork – Post (376)
- Boom Boom – John Lee Hooker – The Ultimate Collection (377)
- Wonderwall – Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (378)
- Waterfalls – TLC – Crazy Sexy Cool (379)
- Pressure Drop – Toot and the Maytals – Funky Kingston – (380)
- Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys – Smile (381)
- The Girls Want to Be With the Girls – Talking Heads – More Songs About Buildings and Food (383)
- Any Major Dude Will Tell You – Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic (386)
- Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes – Elephant (390)
- I’ve Got a Feeling – The Beatles – Let it Be (392)
- Paper Planes – M.I.A. – Kala (393)
- Guilty – Randy Newman – Good Old Boys (394)
- Ain’t Too Proud to Beg – The Temptations – Anthology (400)
- Life’s a Bitch – Nas – Illmatic (402)
- Free Bird – Lynryd Skynyrd – (Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) (403)
- Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor – I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (408)
- People are Strange – The Doors – Strange Days (409)
- Love Sick – Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (410)
- Dr. Wu – Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime (413)
- We Got the Beat – The Go-Gos – Beauty and the Beat (414)
- What’s He Building? – Tom Waits – Mule Variations (416)
- Let Me Roll It – Paul McCartney and Wings – Band on the Run (418)
- Maybe Baby – Buddy Holly and The Crickets – The “Chirping” Crickets (420)
- Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby) – The Best of The Girls Groups Vol. 2 (421)
- Will You Love Me Tomorrow – The Shirelles – The Best of The Girls Groups Vol. 1 (421)
- (The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up – The Ronettes – Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes (422)
- When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes – The Supremes – Anthology (423)
- $1,000 Wedding – Gram Parsons – Grevious Angel (425)
- I Want You to Want Me – Cheap Trick – At Budokan (426)
- I’ll Come Running to Tie Your Shoes – Brian Eno – Another Green World (429)
- What is Life – George Harrison – All Things Must Pass (433)
- The Ballad of El Goodo – Big Star – #1 Record (434)
- All Apologies – Nirvana – In Utero (435)
- Paper Tiger – Beck – Sea Change (436)
- Dirty Old Town – The Pogues – Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (440)
- Satisfaction – Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (442)
- The Cisco Kid – War – The World is a Ghetto (444)
- Take the Money and Run – Steve Miller Band (445)
- The Girl From Ipanema – Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto (w/ Astrud Gilberto) – Getz/Gilberto (447)
- Wrapped Around Your Finger – The Police (448)
- These Days – Jackson Browne – For Everyman (450)
- You Know I’m No Good – Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (451)
- Angel From Montgomery – John Prine – John Prinei (452)
- A Matter of Time – Los Lobos – How Will the Wolf Survive (455)
- There Goes My Baby – The Drifters – Golden Hits (459)
- It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) – R.E.M. – Document (462)
- I Don’t Believe in the Sun – The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs (465)
- Clocks – Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head – (466)
- Valentine’s Day – Bruce Springsteen – Tunnel of Love (467)
- Killing Me Softly – Fugees – The Score (469)
- The Calvary Cross – Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (471)
- Faith – George Michael – Faith (472)
- Ten Crack Commandments – The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death (476)
- Everybody’s Had the Blues – Merle Haggard – Down Every Road (477)
- She’s Got You – Loretta Lynn – All Time Greatest Hits (478)
- Africa – D’Angelo – Voodoo (481)
- Guitar Town – Steve Earle – Guitar Town (482)
- Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual (487)
- La Grange – ZZ Top – Tres Hombres (490)
- Here Comes the Rain Again – Eurythmics – Touch (492)
- Kamera – Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (493)
- Kids – MGMT – Oracular Spectacular (494)
- Love Has No Pride – Bonnie Raitt – Give it Up (495)
- Waiting for a Train – Boz Scaggs – Boz Scaggs (496)
- How Blue Can You Get? – B.B. King – Live at Cook County Jail (499)
May 19, 2015
Okay, well, it’s been more than a week since I laid the primary work of this project to rest, and I find I’m dragging my heels on getting through this final round of posts intended to tie it all up and imply that it has all meant something. Once I’m done, I’m implicitly faced with getting on with the business of whatever else my life is supposed to be about, so forgive me if I’m drawing it all out a bit. Just so we all know where we stand, here is the endgame structure: this is a music-centered, list-intensive piece that goes over some of my favorite and least favorite albums of the project and things like that. After that, I’ve got a fun little bonus list-based post in mind, and finally, I will write a more reflective piece that probably only my Mom will read about music and life and parenthood and what it feels like to be done with my listening project and that kinda junk. Alright, then…
My own personal best of list is the obvious place to start. All along, I assumed I would offer up a top ten list at the end. At some point, a reader suggested a top fifty list, which seemed a bit excessive. And yet, as I faced the painful constriction of what just ten slots actually felt like–how many beloved albums I’d need to leave unmentioned, fifty came to seem like a good number, and so that’s what I have to offer–a list of my fifty favorite albums from the project, more or less. There are some caveats involved.
Like the list it is drawn from, it is an imperfect one. Unlike that list, there is only one person to blame. The Rolling Stone list I worked from, while obviously not without its problems, at least had an aura of quasi-objectivity about it, as it was the result of a poll of various music industry figures, fed through some kind of algorithm, let’s say. My distillation is wholly my own, and is meant to be understood first and foremost as my favorites–not an attempt at some kind of objective best of list that would force me consider albums that I personally have no interest in ever hearing again. That said, I did find myself at least partially swayed by the specter of consensus, and found myself taking things like diversity of genre and era and iconic status of the albums into account–but only up to a point. For example, although Dark Side of the Moon is probably not one of my personal twenty most essential albums, I felt it important to get it into the top twenty of my list, if only to correct one of the more persistent criticisms of the Rolling Stone list. On the other hand, I certainly should have made room for Thriller, and yet since I only really love a handful of its songs, I couldn’t quite do it, regardless of its obvious importance to the broader musical landscape.
In constructing the list, I chose to establish a few rules for myself to avoid certain obvious pitfalls. Most importantly, I limited myself to one album per artist. Like The Rolling Stone list itself, mine would have been disproportionately clogged with Beatles albums, which, while a fairly accurate reflection of their value relative to everything else, gets kind of boring. I’m glad the Rolling Stone list didn’t limit itself along these lines, but for my personal list of fifty, it seemed like a worthwhile constraint. The one exception is that I included The Basement Tapes on the somewhat lawyerly grounds that technically, Bob Dylan and The Band is a distinct artist from either Bob Dylan or The Band, both of whom are also on the list.
The other guideline–too blurry to really call it a rule–concerned compilations. The inclusion of compilations–both single and multiple artist–is one of the biggest complaints leveled against The Rolling Stone list. I’ve talked a fair amount throughout the project about why I ultimately support that decision, based both on the somewhat tenuous origins of the idea of an “album” in the first place, and on the obvious fact that some of the greatest and most important music of the twentieth century was made by artists who didn’t really specialize in albums of the deliberate post-Rubber Soul variety. In any event, for the purposes of my list, I tried to keep compilations to a minimum, without eliminating them entirely. Since its a short list (fifty turns out to not be too many at all), I didn’t want to get bogged down in scenarios like having to concede that Chuck Berry, say, is of greater historical and musical significance than, say, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Of course he is, but one of their albums happened to be a big part of my life, whereas the particular compilation of his singles that made this list has not been. So the guideline I established is that compilations are allowed on my list, provided that, in some intangible, hard to pin down way, they feel like “real albums”–to me, and, ideally, to a broader spectrum of the populace. My list is imperfect, even to me–some unsatisfying combination of legitimate enthusiasm, nostalgic resonance and ambivalent, inconstant concessions to my sense of what “should” be on here. But its what I came up with, at least from the vantage point of having just finished working though the list they’re drawn from. In any event, here we go:
My Top 50
- The Band – The Band
- The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- The Beach Boys – Smile
- Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
- Joni Mitchell – Blue
- Stevie Wonder – Innervisions
- Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!
- Randy Newman – Good Old Boys
- Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis
- The Rolling Stones – Let it Bleed
- James Brown – In the Jungle Groove
- Sly and the Family Stone – Greatest Hits
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Axis: Bold as Love
- John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band
- Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
- The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It for the Money
- Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon
- Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
- Various Artists (Soundtrack) – The Harder They Come
- Talking Heads – Talking Heads: 77
- Bob Dylan and The Band – The Basement Tapes
- The B-52s – The B-52s
- The Pixies – Doolittle
- Nirvana – Nevermind
- Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
- Otis Redding – The Dock of the Bay
- The Kinks – The Village Green Preservation Society
- The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle
- Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger
- Blondie – Parallel Lines
- Bob Marley and The Wailers – Legend
- Steely Dan – Aja
- Various Artists – Anthology of American Folk Music
- The Grateful Dead – Workingman’s Dead
- Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle Vol. 1
- Beck – Sea Change
- Parliament – Mothership Connection
- Radiohead – Kid A
- The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
- Howlin’ Wolf – Howlin’ Wolf
- Various Artists – Phil Spector: Back to Mono – 1958-1969
- Moby Grape – Moby Grape
- John Prine – John Prine
- The Meters – Look-Ka Py Py
- David Bowie – Hunky Dory
- Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
- Big Star – #1 Record
- Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
- Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
I could probably fill another couple of pages with further caveats and commentary, though I’ll try to keep it limited to just a few important things. Regarding my choice of The Band in the number one slot–this one caused me some consternation in the final days of the project. I had confidently announced that it was going to get the top spot back in my entry on that album (at #45). And yet as I listened to the uppermost echelons of the list–and the top five especially–I found myself wondering how I could possibly stick to that decision. There’s just so much spectacular artistry that went into some of those records–the sublime orchestral complexity of Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds in particular. It’s a stretch to call something as comparatively, purposefully simple (which simplicity, incidentally, was a direct reaction to the baroque excesses of the Sgt. Pepper era) their equal, let alone their superior. But in the end, I decided to stand my ground. Ultimately it’s a personal decision–it’s the record that feels most emblematic both of who I am as a music lover, and of albumhood in the context of my own life. Its rustic, funky charms, its sepia-tinged autumnal quality–let’s just say it’s a very hunkered down kind of album. I think it also gives all those other albums a legitimate run for their money in terms of soulfulness and depth of both feeling and musical solidity. Relatedly, I really believe that it’s a perfect album within the context of what it sets out to do, whereas none of the aforementioned quite achieve that status, though their ambitions are admittedly higher. In any event, its less a matter of defensible assertion than it is just kind of a gut feeling–it’s my number one record, even as much as I might love many others almost as strongly.
Speaking of Sgt. Pepper, I’m as surprised as you to find it in my number two spot. As I started making tentative stabs at this list before I was actually done listening to all the records, Rubber Soul was the placeholder Beatles entry. In a spirit not dissimilar to The Band, its rustic, autumnal sort of quality felt more me than the technicolor splendor of Sgt. Pepper. And true though that is, I couldn’t upon listening to the top five albums of the project, carefully and in fairly short order, deny that Sgt. Pepper really does achieve some unique artistic height that no other album–by The Beatles or otherwise–quite equals.
If there’s one that might have come close, at least in terms of its fusion of classical and psychedelic complexities, it would be Smile, which lands at the number three spot on my list. Admittedly, this one deserves at least an asterisk, since it was famously left unfinished, and spent most of the intervening decades being arranged into workably “finished” versions by enthusiastic bootleggers. It was finally “finished” and released a few years ago as part of a five disc set of every last scrap of music that Brian Wilson recorded during the “Smile Sessions,” and when the list was revised, they added this collection to the list somewhat arbitrarily up in the two hundreds somewhere, I believe right where the lesser Sunflower had been previously. In some sense, I’m fudging it by putting “Smile” on this list, since I’m referring neither to that five disc collection (which even Rolling Stone misnames as “Smile” instead of “The Smile Sessions”), nor am I even referring to just the “finished album” which constitutes the first disc of that collection. It’s a good honest effort, and as close to a finished Smile as we’re ever going to get. But its length and tripartite structure could not have existed on a single LP, and their decision to string the many iterations of the “Heroes and Villains” motif all together, rather than peppered throughout the album–as some of the more elegant bootleg reconstructions did it–make it neither the album it really would have been in 1967, nor a perfect belated realization. In some sense, the album I’m putting in my number three slot doesn’t entirely exist, and yet its raw materials (which are represented, if imperfectly, on The Rolling Stone list) are so startling original and beautifully strange that I couldn’t leave it off–even as it means, according to my rules, that Pet Sounds gets left off.
Don’t worry–I’m not going album by album through the whole thing. The top three just all seemed to merit a bit of unpacking. Otherwise, I guess I’d just like to preempt those who would balk at seeing a Randy Newman album in the top ten. Indeed, this high placement may in part be a reaction on my part to the widespread derision he seems to attract in the popular imagination. And yet I think he also comes by the spot honestly. There are a good many singer-songwriter types who garner more baseline respect from the general music loving populace–I won’t start any arguments by naming them here–who have never written as genuinely dangerous a diatribe as “Rednecks,” as profoundly and complexly moving a love song as “Marie,” as psychologically acute a lament as “Guilty,” as elegiacally stately a song as “Louisiana 1927,” or as darkly absurd a vignette as “A Wedding in Cherokee County,” and none of them wrote and conducted their own orchestrations either. So you’re damn right he’s in my top ten. Lastly, I’ll confess that Let it Bleed makes it into my top ten as much as a function of something like peer pressure as out of a genuine connection I have to it. I acknowledge that The Stones are both important and great enough to demand a spot up near the top, and this is the one that seemed close enough to their masterpiece to take the spot. But in reality, my knowledge of their albums is not as comprehensive as it should be, and the spot could almost as equally have been given to any of the other three albums of their classic late 60s–early 70s period. Otherwise, I’m just going to leave it there. In the end, it’s only my list, and not even totally satisfying on that level. It’s not easy. You try it sometime.
One thing that seems hard to miss (at least for me) is that the constitution of the list overwhelmingly favors music I already loved at the outset. I had heard My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) once shortly before the project began, although my overall respect for Kanye West’s musical artistry has grown as a result of the project, so that’s something. But I think Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville is the only truly new to me album from the big list to make my personal list. But ultimately, I think that’s to be expected. I’m really past the age when my tastes could be expected to undergo a radical shift, and the gains of this project have been more perspectival and provisional than would have been likely to affect my list of favorites more heavily. In that spirit, here’s a list of the fifteen albums (ten, again, feeling a little too confining) I was most edified to be introduced to by way of this project (excluding Exile in Guyville for the sake of diversity, or whatever). It’s a bit off the top of my head compared to the list above, and the specific numerical rankings don’t necessarily count for much, but here goes:
- Radiohead – In Rainbows
- Kanye West – Late Registration
- Brian Eno – Another Green World
- Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica
- Bob Marley and The Wailers – Natty Dread
- David Bowie – Station to Station
- Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
- Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
- Prince – Sign o’ the Times
- Nas – Illmatic
- Muddy Waters – Folk Singer
- The Replacements – Let it Be
- N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
- Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come
- Eminem – The Slim Shady LP
Or something like that. I’ll talk more in the upcoming essay about the effect this project had on my tastes and listening habits in a way that will hopefully be more meaningful than this list. Truthfully, I have gone back and relistened to fewer than half of the albums I mention here, making the value of my exposure to them somewhat theoretical.
Inexorably, this leads us to the least favorites list. This one I’m going to keep to an even ten. I could add quite a few more, of course, but I don’t want to luxuriate in too much negativity, nor invite too much vitriol at this late date. There are a couple of outliers, but generally, the albums that make this list fall into one of two categories: schmucky low-hanging fruit that it doesn’t cost me too much to disparage, and a certain strain of “challenging” darlings of the cognoscenti type numbers that I am well aware that I’m losing cool points for refusing to pretend I find interesting. In general, as frequently exhibited in this project, I am pretty stubbornly averse to music that is too aggressive, loud or dissonant in its basic character. I can simply call a truce with much of it–Nine Inch Nails, say, might well be interesting, but just isn’t ever going to be my thing. That’s fine. But where that loud/dissonant/aggressiveness seems to bring with it a patina of a “you probably wouldn’t understand” kind of too cool for schoolness–when it is both smug in its aggressiveness and aggressive in its smugness–then it tips over into actively pissing me off. In any event, of the many possible options, here’s my best crack at a “bottom ten,” with apologies to whomever it might offend:
- Billy Joel – The Stranger
- Linda Ronstadt – The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt
- Public image Ltd. – Metal Box
- Suicide – Suicide
- Lou Reed – Berlin
- Neil Diamond – The Ultimate Collection
- Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
- Def Leppard – Hysteria
- Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III
- Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends
I’m not going to get way into unpacking or defending this list, but there are a few things to mention. For one, John Lydon receives a special commendation for being the only artist involved with albums on both my best and worst lists. So well done on that. Otherwise, the main point that needs addressing is my choice of the number one worst album on the list. For a long time, I was assuming that the Linda Ronstadt collection would grab the top spot. The aggressive soullessness with which she breezes through songs I love by great artists like Smokey Robinson and The Everly Brothers was truly one of the more maddening experiences of the entire project. And yet in the end, my old nemesis Billy Joel came roaring back to claim his proper position at the center of my most heartfelt disdain. There’s a variety of possible reasons–I heard his album much more recently than hers. Linda Ronstadt is in ill-health and has retired from performing, which inspires a little bit of sympathy, whereas Billy Joel has emerged from semi-retirement with a trumpeting of spurious critical reevaluations, and an air of bullshitty elder statesmanly gravitas, centered around a monthly “residency” at a massive arena a few short miles from where I sit. So there’s that.
But I think the real answer comes back down to effort, intention and pretension. Linda Ronstadt is essentially a cover artist–there is little to distinguish her from the average nightclub singer beyond her airlessly tight backup band (AKA the fucking Eagles) and her inexplicable commercial success. (And yes, I know that both she and the Eagles sang back up for Randy Newman. I never said they weren’t highly competent vocalists.) That a compilation album of her vacuous, pointless cover songs should make a list of the greatest albums of all time is genuinely puzzling–offensive, even. But it’s also just a kind of nothing that fades back into the nothingness from whence it sprung once the sting of actually having to listen to it subsides. Whereas Billy Joel was really trying to make a great album. And while there’s something admirable in that, it also means that everything terrible about that album–its unconvincing poetry of the common man pretensions, its cumbersome cast of two dimensional characters, its saccharine schmaltzy melodies punctuated by ill-advised attempts at “rocking out,” that fucking album cover–make it the more spectacular failure. You might not think that it would matter whether the worst album was a “real album” or a compilation, the way you would for the best album, and yet somehow it does. That sense of having really strived for greatness makes it that much more compellingly, viscerally loathsome. Man, what are you doing here?
The idea of keeping statistics for the project–likes and dislikes and number of albums that were new to me–arose initially because one reader accused me of not liking anything, and I wanted to prove her wrong. It turned out at the time that I was enjoying, more or less, about half the records I heard. That ratio held pretty steady for much of the project, only escalating dramatically for the final 100 albums. My final count of albums I liked (added up from previous recaps–I didn’t have it in me to count again)–came out to exactly 300. The count of albums I had never heard before started up around 75% and, again, didn’t not change dramatically until the final 100, when it dropped down close to 20%. Of the 500 albums on the list, it turned out that I had never heard 310 of them before. The statistic I wish I had kept track of–the one that really would have made the most sense–is how many of the albums that were new to me did I like. It’s just stupid that I didn’t do that. And yet I figure that the great majority of ones I didn’t like were ones I had never heard before. So if I hadn’t heard 310 albums before, and didn’t like 200 albums, we can estimate that there might have been about 100 records on this list that I had never heard before and liked–which is not too shabby. Although in some broader sense, the purpose of the project wasn’t so much about finding new music to like as it was about wading into the pool of consensus and seeing, for better and for worse, what I had been missing out on. That I liked some of it is great, and that I hated some of it is both unsurprising, and maybe a little bit vindicating.
Let’s see–what else? Well, I had a couple of other lists in mind and nowhere else to put them, so I guess I’ll stick them here. (Lists are fun, right?) The first one loosely prefigures a possible future writing project I’m considering, but fits here too: it’s a list of ten artists I wish had earned a spot on the 500 albums list. It’s a bit of a mix between artists who seem foundational and important enough that they really ought to have been here (even if they were not primarily album artists), and then some who absence is unsurprising, but whose work I think surpasses a lot of the artists who did make it. There are many more, and any music lover could come up with their own list of this sort (the progressive rock crowd in particular seems to have a lot to complain about), but off the top of my head, here’s my short list:
- Louis Jordan
- George Jones
- Fats Domino
- The Everly Brothers
- Roy Orbison
- Ricky Nelson
- Little Willie John
- Harry Nilsson
- Townes Van Zandt
- Michael Hurley
The last list I have in mind goes slightly outside the lines of this project since it contains a few albums that weren’t on the list, but whatever. In the final handful of entries, I found myself putting a good deal of thought into my personal ranking of all the Beatles albums, since they occupy so many of the top spots. Somewhere along the line, I thought through their catalog and came up with my personal list. It includes only the “canonical” albums, which is to say all the British releases and the American version of Magical Mystery Tour (which was released as a double EP in England.) So no other American records, no singles collections, etc. Just the main albums, a few of which didn’t make the Rolling Stone list, but most of which did. (Magical Mystery Tour being the most conspicuous omission). Here’s what I came up with:
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- Rubber Soul
- Abbey Road
- Magical Mystery Tour
- The Beatles (The White Album)
- A Hard Day’s Night
- Let it Be
- Beatles for Sale
- With The Beatles
- Please Please Me
- Yellow Submarine
It’s possible that subsequent listenings will push Revolver back into my top three, where most would say it belongs. But on the basis of the listening I did for this project, I was a little let down by it. It should be noted, too, that Beatles for Sale has a handful of really great songs on it that are quite significant in the evolution of Lennon and McCartney as “serious” songwriters–“No Reply,” “I’m a Loser,” “I’ll Follow the Sun”–but lands as low on the list as it does because of an excess of R&B covers right at the moment when they were becoming truly superfluous on Beatles records–an unfortunate compromise brought about by the pressure to keep churning out new albums. Also, I wouldn’t fuss too much if the order of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! was swapped. The latter does have some of their more mature, impressive efforts of their pre-psychedelic period, and yet it also falls apart in the track listing department near the end, including one by then distractingly superfluous R&B cover (“Dizzy Miss Lizzy”), while A Hard Day’s Night as a whole really stands out as probably the most polished, well put together albums of their early years, and is noteworthy for being the only Beatles album to consist entirely of Lennon and McCartney songs.
It feels perhaps inelegant to finish up this recap on what is essentially a side note, although The Beatles’ music looms large enough in the annals of twentieth century music and on this list that it doesn’t lead us too far afield–they do, obviously, occupy a very particular place in this project.
So, that about wraps ‘er up for this one. As I said, I somehow have more to say on a general reflective basis, for whosoever might be inclined to read it. But this is about it as far as looking back on the albums I just spent all these years listening to–though as I said, I do have a little bonus project in the pipeline as well. Thanks, as always, for slogging through it with me. We’re almost there.
May 15, 2015
Throughout my project, I’ve paused for a moment at the end of each group of 100 to reflect a bit on what came before: to pick out a favorite, a least favorite, to come up with some simple statistics. It’s been a nice little practice–something to break up the flow of regular entries, and to inspire some thoughts about how what I’ve been hearing figures into my larger musical horizons. This one, though, feels like a bit of a pain in the ass–for me, and perhaps for you, the reader, as well. I’m done! Done with this! And while I look forward to being able to offer up a more general overview of the entire project, to have to dwell for a moment on this last subset feels slightly…deflating. And yet the completist in me could never allow for the asymmetrical skipping of this particular recap, so it’s got to be done. So, briefly, if you’ll bear with me:
My Favorite Album of the top 100 wouldn’t necessarily have to be my favorite of the entire project, I guess, but of course it is. This one has caused me some consternation, because I confidently announced in my entry on the album that The Band (the sophomore effort by the group of that same name, also known as The Brown Album) was going to be my favorite of the project. Whereas as I made my way through the rest of the list, and the top five especially, that came to seem like a faintly preposterous notion, or at least one worth seriously questioning. But I’ve done some soul searching (and replaying), and decided to hold to that decision. I’ll offer up my reasons in the forthcoming big recap, but for now, let’s just say that this one is my favorite of the top 100, and of the entire project as well. Other possible favorites are really too numerous–and obvious–to mention.
There’s significantly less reason to expect that my least favorite of the top 100 would also be my least favorite of the entire project, and yet I’m pretty sure that too is the case. That’s another story I’ll save for the big recap, but for now I’ll just say that my least favorite albums of these top 100 is, of course, The Stranger by Billy Joel.
The Best Album I had never heard before would have to be Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Physical Graffiti was right up there too. In general, there were fewer albums I hadn’t heard, and those that I hadn’t often tended to be due to longstanding antipathy (as, to some extent, had been the case with Led Zeppelin).
I believe Trout Mask Replica may also win for most pleasant surprise, as I was conscious of a great likelihood that I would hate it, and was very pleased to find that I did not. Other albums that fit that description, though were less of a home run overall, were The Who’s Tommy, and Horses by Patti Smith.
The Biggest Disappointment, I’m chagrinned to concede, might have to go to Purple Rain. It’s going in the “liked it” column, but I had expected, or at least hoped, to really love it. And yet I found myself somewhat nonplussed by it, even after a subsequent relistening. Sign o’ the Times, for example, seemed much more obviously interesting to me, if a bit overwhelming. I had somewhat of a similar experience with Forever Changes by Love, except that I had heard that one before, and only hoped that time and maturity might have made its reputation as a masterpiece less puzzling to me.
So, how ‘bout those statistics? Well, the like/don’t like question has gotten a lot more confusing up at these heights. Throughout the project, I have generally “liked” only about half of the records, with that number inching slowly up as I get higher up. But in the top 100, it seems to have suddenly leapt all the way up close to 90%. Some of that is because there aren’t too many spaces up here for outlying genres like metal or dissonant indie rock that I’ve never quite warmed to. It’s all pretty sturdy, meat ‘n potatoes kinda stuff. And maybe some of it is that I find it harder to say definitively that I “don’t like” something that is universally beloved enough to have made it this high on the list. The number that I actually have real enthusiasm for is likely quite a bit closer to down to that 50% mark. But the standard I established for this question–what is my gut feeling about the prospect of listening to a record again, right now?–only turned up 11 records I could say definitively that I didn’t like–and even some of those are ones I have more or less committed to keep trying to listen to sometime in the future. The albums I had never heard before number also, and perhaps not uncoincidentally, plummeted in these 100 albums. Generally, that number also started out somewhere around the 50% mark, gradually going down to more like 40%. In this group of albums, it fell almost down to 20%, or 21 albums. Most–though not all–of the albums I didn’t like feel within that group of 21, but it’s noteworthy that there were ten or so albums I had never heard before up here in the top 100 that I came away feeling pretty good about. And that feels like a pretty good justification for this whole project right there.
“It was twenty years ago today” are the famous opening words of this album. They have also, here at the very top of this list, served as something of an organizing principle of my thinking over the past three and a half years working through these five hundred (plus) albums. (The list revision mid-project tacked a few on.) The idea that motivated this project was, first and foremost, to fill in the gaps in my musical knowledge. And since I grew up favoring the music of an earlier era–the era of this album–a lot of the gaps I had to fill in had to do with the music of my own lifetime–the stuff I was supposed to have been attuned to in my youth, but which I managed to ignore. The passage of time is a funny thing, and never more so than through the lens of retrospection. And twenty years winds up being, at least at this stage of my life, a useful, if bewildering, yard stick.
This album, which came out ten years and two days before I was born, celebrated its twentieth anniversary right when I was at the height of my own personal Beatlemania. The anniversary–of the album and the “summer of love” it ushered in–was widely remarked upon in the press, always with the irresistible headline “IT WAS TWENTY YEARS AGO TODAY!” Twenty years, being twice as long as I had been alive at the time, seemed like a very long time indeed–amply far enough away to explain how evidently different (and in my view better) the cultural landscape had been back then. It was all so technicolor and fun and free seeming, and the music was so, so much better than the contemporary options I saw before me. There were kids in sixth grade or so who made fun of me because I liked The Beatles more than Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi! And then thinking back from there–the twenty years ago The Beatles were singing about referred to 1947–another universe entirely! Black and white, the engines of post war prosperity gearing up for the march into the weird, repressive Eisenhower era. The constituent ingredients of rock ‘n roll–rhythm & blues and country music–were in full swing, but hadn’t yet coalesced into that world changing synthesis. Elvis was twelve, my mother two, and my father a year shy of being born. Twenty years, obviously, was effectively an eternity away from the bright, whirligig splendor of this album.
And yet, as it turns out, twenty years is nothing. I’ve been around long enough now that some of the most heightened golden memories of my youth are twenty years or more in the rear view, and though I’m old and fat and have children of my own, it really doesn’t seem all that long ago. It feels impossible to reconcile how alien the world of 1967 seemed to me in 1987 with the way I feel now about 1995–or even 1987. 9/11 happened, and there’s the internet and cell phones, but the world of 1995 doesn’t seem as radically different to me as the way the late 60s–the era of my parent’s adolescence–seemed to me then. Musically, things have continued to get worse as far as I can tell, but the devolution doesn’t seem quite as precipitous, if only because it hasn’t had as far to fall. When I was first getting into good music, almost thirty years ago now, twenty years ago meant Sgt. Pepper, Blonde on Blonde, Are You Experienced, Otis Blue. Now, twenty years ago is…Dookie. Much of the stuff I still reflexively think of as “contemporary swill” has itself been around long enough now to have somehow acquired the status of being “classic.” That awareness has been among the more demoralizing aspects of this project.
It hasn’t been all bad– Nevermind hit squarely in my early adolescence, as did the less well respected but still pretty good Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Both of those meant a lot to me at one time. And some of the gap filling this project has done for me has been edifying, and even occasionally gratifying–the earlier Radiohead albums have been worth hearing, and I legitimately really liked Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. It’s been good for me to have made a proper survey of rap, which was probably the most legitimately significant musical development of my life (not counting punk, whose big year–1977–was the year I was born). But generally, the project has left me fortified in my conviction that the music of my own lifetime has in the main been a pale shadow of the music of that of my parent’s generation. Indeed, the constitution of this list seems to back me up on this, with the great majority for the top 100 albums being from before my time, and the most recent album represented in the top ten having come out when I was two. Four of the top ten albums, and three of the top five, are by The Beatles, whereas Bon Jovi is nowhere to be found anywhere on the list. So suck it, former fellow sixth graders.
This album is number one. For much of the project, this has struck me a kind of unexciting inevitability. When people would hear about my project and ask me what the number one album on the list is, they mostly seem unsurprised by the answer, and fairly unenthused as well. Like, “yeah, that makes sense, I guess.” Then you get the “Beatles are overrated sacred cows” crowd, who fume at the unimaginative conservatism of a list that would include so many of their albums, and so many so densely at the very top (whereas the rest of us just wonder “where the hell is Magical Mystery Tour?”) But what else could be number one? Exile on Main Street is too raw and gritty for some, Pet Sounds too wimpy and vague for others. Anything by Dylan too polarizing to those unfortunates who could never get past his voice. And those who would nominate something outside of that general stylistic era–The Clash, The Smiths, Public Enemy–mistakenly conflate the personal significance of their particular favorite kind of music with the main stem history of twentieth century popular music. The 60s is the best and most important musical era not only for its density of great music, but because, to a large extent, everyone was on the same page–top forty radio was king, and things had not yet broken down so much into micro-preferential rivulets.
Even among real Beatle lovers, there’s a decided push toward regarding this album as their most self-consciously big album, but not really and truly their best. Generally, these folks will avow a preference for either Rubber Soul or Revolver. A smaller number will pick The White Album or Abbey Road. I myself recall feeling slightly underwhelmed when I first heard this record as a kid, not quite sure what the big hoopla was, and more or less settled on Rubber Soul as my favorite. So I went into this listening feeling that Sgt. Pepper was a good, consensusy choice–really the only thing that would work, and certainly one sturdy enough to wear the crown–but probably not actually many people’s personal favorite album.
So imagine my surprise to discover upon this listening that it might just be my favorite–or quite close to it, anyway. Just as with Pet Sounds before it, the combination of a better stereo, a better source, several years abstinence and, perhaps, a certain sentimentality around finally bringing this project to a close, I found myself connecting to this album–aesthetically and emotionally–in a much deeper way than I ever had before, or could have ever expected to. It sounds silly to say for an album I have heard so many times before, but it really was like hearing it anew this time.
It may require that I walk back my assertion that, on some long form quasi-classical level, Pet Sounds may be the better album. The point remains that Brian Wilson was the sole auteur of that album, while The Beatles had each other and George Martin to work with. But the assertion that the quality of orchestration, or its psychedelic-emotive capacity, is richer on Pet Sounds than on this album did not quite hold up under this listening. Smile, had Wilson finished it in 1967, may have been another story–at minimum, I’d say its palate of strange and delightful sounds strike deeper into the murky, gurgly heart of the psychedelic experience than this one. But of the records actually released at the time that relate to this particular conversation, my experience of listening to Sgt. Pepper this time around affirmed its place as the culminating and climactic moment of this conspicuously great chapter of pop music history.
One popular criticism of this album, a strategy by which people attempt to topple it from its elevated place in the critical consensus, is that its central conceit–that The Beatles were this other band putting on a show–is inconstantly and ineffectively applied, so that the “concept” of this “concept album” is not an unqualified success. This line of denigration originated, as far as I can tell, with John Lennon, who in the ugly wake of The Beatles’ breakup was eager to cast aspersion on Paul’s contributions to the group, which, in their later years, became tantamount to a kind of creative dominance. The Sgt. Pepper concept was Paul’s (of course it was), and thus, from John’s perspective, the concept was bullshit. I’m not one to overly indulge Paul’s sometimes grating cheekiness, nor one to whom the very idea of a “concept album” doesn’t inspire at least some basic potential for dread, but to me, the concept of this album works beautifully, both because it is essentially a musical concept, and because it doesn’t ingratiate itself with too consistent an application. As I see it, the fake band playing a fake concert conceit is an essence a context which allowed The Beatles to reach beyond themselves to new creative heights, and which provided a kind of textural unity that eluded them on their previous album Revolver.
Indeed, while Paul provided both the concept and the couple of songs at the outset that set it up, if the subtext of that concept is a kind of event that emphasizes the carnivalesque, kaleidoscopic-calliope aspect of the psychedelic zeitgeist, then that spirit is perhaps best captured–at least on side one–by John’s two contributions to the side–“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Their swirly brand of surrealism anticipates psychedelia at its most cliched extreme, and yet they are redeemed by their compositional excellence, their stunning originality within their own time, and the leavening sense of menace lurking beneath their fanciful exteriors. The production work on these tracks is particularly stunning, featuring some of the most spectacular effects on this (or any) album. The famous moment on “Mr. Kite” when George Martin chopped up the tape of an organ solo and tossed the pieces into the air to randomize them feels like a particularly inspired moment–some synergistic incidence of calculation and luck that produced one of the more legitimate moments of aural derangement on the album. If my estimation of this album’s verisimilitude at conveying the real quality of psychedelic experience has declined in recent years, especially since the official release of The Smile Sessions a few years back, this listening repaired much of that impression. And if the sounds one hears on this record list a little too much in the direction of cliche, it is only because they were so effective as to inspire a generation of imitators.
But really, the first side as a whole feels like an exceptionally unified piece of work, particularly as it represents the work of two more or less independently functioning songwriters. In the end, it is probably George Martin as much as anyone who deserves the credit for this, since the basic tenor of the production style is where the aesthetic unity of the album most strongly resides. Paul’s songs, like “Fixing a Hole” and “Getting Better” are more quotidian in spirit and subject matter than Lennon’s more emphatically psychedelic excursions, but the gracefully playful palate of textures and sounds they are adorned with tie them in to the festive spirit of the album. And of course his opening pair of tracks, the segue from the bracing title track into the disarming warmth of “With a Little Help from My Friends” do establish a tone that echoes throughout the album. If this album can be read as an invitation to the psychedelic experience, these songs do their best to ensure that the trip will be a good one. It should be noted, too, that for an album so steeped in belabored studio trickery, a lot of the good old fashioned musicianship on this album is exceptionally strong as well. George’s searing guitar part ushers in the album in an unforgettable way, and Paul in particular feels very nearly at his peak as a bassist on tracks like “Getting Better” and, on the other side, “A Day in the Life.”
If there is one song on the first side that doesn’t quite fit in, and which anticipates the comparative stylistic disunity of the second side, it is “She’s Leaving Home,” which finds Paul again exploring the idea of writing songs in an almost classical style in a pop music context. And it is a lovely, delicate piece of music, although I don’t think it’s the finest work he ever did in this vein–most would chose “Eleanor Rigby,” and I would vote for “For No One,” both from Revolver. Neither is it anywhere close to a high point of this album. Indeed, while Leonard Bernstein is said to have compared it favorably to Schubert, your average rock fan would probably regard it as one of the album’s lesser moments. Thematically, its only relationship to the presiding spirit of the album–that the “she” of the song is “having fun”–is a bit tangential (and doesn’t actually sound all that fun), although it seems likely that it probably helped inspire a lot of kids to runaway from home and out to San Francisco in the summer of 1967, for better or, more likely, for worse. (And what the hell is “the motor trade” anyway?) Musically, it’s not only out of place, but out of spiritual joint with the rest of the side. It’s one of the few songs of its type in the entire Beatles catalog not arranged by George Martin. Paul was apparently eager to get it done on a day when Martin wasn’t available, and, to Martin’s dismay, he farmed it out to another arranger. It’s also, of course, one of the few songs on the album on which no other Beatles play, making it feel a bit more like Paul’s own vanity project rather than something that figures into the idea of an imaginary band putting on a show.
The second side opens with another such (perhaps slightly ironic) vanity project–George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You,” which is played entirely by a group of Indian and Western classical musicians, and has no obvious relationship to the rest of the album. It’s one some people (including George Martin) tend to heap a lot of praise on, but which I have generally found a bit arid and didactic–not just humorless but joyless. There’s a kind of a fussy, sour disdain for the world, not really that far away from the outright misanthropy of George’s earlier songs, but cloaked in a (literally) holier than thou smugness. As a friend of mine put it, there’s a fine line between “life is suffering” and “this sucks,” and it feels like Harrison is cleaving toward the latter–the least appealing, most tiresomely world-abnegating interpretation of the spiritual teachings he was absorbed by. Like, what’s the point, at that point? “Come on, it’s such a joy!” is more like it, or ought to be.
That said, my anticipatory hostility toward this track eased up a bit as I found myself on some level actually enjoying it this time around. Musically, it is quite impressive (even if that has little do with the actual Beatles, let alone “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”), and its droney, spacious feeing winds up providing a unique and not unwelcome sort of textural variance. It has nothing to do with the stated concept of the album, but since the kind of eastern spirituality it espouses bears some relationship to the psychedelic experience (the Richard Alpert end of things), and since this kind of Indian influence on western pop was still something fresh and ear catchingly strange in its own time, it almost just about works. By the end of the song, I was feeing like it could go either way, and then, in a brilliant move, George Martin (I’m assuming) has the imaginary audience start laughing, as though it’s all been some strange, dreamlike trifle–a brief dip into the exotic before getting on with the show–and all, or almost all, feels forgiven.
That bit of laughter also serves as a timely mid-album invocation of the concert conceit just at the moment when it might otherwise be going decisively off the rails, and paves the way for what would otherwise be an impossible segue into “When I’m Sixty Four.” It’s another stylistic departure on the increasingly all over the place second side, but what it lacks in psychedelic flavor, it makes up for by being, really, the one song that actually sounds like a band called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” might have played. John was famously hostile to these sorts of cutesy, anachronistic numbers that Paul did from time to time, dismissing them as his “granny shit.” But at a rate of one per album or so, I find them mostly charming and harmless. They are sort of grandmotherly, actually, in a nice way–they provide a timeless sort of comfort and warmth. As with “Your Mother Should Know” on Magical Mystery Tour, that kind of old fashioned wholesomeness feels like a nice, calming note to rest on amidst the surrounding maelstrom of psychedelia. My mother and I danced to this one in a nice impromptu moment at my wedding, and whether for that reason or something more proximate and opaque, I found myself surprisingly moved by the song this time around. Its note of gentle sweetness felt so resonant and right as to give me chills. Perhaps in part it was attributable to the note perfect old-timey orchestration–all those wiggly little clarinet arpeggios and those great, shimmery Ellington effect horn parts. Capital work, George old boy.
“Lovely Rita” returns us in a general way to a more basic rock sound with pleasing psychedelic flourishes, and yet its a little too much of a lark to feel like the right song in the right place. It’s as though “When I’m Sixty Four” has exhausted the cutesiness allotment of this part of the record, and a dopey little song about a sexy meter maid is not what the record needs right at this moment, though its instrumental and vocal arrangements are quite pleasing. I’m a good deal more fond of “Good Morning, Good Morning,” which is one of John’s few contributions to side two. It’s always felt almost like a lost little gem of a song, back here near the end of the greatest album of all time. It’s a bit of a contradiction–one of the most straight ahead rockers on the album, and yet probably the only song in the entire Beatles catalog written in an asymmetrical time signature. And its big throaty horn section and cheery kind of melody consign it to feeling like a lighter kind of song, whereas the words have a kind of gravity to them–a melancholic reflectiveness and a kind of resignation in John’s voice that plays nicely off those chipper horn parts. I think it’s a really fine and consistently underrated song, one that harkens back to the earliest vision of the album as a kind of picture book remembrance of the band’s childhood–a premise that would have included “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” Had those songs not been rushed out as a double sided single, they would have appeared on this record, making its creative dominance that much more indisputable. George Martin called their omission from this album the greatest mistake of his professional career.
Finally, after a structurally necessary but musical superfluous reprise of the “Sgt. Pepper” theme (peppier and less personable than the opening track), the album segues into “A Day in the Life,” its last and greatest moment, in which all the inconsistencies before it are forgiven, and a kind of gravitas sinks in that reaffirms the supremacy of the album and The Beatles as just about the best there ever was. It’s almost too grand a song to want to call it the best Beatles song–it seems too obvious, too calculated to be a high point. And yet there’s really nothing that can quite compare. It is the only true Lennon and McCartney song on the album, and among the last songs they ever collaborated on, though (as with “I’ve Got a Feeling” on Let it Be) their individual contributions are fairly discrete. The John part of the song–“I read the news today, oh boy”–is where the song’s substance most obviously resides. His verses are slightly abstract, but his enervated, quietly soulful performance of them underscores their gravity. It is though all of human history, its tragedy and folly, is filtered through the act of reading any given newspaper on any given day. Paul’s part–“woke up, fell out of bed”–has a jauntier, lighter feel, but its bounciness reflecting against the somberness of John’s part feels like a laying bare of our blinkered false optimism, the whistling by the graveyard by which we all get through our days. The two parts of the song, separately conceived, work perfectly together, and seem to sum up something of the character of its two authors. It is the perfect culmination of the ways in which their personal and artistic dispositions complemented each other, at least for awhile, forming a good part of the core what made The Beatles so great. John’s small, funny contribution to “Getting Better”–“it can’t get no worse!” does much the same, but here, that tension is expanded into a work of timeless grandeur.
If the two recitations of the chaotic orchestral swell give the song a kind of grand symphonic climax point (or points, I guess), the most emotionally arresting part must surely come right before the first one–John’s wordless, almost disembodied voice creating a trancelike spell leading out of Paul’s line “somebody spoke and I went into a dream.” I remember standing high on a hillside, just shy of twenty years ago, hearing Phish performing this song at the final concert of their summer tour. The year before, at the same venue, I was young and eager enough to elbow my way to the front row. But a year later, a little more seasoned, I permitted myself more freedom of movement near the back. On a whim, I started ascending the ski slope we were on all the way past the very rear of the crowd, and turned around just at the “went into a dream” part went off, looking down with benevolent, addled warmth on the backs of thousands of heads swaying in time, the spectacular, almost extraterrestrial looking light show on the distant stage below, and the sound of my favorite band in the world at the time doing quite a decent job at performing this complex and compelling song, never intended for live performance, written by my favorite band of all time. If this project has underscored anything, it is that I really was born a generation too late to experience the music that moves me most in its own time and context. But I did have my own version of twenty years ago too, and while it doesn’t begin to compare, or assuage the fundamental fracture of my anachronistic disposition, my own life and times brought with it a few such moments that I will recall fondly for the rest of my life.
Source: LP, of course. As planned, I listened to the 2014 Mono pressing, and it sounds every bit as great as advertised–truly the definitive version for our time. They even got the locking inner groove right! And I will say there is something about hearing that endless decaying piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life” fading into inaudibility on an analog source–a kind of subtle, almost tangibility to the sound–that made me that much happier that I managed to hear a large percentage of these records in the format on which the world first heard and fell in love with them.
May 2, 2015
I remember as a kid listening to a friend of my father’s rhapsodizing about how much Roy Orbison’s music had meant to him in his youth. He recalled being out on his paper route, riding along with a tinny little ear piece connected to his transistor radio, and becoming so absorbed by the climax of “Running Scared” that he crashed his bike into a tree. It always seemed to me a striking model of perfect attunement to music–a level of engagement that only a truly, uniquely compelling kind of song could provoke.
Many years later, in my early twenties, I had my own version of that experience. I was taking a summer class at a community college in Massachusetts, and drove there every morning along misty, unpopulated country roads. It was kind of a rough summer for me–I was nursing a broken heart, and was generally unenthused about life. Sometimes, I felt very sad. (Don’t cry for me. It all worked out okay.) Anyway, I listened to this record just about every morning on that drive, and far and away my favorite track at the time was “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” which, if it didn’t speak all that specifically to my condition, at least resonated in a general way with my profound sense of self pity. The rousing “sometimes I feel very sad” chorus was, of course, a particular highlight, and one morning I got so into it that I simply drove right off the road. Nothing happened. I was fine. I just rolled onto the grass, slammed on the brakes, collected myself, and sheepishly pulled back out onto the empty morning road. It’s not great that I actually lost control of my car, and the whole thing feels less archetypally resonant than a kid on a bike crashing into a tree. But still, on some level, I felt gratified that I had finally found a song powerful enough to lull me into that kind of singular absorption.
It was not ever thus. Compared to albums by The Beatles, for example, I had very little connection to this album as a kid. It’s not something I really grew up with in the same way as all the other albums in the top five. I first heard of it by way of my Beatles obsession, as one does, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. When I first learned about it, the idea seemed preposterous–that The Beach Boys, with their striped shirts and surf boards and squeaky clean fun in the sun ethos–should also have made an album that was regarded as something not only on par with Rubber Soul and Revolver, but as an entry in a kind of artistic arms race–a friendly competition with The Beatles to elevate the status of the pop album to something approaching real art. I was intrigued, if skeptical.
I wound up buying my father a copy for his birthday one year, since it was he who had told me about it. I don’t think he really listened to it much, since he hadn’t actually ever been much of a fan of the record–he just knew enough about it to help me round out my interest in the music of his generation. I listened to it once or twice, and was unimpressed by it. I don’t remember exactly what about it didn’t sit right with me–I guess a lot of it seemed kind of vague and unengaging, and the songs that did jump out more–like the opening track “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”–just sounded like…The Beach Boys. I didn’t get it at all.
It was many years until I came back around to it. I started hearing about the fabled Smile sessions, and tracked some of that remarkable music down in the waning days of Napster. The almost mind-altering brilliance of that music, even in murky unfinished fragments, was harder to miss, and I became an immediate convert to the idea of Brian Wilson as one of the singular geniuses of twentieth century popular music. And so naturally, I gravitated back toward this album, which, if not as jaw droppingly complex and compelling as the fragments of Smile I had managed to track down, did have the advantage of being an actual, finished, readily available album.
I’ve been a fan of this album ever since, although having backed into in that way, I will perhaps never quite shake the slight taint of feeling underwhelmed by it. To cite the most obvious (really the only truly relevant) point of comparison, it would be as though you had spent a lot of time absorbing Sgt. Pepper before ever hearing Rubber Soul. I’m a big fan of Rubber Soul, but there is some obvious sense in which it is less overly amazing than the wizardry of the later album. Now, some–quite possibly including myself–might argue that what Rubber Soul lacks in orchestral ornamentation, it makes up for in a warmer, more emotionally accessible feeling. And one could also perhaps say the same about this one compared to the album that would be Smile.
Smile is, after all, not only a good deal more overt in the brilliance of its orchestrations, but also much more psychedelically abstract in its lyrics. While Wilson was able to come up with broad strokes of what he wanted his songs to be saying, he was not a wordsmith at heart, and on both projects, he employed third party lyricists to help him realize his vision. For this album, he worked with Tony Asher to come up with a set of songs that, in the main, addressed in an intimate, almost artless way, some of Wilson’s nascent existential confusion and melancholy. That state of mind, of course, fueled by psychedelic experimentation and artistic pressures from within and without, eventually grew into the full blown mental breakdown which is the chief reason he never quite finished Smile in 1967. On Smile, he employed the more ambitious and experimental-minded Van Dyke Parks to write a suite of songs that was intended generally as a kind of fantasia of the American experience, but which is characterized especially by a very psychedelically-tinged kind of obscurity. On paper, the former sounds more up my alley–emotional immediacy over flippant, stylish abstractions. And yet for whatever reason (possibly simply because Parks was more gifted than Asher), I tend to be more seduced by the cavalcade of brilliant nonsense on Smile. God help me, but “Dove nested towers the hour was, strike the street quicksilver moon” just sounds cooler to me than, say, “I went through all kinds’a changes, took a look at myself and said ‘that’s not me.’”
Many people, of course, found this album disappointing from the opposite direction. Not everyone who grew up with “Little Deuce Coup” and “Fun Fun Fun” was willing to follow Wilson over to this more personal, maudlin kind of territory. There are even a number of critics out there who maintain that this album is overblown and overrated, and that Wilson’s genius is really best enjoyed on some of the gorgeously orchestrated but more unpretentiously themed songs in the years leading up to it, such as “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Let Him Run Wild,” “Please Let Me Wonder” and “California Girls,” the last of which, despite its quotidian subject matter, was the first song Wilson wrote under the influence of LSD. I have an old family friend I discuss music with a lot who graduated from high school (with my father) right around the time this album came out, and he has never been able to understand what the big deal is with this album. To him, it’s just less fun and less immediate than the simpler pleasures of The Beach Boy’s classic cars, surfing and girls material. And he’s not a terribly conservative, “I like what I like” kind of music lover. He just regards himself as insufficiently musically educated to understand what’s so special about what Wilson is doing on this album. He simply doesn’t hear it, and sometimes asks me to explain it to him.
It’s a somewhat daunting task that I’ve never managed to pull off to his satisfaction, which is regrettable, since that’s also the job that lies before me here. What I don’t want to do is a song-by-song analysis of the sort I’ve fallen into over the past several entries. Briefly, the only song I actively (though not intensely) dislike is “Sloop John B.” It’s not just that a Caribbean sea shanty feels out of place with the more personal nature of the album (even factoring the double meaning of the line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”), though that is part of it. It’s also that it feels like a rare misstep in Wilson’s vocal arrangement, so that the “hoist up the John B. sails” chorus feels kick of shrill and off-putting, or always has to me, anyway. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” also feels slightly out of place, as though it’s there primarily to meet the obligation for a good, accessible single rather than to contribute to the presiding spirit of the album. But it’s a good solid tune, so it gets a pass. It’s really one of the very last songs Wilson ever wrote that fits in easily enough around the teenagerly concerns of The Beach Boys‘ first and most commercially enduring period.
Beyond those better known, single-type songs, I feel like part of the reason some people have trouble finding their way into this record is that it does not, truth be told, have an overabundance of what you’d call great songs on it. Certainly there are a handful. “Don’t Talk, Put Your Head on My Shoulders” and “Caroline, No” are both heartbreakingly gorgeous ballads, and exceptionally fine solo vocal performances by Brian Wilson. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” though it’s one close to my heart, may not in the end be a great song so much as just the “Sometimes I Feel Very Sad” part has a unique and transfixing power. And a lot of songs, like “I’m Waiting for the Day” or “I Know There’s an Answer,” while certainly nowhere close to bad, also don’t really have that immediately graspable aura of great songness about them. The one song that best matches that description and more is the magnificent “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney famously considers the greatest pop song ever written, and whose peculiar spiritual power is undiminished by the passing decades. When people say (and they do) that Brian Wilson’s music will endure in the same way that Mozart’s has, this is surely one of the songs they have most prominently in mind.
So it is, of course, not principally in the songs that this album’s greatness resides, but in its spectacularly thoughtful, adventuresome and gorgeous orchestrations and production technique. But let’s be clear–it’s not fair to say that what makes the album great is just its orchestrations, any more than it makes sense to say that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is just a nice decoration. It’s really where the action is–in the ethereally uplifting vocal harmonies, in the rich tapestry of timbres and unusual instrumental sounds (marimba, bass harmonica, that clicking hooves percussion sound, and on and on). One who is confused about why this album is so important might do well to start by focusing on the album’s two instrumental tracks, “Let’s Get Away for Awhile” and the title track, since, though they could almost be dismissed as like cinematic sort of background music, one can at least more easily hear the level of thought (and playfulness) Wilson is putting into his instrumental arrangements. Indeed, though the meaning is obscured by the presence of farm animals on the album’s cover and the barking dogs at the album’s end, the title “Pet Sounds” actually refers to the specific timbres and tones that Wilson was most excited by, and lovingly wove throughout this album.
The fact of having had to defer listening to all of these emphatically great albums until the very end of the project has been a trying one, but the bang of finally being able to hear them now under more ideal sonic conditions than ever before has proved to be worth it, and never more so than with this one. I’ve long admired the gorgeous orchestration and harmonic complexity of this album, but I was never before able to hear it so clearly, and so movingly, as I was this time around. “God Only Knows” didn’t happen to make me well up with tears this time, as it sometimes does (such as, let’s face it, at the end of Love, Actually). But much of the album got much more deeply under my skin than it ever had before.
Near the end, a thought that I never imagined I would have struck with me a certain force and clarity: this album is, by a wide measure, greater than anything The Beatles ever did. I don’t mean that I like it more, necessarily, or that it has better songs on it. I don’t even necessarily mean that it’s the better pop album, since the song has always and rightly been the measure by which pop music is usually judged. But evaluating it by some other, more distant vantage point–one that extends a good deal further back than Elvis or Chuck Berry–there’s just no way to compare what Brian Wilson did here with The Beatles, or with any of his contemporaries. (Frank Zappa’s music may approach a similar degree of impressiveness, but is far less emotionally compelling.) Brian Wilson may not be a Mozart or a Bach, but he is the closest thing that music understood to be twentieth century popular music ever got.
It’s also worth noting, of course, that he was much more of a self-contained artist than The Beatles. Sure, he needed help with the lyrics, and he wrote with the voices of his brothers and other bandmates in mind, but as an orchestrator–or composer, really–he was a wholly singular artist. As The Beatles developed more “classical” aspirations, they would come up with their own general ideas of what they were looking for, but would ultimately leave the actual working out of all the parts to George Martin, who was an extraordinary producer and arranger, but ultimately more a deftly interpretive technician than a real artist in his own right. Wilson, who had a good deal less formal musical education than Martin (and no more than Lennon or McCartney), figured out every last bit of the music on this album all by himself. It’s kind of mind-boggling. Even Wilson’s hero, Phil Spector, generally relied on his arranger Jack Nitzsche to hammer out the specifics of his musical vision.
While the sort of aspirations toward art music that both Wilson and The Beatles displayed in this period pretty quickly devolved into a morass of overblown pretensions in later, lesser artists, Wilson’s work on this album strikes me as anything but pretentious. There is a kind of innocence and purity of motives one hears in Wilson’s music that has rarely existed alongside such obvious genius. Certainly this music is ambitious, but it seems to me to be an ambition of the very best kind–to express that which was within himself as clearly as he could, and to give to the world music that would be uplifting, healing, and ultimately spiritual in intent and in effect.
Source: LP. I have a Capitol copy from the 60s–maybe an original, though I’m not sure. But I have heard from a lot of people that, oddly enough, the copy they threw in as a bonus with their 1972 album Carl and The Passions – So Tough (which seems a pretty poor indicator of their confidence in that album) is regarded by many as the best this album ever sounded. When I found a copy I snapped it up, and have been eagerly waiting to hear it ever since. And yeah–it’s absolutely incredible–transparent and immediate feeling, practically glowing with sonic beauty. I haven’t done a side by side with my Capitol copy yet, but this one seems destined to become my go to.
Before I close this one out, I’d like to pay tribute to a fallen comrade of musical appreciation. Bob Fisher, who very dearly loved this album, was one of the warmest, most generous and genuinely spiritual people I ever had the privilege to meet. Though we first met in real life, I came to know him better in an online capacity. At some point, he found his way to my blog, and quickly became my most treasured reader and interlocutor. Bob was a few years younger than my father, and a good deal less cynical (sorry, Dad), meaning that he came of musical age right at about the time a lot of these great records were coming out. But, like a true and dedicated music lover, he kept right on exploring and discovering new music his whole life through. His love and knowledge of music was incredibly, often unexpectedly, far reaching. What was both wonderful and challenging about talking music with Bob was that he loved everything. Or damn near everything, anyway. He at least gave it all a good honest try. But the music of this period–and that of Brian Wilson in particular–I believe remained a particular favorite, a touchstone whose spiritual sort of beauty I think really resonated with the person that he was.
We often disagreed on the merits of any given album, since I do not love everything in the way he did. But no matter how indelicately I treated an album that he held dear, he always responded with remarkable generosity. He would often write long, articulate rebuttals to my reviews, revealing a keen intelligence, a more personal perspective than I had, and a patience with my particular musical predilections that was unerringly kind. (I only wish that he had posted them here, rather directly to Facebook, so that I could more easily access them now.) I began to listen and write with him in mind, with the result that I found myself trying (imperfectly) to approach every album I heard with a kind of generosity and curiousness. He reminded me of what the core purpose of my project really was, which was to remain as open as possible to new music, and to enjoy as much of it as I could, rather than merely to sharpen my critical acumen or develop the “right” kind of tastes. I didn’t do it as well as he did, but he helped me to reaffirm that a love of music was what was–and should be–driving me as I made my way through this project.
Somewhere along the line, Bob let it slip that he had been diagnosed with cancer, but he seemed so unworried about it that I didn’t quite grasp the immediacy of his condition. As the project wore on, he became less consistent in replying to my posts, but would sometimes come roaring back, writing a series of passionate defenses, personal reminiscences and general appreciations of the role some of these albums had played in his life. Even where we sharply disagreed, he seemed glad to have the opportunity to reflect on the music that he loved. The last such outpouring came just a few weeks before I received word that he was within the final hours of his life. Though I didn’t even know him all that well in person, I wept when I heard the news.
The blog carried on, of course, but it never felt quite the same without having Bob there to read and offer his thoughtful replies. Though great conversations carried on with other readers, an essential voice was missing from the mix which I have missed terribly. And especially here, near the very end, and on an album I know Bob loved, I feel a real sadness that he’s not here to round this thing out with me. Best to you, Bob, wherever you are–and thank you.
May 1, 2015
It’s nice, in its way, that all the albums in the top five hover around a specific period of time, and all speak to each other in more or less direct ways. Of course, three of them are all by the same band, but even the other two–Pet Sounds and Highway 61 Revisited–join in on that conversation to some extent, the former falling between Rubber Soul and Revolver and serving as a mutually inspirational/ arms-racey bridge between them, and the latter having established a kind of intelligence and depth in pop songwriting that influenced all of these albums to one extent or another. If you’re not a fan of this era or these artists, of course, it’s not nice at all that they’re cluttering up all the top spots. But for my purposes, it seems like a pretty solid grouping, and a validation of my own prejudice that popular music peaked in this mid-60s window–due in part to these five albums, but also to lots of other incredible music, much of it non-album oriented, that was being made at the time.
Of the three Beatles records that populate every other one of the five top spots, this is the middle one chronologically, and also in Rolling Stone’s ranking. This follows the traditional narrative that The Beatles’ middle period, generally regarded as their artistic high point, followed a linear upward progression culminating in their glorious 1967 masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–the number one greatest record of all time according to this list. There is, however, a competing narrative, itself pretty well established by this point, which holds that, really, the whole idea of Sgt. Pepper–its concept and its bright, attractive packaging–seduced everyone into thinking it was their best album, whereas actually, Revolver represents their true artistic high water mark. Proponents of this theory feel that this is the more solid set of songs over all, and the point at which the group’s studio (and psychoactive) experimentation was new and exciting enough to really change the way everyone thought about how pop music could sound. In this view, Revolver is secretly the genuine psychedelic masterpiece of The Beatles’ career, and Sgt. Pepper comparatively sort of an uneven confection that couldn’t even hold its alleged “concept” together for more than a few songs. It parallels the argument that, while everyone talks about 1967 and the “summer of love” and all, really 1966 (the year my father graduated from high school, incidentally) was the year that everything really got cool, and that by 1967, it was all kind of for tourists, existentially speaking.
I’ve generally steered clear of picking a side in this argument, averring my preference for the warmer, simpler pleasures of Rubber Soul. For the sake of this project, and in the absence of having been able to listen to any of the albums for a number of years, I have committed to remaining neutral in deciding a favorite until the very end, although so far Rubber Soul is holding strong. I don’t know if it was just the mood I was in listening to this one, or if my expectations had grown too high or what, but I found myself almost shockingly underwhelmed by it. I mean, of course it’s a great album–one of the greatest–and of course I love it, and will continue to listen to it for the rest of my life. But right on this listening, thinking of it in relation to the albums that surround it, I found myself kind of let down by its neither here nor thereness. The music on Rubber Soul, while admittedly not as adventuresomely orchestrated or augmented by backward tape loops and the like, at least presents a relatively unified aesthetic front–it all hangs together quite nicely and the songs feel more than incidentally related to each other. And looking ahead, while its true that Sgt. Pepper doesn’t continue to reference its specific conceit–that The Beatles are this other, brightly attired community band or something–the quality of cheerful, carnival psychedelia pervades most of the album, and once again the majority of the songs–though there are exceptions–feel of a piece with one another.
But this album in many ways doesn’t really have that quality. What it does have is all The Beatles arriving at a new level of artistic achievement and adventuresomeness together, but approached from radically different angles. For the most part this works quite well, and most of the songs that comprise the album are both individually great and not in the main jarringly incompatible with each other. But there is definitely more than one thing going on with this record that gives it an almost disjointed quality. It’s all great enough that one tends to forgive this, but it also colors the experience in a way that, at least for me this time around, made it feel like slightly less of a real album than either of the other two that surround it.
One hates to make it all about drugs, but, well…it’s definitely all about drugs. Because one can’t listen to this record without hearing with almost embarrassing clarity that the rest of the band–or at least John and George–had taken acid by the time this album was recorded, and that Paul had not. So (leaving George aside for the moment), while John and Paul were both operating at a very high level making unprecedentedly rarefied, spectacular music, it’s almost as though their creative processes–so closely intertwined just a few years prior–by now existed in separate and not entirely reconcilable universes.
In the main, I think it’s the emphatically psychedelic music on here that one most immediately associates with this album and its legacy as a real groundbreaker. At the same time, those tend to be the parts that have not necessarily aged all that well. The tape loops, the backward guitar parts, the influence of Indian music, the shimmery guitars–by now they’ve become cliches, but at the time, no one had ever heard anything like it before. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which closes the album, is the most famous example–a masterpiece of unconventional song structure and studio trickery, fleshed out by lines lift from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It really is an amazing piece of work, and yet I confess that I never quite loved it. I think it’s very much a “you had to be there” kind of track–something that would have felt unearthly and world changing in its time. But those of us born into the world in which it already existed have had to work a little harder to properly appreciate its magnitude. It’s not really like a…catchy number. I’ve grown in my ability to appreciate both its innovative technique and its starling effect, and yet it remain not really my favorite piece of psychedelic music. The stuff Brian Wilson was doing on Smile, for example, which was directly influenced by this music, strikes much deeper into the heart of the psychedelic experience, at least to my ear. In some ways, I think I always sort of took this track for granted, and it wasn’t until its rather stunning use on Mad Men (so shocking in part because the royalties The Beatles’ music commands means that one never hears their songs on TV) that I was able to almost put myself in the position of someone who had never heard anything like it before.
“She Said She Said” fares a little better, at least in that its more of a real song. But it’s also never been a big favorite of mine. Hearing it this time in its full glory (good mono pressing playing through a tube amp) was perhaps the most I’ve ever enjoyed it. The wall of affected guitar noise that runs throughout and shifts about it is truly stunning. I especially like the upward sense of where the music goes in the “when I was a boy” part. It’s really just the “like I’ve never been born” melodic hook that I’ve grown to find rather cloying over the years.
“I’m Only Sleeping” is in spirit more of a weed song, but its backward guitar solo sounds invitingly trippy–dreamlike, I guess you’d call it–and is perhaps my favorite of the “special effects” on the album. It’s the first such moment on the album, and the one that, to me, holds up the best. I like how the guitar part, though backwards, makes a certain kind of musical sense in the context of the song. It’s like the musical equivalent of the way “the man from another place” speaks on Twin Peaks. It’s one of three songs that Capitol pulled from the American version of the record, which is the version I grew up with. The change, while abhorrent, was less convoluted than some, because they didn’t add in any tracks from elsewhere. It’s just a shorter, slightly worse version of the same album. However, it’s noteworthy that “I’m Only Sleeping” is really the only of those three tracks that I have come in adulthood to feel as an essential part of the album.
The other two songs they pulled, “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Dr. Robert,” are great songs–even minor favorites of the period for me. And yet in their comparative straightforwardness, I don’t find them all that well situated here. Even though one is a delightful piece of nonsense and the other is about a drug dealing M.D., and both are by John, neither of them feel all that druggie to me in a way that would make them fit this album (or at least my scheme of divvying it up) more naturally. Both songs are especially strong in the guitar department, but it isn’t any kind of phase shifted or backwards or otherwise weirdly affected guitar. “And Your Bird Can Sing” is in some ways all about the guitar riff–a neat, angular little composition unto itself, whereas “Dr. Robert” finds George giving us a warm, almost overdriven update on his classic Carl Perkinsian style. Though I’d surely feel different if I’d grown up with the real album, I must confess that I kind of liked these two songs better as they fell on Capitol’s Yesterday and Today album. (I think I need to find a copy of that record, or at least dig out my old one from my Mom’s basement.)
George also lands with what kind of qualifies as a psychedelic number on “Love to You,” although it’s perhaps better understood simply as a spiritual song. In general, it’s not a phase of Harrison’s writing I’m all that fond of, and indeed, I don’t love this song. The conclusion of it’s chorus–“I’ll make love to you, if you want me to”–seems kind of blunt and rude almost, especially as it arises up abruptly out of a lot of vaguery about impermanence and whatnot. Still, the track itself feels a little more muscular than some of his other, more tepid quasi-Indian songs like “The Inner Light.” I’m surprised to learn it’s actually George playing the sitar, because he’s shredding pretty hard on that thing. And, while its virtues are limited for contemporary consumption, it is kind of cool to imagine people hearing this stuff on a pop album in 1966. It certainly doesn’t sound like anything that came before it.
George’s other two songs are less explicitly psychedelic/spiritual, but both weave in trippy elements in pretty effective ways. “Tax Man” is the best of the lot, and a fine choice of opener for the album, at least musically. It’s got a nice hard, sharp sort of attack to it, and its repetition of the titular phrase gives it a faintly comic bookish feeling, referencing Bat Man, I suppose, and also kind of echoing Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.” Its famous guitar solo is the trippy part, but its in a harder, more spastic vein of psychedelia, almost prefiguring the kind of dissonant Coltranesque soloing that would become popular among Bay Area bands in the years that followed. It’s a great solo, and a fine, tight song. The only thing that weird about it is that it’s kind of just about George Harrison complaining about having to pay his taxes. It seems an oddly quotidian, whiny subject for a song–and kind of an oddly conservative sentiment to find at the outset of what is regarded as one of the founding documents of the psychedelic era. “I Want to Tell You” is a decent one too–a little more vague feeling, like it could have used a bit more tightening up. But it stands up pretty well, and introduces some cool, trippy backward tape parts at the end that resemble the sound of one of those pitchy Middle Eastern horns.
That leaves us with the much cleaner, profoundly unpsychedelic Paul songs. To his credit, he does engage in a bit of studio trickery here and there that mirrors, if tentatively, the psychedelic excursions of his bandmates, but they feel more like incidental effects than something central to the songs’ conceptions. I guess the closest he gets to cleaving in a trippy direction for a whole song would have to be “Yellow Submarine,” which really sounds like someone who has never taken drugs at all trying to write a druggie song. Still, it’s got an easy, campfireish sensibility to it, and it earns some points for being the first Beatles song that most kids probably ever get into. I don’t think it really merits having been a single (though it did quite well), but it’s a harmless enough little trifle of a song that interrupts only slightly the progression of the more mature songs that surround it. More troubling to me, at least most days, is the cloyingly bright “Good Day Sunshine.” It tries to be simply a cheerful, optimistic little pop song, and every once in awhile I can hear it that way. But mostly, it tips over into that vein of mawkishness that prefigures much of the unlistenable dreck of McCartney’s solo career. He feels good…in a special way. Slightly better is “Got to Get You into My Life,” which shares a bit of that same over-brightness, but at least adds some horns to give it the patina of soul music. It’s not terribly soulful, but it’s a good enough little tune, especially in its arrangement of horns and the guitar parts in between.
But really, the places where Paul really shines on this album are in a series of small, delicate art music pieces. It’s a range of McCartney’s output that began with “Yesterday” and seemed to kind of peter out after “She’s Leaving Home,” but finds its fullest expression on this album. It’s Pauls’ biggest contribution to the serious and groundbreaking qualities of the record–making lovely, quasi-classical songs almost in the vein of Schubert’s lieder in the context of a pop album. It’s what he could do to move the music forward on his own steam while his bandmates were reaping the benefits of having severely altered their consciousness–and it does count for something.
Truthfully, I don’t love the most famous of these, “Eleanor Rigby,” which seems kind of bathetic and overwritten, and whose sawing, arpeggiated melody starts to grate on me by the end of the song. Perhaps its just that I was exposed at too young an age to Doodles Weaver’s fine evisceration of the song to ever quite be able to take it as seriously as it’s asking to be taken. (Although in a poignant denouement, I just learned that Doodles Weaver killed himself, which sort of folds some gravity back into the whole thing.) Much more satisfying to my ear is “For No One,” a chillingly polite little song of heartbreak whose structural formality nicely mirrors the iciness of the couple growing apart in the songs lyric. It’s piano accompaniment is so harpsichordishly staccato that an almost funky kind of rhythm starts to emerge subtly and almost incidentally beneath song’s classical trappings. It’s punctuated by a sweet, clear horn solo of the type McCartney would reprise on “Penny Lane.” I think it’s a very fine song, if not exactly a fun one. Also very fine is “Here, There and Everywhere.” Rhythmically, it has more of a modern–or at least in the twentieth century ballpark–feel to it, but the delicacy of its melody, the sweetness of its harmonies and its subtle arrangement makes it belong to this camp of what I’m calling Paul’s “art songs.” It might even, in its own quiet way, be the among the best songs on the album.
The only question is, how does a song like “Here, There and Everywhere” tie in with a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows”? What possible conversation could those two songs have with each other that wouldn’t swiftly devolve into mutual rankor and misunderstanding? I don’t think there’s a good answer for that, except that by the force of The Beatles’ presentation, it all kind of works out. It’s almost like the White Album of the mid-period in that way. On this one, they were still all getting along and collaborating and working together toward something, but to some degree, the basic differences in artistic and even existential orientation become hard to ignore nevertheless. Perhaps that tension–or just diversity, I guess you could call it–is part of this album’s appeal. And yet, at least this time, I found it a bit distracting. If Sgt. Pepper is not as innovative as this one, or not as strong song to song, I would say in its favor that it at least manages to blend its various elements together in a way that feels a bit more harmonious and cohesive, more on the same psychoactive page, and if only for that reason, might still trump this one after all.
Source: the 2014 Mono Reissue. On the strength of Rubber Soul and the other records I’ve heard from this set, I had really high hopes, and yet I found myself a little unsure of how I liked the way this one sounded. It felt maybe almost a little too transparent, like I could feel the spaces around all that studio trickery a little too acutely. It seemed to kind of thin out in places, and bunch up in others. Maybe, although it contradicts both my own expectations and the popular consensus of the day, this one works better in stereo. And maybe my slight reservations about the album as a whole was in part a function of this sonic uncertainty. Or maybe I was just cranky at the time.
April 30, 2015
God, it really is almost absurd how great this record is. I enjoyed hearing Blonde on Blonde so much a few weeks ago that I briefly entertained the possibility that it might be Dylan’s finest album. And it is very close. But no, it’s gotta be this one. While Bringing it All Back Home feels a little tentative and uneven (though brilliant at its high points) and Blonde on Blonde feels almost like an extended victory lap of folk rock supremacy, on this album we hear Dylan just arriving at the peak of his powers, confident, but still hungry to prove himself and the unprecedented music he is creating. It’s almost fearsomely great, even these many decades later.
That said, it’s not an album that I have listened to all that regularly in my adult life, nor is it one I necessarily will ever again play more than a few times a year. The fault is not the album’s, but my own. I tell myself it’s because I played it out in my youth. I was exposed to this album when I was twelve or thirteen, and I fell in love with it with an intensity that is probably exclusive to that general age range. It did for me what punk rock seems to for many people–it was something that really excited me and seemed to speak (albeit in a very abstract way) to my existential condition. And certainly it can happen that something loved that intensely can lose its luster and never feel all that inviting again. But I don’t think that’s entirely it. Frankly–and pathetically–I think it’s just slightly more raw and aggressive than my milquetoast adult tastes naturally gravitate toward. When I do listen to it, it’s not difficult for me to hear. I still love it. But it’s not one I have found myself naturally reaching for in a long time, nor one that I felt the absence of these past few years as a painful lack.
If Blonde on Blonde does have one (arguable) advantage over this one (aside from being twice as long), it is that its sound is more refined. It’s still hard and bluesy in places, but the tone feels more cogent and balanced. More professional. On this one, Dylan was still working out what his electric music would sound like, and while there’s a thrilling sense of discovery in that, it also feels a bit overwhelming (and even occasionally overwhelmed). Between the sharp, chaotic energy of Mike Bloomfield’s guitar lines, Al Kooper’s effective amateurism on the organ, and the general hint of uncertainty about just exactly how music this fast and loud was supposed to fit with words this articulate and strange, there’s a restless, unsettled quality to many of these tracks. That is part of their excitement and their virtue, but it also makes it not an album I can listen to over and over and over again the way I could when I was a kid.
In particular, I must confess to long ago having sort of lost interest in the album’s opening track, single and biggest deal, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Don’t get me wrong–it’s an amazingly great song, and probably one of the most significant, landscape altering singles ever released. That a song that long and smart and angry and loud could even have been released as a single in 1965, and then could have become such a huge hit, is a bit of a miracle unto itself, though no more so than the torrent of brilliant, vituperative verbiage that spills from Dylan’s mouth, against the backdrop of a powerful, all-encompassing cacophony. One hears reports from people who were there of hearing this song on the radio for the first time, and recognizing in that instant that everything had changed forever. It’s that’s big a song, and I would never dream of calling it anything less than a masterpiece. And yet, to my discredit, it’s a song I found myself skipping over after awhile, since I grew up with this album on CD, which makes such abominations far too easy. It’s almost as though my own many listenings to it in the first few years got somehow appended on to its ubiquity back before I was born, so that I was disposed to get sick of it far sooner than a song of this calibre ought to wear itself out.
What is more, while I was skipping that track, I also found myself increasingly skipping track two as well, the superbly surreal “Tombstone Blues.” Listening this time, I was reminded of what a great song it is, and how some of my early favorite moments from the album are in it, such as the loveliness of the phrase “the geometry of innocent flesh on the bone,” and the preposterous vehemence with which Dylan sings “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken!” It’s just that it’s got that lightning fast, blues boogie kind of feel which has never been quite my speed, and so I got in the habit of passing it by. It’s a mistake (and a disservice to the album’s integrity) I won’t be making any more, especially in that I’ll hence forth probably only listen to this album on vinyl.
In any event, the track I skipped to, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” has always been among my very favorite tracks on the album, and in some ways, one of my favorite Dylan songs period. It’s far from the most virtuosic or clever or innovative he’s ever been, but there’s something just perfect about this track to me. It brings everything down a notch–the slow, loping tempo, led off by a loose snare drum hit that lacks the shotgun blast power of the one that kicks off “Like a Rolling Stone,” but which eases the listener into its welcoming trainlike groove. The lyrics ease back too on the torrential, surreal brilliance of much of the album, offering instead a stunningly mature modern take on the blues, dipping freely into that wellspring of images and phrases, but adding something distinctively personal to them. But above all, I love it for the way Dylan sings it–the perfect, precocious soulfulness of his phrasing, that, again, embodies the blues tradition without devolving into mere pastiche. I think it’s my single favorite vocal he ever recorded, and also just about the most convincing white blues singing I have ever heard.
“From a Buick 6” is another one I feel I’ve somewhat grown out of. It represents a return to the more frenetic blues style that predominates on this side, and while it has a lot of great lines in, it seems somewhat of a minor effort compared to some of the album’s true highlights. Anywhere else, it would be a highlight itself, but on an album this densely packed with brilliance, it feels like a bit of a second tier song. Closing the side, however, we’re given one of the album’s highlights in “Ballad of a Thin Man.” It sounds different from everything else on the album–more spooky and plodding and strange–and its piling on of surreal, hilarious imagery gives Dylan a chance to ham it up a little–to enjoy his own brilliant sort of ridiculousness in a way that I think he does a lot more of on Blonde of Blonde. Thematically, it’s perhaps a bit heavy handed–even kind of smug–and yet in its own time, I get the sense that it really threw down the gauntlet in terms of fortifying the reach of the emerging counter culture. It presents a kind of “which side are you on?” fault line between what is young and cool and imaginative and what is old and stodgy and complacent in its comfortable certainty, and anyone even remotely young in spirit couldn’t help but come over to his side. In a way, it could be the song that really invented hippies as a broad cultural construct. I’ve heard Donald Fagen (who named Steely Dan’s first album after a line from “It Takes a Lot to Laugh…”) recounting the experience of being driven to college by his father, hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio and feeling quite starkly the enormous cultural and cognitive gulf between his father’s generation and his own. But if it were this song that was getting radio play instead, you could almost imagine them not even being able to sit in the same car together.
Side two opens up with “Queen Jane Approximately,” which is another of my very favorite songs on the album. It’s got a cleaner, almost poppier sound, which some people interpret as making it less interesting, but I think it’s just great. It’s propelled by a piano part that provides a nice respite from the ominous organ sounds elsewhere, and the guitar tone is clean and unhurried. Thematically, it mirrors the side one opener, “Like a Rolling Stone,” but is a good deal less confrontational. I think it’s a beautifully put together song, and another one of his finest vocal performances on the album–more measured in its rage, and thus more subtly expressive. It’s one of the few songs from the album that made it into regular iPod rotation for me, and thus has remained more a part of my life than others.
The title track is another masterpiece that I think of as sort of played out for me, but which I almost always still enjoy when I actually hear it. Starting with the coolest, deftest precis of a biblical story you could ever ask for, it becomes a cavalcade of absurd characters and vignettes, all centered around the image of one the great, central American highways–one whose musical and cultural significance lies in it being the most common route between the Mississippi Delta and Chicago, and which continues on up through Dylan’s home town in Northern Minnesota. While I try to avoid the fool’s errand of interpreting Dylan’s music, I’ll say that this one feels like some kind of racing, fever dream portrait of America–its hucksters, its showmen and its politicians, who all wind up being facets of more or less the same Barnumesque spirit. And yet its cultural critique feels so mixed in with the song’s willful obscurity and humor and the fun Dylan is having singing it (bolstered by that joyously silly police siren whistle), that it never gets anywhere close feeling heavy-handed. Even if that whistling sound has worn a little thin after decades of hearing it, the song is still a joy to hear.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” always feels like the lost song on the album for me–one I tend to forget about or dismiss, until I actually hear it again and remember how much I love it. It’s another of the quieter, more easily approachable songs, and one that seems to have more of a semi-consistent narrative running through it–one still flecked with absurdity and humor, but with a decidedly quieter, sadder tone. It shares with the later song “Goin’ to Acapulco” a vision of Mexico as like a North American backwater, a place where people burned out on making it in America might try to escape to, only to find a whole new set of dispiriting complications. Except that in this one, the singer resolves in the end to make it back to New York City, while the singer of “Goin’ to Acapulco” sounds as though he’ll be settling in for the long haul. This one is another great vocal performance from Dylan–in the plaintiveness of his tone, and in the way his phrasing grooves in an almost proto-rap-like way along over the bar line in lines like “and negativity don’t pull you through.” Listening this time, it occurred to me that it is only the grinding repetition of the bass ostinato that has made the song feel a little long in the tooth. Otherwise, it’s really quite great.
This lead us to the album’s final track, and one of its most enduring masterpieces, “Desolation Row.” It picks up on the dreamlike, road-as-metaphor theme of “Highway 61 Revisited,” expanding it greatly over a much more populous landscape of characters and events whose symbolic import feel miraculously apt and unannoying–and, not coincidentally, purposefully vague. But where “Highway 61” feels manic, almost jubilant in the scenes it surveys, this one borrows something from the enervated tone of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” It has some real gravity to it. It’s also the only acoustic song on the album. Where the acoustic moments on Bringing it All Back Home feel in places like concessions to Dylan’s folk base, this one feels like it stands more confidently on its own two feet as simply the best aesthetic choice for this song. The entire album that precedes it is as loud and in your face as it wants to be, and when it settles down into this quieter mode at the end, it feels like an appropriate and unforced winding down. More importantly, though, it is the track that shows Dylan at his most absurdly virtuosic (and virtuosically absurd) as a writer. Line after line, vignette upon vignette, are consistently vivid and brilliant, their hilarity mitigated by the quiet matter of factness with which they’re sung. The long train of dreamlike imagery resists point for point interpretation (not that many haven’t tried, I’m sure), but the sum total feels of a piece with Dylan’s tradition of cultural critique, from the more overt protest song era to the comparative uncanniness of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding.” Here, he finally arrives at a supremely refined vision in which not a trace of didacticism is to be found–only a bottomlessly profound and delightful montage of poetic brilliance (or as close to it as one could ever hope to hear on a rock ‘n roll album). The song is eleven minutes long, and I have heard it so many times that I can sing along with it line for line, and yet it still feels remarkably fresh and bracing to me. While there’s no one track that could hope to best exemplify everything that makes Bob Dylan so important, if I could chose to play only one track to someone who wasn’t sure what the big deal was, I would go with this one, provided they had eleven minutes to spare.
This album is an important and great one in lots of different ways, and the irony is not lost on me that, though I want to hang on to calling this one of my very favorite albums, one of its central importances–its ferociously raucous, confrontational tone–is not among the qualities I find all that appealing these days. I guess I think of it as like a “to everything there is a season” situation. (The irony is also not lost on me that I have managed to quote two Pete Seeger song titles in a piece on Dylan’s most electric album.) The rawness and anger expressed on a lot of these tracks very much spoke to me when I was young and trying to figure the world out, just as it did in its own time, when the whole world was in some sense trying to figure itself out. Even Dylan himself gravitated back toward a generally quieter tone after this period of his output had drawn to a close–after he proved he could do it. But while those qualities are harder for me to feel drawn toward now, I continue to very actively love the album’s quieter, more musical moments, and the crackle of brilliance and world-altering idiosyncrasy that pervades the entire album, so that, all told, this remains very much an album I will love and admire all my life, even if it doesn’t get played every day of my life.
Source: LP – An early, possibly original, mono copy. I was thrilled to find it a few months ago at a reasonable price–super clean too. The only track that has any significant noise on it is “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and while I’m not generally a “pops and ticks are part of what makes vinyl great” guy, in this case, that crackle added nicely to the ominous tone of the song. Overall, though, I must confess to having found the album as a whole a bit unexpectedly thin sounding, and I’m not sure right at that moment if that’s an inherent quality of the recording, or if my pressing just isn’t a great one. I’ll have to compare it to the recent mono reissue.