The Big Recap

May 19, 2015

unnamedOkay, 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

  1. The Band – The Band
  2. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  3. The Beach Boys – Smile
  4. Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
  5. Joni Mitchell – Blue
  6. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions
  7. Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!
  8. Randy Newman – Good Old Boys
  9. Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis
  10. The Rolling Stones – Let it Bleed
  11. James Brown – In the Jungle Groove
  12. Sly and the Family Stone – Greatest Hits
  13. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Axis: Bold as Love
  14. John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band
  15. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
  16. The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It for the Money
  17. Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon
  18. Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
  19. Various Artists (Soundtrack) – The Harder They Come
  20. Talking Heads – Talking Heads: 77
  21. Bob Dylan and The Band – The Basement Tapes
  22. The B-52s – The B-52s
  23. The Pixies – Doolittle
  24. Nirvana – Nevermind
  25. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
  26. Otis Redding – The Dock of the Bay
  27. The Kinks – The Village Green Preservation Society
  28. The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle
  29. Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger
  30. Blondie – Parallel Lines
  31. Bob Marley and The Wailers – Legend
  32. Steely Dan – Aja
  33. Various Artists – Anthology of American Folk Music
  34. The Grateful Dead – Workingman’s Dead
  35. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle Vol. 1
  36. Beck – Sea Change
  37. Parliament – Mothership Connection
  38. Radiohead – Kid A
  39. The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
  40. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
  41. Howlin’ Wolf – Howlin’ Wolf
  42. Various Artists – Phil Spector: Back to Mono – 1958-1969
  43. Moby Grape – Moby Grape
  44. John Prine – John Prine
  45. The Meters – Look-Ka Py Py
  46. David Bowie – Hunky Dory
  47. Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
  48. Big Star – #1 Record
  49. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
  50. 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:

  1. Radiohead – In Rainbows
  2. Kanye West – Late Registration
  3. Brian Eno – Another Green World
  4. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica
  5. Bob Marley and The Wailers – Natty Dread
  6. David Bowie – Station to Station
  7. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
  8. Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
  9. Prince – Sign o’ the Times
  10. Nas – Illmatic
  11. Muddy Waters – Folk Singer
  12. The Replacements  – Let it Be
  13. N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
  14. Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come
  15. 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:

  1. Billy Joel – The Stranger
  2. Linda Ronstadt – The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt
  3. Public image Ltd. – Metal Box
  4. Suicide – Suicide
  5. Lou Reed – Berlin
  6. Neil Diamond – The Ultimate Collection
  7. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
  8. Def Leppard – Hysteria
  9. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III
  10. 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 beforeThe 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:

  1. Louis Jordan
  2. George Jones
  3. Fats Domino
  4. The Everly Brothers
  5. Roy Orbison
  6. Ricky Nelson
  7. Little Willie John
  8. Harry Nilsson
  9. Townes Van Zandt
  10. 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:

  1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  2. Rubber Soul
  3. Abbey Road
  4. Revolver
  5. Magical Mystery Tour
  6. The Beatles (The White Album)
  7. A Hard Day’s Night
  8. Help!
  9. Let it Be
  10. Beatles for Sale
  11. With The Beatles
  12. Please Please Me
  13. 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.