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.

51qFQkCSOgLI was off by a few days, but it happened that I listened to this record right around the fiftieth anniversary of the recording of its revolutionary opening track, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”  Fifty years and two days, I think.  The anniversary occasioned a handful of appreciations of the song that crossed my desk as I was nearing the album on the list.  I opted not to read them so as not to color my perspective too strongly, but the cursory scan I gave them was helpful, in that it reminded me that this song is important.  It seems an obvious enough point, but it’s one of those songs that I heard so many times in my youth that it’s a bit played out for me, and since it’s the first track on the record, I have often tended to skip it in my infrequent listenings to this album over the past decade or more.

I’d have listened to it this time, of course, but I might have been inclined to focus on the ways in which wears thin, as opposed to the ways in which it was a shockingly great, unprecedentedly funny, articulate, absurdist piece of agit prop for the burgeoning counterculture–a song that makes the earnest, relatively straightforward protest music Dylan had been doing only a few years prior seem suddenly humorless and naive.  One always hears about how “Like a Rolling Stone” came blaring out on the airwaves a year or so after this and changed everything, but this song, while perhaps less of a radio staple, came first, was arguably stranger, and opened a lot of people’s eyes and ears–to a new chapter in Bob Dylan’s brilliance, to the verbal possibilities of rock ‘n roll, and to the very idea of subversion against the dominant societal narrative.  I wasn’t around then, so the song has always meant less to me than it surely did to those who heard it when it was fresh, but I’d like to think that I was always somewhat attuned to what a great song it was.  For a song with so many words, I sure do seem to still remember a lot of them, and not just because I saw the famous cue card sequence from Don’t Look Back a lot growing up.

Though I missed out on being affected by its revolutionary nature in its own time, this was still an album that meant a lot to me in my youth, and which I will always love, if not listen to all that often.  In a late episode of The Sopranos, there’s a great scene where AJ, the dopey, ingenuous scion of the titular family, is getting high with a girl in his SUV, listening to “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” another of the great, aggressively intelligent litanies on this album.  The two vulgar rich teenagers sit there, letting the words wash over them, and, like countless teenagers before and after them, were just stunned by how true it was, even decades after it was recorded–how skillfully it embodies the looming sense that the life young people are given to grow up into is fundamentally bullshit.  “There is no sense in trying.”

I would certainly count myself as having been among such teenagers, and while the revolutionary context in which the song was recorded was long dead, that song and others (but especially that song) really does resonate in a powerful way to people of a certain age and disposition.  (I was probably twelve or thirteen when my dad gave me this album and Highway 61 Revisited, more or less simultaneously, and changed my whole outlook on life.)  To the extent that such a rite of passage–growing out of childhood only to discover that the expectations society has for you in your swiftly-approaching adulthood are hostility indifferent to the poetry in your soul–feels like a bit of a cliche at this point, I feel like this album is part of what made such a perspective prominent enough to become a cliche.  Though it was written of and for its time, its message of basic mistrust in the cogs of the civilization that one has been unwittingly born into really does echo down through the generations.  If you could find a fourteen year old today whose ears are capable of appreciating anything other than whatever quasi-music the kids are into these days, the message would no doubt still hold up.  Maybe someone ought to do a beat-heavy remix, just to reach the rest of them.

Given “It’s Alright, Ma”’s distinct appeal for disaffected youths, I approached it this time more or less expecting that it would feel like a bit much, now that I am old and complacent.  But nope, it still wowed the hell out of me, as did “Gates of Eden” right before it.  As with “Subterranean Homesick Blues, I still knew just about every word, and while I think of all these songs as played out for me, I was glad to discover that they could still speak to me these many years later.  Sure, there’s a clunky image here or there, and some of the rhymes leading up to the recitation of the title (lodged/dodge, etc.) feel a little corny compared to the delightful, relentless assault of the verses, but these are tiny little complaints compared to how…fucking amazing these songs still are if you’re still willing to let them be.

It’s noteworthy that “It’s Alright, Ma” and “Gates of Eden,” two of the bigger, more ambitious and revolutionary tracks on the album, fall on the acoustic side of the album that it oft touted for the symbolic upset of Dylan having “gone electric.”  “Subterranean Homesick Blues” really does give you the full package–the intensely articulate lyric tethered to a stinging, heavy electric blues sound.  But otherwise, a number of the best songs on here are either acoustic, or “electric” only incidentally, in that a band is providing mellow, tasteful accompaniment of a sort that I can’t imagine enraging anyone.

The fact is, many of the more aggressively electric tracks are the ones that, at least for me, have not really aged as well.  Don’t get me wrong–there isn’t, technically, a bad song on the album.  But some songs are of the sort you could hear everyday for the rest of your life and never grow tired of, and this album does has a few of them.  And then there are other songs that you appreciate, and maybe once even loved, but which, on balance, you’d be okay without ever chancing to hear again.  And there are some of those songs on here too.  “Outlaw Blues” is one of those, although I do think it stands out among a lot of the songs on here.  The lyric is less revolutionary feeling than most of the other songs on here, and yet the sound–that piercing, authentically dangerous feeling hard electric blues feel that Dylan perfected on Blonde on Blonde two albums later–is perhaps heard most clearly on this track.  The song itself hardly seems to matter, but the sound really does point toward something.  Still, it’s not one that I count among my more enduring favorites.

The rest of the songs that I find have worn a bit thin over time all share a quality of being funny, and surely great in their time (and even in the time of my youth), but of not quite holding up for the long haul.  In a way, it’s their funniness that undoes them.  One of the great pitfalls of humor in music, of course, is that it implicitly limits the song’s shelf life.  Once the joke isn’t funny anymore–and what joke is after the fiftieth time you’ve heard it?–the song’s impact is accordingly diminished.  (The music of Randy Newman is, for me, the one big exception to this rule.)  So while there are a handful of enduringly great lines in songs like “Maggie’s Farm,” “On the Road Again” and the especially wordy (and still brilliant) joke that is “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”–and while the subversive social commentary of the songs still brings a glimmer of a lingering, theoretical delight, by and large, I don’t find much reason to keep these songs in active rotation in my life.  Dylan and Albert Grossman cracking up at the outset of “115th Dream” is there for all posterity to hear, again and again, but I’m not still laughing along with them.

The one moment from any of these songs I would not throw out so readily–from “On the Road Again” is the line “Even the butler, he’s got something to prove,” but it’s not for its modestly absurd humor so much as it is the way Dylan delivers it–joyously rides the groove of the song on that line, mocking anyone who ever thought that playing rock ‘n roll was a bad idea.  But in the main, this set of songs that populate much of the first side give the impression of striving to achieve what “Subterranean Homesick Blues” does, but not quite getting there.

So really, aside from the handful of aforementioned verbal tour-de-force numbers like “It’s Alright, Ma” (which I think are most effectively enjoyed in adulthood with some space in between listenings), it’s really a core of smaller, more quietly articulate and beautiful songs that make this an album I will never fully tire of (even if I have to sometimes skip tracks to get to them).  “Mr. Tambourine Man” belongs among these, certainly, although it also stands a bit outside, somehow, perhaps for being such a greatest hits kind of number, coupled with the confusion of deciding whether the original or The Byrds version is the one true keeper.  It’s an undeniably great and important song, but for whatever reason, its very conspicuousness has always made it feel a bit at arms reach for me–more of an intellectually aesthetic pleasure than a deeply heartfelt one.  Maybe it’s just that once you hear Bill Shatner’s version, there’s really no going back.

So fundamentally, the songs I love most consistently on the record are “She Belongs to Me,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.”  To varying degrees, each is a masterpiece of deliberately modest dimensions.  Amidst the other songs on the album that assault you with their brilliance, their sound, or their unstopable verbal momentum, these songs are content to just be beautiful, sublimely honed little songs–pop songs, basically, except for their uncommonly smart, striking lyrics.  In a sense, their impact was perhaps greater, since few people bothered to try matching Dylan at his genius for long form surrealist diatribes, while songs like these implicitly raised the standard of intelligence in pop song lyrics in a way that few other artists could avoid laboring in the shadow of.  Of them, I think “Love Minus Zero” is probably the prettiest, and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” the most singularly perfect.

To be fair, my love for “Baby Blue” does receive a small extramusical assist from its placement in the documentary Don’t Look Back.  Throughout the film, it’s a running joke that Dylan keeps hearing about the new folk singer Donovan, who is forever being referred to as “The New Dylan.”  Finally, toward the end of the film, the two meet.  At Dylan’s bequest, Donovan sings one of his songs–a pretty, innocuous little tune that is congenitally incapable either of giving offense, or of provoking intense passions of any stripe–a pleasant little nothing of a song.  Dylan say, a little too enthusiastically, “that’s a great song!!!,” then grabs the guitar from Donovan, and, proceeds to sing “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” an actually great song.  As the brilliance of the song becomes more and more evident with each line, Dylan seems to stare right through Donovan, a sly smirk on his face.  Donovan nervously smokes his cigarette, growing increasingly ill looking as the disproportion of the two men’s talents become ever more obviously insuperable.

I’ve got no beef with Donovan, and I don’t enjoy the scene on the level of schadenfreude–or maybe just a little.  Clearly Dylan is being a prick, but there’s something uplifting and glorious about the moment too.  Kanye West notwithstanding, there’s an ubermenschy kind of satisfaction in seeing genius reveling in itself, delighting in its own power, gleefully squashing lesser artists who dare to be derivative without coming close to measuring up.  Dylan knows his song is not only better–that much is obvious to everyone in the room, not least of all Donovan–but that he is hitting him with one of the very best songs he (and maybe anyone) has ever written.

So that scene really drives home the song’s brilliance in a vivid, deliciously uncomfortable way, but it would be just as obviously brilliant without it.  It is among the more artful pieces of pop poetry Dylan has ever come up with–full of strange, hilarious images and turns of phrase whose literal meaning is evasive and probably nonexistent, but which still add up to something vaguely…sensible feeling.  For all its obscurity, it manages to convey real emotional gravity–probably it’s a bittersweet farewell to an ex-lover, though it resists being nailed to that interpretation exclusively.  And, while Dylan has always maintained that melody is not really his long suit, it manages to be quite a beautiful tune–one that breaks free from the younger Dylan’s tendency toward straight appropriation of old folk melodies and establishes itself as a an original and unfussily distinctive piece of music.  And the same could be said for “Love Minus Zero” and others as well.

It’s funny to see this album set so relatively far apart from its immediate successors, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, both of which quite rightly make the top 10, while this one founders in the hinterlands just outside of the top 30.  The three albums have always felt like they belong together, demonstrating on the one hand a swiftly escalating evolution in style, while still hanging together as the three major totems of Bob Dylan’s real genius period.  This one is clearly weaker–or at least less even–than the other two, and yet one might think it would get a bit more of a boost from being the first.  Dylan made great music before this album, and had already established himself as a voice-of-his-generation genius in a lot of people’s eyes.  But this album represents such a bewilderingly vast leap forward from what had come before that it seems to me to count almost as a new sort of debut, and a uniquely revolutionary album.  “Going electric” is a bit of a straw dog–although the entire genre of “folk rock” could be seen to proceed straight from this album, even with The Byrd’s Mr. Tambourine Man dogging its heels.  What really seems most important is the leap forward in Dylan’s songwriting, suddenly producing work that seems almost supernaturally brilliant and strange–songs unprecedentedly surreal and hilarious and literally consciousness expanding.

Source: LP – I listened to the MFSL 45 RPM pressing, which was of course stunning clear, although I’ve grown more accustomed in recent years to hearing this music in mono, and the pulled apart quality of the full band tracks felt a bit distracting to me on this stereo pressing.

6f5ce1d59fc6136e878ecfd0e886ad24cb3899e4I’ll tell you one thing I hate, besides Billy Joel, is the New York Times online comments section.  Last year, the Times published an absurdly laudatory puff piece about Billy Joel, and I felt strongly that it was my duty to respond.  The instructions noted that comments are previewed before they are published, but that they will generally be allowed provided that they are not offensive or off topic.  So I came up with this:

The great Randy Newman often says something like “I think of what I do as being in the tradition of Schubert–except, y’know, sh*ttier.” Had Billy Joel shown a glimmer of that kind of humility, he might have avoided the derision of even a “hater” such as myself. Instead, with typical, truculent self-importance, he speaks of himself in terms of Mozart and Beethoven, never bothering to concede the absurdity of the comparison. He implies, inaccurately, that he and “Bruce” are cut from the same cloth. He says it’s anybody’s guess whether he or Elton John is better, when it seems pretty incontrovertible that he is worse. Everything he says betrays the same churlish overestimation of his own abilities that was long ago cemented in the immortally silly “Piano Man” line “Man, what are you doing here?”

But this is all to be expected. What is truly pernicious is the author’s wildly ungrounded assertion that the battle is over, and that Joel’s artistic validity is now assured. On the contrary, Joel’s “mastery of songwriting” is by no means evident, and to state otherwise is an insult to the lineage of actually great American songwriters. Joel’s over-exposure on the FM dial may have mercifully abated, but as long as a person cannot safely step into a drug store or supermarket without risking being assailed by “It’s Still Rock ‘n Roll to Me” or “Uptown Girl,” the resistance lives on. Joel’s music remains mawkish, ham-fisted, and just plain bad, whatever his present state of inactivity.

A completely reasonable, on point comment, but…nothing.  It never showed up.  Was it my use of the word “shittier,” even though I self-bleeped it, and was quoting someone?  Was my line of attack so off base as to be considered offensive?  I don’t know, but in scanning the published comments some hours later, I noticed a peculiar absence of dissenting opinions.  A few people snuck in barbs about Joel’s drunk driving habit, but generally, it was comment after comment of “Hey, Billy Joel!  Great Guy!  Grew up with his music!  Love him!”  And that’s fine, I guess, but I felt seriously that the countervailing position deserved to be heard, and it was almost entirely shut out.  I worked hard for several hours on that comment too, whittling my abundant opinions on the subject down to something that would fit their maximum word count.  Fortunately, I guess, I’ve got this music blog, where I can finally share my comment for at least a few people to see, and where it doubles as a good enough introduction to my feelings toward Billy Joel in general.

As for this record in particular, the cover alone really tells you everything you need to know: a black and white photo (real classy like) of Billy Joel curled up awkwardly on a bed, a pair of boxing gloves on the wall mitigating the slight unmanliness of his pose, as he gazes forlornly down at a mask on his pillow.  It really makes you think.  In case you missed the point, though, he unpacks the image in greater detail in the album’s title track, explaining how we all wear masks to hide our true selves from the world, but wind up losing track of who we really are and becoming…(oh, for fuck’s sake)…a stranger to ourselves.  It’s the sort of theme one might expect from a high school sophomore’s creative writing assignment, rather than from someone twice that age armed with a recording contract.  And yet it does serve as an effective compass point for the rest of the album, and, really, Joel’s entire career, built as it is around a uniquely pervasive kind of disingenuousness.  From song to song, album to album,  era to era, he has blithely forged ahead, promiscuously borrowing singing and writing styles from specific other, better artists, and presuming to speak for various social and ethnic groups that he has no legitimate connection to.  (Of the various two dimensional characters who populate this album, for example, one is literally named something like “Sergeant O’Leary.”)  If there is an essential, true Billy Joel at the center of it all, he is indeed a stranger to me.

The opening track, “Anthony’s Song (Movin’ Out),” whose ubiquity has made it far more familiar to me than I am comfortable with, gives us a fine example of what I mean.  It’s a ham-fisted pageant of working class aspiration and “we’re not gonna take it” style faux rage that Joel sings with a mysteriously accented passion that belies his total lack of personal identification with the characters he inhabits.  It was the perfect song to serve as the title track for the inevitable Billy Joel Broadway musical, since Joel’s writing style here is emblematic of the kind of condescending, heavy handed theatricality that he hopes will pass for a serious narrative style of songwriting, but which really just screams “show biz.”  I can readily picture a synchronized row of cast members in generic working stiff uniforms strutting around the stage in theatrical disgust, pushing things over with their jazz hands.

I should note that I have no quarrel more generally with a narrative songwriting style, in which songs take on the shape of short stories, or even (more reluctantly) some overarching longer form.  Nor do I insist that the writer be in possession of some hard won credibility that connects him directly to his characters.  But one has to actually be good at it.  Plenty of songwriters I do love–Randy Newman, John Prine, Ray Davies and others–write in such a narrative, character-driven style–but do so with a kind of heart, intelligence and nuanced perception of the human condition–that Billy Joel is sorely lacking in. They modulate effectively between emotional directness and appropriate ironic distance, and often achieve powerfully touching existential insight.  They are true craftsmen of narrative as well as musical forms in a way that Billy Joel simply has never been.

A slightly less unsuccessful example, I guess, is “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”  It’s the song that Billy Joel fans will start throwing around the term “masterpiece” in reference to, and which even some lapsed fans have trouble quite letting go of.  I didn’t care for it, of course, but I could see how it was less aggressively horrible than many of his other songs.  It’s a series of vignettes strung together by a common setting, which is an interesting enough structure.  And it is artfully tied together, although I suspect that producer Phil Ramone deserves at least some of the credit for that.  I learned that Joel cited the suite comprising side two of Abbey Road as an influence on this song, and while I don’t have the exact quote, I can’t help but suspect that he managed to do so in a way that implied that his song was the equal of that work, which of course it is not. The vignettes themselves seemed predictable and clumsy, though there was at least one part near the end when he stopped singing words and kind of hummed a melodic interlude that was almost pleasing to my ear, before the culminating return to the central image of “a bottle of red, a bottle of white,” whose modicum of resonance is due primarily to its obviousness.  It’s like the “Sergeant O’Leary” of Italian restaurant imagery.

I should say that I didn’t actually hate every single song on the album.  The last two were too nondescript to bother getting riled up over, and I found to my chagrin that I almost–almost–actually liked the song “Vienna.”  It had a kind of pleasing quasi-soulfulness to it that at first brought to mind Leon Russell, before I realized that the more obvious connection is to the Russell-influenced Elton John.  It sounded like a fair to middling Elton John song, basically, which is better than most Billy Joel.

That brief moment of respite, however, was too good to last, and was followed immediately by perhaps my least favorite song on the album, “Only the Good Die Young.”  It finds Joel at his most disingenuous, coming on like some kind of streetwise, finger snapping Dion Dimucci type, when it’s painfully obvious that he’s really just some dweeb from the suburbs.  Also, the whole logic of the song–trying to persuade a girl to give up her virginity by appealing to a broad, conceptual principle–is cringingly stupid.  His closing argument–“I might as well be the one”–is about as about as romantic as a seedy, sweaty middle aged guy trying to get the neighbor lady across the hall to sleep with him by saying “Hey, we all have needs, right?”  But mostly it’s just insufferably lame.  The wikipedia article notes that the song was “mildly controversial” in its time, but to me, it’s really rather the opposite.

Speaking of insufferably lame, the wedding band standard “I Love You Just the Way You Are”  also appears on this record.  It was a misery to get through, but in the end, I had more respect for it than I did songs like “Only the Good Die Young.”  If Billy Joel does have some kind of musical core, it is a gooey, syrupy one of the sort demonstrated in this song.  He’s not congenitally cut out to be a rock ‘n roller, and it is generally his embarrassing attempts to prove otherwise that I find most offensive.  On a song like this, he is at least operating within his proper stock in trade as a purveyor of bland, schmaltzy, derivative updates on the American popular songbook.  It was one of the worst songs on the album, but also among the least dishonest, and so less inherently loathsome to me.  I would say the same about “She’s Always a Woman to Me,” except midway through listening to it I noticed all sorts of overreaching quasi-poetic lines–references to the Garden of Eden, for example–and became stricken by the horrifying notion that perhaps this was his attempt at being Dyalnesque–possibly even his version of “Just Like a Woman.”  Either way, though, it was pretty rough going.

I exerted a certain amount of what you could call self care in preparing to listen to this record–I brewed up a fresh, strong cup of coffee, put together a nice little snack for myself, and settled in for what I anticipated as being a faint, dental visit-grade trauma.  And it was pretty tough.  Midway through, though, my older daughter woke up from her nap a little bit on the cranky side, and her vocal distaste for the music really cheered me up.  “I don’t want this.  I want Bob Dylan,” she said.  She’s not yet three, god bless her.  She really didn’t want this music to be playing, and while I know it had more to do with it being unfamiliar to her than her having all that sophisticated an ear, I was really bolstered and gratified by her evident disdain.  That’s my girl!

Source: Spotify

2012-10-30-steely_dan_ajaEarlier on in the project a reader, perhaps spurned by some uncharitable words I had for a band he loved, derisively referred to Randy Newman and Steely Dan as “artists so good they have to be explained rather than enjoyed”.  I admit it stung a little, mostly at the time for Randy Newman.  I’ve loved him since I was a kid, and have never quite made peace with the seemingly vast swath of the population who regard him with either loathing or ridicule.  I personally think he’s among the upper echelons of twentieth century songwriters, and y’all are crazy.  Steely Dan hurt less, as I was more of a casual, entry level fan at the time.  That has changed in the interim.  Running alongside this project, largely unrelated to it, one of the bigger advances in my musical life in recent years has been an increasing fondness for The Dan.  Some weeks recently, they’ve been almost all I listened to.

I regard this as a positive development, though it puts me in the position, familiar to many Steely Dan fans, of being frequently on the defensive.  For whatever cluster of reasons, they are a band who seem to stir passionate feelings of antipathy in lots of people–a stance perhaps most vividly expressed in the movie Knocked Up, in which Seth Rogan utters the memorable phrase “Steely Dan gargles my balls.”  If I had to hazard a guess as to why so many people feel that way, I would guess that it’s a toxic combination of the music being challenging in certain ways and the insistence on the part of their fans that they are superior artists–too smart and cool and acerbic for the average joe to understand.  People who find the music a bit hard to warm up to therefore perhaps feel condescended to, which accounts for the special flavor of hatred some people seem to have for the group.

I can almost relate.  It took me a couple of decades to properly appreciate them, starting with the experience of listening to my father’s copy of this record as a teenager, and being completely mystified by the appeal of it.  Somewhere along the line, I developed an appreciation for the slightly more accessible solo albums of Donald Fagen, which probably saved me from writing Steely Dan off entirely.  But it took a lot of years and a lot of tries to move from being a non-fan to liking a few songs, to a casual fan, to a serious fan.  It’s not a process I would bother going through for many bands, but I’m really glad I did in this case.  The experience might even inspire me to keep trying with other bands I have historically found difficult to get into.

The problem with trying to explain, of course, is that it is almost certain to be a doomed effort–one that at best will have no effect, and more likely will merely fortify a person’s disdain.  Not that that’s going to stop me.  The thing about them is, yes, there are some challenges involved in listening to them, some humps to get over.  There will be some deeply smooth sounds, reminiscent at first blush to elevator music.  There will be saxophone solos.  There will be complex jazz-based chord progressions shoe-horned into a pop song format.  There will be frustratingly oblique lyrics, especially vexing if you associate obscurantism with pretentiousness.  Perhaps most troubling of all, there will be lots of Michael McDonald vocal parts.  Any one of these factors could easily derail the wary, and in total, they make for a formidable package.  And yet I swear to you I have found it to be worth the effort.

The main arguments for why will be familiar to anyone who knows anyone who loves Steely Dan: the calibre of musicianship on their records is almost superhumanly stunning.  The sound quality of their records is about as good as popular music recording ever got.  And yes, they (Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the two core members of the group), are extremely, uncommonly smart as rock musicians go.  All these things are true, though are unlikely to convert anyone.

Sound quality is something that matters a great deal once you’ve opened the door to letting it matter to you, but for the great majority, it isn’t really a huge consideration.  It’s great if you’re into it, but we all know that music can be enjoyed just as deeply under less than ideal sonic conditions.  The high level of musicianship on Steely Dan records might seem similarly irrelevant to many music lovers.  Certainly I have never been a fan of virtuosity for its own sake.  I don’t own any albums by Yngwie Malmsteen, say, or Steve Vai.  And yet on Steely Dan records, it is rarely all about the technical impressiveness of a soloing instrument, though there is plenty of that to go around too.  Often, the real action lies with the rhythm section.  As their career progressed, Becker and Fagen became increasingly obsessed with nailing down the tightest grooves imaginable.  They used a host of musicians to do this, but most prominently, they relied on bassist Chuck Rainey and drummer Bernard Purdie, two of the most badass, in the pocket, deep grooving session men ever.  (Purdie holds the distinction of being one of the most recorded musicians of all time.)  With everything else going on in their music, it is easy to overlook, but that in the end has been the level on which I have gotten most enthused about their music.  As polished and polite as the music sounds on the surface, it is almost bottomlessly deep, funky music under the surface.

That oft-reviled smoothness, too, does serve something of a deliberate purpose in their music.  One of their running themes was to counterpose particularly mellifluous music with their most dark and troubling lyrics, so that there exist in their catalog songs that would sound right at home in a supermarket or elevator, but which on closer examination are about pedophiles, drug dealers, or other shady characters.  I also think it’s just a product of the effort to fuse the impulses of jazz and pop music in the context of the late 1970s.  It does sound a bit elevatory in places, but the inspiration is rooted in real jazz, particularly late 50s/early 60s hard bop.  They rarely capture the intensity of that sound, but its an open question whether that would have worked in this context, and whether the choice to smooth it all out was perhaps a sound one.  In any event, it’s primarily their last two albums (not counting their reunion efforts some decades later)–this one and Gaucho that have that quality in excess.  Much of their earlier stuff rocks a bit harder.

As for their dark, cryptically articulate lyrics, I guess I can see where they might leave some people cold–might, in fact indicate that there is a coldness at the group’s heart.  Others may find them unnecessarily obtuse, verging on the pretentious.  I don’t think either is true, although it took me awhile to come around.  I am traditionally something of a sucker for songs that deal with the very commonplace subjects of love and loss.  Sure, it’s been overdone, but the readiest alternatives–basically politics or meaninglessness–generally fail to move me.  Becker and Fagen present something of a unique alternative: the great majority of their songs are constructed as short story-style narratives from which enough contextualizing detail has been removed to make them a bit hard to figure out.  There are presumably deeper levels to it–all manner of literary allusion and obscure points of reference-but I have managed to find enjoyment in their lyrics without going too far down that rabbit hole, enjoying what I can gather about the plotlines of their songs, and relishing some of their particularly apt and vivid phrases.  I don’t think that they are nearly as pretentious as some people assume.  I just think they’re nerds.  People who witnessed Becker and Fagen writing songs together report a great deal of laughter and fucking around in their writing process.  Basically they were two smart, simpatico oddballs goofing around and trying to amuse each other, developing something of a private musical and lyrical language that they had the opportunity to take public, and, eventually, the resources to realize in ever more exacting fashion.  To me, there’s nothing loathsome about that.

Now about this album.  My rule about not listening to the albums on this list before their time has been something of a thorn in my side in this case–my sharp increase in esteem for this group has grown around a self-imposed inability to listen in full to their most celebrated album (though individual tracks were fine).  In some sense, I wound up cheating on this, in that I recently saw Steely Dan in concert for the second time, and they played this album in its entirety.  That night was one of the factors that  has recently elevated my interest in Steely Dan to an almost teenagerish level of obsession.  This album is considered the apex of their career, commercially and critically, but has never been my favorite, perhaps owing to my uncontexted adolescent exposure to it.  It still isn’t my favorite of their albums, but that concert did help to remind me that it is awfully good, and this listening did the same.

What has never been in dispute for me is that the opening track, “Black Cow” is exceptionally great.  The story it tells, about a guy seeing his ex-lover spiraling out of control, is less opaque and more familiar than most of their songs (sort of an update on Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life”).  It’s also one of the very few that is actually sympathetic. (Like Randy Newman, they share a fondness for problematic narrators.)  But the real action lies in the track. Anchored by a rock solid groove so good it got used as a hip hop sample, the pieces of the song come together to form an imperturbably perfect surface that then crests magnificently at each recitation of the chorus.  The rhythm guitar, a flowing pattern of upbeats, becomes almost hypnotic.  The horn parts are perfectly arranged, forming their own memorable counter melody.  The female back up singers sound soulful yet almost disembodied in their coolness.  The long outro in particular, where the girls sing “so outrageous” in brilliant counterpoint with the horns is particularly dear to me–an absolutely perfect minute of so of music.  The whole song is perhaps one of the two or three most spectacularly realized tracks of the band’s recorded output.

Part of my reluctance to embrace this album is that the rest of side one has always left me a bit cold.  The title track becomes a bit too much of a virtuoso show for me, featuring the dueling solos of Wayne Shorter on saxophone and a very muscularly virtuosic drummer (who famously nailed it in an unheard of one take).  It’s amazing work, but doesn’t generally move me as much as I wish it did.  I did find more to enjoy on this most recent listening, particularly in the ensemble instrumental sections leading up to the drum ‘n sax showdown.  “Deacon Blues,” which was one of the album’s unlikely singles, is also not a big favorite of mine.  The premise–a guy romanticizing failure–is a solid one, but the execution always seems a bit artless to me.  Still, here too I found that I liked the song a little better than I had recalled.  It’s growing on me slowly, just like the rest of their catalog.

The second side consists of smaller pieces, both in terms of length and apparent substance.  I like them all fine, but most don’t thrill me in the way my favorite Steely Dan songs do.  “Peg” is the standout track, and probably the best known song off the album, all the more so for its prominent use in the De La Soul song “Eye Know”.  That jaunty little keyboard melody that forms the basis of the De La Soul version is a highlight of the song, as is Michael McDonald’s rather extraordinary multitracked background vocal extravaganza.  I’ve never been a fan of his voice, which somehow reminds me of congestive heart failure, but it’s hard not to appreciate the almost comically challenging part Becker and Fagen laid out for him in this song.  I smile every time I hear it, imagining an earnest young McDonald, hands clasped over his headphones, bellowing “Peeeeeegggg”.  But the real star here too is the groove.  Bernard Purdie described it as something like “a groove you could hang your coat on.”  It is alarmingly solid.

I guess I can see why this one is considered the pinnacle effort of their career.  It represents something of a high water mark in terms of their project of realizing the sounds in their head with startling precision.  Gaucho arguably went even further, but some feel it overplayed its hand.  (I like it, though.)  I can certainly see why this is the highest rated album they have on the list, although as I’ve stated elsewhere, the three albums that appear on here are actually the ones I’m least inclined to listen to.  As a novice, I found Countdown to Ecstasy the easiest to get into.  Katy Lied came next, and lately, I’ve been most enamored of The Royal Scam, the album made just before this one.  It’s got a similarly high level of musicianship and attention to detail, but rocks a little harder and seems a little less cool to the touch.  In the unlikely event that this post inspired anyone to give Steely Dan a more serious try, that’s probably the album I would recommend starting with.  For me, the effort involved has been more than refunded in the pleasure I have received from their music.  Much as I wish on some level that I had gotten into them at a younger age, it has been an unexpected delight to find a band in my 30s whose music excites me as much as music could excite me in my youth.

Source: MFSL LP.  It’s got to be one of the most perfectly transparent sounding records I own.  A lot of my recent Steely Dan listening (including to individual tracks off of this album) has been in a digital format (CD quality).  The digital version puts everything in a nice, tight frame, and seems to highlight as if by outlining every little part.  The LP sounds much more naturalistic, just like a band of musicians playing together under ideal conditions.  What’s great is that a record like this allows you to see the advantages of both.  Either is an acceptable realization of music this carefully put together, and its nice to be able to enjoy the album one way or the other, like two distinct flavors of listening experience.