I was giving another blogger at another site some grief for their Palinoia, when another author at that site chimed in with a figurative “oh, yeah, wise guy? Then what would YOU like to see us write about!” One result was he posted what he considered the five best albums ever made.
I thought that was a fun idea, so I’m going to lift it. With a typical modification, of course.
I’m going to list the five albums I find myself listening to most. I make no claims about their “greatness,” or any other subjective standard. Just that they are five albums I can (and do) listen to, over and over and over again, and enjoy tremendously.
Presented in no particular order:
]]>< ![CDATA[Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band — Born In The USA
Springsteen’s first monster hit album, with the iconic Annie Liebovitz cover. It’s a brilliant piece of work, one that encapsulates a hell of a dichotomy at its core. On the surface, it’s a hard-driving, pure rock and roll album with tremendous energy and power. Below the surface, though, it’s a perfect thematic companion to Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” a largely acoustic, damned-near folk album that was filled with bleak images and people trapped in desperate straits.
Born In The USA? Big, patriotic anthem? Hardly. It’s about the incredibly shabby treatment of Viet Nam veterans.
Cover Me? A cry of loneliness and need.
Darlington County? Two country boys out for a good time in the big city, but one runs afoul of the police.
Working On The Highway? Poor boy dares to fall in love with a powerful man’s daughter, ends up in prison.
Glory Days? Nostalgia that leads to being trapped in the past.
Dancing In The Dark? The despair of living a life that’s going nowhere, the desperation of trapped in a rut.
The most “honest” track is “My Hometown,” which actually puts slow, melancholy music to the tale of a dying city.
The album would be successful with either element. Springsteen, by combining them, guaranteed an album that would stand the test of time.
Peter Gabriel’s final album with Genesis. An incredibly ambitious double concept album, it manages to tell a surreal yet coherent tale about a half-black, half-Puerto Rican street punk who gets swept into a fantastic adventure. The sheer diversity of the music, which goes from whimsy (“Fly On A Windshield”) to rage (“Back In N.Y.C.”) to eroticism (“Counting Out Time”) to sheer chaos (“The Waiting Room”), with some truly brilliant lyrics (I’ve lost count of the quotes I’ve lifted for blogging — I think my proudest was linking John Kerry to “The Grand Parade Of Lifeless Packaging,” but “Back In N.Y.C.’s” line “your progressive hypocrites hand out their trash,/But it was mine in the first place, so I’ll burn it to ash” is almost always relevant.)
The album has songs that go from the good to the brilliant, but they all sustain the narrative. (That the narrative is a combination of several dreams of Gabriel’s and reads like an acid trip, but it is internally consistent.) It’s fine to listen to select tracks, but every now and then you are morally obligated to listen to the whole thing, in order, from start to finish.
Sue me. Unlike the first two, this album has no pretensions. It’s just a solid collection of great rock songs. Pretty much every track has “hit” written all over it. And is it just me, or is Kenny Loggins at his best when he’s writing songs for movies?
I’ve talked about this album before. George Martin, the main producer for the Beatles, put together an album of other people doing covers of Beatles songs. Some are mediocre, but most are astonishing. Of the four instrumentals, the only one worth raving over is Jeff Beck’s “A Day In The Life.” And from the professional musicians, Phil Collins’ medley of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” is exceptionally unexceptional.
On the other hand, Celine Dion’s “Here, There and Everywhere” is fantastic. (Oddly enough, the only times I can stand her is when she’s covering other’s songs. This one, “I Drove All Night,” and “It’s All Coming Back To Me” are the only songs I can stand.)
It’s the non-musicians whose tracks really shine. It opens with an a cappella version of “Come Together,” joined by appropriately creepy vocals. Bobby McFerrin, joined by Robin Williams. Then comes a slow, sultry, jazzy, almost loungy “Hard Day’s Night” by Goldie Hawn. Billy Connolly becomes a carnival barker as he shouts out “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and Sean Connery does a seductive dramatic reading (I’ve used it to melt several women into puddles) of “In My Life.” But the real standout is Jim Carrey totally cutting loose and bringing a very-appropriate insanity to “I Am The Walrus,” a version that I prefer to the original.
Jim Steinman writes huge songs for singers with huge voices, and they haven’t gotten much huger than Meat Loaf. The Second “Bat” album holds all the passion and energy of the first one, but it brings with it a maturity that carries it far beyond the teen angst. This is the grownup’s version of Bat, with the pain and rage and loss that can only come through years.
Plus, Steinman almost seemed to set himself a challenge by coming up with impossible song titles, and then writing songs to those titles that actually worked. “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I won’t Do That).” “Life Is A Lemon and I Want My Money Back.” “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer than They Are.” “Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere).” “Everything Louder Than Anything Else.”
Meat Loaf’s voice was in its prime back in 1993, and I don’t think any other singer could have pulled off this album. And when Meat Loaf is doing songs by anyone other than Steinman, it just doesn’t work as well.
OK, a bonus track. One final album, one that I doubt more than a handful of you have even heard of. But to me, it’s a masterpiece.
Tony Banks is the amazingly gifted keyboardist from Genesis, and a brilliant songwriter both on his own and with the group. He put together “The Fugitive” between Genesis albums (“Abacab” and “Genesis”), and the tracks fit with the progressive-moving-towards-mainstream mood of the band at the time.
Banks, as I said, is a fantastically talented composer and keyboardist. But he’s also a mediocre singer. His vocals are the weakest part of the album, but he has no illusions about that. He’s a great enough songwriter that he crafts the songs to best fit his vocal talents, making “Man Of Spells” and “Say You’ll Never Leave Me” exceptionally haunting, “By You” and “This Is Love” quirky and charming, and the two instrumentals — “Thirty-threes” and “Charm” — downright enchanting.
Those first two tracks I mentioned, though — “Man Of Spells” and “Say You’ll Never Leave Me” — are the ones that absolutely cement Banks’ legend. They create some of the most haunting imagery I’ve ever encountered in song. And Banks’ admittedly-weak voice is perfect for them,
Phew. I’m exhausted. I think I’ll put on some music and lie down for a bit.
But I have no idea what I ought to listen to…