I was planning to continue with my memoirs of Greenwich Village in the 1980’s. I aim to write about some of the recurring characters from back then. I probably will write about them at some point, but today I still feel like talking about records more than people. If you’re jonesing for some good writing about Greenwich Village, I would strongly suggest Dylan’s Chronicles. The village in 1960 was awfully rich with life and Dylan is an awfully good writer.
I’ve been thinking about albums a lot this week. For years, there have been books, articles, films and tv specials made about the great albums. I grew up dreaming along to albums, dreaming of one day making albums. I’ve still got a record player and a couple of hundred dearly beloved old vinyl albums. Most recording artists still release collections of songs as CD’s or downloadable albums. We package the songs together. We put them in a sequence. “Here’s our latest batch of songs,” we say with our album’s release. I’m working on another album of my own right now. My album will have 10 to 12 songs. I guess the album format is a reference point that most of us still relate to in some way. Today, in the age of I-pod’s and playlists, most people are back to listening to single songs rather than whole albums. Anyone releasing music on I-tunes can safely assume that a lot of people will download one song at a time. Most likely they’ll only listen to one song at a time. Maybe on a car ride they might listen to a whole album or a large part of one. Still, we make albums and sell them at shows. I’m not entirely sure why, but we do. A lot of us still like albums. I’m not sure how many of us do.
How many really good albums are there? I’d say there are loads. How many albums can you enjoy from beginning to end? I’d say that number is very small. Let’s face it; none of us has a consistently great attention span. Many songs that start out wonderful grow kind of annoying half way through or earlier. So how many collections of 10 or more songs could there be that don’t get annoying at some point.
Stop and think: How many albums do you really like all the way through? Be honest with yourself. I’m not asking how many albums were deemed “classic” in a rock critic’s 100 “Greatest Albums” list. I’m not asking which albums you think are “influential” and therefore appreciate. There are plenty of those. I’m not even asking you who your favorite artists are. I’m asking how many albums (by anyone) do you consistently enjoy listening to in their entirety. How many of your favorite albums have stood the test of time and still hold up years later. I think the reality is that the elite few are the albums we love consistently at every stop along the way from beginning to end or close to it.
I’ll tell you what: I’m going to name some of my favorite albums. Not many, just a few that I’ve been able to listen to from beginning to end for years. I’ve been testing them out on my record player or my computer while I write this. You can tell me some of your favorites too.
There are some interesting things to note:
1.The classic period of the album format is rather short. The long playing album was introduced in 1948. The first albums were collections of previously released 3 minute singles. Most artists who started making records before the 1960’s, never really came around to relating to the album format. They just recorded an album’s worth of songs and put them out. Many people still do that. Albums really flourished from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. Full length CD’s dominated pop music sales in the 90’s but with the ability to include more songs per album came a decline in many artists’ ability to edit their own work. Plenty of people are still releasing full length CD’s and even vinyl LP’s. Are any of them classics that will stand the test of time? I don’t know.
2. I don’t think I’ll name any of my classical or jazz records for this particular list but one could easily say classical and jazz is where album art began. Jazz and classical artists began making longer recorded pieces long before the pop artists with the advent of 33 1/3 rpm circa 1950. It’s harder to listen to just three minutes of a classical album or a modern jazz record. Classical music or jazz on a long player was a musical outing in and of itself. I highly recommend the experience. I spend a lot of time listening to classical music and jazz albums at home. Longer listening with varied format can be way more meditative.
3.This is no kind of definitive list. These are just a few albums that I have consistently loved all the way through on my living room stereo. It’s entirely possible that I’ll forget several of my own favorite albums.
4.My favorite song or songs by an artist might not be on my favorite album. This is a list of wholly listenable albums that have held up for me years later.
So here are some (in no particular order):
Nick Drake Pink Moon 1972
Sly & The Family Stone There’s a Riot Goin’ On 1971
Paul Simon The Rhythm of the Saints 1990
Joni Mitchell Blue 1971
Randy Newman Sail Away 1972
Neil Young Everybody Knows This is Nowhere 1969
The Wailers Burnin’ 1973
The Velvet Underground and Nico 1967
Sam Cooke Night Beat 1963
Bob Dylan Time Out of Mind 1997
Toots & The Maytals Funky Kingston 1972
Rod Stewart Every Picture Tells A Story 1971
Jimmy Cliff Wonderful World, Beautiful People 1969
Van Morrison Astral Weeks 1968
The Beatles The Beatles (the White Album) 1968
The Clash London Calling 1979
Fleetwood Mac Rumours 1977
David Bowie The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars 1972
The Grateful Dead American Beauty 1970
… So there you have it: a list of some of my favorite albums. Many of those artists have multiple works as good or as close to as good as the albums listed.
Here are some thoughts on other works by these artists:
As usual, I’d have to say the Beatles are in a class of their own. Some might have some problems with “Revolution 9” or a few of the more cheapo inclusions on the white album but I don’t. To my ears, those guys put out two completely enjoyable albums a year for eight years straight before calling it a day and all of their albums have stood the test of time. That’s remarkable like just about everything else in the remarkable career of the Beatles. So I’d say I could safely name any of the Beatles albums, particularly Rubber Soul in 1965 through Abbey Road in 1969.
For my money, Bob Dylan also made close to 10 totally fulfilling albums over a 40 year career, almost every album he made in the 60’s is a full listening pleasure from top to bottom. His debut was not so great. The second album has a few weak moments and mostly brilliant ones. From their on, it’s a brilliant run all the way through New Morning. Perhaps my favorite Dylan record is the unreleased version of Blood on The Tracks. Most people consider that released version to be one of his finest. I think the unreleased version is even better.
I think Paul Simon made 4 perfect albums. That’s impressive as hell. I love Simon & Garfunkel and many of their songs are among my absolute favorites but their albums usually lose me at some point.
I think Van Morrison had 4 or 5 other immensely listenable ones directly after Astral Weeks. Most of them even had a radio single.
Neil Young probably has 5 albums that I play all the way through. Neil Young; After The Goldrush; Tonight’s the Night and Harvest Moon are probably my other favorites.
I can sit and listen to every song on every Randy Newman album from his first 6 albums. Sail Away is the most listenable of some extremely listenable records.
Rod Stewart made 2 more of the most listenable albums I know of in the two years before and after Every Picture Tells a Story.
I’m far gone on the first 4 or 5 Joni Mitchell records (Blue is the 4th) and one later one called Hejira from the mid 70’s.
Nick Drake only made 3 albums. I like every song on all three of them. I think Pink Moon is his best album and it’s just him and his guitar, with a little piano by him as well. His debut Five Leaves Left is just about perfect too.
The Grateful Dead’s made 3 or 4 weird, psychedelic records that I love in the 60’s. They made two solidly listenable collections of songs in one year in 1970: Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
The Velvet Underground made 4 great studio albums in 4 years. I recommend them all.
David Bowie was really good at making albums. Hunky Dory is arguably as good as Rise & Fall .
The self-titled Fleetwood Mac album just before Rumours is wonderful. Tusk is a brilliant album too but not in a consistently listenable way. Lindsay starts to bother me somewhere along the way. It’s a double lp with many very cool moments but it ain’t the White Album.
The Clash had double lp perfection in my opinion with London Calling. The two albums before London Calling were pretty darn easy to listen to as well.
Sly and the Family Stone have three ridiculously wonderful albums in a catalog of great albums. The two after There’s a Riot Goin’ On are pretty perfect too.
Sam Cooke comes from before the age of the album. He died the year after Night Beat came out. His legacy of songs is incredible. Night Beat was his only real album statement.
Toots & The Maytals made their greatest works in Jamaica in the late 60’s. Most of those records were released as singles. They’re all remarkably wonderful.
Jimmy Cliff contributed half of the songs to the soundtrack of the film The Harder They Come, which I would argue is one of the best albums ever made. 1974’s Struggling Man is a pretty great album too.
Bob Marley & The Wailers had 5 or 6 great albums for Island records. His even greater works were made on countless singles in Jamaica in the 1960’s.
…What are some top-to-bottom classics for you?