Perfect Albums

Perfect Albums

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?

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10 Responses to Perfect Albums

  1. Milty, you have excellent taste. It’s rare I read anything by anyone about music that I agree with as much as I agreed with this. I might choose ‘Court & Spark’ over ‘Blue’, but that might be nostalgia talking.

    To my own list, I’d add some modern classics: Living with Ghosts by Patty Griffin, OK Computer by Radiohead, Mule Variations by Tom Waits (maybe the longest fully listenable record I can think of… although having said that, I remembered “What’s He Building In There?” and questioned my own judgment.)

    I’d also add The Band’s self titled, Thriller, Tapestry, and This Year’s Girl by Elvis Costello.

    You avoided jazz records, which was a good call, but I must say: one of my hands-down-all-time favorites is Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson, which is in fact a record, rather than a compilation. That one’s pure, sweet gorgeousness from the top of “That Old Feeling” to the bottom of “Sweet Lorraine”.

  2. don westrich says:

    Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris
    Graceland by Paul Simon

  3. Amy O'Leary says:

    I vote for all yours, Carsie’s, and Don’s, plus:

    Beatles – I’d pick Abbey Road
    Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky
    Delbert McClinton – One of the Fortunate Few
    Steve Earle – Train a Comin’
    Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

  4. miltyrose says:

    I’v got to try that Delbert McClinton one! I used to be wild about the first three or four Jackson Browne records. I spent hours upon hours listening to them. I don’t know if I could get through any of them today. Maybe the first one. I will say “Late for the Sky” is perhaps the best break-up listening ever. I nearly named “Car Wheels” as well but I hadn’t pulled it out in a while so I didn’t want to name it without giving it another spin.

  5. Jim Morrow says:

    Nice job Milty. I was just farting around and started looking at various top album lists. How dispiriting! Some incredibly lame lists-some that exist solely to draw attention to how hip and eclectic the author is-some just too predictable in an age of navel gazing irony. Finally found yours. Hooray!
    I would add:
    Kinks Village Green
    Little Feat Dixie Chicken
    XTC Skylarking (but I would change Dear God for Mermaid Smiled-Dear God wrecks the continuity of the album-of course it was added to the US version as a radio play song)
    Byrds Notorious Byrd Brothers
    Who’s Next
    Tom Petty Full Moon Fever

    I could easily go on, but it’s your blog, not mine. I’m in full agreement with everything you wrote about artists and albums that have held up well. Harder They Come is the best S/T of all time, and I love turning people on to early Randy Newman if all they have heard is the sappy movie crap. My nephew’s response was typical: “OMG, he’s just evil! Fantastic stuff!” I’m gonna go read your other stuff now.

    • Jim Morrow says:

      Forgot to add Beggar’s Banquet.

    • Milty Rose says:

      I like most of the albums you mentioned very much but I can’t consistently get through most of them, maybe the Village Green. I love that one. I don’t know the XTC record or the Little Feat one, though I’ve seen them in lots of people’s lists over the years. I still have yet to fall in love with Beggar’s Banquet, though I love some of the songs. I find the Who’s earlier stuff holds up better to my ears. I know most people consider Who’s Next their established masterpiece. I certainly like it. Still, I’m more likely to put on Live at Leeds or something very early like “A Quick One”. I love Petty and I love Jeff Lynne but I really only love about half of Full Moon Fever, maybe Three Quarters.

  6. Album dude says:

    Fun fun…
    Patti smith, horses
    Pink Floyd, dark side
    Neil young, Zuma and rust never sleeps
    Rolling Stones, some girls
    Bowie, live
    Pretenders, pretenders
    Inxs, inxs
    Buffalo Springfield, retrospective
    Television, marquee moon
    C.s.n.y. Deja vu
    Springsteen, first 3 albums
    Squeeze (first one, I think)
    Mamas and papas, the one in the bathtub
    Stevie wonder, inner visions, really, almost any one
    Temptations temptations
    Hall and oats, abandoned luncheonette
    Laura Nyro
    Steely Dan, Aja
    Nirvana, never mind
    Paul McCartney, ram
    Yo la tengo, heart beating as one
    Marley, rasaman vibration
    The Hollies, the hollies
    The subdues, the subdues
    Prince, dirty mind

    • Milty Rose says:

      Cool albums! I love most of those. There are only a few that I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll check them out. I recently had a Zuma renaissance. What a great record!! “Abandoned Luncheonette” is a lost classic for sure. As for Steely Dan albums, I love “Aja” but I find myself spinning the first two albums most often. With Bob Marley & The Wailers, I always encourage people to dig into the early Jamaican pre-major label stuff. I think my favorite Stevie Wonder album is “Songs in the Key of Life”. I’m not sure if I have a favorite Pretenders album but I sure do like them. With Prince I think “Purple Rain” is probably my favorite. I’m also kind of partial to his second self-titled album but there are wonderful moments on 10 of his albums or more. I really like the one with the symbol from around 1990. …We could go on all day, couldn’t we?

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