Thursday, May 12, 2005

Ten favorite albums

I'll take a break from complaining about things to make a list of my ten favorite albums of all time -- a desert island list, if you will, and for no particular reason other than that's what I feel like doing today. And note that I used the word "album;" all of these recordings just happen to date back to the vinyl era, which either shows how old and set in my ways I am, or how inferior popular music has been in the past twenty years or so.

The only rule to this sort of list is that greatest hits and live albums are excluded; I've also limited my list to so-called popular music, so there's no jazz or classical here. That out of the way, let's get to it -- in alphabetical order by artist, of course.

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds

This one not only makes my top ten, it makes the top five -- and possibly the number-one slot. The instrumentation is awesome, the voices heavenly, and the songs alternately heartbreaking and inspiring. Brian Wilson is a genius, and this is his masterpiece.

The Beatles: Abbey Road

Any top ten list has to have a few Beatles albums on it, and it's tough choosing the leading contenders. While many would put Revolver, Rubber Soul, or the White Album higher on the list, Abbey Road makes my list because it's the boys at their peak, in terms of songwriting, performing, and producing. And there's no better swan song than the final lyrics: "And, in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make."

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

No question, Sgt. Pepper always makes the list. This album -- along with the album it inspired, Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds -- changed the face of popular music forever. It's the first album to be all of a piece, and if that isn't enough, all the individual bits are classics on their own. And can you think of a more dramatic closing than the big long chord on the end of "A Day in the Life"? I certainly can't.

Carole King: Tapestry

Why? Just because. Just because it was the top-selling of all time (at least until that freak Michael Jackson came along). Just because it established the whole singer-songwriter thing, for better or worse. Just because it's a kick watching a formerly faceless songwriter become a big star on her own. Just because all the songs are so damned good. Just because.

Joni Mitchell: Blue

You know, this one wouldn't have made my list until recently. I've long blamed Mitchell for inspiring some of the most wretchedly excessive navel-gazing female guitar strummers that have foisted themselves on us over the past thirty years or so, but that doesn't mean that Joni herself was one of them. This album holds up surprisingly well, in fact it gets better with age. Again, with me it's all about the songs, and these are classics -- "Case of You," "My Old Man," "Carey," all of them.

Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis

Oh, man, is this one fine album. I could talk about the voice, about the sound of the recordings, or about the quality of the backing musicians, all the best there is. But what puts this album over the top are the songs, from the likes of Carole King/Gerry Goffin, Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach/Hal David, and other top songwriters of the day -- "Breakfast in Bed," "I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore," "Just One Smile," "Just a Little Lovin'," "Son of a Preacher Man," and on and on. I can listen to this album over and over and over and it never gets old. It just doesn't get any better than this.

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

Any number of Springsteen albums could have made this list; a strong argument could especially be made for The Wild, The Innocent, and The E-Street Shuffle. But it's Born to Run that pulled everything together. The songs are simply Springsteen's best, from "Thunder Road" to "Jungleland" to the title track, and the production shows Bruce's love for and mastery of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. This album never fails to hit me hard.

Steely Dan: Katy Lied

How to pick just one Steely Dan album for the list? While many would choose Aja as Becker and Fagen's best, and argument could also be made for Pretzel Logic or The Royal Scam, I come back to Katy Lied as their best (and least pretentious) combination of catchy tunes, obscure lyrics, and crystal-clear production. I especially like the piano sound on this one; it gives tracks like "Doctor Wu" and "Bad Sneakers" a special sheen.

Al Stewart: Year of the Cat

Al Stewart doesn't make anyone else's top ten lists, but this album has long been a personal favorite of mine. To my ears, it's as close to perfect as an album can get, filled with literate lyrics and a classy Alan Parsons production. The title song is as good a piece of writing as you're going to find, and all the other songs are almost as good. Personal favorite: "Sand in Your Shoes," with the wistful final line, "I never got the letters that you said you'd send to me..."

Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life

Again, there are a number of Stevie Wonder albums that I could have listed. Very strong argument could certainly be made for including Innervisions, Talking Book, Fulfillingness First Finale, or even Music of My Mind. But Songs in the Key of Life is epic, Stevie's two-and-a-half disc masterpiece; every song on here is memorable. It's really the peak of his artistic career.

Honorable mentions include Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, and -- if you bend the rules a bit -- Nanci Griffith's One Fair Summer Evening and the Phil Spector Back to Mono boxed set. And one final mention to Brian Wilson's long-awaited and recently-released Smile, which very well might have been the top album of all time had it only been released when it was supposed to have been, back in the 1960s.

Anyway, these aren't necessarily the best albums ever released (although some no doubt are), they're just my personal favorites. But that's just my opinion, of course -- reasonable minds (and ears) may disagree.

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