#1: The Velvet Underground & Nico
Right off the bat I’m starting with a controversial decision, but where else are you supposed to put an album that even the charlatans at Rollingstone admit is “the most prophetic album ever”? You probably think it’s bad enough that I didn’t lead off with the consensus-lead best band in the world, The Beatles. It seems like a rule in lists that The Beatles have to have albums in the #1 and #3 spots with heavy argument about which album occupies which spot. I’m not going that route. The Velvet Underground & Nico is too much of a destroyer of an album. It contains too many elements from too many sources of music and literature and combines them with lyrics that are too old, too controversial, too rebellious for rock and roll. Lou Reed’s love of rock and roll may have been the purest love for anything inanimate that a human could ever experience and that just makes it all the better.
The album has been called the first proto-punk album but honestly that’s not even close to what these persons were making. They were a highly heterodox group with a drummer who played her drums standing up and with mallets. There was no full-time bass player. And Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison made the kind of guitar duo that should’ve made The Rolling Stones jealous. The set of songs featured on this particular album are, in fact, so good that even Nico, who was forced on the group by manager/producer Andy Warhol couldn’t ruin her three tunes even though she sings like low-pitched modeling ditz who couldn’t possibly get any more superficial. That superficiality, though, actually improved her cuts, though, as they were about Edie Sedgwick, an individual who can’t get past clothes, and being a mirror.
None of her songs count as the worst song on the album. Lou Reed handles all the rest of the songs singing in a mallard monotone that burns beneath the songs but never explodes. “I’m Waiting For The Man” is one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever while “Sunday Morning” is pastoral pop at its best and “Heroin” is exemplar of rock and roll minimalism and “There She Goes Again” is an improved re-write of “Hitch Hike” even as perhaps the worst song on the album. And that’s where this thing stands. If the worst song on an album is an improvement of the hit song “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye then there can’t possibly be anything to complain about, and so it is. Some of the boundaries they would push further on White Light/White Heat, their follow-up, but they would never achieve such an impenetrable wall of songs as this again even though each of their albums would be a fellow masterpiece in their own right. Honestly, getting too far into it will ruin it, I think, if you haven’t heard it, but my immediate reaction upon first playing it was to play it again. I don’t think I ever immediately had to hear something again after my first impression before or after this album.
That’s why I put this album at #1. No other album avoids filler as successfully as this album does.
#2: Revolver by The Beatles
My second post on the Greatest Albums Ever list is Revolver by The Beatles. Now, I realize Americans who were born before 1960 will have a hard time with this conceit since they had to deal with an entirely different Revolver. They had to deal with a Revolver in which three entire John Lennon cuts were excised. That is most lamentable since without those three cuts you get an incomplete picture at best. At worst you have the very lowest and most despicable example of The Beatles cashing in on their American bastardization albums through track reduction and movement. The American version of Revolver makes it seem as though both Paul McCartney and George Harrison were writing more songs than John Lennon. And George Harrison never out-wrote either John Lennon or Paul McCartney except on the equally illegitimate Beatles release, Yellow Submarine, named for the movie (of which they had almost no involvement) which was named for the excellent Ringo track on this very album. The bastardizations were left on the cutting room floor when it came time to reissue the albums in 1987 (“It was 20 years ago, today!”) from that point on setting the record straight and giving those who came of age to appreciate music at the right time the truth. They even collected all of the leftovers not included on albums on the brilliant Past Masters series. America exacted the ultimate price out of John Lennon for the American editions and for his avowedly shitty behavior when he encountered a heretofore nameless-but-fatal assailant in the year of 1980.
Nevertheless, Revolver in its British incarnation, is one of the greatest albums of all time. Paul McCartney had finally caught up to John Lennon in terms of song composition since the slight disparity of Rubber Soul. In fact, John Lennon, in one of his moments of decency graciously conceded that “Here, There and Everywhere” was the best song on the album. “Tomorrow Never Knows” was that watershed moment when The Beatles had truly stepped over the edge into complete experimentation. This was within the context of pop music, too, which is perhaps the least amenable form of music toward experimentation. And it gave George Harrison Cart-Blanche to chase his own Indian dreams in “Love You To.” The excellence of this particular album is uniform, though, so much to the point that singling out tracks is a game of apples and oranges. Each track shines in its own special way.
How could I refrain from name checking “Got To Get You Into My Life” which sounds like Paul McCartney’s “Ha! You name it, I can do it!” response to motown, “Taxman”, one of George Harrison’s greatest rants, or “She Said She Said”, perhaps the greatest story of acid trippers having a bull session of all time. Revolver is a line in the sand for The Beatles. Before, The Beatles were trying their hardest to make the perfect incarnations of past successes and they had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams with Rubber Soul. After this album they were trying to shed their image entirely as The Beatles. This album, therefore stands at the perfect funnel of the ultimate vortex of their career. They were still the four recognizable mop-tops of British revolution in America (The British Invasion) and they were the creative auteurs who could make not only Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but The “White” Album and Abbey Road.
There was rough competition for best album ever in 1966. It gets even rougher when you consider that The Velvet Underground & Nico probably should’ve been released in that year. The Beach Boys could have out-foxed them at this point with Pet Sounds. Bob Dylan had released rock and roll’s first and finest double album (and sprawling magnum opus) Blonde On Blonde only a gunshot away from Frank Zappa’s own fine debut, Freak Out! Indeed, in a way 1966 was even more of a zeitgeist year than 1967 even though it saw the release of more important albums than you could shake a stick at. Revolver is ultimately more than its peers because it is the first psychedelic album. It sounds ironic with Frank Zappa around but not when you consider that Frank Zappa never took drugs. This album saw the Beatles using Stockhausen-style tape loops, backwards guitar solos, artificial double-tracking, exotic instruments, flights of fancy lyrics (with perhaps barely a song in there about a woman) and irony that the album cover itself isn’t as bright and colorful as the music within, being in pure black and white. And what’s more, Revolver didn’t have to fall back on the use of middling instrumentals (“Pet Sounds”) to make it through to the end.
It’s true that Revolver is a high-water point in terms of songwriting. Not only have John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s compositions been top notch (“I’m Only Sleeping” and “For No One” respectively, to name songs that haven’t been mentioned) but George Harrison has made some excellent strides in his own already crystallized format (“I Want To Tell You” – also to name a song that hasn’t been mentioned).
Revolver is as much a nod and a wink as Sgt. Pepper at times. They echoed their roots in the false-start count-up at the very beginning (a reference to past success Please Please Me). They managed not only their R&B early times but also their future as hard rockers who would compete with The Stones (and not the other way around). Every aspect one could possibly like about The Beatles is captured in at least the most minuscule part on this amazingly daring record. They had done their first fully-self-written album statement in 1964 with A Hard Day’s Night. That alone was an incredible milestone in their career, besides being the moment where they went from being influenced to influential in their own right (The Byrds). They wouldn’t attempt such a feat again until Rubber Soul. And how right they were to wait two full albums before they made such a step. But Revolver is where it all came together. More so than any album before it and even every album after it every song on Revolver is important. And that is why this particular album above all other Beatles albums makes the highest spot on this list.
#3: Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan had already been playing his own kind of rock and roll by the time Blonde On Blonde had hit shelves. He was been doing it for an entire half of Bringing It All Back Home and he most of Highway 61 Revisited. The big difference this time around is that he had created the first and perhaps only filler-less double album and perhaps the only straight-ahead pure rock album of his career (his albums afterwards would always be diluted by other influences). Perhaps most importantly the libretto for the album contained 100% accuracy throughout. Bob Dylan was not going to stumble over “lumberjacks when someone attacks your imagination” or the equally cringe-worthy end-rhymed “tax-deductable charity organizations” half-way through and suck all the momentum not only out of the album but de-classic-ify “Ballad Of A Thin Man.”
A couple of concessions need to be made for this album. First of all, the last album had a better opener (the unbeatable “Like A Rolling Stone” which is the greatest rock and roll song of all time) and a better closer, still in his folk vein featuring Charlie McCoy playing perhaps the greatest, most lyrical acoustic lead guitar ever heard on record. What exists in the interim of Blonde On Blonde opposed to Highway 61 Revisited is nevertheless pure stunner. Suddenly the songs were being brought to life by Nashville’s best now that Dylan had followed producer Bob Johnston in a New Yorker hegira to Nashville. No doubt they had that “thin wiry” sound but they were just plain classics. In the heart of country, Bob Dylan would become the ultimate square peg in a round hole.
The second concession is that Bob Dylan had taken in guitarist Robbie Robertson as his lieutenant this time around in lieu of near-virtuoso Mike Bloomfield, who had put in a career-defining performance on Dylan’s last album. What was even more daring was his eschewing of the rest of Robertson’s crack peers, an outfit that later became known as The Band. This group later recorded with Bob Dylan on the most famous bootleg of all time known as The Basement Tapes. Bob Johnston in perhaps his most inspired move, smashed all the clocks. “There ain’t no album can be made under dictation of a clock. I smashed them all!” This is my paraphrase.
The end element of the music, and all that really mattered, is that it worked. The musicians were even more sympathetic to Bob Dylan’s music than ever before (in contrast to the cold fast performances and accompaniment of Bringing It All Back Home) but he had put through true gems in “Visions Of Johanna”, “Fourth Time Around”, “Just Like A Woman”, “I Want You”, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”, the absolutely majestically beautiful “Temporary Like Achilles”, and this was for him was a place where “filler” was a four-letter word.
Bob Dylan’s double-album represents the greatest nexus in which articulate speech meets a nuanced take on rock and roll. To compare it with Sgt. Pepper would almost be unfair, but this album managed to duck the very pretension that created drag for the reputed Fab Four masterpiece like a parachute deployed too soon. Where the first album on this list finds a rock and roll for adults built by its greatest Byronic anti-hero and the second album represents the single greatest blast a creative force put together, this album is one man hellbent on a masterpiece and almost single-handedly burning down almost everything he built before. He almost blew a gasket on the ensuing tour. All of this adds up Bob Dylan’s definitive statement. Nothing more is needed. So I will say nothing more.
#4: Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis
You want a little class in your collection? This album gets the job done with its cover alone. The superb liner notes by Bill Evans aren’t too shabby either, but obviously all of that would fall if the music didn’t stack up. It’s been said that if you don’t like this album you don’t like jazz. I told a music instructor of mine about this quote and he said he’d step it up and say that you don’t like music itself if you don’t like this album. From every angle it’s an album you have to dig. Dig the super-neo basso continuo that introduces “So What”, dig the ambiance that pervades the whole album evocative of a jazz group honing in on its fourth set of the evening and truly gelling, dig the stellar performances from all of the musicians involved.
Worth noting here is the fact that Davis convened this group with Bill Evans the previous year in the studio and recorded much of a complete album featuring a different set of tunes. Perhaps something didn’t feel right enough to Miles Davis to commit to an album just then. Though the tunes for that past session were good they never caught fire the way this set does. Indeed, in the fact that the recordings from that previous session don’t live up to his previous releases by creating a landmark statement in and of itself must’ve smacked of failure. It’s worth noting that ‘Round About Midnight is the kind of label debut everyone should hope for and Milestones is no sophomore slump (I’m not counting Miles Davis’s Gil Evans collaborations here).
But the statement here is Kind Of Blue. It’s recorded at medium to slow tempos under loose and quiet settings, and in that it is quintessential Miles. Davis could play well enough in the bebop medium as seen in the aforementioned Milestones, but he favors slow, drawn-out melodicism, economy, and simplicity in his solos. This album, is of course all of that, and his twin-foil saxophonists alto Cannonball Adderley and tenor John Coltrane respond in perfect kind as do pianists Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans. This was supposed to be Miles’ first album based around modes (or scales) rather than chords. I’m not exactly sure what that means but I think it means that the end produces less changes so that it’s easier to solo and improvise. At the time Miles was complaining about songs having ever-increasing amounts of chords in them. Anyways, it paid off big.
It should be noted here that jazz has had a strange relationship with the LP format. I could name a few would-be albums from sessions or performances that are so good they perhaps could have knocked this album off the top jazz spot. The first would be a double album collection of all of Thelonious Monk’s early sessions heard on Genius of Modern Music, Vols. 1 and 2, and Milt Jackson’s Wizard Of The Vibes. These recordings had the added obscurity of being first pressed on 10″. Another would be Miles Davis’s very own 24 December 1954 session which featured telepathic chemistry between Thelonious Monk and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. This session was inexplicably released on a couple of LP’s that featured material outside of this session that diluted its impact. The last would be a box set of Charles Mingus’s 1964 live sessions with a sextet that featured jazz superheroes Eric Dolphy (alto sax, bass clarinet, flute) and Jackie Byard (piano) along with longtime Mingus lieutenant Dannie Richmond (drums), tenor sax juggernaut Clifford Jordan, and for only some of the dates Johnny Coles, whom I may admit was one of Mingus’s weakest trumpet players. None of these dates were professionally recorded which deepens the shame. So this is like an honorable mention list within a list of invalid contenders.
Valid so is what is here and what is here is Kind Of Blue, a 2 million selling world-record maker. It has to be noted here that I’m thinking of the CD version of the album because it contains perhaps the greatest stunner solo John Coltrane (who early on was a more “shy” player) ever played with Miles, an alternative version of “Flamenco Sketches” which should’ve been on the LP. Speaking of which, by the time it came on the scene, suddenly there existed the seeming oxymoron of an album that you could play in the background and relax or listen closely to and still be rewarded. And it came out at a time when rock and roll was thought to be essentially dead and, easily sluffed off, had produced only a string of singles from various artists and fewer classic albums than the amount of fingers on one hand. Jazz had looked like the winner in terms of sophistication and with rock and roll essentially dormant until 1963 was poised to take back its dominant seat and win the hearts of the post-war generation. This is where you go because it’s as fate would have it and in a sense it’s the way I’d have it, too.
#5: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band
I had been looking forward to this album’s placement for a while now. In terms of pomp and celebration this is certainly The Beatles’ finest hour. It single-handedly shook not only the entire transatlantic dichotomy of Beatles releases on vinyl henceforth, but it was the only album of theirs to be preserved in its original sequence when The Beatles released their material on cassette tape. How could such a momentous occasion not be #1, you may ask if you were born before 1960 or one of the false prophets working behind the pages of Rollingstone magazine, dedicated to giving all U2 and Bruce Springsteen albums five stars in perpetuity even though they’re awful and trashing Weezer’s finest hour, Pinkerton? (They even gave The Rolling Stones album, A Bigger Bang, 4 and a half stars even though it has been better in the ultimate sense than all the so-called 5-star material released by both Springsteen and U2 since then, most of which has been mediocre at best.)
Sgt. Pepper is the point at which rock and roll grew up without the kids despite its origins in being specifically created and tailored for the kids in the first place. The worst track on the album, “When I’m Sixty-Four” is an old codger anthem that John Lennon found to be charming enough to record a very old codger lead guitar for. The most pretentious track on the album is “She’s Leaving Home”, which is perhaps the greatest example of being unimportant while having airs of importance this side of The Who’s Tommy. (“You went full retard, The Who!”)
So, why does this overblown rock and roll dance still get #5 on this list? Well, first and most importantly “When I’m Sixty-Four” is not that bad of a song. The Beatles’ nadir was actually a tune in a similar vein on their Abbey Road album called “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, which is not only hateable but downright lamentable. “When I’m Sixty-Four”, in contrast to the Abbey Road stinker (which will put the album much further down the list), is actually a quite sweet number dedicated to the problems that arise with aging. It’s “granny music” at its purest, as John Lennon would dismiss it, but its charm is true and genuine (Paul’s father was sixty-four at the time of this recording) even though it can be denied.
Sgt. Pepper’s highest success is actually at the very end of the album in a song entitled “A Day In The Life”, which is The Beatles’ greatest song ever recorded. It has to be their “finest hour” to quote Churchill because it is the Albert Hall to the rest of the album’s working to middle class tenements. This masterpiece not only serves as the apex of all of The Beatles’ experimentations throughout the recording of this album but the very best of both John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s songwriting prowess. No doubt it has more length to it than your average “In My Life” but it’s one of the few tracks out there that fully justifies its length in every second of its existence all the way to the final great piano E chord and even the snippets of recorded gobbledegook featured thereafter.
Sgt. Pepper has to be a great album, though, because it is a work of incredible ambition and for a great part it succeeds. The Beatles were no longer The Beatles when this album dropped but it wasn’t hard to spot the original fabs not only on the cover but behind the mustachio’ed color-regalia’ed rockers who smiled at you when you opened the gatefold. The insert that came with the album was no less celebrated. Indeed, some will cry foul at placement this far down for such an album, but these “bonus features” as it were are just that. They’re not part of the program featured inside and the songs really aren’t as good as a whole as those featured on Revolver, which cuts the frills (and even the color). Sgt. Pepper stands as lieutenant to Revolver’s supremacy historically speaking and it’s time Americans born pre-1960 and Rollingstone especially get over the fact that The Beatles plooked us with their Stateside bastardizations.
#6: Loveless by My Bloody Valentine
For the #6 spot on this list I’m getting a little bit off the beaten path. In fact, I’m getting a lot off the beaten path. Why? Because for a list to be more comprehensive a person needs to run off more than just what came out around the time of Sgt. Pepper’s and jazz’s crowning achievement. And the works that were buried by Sgt. Pepper (Pet Sounds) and the works that were hailed as the next Sgt. Pepper (almost too many to count but The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, What’s Going On?, and the soundtrack to Superfly! could all be named as examples) just can’t cut it for Top 10 material.
Instead, I turn to an Irish band not fronted by a natural grandstander- really not fronted by anyone. Instead, we have an Irish band that was reeling back from the brink of oblivion. They had recorded a dearth of material on mini-albums, EP’s, and singles, but had garnered minimal attention for them. Then they released an album called Isn’t Anything and escaped early associations with The Jesus and Mary Chain, and simultaneously practically invented the genre of shoegaze. Shoegaze was the designation of the genre after a critic had found that the band were less engaged with the audience and more engaged with their effects pedals. By the time Nirvana’s Nevermind had been released grunge had taken over the mainstream and My Bloody Valentine’s little idea was all but nipped in the bud.
Under these circumstances, having gained momentum and enough gravitas to do what they wanted to do, My Bloody Valentine spent over 2 years gestating Isn’t Anything’s follow-up in the studio. Produced by nominal bandleader and principle songwriter Kevin Shields, and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig on one track, the album went through a barrage of engineers many of whom were told just to “press buttons.” Ó Cíosóig, who had taken to the streets, was too sick to play the drums live other than on two tracks. Most of the album made use of samplers programmed either by Shields or Ó Cíosóig.
And that’s the story of a masterpiece. Not to cause confusion but even though the album featured singing it could still be passed off as an instrumental album. This has to do with the fact that Shields and other singer Bilinda Butcher had become interested in singing in such a way that the lyrics were forever obscured in a mixture of instruments and mumbling. This left only faint ideas of constructs, and an overall feeling that Kurt Cobain in his slurred delivery had not taken things nearly as far as he could have. The album instrumentally was a wave of Shields’s glide guitars (chords struck with heavy tremolo arm influence), bass performed also by Shields, and drums that fully embraced the 90’s dance aesthetic (high treble, less treated than the 80’s).
And the songs barreled through with that same idea holding them afloat. They had released a number of EP’s from 1988-1991 but nary a track on any of them could hold a candle to what was happening on Loveless. It was a catharsis, a drug experience without need for any drugs, a shot through simplified but great songs, the best of which represent some of the best music ever released, obviously. I’m talking about “Only Shallow”, “To Here Knows When”, “Blown A Wish”, and the “A Day In The Life”-level closer “Soon”, the greatest dance track of all time. Loveless is also breathless, and very much intense. But when you put your headphones on and turn it up high it doesn’t sound like it’s going to damage your ears. The rich onslaught is compressed but with none of the drawbacks that occur with compression. Shields had avowed wall-of-sound techniques of producers Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, but with this album he outdid both of them by embracing extremes both in sound and studio experimentation. I’ve only covered about half of what this album is in this posting. You’ll just have to listen to it for yourself to see what I mean. The rest of the dots are still out there to be connected. Have fun.
#7: Reign In Blood by Slayer
The top metal album of all time is Reign In Blood by band Slayer. At this point in time in the band’s history they had released the noteworthy Show No Mercy, the forward-moving Haunting The Chapel (EP), and the career-defining Hell Awaits. Rick Rubin had seen the band live at this point and he felt that the records hadn’t as yet captured the machine that was Slayer. And so he offered them salvation on his record label, American, and his hand in production which would prove to be the greatest metal production of all time. Slayer had had no intentions of making any concessions whatsoever to the mainstream when offered the opportunity and when it came time to deliver the goods they doubled down on everything they held dear as a group.
To start off the worst track on Reign In Blood is hardly arguably “Epidemic.” That track is still better than half of the cuts on Hell Awaits. (To note: “Hardening Of The Arteries”, “Necrophiliac”, and “Kill Again.”) But what is more notable is that every track featured on this incredible album is anchored by a great idea or a great riff. “Reborn” fetishizes revenge in only the most irresistible way, “Criminally Insane” builds from a killer drum riff, and “Altar Of Sacrifice” downright pummels before ingeniously seguing into one of the greatest slow sludge riffs of all time in “Jesus Saves” which doesn’t take long to break into pure speed in line with the rest of the monolithic album.
This is not to mention the greatest tracks on the album being the immortal “Angel Of Death” and “Raining Blood”, the opening and closing slabs of immortality that would propel Slayer into eternity. “Reign In Blood” plays out like a litany of awesome metal riffs simply stacked back to back in a way that achieves maximum impact and “Raining Blood” ends up being the greatest harmonized metal riff of all time, breathlessly summoning the demon to reclaim Earth for his rightful throne. There is no respite from Slayer as there shouldn’t be.
“Postmortem” shows Slayer still holding onto necrophiliac tendencies whilst composing the greatest riffs seen this side of the entire metal community. It’s also notable that Dave Lombardo, drummer extraordinaire, plays by far some of the best drum fills of his entire career on this track. “Necrophopic” plays out as perhaps the fastest Slayer track ever composed. Tom Araya even “apologizes” for having composed such a slow song during live performances. Even “Piece By Piece” nearly matches “Necrophobic” in speed and serves as the perfect counterpoint to prime track “Angel Of Death.”
Reign In Blood stands as the greatest metal album of all time in thanks to its steadfast commitment to quality control (unmatched in metal, honestly) and due to its then unmatched commitment to the lurid. They were bested in later years by more lurid bands, but their unmatched tabernacle of riffs has remained unchallenged. Even their rhythm guitar onslaught remains unchallenged, even made up of both guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King. The truth is that Slayer were presented a chance to make concessions to a mainstream audience and they spat in the face of that and made the truest Slayer record ever recorded. And for that they are all the better. A similar achievement is Mad Max: Fury Road, an artistic achievement also opposed to compromise. Slayer made their statement. The metal world listened. No bullshit.
#8: London Calling by The Clash
The Clash’s third album was begrudgingly added to the Top 10 of Rollingstone’s 500 albums list whereas here it occupies its position as a proud addition. To look at it in contemporary terms The Clash were looking at dire straits. They were running without a manager and Mick Jones had been living with his “nanna” at the time. What could be more humiliating?
Still the self-touted “Most Important Band In The World” or “The Only Band That Matters” or whatever soldiered on, asking their label if their new album could be a double-album. The label rejected this idea. The band asked if they could press an album with a free single included. For whatever reason the record label said “sure” to this even though singles cost about as much to produce as albums. Anyways the “single” part of the album came with a number of B-sides. In fact there were so many that altogether the songs necessitated an entire disc. The band wanted the whole package to go out for the price of a single album. The label, probably exasperated at this point, agreed.
It was another risk altogether that the band had used a mock-up of Elvis Presley’s first LP as its cover. “Don’t worry, we’ll get Paul Simonon, the band’s most photogenic member, on the cover.” Instead of the bassist shown with an acoustic bass yelling his heart out, the cover depicted him, no physiognomy showing, smashing his bass at The Palladium or the Odeon or the Apollo or where the fuck ever. (Honestly, who gives a shit?)
Anyways, the band went into the studio with psycho producer Guy Stevens. Seriously, this guy may not be quite on the level of Phil Spector in terms of psycosity but he was pretty fucking close. He was fighting with the engineer during recording, he would verbally challenge the band during performance, and he even poured wine all over the piano Joe Strummer was using to compose “Lover’s Rock” ruining what was undoubtedly a relic and an important architectural build.
Still, the producer, who I think fell down some stairs and killed himself (prompting the tune “Midnight To Stevens” – fact check me), psyched Strummer into composing a tune about Montgomery Cliff (again, please look this up, I’m too lazy) with “The Right Profile.” The album’s best song, “Spanish Bombs”, manages to incorporate the immortal Lorca. And while the title track and “Train In Vain” make up the album’s bookends (one of them even being a secret track) as the two biggest singles, pretty much everything in between is again a filler-less affair.
Tracks like much of the second disc (the “B-sides” again) may not immediately be recognizable but they all stand the test of repeated listen. I may have said this elsewhere but to me the best albums often play like collections of elite B-sides. It’s not that every song is an obvious single, but that the ones that aren’t are growers and those growers often grow in esteem past the singles. Just look at “I’m Not Down” (superior to “Train In Vain”) and Topper Headon’s drum and percussion concerto “Revolution Rock” for proof of that. It’s not even so much what’s immediate and what’s not immediate. What you have in the end is that all the best tracks are right here. And that’s what you want a band’s best work to do. I wouldn’t even think to replace a track from London Calling with one from their triple-LP follow-up Sandinista! or from their two prior albums. And in a sense that really is the best compliment a given album can receive. London Calling is both album and era at the same time. Another title was The Last Testament.
#9: Slanted And Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe by Pavement
My Bloody Valentine may have released the magnum opus of the 90’s but the best band of the 90’s was Pavement for being perhaps the only group to release 3 stone cold classics in the decade. Their first, Slanted And Enchanted, is their best but even better than that incredible album is the deluxe edition of the album (titled Luxe & Reduxe) which was released 10 years later. Rarely has a band’s vaults been plummed so opulently and never have they yielded such successful results as this sprawling 2-disc 48-track set. The “bonus material” is so good that it’s hard to tell where the original album leaves off and the extras start. Incredibly I have only identified 2 or 3 filler tracks at a push (EP straggler “Lions (Linden)” and the repetitive John Peel session instrumental “Drunks With Guns”).
First off the album is packaged in its entire original sequence and then come songs that were left on the cutting room floor (probably only for reasons of run-time constraints), then the first and more excellent of two great John Peel sessions featuring seemingly tossed-off gems and even a Silver Jews cover. Then the second disc features contemporary EP Watery, Domestic in its entirety plus its own superior set of outtakes. These are some of the only recordings of the original line-up of the band as a 5-piece other than early sessions recorded for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain that were abandoned when they got a new drummer. Keep in mind that the original album and its outtakes were recorded by a 3-piece version of the band made up of Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg, and Gary Young. Mark Ibold and Bob Nastanovich would be later additions. Then you have another John Peel session and to top it all off selections from a contemporary show they performed at Brixton Academy.
It’s something else to hear the lo-fi debut in all its glory. The guitars often sound like they’re coming out of a portable radio- a move I think Weezer cribbed for their hit “Say It Ain’t So.” The songs take on a whole new energy live, though, with everything suddenly coming to giant-sized life. It also seems Malkmus could not hide his enthusiasm for the tracks as they burned through much of the album because much of the time he replaces his disaffected delivery with notable yelling and even octave-higher singing. Scott Kannberg also sounds supercharged on rhythm guitar, completely turning “Summer Babe” into a comping tour-de-force.
Again, it’s interesting to think of how well the “bonus material” stacks up against the album. Extras “Baptist Blacktick” and “So Stark (You’re A Skyscraper)” both match or beat the best material on their respective releases. And to think of “Circa 1762” or “Kentucky Cocktail” as after-thoughts is almost ridiculous. Nevertheless what ended up on the album is what you have. “Here” was recorded at a different studio than their home turf at this point, Gary Young’s Louder Than You Think studio. They might have realized this wasn’t the right direction to be headed in because it’s the only track recorded elsewhere.
“Trigger Cut / Wounded Kite At :17” follows up “Summer Babe” perfectly, Malkmus seemingly unable to care about singing the melody “properly.” In fact, Malkmus often sings so far outside of tune that the whole thing is jarring at first, but once you get used to it it feels right as rain. “No Life Singed Her” follows and then perhaps the album’s high point “In The Mouth A Desert”, which follows a perfectly placed chord progression and one of the great vocal melodies of the 90’s. I think matters of personnel are under contention but I can’t help but think it’s Scott Kannberg playing the distinctive and unforgettable bassline on this track. “Zurich Is Stained” rides a sweet slide guitar and features the added brains of pulling its chutes early and follow-up track “Chesley’s Little Wrists” plays as the perfect interlude before “Loretta’s Scars” which rocks back and forth like a boat. “Two States”, a Scott Kannberg track, was about as punk as the album would get while “Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era” would never see the band more funky and “Our Singer” closed on an unusually minimalist note for a record that showed such brilliance in its arrangements.
The whole package stands as an excellent reflection of a sustained high of their career, both more fully realized than their first three EP’s (even when you combine them as with Westing (By Musket and Sextant)) and more consistent than their next two albums even if the 1.5-disc Wowee Zowee came pretty close. And neither of the next two albums’ deluxe editions would even hold a candle to this one. Stephen Malkmus’s next band, Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks, would go on after the demise of Pavement sounding more professional but there was a mysterious magic residing within Pavement and it shines most brilliantly here from the songs to the brilliant lo-fi production.
#10: A Love Supreme by John Coltrane
Modal jazz’s “other” masterpiece (besides Kind Of Blue), A Love Supreme was fashioned to purpose as Coltrane’s gift to god. Only earlier in the year he had recorded Crescent with the exact same line-up of musicians and for what would come of this that album proved to be no more than a warm-up, similar to how Miles recorded sessions in 1958 with his Kind Of Blue line-up (before pianist Wynton Kelly joined) as a warm-up to that incredible feat. Coltrane may have had the solos cooked up as improvised but the music here is so good that it sounds like it was conceived perhaps an entire year before the record was cut. Indeed, the band sounds ready, and everything here is a first take except the second track, which proved more difficult with several takes. Other than the the only studio trickery was an overdub on the first track of Coltrane’s hypnotic chant, the title as a mantra.
Everything here is flawless, though. From the “invocation” beginning to the way the drums start to kick in with the ride cymbal proving icing on the bedazzling cake before the tune kicks into highest gear. The piano chords build into a seemingly endless crescendo as Coltrane blows more passionately than he had ever blown before, and the bass is built out of a simple four-note theme. It’s the first track and as such only part of what was ultimately four parts of one complete composition. Charles Mingus had released an album along the same lines (one segmented composition) by a greatly expanded line-up on the same label a year earlier.
John Coltrane had far from run out of ideas by the time the first track was over, however. “Resolution” opens with the bass into one of Coltrane’s more exotic (“eastern”) sounding saxophone lines. Coltrane perhaps first showed a fascination with more ethnic flavors on his landmark earlier album, Giant Steps, but that fascination actually flourished full-bore when on both the criminally underrated and almost obscure Olé Coltrane and on his unjustly maligned 1961 Village Vanguard dates, both with perhaps jazz’s greatest musician, Eric Dolphy. “Persuance” opens with a drum solo and closes with a bass solo. And “Prayer”, the final track, plays out exactly as its title or perhaps better as a hymn. Complete calm all the way through with what is purportedly a saxophone melody meant to inflect the lines of a poem the player had written in the liner notes as part of a package all meant to go to the glory of God.
Perhaps John Coltrane somewhere inside wanted to piss people off because as if the 1961 Vanguard reaction wasn’t enough he re-entered the challenging phase fully again a year later with 1965’s Ascension. It needs to be noted that he most likely did listen to critics, however, since the intervening years to this stunning landmark, 1962-1963, were some of the most conservative of the saxophonist’s career, with everything hitting past nothing the the furthest on 1957’s Blue Train and not even really approaching Giant Steps. The challenging work must’ve been exhausting to a man who would eventually become a spiritual leader in his own right. There could be no rest of jazz’s most thoughtful and searching musician.
Nevertheless, Coltrane named this album as his gift to God. I think it’s clear he thought this was his greatest work. Undoubtedly it is his greatest work as a tenor saxophone player. And I will admit here that as far as being a listener is concerned, I never liked John Coltrane’s soprano saxophone playing, regardless of how he obtained it as a temporary fascination. Not every musician can elicit equal pleasure in numerous instruments, but I must here name a few exceptions: the aforementioned Eric Dolphy who molded three distinct voices on each of his instruments, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin (for bass and keyboards, of course), and poly-instrumentalists Stevie Wonder, Brian Jones, and Paul McCartney. I know I’m ending with a criticism here but John Coltrane should’ve stuck to the tenor saxophone and that is exactly what he does here, which helps in why this is his greatest work.