WXPN's 885 All Time Greatest Albums
Deadline time is here (9/5) to submit your top ten list to WXPN for compilation of their list of the 885 greatest albums of all time. There are so many great albums that any list of only ten is totally arbitrary and leaves out so many great ones that it's painful to think about, but that's what makes an exercise like this so interesting, and the choices ultimately describe who we are and what we currently value in our music. Here's my top ten. I'll post an update when WXPN plays back their final tabulation of the 885 greatest albums of all time later this month.
1. The Beatles - Rubber Soul (1965)
A close call between this and Sgt. Pepper's, in fact I could easily have picked ten Beatles albums to fill this list but that would serve only to avoid the issue, so for the purpose of this list I'm limiting the choice to one album per artist.
2. Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run (1975)
A close call between this and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, both are perfect records, but this release in the summer of '75 converted many casual fans into obsessives. I had the distinct privilege of airing the record in it's entirety on Starview (WRHY-FM, Harrisburg/Lancaster/York, PA), on the day we received an advance pressing from Columbia, the cover had only the photo on white background, no printing, pure magic.
3. Yes - Close to the Edge (1972)
One day I may do an entire article on the watershed period of 1970-1975 which began when the Beatles broke up, as artists on both sides of the Atlantic took what the Beatles had done and built on it and expanded the artistic accomplishment to unimagined heights. Progressive rock hit a special chord for me and Close to the Edge was the ultimate achievement of this relatively short-lived genre. This album was absolutely perfect, with its three songs, especially the sidelong title track taking on a structure and complexity not unlike that of a classical concerto, with melodic composition of equal stature to the classical repertoire. This recording also featured virtuosic performances by every member of Yes, and production commensurate with the landmark achievement. I should also mention that Jon Anderson has an amazing talent for singing lyrics that seem nonsensical on paper and making them sound somehow important. The Yes catalogue got a makeover in 2003 and the four albums that preceeded Close to the Edge as well as the double album that followed, Tales from Topographic Oceans are all essential.
4. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
Genesis matched Yes almost album for album in terms of making great progressive music. Foxtrot followed Fragile, Selling England by the Pound was Genesis' Close to the Edge, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway answered Tales From Topographic Oceans. On another day I might choose Foxtrot or Selling England for this list, but after reconnecting with The Lamb earlier this year (see previous post on the Musical Box performance), this double concept album gets the nod. While Jon Anderson and Yes leaned more toward the mystical, Genesis was quirky and theatrical due primarily to Peter Gabriel's lyrics and staging. But the point which was driven home nicely by the Musical Box is that underneath all the costumes and lighting and slide projections is a set of exhilarating progressive rock at its finest.
5. Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach - Painted From Memory (1998)
The intersection of two top tunesmiths whose accomplishments lie primarily in different eras produced a new album of timeless pop classics, perhaps the crowning achievement in both of their careers. Each of their influences is apparent on every track. It was a close call to choose this over Bacharach's collaboration with Ronald Isley, Here I Am (2003) which is another perfect record, but while Bacharach and Isley stuck pretty much to the Bacharach songbook, Bacharach and Costello created something new which stands equal to the quality of Bacharach's superb catalogue. This is one of the overlooked gems of the last decade and was one of the first albums that came to mind when considering an all time top ten.
6. Del Amitri - Twisted (1995)
There are many great songs on several great albums by this great band from Glasgow, Scotland, but Twisted is a perfect record, showcasing everything that they do well, songwriting, musicianship, vocalizing, production, it all came together on this one. On first listen in 1995 I was initially disappointed by Twisted, but this is a classic example of a great record that grows on you over time and doesn't reveal its many pleasures all at once. This album sounds better and better with each successive listen (even now), and the experience often gives me pause any time I think about dismissing something after only one pass. The production is perfect, and Justin Currie's falsetto on "Here and Now" could hold it's own with any of the great soul records. The signature track would have to be "Driving With the Brakes On" which not only drips with the pain of a dysfunctional relationship, but the mix of acoustic guitar, Hammond Organ, and electric lead guitar shows Del Amtri at their finest.
7. The Who - Who's Next (1971)
A very close call between this and the recently expanded Live at Leeds, perhaps the greatest pure rock performance ever recorded, but the combination of compositional excellence, superb performance, and great production resulted in what may be Pete Townshend's career high water mark (no pun intended). This is another perfect album, and while it makes the list in its original form, it's worth noting that the recently expanded Deluxe Edition two cd set adds six alternate takes on disc one mostly from an early recording session, including two tunes not on the album; the second disc presents a complete concert recorded live at the Young Vic Theater during the making of Who's Next. The detailed history in the cd booklet provides a hugely interesting glimpse into Townshend's creative process, and presents a vivid picture of the time, the recording process and the pressure under which they were working. Totally essential.
8. The Rolling Stones - Let It Bleed (1969)
Any number of Stones albums would qualify for this list, but Let It Bleed seems to resonate through the years with a combination of urgency, edginess, great songwriting, performance and production. Maybe not a perfect album (I could live without "You Got the Silver" and "Country Honk"), but the excellence of tracks like "Gimme Shelter," "Let It Bleed," "Monkey Man," "Midnight Rambler," and the ultimate sixties anthem "You Can't Always Get What You Want" more than outweigh the lesser moments. I briefly considered leaving the Stones off this list in favor of Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, Chris Rea's On the Beach, or a Swing Out Sister album, but ultimately I could not. The Stones' London Records period (now Abkco) of which this was the final studio album has had a recent makeover and the remasters have never sounded better.
9. Once Blue - Once Blue (1995)
I have both WXPN and Dave Curtis to thank for the initial opportunity to hear this superb album from Rebecca Martin and Jesse Harris whose collaboration produced just this one release before they went their separate ways. The songwriting really makes this album excel, combined with performance and production perfectly suited to the material. This is another album that sounds great no matter how often you listen; it never fails. As with the Who, the album as originally released is what makes this list, however I'll mention that there is a current Japanese expanded reissue that includes all the tracks that Once Blue recorded for a second album that was never released. Both artists have made songwriting their forte in their respective solo careers, Harris copping a Grammy for writing Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why" (his deer-in-the-headlights acceptance of the award is one of my all time favorite Grammy moments). Rebecca Martin has maintained an artistic integrity and an obession with writing and constantly challenging herself with performing new material and although her solo songs don't often sound as commercial as the Once Blue tunes, they are no less satisfying and she should not be missed if she should ever come to play a club in your town.
10. Valerie Carter - Wild Child (1978)
Perhaps the most overlooked of all the gems in my collection, this second album from Valerie Carter never even charted. It's got wonderful production by James Newton Howard who cowrote some of the songs with Carter, whose vocal range puts her equally at home with rock, pop, and soul. On her first album she sang with Little Feat and Earth Wind & Fire with equal ease. On Wild Child, pop with a nice rock underpinning was the order of the day, and one track is better than the next. This album still sounds great twenty-seven years later. Valerie had a bout with serious illness and dropped out of the music business for many years, but ultimately came back and did some background vocal work with James Taylor and Jackson Browne ("That Girl Could Sing" is often thought to be about her) and then produced a fantastic comeback album in 1996, The Way It Is, followed shortly thereafter by a Japanese EP of covers, Find a River. Valerie Carter may be relatively unknown, but I highly treasure these recordings and there was never a doubt that Wild Child would be included in my all time top ten.
As a Yes-head, I felt it necessary to put tales in my Top 10, partly just to see if I could help it make the list, since I knew the others would make it, although I thought either Fragile or Close to the Edge would have finished higher than they did.