Sunday, March 28, 2010

20 Greatest Albums

In homage to my colleague and fellow blogger, who has come up with her top 20 albums, I will attempt to come up with my own. I listen to a wide variety of music, so it might be an eclectic list, or not (depending on your view). In no particular order of importance, other than the fact I loved listening to them:

1. Alan Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountain. Alan Hovhaness is probably one of the most underrated, unappreciated composers this country has ever produced. How unappreciated? I have been a passionate lover of classical music for most of my adult life, took a few courses in my undergrad years on music theory and the history of music in the West, have been a season ticket holder in more than one city's philharmonic/orchestras, and it was not until about eight years ago that I heard of Hovhaness--and even then it was only because I so happen to listen to his Symphony No. 2 ('Mysterious Mountain') on a local public radio station during classical music hour.

The first time I heard `Mysterious Mountain,' I almost mistook it for Dvorak or Smetana. Hovhaness might have lived in the 20th century, but his compositional approach and philosophy was very much in the mold of the 19th century romantics. It is grandiose in style, haunting and yet beautifully majestic in sound, and it never ceases to amaze me every time I listen to it.

2. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run. Yes, we are all born to run. If you listen to the critics, this was his make-or-break album, but that is nonsense. It was an extension of his brilliance from The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. If anything, the songs were similar, not a break. It just took until Born to Run for people and radio (back when radio mattered) to finally pay attention to this little understood rock-folk singer. And listen to She's the One after going back to The E Street Shuffle's Rosalita. They are doomed serenades but to different women.

3. Bruce Springsteen: The River. As you can tell, I am a big fan of the Boss. The River was the culmination of Springsteen's prior efforts in Born to Run and The Darkness on the Edge of Town. And forget The River. The best song of that album for me during my childhood years was Drive All Night. Listening to that album at night, in my old pillow-size earphones, singing those words to myself, and thinking about their meaning, it was my earliest realization that Springsteen was more than a musician and part folk-rock singer but a musical poet. Surely, this is how Poe would have tried to make it, if he had lived 120 years later.

4. Melody Gardot: My One and Only Thrill. Contemporary jazz singers have a way of trying too hard to be like their predecessors. More often than not, they sound like imitations. That is not to be overly harsh. It is because if you spend several years of your life listening to Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, your standards become too high for a genre that already (like classical music) resides in the past tense. Enter Melody Gardot. A newer singer to the scene, her voice has a quality all its own (different and in my view much more enthralling and deeper than Norah Jones), be it the siren sound of Your Hearts Is As Black as Night, or the vulnerability of Baby I'm a Fool. The sound is such that you want to keep on listening and become ensnared with her words. It is all the more amazing that someone who never recorded an album before 2005 could write her own songs with such richness and sad meaning, like a perfect depressive introspection that you would expect from Ella in her 40s, not a 24 year old.

5. Pink Floyd: Dark Side of The Moon. I hear from reliable sources that when you listen to the Dark Side of The Moon lying back in a chair or couch, while toking on a choice herbal product, with the lights down, that you can gain a personal nirvana never realized by any other means. That is what I hear, of course.

6. Journey: Live in Houston 1981. Yeah, I know, it is a DVD, but it might as well be an album, since it is a live one (and the Houston concert from 1980 is even better, but the songs are bootleg and have not been released into an album, yet). As formulaic as they were in the '80s (deserting their blues sound from the '70s), this band had one thing going for it like no other, the operatic singing voice of Steve Perry. And to hear Steve Perry live is to understand why Journey in those days were so much better than Air Supply and REO. Mother, Father remains my favorite song from that tour.

7. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 "Choral"; Fidelio Overture (from the Cleveland Orchestra). Ludwig van Beethoven was more than an artistic genius. He was the tie between the classical and romantic age, being the classical period's first true romantic. Hence, this is why I've always referred to him as classical music's Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If you listen to all of his symphonies in chronological order, you can hear the progression, from the formalism and traditional sound of the First, to the revolution of the Ninth.

The first two movements are a nice buildup for the remaining two, and they are (unlike other versions, as noted) not too slowly paced (a real source of annoyance when you listen to some of the other versions of this symphony). Even more remarkable, there is a balance of sound between the woodwins and strings, a minor achievement that has been missed in most other renditions of this symphony. The third movement is the romantic, natural progression from the first two to the last, the movement we've all come to know and love. It is that beautiful. The chorus itself is set to Friedrich von Schiller's poem (and title of the Choral) Ode to Joy (a rather non-denominational celebration of humanity), which explains the movement's religious feel, corresponding with Schiller's universalistic appeal to a common ethos and belief in a higher good and being ("Ihr stuerzt nieder, Millionen?/Ahnest du den Schoepfer, Welt?/Such' ihn ueber'm Sternenzelt!/Ueber Sternen muss er wohnen."---- "Do you bow down, millions?/Do you sense the Creator, world?/Seek him beyond the starry firmament!/He must dwell beyond the stars.").

8. Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting. I knew I was going to finally get over my early hatred of punk when I listened to the Dead Kennedys. Kill The Poor, California Ueber Alles, and everyone's favorite I Kill Children! Now here was a band with a sense of irony and satire. Needless to say, I had to hide the cassette from my family, who worshiped the ground JFK walked on and lacked my sense of irony and satire.

9. Led Zeppelin: IV. Zeppelin was required listening growing up for those of us who loved heavy metal, especially as a refuge from the hair metal bands that murdered the genre later on. It is impossible for me to pick a best album because I listened to them all growing up and loved them intensely. I suppose IV was consistently the best or more importantly for me it was the album with my favorite Led Zeppelin song, Rock n' Roll.

10. The Jonas Brothers (on a sinking ship, to the bottom of the ocean). Psyche. Just making sure that you are paying attention.

11. Nirvana: Nevermind. Grunge is almost completely ignored outside of its contemporary rock derivations, but for those of us who lived through that time what a world it was. The geeks and punks finally won, and in doing so killed the rock genre (from metal to mainstream rock, years after its degeneration into an endless array of stripper anthems). For that accomplishment we have Nirvana to thank. As an old rocker, I heartily thank them. After the hair metal bands of the late '80s, rock's death was truly deserved.

12. AC/DC: Back in Black. Next to Zeppelin, no historic lover of metal can go without AC/DC, particularly Back in Black. All Night Long, Have a Drink on Me, Shake A Leg, this album was for me my introduction to metal at its hardest before the arrival of speed metal and Dimebag Darrell.

13. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message. It is so hard for me to listen to rap music today. Not because I hate it but because at one time it was one of my favorite genres. I grew up on rap in school and the old school rap from the '80s was probably the closest thing to music with a social and political message that I listened to (not counting Marvin Gaye from my parent's generation). If you listen to the words of the album's song, The Message, and consider the perspective of the singer, you realize just how much this genre has descended to nothingness, like the hair metal bands that Nirvana so kindly euthanized. It was musical brilliance and I wish there were newer acts to replace Grandmaster Flash's style. Yes, I know there is Immortal Technique, but his homophobia and sexism is beyond the pale for someone who self-identifies as a revolutionary. For me, I always go back GFFF's The Message.

14. Marvin Gaye: What's Going On. Speaking of music with a conscience, amongst singers in the English language there can be no greater voice for justice (save for Paul Robeson) in this country on the popular music scene in the past century than Marvin Gaye. Just go down the list of the songs on this album: What's Going On, Mercy Mercy Me, Save The Children, God Is Love, and Inner City Blues, you are listening to a voice against neglect. It is tragic that the album was almost never released because it was considered too political. Today, how many artists do you see who are this political and simultaneously articulate and passionate? On those occasions when they venture into the realm, more often than not they make fools of themselves. Marvin Gaye was no fool and neither were his songs. What's Going On still remains one of the best of its era and one I never tire listening to.

15. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach: Jazz at Massey Hall. How great of an album is Jazz at Massey Hall? It is the standard album for jazz musicians to this day and one of the earliest applications of a live album, which we are all beneficiaries of more than five decades after its recording. People do not pay as much attention to jazz as other genres in this country, which is unfortunate because jazz is the most distinctly American of all music genres. Here is Salt Peanuts, the quintet, performed by the great ones Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. Judge for yourself.

16. Bob Dylan: The Freewheelin'. How could any list be complete without Bob Dylan? Everyone knows Blowin' in the Wind, but how many know Talkin' World War III Blues? It was much more appropriate for this country after 9/11 than anything else Dylan has ever written. Still a standard for folk music everywhere, except the next album.

17. Woody Guthrie: Dust Bowl Ballads. One of the nice aspects about coming from a union family, while growing up, was being acquainted with all of the union songs. Union Maid and Union Burial Ground were required singing in my household, thanks to my parents. I never listened to Guthrie's other songs until my early adult years and still marveled at my first listening to Dust Bowl Ballads. The struggles of folks from the Okies remained paramount, but Vigilante Man was the type of song that still rings true to this day, and Guthrie's best song in my view.

18. Sly and the Family Stone: There's A Riot Goin' On. The first time I heard Sly and the Family Stone, they sounded so '70s that I had a hard time getting to the lyrics. That was a shame because they had some wonderful songs and lyrics, which have taken me a longer time to get to in my old age. Family Affair still remains one of the group's most famous hits, but Luv n' Haight is my favorite. A great mix of funk, soul, and even reggae.

19. Ani Difranco and Utah Phillips: Fellow Workers. Yes, I like folk music (good folk music), and before his death Utah Phillips was one of the unheralded voices of folk. Ani Difranco and Utah both provide the voices for the weak (Bread and Roses), the dispossessed (Shoot or Stab Them), unjustly tried and killed (Joe Hill), to the outright funny, to which Pie in The Sky most undoubtedly remains.

20. Pretenders: The Pretenders. An amazing debut album from a great band. This was its first incarnation, before half of the group was wiped out by drug addiction. Tattooed Love Boys was almost never played on the radio (for obvious reasons), but was one of my favorite songs from that album, along with Brass in Pocket (I'm Special), of course.

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