0022: The 100 Best Rock Albums (11-20)
- 11. 30 Greatest Hits - Aretha Franklin: In the early 60s, Aretha Franklin recorded for Columbia, and the results were hardly breathtaking. Saddled to tame pop songs calculated to appeal to fans of Motown's smooth soul, Aretha supplied vocals to a lacklaster body of second-rate tunes. She left for Atlantic, where producer Jerry Wexler suspected that Aretha had yet to capture the powerful roar of fiery gospel so evident in her church singing onto record. He decided to experiment, choosing to record her first single with the rough and gritty Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section. He was a genius. Aretha erupted into a fiery vocalist that could portray joy, outrage, and vulnerability with the same rare, mighty, and unbeatable voice. Aretha went on to record the best soul music ever and amazed many by crossing over to mainstream white America to score ten top ten hits in a two year span. This collection brings together the great singles from Aretha's prime, and it is dumbfounding. Not only is this the best soul music ever, but it is also pretty close to the best pop music ever released. There never has been, and never will be, another Aretha.
- 12. Automatic for the People - R.E.M.: They promised us a rock album. Thank God they lied and gave us this instead. To be blunt, even those of us who loved this band never expected a unified work of such subtlety and depth from a group formerly known for its college rock music. Michael Stipe's vocals, once lost within the mix of insturments, finally steps out front center to sing remarkable lyrics of love and loss. The music mellowed, retreating from Out of Time's pop hooks to create a murky, dense web of strings, oboes, and, of course, Peter Buck's impossibly melodic guitar. R.E.M.'s music has never sounded this brilliant, creating a sweeping, haunting sorrow that doesn't succumb to morose, morbid self-pity. When flashes of hope appear, they feel earned. After finally breaking into the mainstream after ten hard years, R.E.M. ignored their succes, their trademark music, even most of rock music itself. They created a unique, endlessly moving masterpiece that few have ever bettered.
- 13. Humans - Bruce Cockburn: Bruce Cockburn is certainly one of Canada's best secrets. Over a career of more than thirty years, Cockburn has created some of the best folk and folk-based rock music around, and Humans stands as the greatest achievement in an impressive body of work. Mixing murmurs of world music with his acoustic guitar, Cockburn created an album of pain and joy, of dark despair and the hope of hope. Easily moving between the realms of the political and the personal, Cockburn mourns the lack of humanity and love on the earth while clinging to what little remains. The final song on this disc, Rose Above the Sky, contrasts suicide with life better than anyone ever has, and despite its dark hues, this album is one of the bravest, most honest declarations of determination to find light somewhere within the shadows. This album didn't rewrite any of rock's rules or sire any genre of music, but I know for a fact that this album has saved lives, a true testimony to the power of this quiet, marvelous miracle.
- 14. Trout Mask Replica - Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: If Ziggy Stardust was from Mars, Captain Beefheart surely came from outside this universe. This double album's initial impression is one of confusion, as if the members of the Magic Band are all playing different songs at the same time. Repeated listens, however, slowly begin to reveal a method behind the mad rhythms, the scurrying double guitar parts, the Captain's gutteral deliveries, and the sloppy splashes of blues and jazz splatting across the disc. This is actually avant-garde jazz being played with the instruments of rock music, and if the results are at first disorienting, they are eventually glorious. No other rock album was ever this complex and yet this organized, and if few tried to mimic this record's radical style, it certainly blew open the doors of rock music even wider than Sgt. Peppers had two years before. Three decades on, this album is still miles ahead of almost every experimental rock album that followed.
- 15. Abbey Road - The Beatles: With the White Album, the Beatles tested the limits of the form of an album, straining the format with every style they could throw its way and watching to see if it would shatter. By some miracle, it didn't, but with Abbey Road, they took many of those wild tangents and attempted to unite them once more. The result was Abbey Road, the Fab Four's finest hour. Though the outfit was still working as individual songwriters, this final show of solidarity produced music that took advantage of Lennon's wild rock side, McCartney's love of classic pop, Harrison's now mature explorations, and George Martin's top-notch production skills. It is the staggering display of every one of the band's strengths in final, full flower, and the second side especially managed to wrap most of the band's elements into a single suite of short songs of perfection. It is too bad that this was truly the end of so much, including a vital, essential band and the creative mass of confusion we call the sixties.
- 16. Blonde on Blonde - Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited melded Dylan's mighty folk with blues and rock to create a new music. On Blonde on Blonde, Dylan drives his experiments even farther, proving that no musical style exists that can not be grafted onto a well-written song. This album is simply breathtaking. Not only does he tackle so much, but he achieves even more. Each song becomes an journey into narcotic landscapes, another world where the terrain constantly shifts and the slightest word can mean everything. Spewing such brilliant songs over two albums, even more surprising is the coherent nature of the work. If Dylan takes one around a strange world, it is still one united, wild trip that never seems disjointed or diffuse. Visions of Johanna sounds like a murky yet revelatory sad dream, and Just Like a Woman is drenched in loss and regret. How an artist can sound both this adventurous and in control at once is one of the mysteries and enchantments of this unique, ground-shattering album.
- 17. The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust - David Bowie: Whether Bowie controlled Ziggy or Ziggy controlled Bowie is highly debatable, but for this album, Bowie definitely sounds like someone from Mars. He sings of UFOs, strange radio shows from outer space, and a paranoid rock god slowly imploding upon himself as if this sci-fi hooey was life-changing fact. For some in the 70s, it was. David Bowie may well be the master at creating classic singles that can both stand on their own and work inside the larger context of an album, and this album displays this skill at its peak. Each track sounds like a hit single, and yet the album seems to vary its tone inside a narrative perfectly and to tell an complete story, even if few can figure out what that story is. Glam rock was never better than on this album. Every song is a classic, it still ain't easy, and time is still pulling on the cig.
- 18. Imperial Bedroom - Elvis Costello & the Attractions: Despite the success of his early new wave albums, Elvis Costello always craved chances to explore his roots. This album dove into the classical pop that had captivated audiences earlier in the century, and his amazing songcraft and experiments with 'updating' the music for the rock era created one of his best albums. His songs remained as cynical as ever, but he rooted the lyrics deep in personal histories, creating an emotional effect that matched the gorgeous music he and the Attractions produced. Jazz still sneaks into the mix a bit, and the songs stand among Elvis' best. This album, a victim of a confused marketing strategy, pretty much tanked upon arrival, but many have discovered the sublime pleasures hiding in the layers of its classic, beautiful music.
- 19. Blue - Joni Mitchell: If Dylan inspired the singer-songwriter movement of the 70s, Joni Mitchell perfected it. While not nearly as easy to listen to as the more popular Court & Spark, Blue stands as Mitchell's ultimate revelation, an emotional and enlightening crawl through one woman's psyche. While many in the movement were skilled at baring their souls, few had a soul as deep or as interesting as Mitchell's, and she sings of it with complex yet affecting songs that have seldom been bettered. In the 70s, only a handful of women entered the 'a-lone-instrument-and-a-song' genre, but the few that did (Carole King, for example) were more than up to the challenge. Joni Mitchell transcended it. Intriguing experiments would follow, but Mitchell never bettered this classic examination of heartbreak, loss, and survival.
- 20. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles: Revolver might boast equal songs, but this album somehow mysteriously clings together more than it has any right to. This soaring carnival takes time to both sympathize and gently critique the parents of a runaway, contemplate aging without growing maudlin, and delight in the refreshing pull of a lovely meter maid, and these are the lesser known songs! Ragged after years of touring, the Beatles entered the studio intent on creating music too complex to be played live. They ran insruments through dozens of effects and layered the music more than anybody had done before. Some believe the results changed the world. Some simply believe it to be the best album ever recorded. Some believe it destroyed rock and roll, replacing its sparse energy with sophistication. It doesn't matter, anyway, since after track 12, the world ends.
Influence and historical importance mean nothing here. Each and every album is ranked based solely on its own artistic merits. All official releases are fair game; only bootlegs are not considered. This is it - the best rock albums ever.
I will be adding entries as time allows. The list is complete, but I wish to write a bit about each album, so it may be a week or two until all albums are listed. I hope to add at least two or three entries each weekday and more if I have the chance.
Creating this list hurt. Great albums were left on the cutting room floor, and sadly, I fear albums near the bottom of the list may be looked down upon. Make no mistake - any album on this list is a fantastic work well worth your time. The difference between closely ranked albums was microscopic at best.
To prevent this list's size from becoming prohibitive, I am breaking the hundred entries into blocks of ten.