The Top 88

Deeply sorry to all the hip-hop, death metal and especially psychobilly fans out there. Just not my thang. Here’s the extremely backward-thinking (nothing here post-1990) list of my favourite popular songs ever recorded at the moment. Some are so good, they might even warrant individual posts. 88 is just a lovely, round number.

The Weight – The Band
When You Awake – The Band
Sloop John B – The Beach Boys
I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – The Beatles
The Ballad of El Goodo – Big Star
Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult
Suffragette City – David Bowie
A New Career in a New Town – David Bowie
Expecting to Fly – Buffalo Springfield
Draft Morning – The Byrds
La Princesse Perdue – Camel
Oh, Lonesome Me – Ray Charles
Suzanne – Leonard Cohen
Janie Jones – The Clash
Many Rivers to Cross – Jimmy Cliff
Ramble Tamble – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Layla – Derek and the Dominoes
Northern Sky – Nick Drake
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – Bob Dylan
Visions of Johanna – Bob Dylan
Tangled Up in Blue – Bob Dylan
Born in Time – Bob Dylan
The Killing Moon – Echo and the Bunnymen
Stay With Me – Faces
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You – Aretha Franklin
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) – Marvin Gaye
Uncle John’s Band – The Grateful Dead
Forget Me Not – Roy Harper
Little Wing – Jimi Hendrix
Not Fade Away – Buddy Holly
Disorder – Joy Division
The Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks
Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks
Tea for One – Led Zeppelin
When the Levee Breaks – Led Zeppelin
Ten Years Gone – Led Zeppelin
Strawberry Flats – Little Feat
Mercenary Territory (Live) – Little Feat
Alone Again Or – Love
Carey – Joni Mitchell
And it Stoned Me – Van Morrison
Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian Roulette – Moving Hearts
Personality Crisis – New York Dolls
Living Without You – Randy Newman
Rosemary – Randy Newman
Local Girls – Graham Parker
Hearts On Fire – Gram Parsons
San Tropez – Pink Floyd
Time – Pink Floyd
Elvis Presley – Treat Me Nice
Darlin Nikki – Prince
Hello in There – John Prine
Far From Me – John Prine
Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
My House – Lou Reed
Radio Free Europe – R.E.M.
Replacements – Bastards of Young
Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones
You Can’t Always Get What You Want – The Rolling Stones
Loving Cup – The Rolling Stones
Graceland – Paul Simon
Family Affar – Sly and the Family Stone
The Headmaster Ritual – The Smiths
Cemetry Gates – The Smiths
Incident on 57th Street – Bruce Springsteen
Rosalita (Come out Tonight) – Bruce Springsteen
King of the World – Steely Dan
Aja – Steely Dan
As – Stevie Wonder
He’s Misstra Know-it-All – Stevie Wonder
Every Picture Tells A Story – Rod Stewart
The Rainbow – Talk Talk
See No Evil – Television
When I Get to the Border – Richard Thompson
Rock and Roll – The Velvet Underground
And You And I – Yes
Ambulance Blues – Neil Young
Lookout Joe – Neil Young
Powderfinger – Neil Young
Pocahontas – Neil Young
Lawyers, Guns and Money – Warren Zevon

Here’s Little Feat’s Mercenary Territory performed live. Wait ’till the 1:55 mark where things get truly eargasmic.

Some Favourite Lyrics

Albertsthal Typewriter Regular

Albertsthal Typewriter Regular

Inspired by a recent post by the Music Enthusiast, (link to his blog here: https://musicenthusiast.net/) I decided to pick out some of my all-time favourite lyrics – some are humorous, some are cynical, some are beautiful, some are pot-induced and all are fantastic. Who says poetry can’t be musical?

Paul Simon: Graceland – Best ever lyric about America?
The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war.

 

Bob Dylan: Tangled Up in Blue – Some sneaky existential relationship metaphors from America’s national bard…
She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best.

Joni Mitchell: A Case of You – One of the greatest love songs ever written.
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice.

The Rolling Stones: Rocks Off – How to sum up rock ‘n’ roll in one lyric from the Stones’ ‘fagged out masterpiece’.
The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.
Chasing shadows moonlight mystery.
Headed for the overload,
Splattered on the dirty road,
Kick me like you’ve kicked before,
I can’t even feel the pain no more.

Neil Young: Pocahontas – 1979 Acid Western starring Marlon Brando and Neil Young on a journey through America’s past, present and future. Rolling Stone says ‘Five stars!’.
And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome
and the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.

 

Kentucky Homes and Mexican Divorces

I remember picking up American Beauty (top left in my cretinous photo) along with a batch of other Grateful Dead CD remasters and having the same kind of revelatory album experience as when I first heard The Band’s 1969 self-titled record. Something about a few guys being able to channel the ghosts of old bluesmen and their ropey guitars through the modern recording process and encapsulating what a hopeless suburban brit romanticizes as the aura of America.

It simply didn’t matter that I couldn’t hear my locked-out brother slamming on the front door over the chiming mandolins of ‘Ripple’. If you look at the cover, you’ll find that it can either say ‘American Beauty’ or ‘American Reality’. Mmm. Psychemedelic.

So began a long interest in ‘roots rock’, which led me to the other 2 albums I reccomend to you, dear reader:  Ry Cooder’s ‘Paradise and Lunch’, and Randy Newman’s ’12 Songs’.
IMG_2248

Paradise and Lunch (1974)
Ry Cooder’s cover choices for this album are seemingly illogical. Yet he makes every one sound totally natural in the context of a unified album. Whether they be blues standards from the 18th century or Burt Bacharach tracks from the 50’s, he makes each one sound weirder than ever. This presents a problem, though: Cooder’s lack of original material AND lack of any true vocal power means he has to make these obscure covers his own. He does this by modestly fingerpickin’ and bottleneckin’ his way to the great smoky barroom in heaven and ultimately the highest musical prestige in my book. Seriously; the man is a guitar genius. Check out his Old Grey Whistle Test performance of ‘Jesus on the Mainline’:

 

12 Songs (1970)
On most Randy Newman albums, the cynicism is dry and sarcastic and ultimately counteracted with some faith in humanity. 12 Songs doesn’t have that. It’s the grumpy uncle. Newman reaches a level of casual, humble, infectious misanthropy. He doesn’t ever sing as himself; there’s always some character he speaks through: a unreliable, flawed, stupid, racist narrator, presenting little vignettes of the worst of backwards America. This allows him to release his cynicism subtly and indirectly and, while it sets him up for perceived inhumanity, he had enough confidence in his relative anonymity and wry intellect to not give a shit.

As for the music, it’s pure understated ingeniousness (real word, trust me) and repays infite re-listenings, each accompaniement suited perfectly to the mood of the lyrics. It works both as a basic roots rock record and a piece of smartass singer-songwritery (not a real word).

Turpentine and dandelion wine
I’ve turned the corner and I’m doin’ fine
Shootin’ at the birds on the telephone line
Pickin’ em off with this gun of mine

My 10 Favourite Songs (now)

I fully recognize that lists are inherently foolish, so this is more a record of some of the songs that I really love now, and of course some old favourites. All tracks appear on some of my favourite albums, and to avoid constant editing, they are not ranked. Ranking music is especialy foolish.

Tangled Up in Blue: Bob Dylan (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
The opening track of Bob’s break-up album (left) contains some of his best lyrics, as well as a wonderfully relaxed back-up. It’s filled with sneaky metaphors and all that, and Dylan’s stark humour prevents it from falling into the sop bin.

Thirteen: Big Star (#1 Record, 1973)
Few tracks capture so un-sappily the unique throb of the heart (hear me out) that comes with being teenaged. I’m awfully condescending of new teenaged idols whom singing about adolescent angst is part of the job application. Somehow these 20-something year-olds managed to get the full picture in 2 minutes and 35 seconds.

Rocks Off: Rolling Stones (Exile on Main St., 1972)
The Stones exercised their trademark uneasy sleaze on many tracks, but none quite do it for me with quite the same druggy punch of Rocks Off, the rocker that kicks off one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time. Best line: the sunshine bores the daylights outta me”.

Fearless: Pink Floyd (Meddle, 1971)
Arguably the greatest chill-out song of all time (before that was ‘a thing’). The Floyd, while sometimes indescribably lower-sixth, could be the finest purveyors of a wonderfully British sensibility in their lyrics: ”I’ll climb the hill in my own time” still resonates with me. ‘Let me live my life the way I want to’, as one James Hendrix said.

Cemetry Gates: The Smiths (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
Along with Neil Young’s Ambulance Blues and possibly Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man, The Smiths’ song represents the very finest in musical critic-bashing. After all, there’s always someone somewhere, with a big nose who knows, who’ll trip you up and laugh when you fall. Is it plagiarism if I don’t use quote marks? Not in rock ‘n’ roll.

Strawberry Flats: Little Feat (S/T, 1971)
The 70’s were a time of urban paranoia (am I right?), and Little Feat’s Strawberry Flats, from the album I detailed in my very first post, expresses this with a wonderful mordant humour and a killer guitar solo to boot.

Deacon Blues: Steely Dan (Aja, 1977)
If anything exemplified what Robert Christgau called ”Beautiful loser fatalism”, it’s Steely Dan’s jazzy ballad from one of pop’s sneakiest masterpieces. The Dan’s reflective protagonist is their favourite kind of person: A whiskey-soaked, New York apartment-dwelling jazz enthusiast. Somehow this type of character has become an essential part of American urban folklore.

The Weight: The Band (Music From Big Pink, 1968),
I don’t usually like biblical references, but when I do, they’re in a Band song. Though their greatest album came afterwards, the Band’s definitive moment is on this simple song of unparalleled folky beauty. Straight out of the basement with Bob Dylan, these uncomplicated troubadors crafted what Roger Waters’ called the ‘second most influential rock album’. Make of that what you will.

Powderfinger: Neil Young (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
Here is my list of the top ten Neil Young tracks, where I place Powderfinger at No. 1.

When the Levee Breaks: Led Zeppelin (IV, 1971)
A phenomenal rock song, When the Levee Breaks has all the roots of great hard music in its soul: the Blues, the rock, the roll, and the sound of a truly great band exercising their momentous thunder on record. The closest rock ‘n’ roll has ever come to armageddon, with John Bonham’s much sampled beat seeming to encapsulate every single rhythm of rock past in one neanderthol thud with an eternal echo. The lyrics actually refer to the great Mississippi flood of 1927, which flooded a space the size of Scotland. The entirety of Scotland under thirty feet of water. Dwell on that. Displacing hundreds of thousands, and killing hundreds. That’s some serious shit, and part of me likes to think that the largely unreported primal destruction of that event is frozen in the many grooves of this song (and of its original source); a group of white guys paying majestic tribute to an entire penurious culture of sadly forgotten American blacks; to whom Led Zepplin owe their blues roots.

Mississippi, 1927

Here’s a performance from The Band’s The Last Watz which features two artists on this list. And a certain artist hiding singing backing vocals. From behind a curtain.

From ”The Last Waltz”, 1978: United Artists

A Turning Point: 1967 – 68

Great albums as albums were not common before 1967. As a rare music enthusiast who doesn’t completely worship the Beatles, I still am aware of the importance of ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in enabling a whole generation to make a ritual out of the album and making it an art form in and of itself. In keeping with my eternal Beatles skepticism, however, here is an alternative list of albums that pushed that similar boundary, and turning points in an artist’s discography in which the album is the great statement. Note – to be snobbish about the ‘feeble single’ is to deny the inherent consumerist boundary of popular music, however flexible a boundary that may be.

The Byrds never sounded so ‘together’ as they did on this 1968 masterpiece, and it’s the first Byrds album whose brilliance comes from the album as a unified mood piece rather than an interesting collection of great songs (Younger Than Yesterday).

A bonus track on the reissued CD shows an argument between them on the recording of ‘Natural Harmony’. This is a band in turmoil, a band that had the desperate nerve to steal a song from the member they had previously fired; by normal logic, this should be a an absolute car crash of dodgy moog experimentation and forced delivery, but it’s not. Whether its gorgeous cohesion is by accident, as always, doesn’t matter, and the ethereal harmonies and evocative ambient sound is timeless.

Beggar’s Banquet was the first album that truly solidified the Rolling Stones as a truly great rock ‘n’ roll band.

Previous albums like Aftermath and Between the Buttons represent the early ‘cheeky London pop’ sound of the group, but the raw, apocalyptic Beggar’s Banquet came like a shot out of nowhere. Partly due to Brian Jones’ slow deterioration, Keith Richards could fully exercise his primal growl through seminal tracks like Street Fighting Man, which tumbles rather than bounces, and the Stones’ trademark uneasy rock ‘n’ roll ambiguity comes into full swing, one that would intensify with Let it Bleed, and then decay beautifully on Exile on Main Street.

Are You Experienced showed Hendrix’s initial push towards the then impenetrable commercial boundary, and represented a fuzzy electric punch in the face to the British Invasion groups’ (and their disposable American imitators’) clean melodies and style. The follow-up, in my opinion, was where Hendrix refined his album-based craftmanship. The songs are no longer attenuated, by short lengths and the group is given just enough room to stretch, and they use it to float rather than snarl as they did on the debut, before the sprawling and indulgent classic that would succeed it.

Note: All CD versions of Are You Experienced since 1997 now come with 17 tracks, a different running order to both the original releases (American and English). Make of that what you will…

My Favourite Albums

3 Notes:

1: The concept of ranking and listing albums that have meant a lot to me overtime seems a little blasphemous; I can just about manage songs, but generally I prefer to view my album collection as a messy amalgam of many different moods and sounds.
2: Their is a distinct difference between ‘finest’ and ‘favourite’. Favourites are usually albums that I have enjoyed a lot overtime due to personal significance (attitude, meaning), whereas ‘finest’ usually relates to the more tangible aesthetic, for example: The musical skill or absence of it (often a good thing) and how well the album works as a logical (or joyously illogical) sequence of tracks. And finally:
3: I have limited it to a holy trinity, as my favourite albums, like most rabid music collectors’, are constantly changing. These 3 are both my favourites, and the least likely to be displaced in the future.

1: The Band: S/T, 1969
 
For a reserved suburb-dweller, this has proved to be the most consistently magical and characterful album I know. That it manages to achieve those three glorious adjectives both musically and lyrically is a joy, and the reason the Band can evoke these images of Americana and the ‘old ways’ so vividly, is that they recorded them like that. The rough, warm sounds and lyrics that you hear were recorded by four guys in an environment with that very aesthetic. All you need do to be teleported right there is to look at the rain-soaked faces on the cover, surrounded by that simple, earthy brown on a winter’s evening and revel in the amazing songwriting.

2: Led Zeppelin: IV, 1971
Led Zeppelin were the first band I loved, and I still consider them to be the greatest ‘albums band’ ever. It’s difficult to relent from using superlatives when talking about one of the most legendary albums ever cut, but this one truly exemplifies the romantic idea of the rock LP. It feels like the record has been wittled down so organically to a golden formula of 8 tracks, all wonderfully varying and organically constructed, that ultimately exceed the sum of their parts. Though some critics may dismiss the Zep because they were too big, too elaborate and had their own jumbo jet, those who can look further than that can see the intangible chemistry and aura of the recording process and see an album that achieves something that (to me at least,) no other has achieved: Sorcery. Or something very close to it.

3: Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps, 1979

Neil Young reinvented himself in the late 70’s. Or did he? Whereas David Bowie often clearly changes his persona and style of music to fit the new trends and puts his own spin on them, Neil Young didn’t need to become more aggressive and rough to suit the new Punk revolution; it was already part of him, and traces of this style can be found in patches in his earlier work. However, this time Young blended all of his previous qualities into this apocalyptic brew that called the end of the 1970’s like a raucous battle cry. Just think of the second side as literate hardcore. As for side one, Neil’s lyrics and acoustic songwriting never have as much meaning and attitude as this. Rust Never Sleeps is the most moving piece of rock music I know.

Other interchangeable omissions described in one goofy sentence:

Yes: Close to the Edge – For the sheer prog majesty
The Rollling Stones: Exile on Main Street – The ultimate grizzled double album.
Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde – Literary, modernist lyrics and Nashville session guys makes one heck of a heady brew.
Camel: The Snow Goose – Entirely instrumental proggy grandeur mixed with tender melodies.
Bryter Layter: Nick Drake – Pastoral English folkieness.
Miles Davis: Jack Johnson
– A reminder that only the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century and his homies could actually rock it harder than anyone else for more than 20 minutes straight.
The Smiths: The Queen is Dead
– It makes me proud to be English.
Randy Newman: 12 Songs 
– Are you alienated? So is he, and he loves it!
Little Feat: Little Feat (S/T) – The Great Lost Rock Album.
Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy – Wanna read my review?

Sprawling Doubles!

I’ve never been a Clapton devotee (I’ll take Jimmy Page for showmanship and awe), but the combined work of Jim Gordon and Duane Allman makes this one of the best double albums in rock, a different greatness to that of ”Exile on Main St”, which relied of its inherent rock ‘n’ roll sloppiness for its ultimate majesty; what I like about Exile is that it tires me out with its massive depth. Layla is passionate, but exposedly so; Clapton’s obsession with Pattie Boyd could tire you out, but luckily the man really can sing the blues. Just like a good double album, this is an abnormally rich experience.

9 Thorn Trees out of 10

A thrilling update of the classic rock double album, Sign o’ the Times was a very informal breakthrough for Prince. Sign o’ the Times displays that, luckily, Prince’s commercial cunning never outweighs his experimental audacity. It’s rough and often confused, and therefore is more quintessentially rock ‘n’ roll than the album above. If Purple Rain was too archetypal of the 80’s style (do the screams at the end of ‘The Beautiful Ones make you cringe a little?), this album beckons the end of that decade as apocalyptically as Rust Never Sleeps did for the 70’s. Might I add, what better time to do it than 1987. Damn that artforsaken decade!

10 Housequakes out of 10

When The Wall was released in 1979, it’s very difficult to understand why anyone wanted to listen to Pink Floyd; not just their albums, but what they actually had to say, which turned out to be very little. Animals was the turkey of the year, and the Floyd had turned bitter, due to Punk’s genocide of ‘classic rock’. The poor old guys had too much money. Sadly Roger Waters failed to one-up his more relevant contemporaries. But here’s the bomb: He’s still touring with it today! That is not commercial bravery, and it wasn’t back then.

Ezrins out of 10