#9 | Bob Dylan: Blonde On Blonde
It looks like the shutter speed of the camera was a bit too long for the cover photo—or just right, depending on how you want to see it.
As I listened to the album, the first thing I noticed is that the opening track, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is a fun, sing-a-long song—and it sounds like Dylan is having a good time recording it. This seems like it would be a popular favorite.
Usually, I don’t make any judgments on the initial listen, but during the first pass of “Just Like A Woman,” I couldn’t help but break into laughter in that appreciative sort of way when it reached the last line of the chorus. Well done.
It was a tough call between “Visions of Johanna” and “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later),” but I found the separation in the latter a bit more gripping than the girls in “Johanna.” On the whole, I consider these two equal.
The most playful hook is found in the simply stated “I Want You.” Not the most technically interesting or lyrically brilliant song, but it is nevertheless my favorite on the album.
I often find super long tracks to be a bit intimidating, and I think they have a lot to do to win me over, but the last joint on the record, “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” does just that while tugging at a very specific center of feeling that Dylan targets wonderfully well.
Clocking in at seven minutes, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With These Memphis Blues Again,” falls into the same category though the tone is different. It has a great refrain to which you enjoy returning, so I bet it makes a good jukebox song for a small pub somewhere—where everyone drinks on the refrain.
What I’m starting to notice about Bob Dylan’s discography is that each album seems to be equally solid on some level. There are a handful of extraordinary songs, interesting and competent adaptations of standard blues themes, plenty of harmonica, and not a bad track to be found.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that familiarity with Dylan’s material can only enrich the musical experience of any listener. Buy and listen to this album.
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#10 | The Beatles: The Beatles (The White Album)
With 30 tracks, you get a wide variety—from the outstanding to the enjoyable to the not-so-great. Fortunately, it’s really just “Wild Honey Pie” and “Revolution 9” in that latter group. I like avant-garde musical efforts, but these two seem to be out of place on the album and have little going for them—unless you’re hallucinating.
Let’s begin with the honorable mentions “Helter Skelter” and “Long, Long, Long.” These two are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, with the former having this guitar riff that sounds like something that you might find on an AC/DC album, and the latter having a much more soothing quality, but both very interesting and quite a dramatic mood swing on the record.
“Revolution 1” is instantly recognizable, as is “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which has the perfect countermelody in the horns that arrives during the third chorus that really sold me on the song. Listen for it in the sample below. As far as the experimental sensibilities of the Beatles go, I’m going to say “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” encapsulates this best—a song that is really multiple songs in one.
“Blackbird” has to be included in the list of essential tracks from this album, for the sheer number of coffee shop guitarists who have covered the song, but I’m not convinced that it is superior to something like “Martha My Dear,” “I’m So Tired,” or “Julia.” It has a strong hook, but I don’t feel like the vocals match the emotion of the instrumentation.
“Dear Prudence” is a terrific song inside and out (and became more interesting when a friend told me recently that it was written on the spot by John to convince a reclusive Prudence Farrow out of her meditation cottage), but the overall best song on the album is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” As soon as it starts with that rhythmic repetitive lick on the piano, you know it’s a keeper. Of course, you absolutely must hear the cover of this song featuring Prince’s guitar solo performed at the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Watch it. Gives me goosebumps every time.
To wrap it up, “Bungalow Bill,” “Piggies,” “Rocky Racoon” are all fun to listen to, but just didn’t have that extra quality that pushed them above the rest. The album ends with the lullaby “Good Night,” which is another favorite from the album—largely because of the cello that reminds me of “Eleanor Rigby.”
It’s really difficult to distill the album to a handful of essential songs. With the exception of the two tracks mentioned at the outset, the others are all exceptionally likable. For that reason, and given the wide variety of sounds, it is certainly near the top of the must-own Beatles albums.
#11 | Elvis Presley: The Sun Sessions
Listening through this album the first two or three times, I was surprised this is the highest Elvis album on the list of the 99 greatest albums of all time (as compiled by Rolling Stone.) I haven’t completely let go of that idea, but once I caught myself singing along to the songs, I warmed up to the idea that the album might just be one of the most playable and fun.
For example, the first few songs are light and happy, particularly “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine.” As you continue listening, “You’re A Heartbreaker” is the first track that really has that smooth Elvis quality, and the fuzziness of the vocal track seemed to help. One of my favorite songs on the album, “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone,” follows, and while it is formulaic musically, you get that vocal lilt and a few little signature accents along the way.
I get the feeling that “Mystery Train” and “Milk Cow Blues” are favorites among a lot of people for certain small parts within each, but I just didn’t find the whole of either to be among the best.
When it comes to the softer side of Elvis on this record, I think “Just Because,” “I Forgot To Remember To Forget,” and “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’)” do the best job, and the latter really should be included in the essential list below, but instead, I put “Trying To Get To You” in there to have a more dynamic song on the list.
“Blue Moon,” which is probably the most sonically different song on the album, was mentioned previously in the blurb about his self-titled album.
Overall, it’s a great album from one of the biggest names in the history of music, though most of the well-known hits and favorites are found elsewhere. But, that could give special importance to this album—as it has the potential to fill in an often unexplored space in one’s understanding of the King’s music.
#12 | Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue
This is jazz, and if you’re like me a couple years ago, you’d skip right over this after reading that. But, then I took a one-semester course in jazz appreciation, and not only did that make me supremely qualified to talk about all things jazz (not really), it also made me genuinely like much of what happens in the genre (really).
It’s a bit ironic that jazz is often used for atmosphere, because to get the most out of it, you need to actively listen—even more so than other types of music. It’s often an intellectual experience that’s musical in nature—or vice versa—depending on how you choose to digest it.
Basically, most jazz will state a series of notes that is sufficiently melodic (except some free jazz), and then the various instrumentalists will take turns crafting something around this melody—often full of surprises, showcasing technical abilities, and demonstrating a mastery of advanced music theory. Then, the initial melody is reprised by everyone, and the song ends. That’s an oversimplification, and as might be expected, this format is not always followed, but it gives you a basic idea of what is happening—which in itself goes quite far in the appreciation of jazz.
As for this album, it is considered Miles Davis’ masterpiece, and contains one of my absolute favorite pieces, “Flamenco Sketches.” If nothing else, I would advise lying down with good headphones and listening to this track. It sounds like you’re onstage with all the instrumentalists, and you can mentally see where everyone is relative to you, and you become part of this warm and clear experience.
While “Freddie Freeloader” and “Blue In Green” are the easiest to listen to, with the latter having the most pleasing trumpet solo, I prefer the creative surprises in “So What” and “All Blues.” Plus, while Davis is getting it done on the trumpet during the album, my favorite saxophone player Coltrane is belting it out right alongside him.
#13 | The Velvet Underground | The Velvet Underground And Nico
A critical and commercial failure when it was first released in the late 60’s, this album is now #13 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest albums of all time. How ‘bout them apples! … or bananas.
Experimental is a good word for the sound. When I think of what that means, I think of songs that not only break conventional rules and regulations, but also have little imperfections in them—where the producer didn’t try to tighten everything up, but just let it unfold organically. It has a gritty analog sound that can be spatial and airy at times, e.g., the opening track “Sunday Morning.”
The tracks with Nico’s vocals are the most pleasing to me, though I do like “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” which is lyrically interesting while being instrumentally shrill and clashing. Nico, on the other hand, has a softer voice. One might be tempted to use the adjective velvety in describing her voice on ‘Femme Fatale” or “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”
One of the things that the band does really well is develop this monotonous wall of sound in some of the darker tracks, like you hear in “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “Venus In Furs,” which are two of my favorites on the record. The beat is sparse, and the band just stays with the same couple of notes and chords as the foundation—usually with some sort of subtle melodic contour present in another instrument. It gives it a certain psychedelic quality.
I think these darker songs are where much of the experimentation and more interesting moments can be found, though the final track “European Son” never seems to quite get there, and while I like parts of “Heroin,” it lacks a certain addictive quality, though I do like songs that attempt to encapsulate the feeling of a drug.
#14 | The Beatles: Abbey Road
I think what makes this such a favorite among Beatles fans is how highly playable it is from start to finish. Got some people coming over to hang out? Just put on Abbey Road. It’s not going to get too strange, and it’s not going to have any weak moments.
The record opens with “Come Together,” which is a great way to instrumentally start an album. Everyone starts singing along, and by the time that “Something” follows and finishes, the drugs are starting to take effect. By the time “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” rolls around halfway into the album and breaks into its driving darker sections, everyone is completely into it.
And how appropriate that “Here Comes The Sun” follows that track and puts everyone in a great mood with it’s warm and airy Spring-like qualities!
Now, I might be the only one whose favorite song from this album is “Octopus’s Garden.” Maybe that’s because it’s a Ringo song, and people generally prefer Ringo to keep the beat and mumble some partially-intelligible lines during Yellow Submarine, but “Octopus’s Garden” is a good song—and a good Beatles song. It’s a perfect example of that childlike story sound they do so well in contrast to their heavier songs. (Another example of this the album would be Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, even though it’s about a kid killing people.)
The three songs that end the album (“Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End”) do a fine job sonically of wrapping up the entire idea of the record, concluding with the great lyric:
“The love you take is equal to the love you make.”
This is really the final album that the Beatles recorded (even though Let It Be was released last chronologically.) As such, it makes a fantastic farewell, and is required in everyone’s library.
With this in mind, listening to it takes on a whole new dimension. First, it was recorded in 1969, the magical year of music, and secondly, as mentioned before, it’s the last recoding session of the group. So, with Abbey Road, you’re actually listening to the final chapter of the greatest band in modern history.
#15 | The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced
I’ve heard it said that Jimi Hendrix never played a flawed guitar solo. Since his style is distorted and experimental, and there’s a certain surrender to whatever sound is produced, it would be hard to contest this. He has this uncanny ability to make something seemingly chaotic work really well most of the time, though I still prefer the moments when he gets into the melodic groove, like in “Third Stone From The Sun.”
It’s not really about the simplicity or complexity of what he’s doing, but rather how it all seems effortless to him. Truly gifted.
But, the guitar is just one part of the Experience. Listening to the title track, you’ll hear a lot of creativity coming from the reversed samples used in the rhythm or the driving piano tone in your left ear. Most of the tracks have a lot of sonic space in them, more often than not with a drum and bass track that are pure and mostly unprocessed, and topped with a variety of colorful guitar sounds.
It took me several listens to really get into the album—more than any other album thus far with the exception of Captain Beefheart—and I think it has to do with the fact that Hendrix has a vocal quality that might not be immediately appreciated. You have to get to the slower songs like “May This Be Love” to hear a different and softer voice, which I think works well for him. After a while, you warm to the vocal character.
Of course, the riffs to “Purple Haze” and “Highway Chile” are two of the most recognizable, with the former being more distinctive and the latter being more intense. Elsewhere on the album, listening to “Hey Joe” is like experiencing a scene from a documentary about the late 60’s. In fact, it sounds like a near perfect encapsulation of 60’s psychedelic rock, but what do I know?