See: 35-31, 30-26, 25-21, 20-16
Kelly Clarkson - Breakaway
I already admitted that I was surprised at some of the entries on this list; here's one of them. Some people thought that Kelly's creative efforts had hit their high point on her debut album after her American Idol win - obviously not. This followup is a strong collection of collaboratively written hit songs from one end to the other.
What makes them work, aside from the catchy melodies, is Kelly's powerful, steady, soulful voice, which alternates between raw ferocious and raw bleeding, and some honestly painful lyrics. Kelly really is a great singer, and not just a pretty performer. Maybe there is a little too much early Avril here and a little too much production. She manages to rise above the mainstream morass of cookie-cutter / schmaltzy popular music; this is a great rock album.
5 star songs: Breakaway, Since U Been Gone, Behind These Hazel Eyes, Because of You, Addicted, You Found Me, Hear Me, Beautiful Disaster (live)
Alanis Morissette - Jagged Little Pill
Unlike Kelly, I feel no compulsion to make excuses here. Alanis is truly an independent incredible talent. The anger on this album sounds so familiar because she pioneered this attitude that others imitated.
Alanis is special because of her poetry and her performance. She doesn't write a few words of pain and sing them over and over, hoping to hook you with the chorus. Each song is a complete story and some of her songs don't even have choruses. She is not afraid to expose everything real. She curses when she has to. She admits that she can be just as wrongheaded and difficult as the people she's singing about, when she has to. She can't help but be brutally honest.
As for her performance, Alanis, like Sinatra and Dylan, sings slightly off the beat and rhythm, sometimes fast, and sometimes slow, so that her songs don't become pretty, polished, perfect pop songs. She wants you to know it's her and you, alone. She's not here to sing; she's here to talk. And you have to listen. If only someone would have taught her what the word "ironic" means.
You also can't miss her followup Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.
5 star songs: All I Really Want, You Oughta Know, Hand in My Pocket, You Learn, Head Over Feet, Mary Jane, Ironic, Not the Doctor, You Oughta Know (alternate)/Forgive Me Love
Renaissance - A Song For All Seasons
Renaissance returned in 1978, after several years of lovely but electric-guitar-less albums, with this tour de force prog rock album about love and life. It's a more personal album; their previous albums were dramatic but distant, about other cultures, myths, and epic stories. This one is all about the heart, but it's still vast, majestic, and epic music.
It's also their last great album; after this they incorporated synthesizers into their music. The result was a mess and the band quickly fell apart.
5 star songs: Opening Out, The Day of the Dreamer, Kindness (At The End), Back Home Once Again, Northern Lights, A Song For All Seasons
Led Zeppelin - IV
Each instrument on each song contributes in perfect balance: Bonham's drums are heavy and resonant, Page's guitar is sublime, Jone's bass (and other contributions) is both delicate and thunderous, and Plant's plaintive, screeching-yet-controlled vocals soar around and through the music with ethereal grace.
Led Zeppelin may have laid the groundwork for heavy metal music, and this music is as heavy as it gets, but it's not a heavy metal album: it's blues infused with strong elements of folk music and hard rock. I think of heavy metal as instrument-centered, overwhelming you with drums and guitar, with vocals that serve the instruments in a wall of sound and fantastical but irrelevant lyrics. Led Zeppelin keep everything in balance. The instruments, vocals, evocative lyrics, and melodies serve the song; the blues and folk tempos keep it all grounded. The melodies are defined just enough to contain it all, and the result is a classic album. And, of course, there's Stairway to Heaven.
Led Zeppelin I, II. and III were also great; all their albums were pretty great.
5 star songs: Black Dog, Rock and Roll, Stairway to Heaven, Misty Mountain Hop, Going to California, When the Levee Breaks
[Until now, all of the albums had at least one filler song (unless noted). Albums 11-3 have no fillers; all songs are very good (4 stars) or essential (5 stars)]
Simon and Garfunkle - Wednesday Morning 3 AM
This is the only completely bare folk album from S and G. Their other albums sound less like the Everly Brothers and more like the sounds you may be more familiar with from The Boxer and America.
Actually, only some of the songs on this album sound like the Everly Brothers; slower songs are more like gospel infused with the quiet, subtle, startling harmonies for which these two are so famous. The songwriting is a mixture of evocative gospel and poetry. You would swear that the gospel is centuries old (ok, some of it is, admittedly, from traditional sources). The poetry is as good as it got in 20th century New York. The guitar serves mainly to accentuate the voices and lyrics.
They made four other albums - Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme, Bookends, and Sounds of Silence - all of which have classic songs on them, though they all have (what I consider to be too many) filler songs.
5 star songs: You Can Tell The World, Bleeker Street, Benedictus, The Sounds of Silence, Peggy-O, The Times They Are A-Changin', Wednesday Morning 3 AM