Monday, July 08, 2013

My Top 35 Albums: 35-31

Of course, this won't be your list of top albums. It's probably not even my list of top albums: I probably forgot about a dozen albums that should be on it.

I rate songs between 1 (awful) and 5 stars (essential). I typically delete songs rated 1 or 2 from my collection. Given a choice, I would always listen to a 5 star song instead of a 4 star song, unless I've just heard the 5 star song several times in a row. I have rated some very, very good songs as 4s, and some perfectly fine songs as 3s.

The criteria for inclusion on this list are 1) at least 5 (or nearly half of the album, in some exceptional cases) of the songs on the album are 5 stars, 2) there are no 1 or 2 star songs on the album, 3) there are no more than 3 filler songs, and 4) not a compilation album. This criteria is not perfect; there are albums that are more than the sum of their parts, like Born to Run and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. There are albums that are unarguably more important than the ones I have included. But that's my criteria.

The criteria leave out many lovely albums - and even entire artists. Great albums from Adele, The Grateful Dead, Aztec Two-Step, Heart, The Beatles, Norah Jones, Greg Brown, Enya, Suzanne Vega, The Swell Season, and many others, did not make the list. The album may contains a few essential songs, and many very good songs, but the wrong balance of each. Or the album may have a few too many filler songs (fine songs, but not toe-tapping good).

The ranking is generally based on the average rating of the album. A higher ranking usually means less filler songs. The highest ranked albums have no fillers, only essential (5 star) and very good (4 star) songs. The top two (really three) albums are simply perfect.

The results surprised me is several ways, with the inclusion of certain albums, and with the glut of albums by the same two artists in the top ten.


Terry Reid - Terry Reid

For those who don't know, Terry Reid is the guy who turned down the job of lead singer in the about-to-be-formed Led Zeppelin (Page wanted him, but Reid had a prior commitment, so he recommended Plant to Page). The reason you don't know about him is a) the above story, and b) a series of contract and producer mishaps he encountered in his early years.

Terry has a gorgeous voice, his guitar playing and musical arrangements are top rate, and his songs and lyrics are as good as anything created in the sixties. There is a purity to this music that is hard to find elsewhere. He  (or at least this album) deserves a lot more recognition. This music is like where The Yardbirds would have been after they matured a few more years.

5 star songs: Stay with Me Baby, Friends, May Fly, Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace, Rich Kid Blues


Meatloaf - Bat Our of Hell

The album that made Meatloaf and Jim Steinman into superstars, this album opens like a bomb and lets up only for the three ballads. The album is kind of "over-produced". But it's played with such equal parts tongue-in-cheek and earnestness that it works. The pounding piano, the smashing drums, the frenetic beat, the yelling frustrated edge-of-desperation male vocals, the over-the-top lyrics. It's like heavy metal music without the heavy metal instrumentation.

Three of the songs go for over 8 minutes. Lots of kids in the seventies lost their virginity while listening to this album. Nowadays, I have to be in a certain mood for this to hit the playlist.

5 star songs: Bat Out of Hell, Two Out of Three Ain't Bad, Paradise by the Dashboard Lights


The Sundays - Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

This was my first album obsession as an adult. For two years I drove from New Haven to Fairfield every weekday. On the way to work I listened to side A, and on the way back to side B.

The Sundays only released three albums; they took their time and only released an album when they felt it was completely done. Unfortunately for us, marriage and children came first for them, so they stopped making music when it interfered too much with their lives.

They are squarely in the alternative music genre, and specifically the "wall of guitars" sound sub-genre; think The Smiths with a pretty female British voice and lighter, happier music. This album doesn't quite hit criterion 1 (at least half 5 star songs), but it contains no fillers at all; every song is good. They sing about the small quirks, confusions, and questions of daily life in London.

Actually, some of my favorite Sundays songs are on their followup, Blind, which is also a great album.

5 star songs: Here's Where The Story Ends, Can't Be Sure, My Finest Hour, Joy


I don't listen to Bruce very much. While I think this is a fantastic collection of songs, I'm just not often in a Bruce mood. But I can't help tapping my foot to just about anything on this album. The man knows how to write a melody. Bruce, like Tom Petty, is often overlooked for his writing because his songs are wrapped in catchy loud beats. But he is a true American artist.

In my head I think of Born to Run as the better album, because the 5 star songs on Born to Run - Thunder Road, Born to Run, and Jungleland - are better than any songs on Born in the USA. But Born in the USA is solid the whole way through, while the supporting songs on Born to Run range from good to filler.

5 star songs: Born in the USA, No Surrender, I'm Goin' Down, Glory Days, Dancing in the Dark.


Colbie Caillat - Coco

I bought this album blind, based on an Amazon automatic recommendation. The moment I put it into my CD player and heard the opening strands of Oxygen, I knew instantly: my teenage daughter will love this. I love it, too.

Colbie's music is just so sweet and unaffecting, optimistic and honest. It's home-brew, low key folk pop, without the overproduction that artists (or engineers) put on to try to impress you. This is not an album of power hits, but it's also not just folk music. Colbie has a strong, assured, and reassuring voice. You can listen to these songs all day and hear breezes from the sea, taste a daiquiri, and feel better about the world.

Her followup Breakthrough is also particularly good.

5 star songs: Oxygen, The Little Things, One Fine Wire, Bubbly, Realize.