When I record an album,
I'm trying to get as close as possible
to that perfect moment.
I'm trying to get as close as possible
to that perfect moment.
After tackling the Greatest American Roll and Roll Musicians, it's time now to explore the Greatest American Rock and Roll Albums. What are the major artistic works of this music in our culture?
The concept of an "album" really belongs to the rock and roll era. Before the mid-1950s, you could only put a few short songs on one phonograph record. Then the LP (Long-Playing record) appeared, and musicians could suddenly expand the length of their compositions. The oeuvre of an early blues or jazz giant like Robert Johnson or Bix Beiderbecke, for example, consists entirely of two-to-three minute songs. Compare that with the works of a later jazz figure like John Coltrane, who recorded a 57-minute version of "My Favorite Things." LPs also allowed for the creation of the "rock opera" and the "concept album," unique and longer-format artistic efforts. I'm not sure compact discs, despite being a major technological change from analog to digital, affected the structure of creative works like LPs did. Now, however, with the rise of mp3s, iPods, etc., the "album" as a discrete unit of artistic production may be coming to an end. So it seems like a good time to look back and see what masterpieces of rock and roll we as a culture created.
In my previous post, I said the musicians had to be primarily rock and rollers. Mainly to keep the discussion focused. But that's not the case for Greatest Albums. I'm open to works by people who were better known for other genres. Thus, to continue with my examples from the other post, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? has to be considered, as do some of Johnny Cash's recordings for Rick Rubin, not to mention At Folsom Prison.
So, on with the show . . .
The 20 Greatest American Rock and Roll Albums
1) The Eagles: Their Greatest Hits (Asylum 1976) - Hey, don't blame me for this one. YOU chose it. WE ALL chose it. America is the greatest country in the world because: a) The invisible hand of
2) Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic 1982) - First you complain about my selection method, and now you complain that the King of Pop isn't even rock and roll. Well, you're wrong. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave Mr. Neverland an award for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male for "Beat It." In addition, this album single-handedly made MTV the rock and roll success story it is today. Without him, we'd have been left with five maladjusted college kids watching Skinny Puppy videos all day. Not to mention the fact that Michael recorded with one of the Beatles, and, like Bob Dylan, was nominated for a Nobel Prize. And Jackson's was even for Peace, which is much more rock and roll than Dylan's nomination for "Literature." Finally, the guy owned elephants. Outside of a circus, only rock and rollers own elephants.
3) Billy Joel: Greatest Hits Volume I & II (Columbia 1985) - Hey, it's still rock and roll to me.
4) Boston: Boston (Epic 1976) - You can't get more rock and roll than Boston. I mean, "More than a Feeling" is being used for TV commercials and everything.
5) Hootie & the Blowfish: Cracked Rear View (Atlantic 1995) - "Hootie," get it? Heh, heh, heh. And the Blowfish. We all know what that means! See, like I said, real rock and roll.
So, there you go - The United States of America's legendary contribution to the universe of rock and roll, which, with the exception of one or two British bands, IS American anyway. We started all the noise, and these five albums prove that America is still THE KING OF ROCK AND ROLL!
Okay, maybe not. Perhaps, just perhaps, the market isn't always the best indication of artistic accomplishment.
[UPDATE: PLEASE READ THIS. Just to make it perfectly clear, the five albums listed above are the biggest-selling American "rock" albums, according to Billboard. My including them as the "Greatest" American rock albums was meant as A JOKE. Humor. Satire. A failed attempt, evidently. Sigh.]
The album that single-handedly killed American rock and roll.
I have to say, it was much more difficult to come up with 20 Great Albums than it was for 20 Great Musicians. There are so many more possibilities. And my lack of knowledge became even more apparent. I've read a lot about MC5's Kick Out the Jams, for example, but I've only listened to it a couple of times - and that was many years ago. I felt comfortable excluding the group from the list of 20 Great Musicians, because they didn't really do much else, but I can't say the same about their album. So, it's a list based on limited knowledge and my being something of a numbskull at times. Take it for what it's worth.
The first five albums are listed in order. After that, it's any body's guess. I wrote about four more albums for reasons mysterious even to myself. Just felt like I wanted to say something about them. They're in chronological order, as are the eleven titles that follow them. The four I wrote about are not meant to be "better" than the eleven I simply gave titles for.
There are many great albums I couldn't include. (I'm still wrestling over ZZ Top's Tres Hombres. Whatever my feelings about their later incarnation, that's a classic rock and roll album.) Tell me what I stupidly missed.
The Greatest American Rock and Roll Albums (take 2)
Five for the Ages
Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia 1965) - You could flip a coin between this and Blonde on Blonde. Actually, I did. The gods of rock and roll were probably right. The drum blast that opens the album, in "Like a Rolling Stone," feels like a cannon shot to announce the beginning of a revolution. Several forces of musical history came together in a perfect storm. This is what it had all been leading to. Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Dylan's folk period - they all collided in "Like a Rolling Stone." Not only did the sound and the lyrics blow everything out of the water, but a six-minute radio single had never been attempted before. Everything up to then was basically 2:59. The Revolution had won. The King was dead and the peasants had taken over.
Though Dylan had already gone electric at Newport and on the first side of Bringing It All Back Home, this marks the starting point of modern rock and roll. "Like a Rolling Stone" was chosen as the best rock and roll song ever by Unnamed Corporate Music Magazine, which said of it: "No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time." And when Bruce Springsteen was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said, "The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind." To be honest, I’ve always been more partial to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” (“When you’re lost in the rain, in Juarez, and it’s Easter time, too.” What kind of a journey are we on? Crossing the border, getting lost, finding our way again.) Or "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," one of the best song titles ever. And the operatic “Desolation Row” can’t be dismissed either. One of the greatest memories of my life thus far is of Liam and I performing"Desolation Row" together in front of a giant bonfire in a bullring near a small village out in the middle of nowhere Castilla. What better setting for this poetic masterpiece? And, yeah, the other songs are pretty good, too.
Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (Columbia 1966) - How do you follow up the Greatest American Rock and Roll Album of all time? Well, you crank out the second greatest one. Highway 61 feels more historic, and it was certainly a tighter, more controlled album. But Dylan was bursting at the seems with creativity and needed to spread out, so he came up with another innovation: the first studio double-album.
I would argue that there have been few if any periods of creative expression among American artists as feverish and fertile as Dylan's hell-bent-for-leather epoch that started in Greece in the summer of 1964, as he finished writing the songs for Another Side of Bob Dylan, his last folk album, and the summer of 1966, when he cracked up on his motorcycle in the rain and came within an inch of losing his life with a broken neck. He produced five LPs (Another Side, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and the 2-album Blonde on Blonde), all of which were much longer than normal LPs of the time. [The first two Beatles albums clocked in at 26 and 22 minutes respectively; Highway 61 is over 51 minutes, Another Side is 50 minutes.] Even more amazing is the amount of high-quality material that went unreleased at the time, only surfacing decades later on Biograph and other collections. Add in his tour of Europe tour of 1965 and the famous one with The Band in 1966, the controversial Newport Folk Festival performance, and a film (D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, still probably the best rock and roll movie ever made). It’s a truly astounding artistic achievement. And Blonde on Blonde marks the end of the whirlwind. It’s all over the place in terms of mood and tone – that “thin, wild mercury sound,” as Dylan described what he was after – from the rambunctious, drunken Salvation Army Band feel that opens the album in “Rainy Day Women (#12 & 35),” to the snarling rock-blues of “Pledging My Time,” the pop stylings of “I Want You,” the classic rock of “Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again),” and the epic surrealist ballad, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” which takes up all of Side 4.
Oh, yeah, and then there's the greatest work of rock artistry ever recorded. The song that Dylan fans perennially vote as his best (which it is) : “Visions of Johanna.” I don’t care what anyone else says, “A ghost of ‘lectricty howls in the bones of her face” is still the most amazing line in rock and roll.
May you never hear surf music again.
Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced? (MCA 1967) - Almost another coin toss between this and Electric Ladyland, and for similar reasons. Are You Experienced? is another revolutionary proclamation, whereas Electric Ladyland is a sprawling, too-loose-at-times double album that shows the full breadth of Hendrix's creative vision. Both are essential. But Jimi's first album has a special sense of urgency and surprise. He keeps you off-kilter, like all great rock and roll should. After ripping up the place on "Purple Haze" and "Manic Depression," Jimi offers up a slow, dangerous folk-blues tale about killing your woman and running from the law. Later on, there's a beautiful ballad, "The Wind Cries Mary," a straight-ahead rocker, "Fire," and then - woah . . . what in the hell is this? . . . science-fiction? . . . avant-garde experimentation? . . . What kind of a trip are we on here? Impossible to tell, but it takes place on "The Third Stone from the Sun." Jimi heads into outer/inner-space on a voyage that he explores more fully and beautifully in "1983," on Electric Ladyland. This is more freaky and fun, however. Then it's back to all-out sex-driven rock and roll, with "Foxey Lady," before capping off the adventures with the awesome backwards guitar / tape-loop manifesto, "Are You Experienced?" The album came out 40 years ago, but I'm still asking myself that question. It's a lifelong journey. ("Not necessarily stoned . . . but beautiful.")
The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground and Nico (Verve 1967) - Okay, I have to admit, I’ve never been a big Nico fan. I understand the concept, but she never really moved me. (I do dig the neo-Nico sounds of Stereolab, however.) But if her songs remind me too much of Yoko Ono on some of those Lennon albums (the whole bloody side 2 of Live Peace in Toronto, which, otherwise, would be one of the best live albums ever made), there’s just no escaping Lou Reed’s masterpieces. “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Venus in Furs,” and, most of all, “Heroin.” Plus, with CDs, I can skip the Nico songs when I feel like it. This was, though, definitely one of the most revolutionary albums ever. And it’s one of the mythic examples of artistic influence despite capitalist failure. As the saying goes, only 1,000 people bought this album - But every single one of them started a band. And it only grows in stature as the years go by.
Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland (MCA 1968) - Like Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, this album reveals an artist bursting at the seams with creativity. Opening up with some aural experimentation, the almost opera-like overture of "...And the Gods Made Love" / "Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)," Jimi then bursts out with a straight-ahead rock and roll AM radio single, "Crosstown Traffic," which sounds like it could've been on his first album. But that frenetic trip through traffic comes to an abrupt halt at the edge of a wide, deep lake, as he takes us on an epic blues pilgrimage with his 15-minute wonder, "Voodoo Chile." Side 2 of this double-LP is more rock and roll, highlighted by the beautiful and haunting, "Burning of the Midnight Lamp." Side 3 is something else altogether, an 18-minute journey into Hendrix's own mythological space-sea world. We sometimes forget how much science-fiction imagery and aesthetic played in Hendrix's work, and it reaches its fullest expression in "1983 . . . (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)." Side 4 takes us back to his rhythm & blues roots with "House Burning Down," and the album closes with what I believe are his two greatest songs, "All Along the Watchtower" and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." Hendrix takes Dylan's simple but majestic country-folk song from John Wesley Harding and remakes it into something completely his own, more, perhaps, than any other cover song has ever done. He stays true to Dylan's vision in the original but heightens the myth-making effect through his mastery of rock instrumentation. And he continues his almost alchemical transformation process with "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)," turning his own blues epic on Side 1 into one of the best rock and roll songs of all time. So country, folk, and blues have all been turned into gold by Hendrix on these last two tunes, which would be the last songs released while he was still alive.
Four I Felt Like Writing About
James Gang: Rides Again (ABC 1970) - If you love classic, early 1970s rock and roll, I don’t know if there’s a better overall example than Rides Again. The group started out with a funk-influenced "heavy" sound similar to Grand Funk Railroad or The Jeff Beck Group, but added in acoustic rock elements that gave them a broader, more interesting palette. Their first three albums, with Joe Walsh as principal singer-songwriter and axeman, are somewhat forgotten rock gems these days, and this one, their second effort, shows the group in peak form. The album kicks off in high gear with “Funk #49,” which features one of the best opening licks of any rock song ever, and stays in high gear throughout Side 1 with "Woman" and “The Bomber.” Side 2 shows the other face of the group, with a series of slow and mid-tempo numbers that work together almost like a rock-chamber concerto. (Basically, Side 2 is the stoner side.) Taken together, both sides add up to a true rock and roll classic.
Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy (MCA 1973) - A lot of people might pick Aja as the strongest Dan album, and it definitely took rock and roll to a new level of sophistication, but I think Countdown best represents all of the aspects of the group. Who else but Steely Dan could turn Buddhism into a great rock song like "Bodhisattva," which opens up the album with a bang? Tunes like "Show Biz Kids" and "My Old School" continue the pure rock assault, along with some of their best New York wit. "Razor Boy" and "Your Gold Teeth" mark some of their first jazz-influenced pieces, and both hold up well over time. Country-rock elements come out in "Pearl of the Quarter,"and the album closes with "King of the World," which seems to pull all of the elements together. The songwriting on the album is first-rate throughout. Katy Lied would be another possible great album, and the aforementioned Aja. But I like them rocking out on Countdown to Ecstasy.
Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (Island 1985) - You could argue that Swordfishtrombone belongs here instead, because it established Tom Waits as a truly groundbreaking rock and roll artist, but I think his follow-up album was even better. If nothing else, it wins on the strength of “Jockey Full of Burbon.” I still remember hearing the song for the first time during the opening sequence of Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law. I think I went out the next day and bought the album. And then there’s, “9th and Hennepin ,” which contains one of the other most poetic lines in rock and roll: “And all the rooms, they smell like diesel / And you take on the dreams of the ones who've slept there.” Plus, hey, Keith Richards shows up on “Big Black Mariah.”
Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador 1992) - This is where the Velvet Underground wound up. 25 years later, and it almost feels as revolutionary. Except that it references rock and roll rather than creating it anew. The form had been cannibalizing itself ever since the punk revolution, but it really reached a peak in the 1990s. One last gasp before all the meat was picked off the bones. Though Pavement started out producing some serious noise songs, they had a knack for coming up with amazing pop hooks, and they scatter them throughout Slanted, always perfectly timed and placed. Songs like "Summer Babe" and "Zurich Stained" are so perfect that they feel like they've always existed. Lyrically, you're never really sure where you're at, as the words sound so great together, but it's hard to figure out what's happening. That is, you're on a poetic journey. Stephen Malkmus puts on his best world-weary Lou Reed voice and attitude, and takes us on a ride through a strange, glorious early 1990s landscape. This is where America wound up.
Some Other Greats
Hey, where's that other guy? After Mr. Mojo Risin' couldn't rise out of the bathtub anymore, The Doors kept recording. This 1971 effort did not make my list of Greatest American Rock and Roll Albums. And just for the record, I have listened to it.
The Doors: The Doors (Elektra 1967)
The Byrds: Younger Than Yesterday (Columbia 1967)
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Bayou Country (Fantasy 1969)
Grateful Dead: American Beauty (Warner Brothers 1970)
Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East (Capricorn 1971)
Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks (Columbia 1975)
Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (Columbia 1975)
Ramones: Ramones (Sire 1976)
Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire 1980)
Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation (Enigma 1988)
Nirvana: Nevermind (DGC 1991)
For those of you who need to: Substitute The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds for one of these last 15.
See the third part of my trilogy on American rock and roll: The Greatest American Rock and Roll Songs.
UPDATE: I woke up this morning and realized I had forgotten Talking Heads' Remain in Light. So I've added that to the list and withdrawn Yo La Tengo: Electr-O-Pura (Matador 1995), which was a more obviously personal choice to begin with.
The back cover of James Gang Rides Again. A great album, and one of my favorite rock and roll photos. It captures everything about the music: a top hat (showmanship, the song and dance man), snowy woods (rural/nature), the muddy road (the endless American road), choppers (speed, the highway, Don't Tread On Us), hippies (hippies), laughter (joy - or at least being stoned), solemnity (damn it, this is serious business), and a guitar hero [Joe Walsh] in black leather jacket and aviator glasses (cool).