In the process of putting together a list of 150 favorite albums for Issue 150, the thought struck me yet again: what determines whether music is good or bad, anyway?
I think we can agree that there are standards of musical craft that apply: melody, harmony, orchestration, lyric writing and other attributes. No one would argue about the monumental genius of Bach, or the fact that the Shaggs were pretty bad singers and players. But people enjoy listening to “My Pal Foot Foot,” to the point where it’s become something of a not-so-underground classic. (Bach did not write “My Pal Foot Foot.”)
Who am I to say? A lot of schlocky music gives me great pleasure to listen to, and vice versa. A song like Keith’s “There’s Always Tomorrow” may have a certain charm, but there’s a reason it’s on no one’s list of great songs. On the other hand, U2’s undeniably classic “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” puts me into instant turnoff mode.
I like to think I’m qualified to judge music. Among other things, I’m a trained musician who plays professionally. But my worldview was shaken to the core at a Dionne Warwick and Rumer concert a few years ago. Rumer doesn’t tour extensively and I was thrilled to hear her live. She was everything I expected and far more; that beautiful voice against a lush orchestral background, a dream come true seventh-row center. By the third song I was in tears. After the concert, I lingered, not wanting the wonderful experience to end.
Then, at random, an older man came up to me and said, “You can throw that concert in the garbage!”
“She had nothing, no soul. Ehhh! She’s not an artist.”
I thought, jeez, everyone’s a critic in New York. But I was rattled. And realized, no matter how I felt or how wrong I thought he was, our individual reality of the situation was totally opposite.
How do you decide upon some equation that adds in objective craftsmanship, the “X” factor that makes a song magic (is anyone going to debate that “Like A Rolling Stone” or Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” qualify?), and the weight of opinion, informed or otherwise? If some piece of pop crap makes a lot of people happy, doesn’t that count for something?
I will never yield in believing the idea that there are objective standards of quality. Try doing a recording session and singing off pitch, or playing out of tune or off the beat, and see how it goes down. Yet, I’m conflicted. I’m beginning to accept the fact that the idea of what constitutes good or bad music may never be resolved, in my mind, or anyone’s.
Well, whether I’m shooting myself in the foot or confirming my good taste, here’s the first installment of mini-reviews of my favorite 150 rock and pop albums, in semi-random order.
801 Live, various artists
Those various artists being Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, Lloyd Watson (slide guitar, vocals), Francis Monkman (electric piano, clavinet), Bill MacCormick (bass, vocals), Simon Phillips (drums and “rhythm generator”) and no less than Brian Eno on keyboards, synthesizers, vocals and guitar. The live concert recording features some Manzanera and Eno songs, among them Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire” and “Third Uncle,” a hyperdrive “Miss Shapiro,” and a dazzling take on Manzanera’s “Diamond Head.”
Shelby Lynne, Love, Shelby
I Am Shelby Lynne is the critics’ darling album (and rightfully so), and Just A Little Lovin’ truly does have demonstration-quality sound and wonderful interpretations of a variety of great songs, but the poppier, breezier Love, Shelby is the one that stirs me the most.
Daryl Hall and John Oates, The Atlantic Collection
Most of the good pre-mega-hit stuff is on here, including “She’s Gone,” “When the Morning Comes,” “Las Vegas Turnaround” and a good chunk of the War Babies album. Until they hooked up with Todd Rundgren for the latter, they had a folkier, more open sound, with John Oates singing a greater percentage of the vocals than on the later hits.
Daryl Hall and John Oates, War Babies
This isn’t the Hall and Oates you’re thinking of. Rundgren laid the production on heavily here, to the point where it sounds like this could almost be one of his albums – no surprise, since he and members of Utopia play on it. H&O took a major stylistic shift here before settling into their remarkable megahit-making run, and this harder-edged album sounds like nothing they’ve done before or since. The material fades on side two, but that’s more than made up for by the soaring “You’re Much Too Soon.”
Genesis, Nursery Cryme
The first Genesis album to feature Phil Collins and guitarist Steve Hackett, it’s also the one where the classic Genesis progressive rock sound came into full focus. That’s apparent from the first 10 seconds of the magnificent opener, The Musical Box,” and side one’s closer, the immortal “The Return of the Giant Hogweed.” The layered acoustic and electric guitars, arpeggiated motifs, sci-fi lyrics and complex arrangements are all here, though the band takes a black-humor detour with the sad tale of “Harold the Barrel.”
Every song is off-the-meter good. The Mellotron opening to the titanic “Watcher of the Skies” is surely the greatest opening in progressive rock, and “Get ’Em Out By Friday” shows the band could rock with the best of them. The majority of side two is taken up by the 23:06 “Supper’s Ready,” which many Gabriel-era Genesis connoisseurs consider to be the band’s finest hour. I won’t argue.
Genesis, Selling England by the Pound
An undeniable progressive rock masterpiece (although you could also say that about Foxtrot), though sweeter and more nuanced than most of that genre, SEBTP offers some of the most intricately compelling music ever created. The first time I heard “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” I was stupefied, and its impact hasn’t lessened much all these decades later. And, never mind Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” – “Firth of Fifth” gets my vote for being the most epic rock guitar solo ever recorded, courtesy of Steve Hackett.
Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
The songwriting and music become a little more monolithic here, and the recording is muddier, but the title track is a classic, the music is seamless through the length of a double-LP, and “The Carpet Crawlers” is strangely moving, strange lyrics and all.
Genesis, A Trick of the Tail
The first post-Peter Gabriel album with Phil Collins on lead vocals, this is still mostly the “good” Genesis, before they went unabashedly (if remuneratively) pop, with sublime cuts like “Dance on a Volcano” and “Ripples.”
Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the ‘70s
I’m cheating here; this is a 25-volume CD set of 1970s singles. It’s got the good- and the good-bad stuff (Spiral Starecase’s “More Today Than Yesterday,” The Cuff Links’ “Tracy”), as well as the bad-bad stuff (“Heartbeat – It’s a Lovebeat” by the DeFranco Family and the beyond-cringeworthy “Playground In My Mind” courtesy of Clint Holmes), but sometimes you just have a craving for musical junk food.
Iron Butterfly, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida
The Rodney Dangerfield of rock bands gets no respect from most critics. Bah, I say! “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” has the all-time greatest psychedelic guitar riff, and the shorter songs on side one are full of Sixties psychedelic energy, Vox Continental organ, crushing fuzz guitar and boundless youthful energy (guitarist Erik Brann was 17 years old when he blasted these riffs out). The Mobile Fidelity UHQR LP reissue is sold out, so I’m not the only one who digs this. In fact, when first released in 1968 it outsold every previous record ever released.
Iron Butterfly, Ball
More poppy and less psychedelic than the landmark In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the songs range from lame (“Lonely Boy,” “Her Favorite Style”) to pretty darn good (“Soul Experience,” “In the Crowds”). But…the guitar sounds are even more fantastic than In-A-Gadda…”, especially on “It Must Be Love,” which has a grinding, fuzz tone akin an industrial machine gone out of control. It must be noted that bassist Lee Dorman is criminally underrated.
James Gang, Yer Album
In which Joe Walsh and his guitar exploded onto the world. The guitar solo in “Take A Look Around” will get you stoned even if you’ve never gotten high in your life.
Billy Joel, Turnstiles
I’ve had mixed feelings about Billy Joel over the decades. I was captivated by his earlier work, and songs like “Captain Jack,” “Summer, Highland Falls,” “I’ve Loved These Days” (the latter two included on Turnstiles) and “The Stranger,” but by “52nd Street” and songs like “Big Shot, ”I was losing interest. The disillusionment was complete by the time “We Didn’t Start the Fire” rolled around. Yet on his later albums he’d come up with songs like “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” or “A Matter of Trust,” and I’d be reminded of what a great songwriter Joel is by anyone’s standards. Turnstiles is also a sentimental favorite because everyone in my whole family liked it (something you couldn’t say when I played Zappa or Black Sabbath), so it got a ton of play in our house when it first came out.
Jeff Beck Group, Rough and Ready
A sorcerer among guitarists, and of course Blow By Blow deserves all the accolades it gets, and the stuff he did with Rod Stewart and company is essential British blues rock, but Rough and Ready is the album where I really got Beck. The band is a steamroller, and Beck’s playing is, as always, next-level insane. I spent many, many, many hours copying his riffs on this one.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bayou Country
What’s not to love? Here’s the group’s breakthrough smash, “Proud Mary,” an absolutely ripping version of Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and maybe the greatest one-chord jam of all time, “Keep On Chooglin.” It’s cliched to say that singer/songwriter/guitarist John Fogerty is a natural treasure, except it’s true. But all their other hits are also essential, so I screwed up here and should have picked one of their greatest hits collections.
Donovan’s Greatest Hits
Out of all the great singer-songwriters of the Sixties and Seventies, why do I like Donovan so much? Well…the voice, the hippy-dippy but sometimes great songs, and the fact that this music takes me back to a musical era that some of us boys and girls were very lucky to have lived through. Even the fact that “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” was used in a Love Cosmetics commercial didn’t ruin its charm for me, and “There Is A Mountain” is either one of the dumbest or one of the most profound songs ever. (Hey, it was good enough for the Allman Brothers to jam on endlessly.)
The Good Rats, Tasty
Yeah, I’m from Lawn Guyland. And if you grew up on Long Island in the 1970s, the club scene was huge, as were bands like the Good Rats, Twisted Sister, Harlequin, Harpy, Railway and Gunn, the Stanton Anderson Band and many others. Long Island spawned numerous acts who made it big, including Billy Joel, Mountain, Pat Benatar, De La Soul, Twisted Sister, Public Enemy and many others. (Does Fotomaker count?) But the Good Rats always occupied a gray area between being local heroes and hitting national success. Tasty was their one major-label release (on Warner Brothers Records) and it’s packed with hard, fast and loud rockers, seasoned by the gritty, hurricane-force vocals of Peppi Marchello and the dizzying twin-guitar interplay of Mickey Marchello and John “The Cat” Gatto. Some wags thought they just weren’t good looking enough to make it. They certainly had the talent.
Laura Nyro, Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro
Long before I knew who Laura Nyro was, I fell in love with the 5th Dimension’s version of “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues,” Barbra Streisand’s take on “Stoney End,” and even Three Dog Night’s overblown “Eli’s Coming.” When I found out that Nyro was the writer behind all of them, I had to hear her original versions, which are earthier, funkier, and less “produced,”. Sad that she had to be posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Actually, no, shameful. Her first album, More Than a New Discovery, proved she had the goods right off the bat.
Love, Forever Changes
No contest, my favorite album of 1967, and that was a hell of a year for great albums. In fact, it’s in my top five. The songs are anywhere from great to spellbinding, as in “Alone Again Or,” “Andmoreagain,” and…I’ll get to it. It’s well-known that Love main man Arthur Lee and the rest of the band had a tough time getting their substance-impaired act together, and the music offers a strange mix of beauty, paranoia, and profundity. The string and horn arrangements add wonderfully to the largely acoustic-flavored songs. I’ll just come right out and say it: “You Set the Scene” is one of the greatest songs ever written.
This 1970 compilation is essential, a must-hear by anyone and everyone. It compiles Love’s greatest singles and tracks, and every one of them is superb. In addition to the three from Forever Changes mentioned above, it has such pop rock marvels as “Orange Skies,” “Signed D.C.,” “Your Mind and We Belong Together,” “Your Friend and Mine – Neil’s Song,” and ever a credible, hyperventilating cover of “Hey Joe.” One of the greatest greatest hits collections ever.
Martha and the Vandellas, Greatest Hits
I could name a hundred singles by soul, R&B, disco and Black artists off the top of my head, as well as loads of Fifties and Sixties girl groups, but I have a soft spot for Martha and the Vandellas. It doesn’t hurt that they had a string of fantastic hits, like “Heat Wave,” “Quicksand,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “Come and Get These Memories,” and my favorite, the theme song of writers on deadline everywhere: “Nowhere to Run.”
The Mothers of Invention/Frank Zappa, Freak Out!
It’s hard to believe that an album like this could even be made, but it was 1966, after all. Zappa’s first record gave the world a double-album blast of his satire, refusal to accept social norms, love of doo-wop, Varèse and complex, angular sounds, and his biting, totally distinctive guitar playing (although his “air sculpture” guitar style was not fully developed yet). As an unsuspecting teenager, hearing stuff like “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” “Who Are the Brain Police?” and “It Can’t Happen Here” really was mind-blowing.
The Mothers of Invention/Frank Zappa, Absolutely Free
Tighter and more song-oriented than the sprawling Freak Out!, the Mothers’ second album is even more viciously satirical than the first, and more musically complex, even slipping in quotes from Stravinsky. I think this has to be considered a flat-out classic, considering the presence of songs like “Plastic People,” “Call Any Vegetable,” and the monumental “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.”
The Mothers of Invention/Frank Zappa, Weasels Ripped My Flesh
A little more inconsistent and unfocused than the above two albums, considering Weasels is a mix of live and studio tracks. More avant-garde, jazz, and noise-rock influences are evident on this, Zappa’s 10th recording, and the sound quality has dramatically improved. “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” became one of Zappa’s more well-known songs, and the “Oh No”/The Orange County Lumber Truck” sequence is one of Frank Zappa’s finest moments.
The Mothers of Invention/Frank Zappa, One Size Fits All
By 1975, Zappa was delving more heavily into lyrical silliness but still hadn’t quite approached the some would say embarrassingly juvenile lyrics of material like “Bobby Brown” (which I won’t quote here). Whatever. The real appeal of this album is the insanely, ridiculously, incredible musicianship from the likes of Zappa, George Duke, Ruth Underwood, Chester Thompson and others. The sound quality is really, really good on most cuts also. But really, the reason that this is a Zappa must-hear is the remarkable “Inca Roads.” The playing on this is so extraordinary that is seems impossible that mere humans can be making this music. And Zappa plays what many people consider to be his finest guitar solo ever on this track. I would be one of them.