10 Albums Worth Checking Out
Recently, my friend Breandan and I got in a discussion over text message about what the best albums of all time were. He threw out albums such as Abbey Road, U2’s Joshua Tree and a few others that we clearly worthy of consideration on anyone’s best of list.
After reading a few of his selections, I began to think about what would comprise my own list. One of the problems that I ran into comprising my own list was that with the advent of digital music replacing actual albums I found that I think in terms of great songs much more than in terms of great albums. It is for this reason and the fact that I did not consider “greatest hits” albums that neither Jimmy Buffet not Billy Joel make this list.
That being said, as an adolescent of the 90s I have spent more than my fair share of time in Tower Records and The Wall and have listened to a great number of albums and I actually found that compiling a list of my 10 favorite albums was pretty easy.
Mind you, this is not a Greatest Albums of All Time list. That is way too subjective. The criteria that I used to assemble this list is pretty simple. I considered both studio albums and live albums. In the end, I picked the albums that I thought were most complete from an enjoyment standpoint from beginning to end as well as ones I felt an emotional connection too. The list is composed of four live albums and six studio releases.
Admittedly, I am no music critic, but I think I know a good album when I hear it. Feel free to comment with your own favorites.
10. Nasty Little Thoughts – Stroke 9 – 1999
Best Song: Tear Me in Two
Most would agree that Stroke 9 would not appear on many people’s top ten lists. Despite being a band in some incarnation since 1989, Stroke 9 is not exactly a household name, with 1999’s Little Black Backpack being their one and only top 10 hit and one of only three songs to ever chart. But this album is so much more than Little Black Back Pack. It is a very smooth alternative rock album that is catchy enough to sing along to (songs like Washin + Wonderin’, Letters, Not Nothin, One Time’ and of course Little Black Backpack) but also has introspective songs that explore love and loss (Make it Last, Angels). The band saves the best for last with the ballad-of-sorts Tear Me in Two. Oddly enough, I purchased the band’s next album, Rip It Off, didn’t like it at all and never bought another of their albums. Despite this Nasty Little Thoughts remains in the rotation frequently.
9. Graceland – Paul Simon – 1986
Best Song: Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes
It’s no wonder with hits such as Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes, Graceland and Call Me Al that Paul Simon won the Grammy for Album of the Year. The album mixes a variety of musical inspirations from all over the world (Africa being the most prominent) that create stirring imagery and beats that make you dance in the car. In addition, this album spawned a tremendous music video for Call Me Al as Chevy Chase lip-syncs and Paul Simon “plays” the sax. Rumor has it that Chase memorized the lyrics in the car on the way to shoot the video. The gem of this album, however, is the nearly five-minute Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes that tells the story of poor boy who falls in love with a rich girl.
8. Majikat – Cat Stevens – 2004
Best Song – Father and Son
The first live selection on this list was recorded in 1976 but not released until 2004 as Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam) was nearing the end of his nearly 30-year hiatus from popular music. Stevens is at the top of his game as a live performer here giving rocking performances of C79, Banapple Gas and The Hurt, while showing his flair for catchy lyrics in mid-range gems Wild World, Peace Train and Tuesday’s Dead.
Cat Stevens has always fascinated me. I could never understand how someone so good at his craft could walk away while still in his prime, regardless of the reason (his was to pursue a more pious life in the Muslim faith). Leaving the lifestyle and the money I can see. I just always wondered how someone with an obvious passion and talent for his craft could just stop doing it. I probably started listening to his music when I was 14 and it always seemed frozen in time because Stevens himself was not performing or writing. Fortunately for the music world, he has since returned to popular music.
7. Bat Out of Hell – Meatloaf – 1977
Best Song – Paradise By the Dashboard Light
If I may somewhat rip off Bill Murray from What About Bob?, I believe there are three types of people in the world: those who love Meat Loaf, those who think he is an overdramatic joke and those who don’t really know who he is. I love Meat loaf. The seven songs in this album, penned by Jim Steinman, are an at times melodramatic tour de force of arena rock. The songs are both catchy and poignant and are fueled by E-Street power as Max Weinberg man’s the drum kit and Roy Brittan plays piano on the album. Only seven songs long, the Bat Out of Hellis an awesome rocker throughout, beginning with the titular 9-minute and 50-second opening cut followed by the clap along You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth. Two Out of Three Aint Bad is the greatest non-love song ever with the lyrics, “I want you. I need you. There aint no way I’m ever gonna love you. But don’t be sad, cause two outta three aint bad.” If it’s the first time you have ever heard the song, you have to rewind to make sure you heard it right.
The album’s penultimate song, Paradise by the Dashboard Light is the greatest song about losing one’s virginity ever written. The baseball announcer montage and the back and forth duet with Ellen Foley is tremendous as this song produces the best example of why we should be careful about what we wish for.
6. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle – Bruce Springsteen – 1973
Best Song: Incident on 57th Street
Springsteen makes his first entry (spoiler alert – he makes it again) on this list with an E Street Band that is not the totally refined, well-oiled machine it has since become. Because of this fact, the album radiates with a raw power that hasn’t necessarily been lost by 21st century Springsteen, but instead shows the conviction of a band and singer still trying to make it. If you asked me if this album would have made it a year ago, I would have said no, but after hearing Springsteen perform it live in sequence on a live album from 2014 (Springsteen sells all his live shows as albums now), I was hooked. I always loved the songs in this album individually, but the sequence is what makes it great. Tales of youth abound in Sandy (Fourth of July Asbury Park), Rosalita, and Incident on 57th Street and New York City Serenade is as good of an album closer as there is.
The only oddity comes midway through the album in Wild Billy’s Circus Story, a weird yarn about a traveling circus. Even though it seems out of place with the rest of the album, it grows on the listener with repetition.
5. Rock Spectacle – Barenaked Ladies - 1996
Best Song: If I Had A Million Dollars
If you have never been to a Barenaked Ladies concert, do yourself a favor and go. The Canadian rockers often get more credit for their adlibs and their shtick then they do for their song craft. From a commercial standpoint, the band became a victim of its own success. In the early 1990s, they were this quirky quintet that had a cult following. After minor hits in Brian Wilson and The Old Apartment (both crushed by Steve Page on this album who has since left the band) the band struck commercial gold with No. 1 hit One Week. They began selling out venues like The Wells Fargo Center (I went to the New Year’s 1999 concert – total blast!) and lots of fans jumped on the bandwagon. The problem became that BNL’s cult following thought they sold out, and all the fans of One Week didn’t stay around much past their next album.
Rock Spectacle is BNL’s first live album and it comes before One Week. It also comes before Page left the band and Ed Robertson had to assume full-time lead singer duties. It’s just a great collection of songs altogether from the opening Brian Wilson, to closer If I Had a Million Dollars. The thing I have always appreciated about this band is that they rock out like a garage band and no one told them they weren’t at prom. They are quirky, funny and energetic, but they are also great muscians. This album is a great example of all the aforementioned. BNL is still a great band, but this album captures them while they are still very much on the assent.
4. That’s the Way It Is (Deluxe Edition) – Elvis Presley - 1970
Best Song: Suspicious Minds
For years, the only Elvis song that I ever really loved was In the Ghetto. Of course I had heard Elvis before, but for most of my music listening life, I never paid him much serious attention, viewing him as a somewhat cartoonish figure. So one night about eight months ago, In the Ghetto came on and I decided to give Elvis an expanded listen, selecting That’s the Way it Is from Apple Music, a live album that captures six Elvis concerts from Las Vegas in 1970. After listening for an hour, I realized that I had yet to hear a song that I didn’t like and also that Elvis was a musical icon whom I had missed out on for far too long.
After listening to this album, I immediately set to downloading all of Elvis’ other live albums, and while they are all varying degrees of good (even Elvis in Concert from his final tour in 1977 when he was way, way past his prime and creeping toward death’s door). None of them, however, equal That’s the Way it Is. Elvis, who had recently ended a nine-year absence from the stage, comes across as a man who truly loves performing. His voice is immaculate and his on-stage banter is pretty funny. I’ve Lost You and Just Pretend are album standouts (both appearing multiple times across the recorded sets) along with opener That’s All Right which leads into the soulful I Got a Woman. The highlight of the album, however is the back to back combo of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Suspicious Minds. If you want a real treat check out this live version of Suspicious Minds. Elvis in the pure embodiment of masculinity, loose in movement and simply oozing sexuality.
3. August and Everything After – Counting Crows - 1993
Best Song: Mr. Jones
This album was quite literally the sound track to my high school years and Counting Crows are probably the first contemporary band that I truly felt spoke to me as a teenager. It is certainly not what one would call an uplifting album, but it is an example of excellent song craftsmanship by Adam Duritz with some truly excellent rockers (Murder of One and Rain King to name a few).
The album really excels, however, in its more contemplative songs such as Anna Begins, Sullivan Street and Raining in Baltimore. This is never more true than on album’s opener Round Here, a dark tune about a girl contemplating suicide. Duritz voice rings with utter desperation, that makes Round Here the second best opening song of any album on this list. The diamond among diamonds on this album is Mr. Jones, a song Duritz has described as being about his own dreams. Its lyrics poignantly serve as a portrait of who we are versus who we wish we were. The desire to be a better version of oneself is something that almost anyone can relate to and Mr. Jones has been a lasting emblem to that idea.
2. Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen – 1975
Best Song: Thunder Road
Born to Run is Springsteen’s breakout album, and as far as studio albums go, there is probably not a better sequenced album ever made. From the opening Thunder Road (best opening song of an album ever) to the epic closer Jungleland, Springsteen managed to create an album that is virtually free of weak spots.
Certainly, the Springsteen live show is something to behold, but Born to Run completely demonstrated his ability to craft a truly great record. While his first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle are excellent in their own right, Born to Run adds efficiency to The Boss’ repertoire as his eight songs total only 39 minutes, yet somehow manages to combine rockers (Night, Tenth Avenue Freeze-out, Born to Run), mid-range tunes (Thunder Road and She’s the One) and epics (Jungleland and Backstreets).
Choosing a best song here is difficult, mainly because Thunder Road, Born to Run, Backstreets and Jungleland are four of Springsteen’s best songs period. If a decision must be made, I would give the nod narrowly to Thunder Road over Jungleland. If it means anything (and likely it doesn’t) a recent poll of E Street Radio listeners voted Thunder Road as Springsteen best song ever. Jungleland and Born to Run were also in the top 5.
1. Hot August Night – Neil Diamond – 1972
Best Song: Holly Holy
If you are searching for a reason that Neil Diamond deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, look no further than the double live tour de force that is Hot August Night. This set, culled from a stand at the iconic Greek Theater in August of 1972, captures Diamond before he became the polished, flawless showman that mark the latter years of his live performing career. Diamond truly rocks out on songs like Cherry Cherry, Cracklin’ Rosie, Crunchy Granola Suite, Kentucky Woman and Holly Holy, and demonstrates his poignant songwriting with songs like Shiloh, Walk on Water (a hidden live gem released on one of the anniversary editions of the album) and Solitary Man.
In terms of pure raw energy from Diamond, I recommend listening to Gold recorded at the Troubadour a few years earlier. With only a three-piece band, at his disposal it is as stripped down as he has ever been recorded as a performer, but for a complete full-band live set, Hot August Night is unbeatable. Diamond’s voice is powerful and gravely and by the final chorus of Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show, he is breathless and horse.
More than anything, however, this album is number one for me because it represents a life-long fandom and true love of Neil Diamond’s music. There is not a time where Hot August Night (and the rest of Neil’s catalogue) hasn’t been part of the soundtrack to my life. My love for the album was only buoyed by meeting Diamond himself when I was 12 years old in London. Garnering up all the courage I had, I walked over to him as he was eating breakfast and told him that I had been his biggest fan since I was two. A little taken back, he stood up, shook my hand and thanked me for being a fan. He was a true gentleman, so that gets him to number 1.