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Ten Best Albums of All Time
Choosing the Ten Best Albums
It's always a challenge to create a top ten album list because great records always end up in the honorable mention bin. This list is no exception. The selection process consisted of first looking for albums that still have the power to affect me even after decades of listening. Secondly, I wanted records with a musical depth where even after repeated listens I can still discover new elements I never noticed before like a background vocal, guitar line, or hidden meaning. Finally, it was important that the albums be tied to specific memories in my life such as a class in high school, my first job, or a place I lived. So, it's a personal and kind of a subjective method for selecting the ten best records of all time, but I think I came up with a pretty strong list anyway. In the article I have included videos of some of the best songs and links to others so you can listen along as you read.
10) Other Voices, Other Rooms - Nanci Griffith, 1993
Nanci doesn't have a great voice and she didn't write any of the songs on the album, but it is still one of my favorites. This album is a collection of cover versions of her favorite folk songs by artists like Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, John Prine, and Woody Guthrie. Because of this emotional tie you can hear in each song how much she cares about the material. What really puts the album over the top, however, are the musicians like John Prine, Bela Fleck, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, and Iris Dement that show up to help out on the songs . My favorite's include "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" with John Prine singing back-up vocals and "Comin' Down in the Rain". I couldn't stop listening to it once it got inside my head.
9) The Harder They Come Soundtrack, 1972
This is the soundtrack to the legendary 1972 Jamaican cult film The Harder They Come in which Jimmy Cliff plays a reggae singer who reaches musical stardom only after committing a murder and getting on the most wanted list. Growing up in a blue-collar steel town in Northern Ohio, this album provided a glimpse into an exotic, mysterious, dangerous world that was so different from my experience. I had never listened to reggae before, but I immediately found the songs on this soundtrack irresistible. Jimmy Cliff has top billing and has several great tracks with the beautiful, soulful "Many Rivers to Cross" being my favorite. However, I think Toots & the Maytals steal the show with their two songs. I found the pulsing, chugging sound of "Pressure Drop" and the joyous exuberance of "Sweet & Dandy" immediately likeable. The video on the right shows the group singing the latter song in the film as Jimmy Cliff makes a delivery to their studio. Toots has a raspy, soulful voice reminiscent of Otis Redding that sends the songs too the next level. "Rivers of Babylon" by the Melodians and the organ fueled "Johnny Too Bad" from the Slickers are two of my other favorites from the album that made me try mangos for the first time.
8) 1000 Kisses - Patti Griffin, 2002
A raw treasure and modern acoustic masterpiece. Recorded in 2002 in the basement of her guitarist's Nashville home. The album has a stark, immediate sound that makes you feel like you are in the basement with Patti during the recording session. My favorite song, shown in the video on the right, is "Chief" and I always get chills when I hear Patti sing "the way I laugh, the way I fly" at the 2:10 mark. Other standouts include "Making Pies" which tells of an elderly woman reflecting back on a life spent working at the Table Talk pie factory in Worcester, Massachusetts. There is also the powerful "Nobody's Crying" with Patti's forceful guitar playing and "Be Careful" with the sweet accordion. This album really showcases Patti's song writing ability and here beautiful, powerful voice. She was voted artist of the year for 2002 by radio station WYEP in Pittsburgh for this album. The song "Rain" from the album recently came in at number 26 on their list of 913 essential songs.
7) Who's Next - The Who, 1971
This album helped me through a tough freshman year in college in 1989. Away from home for the first time, struggling with classes, not sure of the decision, but this album was there to provide a source of comfort. Sounds weird that a Who album could do this, but the beauty of the the songs gave me something to focus on beside my troubles. I listened to it non-stop the entire first semester. "Baba O'Riley" is my favorite with the kaleidoscopic organ solo at the beginning and the frenzied violin at the end, but the whole album is strong and is worth repeated listens. "Won't Get Fooled Again" is a genuine rock classic. Roger Daltry's scream is one of the best in rock history and the space age organ intro and Pete's guitar riffs at the end are triumphant. Other favorites include the John Entwistle vehicle "My Wife" and "Love Ain't for Keeping" with Pete playing acoustic guitar.
6) Nebraska - Bruce Springsteen, 1982
There is the music, which is hauntingly beautiful, and the story behind the making of the album, which only adds to the power of it all. Bruce was on the verge of super stardom after The River, but he intentionally decided to step back and create a folk album filled with stories of marginalized Americans. At the time, many thought he was committing career suicide by abandoning the musical momentum he had generated over the previous decade. A few years later, however, opinions had changed and everyone was doing acoustic records. MTV's Unplugged show and John Mellancamp's Lonesome Jubilee are a few examples that come to mind. Bruce recorded the songs by himself in an old New Jersey farmhouse and amazingly walked around with the tape that would become the master in his shirt pocket. The songs are bare and stripped down, with only Bruce on acoustic guitar and harmonica, and have an echoey tone which give them a stark, ghostly feel. "Atlantic City" is the most popular song on the album, but my two favorites are "Used Cars", and "Mansion on the Hill". Another standout is "My Father's House", but they are all worthwhile. The songs have a cinematic quality, like they could be made into movies, and "Highway Patrolman" was actually the basis for the 1991 Sean Penn directed film The Indian Runner. When the album was released in 1982 it felt like the vinyl records had been pressed from old black and white film reels in dust bowl era Oklahoma. Bruce went down a similar path again in 1995 with The Ghost of Tom Joad, but it didn't have the same effect on me as Nebraska.
5) Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs - Derek and the Dominos, 1970
Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, two guitar legends, joined together in 1970 to create one of the most majestic records of all time. Clapton's rumble backing Duane's lighting slide runs. Anguish is the word that comes to mind when I think of this record, because you can hear it come through on every song, as Eric Clapton struggles with his heroin addiction demons and his unrequited love for George Harrison's wife Patty Boyd. Just listen for it on songs like "Little Wing" and "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?" My other favorites are "Bell Bottom Blues" and "I Looked Away" What more can be said about the title song, which has a urgent, manic first half with Eric pleading for Layla amid wailing guitars followed by an achingly beautiful piano and slide guitar infused coda that starts at the 3:10 mark and carries the song home. Duane tragically left us less than a year later in a motor cycle accident. Patti Boyd must have been something special because she apparently was the inspiration for several of the greatest songs in rock history: "Something", "Wonderful Tonight", and "Layla". Patti divorced George Harrison and married Eric in 1979. Sadly, however, they divorced in 1989.
4) Every Picture Tells a Story - Rod Stewart, 1971
I always wonder what happened to Rod Stewart. That is the first thought that comes to mind when I see him today. First with the Small Faces and then for four solo records, he created some of the best folk-rock music of all time. He was able to blend his raspy voice (the best male rock voice of all-time by the way) with acoustic guitar, piano, organ, mandolin, and violin to create songs with humble, genuine beauty that still resonate today. Rod then sadly decided to make disco records and his music has never been the same, even when he tried to recapture a more authentic sound during a late 1980's comeback. "Mandolin Wind" tells of a simple declaration of love amid a gorgeous mandolin and steel guitar background. The pause at the 3:30 mark and Rod's "la-da-da-da's" near the end are breathtaking. The album is full of great songs such as the title track and the gorgeous, violin-accompanied "Tomorrow is a Long Time".
3) The Joshua Tree - U2, 1987
I remember driving home from a trip in 1987 and hearing "With or Without You" for the first time on the car radio. Adam Clayton's base rattled the windows and when The Edge's guitar chimed in I was thunderstruck. I still can picture that moment to this day, 25 years later. I recently listened to the album again and discovered "Mothers of the Disappeared" which I never cared for very much. However, the eeriness of the music and the horrendous subject matter really hit me this time. "Where the Streets Have No Names" with The Edge's jarring guitar is another favorite. The Edge's guitar playing is a revelation on the whole album including "Bullet the Blue Sky". This album has an intensity and forcefulness that hasn't diminished since it was released back in 1987.
2) Moondance - Van Morrison, 1970
It always amazes me that Van made this album and his other classic Astral Weeks in his early twenties. On Moondance Van was able to meld folk, R&B, country, jazz, gospel, and blues into something truly original. "Into the Mystic" is the centerpiece of the record and is my favorite song of all time. From the gorgeous way the acoustic guitar and base mix together at the beginning to Van's "I want to rock your gypsy soul" lines in the middle and all the way to the end when the piano and horns rise together, music doesn't get any better. "Crazy Love" is gentle and beautiful with the call and response between Van and the female back-up singers. The way Van's gritty chanting mixes with the punch of the horns to end "Caravan" is exhilarating. "And it Stoned Me" is an ode to the simple life and another favorite. "These Dreams of You" and "Brand New Day" are often overlooked but they are gems. There is one incredible horn arrangement after another. I almost picked the equally stunning Astral Weeks, but the great "Into the Mystic" put this album just a notch above it.
1) Exile on Main Street - The Rolling Stones, 1972
Another album with a great background story: Kieth and the band exiled on the French Riviera in 1972 making some of the most legendary music of all-time in the basement of a rented mansion. I didn't like the album much when I first heard it in high school. There were no standout songs like "Honky Tonk Women" or "Brown Sugar" that immediately caught my ear. But being a Stones' fan I would give it another try every few years and then it finally hooked me. I realized there are so many layers and nuances in each song that it takes several listens for it to finally kick in. Then the beauty is it keeps delivering more with every listen. The Stones were students of American music and with this album they synthesized rock, blues, soul, gospel, country, and jazz into an intoxicating sonic sludge. With repeated listens you start to notice these little treasures that emerge from the murk. My favorite song is the country tinged "Torn and Frayed" with its steel guitar, honky tonk piano, and Keith's back-up vocal on the line that start "Joe's got a cough, sounds kinda rough". Every song is great in its own way like "Happy" where Kieth sings a gritty lead, but Mick still throws in a couple of lines at the very end. The pulsing "Turd on the Run" which sounds like the band is trying to run through it as fast as possible with Mick's harp leading the way. The gospel infused "Shine a Light" with the organ that jumps to the front at the 0:50 mark and then doesn't appear again until the end. The way the sing along chorus of "Sweet Virginia" mixes with Bobby Keys' saxophone and Kieth's grinding riff that kick's off "Tumbling Dice". I could go on and on. There are hidden treasures buried all in this album and every song is great. Check out Kieth's book Life and the documentary Stones in Exile if you want more details about the making of the album.
Well, that is my list of the ten best albums. In no particular order, some records that just missed the cut include: Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen (1978), Astral Weeks by Van Morrison (1968), After the Gold Rush by Neil Young (1970), Abbey Road by the Beatles (1969), Led Zeppelin IV (1971), Live! by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1975), Night Moves by Bob Seger (1976), Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams (2000), Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959), From Elvis in Memphis (1969), Rumours by Fleetwood Mac (1977), Are You Experienced by The Jim Hendrix Experience (1967), Come Away with Me by Norah Jones (2002), Graceland by Paul Simon (1986), The Band by The Band (1969), and Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones (1971). It was great fun to write this article and to listen to the albums all over again. One thing I can say after this effort is that 1970 to 1972 was a great time for music, with six of my ten selections coming from this period. I would love to hear your favorite album.