Saturday, October 04, 2008

An Extra-Thick Slice of the List: 40-31

At this point, I'm sure my friend Dez will finish posting his list before I finish with mine, but in an effort to catch up a bit I'm naming ten below, rather than the usual five. And off we go:

40. Bob Dylan -- Blood On the Tracks (1975)

Dylan’s so purposely enigmatic that even this record, widely thought to be his most confessional and drawn from his own romantic troubles, may not be that easy to decipher. Still, it comes across that way, and songs like “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” are as directly affecting as anything he’s ever done.

39. Van Morrison -- Into the Music (1979)

This record starts with three rollicking songs (“Bright Side of the Road,” “Full Force Gale,” and “Steppin’ Out Queen”) that should get you smiling, foot-tapping, or both if you have even the last shred of a soul. It also features the eight-minute “And the Healing Has Begun,” maybe my favorite song of his.

38. R.E.M. -- Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)

More to come about these guys, so I’ll keep this brief. This album has great atmospherics (“The Flowers of Guatemala”), great straight-ahead rock (“These Days”), and arguably the quintessential R.E.M. song (“Fall On Me”).

37. Gin Blossoms -- New Miserable Experience (1992)

Proof that you can borrow from your influences -- Byrds, Cheap Trick, R.E.M. -- and not bring much of anything new to the table and still hit it out of the park if you’re good enough. It sounds weird to name such A-list influences for a band with such a limited existence (though it recently regrouped). But really, almost every song the band released was a hit. For this album, their debut, songwriter and guitarist Doug Hopkins combined great hooks and melodies with surprisingly grown-up, wistful lyrics. From opener “Lost Horizons,” when singer Robin Wilson croons against a ringing, catchy guitar, “I’ll drink enough of anything to make this world look new again,” we’re in accessible but mature territory. Hopkins was kicked out of the band for alcoholism before this album was released, and he committed suicide near the end of 1993. The sense of his tragic life is all over a song like “Hold Me Down,” another very catchy number that belies lyrics like “remember when those doors swing open / and all the drinks are passed around / anytime the pickings look too easy / hold me down” and “I can’t remember why I like this feeling / when it always seems to let me down / soon I find I’m searching for the exit from the ground.” In “Hey Jealousy,” the band’s mega-hit, Wilson sings “you can trust me not to think,” which was originally “not to drink.” Wilson said, “we had so many booze references in our lyrics in those days. I suggested to Doug why don’t you just let me sing ‘think’ this time.” Wilson wrote lyrics for several songs, and on the band’s follow-up album, songs like “Follow You Down” and “As Long As It Matters” showed that Hopkins wasn’t the only engine for the band’s success.

36. The Beatles -- Help! (1965)

I’m a very big fan of The Beatles, so it’s weird to have their highest record be #36 on my list. That’s just a note to myself. I prefer their earlier, poppier stuff to their more experimental later phases (never been a huge sitar guy), thus this record as my current favorite of theirs.

35. Elliott Smith -- either/or (1997)

If it weren’t for the use of songs off this album in Good Will Hunting, Elliott Smith might have toiled in an undeserved cultish obscurity. He’s often compared to Nick Drake, and these songs show why, but his lyrical detail is more impressive than Drake’s. “Angeles” and “Rose Parade” manage to stand out on an album remarkably consistent in both sound and quality.

34. Sam Cooke -- Night Beat (1963)

Cooke’s voice is maybe the most soulful of all time. Let’s focus on just one moment in one song. This record could be composed simply of “Mean Old World” and it might occupy the same slot. The central lyric -- “this is a mean old world to live in all by yourself” -- is a nearly Platonic blues/soul line, and the performance of the whole song is A+. But then, at the 2:25 mark, Cooke hits a higher note and stretches out on “this is a mean world to be alone,” and it’s just perfect. Perfect. Those five seconds are the place where music goes where nothing else quite can.

33. Lori Carson -- Where It Goes (1995)

Lori Carson is a singer-songwriter with a pretty/fragile voice whose material sometimes suffers from being too ethereal. On this album, though, simple (stark) lyrics about loneliness and heartbreak are sung over quiet, tasteful arrangements in a way that gets across pain and confusion, keeping Carson’s girlish voice from veering into the precious. If you’re preoccupied with something else, there’s no doubt this album might sound like wallpaper (pretty wallpaper, but still). And if you’re not in a mood to indulge your sensitive side, or you’re feeling happy, it could grate. But when this album hits the sweet spot of the bat, it goes a long way.

32. Prince -- Purple Rain (1984)

Would this record not have happened without the accompanying crappy movie? Kind of hilarious to think so. In any case, there are songs on here that do nothing for me (“Take Me With U” and “Computer Blue”), but with peaks so high (“Baby I’m a Star,” the title track, several others), who cares about valleys?

31. Low -- Long Division (1995)

For most of its career, Low -- a band composed of husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, along with several bassists over the years -- has composed minimalist music accompanied by haunting vocals. Sparhawk and Parker -- both with beautiful voices, Parker’s especially crystalline -- utilize unique, lingering harmonies that in lesser hands (or, through lesser windpipes) could be disastrously dull. Well, some will find Low disastrously dull no matter what, but I’ve always been mesmerized by them. Their best songs, with their meditative, repetitive qualities, have the strength of spirituals. Long Division is consistently stunning, but maybe never more than on the second track, “Below & Above.” Here’s the band performing it live at New York’s Knitting Factory in 1996:



Blogger Dezmond said...

Alright, this is what I'm talkin' about.

That Dylan record was the only Dylan to appear on my list. Obviously my favorite of his as well. We discussed this issue before, but these lists can be misleading in a sense. I'm a huge Dylan fan, have tons of his material, but you might not be able to tell from my list. For me, Dylan is more of a song by song guy vs. great albums from start to finish. I know ANCIANT would disagree.

Same deal with Van Morrison. I'm a bigger Van fan than I am of Dylan, yet I only had one of his on my list as well. INTO THE MUSIC is fantastic.

I like to give you a hard time about your REM allegiance, but they are great. And almost everything from that time period is solid.

Nice pick on the Gin Blossoms. I agree with your assessment. Nothing groundbreaking, just solid pop hooks.

On the Beatles. Interesting. Even staying within that period, you go with HELP! over A HARD DAY'S NIGHT?? (Maybe AHDN is coming later). I think HELP! is the much weaker cousin of AHDN.

I need to investigate Smith more. I keep putting it off. I know ANCIANT gave me a Smith disc a few years ago.

Sam Cooke! You know on my list I restrict my picks to rock and pop, so soul, R&B, blues, etc. are not eligible. But if they were, you'd damn sure see some Sam Cooke there. And Otis. And Howlin' Wolf. And Muddy Waters. And Robert Cray. And SRV. see why I had to narrow my list to just pop and rock. I agree with your assessment. Sam Cooke may be the greatest soul singer ever.

Love the Prince. I always liked "Take Me With U."

Haven't paid much attention to Low or Carson (I think you've tried to get me into Low before. I need to give it another shot.) You do have a weakness for ethereal female singers.

9:46 AM  
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On behalf of Exile Productions and Exile Publishing, many thanks for plugging Van Morrison and, for your readers’ info, up-to-the-minute news on Van’s latest album - Keep It Simple - and 2008 shows is, of course, available on and and, for a limited period, you can still see Van's exclusive BBC sessions at . We’re also pleased to announce that an increasing archive of exclusive film footage of Van Morrison performances has now been made available for fans on Exile’s official YouTube channel at .

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6:52 AM  

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