The Start of a List: 100-96
First rule is the simplest: No jazz or classical. You won’t see Miles Davis, Bill Evans, or Oscar Peterson here. You won’t see Bach, Mozart, or Chopin, either. This is for a reason that I hope is obvious. If it’s not, open your idiom dictionary to “apples and oranges.”
Second rule: Thorough quality was a priority. Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See has three songs that are spellbinding. Tom Waits’ The Heart of Saturday Night includes one of my all-time favorite songs. Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin’ features “Bust a Move,” which I know by heart, backwards and forwards, but the rest of it is . . . the rest of Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin’. To state the obvious, this is an albums list, not a songs list. (“Bust a Move” is nothing compared to some of the songs that would be high enough on a songs list to cause me and my family great embarrassment.)
Third rule: No limit to number of albums per artist. This worked itself out more naturally than I thought it would. Only one artist has more than two -- guess who? -- and even there I reasonably narrowed things down.
Fourth rule: A loose definition of album when it suits me. There’s a soundtrack on the list. I also include a handful of greatest-hits compilations. The reasons for including them are not arbitrary. For starters, they all feature hits I like. Elton John’s hits, for example, are missing four or five of my very favorite songs of his, so it didn’t make the cut. Hot Rocks doesn’t include “Beast of Burden,” which might be my favorite Rolling Stones song.
Fifth and final rule: The only (highly inexact) science in making this list involved combining my love and respect (separate indices) for records. If I were just plotting the love graph, showcasing music in a This Is Your Life kind of way, based on how much pleasure certain records gave me at certain times, Slippery When Wet would be in the top 10. I’m not proud to say that, but there it is. I was 12 years old, living on Long Island; it was part of the program.
And if I were just plotting the respect graph, trying to tease out my personal feelings -- which I think is a masochistic, to say nothing of quixotic thing to do when approaching art -- I imagine Paul Simon, to name one, would be ranked even higher than he is, and that a couple of guilty-ish pleasures would either drop a few slots or plummet away altogether.
So, that’s my long, unnecessary intro, but I had fun writing it. (I really should have gone to law school.) Now, on to the first batch of records:
100. Joni Mitchell -- Blue (1971)
No jazz or classical, but Canadians are allowed. Mitchell was never more consistent than on this record, and it features some of my favorite songs of hers, including “River,” “Carey,” and “Little Green.”
This one might be cheating, because I’m sure there are albums I like more than this one that got left off. But I happened to be in the mood to represent Mitchell on the list, and since #100 felt particularly arbitrary, it’s a good place to get all cheating impulses out of the way. (Weezer’s “blue album” was a contender, but Joni seemed worthier of mention. Wilco’s Summerteeth was a contender, but Wilco already appears in various forms on the list, and it would’ve been a fluke to over-represent them; I like them a lot, but also think they’re overrated. Slobberbone’s Barrel Chested was a contender, but then I would have had a band named Slobberbone on my list. Just kidding, guys in Slobberbone -- much love.)
99. Explosions in the Sky -- All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007)
From the quirky vocals of Joni Mitchell to no vocals at all. This is the only instrumental record on my list. Out of Texas, this band’s profile has been raised by its work on the soundtrack of the movie and TV show “Friday Night Lights." (Proof that being attached to a TV show continually on the verge of cancellation is still exponentially better than not being attached to a TV show.) Its songs tend to start with a foreboding sound -- for good reason, because there’s usually a racket around the corner. Built on guitar work that moves from restrained to exultant and back, the band’s music is meant to sound both humble and epic, and it succeeds wildly. (Bill Simmons once had a funny exchange with a reader about this very fact, and I shared it here.)
This record has only six songs, but “The Birth and Death of the Day” and “It’s Natural to Be Afraid” clock in at 7:50 and 13:27, respectively. It’s a much shorter track, though, that made me choose this one over others by them. “So Long, Lonesome” (3:40) closes the album. It begins with the same shimmering guitar lines that open many of their songs, directionless as wind chimes, but soon a piano shyly emerges. Over the relatively short running time, the piano leads the guitars through different levels of intensity, first slightly more aggressive, then dipping back into something more ethereal, and finally joined by drums in an even more stately version of the band’s usual stately crescendos. In creating an indelible mood with simple means, it’s a perfect example of the band's work.
98. Belly -- King (1995)
I think this is one of the most underrated records of the 1990s. Tanya Donelly was coming off her stint in Throwing Muses, and “alternative rock” was having its “moment,” so Belly’s debut, Star, got more attention when it was “released.” (Sorry, the quotation marks became a thing.) And Star had a handful of very good, very radio-friendly songs. But King is stranger and more mature without becoming inaccessible.
A few of the better songs here -- like “Silverfish” and “Super-connected” -- move from unassuming verses to rousing choruses. And then there’s “The Bees,” the album’s centerpiece, five atmospheric minutes that only manage to eventually rouse into a quiet, martial beat. Given that the song is about personal relationships, not public ones, and given how Donelly lets the words out with more regret than invective, the killer line is: “I tell you stories / that doesn’t mean you know me.”
And it’s not on the record, but “Thief” was a good B-side to a single off King, just proving that the band was doing strong work at the time. (Donelly’s had a spotty solo career since, in my opinion, but check out the song “Every Devil,” a slow-burning stunner.)
97. Johnny Cash -- At Folsom Prison (1968)
This album offers a fine selection of Cash’s songs, spirited performances, and all that. But the most interesting thing about it is that it was recorded at a prison, in front of prisoners. Care to picture any singers doing that today? Yeah. (Rascal Flatts at San Quentin.)
The setting is especially additive for the songs “25 Minutes to Go” and “I Got Stripes.” On “25 Minutes,” Cash counts down to the gallows, the imminent hanging reflected in an increasing, insane giddiness in his voice. "Now here comes the preacher for to save my soul with 13 minutes to go / and he's talkin' 'bout burnin', but I'm so cooold . . . 12 more minutes to go." It’s one of the most memorable performances of any song I’ve ever heard.
Upon the record's release, The Village Voice wrote, "Cash’s voice is as thick and gritty as ever, but filled with the kind of emotionalism you seldom find in rock . . . His songs are simple and sentimental, his message clear . . . The feeling of hopelessness—even amid the cheers and whistles—is overwhelming. You come away drained, as the record fades out to the sound of men booing their warden, and a guard’s gentle, but deadly warning, 'Easy now.' Talk about magical mystery tours."
96. Matthew Sweet -- 100% Fun (1995)
By my count, this 12-song record has three very good songs and four really good songs, and let’s face it, that sounds like a pretty good definition of a #96 favorite record. Sweet traffics in “power pop,” one of those silly but somewhat useful terms that rock fans throw around, and he’s one of the very best in the world at it. Take the song “Wait” (which isn’t on this record, but on a record he oddly released in Japan called Kimi Ga Suki). It’s a two-minute-and-38-second cocoon of ringing guitars and candy-coated harmonies. It’s like the soundtrack inside a giggling baby’s head, if self-doubt and romantic uncertainty made babies giggle.
But back to 100% Fun. If there were a subset of my favorite records labeled something like Records For Sunny, Happy Days When You Still Reserve the Right to Be Suddenly Sad, this would be top 10 on that list. At least.
Labels: 100 Albums