After seeing Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” concert last week at the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, it got me to thinking about the best albums ever. Many consider the Beach Boys Pet Sounds to be the Greatest Album ever and as the Eurythmics said, “Who am I to disagree?”
When I decided to make my own list, however, it quickly became apparent that it would be easier to just name the Greatest Recording artists and not try to rank all their individual albums. For example, there are probably 10 Dylan albums that could arguably make my Top 40 albums, but figuring all that out would be too much work! So my list is more a hybrid, the Best Albums of the Best Recording artists ranked against each other.
I don’t claim to be intimately familiar with all the albums issued by all my Top 40 artists, so I just went with the album that had the most meaning to me. In many cases, for sentimental reasons, I went with the first album that I heard from that artist or group, although in some other cases, it took a while for the artists to reach their recording peak and sadly some careers were interrupted prematurely by death, mental illness or substance abuse and we will never know what they might have achieved.
As befits a Baby Boomer, the vast majority of my picks come from the 1960s (19) and 70s (11). I also picked 4 from the 1950s and one (Fats Waller) from before the 1950s. My interest dwindled as the decades passed with only 2 albums each from the 80s and 90s and just one in the new Millennium. There may be great new music being made today but I don ‘t follow it and prefer to stay on Memory Lane with my Golden Oldies!
As for formats, I have almost half my picks in the Rock n’ Roll category, 12 Blues, R/B & Rap, 5 Country (mostly of the Outlaw variety), two jazz and one calypso (The inimitable Van Dyke Parks!) Some artists are hard to categorize because formats are not strictly racial. For example, I put Tina Turner and Jimi Hendrix in Rock n Roll and Eminem in Rap. Captain Beefheart who straddles at least three known categories (Rock, Blues & Jazz) and a few more that have not yet been identified, truly belongs in a category of his own!
Speaking of race, which sadly we must still do in America, 17 of my picks are black artists (if you count Michael Jackson!) At 42.5% of the total, that almost triples their percentage of population in the country, so I have to conclude that they are blessed with an excess of musical talent! Geographically, most of my picks are American, with the British Invasion capturing 6 spots. If you exclude those 6, the Black artists represent half of the American artists! (I am counting The Band as American because of Levon Helm along with Joni Mitchell although I know they both had their origins in Canada.)
Of course, such a venture is doomed to be totally subjective. Your mileage may vary, but if the idiots at Rolling Stone Magazine can do it, why can’t I? So, for what its worth, here are my Top 40 artists and my favorite album for each ranked by the strength of that album:
1. Brian Wilson & The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (1966) For those who still think the Beach Boys were just about surfing music, please check out the documentary The Wrecking Crew and see what those legendary session musicians had to say about the genius of Brian Wilson! You can also find audio recordings of the Pet Sounds sessions on YouTube if you search for Behind the Sound and hear that Brian Wilson was very much in charge of creating these remarkable sounds. In terms of pure musical beauty, Brian is the closest thing to Bach that we have seen in our lifetime. Other great Beach Boy albums include Wild Honey and Smile, but I also enjoy a lot of Brian’s later (post-mental illness work) especially his collaboration with Van Dyke Parks on Orange Crate Art. (1995)
2. Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (1971). When you talk about theme albums this is the best. Each song blends seamlessly into the next to create a hymn to the beauty of life in our troubled world.Too bad that Marvin was taken from us so soon! His follow-up albums Trouble Man and Let’s get it on were also great, but don’t forget his early Motown work including his beautiful duets with Mary Wells, Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross.
3. Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica (1969) What can I say about the Captain that has not already been said? Either you love him (like me!) or you hate him. I actually would have put this double album at #1 but then everybody would think I was crazy and stop reading. Half of you probably just did! Other great work from the Captain includes the first (almost normal) album Safe as Milk, Lick my decals off and probably the most accessible, Clear Spot.
4. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (1975) I consider Bob Dylan the Greatest Writer of the English language since Shakespeare and believe that, in the fullness of time, he will have almost as great an influence. I could have picked from at least a half dozen albums as his best, but Blood is perhaps the most deeply personal in his famously confessional style, having been written during the break-up of his marriage. Other greats include The Freewheelin’ Dylan, Bringing it all back home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline, etc. I have also enjoyed most of his later albums (before he veered into his recent Sinatra fetish) especially Time out of Mind, Love & Theft, Modern Times and Together through life.
5. The Beatles, Revolver (1966) I know, I know. . . Sgt. Pepper’s is traditionally considered the Beatles Masterpiece, but I prefer the tight sounds of Revolver when the band was really cooking together to the somewhat overproduced Sgt. Peppers. Again, any top-40 album list would have multiple entries from the Beatles including Yesterday & Today and Rubber Soul but I also treasure John Lennon’s post-Beatles solo work including Imagine, Walls & Bridges and his final Double Fantasy.
6. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (1965) You could shuffle any of the Top 6 albums and justify the result. These are all world-shaking revolutionary albums and none more so than A Love Supreme. The man was considered one of the greats of Modern Jazz, but he sure had soul! Another, even more esoteric album, worth checking out is Om.
7. Howling Wolf, Moanin’ in the Moonlight (1959) When you think about the Chicago Electric Blues sound, AKA the”Real Folk Blues,” a lot of names pop up including Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Memphis Slim, along with sidemen Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, but for my money, the King of them all was the Wolf! Chester A. Burnette AKA Howling Wolf recorded in an era where singles were not routinely put on albums. It wasn’t until later in his career that those singles were compiled into albums. I choose this album because it contains the song “Evil” my favorite Wolf song that features a classic growling vocal!
8. The Kinks, Arthur (1969) Arthur, subtitled, “Or The Rise & Fall of the British Empire” is one of the many theme albums that the Kinks produced in the late 60s and early 70s. Other greats in that vein include the Village Green Preservation Society and Lola vs. the Powerman, From the moment they broke onto the music scene in 1964 with the 3-chord masterpiece “You really got me,” through their many manifestations, The Kinks have never recorded a bad song! They never got their full due as leaders of the British Invasion of America possibly because they were banned from touring here for 3 years in the 1960s for violating music union rules. Our loss! I’ve always regretted that for some reason I didn’t attend the concert when they played at the college in Geneseo in the mid-1970s! God save the Kinks!
9. The Grateful Dead, American Beauty (1970) I saw the Grateful Dead live probably more than any other group. No, I was not a Deadhead, following the group around the country! I saw them frequently when I lived in San Francisco in the Summer of ’69, before they blew up into a stadium-filling touring act. The weeknight shows at the Family Dog at the Beach would be sparsely filled with a couple hundred people and the Dead jammed the night away. For that reason, I probably still like their first self-titled album issued in 1967 the best, but it is hard to deny that they reached their peak as recording artists in the two albums released in 1970, first Workingman’s Dead and then American Beauty. Keep on Truckin’!
10. Joni Mitchell, Hejira (1976) Sorry that it took to #10 to get to the first woman artist , but Joni Mitchell certainly deserves to be in anybody’s Top Ten! She had many great albums before Heijira, including Blue and Court and Spark, however in that album she made a shift toward jazz and added the dreamy fretless bass sound of Jaco Pastorius a collaboration that would continue with two more great albums Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus. My Top 40 albums would have to include many from this great singer-songwriter!
11. Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) Ornette probably deserves a spot in the Top 10, maybe towards the top of it, but I am torn on who to displace! Dizzy Dean said,”It ain’t bragging if you can do it,” and with Ornette’s boastful title of this precocious record he blazed the path for what he called free jazz, a sound that would come to dominate the genre for the the next 50 years! Another great album from the same year is Tomorrow is the Question!
12. Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced (1967) I don’t think there is any argument that Jimi was the greatest electric guitarist of them all! Some may of played with more technical proficiency, but nobody could coax the other-worldly sounds out of an amplifier like Jimi! (See “Third Stone from the Sun” on this album.) Other great albums in his tragically short career include Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland. So to you I will put an end and you will never hear surf music again! I did see Jimi live at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia in 1968 and I swear to God he did play the guitar with his teeth!
13. Merle Haggard, Okie from Muskogee (1969) With this selection, we have the first appearance of a country artist, a true outlaw who went to prison in his youth and wrote about it in his classic Mama Tried and other songs. He came to mainstream attention with the title song of this live album, an ode to his conservative Midwest cultural values. He held up Muskogee as a place “Where the kids don’t smoke marijuana and …. and don’t wear their hair all long and shaggy like the hippies out in San Francisco do!” Ironically, Merl later became a hero of the counter culture and near the end of his career recorded a celebration of marijuana with Willie Nelson called, “It’s all going to pot!” He also wrote some deeply patriotic songs decrying the loss of the America he once knew, such as “Are the good times really over?”
14. Waylon Jennings, Just to satisfy you (1969) Since we’ve gone country, we can’t go much further without mentioning Waylon who pretty much invented the Outlaw Country format. I love all his later music, but I was first introduced to his deep baritone voice listening to his early cover versions of classic country songs like on this album. Once you heard Waylon’s version, the originals always seem to pale in comparison! The comedian Dave Berry once made the case that Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park was the worst song ever written. He had obviously never heard Waylon’s soulful version that could make a grown man cry!
15. The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet (1968) It would be impossible to leave out the group that had such a huge impact on my youth. The song “Satisfaction” dominated the Top 40 airwaves in the Summer of ’65 when I was 14. When my garage band, The Crimson Floogle, got underway a few years later we probably did at least a half dozen Stones songs! Beggar and the follow-up album Let it bleed finds the Stones at the top of their game, with songs like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fightin’ Man” and “Gimme Shelter.”
16. Billie Holiday, Lady in Satin (1958) This is probably the saddest record you will ever hear, except for possibly the Lonely World of Curl Putman. (According to the album notes for that country album, “If you ain’t crying, you ain’t listening!”) And it would be hard not to cry at the plaintive world-weary voice of Billie on this album, the last released during her lifetime. (She died in July of 1959). Some think the album is exploitative, taking advantage of a worn-out Superstar near the end of a brilliant career, who’s voice had lost much of its power due to years of drug and alcohol abuse. And yet, with the lush orchestral arrangements behind her, there is something hauntingly beautiful about her voice and her steely determination to sing those old love songs one more time!
17. The Who, The Who Sells Out (1967) I would pick this album for the cover art alone! The images of singer Roger Daltry soaking in a tub of Heinz Baked Beans and guitarist Phil Townsend with a giant stick of Odorone deodorant under his arm are instant classics! Getting down to the music, the group’s 3rd studio album also contains two of their all time great songs, “I can see for miles” and “Mary Anne with the shaky hands.” What she does to a man with those shaky hands! Of course, the band had many great songs and albums in a long career, but it is hard to beat their very first album My Generation with the stuttering vocal of the high energy title song.
18. The Band, Music from Big Pink (1968) The Band may have had better albums. (The second album simply titled The Band, Stagefright and Northern Lights-Southern Cross come to mind) but nothing had the impact of this first album in which the previously little-known back-up group for Bob Dylan exploded as a major force in the music world. For having great harmony and variety of vocalists, you would have to put them up there with the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Rare company indeed!
19. Aretha Franklin, Aretha’s Gold (1969) Speaking of voices, nobody ever belted out a song quite asa grandly as the Queen of Soul! This early compilation of her Greatest Hits is a vocal tour-de-force. Watch the documentary about the recording studio at Muscle Shoals, Alabama to find how Aretha found her groove!
20. Fats Waller, Anything by (1920s- 1943) Again, Fats recorded in an era before albums so all we have now are compilations of great hits, but boy did he knock out the hits! “Ain’t misbehaving'” and “Honeysuckle Rose” are a couple of his most famous but dive deep into his songbook and you won’t find a bad one! Some of my personal favorites include “Louisiana Fairy Tale”, “Who’s Honey are you?” and his rendition of “I ain’t got nobody!”
21. Van Dyke Parks, Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976) After a long and varied career as a child actor, composer, producer and performer, Van Dyke Parks is still perhaps best known for his collaboration with Brian Wilson on some early Beach Boy classics, including writing the lyrics for “Surfs up,” “Heroes & Villains” and other songs on the troubled Smile album. As Brian Wilson drifted away from reality, Parks left that project and launched a solo career with his first album Song Cycle in 1967. The album’s intricate weaving of classical music, bluegrass, ragtime and show tunes was too complex to be a Rock ‘n Roll hit (even in the anything-goes 60s) but has since become a cult classic. He next emerged 5 years later with Discover America, a collection of calypso music complete with a steel band! This exploration continued with Clang with some of the liveliest and infectiously fun music I have ever heard. Parks was a musician’s musician and at various times refused offers to join The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and even played briefly with Frank Zappa!
22. Stevie Wonder, Talking Book (1972) Little Stevie Wonder exploded on the pop music scene when his first hit “Fingertips,” released in 1963, became a Billboard and R & B #1 hit when he was just 13! When he grew up, he dropped the “Little” from his name and recorded some of the biggest hits ever. I think he really hit his stride with Talking Book, that featured the unbelievably infectious beat of “Superstition.” By this time, Stevie had taken full creative control of the production and was laying down multiple tracks playing most of the instruments himself including the Hohner Clavinet, Moog Bass, harmonica and drums as well as singing! Can you say genius?
23. Tina Turner, Break Every Rule (1986) Anna Mae Bullock started as part of future husband Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm singing and dancing as Little Ann one of three Ikettes. Later as the Ike & Tina Review, they had a string of R & B hits, including “River Deep/ Mountain High” and “Proud Mary.” The marriage and musical association dissolved in the 1970s amid charges of drug abuse and physical violence. By the mid 80s, however, Tina’s post-Ike solo career had clearly elevated herself into the Rock Diva Pantheon. Some would probably pick Private Dancer as her best Rock album, however, I prefer this one for the rollicking and deliciously ironic track “Overnight Sensation.”
24. Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music (1962) It would be hard to overstate how much the modern sounds of not just country, but soul, blues, jazz and Rock n’ Roll were shaped by the unique genius of Ray Charles. He was a true innovator who brought the many different styles of music together to forge Modern American Music.
25. Chuck Berry, Golden Hits (1967) When you talk about the founders of Rock n’ Roll no one casts a larger shadow than Chuck Berry. It was his beat, re-processed by the Boys from the Mersey, that led the British Invasion of America. This album contains all the classic hits from “Memphis” to “Maybellene.” And you can’t really claim to be a rock n’ roll guitarist until you can play the lead from Johnny B. Goode with the guitar behind your head!
26. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Armed Forces (1979) Maybe it’s time to tip our hat to the original Elvis AKA The King. He did not make my list, not for lack of talent, but only because I was too young to catch Elvis fever in the original and by the time the 60s rolled around he was just a fat guy in a polyester jumpsuit playing a parody of himself in dumb musicals. A quick listen to songs like “Burning Love “or “Viva Las Vegas” proves, however, that the boy could rock n’ roll! As for his namesake from across the pond, Declan Patrick MacManus has shown an astounding ability to write the perfect pop song with odd melodies and amazing verbal dexterity. Some of my favorites, not all from this album, include “Every Day I write the book,” “What’s so funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?” and “Oliver’s Army.”
27. Johnny Cash, Live from Folsom Prison (1968) By the time The Man in Black released this album he already had been pumping out country hits for over a decade, however, it was this album that crossed over into the pop charts and made him an International star. Within a few years he had his own network TV show and was singing duets with Bob Dylan! In the mid-1980s he cemented his position as an Outlaw anti-hero by joining with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson to form the Country Supergroup: The Highwaymen. A true American original!
28. Van Morrison, Moondance (1970) Sir George Ivan “Van” Morrison burst onto the music scene as the lead singer of the Northern Irish R & B group Them with their 1964 hit single, the classic garage band song “Gloria.” A few years later he was embarking on a solo career with his Top Ten hit “Brown eyed girl.” He veered into what became known as Celtic Soul with his second album Astral Weeks, a poor selling but critically praised mystical song cycle that appears in many Greatest Album lists, but it was the million-selling Moondance that brought him to the top of the music world. Blessed with one of the best soul voices in music, he continues to churn out beautiful tunes with his latest and 37th studio album Roll with the punches just released last week!
29. Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) Perhaps more than any other, The Burritos’ Gram Parsons goes down in Rock history as the man who merged country music with rock n’ roll. He joined The Byrds in 1968 and was instrumental in crafting the country rock sound of their next album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He took fellow Byrd Chris Hillman with him when they left to form the Flying Burrito Brothers later that year. Guilded Palace was the groups first album and they recorded one more with Gram, Burrito Deluxe, before his drug use and erratic behavior caused his dismissal from the group. Tragically, his heroin addiction killed him in 1973 at the age of 26. “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow, who was one of the first to bring the pedal steel guitar to Rock music, was a key part of the classic Burrito’s sound and later became a very much in demand session musician.
30. Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982) I loved Michael Jackson from his start as the 12 year old lead singer of the Jackson 5 in 1970 through his many odd metamorphoses. I even saw the Jacksons live with Michael at Rich Stadium in Buffalo in August of 1984 on their Victory Tour. Despite all his weirdness, Michael was one of the greatest singing and dancing entertainers in the history of show business. He also rode the wave of the early MTV video craze, spending an unheard of at the time $500,000 on his ghoulish 14 minute video of the title track, which is the most popular music video of all time, currently with over 440 million views on YouTube!
31. Hank Williams, Anything by (1950s) Like Howling Wolf, Hank Williams performed in an era before albums were the thing. Most of his recorded legacy is from singles and live performances. After his untimely death at age 29 in 1953, many of his 35 TopTen Country & Western Singles were compiled into various Greatest Hits Collections. Any of them will do to show the burning genius of the man.
32. Otis Redding, Dock of the Bay (1968) Otis was another of those stars that died just as he was reaching his artistic peak. The title single and this album were both released posthumously after he died in a plane crash at age 26 and became best sellers. Other great Otis tracks include the original version of “Respect,” “Mr. Pitiful” “Try a little tenderness” and many more. A huge talent!
33. Bill Monroe, I’ll meet you in church Sunday morning (1964) I’ve always loved Bluegrass and Bill Monroe is generally considered to have invented the format! He had a recording career of over 50 years so it’s hard to know where to start. I picked this album because it is one I happen to own, but any other would probably be as good.
34. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Anthology (1974) If you are going to invest in an LP, you might as well get this 2-record compilation of 45 of the biggest hits from the first Motown Supergroup, including “Got a job,” “Shop around,” “Tracks of my tears,” “I second that emotion,” “Tears of a clown” and many more! In addition to his duties with the Miracles, Smokey also wrote many great hits for other Motown groups, including “My Girl” for The Temptations, “My Guy” for Mary Wells and “I’ll be doggone” and “Ain’t that peculiar” for Marvin Gaye. He was a one-man hit machine!
35. Randy Newman, Born Again (1979). Randy Newman deserves to be on this list, if only for one hilarious song, “Short People!” Of course he wrote many more great songs and his dark sense of humor was probably misunderstood by many. I always loved this lyric from a song called “The Girls in my life (Part 1)” on this album:
Met a girl at the bakery
She wanted to borrow my car from me
I said, “Take it Baby”
She took it down’To Mexico
Ran over a man named Juan
Since the 1980s, Newman has concentrated mainly on his very successful career as a writer of film scores for which he has received 20 Academy Award nominations.
36. Howard Tate, Get it while you can (1966) Howard Tate has rightly been called the greatest R & B singer who never attained break-out commercial success. I only have this one album of his but it is a doozy! His song “Get it while you can” was famously covered by Janis Joplin. Other favorites included here are “Ain’t nobody home”,” “Stop” and “How come my bulldog don’t bark? (When big Jim comes around)”
37. Al Green, I’m still in love with you (1972) When it comes to soul singers, The Reverend Al Green was one of the best. Steeped in Gospel music, he had a number of monster hits in the early 70s including the title track to this album and his signature song “Let’s stay together.” Other great songs include “Love and Happiness’ and a beautiful rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the good times.” After a girlfriend committed suicide in his home in 1974, Green left popular music and became an ordained minister. In the 1980s he recorded a series of Grammy winning Gospel records.
38. James Taylor, October Road (2002). His 1970 second album Sweet Baby James brought James Taylor to national attention with his most famous songs, “Fire & Rain,” an ode to the suicide of a childhood friend. He then achieved great popularity doing cover versions of Carole King’s “You’ve got a friend,” and Marvin Gaye’s, “How sweet it is to be loved by you.” I chose the later album, October Road, because it showcases his mature songwriting abilities. The song “On the 4th of July” about how he met his 3rd and current wife is one of the sweetest songs ever. Keep singing Sweet Baby James!
39. Eminem, Slim Shady (1997) There are certain moments when you first hear a new musical talent when you are struck dumb by the originality of the sound. I had such an experience when I first heard Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” wafting through the air on the 77 WABC radio signal in the Summer of ’65 and I had the same reaction when I first heard Slim Shady on the car radio while driving my kids to school in 1997. “Who is that guy?” As the world now knows, Marshall Mathers is that most unique of all talents, a white Hip Hop singer! What sets him apart from even the best of black rappers is his amazing verbal dexterity and being able to seemingly spontaneously rhyme almost any word.
40. Smashmouth, Fush Yu Mang (1997) I close this list with a California Ska band who named themselves after a football term. Only in America! I don’t even know what Ska is, but to me, Smashmouth has more of a 1960s retro sound that has the high energy of The Who mixed with the heavy fuzz tone of The Yardbirds. Their first big hit, “Walkin’ on the Sun,” is a savage attack on fads, drug use and consumer culture. Their second album Astro Lounge had a more polished sound, but I prefer the frenzied energy of the first album’s songs such as “Nervous in the Alley” and “Beer Goggles.” I once wrote a column in The Clarion claiming that Smashmouth was the Greatest Rock n’ Roll band in history. Maybe they didn’t quite live up to that hype, but they were really good!
Having arbitrarily stopped this list at 40, it is obvious that there are many great talents that did not make the cut. Not included are many of the heroes of my youthful time in San Francisco including Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Santana, Big Brother and the Holding Co. and Country Joe and the Fish.
Women artists also seem to have been shorted here with only 4 making it on the list. That’s probably because I am a known MCP, but in my defense, if I had a few more spots I would have included Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick , Whitney Houston and Diana Ross and the Supremes. And lets not forget the great ladies of country, including Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Martina McBride,
I also feel that many early jazz and blues pioneers were unfairly left out, but only because I was less likely to have their music in album form. Jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as Blues pioneers Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Bessie Smith and B.B. King are certainly Top 40 talents, but again this is more the “music of my life” than an objective list.
There are other omissions that may surprise you, but I guess you will just have to make your own list. I look forward to reading it. I might learn something!