There’s been this thing floating around the last week or so where people list their personal favorite or most influential 10, 15, 20 albums. Here (more or less) is my attempt at compiling that list, and some commentary on each. These aren’t in any order, because I would probably have an easier time choosing my favorite child (if I had any) than my favorite album.
1. Bob Dylan The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration
Okay, I think I’ve already lied. This is my favorite album. In most list-making circumstances, picking this would be cheating, though. It’s sort of a compilation. It has nearly every music legend prior to 1993 on it. My Back Pages alone has The Traveling Wilburys plus Eric Clapton, Roger McGuinn and Neil Young. In the last few years my guitar playing skills have started to slide (not enough practice), but I still think I could nail every note of Clapton and Young’s solos in that song. When this album came out I was just the right age to start thinking I really “got” Bob Dylan, and listening to the performances from this concert I could tell that his music meant something incredibly special to a lot of other people, too. I had always appreciated cover songs, but this album turned that appreciation into a fascination. You can learn a lot about someone by seeing how they interpret someone else’s art. Clapton’s take on Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright turns a bittersweet sentimental ballad into heartachingly forceful electric blues. I wish I could have seen a Johnny Winter concert back when he was as sharp as he was when he covered Highway 61 Revisited here. Richie Havens will leave your jaw on the floor with his cover of Just Like A Woman. The Clancy Brothers’ version of When The Ship Comes In may be the best drinking song ever. Lou Freaking Reed. This two disc CD was the best $27.99 I ever spent in my entire life. (Yes, that’s what it cost at Musicland back then.)
I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.
2. U2 – Joshua Tree
Since 1987 this album has been consistently within the top 5 of my “all time desert island favorites” list, and has never wavered. To be honest, it’s never been below #3. I don’t expect it ever will be. Where the Streets Have No Name may be the greatest opening track to ever grace a pop album. With or Without You is … is … There really aren’t words. That’s a song that stands alone in the pantheon of great rock songs. It’s inimitable. You know every band would love to rip off the feel of that song, but can’t. And despite not really being a “concept album” this whole disc flows like it could be. This is one album I refuse to listen to in shuffle play. It goes in sequence.
You take the staircase to the first floor
Turn the key and slowly unlock the door
As a man breathes into a saxophone
And through the walls you hear the city groan
Outside is America
Outside is America
3. U2 – Achtung Baby
My friend Jason and I have had a nearly 15-year-long running debate as to whether Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby is the superior album. I truly believe in my heart that Joshua Tree is #1. I think part of it is that to me, Joshua Tree seems more like The Edge’s album, whereas Achtung Baby is much more Bono. (And I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship with The Edge for some reason.) Joshua Tree is more sparse, intentional and layered. Achtung Baby is more dynamic, diverse and dramatic. It’s reflected even in the album covers. Joshua Tree is a black and white photo of the band in the nearly alien landscape of the Mojave desert and framed with a field of black, while Achtung Baby is, well, all over the fucking place. Each of these two albums has their place. But Joshua Tree is more my style. With all that said, one of my all time greatest musical regrets is that I wasn’t able to see U2 on the Zoo TV tour. I’ve seen them on EVERY tour since, but don’t think that any of those experiences will trump what this tour has been built up to be in my mind.
Nothin much to say I guess
Just the same as all the rest
Been trying to throw your arms around the world
A woman needs a man
Like a fish needs a bicycle
When you’re trying to throw your arms around the world
4. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits
Again, I think it’s usually considered cheating when you put a greatest hits compilation on any sort of “top anything” list. (Not that I won’t do it a couple more times in this one.) But this album holds a special place in my heart. There was quite a long period in high school where this disc never came out of the CD player. Nearly every one of my shitty garage bands had (at least) one of the songs from this album as a set list mainstay. I think my Telecaster was MADE to play Mary Jane’s Last Dance. If I’m having a bad day I’ll lock myself in my studio and play American Girl until my fingers give out. Apparently, the version of this album that I have is out-of-print now. The album art on mine had a picture of the band in the studio lighting what we can only assume are cigarettes, and it had a cover of Thunderclap Newman’s Something In The Air instead of the Stevie Nicks collaboration.
Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes
Even the losers keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes
5. Led Zeppelin IV aka Zoso aka Runes aka untitled aka Man With Sticks
I first heard this album at Greg Stone’s house. I think his dad owned like seven copies of it. (And at least two copies of Sticky Fingers with the working zipper!) Despite the fact that I REFUSED to learn Stairway because I thought it was cliche to do so (and not because of the joke in Wayne’s World), that didn’t stop me from attempting to learn every other song on the album. And I remember THE DAY that I got my first computer with a sound card Greg and I stayed up all night ripping Stairway onto the hard drive in 20 second chunks, reversing them and listening for secret messages. After all of that effort I think that if Led Zepp WAS trying to hide satanic verses in the song they did a really shitty job of it. But played FORWARD this album is still totally epic.
Why don’t you take a good look at yourself and describe what you see,
and baby, baby, baby, do you like it?
There you sit, sitting spare like a book on a shelf rustin’,
ah, not trying to fight it.
You really don’t care if they’re comin’
I know that it’s all a state of mind.
6. Queen – A Kind of Magic
When my friend John turned 14 he took the whole gang to see Wayne’s World for his birthday. When it got to the Bohemian Rhapsody scene I busted out laughing the second I saw the tape. You see, I was one of the few nerdy teens I knew who was already well-versed in the greatness that was Queen. I first picked them up many years prior thanks to what was my favorite movie when I was 10: Iron Eagle. (Trust me, that movie doesn’t hold up today.) That movie led to my love of this album (and all things Queen) — despite the fact that A Kind of Magic is essentially the soundtrack for the movie Highlander.
Queen is an odd case. This band is simultaneously universally acclaimed and severely underrated. No band short of the Beatles or the Stones has had as much influence on the music you hear today, but they rarely get as much credit for their influence, which was far-reaching both musically and technologically. Metal to power pop to country, you name a genre — Queen’s left their mark.
Gimme one light
Gimme one hope
One man one man
One bar one night
One day hey hey
Just gimme gimme gimme gimme
7. Ben Folds Five – Ben Folds Five
In the summer of 1995 Greg Stone and I were at a music store that had “listening stations” amongst the racks of CDs. I was standing somewhere in the C’s and Greg motioned me over to the listening station a few feet to my left, handed me the gigantic, crappy, oil-smudged KOSS headphones and said, “You need to hear this.”
That moment changed my life.
That album was so remarkably different from anything else I had ever heard up to that point in my life. There we were in the days of grunge — wearing flannel in August — and this melody-driven piano music hits me from out of nowhere. I felt something in my gut that I hadn’t felt since listening to Queen 5 years before, or The Beach Boys a decade earlier. Melody! Harmony! Lyrics that weren’t a bunch of random nonsense! MUSIC!
This album is #1 on my “all time desert island top 5” list, and always will be.
I feel like a quote out of context, withholding the rest
So I can be for you what you want to see
I got the gestures and sounds, got the timing down
It’s uncanny, yeah, you’d think it was me
Do you think I should take a class
To lose my southern accent?
Did I make me up
Or make the face ’til it stuck?
I do the best imitation of myself.
CLAPTON IS GOD.
Also, this is the album (yes, another Greatest Hits compilation) that is most responsible for me picking up the guitar. In the 8th or 9th grade Greg and I started trying to play music ourselves. He got a frankenguitar that was mostly a Fender Squier Bullet. (Yes, that spelling is correct.) I picked up a cheap Ibanez bass soon thereafter. A funny thing happened when we got together, though. We each found it more fun to play the other’s instrument. (The grass is always greener, right?) And this Clapton album got me completely hooked on guitar. I got it so I could try to figure out how to play Badge. (Still one of the best bass songs around.) Then I figured out how to play a crude version of the guitar part to Layla on my bass and soon tried to convert it over to its proper instrument. Sunshine of Your Love was next. Then Crossroads. Then White Room. It was all downhill from there.
Clapton was a gateway drug. He introduced me to Buddy Guy, JJ Cale, Freddie King, Albert King, every other bluesman named King except B.B. (my uncle gets credit for that one), Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Zappa … the list could go on and on.
Now I know the secret; there is nothing that I lack.
If I give my love to you, you’ll surely give it back.
Let it rain, let it rain,
Let your love rain down on me.
9. Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland
Like I said, Clapton was a gateway drug. And Clapton naturally led to Jimi. And to a 14 year old guitar player Jimi is a mind-expanding acid trip and a speedball rocket trip to the moon at the same time. And here’s where the cover song fascination comes back in, as well. I think if you’re from my generation you had probably heard All Along the Watchtower umpteen billion times before some Baby Boomer set you straight and told you that it was a cover of a Bob Dylan song. And that’s perfectly understandable. It’s like learning that diamonds and coal are the same element. Or that Soylent Green is people. If you didn’t have reason to know, why would you?
Add to that Crosstown Traffic, Voodoo Child and Gypsy Eyes and you have a recipe for magic.
I was recently given an original vinyl of this album (the one with the nekkid ladies on it) and it is one of my most cherished possessions.
I’m not the only soul who’s accused of hit and run
Tire tracks all across your back
I can see you had your fun
But darlin’ can’t you see?
My signals turn from green to red
And with you I can see a traffic jam straight up ahead
10. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Couldn’t Stand the Weather
Jimi naturally leads to Stevie. (Especially if you grew up in Dallas.) Of all his albums, this one is my favorite. And it’s no coincidence that it includes a cover of Voodoo Child (Slight Return). But it’s totally different thing than Jimi’s cover of Dylan. Jimi transformed All Along the Watchtower into something completely different. What Stevie did with Voodoo Child was take the original (a perfect 10 by all accounts) and kick it up a notch (to a Nigel Tufnel approved 11). It’s so incredibly faithful to the original, yet takes each note and lovingly pushes it just a bit further. I know some purists get upset with this kind of assertion, but I think SRV’s version is better. With that said, my favorite SRV song is Couldn’t Stand the Weather. I just love the riffs in that sucker.
I really meant I was sorry
For ever causing you pain
You showed your appreciation
By walking out anyway
And that’s a cold shot, baby
Yeah that’s a drag