I'm showing my age ... it took me 17 albums to reach the 80s.
I've chosen Dirty Minds for my Prince album. Others might be better ... Purple Rain, Sign 'o the Times ... but this is when I discovered him, and so here it is. Every song is at least good, some are great, "When You Were Mine" is a classic. As great as this album is, Prince's talents were so diverse that Dirty Mind only begins to suggest future directions. And, oh yeah, there's a lot of sex on this album. As Christgau said, "Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home."
Favorites lists are by definition personal. Many of the albums I've chosen made room for me to climb inside, which led to a lifetime of connections. London Calling worked the opposite way: it climbed inside of me. I always had an odd relationship to punk ... steelworker, married with two kids, a fairly mundane life. But it mattered to me, and none of the punk bands mattered as much as The Clash. The ambition behind London Calling was life-affirming, that a genre that was so simple originally could expand so effectively in such a short time. The Ramones were simpler than most, and they mostly just worked at getting better at simplicity. The Clash took on the world. Perhaps no song demonstrated this better than "The Right Profile", "about" Montgomery Clift. Some songs spoke to my soul as an unhappy factory worker ... "Clampdown", obviously, and "Death or Glory".
There are many interpretations of the line "London is drowning, and I live by the river". To me, it signified the ways living by the river meant we were always in danger of drowning, but when the whole city is drowning, well, welcome to our world. It reminds me of "River's Gonna Rise" by David and David.
When I posted a video of a Rolling Stones song earlier in this series, I said there was someone in the video who would turn up later on my list. Phil Dellio correctly guessed Marianne Faithfull. Hers is one of the great comeback stories in rock and roll. So good, in fact, that she had more than one comeback, I guess. Anyway, Faithfull was inextricably linked to the Stones, so there was some irony when Broken English came out a year after Some Girls. Some Girls was the last great Stones album. They never again produced anything as good as ... well, as Broken English. The title track was classic, "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan" fit right into Thelma and Louise, her "Working Class Hero" was definitive, and "Why'd Ya Do It" ... well ...
I'm up to 1975 now, which means punk is beginning to rear its head. Patti Smith is not only the first punk artist on my list, she was the first punk artist we saw live, in 1976. (It occurs to me that we saw all of the last 8 artists on the list in concert, at least once and often more than once. The joys of being an adult with a coupla bucks in your pocket.) More than half of the remaining albums are punk, or rooted in punk. This emphasis (some would say, over-emphasis) on punk means a couple of powerful genres won't make my list. Disco never struck me as an album-oriented art, so that's not a big loss (if you need some disco for the soundtrack, play "Don't Leave Me This Way" by Thelma Houston). And hip-hop disappears under the punk onslaught (the last two hip-hop albums I cut were It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Paul's Boutique). I've made it this far without saying anything about why Horses matters so much to me. Perhaps the accompanying video, which features a couple of songs from Horses being performed 40 years down the road, helps explain it.
Eric Clapton's work with Cream solidified his reputation. His long career has entrenched his work in the rock history books. A man who plays guitar as good as Clapton is always going to have tracks here or there that amaze. But I'd say the title of his 1989 album describes much of his career: Journeyman. (Christgau wrote, "What did you expect him to call it--Hack?") Which leaves Layla. The Dominos blend seamlessly with Derek, Duane Allman gives the sideman performance of all time, and Clapton's pain leads to an anguished work of art that never got old. One of only two non-compilation "double albums" on my list ... it makes great use of the extra space.
How appropriate the I finally move beyond the 60s with the album that did what it could to end the 60s. This album was part of a two-pronged attack ... the major part, to be sure, but Jann Wenner's interview with John Lennon, which ran in two issues of Rolling Stone, was amazing at the time, with Lennon pulling some of the same tricks he did on the album, basically trashing everyone but himself and Yoko. It's ferocious on the page, although if you hear the audio, he sounds much nicer, somehow. For me, there are the post-Beatles solo albums, a few good, mostly not, and there is Plastic Ono Band, which dominates them all to this day.
It isn't a question of whether The Velvet Underground would be on this list. It's just a matter of choosing an album, and more than usual, my selection changes on a regular basis. The Velvet Underground and Nico introduced them ... White Light/White Heat has "I Heard Her Call Me Name" ... Loaded has many classics but is also missing many of the key members. Then there's the posthumous stuff, like 1969 Live, which has always been a favorite of mine. But I'm going with the self-titled third album, because I like the ways it defies the image of the band as the noisemakers who made "Sister Ray". John Cale is sorely missed, and perhaps that's the reason why no other VU album shows their quieter side with such beauty. "Pale Blue Eyes" is my pick to click, but there are so many others ... although I admit I don't care if I ever hear "The Murder Mystery" ever again. And it closes with one of Mo Tucker's rare, lovely vocals.
This choice appears because of a single fact: I believe the greatest night in the history of rock and roll music took place on June 27, 1968. That's when Elvis Presley recorded two sets of music on a small stage, with a few of his old music buddies and a very small audience. Parts of these two shows ended up in a televised Xmas special in early December, along with other songs. I could choose the original LP from that show (called, among other things, NBC-TV Special). I could choose a bootleg I treasured for many years, The Burbank Sessions, Vol. 1, which included both small-stage concerts. But eventually, RCA figured out another way to make money, which resulted in a DVD box set, and another CD package called The Complete '68 Comeback Special, which again included all of the material from the two sit-down concerts. So, for the purposes of this list, I'm going with that big package.
OK, so there is a lie in the above sentence. I can talk about how all 20 of these albums are favorites of mine, I can talk about how I could have easily added another 20, I can say that I've chosen chronology because I can't really rank the 20 albums. But the truth is, if this was a list of one, if this was me telling you my favorite album, that wouldn't be a difficult decision.
Last month, a book by Ryan Walsh was released, Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968. It's a fascinating book that places Astral Weeks in a context you might not have considered before: Boston in 1968. The thing is, I learned more about Boston than I did about Astral Weeks. Which may partly explain why even the best books about the album necessarily work from the outside. Because Astral Weeks is pretty inscrutable, and much as I've tried, I've never been able to clearly define its greatness. Only one writer I've read has pulled this off: Lester Bangs, in the book Stranded.
Here is Lester, writing about the above clip:
After going through all the verses, he drives the song, the band, and himself to a finish which has since become one of his trademarks and one of the all-time classic rock 'n' roll set-closers. With consummate dynamics that allow him to snap from indescribably eccentric throwaway phrasing to sheer passion in the very next breath he brings the music surging up through crescendo after crescendo, stopping and starting and stopping and starting the song again and again, imposing long maniacal silences like giant question marks between the stops and starts and ruling the room through sheer tension, building to a shout of "It's too late to stop now!," and just when you think it's all going to surge over the top, he cuts it off stone cold dead, the hollow of a murdered explosion, throws the microphone down and stalks off the stage. It is truly one of the most perverse things I have ever seen a performer do in my life. And, of course, it's sensational: our guts are knotted up, we're crazed and clawing for more, but we damn well know we've seen and felt something.