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.
Stepping outside of chronology (which explains the first sentence in the next paragraph), because we're going to see Pink tomorrow night.
This was more fun than I expected. And as I choose my 20th, I'm uncertain, for this is an artist who has never made a bad album, but also never made a great one. There are usually several hits, along with songs that are forgotten when a new album and tour arrives. For this reason, I am very tempted to choose her Greatest Hits package, which eliminates much of the lesser material (and even adds two tracks that aren't just filler but actually good). But she has made two more albums since then, with plenty of songs I'd hate to leave out here. So do I go with the Hits, or do I let the "real" albums represent her. There is also the "problem" that she is such a dynamic live performer that with many of her songs, I'm attached to the live versions rather than the ones on the albums.
Well, I guess I'll go with the hits, with apologies to M!ssundaztood and Funhouse and The Truth About Love, and "Blow Me" and "Beautiful Trauma". And I'll tip my hat to the kind of optimistic title we see so often, but which rarely turns out to be true. For these were her Greatest Hits ... So Far.
I just finished reading Keith Richards' autobiography, and there are some good passages where he describes how particular songs and albums were created. Too often, stories about The Stones are so filled with sex and drugs that you can't figure out how or when the rock and roll was made. His book certainly has lots of drugs (and less sex than you'd think), but when he stops to detail the making of music, the book takes a step up. I could pick many albums here ... Exile on Main Street is probably the consensus choice, and I spent a lot of time in my youth listening to Aftermath and Between the Buttons. But Beggars Banquet is probably the one I've liked best over the years. As I have often said, it still amazes me that there was a time when "Sympathy for the Devil" felt real. I've chosen the mostly-forgotten "clean" album cover, since that's what I had back in the day.
I'll add a bit from the comment section for this one. I wrote:
What interests me about the Rock and Roll Circus version of this song, which is just Mick and Keith's live vocals stuck on top of the album's music, is when Mick changes the words to include himself with the "faceless crowd". There's irony in the original ... Mick Jagger praising the common foot soldier? I'm reminded of Christgau's words about A Bigger Bang: Mick "once again proves capable of relating on what we humans pathetically call a human scale. Not that I credit his 'vulnerability,' but I'm touched that he cares enough to lie about it."
The second time I've cheated with a greatest hits package, although this might be the last time. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You would be the top "real" album, and I've always loved Live at Fillmore West. But this has the early greatest hits of the best woman singer in the history of popular music in my lifetime.
Personally, this album reminds me of the Summer of Love more than any other album. This is probably because during that Summer, my 14-year-old self spent every waking hour making out with my girlfriend while listening to Surrealistic Pillow. For this reason, I liked the two Marty Balin songs at the end of Side One more than I do now.
It's interesting to place my own life in the context of this album ... I was 12 years old when it was released. I felt "Like a Rolling Stone" was the new national anthem, and despite the put-down tone that was so common in Dylan's lyrics, I heard "How does it feel?" as including all of us as rolling stones. In concert, I never thought as we sang along that we were sneering at others, I thought we were singing about ourselves.
I've also never outgrown my love of "Desolation Row".
The Beatles covered enough artistic ground in their career that choosing a favorite album also serves as an indication of your favorite period in their history. You're also dealing with the pre-Sgt. Peppers differences between UK and US releases. (This is especially noteworthy in the case of many people's fave Beatles album, Revolver ... the US version simply removes three songs sung by John, which was a really bad idea.) My favorite signifies my preference for the earlier work by the group over the more polished material that came later, which I suppose makes me a rockist. There are no bad tracks on my fave Beatles album ... it's probably not a coincidence that A Hard Day's Night (UK) has no covers, or, for that matter, nothing but songs written by Lennon-McCartney.