Sunday, September 18, 2005

Let's Get Started

Music has always held a special place in my heart. As a kid growing up in the '60s and '70s, I was exposed to a vast array of genres, from R&B and soul, to rock, to country, to folk, all the way to bubble gum. It mattered not who or what I was listening to. If it was good, I listened to it. My radio was my friend and it went everywhere with me. Artists like Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, the Stones, the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, Al Green, the Doors, the Beatles, the Stylistics all made their way to my eardrums on a daily basis. And later, as I grew up, I developed a fondness for singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Van Morrision, John Prine, Stevie Wonder and Neil Young. Like many teenagers I went through my rock faze. Groups like Jethro Tull, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Kansas and Boston were among the favs. Today only the Dead and the Who remain on that list; the others dropping mercifully into oblivion.

Since I was born in 1961 I had the rather unique position of being too young to get into the rock scene that was happening in the late '60s. Instead I went the top 40 route, so I was completely comfortable listening to either Tommy James or the Archies, being all of eight when the latter hit the charts with Sugar, Sugar. Today, it's still a guilty pleasure of mine.

Because of my age I was spared much of the stigmatizing thought processes that afflicted kids only a few years my senior. I was too young to know what was cool and what wasn't. As such, I had but one rule when it came to music: if it had a hole in it, it made its way to my turntable.

The late '70s brought a mix of disco, punk, funk and, yes, album-oriented rock. Again the same rules applied. Every body had an equal chance. Artists like Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, the Trammps, Parliament, the Ramones, Elvis Costello, Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac were wearing out my speakers. And still I craved more. I was a music junkie by the time I was 18.

The '80s saw the wheels come off the car so to speak. It was for me what some have said about the '60s. Ska, independents (Indies for short), Rap, New Wave, alt-country. I could hardly contain myself. What Nixon had done for and to the '60s, Reagan was doing for and to the '80s. In many ways it would be the last bastion of democracy (if there ever was such a thing) in popular music.

Critics like Robert Christgau shaped my opinions of most of the contemporary music I was listening to and devouring. By the mid-'80s I was buying about a hundred plus albums a year. By decade's end I would amass over a thousand LPs.

Clearly a grading system of some sort was needed to catalogue and separate the truly great albums in my collection from the merely good ones. Reading Christgau gave me a reference point that was consistent and reliable. I found myself, for the most part, agreeing with his evaluations, and on those rare occasions when I did disagree I could at least know why and be at peace with it.

Throughout the '90s I continued to add to my collection. The compact disc made storing albums far easier, and I found that while the sound quality of vinyl still had virtues over its digital counterpart, playing a CD was far more convenient then having to flip over a record.

So now what? Four decades going on five. Almost 2,000 records and CDs later here I am with a blog on rock-n-roll. Whatever shall I do?

Well for starters I thought I'd give you a look see into my collection; a sort of short best of, if you will. Keep in mind these are my personal favorites, feel free to disagree and comment. After all it's a free country, isn't it.

1. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones 1972). This is simply the finest rock and roll album of all time, a pop masterpiece. Stones fans may prefer Stick Fingers or Beggar's Banquet, but the secret to this album is how it catches you off guard. You don't get the usual rock anthems they've been noted for, though Tumblin' Dice is certainly close. It's also one of the few albums in my collection that I can enjoy straight through without once thinking of cueing or pausing. A+

2. Miles Davis: A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1971). This isn't so much a jazz record as it is a rock record and you can thank John McLaughlin who for most of this gem outduels Miles. Right Off might be the best side of music ever recorded. Yesternow is mood music for those hip enough to appreciate it. A+

3. Various Artists: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie, 1986). Released the same year as Paul Simon's Graceland, this becomes the roots classic that the genre needed to not only define a decade, but a culture, as well. The rhythms are priceless and timeless. Every one of these songs brings with it a special message that transcends the language barrier that for most of our history kept gems like this from our shores. If you buy just one foreign album, let this be the one. A+

4. Bob Dylan/The Band: The Basement Tapes (Columbia, 1975). Recorded in 1967 at Big Pink in Saugerties, New York, while Dylan was recovering from a broken leg, this former bootleg-only desert island disc ends up defining both careers. It's sharp, politically cutting, and neither have sounded this good, which in light of what both managed to accomplish is quite a statement. "Billion Dollar Bash" is my favorite song here, though any of them could head of mutual best of. A+

5. The Clash: London Calling (Epic, 1980). More than any other album, this reluctant masterpiece ends up defining the whole punk movement. By this point their success had far exceeded their grasp, and soon after their flame burnt out. Compare it to Never Mind the Bollocks and weep. The best double album since Exile on Main Street and just as vital in its own way. A+

6. Al Green: Call Me (Hi, 1973). Almost lost in the whirlwind of bubble gum pop that had come to define top-40 radio in the early '70s, Green was a legend among his peers. While not in the same class as Wonder, he nevertheless took the pop formula to a new height, and ends up in the process out doing his contemporaries like Marvin Gaye and Wilson Pickett. Listen to Here I Am (Come and Take Me) and compare it to Let's Get It On. Top-40 never had it so good! A+

7. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia, 1984). In which the prodigal son finally stops running and comes home to stay. At 35 he is comfortable in his skin, reassured in his vision of America and not afraid to tell the world about it. Compare this to Born To Run and you can see the evolution. He's tackled every conceivable issue here: friendships - "No Surrender"; relationships - "Bobby Jean"; aging - "Glory Days"; and family - "My Hometown." Even the misunderstood title cut (you should really listen to it, Ronnie) cries out to be taken seriously. He is a popster in the mold of Michael Jackson, but with the spirit of every poet from Dylan on out who came before him. Easily his best effort and among the best of all time! A+

8. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury, 1998). The product of her youth in Louisiana, Williams defies all attempts at cataloguing her style. A little bit country, a little bit soul, a little bit blues, she transcends all three to come up with not just her most mature album to date, but easily the finest of the singer-songwriter variety. Vulnerable and yet intimate, she lets us into a world that lesser artists could never begin to articulate much less master. Secure in her own fame, but never a prisoner of it, she is living proof that there is still good in the world if you take the time to find it. A+

9. Randy Newman: 12 Songs (Reprise, 1970). Newman has always been that weird comedian whose audience never got the punch line. But then satirists have always had that curse. A smart-ass who loved the lime light and whose caustic style would define him throughout his career, he reaches his apex on Old Kentucky Home, in which the young folks roll on the floor, the little woman brother Gene married gets "whupped" each day, and mama gets kicked down the stairs. But he's all right so he don't care. Just keep them hard times away from his door won't you? A+

10. Iris Dement: My Life (Warner Bros., 1994). She loves her parents, has an abiding respect for those who came before her, and believes in God without feeling compelled to preach about it. In a world of product on demand and genre-specific themes, her's is a refreshing step backward into a time when singer-songwriters dared let us into their worlds. She is troubled, but hopeful; confident, but not arrogant; spirited, without being pretentious. You could almost say she suffers from a bit of the old naiveté, but that only says more about us than her. A gem. Inspirational verse from the title track, "My life, it don't count for nothin'". Not damn likely! A+

Not bad for a top ten.

I'll follow with more as time permits.

For now, though, I'm signing off.

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