Sunday, December 27, 2009

50 other great albums, in no particular order: part 5

Holy schmikies! Has it been over a month since I last updated this list? I guess I got sidetracked by my Joke of the Day: Holiday Version project, which took up a solid 2 weeks of my time and concentration leading up to Christmas. But now that I'm free to take on other assignments, let's get back to bidness, shall we?

41. Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Remember how I once wrote that John Entwistle is the greatest French horn player in rock 'n' roll history? Well, Joanna Newsom snatched the title of Premier Rock Harp Player with this, her debut album. She may sing like Olive Oyl, but she plays the harp like an angel and can write a mean ditty. Plus, I discovered her totally serendipitously - she was opening for the great High Llamas at a show in Seattle about 5-6 years ago. Almost as good as the time I went to see Bush and wound up with The Toadies ...

42. Red House Painters, Red House Painters. When I set out on my list-making odyssey, one of my stipulations was that I would not include greatest-hits albums. And if I had known that Red House Painters (aka Rollercoaster) wasn't a greatest-hits album, it very well might have cracked my Top 50. So many good songs on here! And even on the songs which aren't quite as good, Mark Kozelek still sounds like a million bucks. Really, one of the unique and great voices in independent music. "New Jersey": certainly one of my all-time favorite songs. "You're an American girl/red-headed, eyes blank/living in a freckle on the face of the world." Damn! Opening lines of songs just don't come better than that. Make sure you check out both the acoustic and electric versions - almost like two whole different songs.

43. The Residents, The King and I. I might not have known another moment of true peace in my life if I hadn't included this, the greatest Elvis cover album of all time. It's chilling, just chilling! Hope you're satisfied, B-Phat ...

44. Vic Chesnutt, Is the Actor Happy? Vic Chesnutt died this Christmas, a victim of suicide at the age of 45. He suffered a spinal-cord injury in a car crash at age 18 and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and wrote songs that could accommodate his physical limitations on the guitar. So is that why I included him on the list? No. This album really is good. He was a hell of a songwriter, and had the voice to match his cynical views. Another good one to check out: Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation, featuring all sorts of big-name artists (even Madonna!) singing Vic's songs.

45. Modest Mouse, This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. There was a time when I could tolerate Isaac Brock's quirky lyrics and singing style; and that time was 1996, back when this album was released. I haven't cared all that much for anything they've done since, though I haven't checked out everything. "Polar Opposites" is probably one of the worst songs to ever get a bunch of raves from reputable music critics. "Tundra/Desert," which is on This is a Long Drive, is undoubtedly MM's best song.

46. Silkworm, Developer. Another one of those random bands, who I had heard something about, then saw one of their CD's at a used-record store, and bought it, and ended up loving it and listening to it a bunch, but never checked out any of their other stuff. What is wrong with me, anyways??? In fact, I'm gonna go to the Madison Public Library website right now and see if they have any good Silkworm. But by all means, check out this album.

47. The Pants, Eat Crow. The Pants are the greatest non-Phish band to ever come out of Burlington VT. Or maybe the greatest ever? I'm just not much of a jam-band guy. Unfortunately, The Pants had already disbanded (ha ha) by the time I took up residence in Burlington. From what I read about them, they were an agreeable bunch of semi-nerdy types who were one break away from hitting the big time. Christ, I don't even know if you can find their music on now! If you can, try downloading the MP3 for "Intruder Alert" - it's an awesome tune.

48. Gary Numan, whatever album he put out that had "Cars" on it. Is there a better song out there than "Cars?" Seriously. It came out - what? In the 1970's? And it still sounds fresh as a daisy. Gary Numan may be the quintessential one-hit wonder, but what a hit! An inspiration to all the one-hit wonders of the world, from Dexy's Midnight Runners to The Outfield to Chumbawumba.

49. Supertramp, Breakfast in America. Are you kidding me? Did I almost leave the Tramp off my Bonus 50 list? I guess this has been a little skewed toward more recent music; but definitely, Supertramp belongs on here. If the only song they had ever released was "The Logical Song," they could have still considered their careers to be a success. But this album has other great tunes as well: "Goodbye Stranger," the crazy klezmer title track, etc etc. A classic!

50. (blank) And here's where we come to the conclusion of my music listing; and in honor of all my readers, I'm leaving this one blank. You can insert whatever you'd like here. Go on, give it a shot! Do you think John Fahey belongs here? He's all yours. Western State Hurricanes? What the hell, go for it. (Just don't try to slip in Modest Mouse, Som, since I broke down and included them up above there.) The Goo Goo Dolls? Hmmm. Eh, all right.
You people deserve this. You stuck with me, even when my month of service on the inpatient hematology ward grievously delayed this final installment, and I won't soon forget your dedication. This one's for you. Cherish it and make it last, because I'm absolutely spent.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

joke of the day #7: holiday version

Q: What did the lamb say as it was about to be prepared for Christmas dinner?

A: "Baaaaaaaaaa humbug"

Monday, November 23, 2009

50 other great albums, in no particular order: part 4

31. Deftones, White Pony. One of my goals when I started this foolhardy enterprise was to make a change in somebody's life. A change for the better. A change with the gift of music. And that goal has overwhelmed one of my other goals, which was to not repeat any bands or artists on my Top Albums list, the better to show the breadth of my musical knowledge. But, you know, these Deftones ... damn! Blogging about Adrenaline earlier compelled me to seek out some of their earlier stuff, and White Pony just about blew me away. And let me once again clarify: I am not a metal guy. I don't have any neck tats. I shower regularly. I cherish Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." I emote. But White Pony will trash all your pre-conceived notions about metal and put a smile on your face, even as your eardrums drip torrents of blood into the gutter past a dead rat's bloated carcass, or something like that.

32. Midnight Oil, Diesel and Dust. One of my college roommates had dinner with Peter Garrett during his semester abroad in Sydney. But that's not why this album is on here. It's just a good album, really good. I would say it's neck-and-neck with Listen Like Thieves by INXS for greatest Australian rock album. I haven't forgotten about AC/DC, either. They're somewhere back in the pack.

33. Of Montreal, The Sunlandic Twins. Again, one of those bands that I haven't heard a *ton* of, but definitely like what I've heard. And I think I've liked Sunlandic Twins the best of their CD's, though my favorite song (and one of my favorite songs, PERIOD) is on Satanic Panic in the Attic. You know the one I'm talking about, don't you? That's right: "Eros' Entropic Tundra." A goofy title (fitting with most of their song titles) but a magnificent song.

34. Pinback, Pinback. One of my best pick-ups from my comeback year in college radio, at KUOI in Moscow ID during my first year of med school. (Whoever thought I'd make a successful return to college radio, 9 years after leaving undergrad? Damn.) Pinback's product has declined a bit since this intro album, but I'm still happy to see them whenever they pass through town. "Hurley" in particular is just a fantastic, mellow kind of alt-rock song, with a tricky little guitar intro that just works so well.

35. Tom Waits, Rain Dogs. I was once in love with someone who loved Tom Waits. But ultimately, she ended up treating me kinda like dogshit. And my first instinct was to take it out on Tom Waits: throw away his CD's, diss his music to whoever would listen, buy the Rod Stewart version of "Downtown Train," etc. But there's something about the guy, and that god-awful warble of his ... I guess it makes me feel good to know there's at least one bona fide rocker out there whose voice is worse than mine. Plus, he's a great actor (check out "Short Cuts"), wrote a great song for Solomon Burke's comeback album ("Diamond in Your Mind"), and his song "Way Down in the Hole" opened every episode of "The Wire," one of the greatest TV series of all time. Tough to argue with all that.

36. Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. One of the freakiest, most effed-up albums to come out of an effed-up decade (the 70's). But at the same time, brilliant. And, it's a double album! Bonus points. Peter Gabriel made some great music after leaving Genesis and going solo, but some of his finest work is on here. (I don't know what a carpet crawler is, but I don't know how you can't love that song ...) What would've happened if he'd stayed on? For one thing, the world might have never had to suffer through the agony of "Sussudio." Wait - that's a solo Phil Collins song. Well, for sure, the world wouldn't have had to suffer through "It's No Fun Being an Illegal Alien." Though Abacab was a pretty good album ...

37. Various artists, To Hal and Bacharach. OK, I have to admit, I've never heard this album. But I did want to include Burt Bacharach somewhere on this list. I mean, the man's a giant of American songwriting. I can't even begin to list all the great songs he wrote; just trust me that the list is lengthy. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." "The Look of Love." "Walk on By." "Close to You." "Close to You," for chrissake! Even the Carpenters wanted a piece of him.
But I have no idea what his best album was. Probably wasn't even his - it was probably someone else, singing his songs! Ha ha. To Hal and Bacharach was a tribute album to Hal David and Burt Bacharach, put out about 10 years ago by a bunch of Aussies. I bet it sounds good; and, it has the greatest album title of all time. I used to think At the Movies was pretty good, but To Hal and Bacharach ... well, that just can't be topped.

38. The Shins, Oh, Inverted World. Remember how big the Shins were about 10 years ago? They were huge, man. Maybe they're still big in some circles, I don't know. But while I really dug their debut album, I also recognized it was right on the cusp of being too clever, and I felt they went over the edge with the follow-up Chutes Too Narrow. But I'm not really an intellectual, so maybe they were just pretending to be too clever, but really weren't. Anyhow, this is a really good album.

39. Hovercraft, Akathisia. I saw Hovercraft live once back in Seattle, probably around 1997. Really, one of the most amazing shows I ever saw. An eerie, throbbing, post-apocalyptic jam, all perfectly choreographed with disturbing clips from science and space documentaries. They just came out, played continuously for about 45 minutes, and then left. The show ended, perfectly, to the image of a light bulb falling in slow motion onto a concrete floor. It was so cool. This album is cool, too. I think about that show whenever I listen to it, and sometimes about all the other great shows I saw back in the day.

40. Air, Talkie Walkie. Some would say that Moon Safari deserves this honor. Well, they're both great albums, but only one of them can be on my list. Unless you're the Deftones; then I'll make an exception for you. But I put Talkie Walkie here because I like "Cherry Blossom Girl" just a little more than "All I Need" (the jazz flute puts it over the top), and also because "Mike Mills" is a really exceptional instrumental song.

Monday, November 16, 2009

50 other great albums, in no particular order: part three

21. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois. It may be a small, elite group, but Sufjan Stevens is one of the great historians of rock 'n' roll, mining the rich vein of past events in Illinois. And this is a phenomenal album, which won all kinds of "Best of" awards when it came out a few years ago. In addition to songs about the Black Hawk War and Casimir Pulaski, there's the radio hit "Chicago" and a slow, moving ballad about the victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. For a time people believed he really would do an album about every one of the United States, but apparently that was a huge, naughty prank. But if he can do just one about New York, Vermont, Washington or Wisconsin, that would be pretty cool.

22. Afghan Whigs, Gentleman. The best of a series of good albums that the Afghan Whigs put out in their prime, and a serious contender for my Top 50 list. Not a bad song on here: Greg Dulli was clearly in some sort of groove when he was working on it. Five stars from 58 of 63 customer reviewers at Amazon! Kind of an unscientific poll, but it does say something. (And 4 of the other 5 gave it 4 stars ...)

23. Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around. I know, I know, one of the great figures in American music history, and I choose an album from his late, fading years. That tells you a couple of things: A) I don't know most of his other albums B) I don't much care for country music (although JC would have to be one of my favorite C&W artists), and this album has a decent amount of countrified rock and C) it's really good. Some of the covers are a stretch, but "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with Fiona Apple is wonderful. And who would've guessed that Johnny Cash could do Nine Inch Nails so effectively? His cover of "Hurt" is amazing - the cracks and flaws in his old-man voice could not be a better match for Trent Reznor's brooding hit.

24. Smog, Dongs of Sevotion. Smog, aka Bill Callahan, also has put out some consistently great albums. Once you stop smirking at the title of this one, you'll love what you hear. "Strayed" has to be one of my favorite songs of all time. Once heard it covered by a female singer on the radio: just lovely. Someday, when I've got more time, I'm going to listen to more Smog records.

25. Stereolab, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. This may be the goofiest album title of all time; but of the many good albums from this Anglo-French collaboration, CAPGPVITMN is the most captivating of all. Almost like one continuous song, with Laetitia Sadier's gorgeous singing and Mary Hansen's lovely back-up vocals combining with swirls of horns, marimba and other flourishes to create a warm, unrestrained vibe that could only be captured by a title like Cobra and Phases etc etc.

26. Husker Du, Warehouse: Songs and Stories. This nips Zen Arcade by a nose, mainly because I'd listened to Warehouse many times before I ever gave Zen Arcade a full go. Another strong contender for my Top 50 list - there's been nights where I've lain awake for hours, wondering if I should have actually included it. Bob Mould also did some great work with Sugar, including Besides, one of the strongest live albums you'd ever like to hear.

27. Broadcast, Haha Sound. I've heard that Broadcast is sometimes classfied under "dream pop." For sure, singer Trish Keenan has one of the most angelic voices you'll ever hear, and the combination with Broadcast's weird sound effects and unorthodox song structure is a complete winner. Again, one of these days I've gotta check out some of their other stuff.

28. Beck, Odelay. I'm going to step away from realm of relative obscurity for a moment and pay a little tribute to the Beckster. I remember hating "Loser" when it first came out - I mean, it really was an obnoxious song, wasn't it? - but this enfant terrible really went on to have an amazing career (uh, I guess he's not done yet ...) "I got two turntables and a microphone." Damn! Seven words that became part of rock legend.

29. Built to Spill, Keep it Like a Secret. Well, I had to include at least one album that would appease my friend Som. But what an album! Without question, the greatest band to ever come out of Boise. "Bad Light" and "Time Trap" are probably my favorite BTS tunes of them all.

30. Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. All right, I'm spending almost as much time on this follow-up project as I did on the original list! This was supposed to be a throwaway project! And while I like Pavement a lot, I don't think I know enough about them to say anything intelligent about this album, which I also like a lot. So let's just say that Stephen Malkmus is a musical genius, not just for what he did for Pavement but for all his other little side projects too, and I hope he keeps on going for a long time. And that's a wrap: I'm calling it a night ...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

50 other great albums, in no particular order: part two

11. Queen, A Night at the Opera. This was one of the first albums that my oldest brother owned, therefore one of the first albums I ever got acquainted with. A tiny but strong little piece of my childhood, and a great album in its own right. Everybody knows "Bohemian Rhapsody," but fewer are familiar with "You're My Best Friend." And fewer still have rocked out to "Death on Two Legs!" But it's a trip, man.

12. Dead Can Dance, Within the Realm of a Dying Sun. Pompous and overbearing to some, exotic and beautiful to others. I remember buying this album in college and never really tiring of it. A sound like no others, mimicking the music of vanished civilizations, which has stood the test of time on its own.

13. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones. I just got into the Yeah Yeah Yeahs within the past few months. I've listened to this album and Fever to Tell, and I like this one better. If I'd heard it a year earlier ... would it have made my Top 50? A tough question. Lead singer Karen O did some of the music for the film version of "Where the Wild Things Are" - may have to check it out.

14. Kings of Convenience, Riot on an Empty Street. Think A-Ha is the best band to ever come out of Norway? Ok kontrarre, min frair! I think Erlend and Eirik would disagree with you. This is a great album, and the vocal contributions from Feist on several songs really put it over the top.

15. Yo La Tengo, Painful. They've had a lot of great albums, so it was again a struggle to narrow it down to just one. But this album has my favorite YLT song of all time, "Double Dare." One of my favorite songs, period. It makes me want to be young and drive across the country again, with every new day bright and clear.

16. Karp, Self Titled LP. Props again to my friend Brian for introducing me to Karp, one of the greatest bands to ever come out of the Seattle area. Again, I'm not a huge metal fan, but Karp's music was somewhere beyond metal, taking the rage and noise of metal and tempering it with brash intelligence. (What ordinary metal band would have a song called "J is for Genius?" Or a song whose entire lyrics are "Ding dong, I'm fucking with your head, fucking with your head.") I still remember seeing them at Bumbershoot a while back: two guys thrashing on guitar and taking turns bellowing into the microphone, with drummer Scott Jernigan (who died in a boating accident in 2003) pounding away behind them. I don't know if I've ever gotten as much visceral pleasure from another show. Supposedly, there's some documentary about Karp coming out within the next few months.

17. Tortoise, TNT. This one would also probably be in the low-to-mid 50's if I ever made a comprehensive Greatest Albums list. All instrumental, all the time, with impressive variation in the song styles. There's one song on here, I swear, that will transport you to a lazy summer evening in the French countryside circa 1957. If it doesn't, I will gladly refund your money.

18. The Postal Service, Give Up. So which flavor of "Such Great Heights" do you like? The snippet from the UPS commercials, or Iron & Wine's slowed-down, mellowed cover version? I'm actually a bigger fan of "Nothing Better," from its atmospheric opening to Ben Gibbard's wistful lyrics to the sudden, stunning, wonderful entry of Jenny Lewis as his vocal counterpart. Such a sad song, but such a great album.

19. Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock. Ah, Sleater-Kinney: another one of those Northwest bands that I hadn't really discovered while I was living in the Northwest. Or maybe I did, towards the end? I can't even remember now. Just wish I'd seen them live at least once; but at least I got to see Janet Weiss perform a few times in Quasi. I think everyone's got their favorite S-K record, depending on their style, and I can't claim to have heard them all. But this one's the bomb ...

20. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America. I know next to nothing about The Hold Steady. So how can I include them here? Because this is a special place, with magical rules, and I'm kickin' back after grinding through my Top 50. I listened to this album a bunch. It's great. A very distinctive lyrical style.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

50 other great albums, in no particular order: part one

Maybe it's a touch of separation anxiety, but I've had a hard time moving away from my Top 50. Well, actually, the hardest thing was leaving off a bunch of albums I really love. But it was also hard to keep that list going, week in and week out! It nearly destroyed me: the research, the hand-wringing, the grasping for words and phrases that would effectively describe my favorites. So I'm doing this quick 'n' dirty, just for fun, in no particular order ...
1. Band of Horses, Everything All the Time. This was probably #51 on my list. A great, great album, separately recommended to me on separate occasions by my friends Brian and Dean. Didn't much care for the follow-up, though. Could it be because they left Seattle?
2. The Bevis Frond, Triptych. One of my favorite alt albums from college, an amazing one-man psychedelic tour de force including a cover of "Hey Joe" sung by the artist's mum. BF, aka Nick Saloman, just kills on the guitar. Extremely unheralded.
3. Jason Loewenstein, At Sixes and Sevens. I've got a soft spot for albums thrown together by one guy down in his basement, and this one may be the king of the genre. It rocks almost as good as the best stuff from Sebadoh, Loewenstein's former band (he's now playing with the Fiery Furnaces).
4. Sebadoh, The Sebadoh. I despised Everett True when he worked as a music critic for The Stranger, but I'll always be a little grateful to him for his glowing review of this album. I now have about 5 Sebadoh CD's, but this one's the best for sure. Hardly a bad song on here; a couple are truly awesome.
5. The Folk Implosion, Dare to be Surprised. While on the subject of Sebadoh, let's not overlook Lou Barlow! This is a great CD with some brilliant vocal interplay between him and collaborator John Davis.
6. The Innocence Mission, Glow. Probably the last band you'd want to back you up in a bar fight. The name is true to their gentle sound, distinguished by Don Peris' understated guitar and Karen Peris' incredible voice. (Women's voices shouldn't be this beautiful - it just breaks your heart ...) The thinking man's 10,000 Maniacs.
7. The Deftones, Adrenaline. This band is the anti-Innocence Mission. I'm normally not big on growly alt-metal, but the Deftones completely separated themselves from the rest of the pack with actual musical ability, and a lot of it.
8. The Fixx, Reach the Beach. Who the hell were The Fixx? Where'd they come from? Where'd they go? I'd almost forgotten about them until that creepy "Saved by Zero" commercial.
9. Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary. So you think the Arcade Fire is the best new band to come out of Montreal recently? Au contraire, mon frere! Seriously, Wolf Parade kicks their ass. Another album with hardly a weak song, maybe none whatsoever. Probably #52 on my overall list, capped by the dazzling "I'll Believe in Anything."
10. The Killers, Sam's Town. Do people really think Hot Fuzz is a better album than Sam's Town? That just seems unbelievable to me. But The Onion keeps saying it, over and over again. Will anyone else stand with me and proclaim Sam's Town to be the superior Killers album?

All right, I'm spent. More later ...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

the breakdown

Chris, do you think you could do some type of statistical breakdown on my Top 50? Here's what I was thinking: maybe sorting the picks by decade (60's, 70's, 80's, etc.), male vs. female lead singer, country of origin of artist, platinum/gold-selling album vs. not, etc etc. You could come up with some other categories as you see fit. Also, a cross reference between the selections that our blogs had in common, and also how that compares with that Rolling Stone Top 500 albums list from a while back. Now, I'm interested not only in percentages, but also in the absolute numbers (n). I think my readers would get a kick out of it! Whenever you've got a few moments. Thanks ...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Recap

50. White Stripes, The White Stripes
49. Sparrow Orange, Hands and Knees Music
48. XTC, Skylarking
47. Catherine Wheel, Chrome
46. The Sea and Cake, The Biz
45. King Crimson, Red
44. Weezer, Weezer
43. Live, Throwing Copper
42. Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth
41. Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
40. Quasi, Featuring Birds
39. Pearl Jam, Ten
38. Spoon, Gimme Fiction
37. The Police, Synchronicity
36. Elvis Costello, Punch the Clock
35. Moby, Play
34. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
33. Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes
32. Neil Young, Rust Never Sleeps
31. The Kinks, Something Else by the Kinks
30. The Replacements, Tim
29. Belle and Sebastian, Tigermilk
28. REM, Murmur
27. Lounge Lizards, Voice of Chunk
26. Andrew Bird, Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs
25. Neko Case, Furnace Room Lullaby
24. The Grateful Dead, one of their bootlegs
23. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
22. Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
21. Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof
20. Talking Heads, Fear of Music
19. The Pixies, Doolittle
18. Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks
17. Sonic Youth, Evol
16. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
15. Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
14. Paul Simon, Graceland
13. Fleetwood Mac, Rumors
12. Michael Jackson, Thriller (*)
11. Derek and the Dominoes, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs
10. Love, Forever Changes
9. U2, Achtung Baby
8. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
7. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
6. Nirvana, Nevermind
5. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief
4. Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?
3. (tie) Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
The Beatles, The Beatles
The Who, The Who Sell Out
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV
Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
2. Pink Floyd, The Wall
1. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Saturday, October 10, 2009

number one

1. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. Kind of Blue is the greatest album of all time. I really believe that. Obviously, I haven't listened to all of them, and there may be some obscure release sitting in the bargain bin of a used record store in a back alley in Cleveland that would impress me even more, but I kind of doubt it. Think about it: what's the greatest album in the history of rock 'n' roll? I certainly have my opinion, but there would be a lot of debate, and if you asked 10 rock critics you'd probably get 8 different answers. But ask 10 jazz experts to name the greatest album in jazz history, and I think they'd all say the same thing.

Kind of Blue was recorded and released 50 years ago this year, but sounds completely timeless. An album for the ages if there ever was one, with a sound that's elemental, pure, complete. It came out around the dawn of rock 'n' roll, and has had a lasting influence on rock, jazz, and other musical styles. And it was recorded in two sessions, with minimal rehearsal. That's right: two sessions. Like Miles Davis had simply tapped into the primal fountainhead of music and let it pour out of his trumpet, or something like that.

Well, I could wax on for hours about this album, without ever really going anywhere, but I will end my Top 50, this nearly year-long endeavor, by asking my many readers out there to just go listen to it. If you've never listened to Kind of Blue before ... what the hell is wrong with you???And if you haven't listened to it in a while, then it's time to catch up. And even if you listened to it recently ... were you really listening? Or was it just playing in the background while you drove to work or made dinner? C'mon, go really listen to it.

As for completing the Top 50, I have to admit it's a bittersweet moment. I never thought it would take this long, or be so taxing. But I really did rediscover some of the things I loved about my favorite albums. And I took pleasure in the fact that nobody was able to guess what Number One would be, despite the clue. (Did anyone figure that out, by the way? You know, "Godzilla," like the song by Blue Oyster Cult. Blue Oyster Cult -> Kind of Blue. Simple.) Some might say that Brian actually did guess it, when he aired his grievance with my Number Three selection; but no, he didn't really. He was just being snarky. And if you're impressed that he at least came close, don't be. I lived with the guy for something like half my adult life, and never tried to hide anything from him. He knows my tastes, and I know his. I could even tell you what would be Number One on his list if he ever put together his own Top 50: Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King by the Dave Matthews Band. He just can't get enough of it ...

I also know that some of you out there will take issue with the fact that I chose a black artist for my Number One pick. And not only that, for Number Four as well! And a few other spots in the Top 50. Well, first of all, I just want to say that Jimi Hendrix was also part Native American. And second of all, that we're living in a different age now. We have a black president in this country, and everyone can vote now. And finally, I stand for racial equality and judging people by the content of their character and their artistic endeavors, and not judging them based on physical characteristics alone and whatnot. And if you don't also believe in that, I challenge you to a fight, because this is something I believe in strongly.

And some of you may be surprised that Number One isn't a rock album! Well, I never said this was the Top 50 *rock* albums - just the top 50. And I included Philip Glass a while back, so that should've tipped you off. And Kind of Blue has influenced rock music, in ways both subtle and profound. There are probably other jazz albums out there that belong on my list, and maybe some classical and R&B, maybe even a little old-time country. Rap? Got that covered with Public Enemy. Reggae? I don't really care for it that much. Klezmer? Oi? Chorale? Classical? Bring it on, people, if you have suggestions. Bring. It. On.

I don't know - there's probably some stuff I missed. But it's a moot point now: I'm done here. Thank you all for participating in the Top 50. Time to pack up and move on with the rest of our lives ...

Monday, October 5, 2009

number one fever

There's a special feeling in the air these days, and I'm not talking about the approach of autumn. It's called ... Number One Fever! Can you feel it??? So much anticipation to find out what the big Number One pick is gonna be! Can almost cut it with a knife. But don't worry, people, you'll find out soon enough: as soon as I get 10 guesses.

Come on, phone 'em in! Don't be shy. Let's see what you all think it might be. I've had a lot of fun with all this, and decided it was time to let everyone else join in. There'll be a special prize for anyone who gets it right. And don't forget the secret clue I gave out, not too long ago ...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

number two

2. Pink Floyd, The Wall. Believe it or not, this was a tough call for me. Because of my self-imposed limit of only one Top 50 album per band, I had to choose between The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon, a hellish task for anyone but especially for a committed Pink Floyd lover. And also, Meddle, an egregiously overlooked album. While the first two get most of the acclaim, Meddle contains one of the most mind-blowing and awe-inspiring songs of all time: "Echoes," a psychedelic descent into the underworld and back again with Roger Waters and David Gilmour as your guides instead of Virgil (you know, like in the Divine Comedy). It takes up an entire album side, and yet there's not a wasted moment in the whole song. Damn! And Side A is not too shabby, either ("One of These Days," "A Pillow of Winds," etc etc.)

So how to choose between The Wall and Dark Side? Again, it's not easy. (Damn!) But there were a few factors favoring The Wall: A) Dark Side has already gotten a lot of glory from staying on the charts longer than any other album in rock history. B) The Wall is a double album. Twice the fun. C) The Wall is also a movie. Not just any movie - one of the best rock-related movies ever made, too. (Is anyone out there going to deny it??? Please.)

So, I reluctantly gave the nod to The Wall, even though it slips a little right at the end, especially "The Trial." But before then ... oh mama, what an album. All the torment in Roger Water's life - the death of his father during WWII, the painful childhood, his rage at Nazi Germany and the English educational system, his conflicted relationship with fans and his own culpability in buying into the excesses of rock-star life - somehow all gets channeled into this cohesive work of amazing rock music. And it seems that every other song has a filthy David Gilmour guitar solo - what other album has so many filthy guitar solos? Just filthy. I can't decide which is my favorite: "Comfortably Numb?" Does that beat out his raging, filthy solos in "Run Like Hell" and "Young Lust," or the guitar work in "In the Flesh" and its reprise? I don't know. And then the little treasures, like the quiet, beautiful piano in "Nobody Home." And the sound effects: the sound of a descending dive bomber, abruptly seguing into a baby's cry. Just cool as hell.

This is the album that tore one of my favorite bands apart, to the point where they could never really get it together again. Their follow-up album, The Final Cut, was a forgettable mix of leftovers from The Wall, and the last album made with the intact line-up. Pink Floyd continued on without Roger Waters, but probably shouldn't have. Everything that followed The Wall was just an afterthought. It may have torn the band apart, but what a way to go.

(A final note: check out the bluegrass version of The Wall by Canadian band Luther Wright and the Wrongs! Both reverential and hilarious.)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

number three

3. The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
The Beatles, The White Album
The Who, The Who Sell Out
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV
Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

I recently got an email from a Mad City fan, hungry for me to resume my countdown, who asked if one of the "Big Three" was going to be at the top. And by that, I think he meant the first 3 bands here. And I know there's been a lot of curiosity and anxiety out there about the remainder of the Top 5, and who was I going to leave out. Because I think some of you were expecting one or more of these albums or bands to make an earlier appearance; and obviously, if I was at Number Three, I couldn't include all of them.

Or could I? I guess my Number Three proves once again that I didn't come from the mold: I broke it. Or something along those lines. You know what I mean, right? Basically, what I'm trying to say is that you cannot predict what's next with me. I'm unpredictable. And this proves it.

So here's my way of thinking: you can't do a Top 50 Albums and leave any of these artists out. They're lodged in there. They're like the Mt. Rushmore of Rock, if Mt. Rushmore had 5 presidents on it. These are monster albums. But let's face it: these guys are also dinosaurs. They're like Godzilla: part dinosaur, part monster. And if you know you have to include them, and you only have 50 spots to work with, that's like 10 percent of your list, and that doesn't leave a lot of room for new or unconventional picks. Voila! Let's lump them all together, near the top. That way, they're all included (as is admittedly necessary), but I've also got like 98 percent of my list to play with still.

As for the individual selections here, I guess there might be some controversy. I guess there are some people out there who don't think The White Album is the Beatles' greatest effort, etc. But I also guess that I'm a sucker for a good double album. But even then, there's controversy: The Who Sell Out over Tommy? It's a tough call, but I think Sell Out is an under-recognized gem, and something about Tommy always freaked me out a little. Just a little too psychedelic and self-indulgent for my taste.

So who's stoked for my final two? All of you, I bet. So, here's a little preview: coming up next is the greatest double album of all time. And at the top is the greatest album of all time, period. And remember the term "Godzilla." Godzilla Godzilla Godzilla ...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

number four

4. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced. I am going to go out on a limb, and proclaim that Jimi Hendrix was the coolest son of a bitch in the history of rock. A lot of people believe he was the greatest rock guitarist ever, and I agree, but even more importantly in my mind, he was a cool son of a bitch. And that was reflected in his music. For all the acclaim his guitar-playing received, he was a pretty damn good singer too, and an amazing songwriter. "Little Wing" - hell of a song.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear on Are You Experienced, but that's one of the few flaws of this album. I still remember the first time I heard "Purple Haze": riding in the carpool to high school, with Shane DiMaio's mother driving. Greatest song of all time? It's certainly up there. And without question, the opening guitar solo ... to my mind, it kind of summarizes rock and roll, in the space of about 10 seconds. It's rock boiled down to its essence. And somehow, Jimi found a way to rock hard in so many different ways, without ever sounding like he was borrowing from his other work. "Fire" sounds completely different from "Foxey Lady," which sounds completely different from "Manic Depression." And "Hey Joe" is completely different in a different way. But put them all together, and it creates one of the most memorable albums of all time.

It's kind of hard to believe Jimi was only 27 when he died. Sweet Jesus, what would he had done if he'd lived for even 5 more years? Or was alive now? He'd only be 67 years old. Just barely drawing Social Security. Playing the guitar with his gums, and then smashing it with his walker. But somehow, he would still make it look cool. Damn ...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

number five

5. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief. Radiohead has been the greatest band in the world for - what? Five years now? Or has it been even longer than that? Their music is consistently innovative, sophisticated, complex and yet accessible at the same time. I'm amazed sometimes at how sound is put together on some of their songs to create something beautiful without any readily identifiable melody. This Thom Yorke fellow: clearly a tormented genius. Maybe the other guys in the band are, too.

But here's the question: what is Radiohead's opus grande? It's an easy question to answer for a lot of other acts. Michael Jackson, for all his fame and King of Pop status, really had only one good album. Bruce Springsteen had a number of great albums, but most critics and fans agree that Born to Run is numero uno. U2? They may have been the biggest (but not necessarily the greatest) band in the world at one time. What was their best effort? My money's on Achtung Baby, but I also acknowledge that there may be less of a consensus there.

But Radiohead - man, that's tough. For quite a while, I had Kid A pegged for this spot. A great album, with my favorite Radiohead song ("Morning Bell") and a lot of other good ones. OK Computer also has a big following. And I know one wayward soul who recently spoke highly of In Rainbows, almost as if he thought that might be their best. (Sure, you could get it for free, more or less, but better than Kid A or Hail to the Thief? Come on ...)

No, I'm gonna have to go with Hail to the Thief. It starts off with a blistering hit ("2+2 = 5"), proceeds through a bunch of other great songs (including maybe my 2nd-favorite RH song, "Where I End and You Begin"), and just keeps on going. And just when you think RH couldn't fit any more great songs on one album - you know, when you're getting to the point around song #10 where even great albums typically crap out with a bunch of filler material - all the sudden you get this insane electronica groove with "Myxomatosis." (And what other band could put out a song called "Myxomatosis," that's about myxomatosis, that actually sounds this good?) And then you close with "A Wolf at the Door," a glorious burst of hope, the perfect closing song.

So it's a great album. Although, to be honest, there are other albums in my Top 20 that I may enjoy listening to a little more. But Radiohead is the greatest band in the world, and has been for a while, and for that reason alone and on the strength of several other albums, they deserve to be in the Top 5. Some have accused me of "cheating" by ranking certain albums based on the cumulative output of the artist, but I think that's unfair, and such an ugly word! I prefer the term "cognitive dissonance," or maybe "myxomatosis." Yeah, "myxomatosis." I like that ...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

number six

6. Nirvana, Nevermind. So I was checking out that other dude's blog a little while ago, and suddenly realized that there is going to be a lot of potential for overlap as we both "plunge" into the Top 10 here, no pun intended. (see the photo at left) So let me just say, first of all, that I had Nirvana penciled in here months ago, back when I started this crazy venture. (Or was that years ago?) And second of all, why do people be hatin' so much now? Can't I do a simple Top 50 albums, without being accused of plagiarism?

But I digress. Nevermind. Ah yes, Nevermind. Where would rock 'n' roll be without you, Nevermind? It's a little scary to even think about that. Definitely, it would be a different place, a worse place. Although it's not like a band hadn't come along before and explicitly said, "We don't give a [f-bomb] about what people think of us! We're gonna play loud, we're gonna play mean, and we just don't care. And also, we're putting a picture of a baby swimming after a dollar bill on the cover." When I say that, I think of the Sex Pistols most of all. But really, there have been plenty of bands that have come along with that kind of attitude. In fact, just about every punk band out there, right? But very, very few of those bands have had the talent to make many people notice what they're doing, and to pause, and to ultimately foster a sea change in rock music. (again, no pun intended)

I think I remember where I was when I first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (driving near Albany, NY). And I definitely remember where I was when I first heard about Kurt Cobain's death (heading for my temp job at Harborview). I wouldn't say I necessarily turned into a huge Nirvana fan after the former, though "Teen Spirit" itself rocked my world. But by the time Kurt Cobain died, I had really developed an appreciation for a lot more of Nirvana's music, and had seen the influence that Nirvana had had on modern rock. A good influence, a huge influence.

RIP, Kurt. Hard to believe it's been over 15 years now.

P.S. My Top 5 Nirvana songs, off the top of my head: Pennyroyal Tea, School, Dive, Verse Chorus Verse, Dimension 7. Oh, and can't forget Smells Like Teen Spirit. Make that my Top 6.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

happy birthday, mad city

I'm putting my Top 50 countdown on hold for a moment to wish a slightly belated happy birthday to Mad City. It was one year and two days ago that I busted out my first entry here, and 120 entries later we're going stronger than ever. That's right: this one is #120. That's, like, almost an entry every 3 days. And I went for almost a month this summer without writing anything! Damn. If I didn't have to work, I would be almost unstoppable.
Speaking of which, I'm dog-tired after spending the weekend at my sister's place in Chicago, which is also the reason this birthday notice is a little late. So, time for me to crash, and maybe tomorrow we'll get started on Year Two ...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

number seven

7. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. My earliest memories of David Bowie are the "Let's Dance" video, which was played all the time on MTV for a while, and the other songs from "Let's Dance." But though I liked "Let's Dance" a lot (and it was a hell of an album), I was too lazy or apathetic or whatever to really check out the other shizzle from David Bowie's past.

I mean, sure, I heard "Starman" and "Young Americans" and whatnot on the radio or at parties. I had plenty of exposure to his greatest hits album. But here's my quibble with greatest-hits albums, and AOR, and that kind of thing: they leave some really good songs behind. And Ziggy Stardust was loaded with good songs, beyond "Starman" and the title track (although the song "Ziggy Stardust" probably defines David Bowie more than any other of his songs, I would say).

So, a few years ago, I was driving home and happened to hear "Moonage Daydream" on the radio, and it blew me away. I had just not heard it before, to my recollection. And roughly around the same time, the Wes Anderson movie "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," with all those great bossa nova covers by Pele, came out. And I just gained a huge new appreciation for David Bowie and his musical accomplishments.

Amazing, isn't it? This album came out just a few years after I was born, and I didn't come to fully appreciate it until just a few years ago. I guess that's as good an argument as any to play Tegan and Sara for your kids right now.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

number eight

8. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run. Well duh, right? We all knew this would be in the Top 10, didn't we? Not because I'm the #1 Boss fan in the world, but just because it'd be very difficult to leave Born to Run off the top of the list. First of all, Springsteen is America's troubadour, right? And with all the great albums he's put out in his career, I think this one clearly shines the most.

I'm not a Bruce Springsteen expert, and I think you'd need to be one to write something original about Born to Run. Or any of his albums, for that matter. There aren't many musicians who have fans as devoted as his, and from what I've heard he's just as devoted to them. (Apparently, 3-hour shows are standard for him.) I've gained more and more respect for Springsteen over the years, and his endorsement of John Kerry over Bush back in 2004 helped take the sting out of a bitter loss in that election. But I can still think back to college, and listening to this album (which had come out only about 10 years before I'd started college), and feeling connected to a golden age of rock that I hadn't actually lived through. And though I grew up a ways away from New Jersey in upstate NY, it still seemed like half of the songs on Born to Run were written about my hometown. I'm not quite sure how Springsteen did that, but apparently millions of people have felt the same way. Not so much the place as the feeling.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

number nine

9. U2, Achtung Baby. This is bullshit, man! I haven't blogged anything since July 11? That sucks. I knew I shouldn't have gone to med school ...

Well, July was a busy month, but it's time to get down to brass tacks and face the music again. One of my goals when I started my Top 50 here was to have it done in, like, 3 weeks. And it's already been about 6 months or something like that. And that's just horrendous bullshit! But I digress ... so, U2. Yeah, I know what you're thinking, some of you. You're thinking that Bono's an annoying, self-important tool, and that U2's past their prime, and that they were overrated to begin with. And some of that may definitely be true. But at one point, these guys were the bomb. (I think it was sometime before How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.) You had your The Joshua Tree, and The Unforgettable Fire, and War, and Rattle and Hum. And then Achtung Baby came along, and left everything else in its tracks.

Every song on here is good, really good, and several are ... rock 'n' roll classics. Is anyone going to argue with me that "One" is not a giant of rock 'n' roll? After it's been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, and Michael Stipe, and Adam Lambert? Come on! And how about "Mysterious Ways," and "Until the End of the World?" So many good songs, fitting together so well. There was nowhere to go but down afterwards, or at least off in a different direction. They've had a few more good songs here and there, but I haven't bought a U2 album since "Zooropa."

Or maybe my tastes just changed. Who the hell knows. But I do know this: this was the album I bought a CD player for (the one I still use, as a matter of fact), as the era of mass vinyl came to an end. And it makes me happy to say that, because you should be able to look back on your first CD with pride. And I do give a tip of the hat to Bono for his humanitarian work. You may strike some as pompous, Bono, but all in all you're a good man. And your band's best album belongs in everybody's Top 10.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

northwest/delta sucks ass

As most of you know, I flew out to Seattle last month to visit with friends, stomp on my old stomping grounds, and head out to Boise for a triathlon there. What you may not know is what a miserable time I had getting back, thanks to the d-bags at Northwest Airlines. And just becase it happened a month ago, and I'm only writing about it now, doesn't mean I wasn't really pissed off. I actually wrote a very detailed account of what went down soon after I got back, but it turned out way too long; when I printed it out to mail to NWA, it was close to 5 pages. So this here is the condensed version:

All right, first of all, I got to the airport late. Is that a crime? On the way to Sea-Tac I had to return the bike and the wetsuit I rented for the triathlon, and even though I allowed extra time it took much longer than I thought it would. (For one thing, I had to sit in Montlake traffic for 15 minutes without moving. I think the bridge was up, maybe.) At any rate, I reached the NWA counter 25 minutes before the flight. The airlines apparently stop checking bags 30 minutes before a flight, and the good folks at NWA would not even consider making an exception for me.

So fine, right? Stick me on the next flight home. Except all they had to offer was something arriving the next afternoon, about 24 hrs after my original arrival time. (This was at 3 in the afternoon). There was a flight through Detroit arriving earlier, but I couldn't fly standby on it because my original route was through Minneapolis. Conveniently, that allowed NWA to bill me $150 for a change-of-flight charge. To get on the Detroit flight, they also wanted another $100 to upgrade my seat. When I spent some time trying to find other options, then called back again, I found that the price had gone up to $587 (or close to $200 more than my original fare for the whole trip). The story they told me was that the other seat had been snapped up, maybe by someone online, and the $587 fare was the next-best thing. Luckily, when the agent checked again, the $250 fare had magically become available again.

And yes, I had to do all this over the phone, even though I was right there at the f$^%#ing counter. The NWA people working the counter were, almost to a person, inept and inefficient. Not too sympathetic, either. And believe me, when you're stuck far from home and the price for getting back is going up hundreds of dollars every time you turn around, you are totally dependent on the kindness of strangers.

At any rate, I made it back the following morning on a redeye, following a 4-hr layover in Detroit. Even made it to work on time. And it was my fault, right? I got to the airport late. Except this was the kind of thing that could really have happened to anyone. I've only arrived late for a flight once before, also due to bad traffic, and in that case United put me on the next flight without any extra charges. That was a long time ago, before 9-11, and I know things are different with the airlines now. But why the hell would I ever fly Northwest again? I don't think I've ever had a good experience with them, and this one was just wretched. And unfortunately their taint has now spread to Delta, which bought NWA a while back. There's just too many other options ...

Even if it costs you extra for a ticket, people, don't fly Northwest! And if you're wondering about the photo at the top, those are pissed-off travelers who were on another NWA flight that was delayed. The one good thing about my long layover: plenty of time to document the incompetency.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

numbers 10-11

11. Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. I'm not the hugest Eric Clapton fan in the world, either, though again I respect his musical ability and the fact that he's a rock 'n' roll giant. But back in high school, I methodically worked my way through some of the landmark albums that I'd read about in a Rolling Stone guide to the history of rock. And I just loved this album then and still do, from the classic title song to the anthemic cover of Jimi Hendrix' "Little Wing" to the covers of blues standards like "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and "It's Too Late."

You can hear the exuberance and joy that went into the making of this album, the only one released by the Clapton-led supergroup. Somehow, they dug deep into the heart of the blues and found joy. Maybe playing with Eric Clapton when he was at his creative peak would do that to anybody, I dunno. But you can hear it in many of the songs here, especially "Anyday" and "Why Does Love Got to be So Sad?", which totally rips. (It rips, man!) "Bell Bottom Blues": also a fantastic song, inexplicably full of both heartache and joy.

Apparently, this album wasn't as well-received as it should have been when it was released, ultimately leading to some of Clapton's darker days of drug addiction and the break-up of the band. Interestingly, he ultimately ended up marrying Pattie Boyd, the object of Clapton's unrequited love and the inspiration for "Layla," as well as George Harrison's wife at the time this album was made. Their marriage lasted for 6 years. The album, on the other hand, is timeless.

10. Love, Forever Changes. This may be one of the greatest albums to come out of the 60's, and I didn't even hear it until just a few years ago, while I was studying one night at a coffee shop in Burlington, VT. (You rock, Muddy Waters!) From what I understand, Arthur Lee, Love's frontman and driving force, did not like touring/traveling outside of the West Coast, so they remained relatively unknown to the general public. And they never made another album that had any sort of an impact like Forever Changes (although Jimi Hendrix played guitar on a track of a later release), and the band broke up a few years after it was released in 1967.

Forever Changes
has an unmistakeable 60's vibe, but without sounding like any of the other major groups of the day. How can I describe it? I can't, really. I shouldn't. You should just listen to it for yourself. Let's just say that Arthur Lee had a great voice, was a great songwriter, and must have hit some incredible source of inspiration when he was writing these songs. There's some great horn on some songs, including a thrilling duet between a fanfare and Lee's voice on "Maybe the People Would Be the Times." And the final majestic number, "You Set the Scene," could easily have served as an anthem for the 60's itself.

What would've happened if I'd gone to Starbucks to study that night? I don't even want to think about it ...

number 12

***12. Michael Jackson, Thriller. Please note the series of asterisks next to this pick, which signify that it was made under duress. The man, and this album, just have a legacy, and the weight of it is crushing right now after last week's tragedy. I do respect Michael Jackson as an entertainer and a songwriter, and I felt sympathy for what he endured during his show-biz upbringing under an abusive father. Truly, for reasons probably no one completely understood, he was a messed-up guy; and it's a shame that he couldn't have enjoyed his fame and fortune a little more.

It's just that ... I was never really into Michael Jackson. I liked the video for "Billie Jean," but that was about as far as it went. Oh, and I guess I like "Wanna Be Startin' Something" and its great first verse:

Wanna be startin' something
Why don't you be startin' something
What's up with that startin' something
Get out of here with that startin' something

Great stuff. But I guess I also liked Weird Al Yankovic's "Eat It" more than the original. And me and the other cool kids in the school used to regularly taunt, harass, intimidate, and disparage any open Michael Jackson fans that we came across. But 100 million copies sold ... on that basis alone, I guess I've got to include MJ on the list. And his vast influence on pop culture and people around the world, which I suspect few people fully appreciated until last week. And the fact that he could sell out 50 shows in London more than 20 years after his prime. And finally, I miscalculated again about how many more albums I needed to complete my list, so this fit in rather nicely.

Friday, June 26, 2009

number 13

13. Fleetwood Mac, Rumors. Fleetwood Mac is another one of those bands that I liked well enough back in the day, but wasn't apeshit over or anything. Maybe I saw the video for "Hold Me" on MTV too many times back in high school. Christine McVie digging up guitars in the desert: Jesus H. Christ.

But then, something happened a few years ago. I can't even remember what it was. Maybe I heard one fof their songs on the radio again, and thought to myself, "You know, they really were the shit." Or more likely, I read some random story about them somewhere, or even just had a sandwich that reminded me of Stevie Nicks. Well, whatever it was, I finally got a copy of Rumors - and it was like falling in love with your high-school sweetheart all over again. Except not so much! Because I don't think Fleetwood Mac was that big at my high school.

You know, I think I know what it was now: I heard "Never Going Back Again" on the radio. One of the lesser hits from this album, simple and straightforward, and yet a really great song. And there's just something about the way all the Mackers harmonized on the back-up vocals of different songs, all these great voices blending together so beautifully; sometimes, it just fills me with this feeling that there are things in the world more majestic than can ever be fully realized. And there are, like, five all-time rock 'n' roll classics on this album! I'm not even counting "Don't Stop," which a lot of people like but not this guy. "Go Your Own Way," on the other hand - there aren't many better songs than that in the English language.

In their heyday, Fleetwood Mac lived hard and burned out fast. Lots of drugs (which is, FYI, what "Gold Dust Woman" is about, I think), and Stevie Nicks turned from a cute little pixie to a battle-hardened rocker mama almost overnight. They were the quintessential California band. And they accomplished a lot, but could have done even more. All part of their mystique. I'm just grateful they left us with this masterpiece, a reminder that not everything was crap back in the 70's.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


So, today is the anniversary of my mom's death last year. She died of myelofibrosis, a hematologic malignancy where the bone marrow is replaced with fibrous tissue. This sometimes causes the spleen to enlarge markedly, and in Mom's case I think that's what did her in. Her spleen became so large that it compressed her stomach, and she could eat very little, and she kind of withered away over the course of several years until her heart finally stopped. And unfortunately, there's not much that can be done medically to stop this.

It's also unfortunate that the last impression that we have of someone's life is often when they're not at their best. I would rather think about what my mother was like earlier in life, instead of the illness at the end. And the thing I remember most is how devoted she was to us kids, even to a fault. I continued to get motherly advice and care well into my 30's. And I remember how much I took this for granted when I was a kid. Like some other youngsters, I was kind of a little pig boy, who took it for granted that Mom would always have breakfast and dinner ready and my clothes cleaned and the house tidied and all the other things I thought mothers were for. I kind of wish that just once, when I was 10 years old or so, somebody had shaken me and said, "You punk! Show your mother more gratitude! None of this stuff is automatic."

And finally, I remember sensing my mother's sadness at times, and wondering what was behind it. She did not have the easiest childhood: she moved with her parents from Germany to the US when she was 2, just before World War II broke out. My grandfather spent part of the war in a detention camp, since he had recently moved from Germany, and during that time she lived with family friends. It was not a good time to be a newly-arrived German immigrant, even for a small child, and I've wondered if this had a lasting effect on her even years later.

The war years were pretty lean for most people, and Mom continued to hoard things for the rest of her life. I was home for a little over a week when she died, and spent at least half that time frantically cleaning out the house and our summer camp with my brothers and sister. We were almost too busy to mourn; and never having gone through something like that as a family, we seemed unsure of how to mourn together.

Once my week was up, I flew back to Wisconsin and work, and gradually resumed my normal life. And everyone else did too. And even a year later, when I'd planned to write all this on the anniversary day, other things came up and plans had to be modified. But I knew you'd understand, Mom. We always came first with you, and that's something I'll never forget. I miss you now, and I wish I could have done more for you. I hope you're at peace.

Friday, June 5, 2009

steve rider

Most of the people reading this blog will also know my good friend Brian, and maybe also Brian's wife Cindy. I'm not sure how many of you might have met Cindy's family, including her brother Steve. I met Steve when I was out in Seattle last June, just a few days after he'd been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). This is a hematologic illness which is quite uncommon in younger people (Steve was 34 at diagnosis), and often leads to acute leukemia.

If you had the opportunity to meet Steve, you would probably like him right away just like I did. Just spending a little time with him, you could sense that what you saw was what you got, and he really was as friendly and open and intelligent as he seemed. I think sometimes that the people in Seattle and the Northwest are different from people elsewhere. Not because they drink more coffee or get rained on more or stupid stuff like that; I think they tend to be more informed, more politically and technologically savvy, more independent, more open-minded, etc. And Steve always struck me as the perfect fit for Seattle. He worked for a tech firm, and could take better photos with his iPhone than I could with a digital camera, and seemed to have a real appreciation for the rare and wonderful things in life. He had many creative and interesting friends. He kept a well-written and very readable blog about his experiences with life and his treatment, including his allogeneic stem cell transplant a few months ago. I think I learned more about the cancer patient's perspective from Steve's blog than from my 2-year oncology fellowship. And I was looking forward to seeing him again along with other friends on my upcoming trip back to Seattle.

Steve seemed to recover well at first after his stem cell transplant, but his cell counts (including white blood cells) unexpectedly dropped about a week ago. His doctors were making plans for another stem cell infusion from the same donor when Steve became acutely ill just a couple days ago. When someone has an infection like pneumonia, and few white blood cells to fight off the infection, it can become a life-threatening situation quite rapidly. And tragically, Steve passed away this morning in the ICU at Swedish Hospital in Seattle.

I only saw Steve in person on a few occasions, including Brian and Cindy's wedding last fall, but he was so good-natured that he made an impression on you right away. The sadness I feel now is for his sister, and parents, and wife, and all his friends, and the grief they're feeling now. And I'm sad I won't be able to thank Steve for the things I learned from him, and the enjoyment of spending just a bit of time with him. Thanks, Steve - I'll miss you, too.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

number 14

14. Paul Simon, Graceland. Notice anything different about the blog? Other than I haven't published anything in 2 weeks, LOL? I have replaced my old computer, which was giving me fits, with a powerful Gateway model which I purchased like 2 months ago but didn't hook up until this past weekend. Vista power, baby! Not that I really wanted Vista - I would've been perfectly content with XP, just needed some faster Internet action etc etc - but Vista came with the computer.

But I digress. Graceland. Who can deny that this was a seminal album in American music history? Well, probably plenty of people; but I'm still going to make that case. Obviously, world music existed before this album, but how many great-rock-albums-influenced-by-world-music were there? Huh? Clearly, Paul Simon set a precedent here. And what an amazing comeback for the former Simon and Garfunkel-er! He just came out of nowhere with this baby, kind of like David Bowie with Let's Dance, maybe.

Some will say that albums like Graceland have bastardized world music, replacing the authentic sound of other cultures with white male sensibilities. Well, speaking for myself, I have to say that I like my world music filtered through the musical tastes of aging white folk heroes with receding hairlines. It works for me just fine. Because how many people discovered the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo through this album? Me, for one; my hand's in the air. And also, a lot of the people who were critical of Paul Simon for this album remind me of Derek Mazzone, the narcissistic host of Wo' Pop on KEXP. I never could stand that guy's show, and his voice. Ugh! No matter which country's music he played - Botswana, Kazakhstan, Bolivia - he always thought he pronounced the song names with the correct accent. Kind of a jackass.

Anyhow, I digress again. Beyond its historical importance, this album is great cover-to-cover, especially the fantastic title track and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." I was never that crazy about "You Can Call Me Al," but I do really like "Crazy Love." "Homeless": wonderful a cappella song. Such a great album in so many different ways ...

Monday, May 11, 2009

numbers 15-16

16. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville. I'm just going to come right out and say it: this is the greatest rock album ever by a solo female artist. It was just an astonishing feat. Back in the mid-90's, there was a blitz of "righteous babe" type albums from women artists like Ani DiFranco and Four Non-Blondes and Paula Cole, encouraged by their growing prominence in independent music and maybe trying to stake their claim as the most righteous of them all. And some of them were quite good. But then along came Liz Phair with this debut album, sounding alternately wounded and defiant and vulnerable. And, well ... oversexed. (Was I imagining that part? Someone might need to back me up here.)

As a sex kitten's response to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, this album couldn't have hit the mark any better. But you don't really need to know the backstory to realize that there are some great, great songs on here. In fact, a freakishly large number of of them fall into the "great, great" category, led in my opinion by "Mesmerizing." And I say "freakish" because little that Liz Phair has subsequently done has come close to matching her first album. What happened? I don't know. But it makes Exile in Guyville seem that much more intriguing and unique.

15. Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. This one goes neck-and-neck in my book with Public Enemy's next release, Fear of a Black Planet. How can I possibly leave off the album with "Fight the Power" on it? Well, it was a tough call. And I will give readers the option of substituting Fear in for Nation in this slot if they so choose.

But I digress. I'll just tell you right now that this is the only rap/hip-hop album on my Top 50. Snoop Dogg is not going to come out of nowhere to bum-rush the Top 10. I've actually made a decent attempt to appreciate hip-hop as an art form, and it just hasn't clicked for me most of the time. (Latest group that I researched and ended up being underwhelmed by: A Tribe Called Quest.)

For the most part, I think rap is an ingeniously-marketed commodity to extract money from unsuspecting members of a key demographic group (impressionable white dudes ages 16-25 with too much money and anger), and "sampling" is a sad excuse to cover up the lack of creativity that seems to be endemic in commercial rap. But there's no denying the talent behind Public Enemy's music, especially on these two albums. I'm sure Chuck D would disagree with most or all of what I've written here, and that saddens me. Because I have as much respect for Chuck D as a musician and songwriter as just about anyone else. You too, Flavor Flav. If I had cable, I would watch "Flavor of Love" far more often.

Damn! You know, it's just about killin' me, having to choose Nation over Fear for this slot. So I'm going to recite some of my favorite lyrics from "Fight the Power":

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
Cause I'm Black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Don't worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here

Fight the power, bitches! Word to your mother ...

a solo act

Until I published my review of Sonic Youth's Evol last night (see the entry "# 17"), I'd gone nearly 2 weeks without writing anything here. And believe me, that was distressing for me . But you have to understand, I've been damn busy at work recently, trying to get stuff done so I could motor back east for a weeklong visit (which I'll detail at another time).

Even more distressing, though, was that as I was grinding through this tough period at work and looking for occasional distraction online, I discovered that many of my colleagues and peers in the blogosphere had also gone silent. Now, the odds that all these people would also be hit by a major crunch at work, at the very same time as me, seemed remote, especially since we don't work together. How to explain it, then? I don't know. But the sad thing is, these people tricked me into venturing into the blogosphere, and then apparently snuck out and locked the door behind me. So, I have written a song to explore my feelings about this, to the tune of Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." Here goes:

Where have all the bloggers gone
Concords are shriv'ling
Where have all the bloggers gone
Biscuit's just dough
Where have all the bloggers gone
Can't find manuka
When will they ever learn
When will they ever learn

I'll publish the remaining verses once I've completed my Top 50 countdown. Peace out ...

number 17

17. Sonic Youth, Evol. Something tells me I'm gonna catch some flak for this one, too. Because Daydream Nation seems to be the consensus "best" Sonic Youth album; and then, there're the people who are gonna demand Top 10 placement for Sonic Youth; and then, there're the people who've never heard of Sonic Youth (not too many of them, though, fortunately). And of course, also the people who object to excessive use of semi-colons ...

But you know what I say to all of them? Sue me. Just sue me. You don't scare me. The only thing that scares me is ... this freaky album cover. What the heck is up with this album cover? Is she the Blair Witch?

But anyhow, I'm digressing, because I'm a little intimidated at the prospect of writing about Sonic Youth. Their music is deep, man, and I'm not sure if I understand all of it. But I know what I like, and this is the first Sonic Youth album I ever heard (college radio station, freshman year) and still my favorite. "Tom Violence" is such a laconic, beautiful tune, so quintessentially Sonic Youth, and "Star Power" kicks out the jams as much now as it did back then. This was also the first SY album to feature Steve Shelley, who I think is an underappreciated and excellent drummer.

There is some degree of Lifetime Achievement status with this pick, considering how amazing it is that Sonic Youth has lasted as long as they have without ever really compromising their principles (and with 2 of the members being married!). And also, that several of them were apparently almost done in by Daniel Johnston at one point. That's some amazing shit, man. And yes, one could make a case for Daydream Nation (although the songs "Eric's Trip" and "Kissability" annoy me quite a bit for some reason), and maybe an even stronger case for Goo. But given the choice of having any of these play on my headphones when "American Idol" comes on TV, I'm gonna stick with Evol ...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

numbers 18-20

20. Talking Heads, Fear of Music. This is not exactly an obscure album, but probably not the one most people think of when they think 'Talking Heads.' The only song on here that's familiar as a Talking Heads hit is "Life During Wartime," which is a great song but not even one of the best on the album in my OP. David Byrne is a hell of a musician - the Talking Heads earned this Top 20 spot in part for his solo work as well as their own oeuvre - and he was on his game for Fear of Music. Most of the songs are just nouns - Mind, Paper, Electric Guitar, Drugs, etc - all wrapped up in a plain black cover.

Amazing what could happen when David Byrne fixated on a bunch of nouns. "Heaven" is such a great tune, man. You can make a case for 77 over Fear of Music, but I was never the hugest fan of Speaking in Tongue or Little Creatures, so don't go there. (Especially if you're one of those people who still thinks This Year's Model beats Punch the Clock as Elvis Costello's best work, which is just a complete fallacy. More on that later, maybe ...)

19. The Pixies, Doolittle. This will always be the ultimate alternative album to me: the album that these people who worship Van Halen and Aerosmith and so forth will have never heard of, but which blows away the best that Van Halen and Aerosmith and their ilk ever had to offer. Doolittle didn't get played on commercial radio; it didn't pander to AOR programming. All the glory that Doolittle enjoyed was through college radio, and music magazines, and word of mouth. And ... the movie "Pump up the Volume." OK, I'll admit that too.

What more can I say about Doolittle? Every song is great; every song is different. Every song stands on its own, but when you listen to the album straight through they all have their own special part in the overall greatness. The album starts off huge ("Debaser") and finishes huge ("Gouge Away"). There's so much to explore and enjoy in between. And lastly, I never thought I'd see the Pixies live, but I was there a few years ago when they played Bumbershoot during their reunion tour. Boo yah! I thought I'd have to be satisfied for the rest of my life with Number 13 Baby (who were, in fact, a pretty good Pixies cover band), but then the real Pixies came back, and it was just an immensely satisfying experience.

18. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks. Back in the late 80's, Rolling Stone magazine stunned a lot of people by ranking Never Mind the Bollocks as the 2nd-most important rock album, behind only Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. All that I remember from my youth about the Pistols was this story that circulated in my junior high school, about how they pushed safety pins through their cheeks and other depraved sorts of behavior. It wasn't until years later that I heard the album, and maybe a while after that before I really appreciated it. Perhaps you had to be around when it was released to see the impact it had on rock 'n' roll, the spawning of the punk movement, etc. All I know is, it's still a great album. The quality kind of drops off after "God Save the Queen," but there's still some all-time great songs here. The one-two punch of "Holidays in the Sun" and "Bodies" to start the album: hard to beat it.

The ironic thing is, I suspect that if the members of the Sex Pistols knew way back when that they were creating something that would be revered years later as a rock 'n' roll milestone ... well, what would they have done? I think they would've just puked on everyone, or maybe all OD'ed on heroin. Weren't they just trying to piss everyone off? See how ironic that is? You try to piss everyone off, and instead you create a masterpiece ...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

numbers 21-22

22. Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. There's a dude I know who's also doing a Top 50 list, and earlier tonight he mentioned "Bennie & the Jets" in passing, so I figured it was time to bring out GYBR before he beat me to the punch. But really, this album belongs to me. This was one of the very first albums I recall listening to as a kid, on the old record player behind the cabinet in the living room. I didn't actually know how to work the record player: I listened at the whim of my oldest brother. He owned this, and Queen's A Night at the Opera, and some Rush, and sadly also some stuff like April Wine and Nazareth.

I don't know if I really appreciated the brilliance of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at that tender age - I do recall thinking that Elton John seemed like a rather "fancy" guy - but this is one of those albums that's truly stood the test of time. The whole sweeping odyssey of "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding." The blistering pace of "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." The sweet melancholy of the title track. Buh-buh-buh Bennie and the Jets. Sigh. Some of my earliest rock memories! Of course, GYBR also had some clunkers like "Jamaica Jerk Off" ... but what do you expect from a double album? I'm not the absolute hugest Elton John fan in the world, but I think this is his crowning achievement, and undeniably a classic.

21. Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof. Look out! Here comes controversy! Because Philip Glass ... well, you either love him or hate him, or don't know about him. And of the people who love him, I think, very few would choose this album as his most outstanding representation. And maybe it's not, if you judge it critically and weigh its parts and compare it to some modern-day Glassian juggernauts like Einstein on the Beach and Koyaanisqatsi. But ... I love it! I really do. It's got the distinctive Philip Glass sound, and this incredible vibrancy and energy, and then there's Linda Ronstadt warbling these beautiful otherworldly wordless vocals like some siren out of Star Trek, and the theme revolving around people who've experienced alien abduction, and the fact that it debuted in an airport hangar ... damn. It gives me shivers just to think about it.

Maybe some of you people haven't considered this recently, but Philip Glass really is one of the giants of modern American music. Some of you would also mention Steve Reich - OK, what's he done? Maybe he's written some great works; but my point is, Philip Glass has put out 10 times as much great material as some people considered to be American masters. That makes him a giant, and I am trying to include the deserving giants here as much as possible, while also paying tribute to underappreciated works by bands like Young Marble Giants.

(And speaking of giants, anybody out there seen the Watchmen movie? There's one scene in the movie - my favorite part in the book - where Dr. Manhattan secludes himself on Mars. Now, one of my criticisms of the movie was Zack Snyder's erratic and occasionally ham-handed use of music, but his use of "Prophecies" from Koyaanisqatsi in this scene was perfect. Just shows how hard it is to make a great movie without some Philip Glass in the soundtrack. And FYI, once I'm done with all this nonsense, I plan to publish my list of Top 50 Soundtracks; and trust me, Philip Glass is going to f&*!#*ing rule there ...)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

vampire weekend ...

Vampire Weekend, what's the buzz? How do you say "overrated" with a Brooklyn accent? The European tours, the Rolling Stone covers, the glowing reviews: how did this happen? Trust me, in 5 years, there are going to be many people embarrassed by the fact that they bought so heavily into this.

I mean, I have no personal animosity against the band members; I'm sure they're all decent fellows. And if I had gone to a campus party, somewhere back east, and heard Vampire Weekend for the first time there ... I might have talked about it with others afterward. Maybe. I might have found them good for a local college band.

But basically, they've been handed to me, and you, and everyone else, as the Next Big Independent Thing. And that shit don't fly. You feel me?

Vampire Weekend is like Phish Lite, then dialed down just a notch or two. And "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" is the most precious song title of all time. Now, I don't know what a kwassa kwassa is - it may be the coolest f*&#%!!ing thing on the planet, for all I know - but it does NOT belong next to "Cape Cod" in any context, song titles especially.

VW also has this song that sounds exactly like Tom Petty's "Don't Do Me Like That," except the singer does this little squeaky thing with his voice at the end of each line. And that's precious, too.

Did any of you out there mistakenly think I was putting Vampire Weekend in my Top 50? Good god. Once again, it's nothing personal - I was just bitterly disappointed. So much buzz ...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

numbers 23-24

24. Grateful Dead, bootleg tape from the second set of Fillmore East show 10/14/78. All right, I confess that I made this particular one up. I never did become a connoisseur of Grateful Dead bootlegs, though I'm sure there are some legendary shows out there in somebody's cassette player. But my point here is that the Grateful Dead should not be snubbed from Top Albums lists, just because they focused on touring and live shows and treated studio albums as kind of an afterthought. They really were one of the Great American Bands, and deserve their place in the pantheon.

There's a legend that's gone around, people, which says that the first rock show I ever attended was the Grateful Dead. And this particular legend happens to be true: it was the summer of 1984, and I saw them in Saratoga Springs, NY with my brother and some friends. I'm pretty sure I was also the first kid in my high school to be into the Dead. I ended up seeing about 6-7 Dead shows altogether, and it was always a good time. It wasn't just the music - it was a unique cultural experience, kind of like immersing yourself in a huge lost Amazon tribe for a few fascinating hours.

I've never really been a jam-band kind of guy, and I had started to drift away from the Grateful Dead a bit even before Jerry Garcia joined the celestial choir, but they still hold a special place in my memories. And they really did make some great music in their time. RIP, Jerry ...

23. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds. I'm including this one partly under protest. I've had a number of heated arguments with my friend Brian about the place of the Beach Boys in rock 'n' roll history, with him saying "The Beach Boys were so awesome!" and me saying "Eh, they weren't all that." And I knew that if I excluded them from my Top 50 list, there would be a ruckus. So I just figured, "Eh, let's just give the baby his bottle," and decided to do a little research on them.

So, Pet Sounds is pretty much universally acclaimed not just as the Beach Boys' best album, but one of the greatest rock albums of all time. The story goes that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would never have happened without Pet Sounds, since it had such an influence on the Beatles. So I focused on Pet Sounds, listening to it a number of times over. And ... it's good. Really good. Especially because I thought "Hang Onto Your Ego" (not on the original, but included on a re-issue) was originally done by Frank Black, and "God Only Knows" was written as the theme song for Big Love!

(By the way, is there a worse opening credit sequence than Big Love's? I mean, the ice skating and the crack in the ice, etc? It's just dreadful! But I do like Chloe Sevigny. And I also like rock songs with some good French horn. Best French horn player in rock 'n' roll history, in my opinion: John Entwistle. His horning on "Pictures of Lily" rocks!)

Also, I think Brian Wilson is one of the more fascinating figures in rock 'n' roll. One of these days, I'm going to read a biography about him. But in spite of all that, I'm not putting Pet Sounds in my Top 10. Like I said, it's really good, but I just can't put it there. So it'll go here, with the Grateful Dead: a fascinating juxtaposition of bands at opposite ends of the California spectrum.