The best albums of the rock era
Every ten years the British monthly Sight and Sound publishes its listing of the best films ever made. In 1982 Hitchcock’s great Vertigo was placed in joint seventh position. Nothing remarkable in that, perhaps, until one looks at the other lists: by 1992 it had jumped into second place and wasn’t listed prior to 1982 although it was released in 1958! Why the delay in seeing the significance of this work, once described by Time magazine as “a Hitchcock and bull story”?
Since the film hadn’t altered, the answer must be that the passage of time changes one’s perceptions, bringing into sharper focus the antecedents and subsequent influences. As the late Robert Palmer puts it in Dancing In The Street: A Rock and Roll History: “Some records come on like gangbusters but don’t hold up. Others have more subtle virtues that become apparent only after some time has elapsed”. Hence it follows that, with one exception, selections are more than ten years old with some well into their fourth decade. Wheelchair access is off to the left.
What follows is my choice with the first nine in random order, keeping the best for last. Simple arithmetic applies: one can’t fit any more than 10 albums into a “top ten” list. This initial frustration gave way to fascination and, ultimately, a whole lot of fun!
If I’d been asked to do the exercise last year or the year before that, chances are that the entries would have been different. But not by much. Be assured that Pet Sounds, Astral Weeks, The Velvet Underground and Nico and lots more drifted in and out as the selection crystallised – and that Christmas With Boney M and The Best of Rick Astley never stood a chance.
Lists like these invite rejoinders such as “How could you have overlooked…”, “Whatever happened to…” and have been known to instigate heated debate and even sarcastic put-downs (think High Fidelity)!
I’ve shown you mine. Now show me yours.
This Boston quartet were at the forefront of the American indie/alternative guitar white-out when this album was released in 1989.
The group takes a straightforward rock song, disembowels it and then puts the bits back together, with some of the entrails still protruding, in the wrong order.
Or so it seems at first. Then it all makes perfect sense. Groundbreaking when first encountered, it remains fearfully thrilling.
A double LP released within a year of the almost-as-great Highway 61 Revisited. By now he had, to initial public dismay, ditched the folkie-protest song thing and moved into uncharted waters, searching for the “thin, wild mercury sound” he heard in his head as he wrote these songs. Bob found just that in a crack team of Nashville session musicians – plus crucial inserts from some members of The Band – who back him on this monumental collection about… well, who knows who “the dancing child in his Chinese suit” is, why a mattress should balance on a bottle of wine or why Marie’s balcony is in ruins?
Not Only But Also Department: After seven years of writer’s block, Bob surprised everyone with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind which is introspective and overflowing with the realisation of his mortality. A claustrophobic album despite its spacious production, it includes Not Dark Yet, Dylan’s greatest song in a quarter century.
Ely’s composing and spirited performing skills were first captured in 1972 as he and fellow Texans Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, calling themselves The Flatlanders, recorded More A Legend Than A Band which was not made available until 1990. My pick of his releases is this one from 1978 on which he makes Gilmore’s Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown – with Lloyd Maines on slide guitar – his own, covers Hancock’s Jericho and weighs in with five originals including the honky-tonk Fingernails and the terrific title track. If the moniker “country-rock” brings to mind the likes of Kenny Rogers, Billy Ray Cyrus and Shania Twain and tempts you to scroll down to the next entry, stop right there: this is a flat-out good-time album with the emphasis on rock rather than country.
Not Only But Also Department: Two years later came the first, and best, of his three concert albums, Live Shots.
His uncles Alfred and Lionel have scored many Hollywood productions and Randy, too, has composed music for Ragtime, Performance and more latterly the two Toy Story films. Such is the admiration of other singers that a list of those who have covered his songs includes Three Dog Night (Mama Told Me Not To Come), Alan Price (Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear), Peggy Lee, Judy Collins, Harry Nilsson, Nina Simone and Ray Charles.
This, his second release from 1970, embraces folk, ragtime and jazz carried by his distinctive piano-picking style and is eccentric, humorous, pithy, wistful and ironic:Suzanne tells of an obscene phone call while Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield is fuelled by Ry Cooder’s eerie slide guitar. His first homage to the South — he was born in New Orleans — is My Old Kentucky Home and he would return to Louisiana four years later for his song-cycle Good Old Boys. And those manuals in the plain brown wrappers are right: size isn’t important. This album of a dozen top-drawer gems clocks in at under 30 minutes.
Not Only But Also Department: His first non-movie album in more than a decade, Bad Love, was released in 1999.
Having left Fairport Convention, this British folk guitarist and songwriter made half a dozen stellar albums with his erstwhile wife Linda of which this one and I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight are my favourites.
His guitar style is at times dazzling without ever being flashy or self-indulgent. And songs like Just The Motion and Withered And Died break your heart every time.
Not Only But Also Department: Richard will be performing in Auckland on February 3, 2001.
Mid-1966 and the touring stopped. So the Beatles moved into their “middle period” and made full use of all the wizardry that the Abbey Road studios, and producer George Martin, could offer.
This one isn’t as famous as Sgt. Pepper but it’s here because it includes Paul’s most endearing ballads (Here, There And Everywhere and For No One), the Ravi Shankar-fixation that George was going through doesn’t overwhelm proceedings and he invents a top-that-if-you-can riff for And Your Bird Can Sing, everyone can sing along with Yellow Submarine, and it goes out with the genre-defying Tomorrow Never Knows, which was actually the first track recorded for the album. The single from the same sessions, Paperback Writer backed with Rain, really belongs here too.
Descended from Malian royalty and possessing one of the most striking voices on the continent, Keita was a highlight of the first Auckland WOMAD Festival in 1997. Since “world music” has become a convenient grab-bag for most musics not of UK/US lineage, this album, with its guitar and brass backing and heady mix of vocal ecstasy and musical excitement, should more properly be termed “Afro-pop”.
The pleasures range from the gentle sway of the almost-reggae Dakan-Fe to the dramatic centrepiece Mandjou. Who cares that one can’t understand the lyrics when they’re this infectious?
Not Only But Also Department: Immigres by Youssou N’Dour.
From the Wild Bunch DJ collective in Bristol in the UK came this seminal release in a style that became known as trip-hop.
Mixing hip-hop with a sprinkling of reggae and dub, this album re-launched the career of Horace Andy and gave notice of the talents of Tricky – who would cement his status with his debut Maxinquaye – and the soul diva Shara Nelson.
Her song Unfinished Sympathy, with its sparse orchestration and ghostly overdubs, is one of the defining singles of the 90s.
Eric Clapton p(l)ays homage to the blues (Key To The Highway and Have You Ever Loved A Woman), turns in superb rockers (I Looked Away and Anyday) and a lovely reading of Hendrix’s Little Wing, and duets ferociously with ace slide guitarist Duane Allman. Not forgetting Layla, Clapton’s ode to George Harrison’s wife Patti.
The composer recently said of this song: “I’m terribly proud of it. To have ownership of something that powerful is something I’ll never be able to get used to.” The studio was famously awash with drugs at the time… little wonder that producer Tom Dowd later described the 1970 sessions as “frightening”!
And my all-time favourite is…
Rustic, sepia-toned songs of failed crops, hellish thunderstorms and unfaithful servants composed not – as one might at first assume – by some long-forgotten American recluse but by a contemporary Canadian named Robbie Robertson. He’s accompanied by three more Canadians and a drummer from Arkansas and, when released in 1969 between the fading dream of flower power and the Woodstock festival, the record was simultaneously not of its time and also timeless. The peerless ensemble work, the less-is-more guitar approach by Robertson, Garth Husdon’s swirling Lowry organ playing plus harmonies that could have come from heaven… all these and more make this my all-time favourite desert island disc.
Not Only But Also Department: The best gets even better! This record – plus its predecessor Music From Big Pink and two successors Stage Fright and Cahoots – were reissued in August 2000. Some of the additional tracks are minor variants, some were originally issued on The Basement Tapes in 1975 (the lovely Bessie Smith may be their greatest recording) and, after years of bootlegging, we at last officially get to hear their definitive studio take on an early Motown single, Don’t Do It. All of which served to confirm my earlier conviction thatThe Band is the finest album ever.