Since I was recently asked by someone to name my top 5 favorite albums of all time, I thought it would share it with you fine readers! We’re all music lovers here, right? Before I start, I should mention that I am a huge 60’s aficionado and part of the reason is because I truly think that some of the best music was released within that decade. So it will come as no surprise to some when they see that 4 of my favorite albums come from the 1960’s (with one single album coming from the early 1970’s).
So what do I personally look for in music? What makes a “great” album for me? First off, I’m really a fan of the whole “wall of sound” method of making music. Sure, I love Nick Drake’s stuff passionately, especially Pink Moon which is mostly just a guitar and his voice, but playing with lush productions simply appeals to me when you can hear the intricacies working across multiple layers. Organizing and composing those pieces fascinate me to no end. Second, and this may sound basic, but strong songwriting props up any great album. To further elaborate on what “strong songwriting” even means, I would say that it is comprised of creativity and unpredictability. Songs with a chorus that you can see coming a mile away are generally bland and uninteresting; when you have a song that takes a sharp sudden left turn at every verse, bridge and chorus (if there even IS a verse, bridge or chorus), it drags you along for the ride and you become more involved. I think these 5 albums showcase those features brilliantly.
Most importantly, the music here is timeless. It means just as much today as when it was created. It is not tied to an explicit time period or fad, even if it helped usher along mini-revolutions in how music is made and listened to. They explore the boundaries of what music can mean and what exactly an album can accomplish. And so I present, my Top 5 Favorite Albums of All Time!
As soon as you hear the opening blast of distortion for “21st Century Schizoid Man”, you are sucked in. A firm hand from outer space grabs your shoulders and thrusts you into a black void of prog rock, mellotrons and shape-shifting mutant-like song structures that barely resemble songs or structures. The virtuosity on display here is of a gargantuan magnitude from the opening track to the last. If predictability is the enemy then In the Court of the Crimson King is a 45-minute atom bomb.
This album is probably King Crimson’s most definitive and well-known album, which is easy to understand why. The melodies are classic and the execution is pretty much perfect, from the vocals to Robert Fripp’s guitar playing to the saxophones that dot the landscape. It’s a hard album to stick in any specific genre, hopping from hard, metallic psychedelic rock that will rip your fucking head off to elegant suites of music that sounds like majestic Legend of Zelda soundtrack cuts recorded on the highest, greenest hill you can find in the clouds. The fact that this is their debut album makes it all the more impressive, and with a peak this high at the beginning of their career, it was always a struggle to make something else that would come close to topping it.
One of the best selling albums of all time happens to be a space rock opera that amplifies basic elements of human life and blows them up onto a silver screen whose size rivals that of the universe. Heartbeats, time, money, insanity and more populate the black hued spectrum that spews from the clouds. Prior to Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd had gone from the trippy, bugged out distinctly-British psych rock pursued by then-leader Syd Barrett (who would eventually succumb to insanity himself) to entirely experimental fare composed of drones and dark matter sound collages. Listening to Obscured by Clouds (their previous album) is almost akin to listening to an entirely different band. By focusing a bit more on Earth and actual songs with voices and lyrics, they turned years of experimenting inward and out came a classic.
Although some of the lyrics may appear to be simple on paper, the musical backdrops that prop them up add heavy doses of mood and pathos, turning them more into a coherent whole, greater than the sum of their parts. Each song, each instrument has its place, its own space and perfect timing. The same could be said of the myriad effects used on the guitars which can glide and soar on one song before taking off into a bubbly ocean of flange on the next. It was a moment that saw a band of weirdos hit their peak and break into the mainstream, altering rock history and showing that is possible to make a slightly experimental pop rock album that can hit the masses. Maybe we are all a little weird after all.
The Zombies had a curious little career in the 60’s. They had hits in the form of “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” but still struggled to be seen in the same light as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, which is a shame because the Zombies could do pure blissful pop just as well as the both of them. What helps make them distinct is the use of jazz style chords and melodies mixed in with the Brit-pop sound. At the time, it may have been a little too much though as their later singles struggled to maintain the same amount of success.
So going into Odessey and Oracle, the group knew that it would probably be the last album they ever made together. This could explain the melancholy moods that turn biting and even nostalgic at times. The music here is simultaneously uplifting and challenging, a flowery descent into a trippy rock landscape featuring songs about getting out of jail that sound cheerier than that double-dream hands dude. “Beechwood Park” is perfect summertime music as is their biggest hit, “Time of the Season”, which coincidentally smashed US airwaves 2 years after the album first landed, at which point the band had already separated.
My favorite track on this album is probably “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)”, a decidedly political, anti-Vietnam track that is unsettling, harsh, and even a bit scary. The lyrics are extremely descriptive and the instruments are dark and sparse, relying mostly on Chris White’s brittle voice, which builds and builds into one of the most climatic choruses I have ever heard. This song along with others (such as “Hung Up On a Dream”) help Odessey and Oracle transcend the other Brit-pop albums of the time by simply refusing to sound like anything else.
This is the album that helped launch the infamous Summer of Love in 1967. When looking at this era of music, it is easy to see a pre-Sgt. Pepper and post-Sgt. Pepper musical world. Prior to this album, the Beatles had moved up quite ahead with Revolver, an album that relied more on studio sophistication than live in-the-room band play, providing a break for the Beatles who were tired of trekking across the globe in their never-ending, super stressful world tours. Free from the weight of worrying about how they were going to tour the increasingly complex music they were creating, they were able to produce stream-of-conscious music that replicated the auras and sounds they heard in their LSD-induced brains.
Sgt. Pepper is a concept album which sees the band as an entirely different band, a group of mannequins and personalities they can hide behind. Although many say there are only 3 tracks that really fit into the concept album idea of Sgt. Pepper (the title track, “With a Little Help From My Friends” and the reprise of the title track), I disagree. What makes this album so great is that each song sounds like a distinct flavor, it’s own colorful pond isolated from the others, and yet dripping from one end to the next until the final E-chord pounding that wraps up “A Day in the Life”. Each track could come from a different band and no one would know the difference. In their own special way, they tucked their Beatles persona into a closet and indulged in their own creativity. Sometimes when you give a person a mask, they become truer to themselves than you have ever seen them.
“Getting Better” is a poppy, hook laden song with some very dark twists (including lyrics like “I used to be cruel to my woman/ I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved”), “She’s Leaving Home” recounts the story of a teenaged runaway (Fun fact: it is 1 of only 2 Beatles songs where none of the band members play a single instrument), “Within You Without You” is beamed from a completely different spiritual planet, and “When I’m Sixty-Four” seems like it could have been written by your dad or grandfather. And yet, no song is wasted, nor are any of the notes. Despite each track being so different from each other, they fit perfectly when sequenced as a whole. It’s a strange, strange beast but thanks to the sheer power of the songs, works beautifully.
What really sets this album apart for me is the sheer creativity that was afforded to the Beatles. They never wanted any single instrument or sound to seem ‘normal’. Everything was either heavily compressed, ran backwards, cut to pieces, flanged, delayed, echoed, you name it. They vastly expanded the pop/rock landscape and forever changed music by showing what could be done with a couple of chords and melodies, how you could bend and stretch each part beyond what you would normally think is malleable. The biggest band in the world had officially gone weird and it all felt completely right.
Although many like to point to Who’s Next as the definitive Who album, it will forever always be Tommy that holds the top spot in my heart. It is hard to describe the impact it had upon me when I first listened to it. To be frank, I wasn’t even really a fan of the Who at the time. I was still reveling in my own personal Beatlemania and viewed the Who as lesser-thans, a famous bunch who may have been good in their day but have not aged very well musically. I wasn’t impressed with “Baba O’Reilly” and “Magic Bus” and it took a co-worker of mine who kept praising Tommy over and over again before I finally gave it a shot…and even then, it was still more on a whim than anything.
I had just moved from Oklahoma to Nashville and was scoping out the local shops by my old apartment complex. Nestled next to a giant grocery store and Starbucks was the local CD Exchange, barely the size of a suburban living room but stuffed back to front with racks of CDs. I was perusing the selection and talking with an audibly upset friend on my flip-top cellphone when, going through the W’s (probably looking for some Weezer or White Stripes), I happened upon a deluxe CD set of Tommy. “Here it is”, I thought, “that one damn album my co-worker wouldn’t shut up about.” It also didn’t help that my co-worker seemed to be a little bit challenged when it came to everything else in life, not to mention asking me for advice on where he would need to go if he wanted to buy a CD player since his tape player is starting to break down (keep in mind, this was the mid 2000s). If he didn’t even know the answer to that question, how seriously should I take his musical preferences?
For a deluxe set, it was remarkably cheap so I decided to take the gamble. I bought the album and rushed out, trying to calm down my friend and head home. Later that evening, with nothing to do since I was now officially a broke-ass college student whose lunch and dinner would consist mostly of hot dogs and cheap pasta, I stuck the album in my stereo and gave it a listen. For the first five minutes, I wondered what the hell kind of band the Who actually was this whole time, with horns and acoustic guitars criss-crossing every corner. When it launched from the opening “Overture” to “It’s a Boy” and “1921”, I finally began to grasp the ‘rock-opera’ term that had been bandied about so much in reference to the album. Not only were the songs supremely good but they all fit perfectly, cohesively, telling one giant double-album story that was dramatic, heartbreaking, and exhilarating.
“1921” was a sad affair, “Eyesight to the Blind” gave me chills, “Cousin Kevin” was disturbing in a completely realistic way, and the rest of the songs provided a roller coaster of life revolving around a deaf, dumb and blind boy named Tommy growing into the seedy world that would consume him wholly. Prior to listening to this album, I never knew that music was capable of doing this. Well, more specifically, rock music. I had been to a few operas when I was younger thanks to school field trips and even been to a few symphonies as well, so I knew what all could be done with music as a whole. But this was something different, this was something that felt completely primal, hitting closer to home than an 80-piece orchestra could do to me at the time.
And then they ended it with one of the most glorious, epic album closing tracks of all time: “See Me Feel Me”. What a mountain of a song, pure glorious emotion set to an escalating hard rock bashing. In that moment, I became a true fan of the Who. I suddenly got it. And Tommy forever became my favorite album, by showing me a new side to an art form that I didn’t know was possible.
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