Yep, we’re making a list. Two separate lists, actually, so the above graphic is a bit misleading. Accounting for the limited overlap in Todd’s and Chris’ lists, it’s more like the top 174 or something like that.
Anyway, after months of scientific analysis, hours of listening and re-listening to albums from years gone by, we have arrived at a definitive list of the top albums ever recorded. Our research is not open to interpretation, but you’re more than welcome to complain about the fact that your favorite albums aren’t on this list; we’ll simply respond by telling you that your favorite records aren’t really all that good.
Here are some spoilers: you’re not going to find the typical hipster stuff like Neutral Milk Hotel or Slint or even stuff one/both of us actually likes such as DJ Shadow or Pavement. This isn’t Rolling Stone so you’re not going to find Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pet Sounds at the top. Wham’s Make It Big was snubbed.
We’re not going to roll it all out at once; no sense rushing through all this quality music! But Music or Space Shuttle? is gonna be pretty busy over the next two months.
That’s enough of an intro. Let’s get on with it…
(click play button below to sample these five albums)
15. Tricky, Maxinquaye
14. Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights
13. The Cure, Pornography
12. Portishead, Dummy
11. The Beatles, The Beatles
A CLOSER LOOK AT…
#15: Tricky, Maxinquaye
Trip-hop can be divided into two columns: the amazing (Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky) and the generic coffeehouse variety (everyone else who followed). But even if these Bristolites caused inferior imitation, they did provide an imprint that still sounds cool today. And where Massive Attack thrived on chill groove and Tracey Thorn, and Portishead incorporated more turntable scratching, brass, and Beth Gibbons, the young man known as Tricky was all over the place…in a good way. Dark, textured, truly interdisciplinary music with beats big enough to satisfy the “hop” crowd and eccentricities that worked for the “trip” audience.
The thing that struck me about this album upon first listen was how well he incorporated other people’s material into his own warped vision. Consider a three-song stretch in the album’s first half, where Tricky covers a Public Enemy song (“Black Steel,” with female vocalist Martina Topley-Bird handling the Chuck D rhymes), samples his friends from Portishead on an eerie song aptly titled “Hell Is Round the Corner*, and then works the drums and guitar bits from the Smashing Pumpkins’ song “Suffer” into his song, respectfully titled, um, “Pumpkin.” So he covers a song by my favorite rap act, samples a current band that I love, and then samples my favorite group from the Alternative Nation gang…and does all that in a way that allows him room to do his own thing with the material or accent his songs with the samples, rather than a rote cover or using the samples as the primary element of the songs a la Puff Daddy.
(* – “Hell Is Round the Corner,” found in my sampler above, was used by the show Rescue Me during a scene depicting the aftermath of a tragic death in Tommy Gavin’s family. You’d have thought the song was written specifically for that scene. Incredible.)
And on the album’s opener, “Overcome,” Tricky took some lyrics he had given to Massive Attack (which they used for the song “Karmacoma,” a somewhat upbeat tune*, and showed the old boys how it was supposed to sound. Martina’s voice and her looped gasps pierce through the atmospheric keyboards and persistent thump of the drums, creating an ominous yet sexy song. When she sings, “You sure you wanna be with me? I’ve nothing to give…but I’ll lie and say this loving’s best,” accented by those aforementioned gasps, I find myself saying, “Um, yes. Yes I do.”
(* – I would be willing to be that “Overcome” has equal/greater BPM than “Karmacoma,” but I would never describe “Overcome” as upbeat. It’s all about the mood, the tone.)
The album has extended grooves (“Aftermath”), slightly abbreviated grooves (“Abbaon Fat Tracks”), aggressive jams (“Brand New You’re Retro”), and one truly bizarre track toward the end (“Strugglin'”) that truly makes you question the guy’s sanity. A decade and a half after trip-hop arrived, I still find myself enjoying this album…maybe not as much as I did when I was 21, but enough to deem it #15.
#11: The Beatles, The Beatles
My dad had four proper Beatles albums in his LP collection: Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Magical Mystery Tour. So I had the luxury of listening to the Beatles at a pretty early age. But he didn’t have anything after that; he explained to me that he got a lot of his records from the radio station at St. Ambrose, and he transferred to Illinois for his DVM studies in 1968, before the “White Album” came out. (Indeed, his copy of Sgt. Pepper’s has the call letters “KSAR” written in one of the upper corners of the cover.)
So I did what any self-respecting fan would do: I found one of the cool girls in my class and asked her if she had the “White Album” and if so could I please borrow it and record it to one of my various TDK blank tapes? (File sharing at its best.)
And so began my love affair with the wonderfully varied (scattershot, some might say) double album, one that was among my first 10 CD purchases when I made the move to the newer medium. I listened to it over and over, night and day, forward and backward…which, of course, led to me believing there were myriad hidden messages suggesting riots and new world orders and who knows what else (not really).
(I don’t subscribe to the Charlie Manson school of thought; I don’t buy all the subliminal messaging, or at least not his translation of them. However, there is that part at the end of the song “I’m So Tired” that sounds like gibberish. When that is played backward, it does sound just a little bit like “Paul is dead, man, miss him, we miss him, miss him!” in that typical backmasking kind of way. I assume it is either coincidence or the Beatles having a bit of fun with the urban legend. They were known to use reversed sound in their music, as early as 1966 with vocals on the song “Rain.”)
My original acquisition of the “White Album” coincided with the peak of my Beatles obsession. I would grab my Walkman and my “White Album” tape and go for walks around town almost every night that I wasn’t making pies at Pizza Hut, just so I could spend 90 minutes alone with my thoughts and the Beatles piping into my ears. (Exercise by accident!) My friend David and I had scored a book via interlibrary loan that detailed the Beatles’ studio recordings, and it painted quite a dreary picture of the band during the “White Album” era. It seemed like there were quite a few songs where the instrumentation was documented as such:
“Mother Nature’s Son” (Lennon/McCartney)
- Paul McCartney: vocals, acoustic guitar, timpani, bass drum
- John Lennon: not present
- George Harrison: not present
- Ringo Starr: not present
- George Martin: brass arrangement
But so what, even if the album was ironically named after a unified group? The tunes, all 30 of them, are at the very least intriguing and often outstanding, and to my ears the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It never bothered me that it jumped around a bit; you can grab one of the numerous bloated 80-minute rap albums that came out after the CD era exploded. (THAT is monotony.) I loved the quirky stuff like “Wild Honey Pie” and “Martha My Dear” (an ode to Paul’s dog) and “Piggies” and “Rocky Raccoon”*. We got four George songs instead of one or two, including one of the best songs in the entire Beatles catalog (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”).
(* – Shortly after I borrowed the tapes from the cool girl in my class, a couple of her good friends, older dudes I got along with just fine but didn’t typically hang out with, came up to me during Advanced Keyboarding class and asked me how I liked the “White Album.” I told them I really dug it, while also wondering if an invite to get high in the parking lot was soon to follow. The follow-up statement from one of the dudes: “Isn’t ‘Rocky Raccoon’ a great song?” What else could I say but a statement of agreement? I never thought I’d be bonding with anyone because of the song “Rocky Raccoon”; proof that anything is possible.)
Anyway, where was I… We got the nice Paul moments like “Blackbird,” “I Will,” and the aforementioned “Mother Nature’s Son.” We got the John rock ‘n’ roll tunes like “Yer Blues” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.” Paul rocks out with “Helter Skelter”; John gets wistful on “Julia” and “Cry Baby Cry.” You get “Dear Prudence,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (Corky!), a slowed-down version of “Revolution,” “Birthday,” and arguably my favorite song on the album, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” And the album closes with “Good Night,” a song I used to sing to my son at bedtime when he was just a little tyke.
Even “Revolution 9” is worth exploring from time to time, just to pick out the various sounds woven into the fabric.
This is one of two consecutive double albums in my countdown. What will be at #10? Come back Monday…
(click play button below to sample these five albums)
15. Jane’s Addiction, Ritual De lo Habitual
14. The Beatles, Abbey Road
13. Smashing Pumpkins, Gish
12. Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction
11. Prince, Sign O’ the Times
A CLOSER LOOK AT…
#13: Smashing Pumpkins, Gish
Where to start here? Like Chris who ranked it at #17, Gish was a hugely defining album for me. It sort of blew me away the instant I heard it and destroyed every preconceived opinion I had about music and what was good.
I first heard Smashing Pumpkins on the radio show Off the Beaten Track. If you read my post about Pixies Trompe le Monde then you will remember that this was a show that played exclusively alternative and indie music. It was on late night on Sundays and I would stay up and listen until I fell asleep. Often I would record these shows and replay what I missed later. On one of these tapes I discovered Gish. Well part of Gish. During the show they played 2 songs from the album. “I Am One” and “Siva.” I fast forwarded the tape immediately to try and find out the name of the artist. The DJs briefly talked about the songs and maybe goofed on the name Smashing Pumpkins a bit but the big revelation was that they were going to play Gish after the show. After every show they played a new album in its entirety.
So I fast forwarded some more to the end of the show hoping I had enough tape to catch the whole album. I was elated as “I Am One” came over the speakers. I’d heard that one earlier but that was fine, there was new songs coming. Thinking I was going to be hearing the whole album I cranked up the volume sat back and enjoyed. I loved how lead singer Billy Corgan’s voice was franticly snarling and screaming out the lyrics. His guitar work was filthy and grimy (notice I didn’t write grungy) and I couldn’t get enough. Next up was “Siva”; great tune but I had heard that one already too. I was getting impatient for something new. Finally, the third song “Rhinoceros” came on and I was enjoying its blissed out psychedelic dreaminess when the tape cut off. Blurgh!!! I had to hear more!
The next weekend I went to the record store at the mall to grab my very own copy. Unfortunately, they didn’t sell it. I think the dopey record store guy thought I was kidding when I told him the band’s name was Smashing Pumpkins. I should have known better than to go to the mall anyways. Back in the day if you wanted hard to get or more underground artists you had to go to Co-Op Tapes and Records. The mall had the chicks but Co-Op had the selection. So I buzzed over to the nearest location and asked the hipster dude at the counter if they had Smashing Pumpkins. He seemed truly impressed. Must not have been everyday that preppy 16 year olds came in asking for that record. He grabbed me a copy and I immediately threw it in the car tape deck. The rest of the day I drove around playing Gish over and over.
Since then, I’ve met several guys with similar stories to me. They loved Smashing Pumpkins and were the first people in there town/school/state to listen to them. They talk as though they were the area ambassadors for the band and introduced them to the world. I can say I did not do this. I didn’t hoist the Smashing Pumpkins banner and wave it for everyone to see. I did tell a couple of my friends about them but mostly I kept quiet. The band was just for me. It stayed that way until their next record came out and they truly unleashed the awesomeness…
#11: Prince, Sign O’ the Times
I’ve been trying to write a blurb about the album Sign O’ the Times for a while now. Things have been slow because I’ve been busy messing with technology issues. This is ridiculous, how am I supposed to get inspiration when I can’t get to the online streaming database and listen to the record at 320 bit digital perfection? First, the internets weren’t working. Then, once I got the modem online the Wi-Fi wouldn’t connect to my laptop. So I tried my phone’s Wi-Fi hotspot. Two songs in, I realized that I was using way too much data. My cell provider will send me an enormous bill if I go over my allotted gigabytes. What was I to do?
Then I started thinking about my first copy of Sign O’ the Times. It was a dubbed cassette tape from my brother. We didn’t have a dual tape deck so I just pushed my tape deck next to his and hit play on his and record on mine. I stuck this crude contraption in the closet so it wouldn’t pick up sound from the TV in the other room. A valiant effort but during the song “Adore” you could still hear Hawkeye arguing with Hot Lips Houlihan from the M.A.S.H. rerun my Dad was watching. At one crucial point in “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” you could hear my mother telling me or my brother to take out the trash. Not a perfect system but it worked. What more did I need? I wanted to hear the songs and didn’t care if it was a perfect digital copy or not.
I remember having a lot of music recorded that way. If you looked in my cassette tape storage unit back then (shoe box), you would have found dozens of tapes with songs recorded off of the radio. I used to spend hours listening to the local pop stations waiting for specific songs. Who cared if the DJ was talking up the first 30 seconds of the song as long as you got enough of the song to jump around your room singing Su-Su-Sudio? It really was the earliest form of music pirating. Much more difficult, but way more satisfying. You really had to work to get that free version of “One Night in Bangkok.”
Technology makes things so easy now. If I want to listen to any song in my over 100 gig music library,* I just tap the screen on my phone or iPad and wireless speakers start playing. If I want to listen in the car, I plug my iPod or phone into the stereo and hit play. What I wouldn’t have given for that back when I rode around with $1000 worth of CDs in my car. Back then, if you told me we were going to have a device like the iPod, I would have expected there to be flying cars and robot prostitutes too. It would have seemed impossible.
*(Believe me I’m not bragging, I know people that have Napstered and BitTorrented there way to ten times that amount. All my music was paid for (wink) and obtained legally (wink). I’m no pirate. Arrrrr!)
And just like I couldn’t imagine file sharing and streaming music services back then, I can’t imagine what is coming next. Things change so fast. 12 years ago I didn’t own a cell phone or personal PC. Since then, I have had 10 cell phones, 2 smart phones, 4 PCs, and 2 tablets. What? I have to stay plugged in. I need to be notified in the middle of the night when I can save $20 dollars on Zappos.com and how else can I find out which boner pills are guaranteed to satisfy.
So, in closing, Sign O’ the Times is real real good.
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I had the “One Night in Bangkok” 45 RPM record. #winning
I recorded The Cure in Orange concert video onto audio cassette in the same style you mentioned in the Sign o’ the Times write-up: boom box against TV set. It sounded so bad, but so good, too. If I turned the treble all the way down and the bass all the way up, it sounded halfway decent.
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