Thursday, March 11, 2010
14 Albums That Mean a Lot to Me
Live in Cook County Jail (1971)
Around the same time, B.B. recorded Live at the Regal, which is considered one of the great post-war blues albums. Live in Cook County Jail has a similar set list, and while the musicianship is a step below Live at the Regal, it's B.B.'s interaction with the inmate crowd that strikes me every time I hear Live in Cook County Jail. Playing to a theater crowd is so very different from playing outdoors to a group of inmates, and B.B. capitalizes on this. Know your audience and play to them...
Stark and depressing, Nebraska is my favorite Springsteen album. Recorded in his kitchen on guitar and harmonica, the exceptional songwriting shines through. Without the E Street Band, the musicianship is a step below every other Springsteen effort, but musicianship, in Springsteen's case, is secondary to fine storytelling.
The Healer (1989)
John Lee Hooker
Practically a tribute to a (at the time) living legend, 'Hook' is joined by a mind-boggling array of guests, each dove-tailing with Hooker's unique, droning style. Highlights include Carlos Santana on the title track and Bonnie Raitt on "I'm in the Mood," but there's really not a track here that isn't simply a classic. Yet, with all of the assembled star-power, The Healer is undoubtedly a John Lee Hooker album. Greatness like Hook's simply can't be overshadowed.
The Joshua Tree (1987)
When music historians look back on the 1980's, I hope they take a hard look at The Joshua Tree. I think it's the best pop album of my generation. In fact, its biggest flaw is that after the first three songs ("Where the Streets Have No Name"' "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and" With or Without You" ), the rest of the album has a hard time measuring up to that blazing start. But the rest of the album is great. It was amazing to see the U2 of the early 80's (a simple guitar band who I liked a lot) morph into the global phenomenon that they are today. It all started with The Joshua Tree.
Midnight Stroll (1990)
Robert Cray has probably made five better albums than Midnight Stroll, but it makes my list because, as I went through my life, the songs on this album just spoke to me in a personal way. "The Forecast" foreshadowed the troubles I'd have in my marriage when I heard it in a Deadwood casino, "Consequences" was a warning, "Labor of Love" was an eye-opener that got me out of a bad relationship. There's more, but I think we'll leave it at that.
I used to love MTV Unplugged. To me, it was fascinating to see bands take familiar songs and break them down to their core elements, playing acoustic versions of classics. I had owned Gordon for months before I realized that it was, pretty much, all acoustic. I was more surprised with my realization that it lacked nothing (except electricity). Fine songwriting, excellent musicianship and a sense of fun abound on the band's first outing. Gordon taught me that acoustic music is alive and can be a lot of fun!
Horny Holidays (1992)
Mojo Nixon and the Toadliquors
Every December, I spend a good amount of time inside the twisted mind of Mojo Nixon. A novelty Christmas disk, to be sure, but Horny Holidays has its share of fine musicianship in reworkings of newer vintaged Christmas classics like "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" and "Run Run Rudolph." Let's face it, though, you're not listening to a Mojo Nixon Christmas album in a search for fine musicianship. That's where songs like "It's Christmas Time" and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" (where we're introduced to Horny Claus, the illegitimate spawn of Santa Claus' dad and the Easter Bunny's mama) come in. When it comes to Mojo, nothing is sacred...
Black & White (1995)
James Harman Band
Harman is a pretty good vocalist and harmonica player (his solo on "The Second Voyage of Noah's Ark" is probably my favorite harp solo, and I own a LOT of Little Walter), but it's his songwriting that gets Black & White onto this list. Songs like "Hollywood Girls" and "Lock Doctor" are humorous takes on things James saw (once while stuck in traffic!). All Harman songs tend to be funny without being 'jokey'. Humor is always all around us, but that's no reason to beat people over the head with it - let the humor shine through on its own.
It Happened One Night (1996)
I could have listed any Holly Cole album here, but I've always had a love for a fine concert album. Cole primarily performs covers, always making exceptional choices. Her handling of heavy material like Tom Waits' "Tango 'Til They're Sore" is done expertly, adding another layer to an already excellent song. Covers are done her way, but always with the utmost respect to the original.
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999)
Ben Folds Five
Messner was a huge departure from BFF's previous albums. It was less raw, more thoughtful. It was richly textured, breaking away from the band's Piano/Bass/Drums roots, adding synthesizers, a horn section and an orchestra (the powerful Pink Floyd-esque ending on "Regrets"). It's a band being less sarcastic, more serious and growing musically. Unfortunately, the public didn't care and the band broke up after Messner's release. When dealing with the public, always be careful exhibiting artistic growth.
Ben Folds Live (2002)
After the breakup of Ben Fold's Five, Ben recorded the fantastic Rockin' the Suburbs which was a departure from everything BFF had done. Ben Folds Live was from a tour supporting Suburbs, but was, for the most part, Ben alone on piano playing stripped-down versions of BFF classics and songs from Suburbs. When doing songs from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Ben gets the audience involved, having them sing vocal parts ("Not the Same") or horn parts ("Army"). Make your audience a part of the show and they will love you for it.
The best guitarist you've never heard of, with a sweet voice that's usually overwhelmed by her gritty instrumental style, Sue Foley throws us a nice curve here with a mellow acoustic set. The result is stunning (plus she's an absolute babe and looks her best on this album cover). Her originals are excellent, her interpretations of Memphis Minnie classics put a nice twist on the originals, but her cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" is so unexpected from a blues master that it makes me realize that it's unfair to try to keep her in a 'blues box'. A great musician is a great musician, no matter what she's playing.
While I'm not particularly a 'jazz guy', two jazz albums have made a real impact on me.
Time Out (1959)
The Dave Brubeck Quartet
At it's heart, an experimental jazz album exploring various, non-standard time signatures, Time Out would simply be an oddity if each song didn't stand out as a song and not just some experiment. It wouldn't work if every time you heard "Take Five" you immediately thought of the 5/4 time signature. The point is, musical experimentation is fine, but it still has to be musically compelling or else it's pointless. With intricate melodies and inspired chord progressions, Time Out is anything but pointless
Coltrane Plays the Blues (1962)
Giant Steps and A Love Supreme are probably more highly regarded Coltrane albums, but the rich, building complexity of "Mr. Knight" and "Mr. Syms" never fail to grab me. Full of wonderful dynamic changes, Coltrane Plays the Blues is the perfect album for long drives, keeping my mind engaged without being distracting.