Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Top 20 albums

After an unusually quiet week last week I had a exciting and stimulating weekend filled with music, performances and friends. Friday night was my company's annual picnic, but since Puck couldn't make it this year, I didn't stick around for very long. I bid on a few silent auction items, but didn't win anything, and I didn't do the drawing this year (which resulted in a free hair cut and color appointment for Puck two years ago).

Saturday started out cloudy and cool, so I walked over to Ess-a-Bagel for brunch and then took the subway down to The Rack to pick up another dress on which I had alterations done. I walked through the Greenmarket in Union Square and picked up some cider and pickles before heading home for a nap before it was time to meet Kristina to try the Hedwig lottery. Kristina was very optimistic going in, and I was the third name picked! Our tickets were fifth row orchestra left, and a few seats in from the aisle.

We came back to TSMC to chat for the 90 minutes before the show and then headed back down at 7. Such are the advantages of living three blocks from the theater! The show was fun and the music was great, but I had some trouble following the plot as it was difficult to hear some of the dialogue. But it was a solid rock show and I'm glad I got to see it. We went out for dinner at John's Shanghai afterward - our usual adventuresome choices of soup dumplings and beef tongue and tripe in chili oil (Kristina's first time eating beef tongue).

Sunday Liz invited me to Union Square for Diana Oh's "My Lingerie Play" performance that consists of about 30 women wearing undergarments standing in a line on their soapboxes and holding up signs denouncing rape culture and supporting female sexual empowerment. Kacey, Becker and Storm were also there to document the event. Liz performed in a cute (and modest) yellow polka-dot nightgown. I could only stay for about half an hour before I had to leave for Williamsburg to attend Classic Album Sundays, which featured one of my all time favorite albums this month, Jeff Buckley's "Grace."

As a special bonus, the event featured Gary Lucas, the co-writer and guitarist for the first two tracks, "Mojo Pin" and "Grace," who signed my vinyl copy of the album and performed after the listening session with singer Caroline Cotto. They did live acoustic renditions of the two songs from the album, and Gary performed a few additional compositions of his own on guitar. It was such a privilege to listen to the artist that contributed to such an important work as "Grace." Since of course Buckley perished in a swimming accident after recording this singular debut album, this is about as close as we can get to an authentic performance of this work.

CAS this month inspired me to think about making a list of my top all-time favorite/most influential albums. Also, it's been fueled by all the lists of movies and books that have been making the rounds on Facebook recently. So for my album list, I wanted to include those that are more than just a bunch of hits (e.g. Michael Jackson's Thriller) and lean more toward albums that are constructed as a coherent work with an overarching theme, both musically and topically. Not every album on the list is like that, but when it came to choosing one over another, I put more weight on albums that met this criteria. I also tried to limit it to one album per artist (which is why there's only one Beatles album).

So my Top 20, in ascending order, looks like this - it's a pretty even mix from my old and new lives. Comments about each are below the list.

20.  Bridge Across Forever – Transatlantic
19.  Weather Systems – Anathema
18.  Deadwing – Porcupine Tree
17.  Very – Pet Shop Boys
16.  Talk – Yes
15.  Rain – Joe Jackson
14.  Hotel California – The Eagles
13.  Purple Rain – Prince
12.  Paramore – Paramore
11.  Remain in Light – Talking Heads
10. Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
9.  Jagged Little Pill – Alanis Morisette
8.  Ten – Pearl Jam
7.  Synchronicity – The Police
6.  The Beekeeper – Tori Amos
5.  The Joshua Tree – U2
4.  Avalon – Roxy Music
3.  Disintegration – The Cure
2.  Grace – Jeff Buckley
1.  Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club – Beatles

20. Transatlantic is kind of an All-Star progressive rock supergroup, featuring big names in the Third Wave of Prog: Neal Morse (keyboards/vocals, Spock's Beard), Roine Stolt (guitarist/vocals, Flower Kings), Mike Portnoy (drummer, Dream Theater), and Pete Trewevas (bassist, Marillion). I love all of these bands, but this album that blends the elements of Spock's Beard, Flower Kings, Dream Theater and Marillion is my favorite complete work among all of them.

19. I discovered Anathema from their label's sampler CD. K-Scope is the same label as Porcupine Tree and lead singer/solo artist Steven Wilson. Here's a great song-by-song review of this remarkable album.

18. The hardest thing to pick is a favorite album from your favorite band, but this one is probably the album I would give to anyone as an introduction to this awesome British prog rock band.

17. I've been a fan of the Pet Shop Boys since they released their first album "Please" in 1986, the year I graduated from high school (yes, I'm that old, biologically speaking). Over the years my interest has waxed and waned, but this album (regrettably, I lost the original pressing in the fire that included an EP called "Relentless" that is out of print and quite valuable as a rarity) has always stuck with me as the group's most fully realized work. Read a great track-by-track review written for the album's 20th anniversary last year.

16. The only Yes album I owned for the longest time was "90125" and that was pretty much all I knew about this timeless prog-rock band. But when I met Tara, she changed that completely by introducing me to "The Yes Album," "The Ladder" and this album that came right after 90125 but didn't do as well commercially. The final 15-minute song is what really sets this album apart, spanning three distinct movements like an symphonic tone poem that echos the rest of the songs on the album.

15. Most people only know piano man Joe Jackson from his 80s hit, "Steppin' Out." But this more recent offering from 2008 is a terrific work that evokes life in New York with irresistible musical hooks.

14. One of the pure concept albums on this list, "Hotel California" tells the familiar story of the new kid in town seeking fame and fortune, being seduced by the perils and perks of rock stardom. It's a uberstatement on celebrity excess drawn with such skill it becomes a surreal grotesque. One of the top all-time sellers in music history as well.

13. "Purple Rain" is arguably the best movie soundtrack of all time. It's too bad the movie is so awful. I wish someone would remake the movie and just use the stage performances to tell a different story that doesn't require the rest of the cast or the plot. Prince is pure energy on stage.

12. Paramore's self-titled latest album is a musical tour-de-force, and a breakup album reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" (a near miss for this list). The band lost its original rhythm section and emerged with its most mature and consistent work, punctuated by short confessional interstials performed on ukelele by lead singer Haley Williams.

11. This was one of the key milestones in last year's musical renaissance for me ("How Mischa got her groove back" - April 25, 2013). It's one of only a handful of albums I have actually purchased on both CD and vinyl (#s 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 12 and 13 are most of the others).

10. This is actually the first and only Pink Floyd album I've ever owned. It covers the same theme as #14 - perhaps even more intensely and subtly.

9. "Jagged Little Pill" has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most successful debut albums ever made. This hugely influential album has a knack for bringing listeners into the center of the storm of the singer's anger. Listen to that bass line in "Hand in My Pocket" - it's one of my favorite moments on this unrelenting album.

8. One of the vanguards of the 90s grunge movement following the path blazed by Nirvana, this rousing debut by Pearl Jam is inspired by Eddie Vedder reflecting on his own life. When he was a teenager, his mother told him that the man he thought was his father was actually his stepfather, and that his biological father had died years before.

7. One of my all-time favorite bands, and one of only three artists that I've owned every commercially released album they've ever made (Paramore and Taylor Swift are the other two), "Synchronicity" marks the apex of a journey that started with the post-punk reggae beats of "Fall Out" and "Roxanne." What's more notable is that after this album and becoming the biggest rock band in the world, the trio concluded it had exhausted the artistic possibilities and they walked away. But they proved that a rock band could pursue challenging, defiantly non-commercial musical ideas and still thrill an awful lot of people.

6. I'm a recently acquired Tori Amos fan, so I didn't grow up on her edgy, angry phase that most of her longtime fans enjoy. This lush, lyrical album was my introduction to her music, and remains a standard for showcasing diverse musical styles on a single cohesive work.

5. "The Joshua Tree" is U2's vision quest of sorts when they outgrew their scrappy underdog image that fueled their early crusading albums like "War" and "The Unforgettable Fire." With this album, U2 redirected its crusade from outrage at external forces to confronting the existential void inside the human spirit.

4. Still the best make-out album for my money, this album recasts the pop song as a realm of lush, never-ending tactile pleasures. Roxy Music's final offering is one of the most sumptuous listening experiences to come out of the 1980s - hypnotically, gorgeously languid and striking for its depth. Listening to my rare, out-of-print Super Audio CD multi-channel copy of the album brings these qualities to even greater depths, although the analog record has its own unique charms.

3. From #4's sounds of love we come to The Cure's paean to loss, possibly the most deliciously depressing album by any singer who didn't commit suicide (e.g. Joy Division). The Cure mastered the formula pioneered by The Smiths of the gloomy lead singer backed by an incongruously breezy band playing catchy, pop-friendly tunes. Despite the overwhelmingly gloomy tone, almost every song is instantly hummable and a perfect balance of pain and musical joy.

2. "Grace" stands alone in 90s rock. It's a showcase for an unforgettably poised singing voice, locating a fertile ground between classic rock and post-grunge. Buckley took the outbursts of Nirvana and surrounded them with the elegant, yearning melodies reminiscent of the late Beatles. Lost to a swimming accident in 1997 at the age of 30, we can only speculate how much more this singular talent could have influenced the musical universe. With only this one full album completed before his untimely death, Buckley showed several generations that profoundly new rock music doesn't have to reject wholesale what came before.

1. This album was probably the first rock album I ever heard as a child because before I actually started collecting music I listened to library records. Most of the records in my local library were classical recordings, and this was probably one of the few popular titles available to check out. Of course the psychedelic cover proved irresistible for my young eyes. Certainly it's hard to listen to this album now with fresh ears, shed of the "All Time Best" estimations and the endless accolades that have attached, like barnacles, to it and encounter it on your own terms. But if you can do it, there's nothing more creative and satisfying in rock music - from its iconic and innovative gatefold jacket to its haunting leadout groove after the final track, "A Day in the Life."