Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
This is definitely 90’s era New York City hip-hop. This is that Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt sound. Once again, I know Wu Tang is iconic but I’ve never listened to one of their songs, let alone the albums their members released. This is back when rappers had skits on their songs and, as a result, created more than an album. They created a movie. What I appreciate about this album is that it takes us back to a simpler, purer time in hip hop music. Verses are loaded with words and, while internal rhymes are present, this is before end-rhymes became corny. With that being said it’s interesting to listen to this album 22 years after the fact and to think of the way the sport of rap has evolved. This album is long though: a whopping seventy-three minutes. Listen when you have time.
Highlights: Incarcerated Scarfaces, Guillotine, Ice Water, Glacier of Ice, Verbal Intercourse
- Funkadelic – Maggot Brain
With a name is like Funkadelic, what else on earth would you possibly expect? These guys create an atmosphere all their own. I mean, what kind of album opens with a ten-minute guitar solo? This one. And that’s Eddie Hazel just warming up to melt your face as he proceeds to do for the rest of the album. “Stupid Stupid” is what you blast as your driving down an empty road at 75 mph just to make your presence known.
Highlight: Hit it and Quit It, Stupid Stupid, Wars of Armageddon
- Loretta Lynn – All Time Greatest Hits
This album displays various sides of Loretta Lynn. There is the remorseful (“She’s Got You”) and the feisty (“You Ain’t Woman Enough”). There’s the vengeful (“You’ve Just Stepped In”) and the gentle (“Lead Me On”). While I’m not a huge country guy, I can’t deny Lynn’s vocal prowess. Not to mention, “Fist City” has got to be the ultimate country diss track. She’s may be sweet, but she’s not afraid to grab a chick by the hair and pummel her to the ground. She and Conrad Twitty make one heck of a vocal duo. Not my favorite on the list, but that’s just due to personal preference.
Highlights: Fist City, Love Is the Foundation, You’ve Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out on Me) I Can’t Feel You Anymore
- Merle Haggard – Down Every Road
If you’ve ever read the Bible from start to finish, you invariably got to a point when you were about to quit. It’s that moment when you realize Genesis is 50 chapters or you question why in the world Leviticus is included, or when you why Numbers is called Numbers, or when you get to 1 Chronicles and it feels like the whole Bible just started all over again. Well, this is that moment.
What they don’t tell you when you take on this endeavor of the 500 greatest albums of all time is that to make it through, you have to listen to a four disc compilation of Merle Haggard, running just over 300 minutes long. That’s five hours. Five hours of Merle Haggard. Five hours of any artist is a long time. I know Merle Haggard is legendary, but dang man. This was the point that tested my commitment. But I did it.
To be honest, this would’ve been a lot easier if I was a Haggard fan beforehand and knew which songs were what. For the most part I just found myself baffled at his output. How does someone have so much to say? So much to sing? The problem. While for the most part songs are short and whizz by, after a certain point it becomes difficult to tell one from another. That’s not to say this album is without gems. Whether it was the actual music or the prospect of having completed the compilation, the last disc of this compilation felt like gold. This is a countryman’s collection. “Every front door found me hoping I would find the back door open.”
Highlight: House of Memories, Silver Wings, Irma Jackson, Things Aren’t Funny Anymore, If We’re Not Back In Love by Monday
- The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death
I remember the first time I listened to a Biggie Smalls record. It was the first time in my life I ever felt genuine fear while listening to music. Something about the realism, that this was the way the world might actually be like for some people, freaked me out. The violence, the drugs, the grit, terrified me. And the Notorious B.I.G. felt like a man who could kill me because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was nearly ten years ago, listening to Ready to Die. Leave it to Biggie and this album to instill fear in me again.
I’ve never could work and listen to rap music at the same time. It’s always required more of my attention than just cursory listen. Biggie is no exception. Whether it’s his wordplay or his storytelling abilities, I can’t do anything but stop and listen (“N***az Bleed” or “Somebody’s Gotta Die). He chops up words, emjambs his setences for the sake of rhyme. In fact, he’s so good at imagery that his more sexual songs make me uncomfortable. Ain’t nobody trying to think about that man in bed. But this album is one jam after another. Even his fluffier, silly songs (“Playa Hater”) are solid songs. While his humor is something we don’t often hear, it’s in those moments I see Biggie as human in what otherwise feels like an untouchable, unremorseful man. This album makes me want to apologize to the rappers I went to high school with that none of us really took all too seriously. As much as I thought their hooks were wack, it had a place in this era of rap.
Highlights: Hypnotize, I Love Dough, Mo Money Mo Problems, Notorious Thugs
- Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces
Excuse me while I try to figure out what heck just happened to me.
Funny, as I write that I’m sharing my first impressions of albums instead of appreciated listens, here’s an album that immediately warrants another listen. Costello’s Armed Forces completely blindsided me. From the very outset it felt like a runaway train and I was trying to catch up with it. There’s a quality this album has that I can’t quite put a word to and before I can even get close to it, Costello has moved me somewhere else. Every time I thought I could stop the album to do something else, I couldn’t. The album had me in its grip. The only option was to be taken by it. Its brilliance is in its subtlety. As silly sounding and dance-y as it sounds, if you’re listening it’s a well-orchestrated chaos. It’s politics set to celebratory music. There’s so many layers to it, you want to stick with it a bit longer. In that way, it reminded me of what I love about artists like Ben Folds or Relient K. As quirky and as nerdy as those guys may seem, they know music and know how to manipulate it to their will. I know this actually doesn’t do it justice, but I just don’t know how else to explain it.
Highlights: Accidents Will Happen, Oliver’s Army, Busy Bodies, (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?
- Manu Chao – Proxima Estacion Esperanza
First, let me start by saying this man not only sings in English and in Spanish but there is Arabic, French and a couple other languages on this album. How in the world does one learn to sing comfortably in those languages? I imagine this album as the kind that’d be played either in some upscale, hipster café or some Mexican food restaurant and yet this album was written for neither of those environments. Chao comes from a busking background, which makes sense when you listen to the music. It has a way of both blending into the background but also grabbing hold of you if you give it a moment. Part of me couldn’t tell if he was serious, but if if the songs are meant to the funny, the music isn’t a joke. But I think what I appreciated most about this album is the way it pushed me outside of my normal frame of reference. Occasionally I’ll listen to world music mixes from Putamayo but I largely don’t listen Latin music or reggae. Even if I had no idea what he was saying, it made me want to play this album with friends over, just to prove I’m in the “know.”
Highlights: Merry Blues, Promiscuity, Trapped By Love, Mr. Bobby, La Marea
- The Smiths – The Smiths*
I first started listening to The Smiths because of my love for Brand New. I’ve always loved Morrisey’s approach to songwriting because it’s so unlike my own. It’s casual yet articulate, loose yet tight. It’s articulate and tight in the word choice and yet casual and loose in their delivery. He’ll take the time to craft an image but he’ll bellow and moan as he sings it to you. His voice and unique style has always been another thing I’ve loved. But this is an album filled with sexual tension and angst. It’s in the way he shares his own sexuality as well as comments on society’s view of the subject. And there’s also something wonderfully sad about this music. Though I’ve been a fan of The Smiths for a while, I don’t think I’ve ever sat through this album. I’m so glad I did.
Highlights: Reel Around the Fountain, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, This Charming Man, I Don’t Owe You Anything
- George Michael – Faith
This, ashamedly, is my first real George Michael experience but man, what an experience it was. From the very first tracks, I fell in love with his pop and his. There’s a power in his voice that keeps you engaged from start to finish. Honestly, this album will show you just what a treasure we lost in his passing and how fortunate we are to still have his music. Between the drums, the synth, or the voice, this is everything I love about 80’s music.
Highlights: Faith, Father Figure, One More Try, Hard Day
- Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
This is the perfect album for hitting the road at early hours of the morning as the world wakes up, staring over the steering wheel at open horizon, knowing you’ve made the right decision to leave your life behind (“Down Where the Drunkards Roll”). This is an album of new beginnings, both in their sadness and excitement. Linda Thompson’s voice is a spiritual experience on its own and Richard Thompson is just an insanely talented multi-instrumentalist (Mandolin? Bagpipe?). “The Calvary Cross” sounds like inspiration Death Cab for Cutie’s “Grapevine Fires.” This is an album that moves you and demands that you listen again and listen closely.
Highlights: The Calvary Cross, Withered and Died, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight