Neil Young – Tonight’s The Night
My biggest struggle with Neil Young has always been his voice. It just sounds whiny and nasally. I don’t know if I would call him a “good singer” necessarily. And yet, I feel like you don’t listen to Neil Young for his voice. You listen because he’s one heck of a songwriter. Yes the voice is nasally, but on songs like “Borrowed Tune” and “Albuquerque”, you don’t really care. This whole album is riddled with grief. Written after the death of two of his close friends, the album starts off with a tribute to his roadie. There’s so much power in the moment he shouts “I heard that he died”, you get bowled over.
Highlights: Speaking Out
- James Brown – In the Jungle Groove
When I first heard this record, I wondered if it was live. Upon researching, this is actually a compilation of tracks recorded between 1969 and 1971, even though it was released in 1986. Nevertheless, live or not, the man is a mater showman. He has you from beginning to end. You feel caught in his gravitas. You are there in the room as he’s singing. You are sucked into the vortex that is the performance. You realize once again how iconic he was and what we lost in his passing. You almost can’t help but to miss him. In short, it’s everything you’ve ever loved about James Brown ever.
Highlights: It’s A New Day, Funky Drummer, Get Up, Get Into It, Get involved, Soul Power
- Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
In some ways reminds me of Smashing Pumpkins – the guitar sound ambient, almost shoe-gazey but I can’t quite put my finger on the sound itself. Not totally what I expected. I expected a more aggressive sound. I appreciate the reverb-y guitars. This is the kind of album you sit with over a time and allow it to take you to another time.
Highlights: Teenage Riot, Sprawl, Hey Joni
- Liz Phair – Exille in Guyville
Like so many others I first heard Liz Phair with her single “Why Can’t I?” It was such a tender, heartfelt song I practically melted every time I heard it. Imagine my surprise when, years later, a friend of mine showed me this Liz Phair. With songs like “F*** and Run” and “Flower”, it felt like that time my high school teacher rapped all the words to “Freaks of the Industry” whereas another told me her favorite song was Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” Some things can’t be forgotten.
If this exile from guyville, Liz Phair proves she can be as sexual and vulgar as they are – on one hand there’s loneliness and longing and on the other there’s disgust and frustration with men. Even as she calls herself a real c*** in spring, she sounds angelic. A bit more distortion and it could be grunge. Part of the real allure of this album is it’s connection with Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Apparently, each song on this album corresponds and responds to each song on the each song on Main Street. There’s her explanation of how somewhere on the internet. It would seem the band wasn’t too pleased.
Highlights: Never Said, Canary, F*** and Run, Shatter
- The Cure – Disintegration
I have a confession to make: Nearly ten years ago I used to stay awake way too late at night listening to “Untitled”, thinking about life and the sadness of it all. For as long as I can remember, The Cure has been the poster band of sad and gloomy music. This album is quintessential. Between “Lullaby” and “Fascination Street” you get the sense, this is the band at their most realized, their most gelled and put together. From the very beginning the atmosphere envelopes you. And for the duration of each song (which can get long at times), they keep you.
Highlights: Pictures of You, Lovesong, Disintegration
- Eric Clapton – Slowhand
The man himself. With the album opening with “Cocaine” and going straight into “Wonderful Tonight” and “Lay Down Sally”, it feels like it’s just one huge Clapton hit after another. To be honest, I’m so used to thinking of Clapton as a guitarist that I forget him as a singer-songwriter altogether. Yet what I appreciate about Clapton is that very rarely is it just shredding for the sake of it, but he’s just as capable at communicating feeling through his playing. It’s soulful but it’s technical. Proving they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. He can be technical, but he can also pull back to make you feel (“Peaches and Diesel”). Still, if you forgot just how much the man can shred, let “Core” be proof. The name album title refers to a nickname given Clapton because his ability to play so fast.
Highlights: Cocaine, Wonderful Tonight, Next Time You See Her, Peaches and Diesel
- David Bowie – Station to Station
The return of the Thin White Duke is just as theatrical as you can imagine. The opening, title track is a 10 minute epic that continues to evolve. As eccentric as he can be, he can make something that genuinely moves you. He can get funky and poppy all at the same time. The Thin White Duke will haunt you when he’s not moving your feet.
Highlight: Word on a Wing, Stay
- The Police – Ghost in the Machine
This is supposedly them at their best (judging by what online rankings and its placing on this list), but I think there’s room for discussion here. In a way, they do seem the most realized version of themselves on this thing. You can hear what would be Synchronicity while also hearing Regatta De Blanc’s influence. Of course, you have the gem that is “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.” Still, I come away wanting to listen to their discography in chronological order. I want to hear how they evolve and how their albums are conversations with each other.
Highlight: Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, Hungry For You, Omegaman
- Randy Newman – Sail Away
It’s not that I don’t like Randy Newman. I actually really appreciate his social commentary and the satirical nature of his lyrics at time. Even the title track makes fun of what it means to be an American with its plentiful religious references. I just don’t know if I can listen to his voice for long periods of time. It’s so distinct, all I hear is “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” When I can get past that, I recognize his understanding of music and how he draws from the wellspring of knowledge.
Highlights: Sail Away, He Gives Us All His Love, Burn On, Political Science
- Nick Drake – Pink Moon
Beautiful and sad. It’s stripped down, acoustic and therein lies its charm and strength. This is something that would be in Juno or like 500 Days of Summer. The music mellow. Nick Drake’s voice soft and deep. I almost wonder where it’s been my entire life. Songs are relatively short, which causes the album to go by quickly. “Place To Be” sounds like a predecessor to The Early November’s “1000 Times A Day.” As a singer/songwriter, it feels like there’s so much to unpack here. Nick Drake committed suicide shortly after this. Apparently he had always struggled with depression.
Highlights: Pink Moon, Place To Be, Which Will, From The Morning.