The Great Wall of Music: Albums 370-361

  1. Mott The Hoople – Mott

Mott the Hoople. Last time these guys were on the list, I mocked their name and then shared how I appreciated their sound. Well, they’re back and, once again, I can see why this album ranks higher than the last. Though Bowie’s production added certain elements to their last album, this one comes back with big rock sounds that are more definitively glam (you can hear it in the guitar solos). However, for all this, it doesn’t prevent them from getting more reflective on tracks like “Ballad of Mott the Hoople.”

Highlights: All The Way Down from Memphis, Honaloochie Boogie, Ballad of Mott the Hoople

  1. The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs

There are a few reasons why I love the fact this album is listed. First, because I appreciate The Smiths. Second, because it’s home to my favorite song from this band (“William, It Was Really Nothing”). Lastly, because it’s also home to The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s anthem (“Asleep”). Only thing about this release is that rather than a cohesive album, it’s a collection of singles put together to help The Smiths break into America. Still, that has its benefits. “Is It Really So Strange?” comes in loud just like the title suggests. “Shoplifters of the World Unite” has a killer guitar solo. While I don’t know if it’s quite as sexually frustrated as their other release on this list I don’t think Morrissey ever really gets too far away from the tension. Side note: if all these amazing acts come out of the UK, why are they so concerned with breaking out in the America? If anything, we should be trying to get over there.

Highlights: Is It Really So Strange?, William, It Was Really Nothing, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, Please, Please, Please, Let Met Get What I Want 

  1. The Eagles – The Eagles

“Take It Easy,” they said and take it easy you will want to. It’s just that laidback. I mentioned Counting Crows on Jackson Browne when it came to lyrics but if they didn’t at least take some of their musical cues from The Eagles then I don’t know a thing about music. This album easily could’ve been the inspiration behind Recovering the Satellites. It’s rock but with a hint of country and some swooning harmonies. Of course, I’d heard “Hotel California” but this was my first real Eagles album.

Highlight: Take It Easy, Nightingale, Earlybird, Tryin’

  1. Madonna – Rays of Light

Unfortunately, this is a mixture of almost all the genres I explicitly stated I wasn’t a fan of. I hear Sinead O’Connor. I hear the Eurythmics. I hear trip-hop (“Candy Perfume Girl”). What I will say is that Madonna is vulnerable from the very open, talking of the ways she traded fame for love. It’s spiritual, ethereal. Some of have noted this was a departure from her previous work, but seeing as to how I have never really listened to Madonna, I wouldn’t know. Sonically it’s airy, almost hollow, as if you’re getting a taste but not the full thing. Not my favorite on the list but it has its own strengths.

Highlights: Swim, Ray of Light, Sky Fits Heaven, Little Star

  1. Johnny Cash – American Recordings

This is Johnny Cash’s 81st album. What the actual heck? 81 albums. I don’t even know how that’s remotely possible. On top of that it opens up with a crazy song like “Delia’s Gone” which talks about shooting this poor girl, Delia. I know Brian Fallon looks up to Springsteen a lot but “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” could’ve easily been a Gaslight song. I will say this though: it’s weird to hear this old man rap about texting. Maybe that’s Rick Rubin’s production.

Highlight: Let the Train Blow the Whistle, Why Me Lord, Bird on a Wire

  1. Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine

For some reason, I couldn’t help but smile as this album started. Maybe because the sound is so iconic and so recognizably theirs: blistering, blaring rock with aggressive rap vocals. These guys are out to dismantle systems. By “Killing in the Name Of” came on, I had to just stop and admire its heaviness and aggression. You know how sometimes you’ll watch award shows and some epic performance comes on and they’re showing the audience, who knows the musical impact of the act so well that when the camera come to them all we see their collective admiration? That’s what this like. Like watching greatness in action, even 25 years after the fact. Every song is either close to five minutes over and yet somehow every second feels weighty. One of my favorites on the list.

Highlights: Bombtrack, Take the Power Back

  1. The Doors – L.A. Woman

This is Morrison’s last album with the band. He died shortly after this album. But I can hear its primal nature as well as James Brown and funk.. Not quite as obsessed with strange as Strange Days. I agree this a superior album to the one that was previously. “Been Down So Long” reminds me of the Albert King song, which I guess says something about the blues elements that get incorporated on this album, especially on a track “Cars Hiss By My Windows.” But “L’America” will show you the same band that wrote the song “Strange Days”.

Highlights: The Changeling, Love Her Madly, Hyacinth House, Riders on the Storm,

  1. New Order – Substance

I fell in love with this band a few years back (back when I thought I liked ‘80s new wave) with their song “Regret.” At the time I was looking for bands like Modern English and the Cure and of course these guys were shown to me. “Ceremony” feels like a predecessor to current bands like Modern Baseball and others who are trying to recapture this sound. However, on those occasions when they strip things down it reminds me of Suicide. At their best, they’re winsome and seductive, like LCD Soundsystem. “Perfect Kiss” reminds me a bit of the Cure. Be warned though: if you’re not huge on ‘80s new wave this a lot to listen to at one time.

Highlights: Ceremony, Temptation, Subculture, Bizarre Love Triangle, Lonesome Tonight

  1. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream

Like almost any other kid, my introduction of Smashing Pumpkins came with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I loved how they could be both aggressive and angry (“Bullet with Butterfly Wings) and yet beautiful and atmospheric (“Tonight, Tonight”). Then I had a friend show me “Disarm” and knew I had to dig back through the history. Corgan has a strange voice and yet it works. The guitars are overdriven, almost shoegaze-y. “Quiet” sounds like a car or a motorcycle, revving up and rearing down the highway. “Today” reminds me of everything I love about this band. I didn’t know a song called “Mayonaise” could sound so beautiful. I’m starting to find myself surprised by just how much grunge I actually enjoy.

Highlights:  Cherub Rock, Today, Hummer, Mayonaise, Luna

  1. OutKast – Stankonia

Less extraterrestrial than Aquemini, but still has that southern grit. This is the OutKast I came into. But in my head, it’s still not perfect. I don’t know what the point of “Snapping and Trapping” is. While I appreciate the update in sound in general, these guys get super vulgar. Normally I don’t mind based on context, but on first listen I have no idea what’s happening (We Luv Deez H**s, I’ll Call B4 I C**, Snappin’ & Trappin’). Maybe, the point is to convey life in the streets. In that sense, it’s conscious. But it would take me a few more listens to be sure. But nevertheless, I can see why it’s ranked higher than Aquemini

Highlight: So Fresh, So Clean, Mrs. Jackson, B.O.B., Humble Mumble

The Great Wall of Music: Me Vs. The 500, Part II (50 Album Check In)

Back in college I had a biology professor who lectured as if he had one too many shots of expresso. He’d march from one side of the room to other, head turned to you the entire time, speaking so fast you’d think he was dying and these were his last words. The man was a walking, talking energizer bunny. The best there was for sure but an energizer bunny nonetheless; and as intriguing as he was, as a professor and a person, I found myself fatigued watching this man go. Making my way through the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time feels a lot like being back in that class: exciting yet exhausting in its sensory overload.

If you’ve ever traveled overseas or entered into a completely different culture, you know the feeling. As enthusiastic as you are to take in the local culture and all its flavors, everything you experience has to go through an internal filter in order fully process the experience. In small doses, you don’t mind but when it’s constant, you find yourself expending more energy than you expected or intended. In your fatigue, you begin to search for signs of familiarity. You begin to miss little comforts. You don’t need much but it’d be nice to not have filter through cultural lenses for one interaction. For once, you’d like your comfort food. That’s kind of what it feels like.

Because so many of these past 50 albums have been new territory, it often feels like entering into a new culture with all the excitement and exhaustion that comes with it. One of the gifts of this whole experience has been discovering new artists but man, has it been refreshing when it’s been an artist or an album that I already know and love. In some ways, it feels like a job. I clock in at my desk at a certain hour, look up the next album on the list, and keep going until the end of the day comes or until I can’t take anymore.

So many of these albums are symbolic of an era in music (‘60s doo-wap, ‘90s hip-hop, ‘80s glam rock, ‘90s grunge). It’s been a blast to dig into the history and the context of when they were made. I feel more informed as a music listener already. I’ve found myself surprised at what I’ve liked and what I haven’t. I thought I liked ‘80s new wave until I heard the Eurythmics and Echo and the Bunnymen. I didn’t know how much I enjoyed the blues until I listened both B.B. and Albert King.

But perhaps the best part of it has been sharing the experience with those closest to me and watching their face light up as they too remember how great some of these albums are. In that way, I’m reminded of how unifying music is and how fun it can be to share in its discussion.

As intimidating it is to still have 450 albums left, I’m encouraged by the fact I’m already 50 in. That’s 50 more than where I started and if I’ve already made it this far I might as well keep going.

Ten Albums I Don’t Own But Would Walk Out of the Record Store With:

  • Bruce Springsteen – Tunnel of Love
  • B.B. King – Live from Cook County Jail
  • Elton John – Tumbleweed Connection
  • John Prine – John Prine
  • Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
  • George Michael – Faith
  • D’Angelo – Voodoo
  • The Smiths – The Smiths
  • Manu Chao – Proxima Estacion Esperanza
  • LL Cool J – Radio

The Great Wall of Music: Albums 480-471

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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?

  1. 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

  1. The Smiths – The Smiths*

Heck.Yes.

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

  1. 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

  1. 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