Critics often talk about the rock ‘n’ roll canon, but in 2010, it’s hard to know what that even means, let alone comprises. For instance, acclaimedmusic.net compiles and tallies critics’ lists to make a master key for anyone attempting to find out what true consensus exists out there. But for those more inclined to put their faith in a trusted (or at least widely recognized) brand, Rolling Stone not long ago assembled its own list of the 500 best albums of all time. Furthermore, every couple years, a new edition of “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” is published. And if you’re more likely to trust a community of fans on the Internet, RateYourMusic’s Top 1000 offers a list of user-generated ranking of a more diverse set of all-time favorites, though one that still includes quite a few legendary and familiar names.
Regardless of where one might come across a “greatest of all time” albums list, one thing is pretty certain: it’s extremely difficult to make time to hear every album to make a critics’ list. Yet, thanks to digital media, finding those albums has become a lot easier. Continuing the series that we began last month, we’re attempting to make up for lost time by offering our thoughts on first-time listens to albums generally considered classics.
Flying Burrito Brothers – Gilded Palace of Sin (1969, A&M)
Jeff: This one’s for Rob Gordon. In Gram Parsons’ brief time on earth, the hippie cowboy troubadour managed to exclusively create music that’s now considered classic, essential, even unimpeachable. From The Byrds to his solo albums and his work with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons essentially had no missteps, which is pretty remarkable when you consider the frequency of his output in what was essentially a five or six year span of time. Gilded Palace of Sin, however, is considered by many to be his best, though that verdict varies depending on who you ask. Nonetheless, it’s a great record, one best described as a more heavily country influenced Rolling Stones. The Flying Burrito Brothers didn’t necessarily rock out as much as the Stones, but with songs like “Dark End of the Street” and “Christine’s Tune,” they certainly had it in them. But there are also some gorgeous and lush country pop songs like “Sin City.” After years of my friends raving about it, I can safely agree that Gilded Palace of Sin is a classic. And for rock fans still hesitant about embracing country, this is a perfect gateway drug.
Ernest: The Gilded Palace of Sin doesn’t just feel like a missing piece in the puzzle that is my continued acquisition of musical knowledge. It feels like the piece. It’s one of those albums I feel has been in my periphery for years. When I was little, some of my first ever albums were Eagles albums, ‘borrowed’ from my father. The Eagles were one of Gram Parsons’ most obvious sets of protégés. I later became a huge fan of alternative country acts such as Wilco, Son Volt and Whiskeytown, all of them owing a great deal to Parsons. And yet, despite devouring GP and Grievous Angel, and flirting with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, I never got around to Parsons’ hippie-country act, the Flying Burrito Brothers. What amazes me upon hearing it is not how fresh it sounds, though it does, nor how authentic, though it is. I’m not amazed by how good it is either, that I was expecting. Their country meets soul covers of “Do Right Woman” and “Dark End of the Street” are phenomenal. But their originals are even better. No, what I was surprised about was how, as much as times change, they seem much the same. Case in point, “My Uncle,” a poignant and somewhat humorous song about draft dodging. Though the draft may no longer be in effect, or a feasible solution to present day war strategy, the country seems to be facing some of its toughest opposition. Tea Partiers, Palin and right-wing nutjobs have me singing the first part of the chorus to myself, “So I’m heading for the nearest foreign border / Vancouver may be just my kind of town.”
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (1971, Westbound)
Jeff: The curious thing about Funkadelic is that, despite the “funk” in their name, they started out essentially as a psychedelic rock band. Granted, they were an extremely funky psych-rock band, but they were also incredibly heavy. Eddie Hazel has a lot to do with this-the guitarist has been frequently compared to Jimi Hendrix, and his singing voice even sounds a lot like Hendrix’s on the mind-blowing “Super Stupid.” But the dude could play like nobody’s business. His anguished soloing on the title dirge is an example of just how much emotion one can squeeze from an instrument. Still, the group worked as a tight unit, and when they did play funk, as on “Hit It and Quit It” or “You And Your Folks, Me and My Folks,” it was totally badass. Maggot Brain covers a lot of ground in seven tracks, though it all flows together strongly, creating an experience that might turn your brain to warm goo. I might even say this album is perfect.
Ernest: I’ll admit, I’ve been fairly ignorant of the history of P-Funk for some time. Though I’ve heard several of their most famous tracks, I couldn’t have told you that Parliament and Funkadelic were essentially the same band, recording under different names. Nor could I have told you, other than George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, who some of its members were. Of course, now that I’ve heard Maggot Brain, I can tell you that Eddie Hazel is a guitar god. The opening title track, Hazel’s solo masterpiece, is a face-melter. The rest of the album is more of what I was expecting from a Funkadelic album, grounded in the groovilicious rhythm section of Billy Bass Nelson and drummer Tiki Fulwood. Meeting my expectations was not a bad thing, however. It could have easily gone the other way, failing to live up to the huge reputation they had built up through friend recommendations and overall mystique. I happened to get to see P-Funk play Lollapalooza in the summer of 1994, and had a great time, but nothing could have prepared me for the shock of hearing “Maggot Brain” for the first time. It overshadows the rest of the tracks, making a great album legendary in the process.
Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974, Charisma)
Jeff: Prog rock albums tend to come in two distinct varieties-those with massive songs that each take up an LP’s entire side, and those with shorter, more numerous interconnected songs that comprise a more digestible but still overwhelming whole. Genesis’ final album with Peter Gabriel, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, falls squarely in the latter. A double album even in the age of digital media, it’s an especially epic album, one with a storyline about a hustler in New York City and nearly two dozen songs. Personally, I didn’t really follow the narrative all that closely while listening to it. It wasn’t for lack of interest, but the music itself was so involved and elaborate that whatever outline of a plot there was seemed to get kind of lost in all of the big riffs and Moog solos (of which there are many). Yet, for as big and bold an album it is, it’s pretty easy to like. Sometimes it gets a bit noodly, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Plenty of great songs abound, from the title track to “Back In NYC” and “Lilywhite Lilith.” This is an impressive effort and one that bears repeat spins. How they went from this to “Land of Confusion,” I’ll never quite understand.
Ernest: Ask any random five people what they think of when they hear the band name Genesis and you’re likely to get five different answers. Recent generations would most likely be quick to shout out Phil Collins as the voice of the band, and that would be true for many, many years. However, Peter Gabriel was once the frontman for Genesis in its early prog beginnings, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the last album he recorded with the band, a massive career highlight. As a rule, I’ve never been that much of a fan of theme albums. I liked The Wall back in high school, when students would merely latch onto the refrain of “Hey, Teacher, leave those kids alone,” thinking themselves rebellious. Tommy and Quadrophenia never held much appeal for me. But I’ve always been a big Peter Gabriel fan. From “Solsbury Hill” to his latest endeavor, his voice has guided some of my favorite songs over the years. Still, for some reason, I still never jumped into his Genesis records. Prog was somewhat of a bad word for a while. Even during its so-called revival, with bands like Muse and the Mars Volta, I grew weary of its pretension. But, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is different, sort of. Rather than impossibly stretched out songs and overblown production, Lamb keeps songs short and somewhat straightforward. Of course, lyrically, its anything but straightforward, and that’s part of its charm, the idea of sitting at home with it, lyricbook in hand, trying to piece together the story of Rael, while hearing such gems as the title track, “Back in N.Y.C.,” the humorous and catchy “Counting Out Time,” and the transcendent “The Carpet Crawlers.”
The Sonics – Here Are The Sonics!!! (1965, Etiquette)
Jeff: Woo-hoo! Now this record is fun. That’s basically the point of garage rock-a little debauchery, quick ‘n’ dirty production and good times galore. With Here Are the Sonics!!!, this Seattle outfit basically bashes out one of the first punk rock records, a good decade before anyone really knew what that was, and with a lot more saxophone. The majority of the album consists of kickass covers of early rock ‘n’ roll songs, from “Money” to “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Have Love Will Travel,” which is one of my personal favorites here. But the handful of originals the band cranks out, such as “The Witch” and “Strychnine,” just take things to a whole new level. Basically, this is awesome. It’s pretty short, but that’s hardly a complaint. If anything it’s just that much easier to listen to it a second time.
Ernest: “the Swans, Soft Cell, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics….”
Yep, James Murphy name-checked the Sonics four times in a row in his anthem of name-checking, “Losing My Edge.” But, that’s not the reason I recommended the band for this round of For the Record. I live in Seattle. The Sonics are from Tacoma, but Seattleites have basically ignored that little fact, claiming the band as their own. Today, Seattle is most likely more well known for Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Death Cab and Modest Mouse (none of whom are really from Seattle proper, as far as I know, but that’s where the clubs are). But, the true Seattle music historian will speak of the Sonics with reverence. Forget 1977, 1965 is the true birth of punk. Here are the Sonics!!! rocked with a punk spirit long before it was a word on anyone’s lips. Their first singles, included on this album, were “The Witch” and “Psycho,” two of the heaviest, garagiest barn-burners in rock. This kind of music was probably considered lascivious back in 1965, but it still rocks really hard today. Like many albums and bands of that time, there were several covers involved, in this case “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Night Time is the Right Time,” and a rocket-fueled version of “Keep a Knockin,'” which appears on a reissue of the album with a few Christmas numbers, including the hilarious skit-song, “The Village Idiot,” with a character voice that preceded the Muppets’ Lew Zealand. If the Sonics don’t scream their way into your collection, you’re missing out. So far I’ve loved every album in this round of For the Record, but the Sonics will easily be on frequent rotation for me.
Townes Van Zandt – Townes Van Zandt (1969, Poppy)
Jeff: The only album here from which I had never prior to this feature heard any songs, Townes Van Zandt’s self-titled third album was a very pleasant surprise. Likened to Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen with a much more pronounced country influence, Van Zandt plays a stunningly haunting style of folk music that mostly consists of little more than his voice and guitar. And that’s just fine; both are absolutely mesmerizing sounds. However, the full band arrangements on “Lungs” and “Waiting Around to Die” are truly amazing. Interestingly enough, “Waiting Around,” “For the Sake of the Song” and “I’ll Be Here In the Morning” are actually re-recorded tracks from his debut. He apparently didn’t like the way the originals sounded. Here, however, they’re impeccable.
Liz: When I first heard Townes Van Zandt in college, I was so impressed I wondered why I’d never heard of him before. Then I remembered I grew up near Boston, which didn’t have a country music station until about four years ago. Van Zandt’s music had a lot of the country clichés – lonely outlaws, dusty deserts and depressing motel rooms, accompanied by fiddles and harmonicas – but there was a poetry to the lyrics and folk sensibility to the music that’s desperately lacking from the stuff you hear on CMT, and even more critically acclaimed country artists like Willie Nelson. Despite enjoying his music, I’d only ever heard one of Van Zandt’s live albums, Rear View Mirror. That album is strikingly crisp and intimate, with mostly just Van Zandt and a guitar. I expected his studio albums to have more studio wizardry – more instruments, overdubbed vocals, that sort of thing. I pleasantry surprised to hear that Townes Van Zandt is just as clear and stripped down, and it still feels like you’re right in the room with Townes while he’s singing. On songs like “For the Sake of the Song,” “Waitin’ Round to Die” and “Lungs,” Van Zandt shows himself to be a master of the elements of country that have drawn in the occasional indie rocker: deft finger picking and a discernibly American sense of pain. But the sensitive drifter doesn’t feel like as much of an act on Van Zandt. Maybe it’s the catch in his voice, or the knowledge that he’s the descendent of Confederate officers and oil tycoons, but songs on Townes Van Zandt all feel very earned.
Ernest: Yep, I was one of those guys who had no idea who Townes Van Zandt was until a few years ago. If pressed, I probably would have guessed he was one of the siblings in Lynyrd Skynyrd. But no, not even close. There are many tragic figures in popular music, but one part of Townes’ long list of tragedies is that he never got the popularity he deserved. One listen to his self-titled album, his third full-length, exposes an incredibly gifted and introspective songwriter with a smooth and unaffected voice. Sadness hangs over his songs, not because we know his life’s story thanks to a documentary and biography, but merely in the words he pens and sings. Even the supposedly hopeful love song, “Colorado Girl” sounds hopeless at its core, like a man trying to convince himself of something, of a girl who he prays is waiting for him, but deep down he knows different. “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” is another great example. The song reminds me of Johnny Cash’s work, even in the delivery. The song depicts the singer’s desire to be free and unencumbered, but devotes himself to his woman, despite this impulse to bolt. The whole thing speaks to Townes’ conflicted natures, ultimately succumbing to the years of addiction that haunted him through his adult life. Once I snap out of the funk of hearing this album, I’ll probably want to delve deeper into his catalog, gingerly…