Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The 100 Essential Albums & Singles of Rock and Roll

Blame it on the iPhone.

There’s something too tempting about an item that easily fits in your pocket yet can hold several days worth of music. At any rate, owning an iPhone has driven me to perfect what I consider a “basic” rock and roll library (unless, of course, wanting to perfect a basic rock and roll library subconsciously led me to owning an iPhone, but I digress), that is: What’s the smallest amount of music that still tells the complete story of rock and roll?

I first had to set some boundaries. After playing around with some numbers, I found that 50 worked ideally, so I kept myself to 50 albums and 50 songs, for a total of 100 items listed. I also decided to stay within rock and roll’s first 40 years, which I count as from 1954 (the year “Rock Around in the Clock” was released) to 1994 (the year Kurt Cobain died) such that all the music, and the albums they appear on, lands within the confines of these years. Finally, being the retro-hound that I am, I favored the “classic” version of albums, even if they’re out of print (Elvis’s original Sun Sessions LP), missing a few classics (The Best of Sam Cooke), or both (Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight). Besides that, pretty much anything was game.

So here it is, 692 songs – the 50 albums and 50 songs not included on those albums – that comprise the essence of rock and roll. In keeping with the project’s overall theme of brevity, I have written quick annotations for each one, more an epitaph than an obituary, more a 45 than a 33 1/3.

This is the basic rock and roll library – the 100 Essential Albums and Singles of Rock and Roll.

Let the debates begin.

Part 1: The 50 Essential Albums

1. The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds. A portrait of teenage love perfected (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”), pulled back to reveal endless layers of beauty and sadness, hope and regret, instruments and voices. (Capitol, 1966)

2. The Beatles: Rubber Soul. The Beatles take in the lessons of Dylan (both musical and medicinal) and emerge with their first ambitious masterpiece. (Parlophone, 1965)

3. The Beatles: Revolver. The sound of a growing Beatles – John discovers LSD (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), Paul discovers classical (“Eleanor Rigby”), George discovers Eastern meditation (“Love You to”), and Ringo discovers a number one hit (“Yellow Submarine”) – but one that could still stand as a unified band. (Parlophone, 1966)

4. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If not the greatest album of all-time, certainly the most influential; a record that, in perfecting the concept album, cut the history of rock and roll in half. (Capitol, 1967)

5. The Beatles: Abbey Road. And in the end, this was their epic final statement, balanced between a number of signature tunes on one side (John’s “Come Together,” George’s “Something,” Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden”) and one epic suite on the other (Paul’s “Long Medley”). (Apple, 1969)

6. Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight. Question: Where would rock and roll be without the likes of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and two dozen more that I don’t have space to name? Answer: Nowhere. (MCA, 1955-1964/1984)

7. David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. A passion play about an interstellar rock and roll savior, covered in space-age glam but fueled by a human heart. (RCA, 1972)

8. James Brown: 20 All Time Greatest Hits! The history of African American music in the latter half of the twentieth century, as told by the man who pushed it the hardest and took it the farthest. (Polydor, 1956-1976/1991)

9. The Byrds: Greatest Hits. Dylan’s words meet the Beatles’ aesthetics and a new sound is born, a delicate thing of rare, shimmering beauty in the jingle-jangle morning. (Columbia, 1965-1967)

10. Ray Charles: The Best of the Atlantic Years. With “I’ve Got a Woman,” “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” and “What’d I Say,” this is the rock of ages upon which soul was built. (Rhino, 1954-1959/1994)

11. The Clash: London Calling. A sprawling two-record set that begins with a vision of the apocalypse and then works its way through rock, rockabilly, pop, ska, and reggae, remaking it all in its own punk image. (Epic, 1979)

12. Sam Cooke: The Best of. With equal parts gospel, pop, and rhythm and blues, Cooke helped to create the aesthetic of soul music; but with the effortless charm of songs like “You Send Me,” “(What a) Wonderful World,” and “Having a Party,” he may have also been the best rock singer of them all. (RCA, 1957-1962/1962)

13. Derek and the Dominos: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Eric Clapton and Duane Allman trade riffs and solos on an extended mediation of blues and rock, best summed up by the blunt title of one the album’s finest songs: “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” (Polydor, 1970)

14. The Doors. A journey through the dark psyche brooding just beneath the surface of psychedelic rock’s diamond sky. (Elektra, 1967)

15. Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home. Bob Dylan goes from acoustic to electric, but not in that order. Oceans rise and mountains crumble, but you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. (Columbia, 1965)

16. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited. Beginning with the gunshot drum hit of “Like a Rolling Stone” – perhaps the most epic opener of any album – this was Bob Dylan’s first fully-electric album. It was also his masterpiece. (Columbia, 1965)

17. Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde. Dylan goes down to Nashville, hooks up with some crackerjack studio musicians, and spins wild, surreal tales of love, drugs, and anything else that might go through his heart or mind. (Columbia, 1966)

18. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You. Aretha Franklin emerges on her Atlantic Records debut fully-formed, bringing the sacred into the secular, the church into the bedroom, and on the opening song, her signature “Respect,” politics into love. (Atlantic, 1967)

19. Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On. Rock and roll as a sermon – brave and focused on heaven, but weary as hell. (Tamla, 1971)

20. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced. The most stunning debut in rock music; after listening to this archetypal explosion of drugs, sex, and rock and roll, it became clear why no question mark was needed at the end of the album’s title – it was a question that answered itself. (MCA, 1967)

21. Buddy Holly: The “Chirping” Crickets. A rare long-playing masterpiece from rock and roll’s first decade, although when peppered with songs like “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh, Boy!,” and “Maybe Baby,” could it be anything less? (Brunswick, 1957)

22. Michael Jackson: Thriller. For one brief, shining moment – best heard in the post-disco strut of the album’s lead single, “Billie Jean” – the entire intertangled worlds of rock, pop, and soul met in a single place, before becoming so splintered that they could hardly stay unified within themselves, let alone between each other. (Columbia, 1982)

23. Elton John: Greatest Hits. With “Rocket Man,” “Daniel,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Your Song,” the sound of a thousand AM radios in the seventies, and a million FM classic rock stations ever since. (MCA, 1970-1974/1974)

24. Janis Joplin: Greatest Hits. She dressed like a hippie and had hits like a pop star, but make no mistake – this was a blues singer down through her very tortured soul. (Columbia, 1967-1970/1973)

25. Led Zeppelin: Untitled [IV]. A virtual greatest hits album by the archetypal heavy metal band, kicking off with “Black Dog,” anchored by “Stairway to Heaven,” and closing with “When the Levee Breaks.” (Atlantic, 1971)

26. Jerry Lee Lewis: 18 Original Sun Greatest Hits. Rock and roll’s most ignoble son is mad: Mad call I it, for to define true madness, what is’t but to be nothing else but mad? (Rhino, 1956-1961/1984)

27. Little Richard: Here’s Little Richard. The sound and spirit of the ranters and ravers, as reimagined for the kiddies in ten little words that started a thousand rock and roll bands: “A-wop-bob-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!” (Specialty, 1957)

28. Madonna: The Immaculate Collection. A playful survey of the Material Girl in the Material Age, until the masterful “Like a Prayer” comes on and the artist suddenly lives up to her name. (Sire, 1983-1990/1990)

29. Bob Marley: Legend. The fact that this is the best reggae-selling album of all time – in large part because everybody ever owns it (just start asking around) – can obscure the fact that it is also a brilliant collection of brilliant music by a brilliant performer; I mean, if there’s only one reggae album you’re gonna own… (Island, 1972-1981/1984)

30. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks. Ignored upon its release, indispensible now, few records have been so ambitious if only because so few performers have been so uncompromised. You breathe in, you breathe out. (Warner Bros., 1968)

31. Nirvana: Nevermind. Punk’s last gasp-turned-“alternative” music revolution courtesy of a Northwestern trio led by a loser who used to live under a bridge. (DGC, 1991)

32. Elvis Presley: The Sun Sessions. The birth of rock and roll as anchored by five perfect singles with a blues song on one side and a country song on the other. Have you heard the news? (1954-1955/1976)

33. Elvis Presley: Elvis’ Golden Records. With “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “All Shook Up,” a near-perfect summation of the music that made the man king, just before the army came along and stole his crown. (RCA, 1956-1957/1958)

34. Prince and the Revolution: Purple Rain. The Purple One at the peak of his skill, talent, and popularity, turning funk into confession and sex into love. (Warner Bros., 1984)

35. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The Sgt. Pepper of rap music, or Huey Newton with two turntables and a microphone…and the endless wail of police sirens. (Def Jam, 1988)

36. The Ramones. Four punks, three chords, two minutes, one revolution. (Sire, 1976)

37. Otis Redding: Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul. Sung like blues, marketed like soul, and backed by funk, this was music that dug so deeply into the earth it felt bottomless. (Stax, 1965)

38. The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet. The return of five prodigal sons with a sympathy for the devil, striking the pose of street fighting revolutionaries. (Decca, 1968)

39. The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed. An apocalyptic funeral for the 1960s, released one day before Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death at the Stones’ free concert celebrating its release. (Decca, 1969)

40. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St. A dense, gritty mudpit of sound where blues bravado intertwined freely with honky-tonk sleaze and bodies lay on the floor all around. (Rolling Stones, 1972)

41. Diana Ross & The Supremes: Every Great #1 Hit. Motown in its Platonic form with twelve number one pop hits – still the most ever for an American vocal group. (Motown, 1964-1969/1974)

42. Run-D.M.C.: Raisin’ Hell. The video for the lead single “Walk This Way” was stupid – featuring Steven Tyler literally breaking down the wall between rock and rap with his microphone stand – but it also was right on the mark. The album it heralded was the finest by Run-D.M.C., which means it was the finest by any rap group up to that point. (Profile, 1986)

43. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The seminal album of the punk revolution (or lack thereof) that took the future – your future – and pounced on it like a tiny bug. (Warner Bros., 1977)

44. Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water. A portrait of the crumbling late ’60s in beautiful harmonies and remorse, as executed by two men who grew to hate each other so much they ceased to be a group by the time the album hit the stores. (Columbia, 1970)

45. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run. Rock and roll’s biggest fan makes his bid for its biggest statement, and for a moment, gets it. (Columbia 1975)

46. U2: The Joshua Tree. Irish soul meets the American soil, as sculpted by a British eclectic and a Canadian visionary. (Island, 1987)

47. The Velvet Underground & Nico. The place where the modern meets the postmodern, this is music that has been so endlessly ripped-off that it’s difficult to hear just how completely unprecedented its once was, yet remains so far ahead of its time that everyone is still trying to catch up. (Verve, 1967)

48. The Who: Who’s Next. The point at which the Who turned the corner from being the “Maximum R&B” group of the ’60s to the loudest arena-rock band of the ’70s; and on songs like the storming opener (“Baba O’Riley”) and the storming closer (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”), the first — and so far only — successful use of synthesizers in rock and roll. (Polydor, 1971)

49. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions. Fresh off the one-two punch of an artistic breakthrough of Talking Book and a near-fatal car accident, Wonder shut himself in the studio, turned himself into a one-man band, and dug deep into his soul, which is to say, soul itself. (Tamla, 1973)

50. Neil Young: After the Gold Rush. An effortless tale of love, anger, and remorse, told just as the 1960s were collapsing into the 1970s, by an iconoclast who would use his experiences in the former to help define himself as the quintessential artist of the latter. (Reprise, 1970)

Part 2: The 50 Essential Songs

1. The Band: “The Weight.” The rock ballad as a pilgrimage, spending equal time with the beautiful, the holy, and the damned. (Capitol, 1968)

2. The Beach Boys: “Good Vibrations.” A staggering masterpiece of sound and production, completed just before Brian Wilson lost his way. (Capitol, 1966)

3. The Beatles: “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Their international breakthrough. (Parlophone, 1963)

4. The Beatles: “Yesterday.” Their (and the) most-covered song. (Capitol, 1965)

5. The Beatles: “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Their finest recording. (Capitol, 1967)

6. The Beatles: “Hey Jude.” Their best-selling single. (Apple, 1968)

7. Chuck Berry: “You Never Can Tell.” Scenes from a marriage, rock and roll style – lost in the mid-’60s pop charts and found by the Pulp Fiction soundtrack thirty years later. (Chess, 1964)

8. Ray Charles: “Hit the Road Jack.” Playful, catchy, and fun – a highlight of the Genius’s brief burst of creativity in the early ’60s, just before the long, slow slide into schmaltz. (ABC, 1961)

9. Chubby Checker: “The Twist.” American independence as a dance craze. (Parkway, 1960)

10. Jimmy Cliff: “The Harder They Come.” Not just the first sound of reggae, years before Bob Marley would become a household name, but proof that rock and roll had broken through to the third world. (Island, 1973)

11. Sam Cooke: “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Passionate, heartbreaking, and controversial, this was the greatest soul ever sung. (RCA, 1964)

12. Bo Diddley: “Bo Diddley.” The beat that launched a thousand songs, yet this one is still the best. (Chess, 1955)

13. Fats Domino: “Blueberry Hill.” The signature song of rock and roll’s steady-rolling New Orleans piano man – a rare rock founder who exercised warmth over rebellion. (Specialty, 1956)

14. Bob Dylan: “Lay Lady Lay.” Dylan quits cigarettes, goes country, and scores a top ten hit. (Columbia, 1969)

15. Bob Dylan: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” An instant standard, which first appeared on a soundtrack that nobody heard to a film that nobody saw. (Columbia, 1973)

16. Bob Dylan: “Tangled Up in Blue.” The flagship song for Dylan’s finest comeback to date – although it wouldn’t be his first or his last… (Columbia, 1975)

17. The Eagles: “Hotel California.” A mid-seventies rock and roll state of the union: Paradise in hell, free will as a prison, pink champagne on ice. (Asylum, 1976)

18. The Everly Brothers: “Bye Bye Love.” The primer for any group who wants to employ two-part harmonies as a lead vocal. (Cadence, 1957)

19. The Four Tops: “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” An enormous-sounding record, tightened by all of the suspense and drama of a monster truck teetering at the edge of a cliff. (Motown, 1966)

20. Marvin Gaye: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” A masterful, deceptively simple performance that gets richer with each listen; maybe that’s why it became Motown’s best-selling single up to its time. (Motown, 1968)

21. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “The Message.” Rap music turns its focus from the party inside the loft to the warzone out in the street. (Sugar Hill, 1982)

22. Bill Haley and His Comets: “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock.” The shot-heard-’round-the-world rallying birth cry of the rock and roll revolution. (Decca, 1954)

23. Jimi Hendrix: “All Along the Watchtower.” Hendrix’s production masterpiece as well as his only American Top 20 hit (!); Bob Dylan’s original acoustic version was merely the preliminary sketch – after hearing this, even Dylan conceded that he could never perform the song with an acoustic guitar again. (MCA, 1968)

24. The Impressions: “People Get Ready.” A stirring vision with hands on the guitar and eyes on the prize; this train was bound for glory. (ABC, 1965)

25. The Jackson 5: “I Want You Back.” The greatest debut single of all-time? It was certainly the most exciting – and danceable. (Motown, 1969)

26. The Kingsmen: “Louie Louie.” Ground zero for punk rock: Three chords that everyone could play and mangled words that no one could understand. (Jerden, 1963)

27. The Kinks: “You Really Got Me.” Heavy, on the road to becoming heavy metal; I once gave a friend a list I wrote of the top 100 rock and roll moments and this was his response: “What about Dave Davies rips the cones out of his amp?” (Pye, 1964)

28. John Lennon: “Imagine.” Radical socialism disguised as wistful sentimentality. (Apple, 1971)

29. Martha and the Vandellas: “Dancing in the Street.” A rock and roll call-to-arms/answer record to the urban upheavals of the mid-sixties that offered dancing over rioting, hope over anger, and music, sweet music. (Motown, 1964)

30. Van Morrison: “Brown-Eyed Girl.” The soundtrack to everyone’s favorite summer fling, or at least the way we choose to remember it. (Bang, 1967)

31. Roy Orbison: “Oh, Pretty Woman.” After countless songs of heartbreak and pain, rock and roll’s most beautiful yet awkward singer finally gets the girl – in the final seconds of the record. (Monument, 1964)

32. The Penguins: “Earth Angel.” An unfinished demo that was buried on the flipside of a single, got played on the radio, and became one of the most natural hits of rock and roll, all thanks to the entire world turning on Cleve Duncan’s vocal trill, almost exactly halfway through the record. (Dootone, 1954)

33. Elvis Presley: “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The signature song off of the otherwise forgettable Blue Hawaii soundtrack, which became the best-selling album of his lifetime; now, freed from vinyl, the song is currently Elvis’s most-downloaded song. (RCA, 1961)

34. Elvis Presley: “Suspicious Minds.” The centerpiece of Elvis’s late-’60s comeback work, as well as his final American number one; as a study of tension and paranoia, it rivals Vertigo, as an exercise in sweat and passion, it rivals Elvis’s finest work – which is to say, it rivals the finest rock and roll. (RCA, 1969)

35. Elvis Presley: “Burning Love.” One final burst of joy before the sorry decline; a rival to “Louie, Louie” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ on” as rock and roll’s greatest #2 hit single? (RCA, 1972)

36. Otis Redding: “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” Written while listening to Sgt. Pepper over and over on headphones, recorded three days before his plane crashed into the icy waters of Lake Monona. (Stax, 1967)

37. R.E.M.: “Radio Free Europe.” A profoundly weird record that pointed the way to the future – half-mumbled, college radio-thriving mysticism – even if no one heard it at the time. (Hib-Tone, 1981)

38. The Righteous Brothers: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The Wall of Sound, Version 2: Mature, dynamic, and as subtle as a tidal wave. (Philles, 1964)

39. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: “The Tracks of My Tears.” A three-minute testimony of why Bob Dylan probably wasn’t joking when he famously called Smokey Robinson America’s greatest living poet. (Tamla, 1965)

40. The Rolling Stones: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The greatest riff ever played. (Decca, 1965)

41. The Rolling Stones: “Paint It, Black.” An attack on psychedelic rock and roll, with tar brush in hand. (Decca, 1966)

42. The Rolling Stones: “Honky Tonk Women.” A subversion of country into blues, as well as the Stones’ best-selling stateside single. (Decca, 1969)

43. The Ronettes: “Be My Baby.” The Wall of Sound, Version 1: An endless sea of instruments, voices, and echo that could be summoned into submission by a single kick-drum. (Philles, 1963)

44. Sly & The Family Stone: “Family Affair.” Only Sly Stone could take a profoundly weird, drug-induced horror story about race, murder, and inequality and turn it into a smooth and funky number one hit. (Columbia, 1971)

45. Patti Smith: “Gloria.” Punk’s greatest poet throws down the gauntlet in just eight words or less: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” (Arista, 1975)

46. The Temptations: “My Girl.” A soaring number one classic that has become one of the most durable Motown productions; most people forget the song had its humble origins as a companion piece to the comparatively-forgotten Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” which itself hit number one. (Gordy, 1964)

47. Ike & Tina Turner: “River Deep, Mountain High.” The Wall of Sound, Version 3: A raging apocalypse of sound and vision. (Philles, 1966)

48. The Who: “My Generation.” One bass solo, two key changes, three instruments, and four musicians, all hanging on the five most exciting words ever (almost) stuttered in a rock song: “Why don’t you all f-f-f—(Brunswick, 1965)

49. Stevie Wonder: “Superstition.” The funkiest funk ever told. (Tamla, 1972)

50. Neil Young: “Heart of Gold.” Rock and roll’s most uncompromising rebel at his most surprising: Singing a friendly, mainstream number one hit. (Reprise, 1972)

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