9. Abbey Road, The Beatles (1969)
I was born several years after the breakup of the Beatles, but I grew up with the songs of Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Sgt. Pepper. When I began my record collection in the mid 1990s, my father told me that I should definitely acquire Abbey Road. My twenty-year-old CD edition of this album is one that I almost always play from beginning to end without skipping tracks. It’s difficult to explain what brings the songs together in some cases— “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is a strange song to be paired with George Harrison’s beautiful “Something,” and yet these juxtapositions work perfectly because they show that one great freedom of music is the ability to recast lyrical tone through melody and delivery. The Beatles knew intuitively that language could do what George Carlin or Noam Chomsky illustrated—that one could say that “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and have fun with the contradictions in the same way that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” could be a lighthearted and danceable song about a serial killer. The album makes for a perfect swan song for the band. They incorporated strange portraits like “She Came in through the Bathroom Window,” transfixing harmonies in “Because,” storybook rock and roll lullabies such as “Golden Slumbers,” and even poetically delivered complaints about record companies in “You Never Give Me Your Money.” Why did the band cross the road? Clearly, they were on their way to make one of the best rock albums of all time.
10. Silk Degrees, Boz Scaggs (1976)
The songs of this album evoke the 1970s in an unmistakable way, and it turns out that this association works out really well. Boz took the best elements of pop, r&b, and soul and combined them each in different measures from song to song. These concoctions turn out to be lasting examples of music that is the nexus of hip, street-smart, and romantic. The songs are riffy and danceable in an irrepressible way. One of my favorites is “Georgia,” which is a great example of Scaggs’s incredible instinct for wedding a driving rhythm and gorgeous melody to a character-focused caper narrative—even if the caper doesn’t go as expected. Aside of the album’s great chart hits such as “Lowdown” and “It’s Over,” the album also has beautiful off-the-beaten-path moments such as the jazz fusion flugelhorn soloing at the end of “Harbor Lights.” Overall, it is an expertly realized album that puts forward the best of the sound of the ‘70s.
11. The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd (1974)
Along with Electric Ladyland, this classic by Pink Floyd is one of the two most rock-oriented albums on my gathering here. And along with What’s Going On, it is certainly one of the most serious in tone and probing of the human condition. It has a cinematic gravity to it because of the monumental power of each track and the many interesting sonic special effects that are featured. The background vocals on “The Great Gig in the Sky” are one of my favorite elements, and the expansive saxophone and guitar solos point the listener toward a vision of the grandeur and fragility of life itself. This is one of the best albums for highlighting the distinction between an album and a playlist. The Dark Side of the Moon has a cohesion and relationship from song to song that creates the feeling that you are on a journey to witness a fantastic and terrifying galaxy with Pink Floyd as the experienced mission crew.
12. Live – the Loom’s Desire, Laura Nyro (1994, released in 2002)
This album is the closest to a compilation/greatest hits recording on my list, and it is another double-CD recording, comprised of two performances on separate dates in 1993 and 1994. In the early 2000’s, I was not familiar in any clear way with who Laura Nyro was or what songs she had written. I borrowed this 2-CD set from my free library and was genuinely impressed with the beauty of the songs and the sincerity of her voice on these two live dates. She establishes a rapport with the audience in the short intros, brief asides, and especially the many standout songs that she delivers. The album has a very heavy dose of Sophia, Sappho, and moon-goddessy type of new age feminism that works perfectly and feels thoroughly natural and sincere. The songs, the concepts, and the ethos of these performances are never forced; they are remarkably full for just a woman, a piano, and the occasional support of a small female background chorus. The album opens with the Phil Spector co-written “Oh, Yeah, Maybe Baby”—it’s a perfect intro that instantly arrests the listener’s attention. As each set progresses, Nyro focuses heavily on her own original material, keeping the performances poetic but never too long and rewarding us with variety and melody. The only sad thing about this album is that Laura only lived to see the late 1990s. I hope that she knew how great these recordings would turn out to be.
13. Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder (1976)
This double album-plus was a Grammy award winner and a defining concept album in Stevie Wonder’s recording career. The album famously required several years of work and massive amounts of orchestration. Songs in the Key is an album with which I have a family connection—the lead guitarist on several tracks (including the amazing “Contusion”) and co-writer of the song “Saturn” is my uncle, Michael Sembello. Aside of the singles like the familiar “I Wish” or “Sir Duke,” there are many superb moments such as the outstanding melody and changing tempos of “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” As a concept album devoted to the elements and experiences of life, this recording delivers with 21 songs that span the range of human endeavors and knowledge. From the personal side of parenting in “Isn’t She Lovely” to the subjective intimacy of “Joy inside My Tears” or the social consciousness of “Black Man” to the cosmic consciousness of “As” and “Saturn,” there is a rich palette of colors and emotions that make this near triple-album worth exploring.
14. Astral Weeks, Van Morrison (1968)
My love of Van Morrison’s music is an inheritance given to me by my mother. This recording interested me even before I first listened to it because as a jazz and blues fan, I was interested in Van Morrison’s sound paired with a small group of jazz-oriented musicians. The album is cohesive, natural, and intuitive. Of particular interest alongside of the mythical and formative imagery delivered by Van’s outstanding voice is the acoustic bass of Richard Davis. The bass resonates in the album as a perfect pulse that is both a backbone and a muscle. The vibraphones and flute add the extra sonic touches that complete the ethereal feeling of the recording. The album sides one and two are significantly given the headings “In the Beginning” and “Afterwards” which hint at the transformation of innocence into experience. In selecting this album as a personal favorite, I have broken no new ground. As a late sixties hybrid of styles fueled by incredible sensitivity and creativity, this record stands alongside universally lauded favorites such as Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and the Beatles White Album in reputation. The album has many stirring moments, but one that has always haunted me is the apocalyptic sound of the soprano saxophone in the final song, “Slim Slow Slider.” If this is the same girl to whom Van sang in the song “Beside You,” then circumstances have markedly changed. Instead of serenading, the singing is more like a frank talk about what once was and the way that the girl is “going for something” and “won’t be back.” Sometimes the best rock music doesn’t sound like rock.
15. Black Moses, Isaac Hayes (1971)
This double album recording is a flat-out revelation of the incredibly musical capabilities of Isaac Hayes. The arrangements are of unexpected beauty and expansive depth. The Black Moses character is a man making a complete and intensive circuit of the experiences of attraction, love, passion, and rejection. After the opener “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Hayes creates a nine-minute exploration of Burt Bacharach’s “(They Long to Be) Close to You” that is simply transfixing. The quality of Isaac’s vocal, the spacious arrangement with horns and strings, and the gorgeous singing by the women on backup vocals have made this possibly my favorite song master take of all time. The virtue of this album is that Hayes is able to perform the songs of Curtis Mayfield, Bacharach, Gamble and Huff, and Kris Kristofferson in a seamless mosaic that stands as a sparkling exemplar of all that r&b music can be. Songs such as “Man’s Temptation” have an energy that still resonates agelessly more than forty years after its initial release. This is Hayes at his best, and he is a tremendously compelling musical presence on each side of this double LP.
16. The Bossa Nova Hotel, Michael Sembello (1983)
This recording was created by my uncle, following his time as a Wonderlove guitarist and co-writer with Stevie Wonder and much sought-after session musician. The album shows off the great musical instincts and conceptual genius of a natural and very practiced talent. The synthesizers of the 1980s are made to shine in the service of one of the most unusual collections of songs ever recorded. Never before has an album featured tributes to Godzilla, Jesus of Nazareth, a nameless African-American cowboy, and an android that can love. On the other hand, in songs such as “It’s Over” and “Talk (featuring a vocal by Cruz Baca Sembello),” Michael shows his great talent and expertise at writing the song of a romantic love that has been lost or shattered from within. While this album is not very well known outside of artists and people who were fixtures in the music industry in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the album features the ubiquitous hit single “Maniac” (co-written by Dennis Matkosky) from the movie Flashdance. The songs are the brainchild of Michael with the collaborative contributions of brother Danny Sembello and simpatico musician and friend David Batteau. The album has a very effective array of soloists such as George Duke on keyboards and Paulinho Da Costa on percussion. The recording stands as a perfect tribute to the artist, the era of the precisely engineered studio album, and all of the possibilities of the period both obscure and those bursting forth in summer movie soundtracks.