17. Wildewoman, Lucius (2013)
I became aware of this recording because of the endorsement of NPR’s Bob Boilen. In his introduction of the song “Tempest” from this album, Boilen stressed the way that the songs build, and boy did that come through for me when I listened to this entire album. The 21st century has seen some phenomenal musicians developing their craft, but I have been slow to embrace the current generation. Bands such as Death Cab for Cutie and Coldplay have recorded many great songs. Solo artists like Adele, Pink, Regina Spektor, Jamie Cullum and Bruno Marrs have shown that there is a lot of polished talent and creativity in 21st century pop music. In Wildewoman, the group Lucius has made an album that is the best of alt music and music that you can dance to and sing along with. The songwriting is primarily supplied by the band’s two female lead singers, Jess Wolf and Holly Laessig, who sing with beauty and great personal fire. On songs such as “Turn it Around,” there is a pithy wisdom in the metaphors of the lyrics and a contagious power to the beat. “Tempest” speaks of lovers as “two ships passing” and makes it sound fresher than it should be. I’m not sure if the song “Two of Us on the Run” is technically a ballad, but it is one of the most sincere explorations of true lovers experiencing the challenges of life together that one could imagine. This music is creative and genuine in its messages and its melodies, and I hope that it gets many discoverers as time goes on.
18. Graceland, Paul Simon (1986)
Although this album won the Grammy award in 1987 and had significant exposure along with a major single and popular video, I did not listen to it in its entirety until the early 2000s. I am certainly not the first person to be immensely impressed with the enthusiasm for life and the commentary on society that Simon presents in the opening track, “The Boy in the Bubble.” This song begins with the alarming reference of an exploding bomb insidiously conveyed in a baby carriage and pivots into an upbeat catalogue of things occurring in the world at the time—and some things like “lasers in the jungle” that seemed to express the idea that the mid-1980s was a nexus of present and future. Author Steven Pinker’s exhaustive work on the gradual decrease of historical violence, The Better Angels of our Nature, contains a quote from this song that is used to convey the idea of self-concept in a modern progressive society: “The way the camera follows us in slo-mo / The way we look to us all.” As the album continues, the great irony and outstanding poetry of Simon continue to flow on songs such as “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” In retrospect, the single “You Can Call Me Al” fools me into thinking that Simon foresaw the infidelity scandals of televangelists of the 1980’s and (later on President Clinton) when Simon croons that his role model is “gone” and has “ducked back down the alley” with a young woman. The title track expresses the talismanic power of pop legends and cultural reference points as we age well into our 40s (as Simon was doing at the time). Of course this album and Simon’s very impressive follow up in 1990, The Rhythm of the Saints, are also musical partnerships and explorations of sounds from around the world. Graceland featured the talents of many South African musicians including the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo as well as artists such as Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos. Nearing the thirty year mark from its release, Graceland is not finished reminding us of “the way we look to us all.”
19. Classified, James Booker (1982)
James Booker was a gay, African-American blues musician from New Orleans who loved to play on tinny, rickety, little pianos. He would make these keyboards come to life despite their limitations, and according to his friends and those that studied his music (like Harry Connick Jr.), Booker was a master of styles and inventive improvisation. I found this recording Classified after reading of it on the online All Music Guide a decade ago, and it is an album rich in show business attitude, humor, sensitivity, and bluesy truth-telling. The opener “All Around the World” has Booker’s perfect combination of genuinely funny delivery and completely authoritative tone. One of the great joys of this album is the fact that Booker performs several instrumental numbers on solo piano in which he stretches out and weaves together beautiful classical piano phrasing and melds it with the blues as he does in the performance of “Angel Eyes.” On “Swedish Rhapsody” he takes the traditional melody and makes it hum on his clinky piano and then sweep at times with the motion of a gently flowing river. Booker’s vocal style is quirky but intense, and his conception of the blues is anything but typical. In 2013 a documentary production of Booker’s life and music was released by filmmaker Lily Keeber. The film Bayou Maharajah: The Troubled Genius of James Booker is a very absorbing look at the man who made this remarkable album.
20. Yes, The Pet Shop Boys (2009)
This album has the pure sound of dance music paired with the heart and ambition of great songwriters. Yes features ballads that are beautiful and thought-provoking, and they somehow successfully combine the very personal with the epic. The more upbeat tracks inspire movement and complement propulsion: this CD is a great one for an hour’s drive over open roads. The “King of Rome” is one of the aforementioned ballads that really packs an emotional punch with its central conceit (and almost Grecian in its tragic quality). “Building a Wall” is personally confessional but also historically literate. “Beautiful People” is an upbeat dancer that strikes the right balance between the pursuit of real happiness and fascination with superficial beauty and materialism. “Legacy” is the album’s finale that ambitiously caters to the ego of anyone who has been emotionally wounded and reminds us that we will “get over it.” Whenever I put this CD on and listen after I haven’t heard it in a while, I remember that it is one that I won’t get over any time soon.
21. Seduzir, Djavan (1981)
This is a brilliant album entirely in Portuguese language that reflects many of the best elements of late 20th century American r&b and pop music blended and delivered in a Brazilian context. The album’s title is translated in the liner notes as “seducing,” and it is an apt title since the songs are as hypnotic and transporting as any I have ever heard. Listening to this album and becoming acquainted with its many distinctive songs was an education in itself about how music can transcend language. While the song titles are glossed, only tiny fragments of the lyrics are translated; I have always been struck by how clearly the themes emerge and how communicative Djavan’s vocal style and tone are in these songs. The song “A Ilha” (Island) features an unexpected violin release that is laser-precise but feels thoroughly spontaneous. As the solo builds and twists, Djavan reenters with an ad-libbed vocal that doubles the passion. On “Faltando Um Pedaco” (Missing a Piece), the title theme of separation and longing is conveyed with beautiful middle-high notes that are stretched out with alternation of bell-tone and falsetto in perfect measure. The transitions from one song to the next have great variety as an aching ballad about “The Brunette Who Drives One Crazy” gives way to the cocky and brief sketch of a “Jester.” The artist’s vision comes through very strongly, and repeatedly in the album, Djavan’s voice is genuinely outstanding, resonating with the kind of clarity, strength, and perfect tone of phenomenal singers like George Michael, Stevie Wonder, and Chaka Khan. Part of the music’s accessibility for me is fueled by Djavan’s Van Morrison-like ability to contribute wordless vocals that dance and float across the songs, moving beyond words to communicate intuitively with music and emotion.
22. The Poet, Bobby Womack (1981)
I love ambitious r&b music, and like both Black Moses and What’s Going On, The Poet is a very ambitious album that is loaded with atmosphere, attitude, and fantastic melodies. The album cover is an absolute classic with Womack sporting a lavender suit while holding his guitar, wearing quintessential giant 80’s sunglasses and holding his hand up communicatively. The album lives up to its cover and title by delivering songs that are not so much universal but personal in their appeal. Womack engages with the listener in signature, conversational interludes and crests on the choral wave of his female background singers. In the song “Lay Your Lovin’ On Me” Womack is unstoppable in his enthusiasm and grasp of infectious rhythm. In the album’s biggest hit song, “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” he crafts an inescapably attractive ballad that is anything but a typical love song. Much of the song’s emphasis is on the tension of love and relationships, and there is an authentic egotism in the song’s ethos that somehow works without undercutting the tenderness of the melody. In some instances the album dates exactly to the time of its early 1980s release in its pop culture references and sonic elements, but the Womack team’s work and the artist’s overarching intentions have resulted in an album that is still compelling in its beauty, reach and panache more than thirty years later. In “Where Do We Go From Here?” Womack closes the album with a reflective ballad that paints the portrait of a relationship at the crossroads. The Poet is 40 minutes of captivating music, perfectly sequenced and featuring a singer who builds his own cult of romantic personality.
23. Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos (1992)
In the mid-1980s, following the appearance of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the strong moves made by Madonna and Prince, a kind of gauntlet was thrown down, and many artists, male and female, old and new, stepped forward to record a “statement” song and maybe even a groundbreaking full album. So the late 80’s gave us Sting’s superb recordings “Fragile” and “Englishman in New York” while Madonna released Like a Prayer, her most conceptually and socially ambitious record—and quite a good one for my money. In 1989, Billy Joel recorded “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and the next year, George Michael put forward Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 in an impressive effort to reach for the high ground both creatively and in terms of artistic seriousness. And then in 1992, came Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes—a recording that begins with the thumping page-turner of a song, “Crucify,” issuing a very personal challenge to organized religion. The ethos of the album is something like a feminist response to the 80s—perhaps captured best in the sarcasm-rich song “Silent All These Years.” The entire recording is as honest and unpredictable as Frank Zappa and as crafty and beautifully arranged as Joni Mitchell. Sometimes the honesty is totally off-putting, as in the song “Me and a Gun,” in which Ms. Amos relates the story in a cappella, free-associative lyrics of her own rape. These twelve songs with their beautiful acoustic pianos and varied styles largely escape that synthetic late 80s early 90s sound. The songs show diverse influences; on “Happy Phantom” the whimsical, loping vocal reminds me of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The album closer, the title song, has a statesman-like quality as it catalogues the relatively small-scale experiences that shake our world and move us deeply (the love affairs, the deaths, the crimes etc.) even though they may barely shake the larger landscape. This album, for me, builds on and rewires the statement albums of the late 80s, and it shows where the “alternative” and popular music of future decades could go in the hands of a capable and driven artist.
24. The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket (2015)
Jim James and his collaborators in My Morning Jacket have forged a musical catalogue and a style that is an authentic and perfectly constructed combination of soul and rock with very crafty touches of country and folk elements. Those country and folk elements are sometimes simply a pedal steel guitar or a lyrical phrase or title that suggests a rustic setting as in the case of “Hillside Song” (one of the tracks from the expanded edition of this album). As a spiritualist and a skeptical agnostic, I simply love the opening track “Believe (Nobody Knows)” for both its melodic and conceptual sincerity. This music has very real echoes and voicings that remind me of The Who, Pink Floyd, and the Allman Brothers Band in very positive ways. The album as a whole seems to be wrestling with challenging life experiences and loss, but there is so much great work of transmuting these into the material for healing art. The guitars and synthesizers on this album sound fantastic, and if you happen to enjoy this kind of deep, thoughtful classic rock that contains equal measures of drive and reflection, every track has a pivot point that just kind of pulls you in and takes you further on the journey. Maybe the high point is “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall),” wherein the power of human belief and agency are affirmed in a way that does not shortchange the challenges of living in the world. Nature informs this art, and in turn this art comments powerfully on the nature of humanity.
25. Enlightenment, Van Morrison (1990)
The veritable font of mystical musicality that is Van Morrison is well known to many around this world. Before I was born, he gave to music the “Moondance” and the unforgettable portrait of the “Brown-Eyed Girl.” When I was 22 years old, I heard my mother’s cassette tape of this album Enlightenment, and it was the beginning of an ongoing commitment to his music. At that time, I was majoring in world religion as an undergraduate student, and I was deeply impressed with the way that Van had taken hold of memory and experience while putting them to music that is reflective and consumed in the search for spiritual attainment. The opener “Real Real Gone” starts things off with a driving electric piano, and it conveys a love of mythic proportions while invoking the names and quotations of great past legends of soul music such as Solomon Burke and Gene Chandler. The title track has a beautiful choral intro that perfectly positions Van to launch a conversation about the nature of existence. There are no easy answers, and the portrait of the self in the song is one that is happily engaged in life and puzzled at its mysteries but pushing to solve them and to find the right mind and way of being. Morrison’s Eastern mysticism in the title track is also paired with the searching Christianity portrayed in the song “Avalon” and its reference to the Holy Grail. The album contains a powerful tribute to old times and youthful memories titled “The Days Before Rock ‘n Roll,” an extended ode that features spoken word paired with singing to tell its story. This album contains so many beautiful moments of meditation on life balanced perfectly between lyrics and instruments, and the song “So Quiet in Here” may be one of the finest examples of this quality. The song features an incredibly sensitive performance on the piano by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, perfectly calibrated strings, and Van’s lyrical portrait of a night with sparkling lights in the distance, sailing ships, and beloved friends. The search for peace and fulfillment goes on, and sometimes we have moments like this one on the journey.
Reservations, Equivocations, and Closing Thoughts:
This project of assembling and commenting on my favorite pop, r&b, rock, and blues albums was a journey into the past and a revealing self-examination. While putting this list together, it became difficult to establish or justify the choices of what is included and the tens or even hundreds of albums that I enjoy greatly but didn’t include—hence my list of additional favorites below that I just couldn’t leave unmentioned.
While the digital music age has produced incredible flexibility for choosing our own configurations of music for a variety of listening purposes, the album presents artists with a challenge. Can they craft and sustain a theme, a style, or a musical identity in a way that has the magnetic quality of bringing individuals to listen again and again?
This list is a travelogue of journeys across many minds and landscapes of emotion. I hope that these commentaries have some interesting elements for anyone who reads them. It is dedicated to my mother and father, who helped me to find my love of music.
Freak Out!, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (1965)
Twenty-something, Jamie Cullum (2003)
The Royal Scam, Steely Dan (1976)
Poetic Champions Compose, Van Morrison (1987)
Sunflower, The Beach Boys (1970)
Transatlanticism, Death Cab for Cutie (2003)
Songs for Silverman, Ben Folds (2005)
Hymns to the Silence, Van Morrison (1991)
Rapture, Anita Baker (1986)
Slow Dancer, Boz Scaggs (1974)
Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen (1987)
Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, George Michael (1990)
White Album, The Beatles (1968)
No Guru No Method No Teacher, Van Morrison (1986)
Mothership Connection, Parliament/Funkadelic (1975)
Farewell, Simply Red (2011)
Thriller, Michael Jackson (1982)
Gaucho, Steely Dan (1981)
Hejira, Joanie Mitchell (1976)
…Nothing Like the Sun, Sting (1987)
Evolver, John Legend (2008)
It Serves You Right to Suffer, John Lee Hooker (1966)