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Old 12-20-2014, 03:37 PM   #1 (permalink)
Josef K
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Default Josef K's Favorite Albums, Year-By-Year

Let me begin by noting how awful that title is. Ugh.

Anyway, this is the project that I teased in Trollheart's journal update thread - it's a countdown of my ten (with a couple exceptions) favorite albums from each year. I'm sort of going to speed through the '60s, because I know less about that music (plus a lot of what I like from that time is jazz, which I don't really know how to write about), and then we'll get to the meat of the journal. I've already posted top ten lists through 1985(?) in my other journal, but those will probably change a lot here.

I should also note the journals I'm modelling this off of. As I said in the other thread, my aim is some cross between Pounding Decibels and Goofle's and Sidewinder's journals with the same idea as this one. In spirit, it's close to the latter two - these are my own subjective lists. If I like one album more than another, I won't put the other ahead of it because I feel it has greater historical importance. This isn't a history of music, it's just a bunch of lists of albums I like. But my hope is for this to look a lot more like Pounding Decibels in terms of format, although I doubt that I can be as exhaustive as Unknown Soldier is.

So, without any further ado, I'll start with quick summaries of some of my favorite pre-1965 albums. The real lists will start there.

Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)
There's not much (or anything) new I can say about this album, but it is really exceptionally good and if you somehow haven't before, you should listen to it. Many consider it Coleman's great leap forward, and I get that - it's the first album of his where he clearly knows what he wants to do and is really on the same page as the other musicians, and that results in some incredible music, including his most popular composition, the beautiful "Lonely Woman". The members of his quartet are all worth praising, too - Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, and Charlie Haden are great instrumentalists (and both of the latter two did some great stuff as leaders). Classic.

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Here's another album that a lot has been said about. I can't offer better analysis than the many reviews and articles about Mingus's masterpiece floating around on the Internet, but for me, its greatness lies in the effortless balance between wildly varying moods. The joyous, aggressive, gospel-infused opener "Better Git It In Your Soul" is classic, but it's incredible that Mingus could follow it up with the slow, elegiac "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and then go right back to his louder material with "Boogie Stop Shuffle". There's not a single bad track on this album, which also includes two more tributes to famous earlier jazz artists, and it stands as a towering achievement even in Mingus's catalog.

Miles Davis: Sketches of Spain (1960)
I'm perhaps not the best Miles Davis fan, by which I mean Kind of Blue kind of bores me and, while I like Bitches Brew, it's never been one of my favorite albums. But I have something like six of Miles's albums, and none of them are anything but great. This was the first one that got me into him, and in fact it was the first jazz album I really liked. I remember sitting in my room about a year ago, being wowed by this 1960 collaboration with Gil Evans, and thinking "Am I one of those people now?" But, as much of a scourge as white people who like jazz so long as it's old enough and safe enough are, that was a stupid worry to have because this is excellent. The album is filled with some of the prettiest music I've ever heard, and overall it's an experiment - using lots of strings for a classical feel - that very much succeeds.

Ornette Coleman: Free Jazz (1961)
Let's talk about the personnel first. So this is a "double quartet" - eight musicians, divided into two quartets, one playing on the left stereo channel and one on the right. Coleman's quartet at the time - the same as on The Shape of Jazz to Come, but with Ed Blackwell instead of Billy Higgins on drums - is split, with Coleman and Cherry on the left with Higgins and Scott LaFaro, and Haden and Blackwell on the right with Eric Dolphy (who has a couple albums of his own that just missed making this list) and Freddie Hubbard. It would come off as a gimmick if everything about the album weren't so brilliantly executed, with the four horns striking just the right balance between cooperating and playing past each other. The solos are fun, but even cooler are the moments that involve more people. This is probably my favorite album of Coleman's.

John Coltrane: Africa/Brass (1961)
I like My Favorite Things and I really like Giant Steps, but my favorite pre-avant-garde Coltrane album has to be Africa/Brass. The album, with key collaborators Eric Dolphy and McCoy Tyner, is simply incredible. "Africa", the album's highlight, which takes up the entire first side, has a great drum solo from Elvin Jones along with great rhythm throughout and some fantastic horn stuff. "Greensleeves" is one of Coltrane's prettiest pieces (well, I guess it's not really his piece), and "Blues Minor" is also excellent. It's also interesting to hear as a stepping stone to works such as Ascension, which, like this album, uses bigger arrangements to spectacular effect.

James Brown: Live at the Apollo (1963)
So we're finally at the first non-jazz album of this journal, and it's a pretty fantastic one. James Brown, already a massive star, recorded this in 1962, and many consider it the defining half-hour of his early (pre-funk) career. And for good reason - although the recording isn't great quality, the band is incredibly tight and crisp, the fans are rabid, and Brown himself is at the top of his game as he leads his band and backing vocalists the Famous Flames through his many hits. The album opens with great performances of songs including "I'll Go Crazy" and "Think", but the real highlights are the last three tracks - a ten-minute version of "Lost Someone", a medley of hits, and finally "Night Train" to cap everything off. It's a classic album, but I wouldn't call it "timeless". In fact, I think its best quality is that it almost functions as a time capsule - more than any other album, it gives me an actual sense of what the music industry was like 50 years ago, and I think that's valuable.

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)
And we're back to Mingus. Mingus Ah Um is easily my favorite of his, but I had a real argument with myself over which other album of his to include. This one is obvious, but in the end I decided I love it just a little more than Oh Yeah, so here it is. The thing about Mingus is that compared to Dolphy or Coleman or Ayler or Hill, his stuff is actually pretty straightforward. Well, it's complicated, but it's way more accessible than those other artists. So even this, Mingus's most avant-garde album (to my knowledge) is hummable in places, despite its dissonance. It's also one of the most atmospheric, most evocative pieces of music I've ever heard. Super classic, obviously, and I'd recommend it to anyone trying to get into jazz - it worked for me.

Albert Ayler: Spiritual Unity (1964)
I love Albert Ayler. His sound is built around sliding in and out of military march-esque melodies above free, disorganized rhythm, and it makes for incredibly powerful, visceral music. The brilliance of his sound is mixing the harsh and the playful. Or something like that. Look, it's a really good album and you need to listen to it, is all I'm saying - completely essential and wholly unique.

I'll try to get the beginning of the 1965 list up soon.
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