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Old 12-20-2014, 03:37 PM   #1 (permalink)
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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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Old 12-20-2014, 04:12 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Subbed.

Completely agree ith everything you said about Live at the Apollo.
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Old 12-21-2014, 09:04 AM   #3 (permalink)
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So I've made a decision. I don't want to put albums which I only sort of like in here. This means that there will be a couple years in which I don't have complete top tens, including 1965, which will simply be a top six.

6. The Sonics: Here Are the Sonics



I think there's an extent to which this album, the debut from these Washington garage-rock legends, is more notable for what it influenced and how it's talked about (note "legends") than its actual music - in short, the Sonics suffer from Velvet Underground Syndrome. Now, there's surely some law which says that, having mentioned the VU, I can't post this review unless I dust off the line about how only a thousand people listened to The Velvet Underground & Nico, but all of them started bands, yadda yadda yadda. But that's okay, because it's actually very connected to this subject. If Reed, Cale, & co.'s debut inspired art students to launch great but pretentious bands that challenged even our most basic assumptions about music and made a point of pushing all the boundaries they could think of, Here Are the Sonics told the public, fifteen years before Half Japanese's first album (and closer to thirty before that godawful Radiohead song), that anyone could play guitar. It’s an interesting case because it’s both one of the great populist albums of all time and one that’s (rightly) considered a classic by “intelligent” music snobs. This makes sense - after all, without it, it’s plausible that we wouldn’t have the New York Dolls, we wouldn’t have the Clash, and we might not even have Wire.

But here I am, a decent-sized paragraph in, and I’m falling victim to the same problem I began by addressing - there’s so much to talk about on face with this album, and yet reviewers, including me, spend our time bloviating about its historical importance or whatever. And don’t get me wrong: it is a landmark in the history of punk rock, or even in the history of music. But even more important is that it’s a bunch of really great songs. It’s impossible for me, in 2014, to hear how fresh this must have sounded to a lot of people, and I won’t try to imagine - it’s even more impressive that a few years after the garage rock revival and after the Hives in particular (who won’t be showing up on any of these lists, but who are criminally underrated when they get lumped in with contemporaries like the Vines) made their name by basically playing “Have Love Will Travel”, these songs still hold up.

So let’s talk about the songs then. “The Witch” starts things off with a bang, introducing the album’s basic formula - blues-derived ranting over aggressive music including skronking sax. The song also includes a quick surf guitar solo. “Do You Love Me” is the first of two Motown covers (the other is Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, and it’s quickly followed by the classic “Roll Over Beethoven” - not one of the stronger cuts in this version, but it’s hard to match the original, and the band’s handclap-accentuated enthusiasm is undeniable. Elsewhere on the album, we get “Have Love Will Travel”, possibly the greatest garage-rock song of all time, “Strychnine”, possibly the second-greatest, and a cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly”. And it’s all over in 29 minutes.

Last edited by Josef K; 01-03-2015 at 12:38 PM.
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Old 01-03-2015, 09:12 AM   #4 (permalink)
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I'm working on updates to this, although I'm changing the format to allow me to get to years where I actually know something about music faster. In the meantime though, because I don't know where else to put this, someone on this forum said something good about Faith No More, which made me want to listen to them, and The Real Thing might be the worst album I've heard in months. Seriously.
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Old 01-03-2015, 11:07 AM   #5 (permalink)
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You're off to a great start! Glad to see The Sonics pop up by the way, as they're definitely one of the most fun and iconic Garage Rock bands of the mid-sixties!
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Old 01-03-2015, 12:44 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Oriphiel View Post
You're off to a great start! Glad to see The Sonics pop up by the way, as they're definitely one of the most fun and iconic Garage Rock bands of the mid-sixties!
Thanks! I don't know garage rock stuff to even close to the extent you do, and in general my lists are going to be pretty pedestrian at least through the late '70s and the advent of punk, but I'm glad you're following.
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Old 01-03-2015, 01:38 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Josef K View Post
Thanks! I don't know garage rock stuff to even close to the extent you do, and in general my lists are going to be pretty pedestrian at least through the late '70s and the advent of punk, but I'm glad you're following.
I'm not really that knowledgeable about Garage Rock, even though I love talking about it. For instance, we both made the same mistake when we reviewed "Here are the Sonics"; we both uploaded a picture of the reissue with bonus tracks instead of the original. You can tell because of the Norton Records mark in the upper right corner of the picture of the band. I think it's safe to say that Psy-Fi and WhateverDude are the true masters of the Garage!
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Old 01-03-2015, 04:25 PM   #8 (permalink)
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5. Bob Dylan - Bringing it All Back Home



So, I want to start not by talking about this album but by talking about the one that preceded it, Another Side of Bob Dylan. It's one of my favorite Dylan albums, but it's sort of awkward in his discography, sandwiched between the political folk of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changing and the revelatory folk-rock hybrid of this album. Another Side is a very solid set of songs including some of Dylan's best-known work ("Chimes of Freedom", "To Ramona", "It Ain't Me Babe"), and it sees him subtly saying goodbye to the protest songs of his past - "I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now". It sets the stage perfectly for this album, one of his most acclaimed.

I'm not the world's biggest Dylan fan, but one of his strengths is artistic vision - I think that after some experimenting, exactly what he wanted from this album became clear to him, and the accounts I've read of the sessions for the album certainly bear this out. I'm reminded of what I've read about Alex Chilton during the recording process for Third - the producer's goal was to simulate "the band in his head" and that's how we ended up with songs like "Kangaroo". On this album, Dylan got what he wanted production-wise, and he did a lot with it. This is where he truly became more than just a protest singer.

The album opens with the iconic "Subterranean Homesick Blues", which is basically Dylan rewriting Chuck Berry. Despite the political lyrics, it must have been a bit of a shock to any fan of his listening to the album for the first time - that is, after all, an electric guitar. "She Belongs to Me" is gentle but bluesy. "Maggie's Farm" is a protest song... about how much Dylan hates the music industry and hates protest folk music. Musically it's the most aggressive song on the album, but while it's fun, I'm not too sympathetic to Dylan the famous artist complaining about people who are trying to make art that does good for the world. I understand him wanting to pursue his own muse and I wouldn't get in his way, but the idea that he's mistreated for wanting to write, um, silly love songs (because that godforsaken song is in some ways a sequel to this one) by people who want to him to continue to try to help people with his music? Please. He's a great musician and a great songwriter, and it's a good song, but I can't get behind the lyrics all the way.

Anyway, "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" is one of Dylan's sweetest love songs. It's one of the many songs that makes the move away from protest music seem justified. "Outlaw Blues" - well, I'm a big fan of his bluesier material, and the harmonica here is really great. This song also shows lyrically how much he wants to change his style - and continue to change styles, which he's done more than almost anyone else - and briefly addresses his feelings towards the old folk crowd ("I may look like Robert Ford / But I feel just like Jesse James"). Wikipedia tells me that the first time he played this song live was with Jack White. I don't doubt it, and it's definitely a song that fits pretty well with White's whole act. "On the Road Again" apparently has some deep interpretations, but I think it's just pretty silly on purpose - guy doesn't like his in-laws, they descend into absurd extremes. It's a perfectly good song, but a little inconsequential because of the lyrics. "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" has my favorite fakeout opening ever - at first you think it's just Dylan and his guitar, but it turns out the band just screwed up, so they start again and it's a bluesier number with legitimately funny lyrics that reference Moby Dick and Christopher Columbus. I won't get into deep analysis because there have probably been whole books on the subject (some people are really bored, I guess), but it's the second-best song on the album, and that's side one.

So side two starts with "Mr. Tambourine Man". Good song, although the Byrds did it better. It sets the mood for the more stripped-down, though no less intense, second side. "The Gates of Eden" is the best slower song on the album, and it features some of Dylan's best lyrics. But the centerpiece of the album is "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)". It's this album's "A Day in the Life" - the album as a whole is weakened by how good the song is compared to the rest (although this album is nowhere near as inconsistent as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). For such a simple song with pretty obtuse lyrics (though for this album, they're quite direct), it's especially gripping. It's a song, like Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop", that I am unable to look away from (um, turn off?). "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is one of Dylan's prettiest melodies, and it's a fantastic kiss-off to end the album.

This may be surprising, but this isn't a five star album for me (well, very few are, but it's like a four instead of a four and a half. You decide how meaningful that is). The last three songs are flawless, but I only love two of the other eight ("Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"). He's an incredible lyricist throughout, but "On the Road Again" is sort of stupid, and I don't particularly care for "Love Minus Zero" or "She Belongs to Me". It's a great album, but I don't think it's consistently his best work. Still, very worthy of praise.
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