Friday, April 8, 2011

The HoG25: The Best 25 Albums of the Past 25 Years

I’ve looked forward to assembling this post for the better part of two years, and if that makes me a massive nerd, that’s a charge I’m willing to accept. When this blog started, it flirted with, later consummated the idea that three brash, opinionated personalities could hunker down like hairy dogs, create seven-course meals of the finest wordsmithing, and make a little bit of unbridled magic. Of course I was biased, but only because the three of us had worked together before, and I knew the magnitude of my colleagues’ talents and abilities, two blessings they both still possess.

It also served as a bit of a personal challenge: Could I, being the minority in a Chiefs-Broncos ménage, compete? Could I be novel and fresh with my words, while trying to keep the animal leashed in some sense? Could I improve my writing skills to a level comparable with theirs?

It could be said that both all and neither of those things were accomplished, but it’s been fun, nonetheless, and the reason why I’ve looked forward to this particular post so much is because the three of us are music lovers, and our affinity for our specific brands is, in some sense, a nice parallel to our personalities in general. On my end, I am, and always have been, a music snob. I view the concept of song through some sort of Coke-bottled kaleidoscope, and I want every man and woman to share in the beauty of what I label as great. This has the plus of being very passionate about said labeling, the negative of limiting my exposure, appreciation.

Cecil is a fascinating animal when it comes to the audio art form. Someone once said to me that, “People who, in this present time, are into punk and punk rock and the genres related to them, are in it because it was anti-establishment, anti-mainstream, and anti-anything at the time they got into it. So, to stray from it now, or at any point since becoming permanently invested in it would diminish the power and notion associated with the initial attachment.”

I use quotes there, but that was a paraphrasing, one crafted to the best of my recall ability. But when I heard those words, I thought of Cecil, which, in true punk style, probably pisses him off to some degree. Here’s the interesting twist, though: He may or may not have invested himself in punk for any or all of the aforementioned notions. He did, however, get into it, at one point in his life, and into it he stayed, but I believe that he got into it because he truly loved it, and because that’s really who he is. I could sit here and try to dice the thing beyond brunoise, but I know that he still loves this music, and that, perhaps, he still loves it because of that idea. It’s not important, really, but it partially defines him, and makes all of our non-punk music debates all the more interesting.

Old No. 7 is not quite, but almost that guy, that, when asked, says, “I like everything.” Here’s the twist on him there, though. He actually does, kinda/sorta, like everything, and not just in some kind of surfacey way, either. If you put his iPod on shuffle, you’d probably get some Metallica, some folk, some hip-hop, some rap, some good-old-fashioned rock, and probably some Tchaikovsky followed by some polka. That is, his taste, you could argue, is broader than mine or Cecil’s, and just when you think it’s maybe a little too broad, he’ll pull out some B-sides and shock your socks off.

None are better than any other, none are less educated, hold lesser value, or pack more punch. They’re simply different. Old No. 7 has mentioned that writing about these kinds of things is difficult because they’re subjective. You can’t dial up innings pitched, or Oscars won, or assess a quarterback rating and compare it to strength of opponents. You can look at sales, I suppose. You could research live-performance attendance numbers. Or, I suppose, you could look at Grammys. None of that is what we want to do here, though. We want to write about what we like, simply because it’s moved us, and just maybe, it’ll move you, too. All of that said, here’s what we came up with, and to be safe, please assume NSFW status regarding lyrics in all clips:

25. Mushroom Jazz, Mark Farina

At last inventory, there were seven installments of Mushroom Jazz out there, and I won’t try to compare one another, or select a best out of the series. To simplify things, I’ll refer to the initial record (1996), but you, beloved reader, may feel free to extend the sentiments conveyed to your personal favorite, or to the series as a whole. Your choice. First, a preface is in order.

In the simplest of terms, and for the sake of understanding the inclusion of Mr. Farina on this list, let’s break music fans into two temporary groups: those that believe spinning records and sampling constitutes “making music,” and those who do not. For those who do not, it may be worth your while to stop reading now, but again –- your choice.

Mark Farina never gets a lot of credit on the inner DJ circles. Maybe it’s because what he does is so different from everyone else and the credit he’s due is supposed to come in some other form. I’m not sure. What I do know, however, is that virtually every album he’s released has been really solid, and musically eye-opening for me, and hopefully others. In essence, Farina takes great cuts from several genres and bleeds them into one another in continuous fashion. Each album is like an all-night dance party without the cover charge, crowded dance floors, and synthetic drugs. And the best part is that he blends in varying beats, impressive sample loops, and a crafty hybrid of lyrics. Mushroom Jazz is like a stripped-down version of hip hop’s greatest hits that gets layered with elements of Latin jazz, and spliced with a dose of house music. Attempting to further explain the basis of what he creates with already-created music might do the end product a disservice, so I invite you to have a listen:

Mark Farina and his Mushroom Jazz compilations were never concerned with reinventing the musical wheel. What they wanted to do was take the best parts of the top-tier wheels in existence, make four superwheels out of them, and put them on an exotic vehicle, which he successfully did. The Mushroom Jazz movement. Make sure you get you some.

24. (two-way tie)

Reign in Blood, Slayer


My War, Black Flag


22. Lost...Presumed Having a Good Time, The Notting Hillbillies

Like my selection of Traveling Wilburys Vol. I, I found it impossible to participate in this draft and not take this album as one of my picks. Taking Vol. I allowed me to include a few artists that I’ve enjoyed for a long time, even if they hadn’t produced a Top 25-qualifying album in the last two and-a-half decades, and make no mistake: That album definitely makes the cut. Missing… falls under the shade of the same tree.

Mark Knopfler has always been an amazing musician. Dire Straits, in my mind, have always been one of the most underrated rock bands in history, especially their earlier stuff. Knopfler’s solo albums are powerful and impressive in their own light, but perhaps not solid enough for placement on the list. Missing…, however, gives me the opportunity to tip a hat to Knopfler’s body of work, and also discuss an incredible album.

I read somewhere that this release had been dubbed a country album. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s not that big of a deal, I just think that’s too narrow a scope under which to view such an eclectic collection of songs. To me, it’s got a healthy mix of blues, folk, some swing/rockabilly, and some kind of calypso/polka hybrid as well, and quite frankly, it’s just packed with soul and emotion. The Hillbillies tackle the notion of work, love, heartbreak, patriotism, pride, and loss, just to name a few, and they do so with such canorous style that it would be a shame to omit it from inclusion.

21. Traveling Wilburys Vol. I, The Traveling Wilburys

I won’t lie and say I didn’t feel a little nerdy drafting this album with my fifth pick, but the nostalgic homebody in me couldn’t resist. Recorded in the spring of 1988 (and released that fall), Vol. I saw “Handle with Care” get some play as a single, and when “Last Night” followed it, I bit and bought the thing, which was not a mistake as there’s not a bad cut on there. Really. Not one.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Wilburys, let me help you out from under that rock: George Harrison handled lead, slide guitars, and sang; Jeff Lynne (Electric Light Orchestra) did some guitar strumming, played some keys, sang; Tom Petty played bass, sang; Roy Orbison played rhythm guitar and sang; and Bob Dylan did his guitar/harmonica/singing thing. They “super group” made plans to produce another album, but were forced to see the project through without the amazing contributions of Orbison, who died before the recording sessions began.

Vol. I, though, also included a touch of horns, some percussion, and your run-of-the-mill drum kit, played by Jim Keltner, which is a pertinent detail for three reasons: 1) Each member used a savory pseudonym in the project, as they were all purported to be sons (with different mothers) of the imagined Charles Truscott Wilbury. Petty, for example, went with Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr. as his moniker. But it was Keltner who took the nicknaming to another level, coining himself Buster Sidebury. 2) Keltner looks like a hybrid of Bill Engvall and Tom Cruise. 3) Buster Sidebury is the name Old No. 7 uses for all of his other blogging projects.

Seriously, though. You might ask how an album that has four guitar players (and a bass player that usually plays guitar) can wind up good, or great, or classic. And you certainly might wonder how such a record can wind up on such a list of prestige. Those would all be fair curiosities, too. And I’d answer by saying that, on the one hand, it was a miracle that each of these massive (Editor’s Note: I may or may not be squeezing you out of the picture for a minute, Mr. Lynne.) musical figures can get together and record music without significant clash of ego, but it happened. On the other hand, what did happen turned out to be a real, genuine, feel-good production, a water-tower-sized jar of sun tea, if you will.

Traveling Wilburys Vol. I is the musical equivalence of laughter among friends, of staying warm by the fireplace mid-winter, of hard-fought accomplishment, and of unbridled joy. From the bellowing vocals of Orbison on “Not Alone Anymore” to the comforting drone of “Congratulations” to the youthful fun of “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” and through the radio smash “End of the Line,” the TW’s first studio effort is one for the vault, one for your kids and your grandparents to enjoy together, and one to sing along with until you’ve darn near strained your diaphragm.

20. It's a Jungle in Here, Medeski Martin & Wood

Although they continue to produce records, I’ve wondered since the first time I heard this trio what the staying power could be for such a peculiar ensemble. The jazz-based root funk of John Medeski, Billy Martin, and Chris Wood now spans 20 years since their 1991 formation, and includes some 18 releases, beginning with Notes from the Underground.

It is It’s a Jungle in Here, however, that lands them on our charts, and that’s impressive, considering the 10 tracks comprise an all-instrumental production. Em-Em-Doubleyou play organ/piano/keyboard, drums, and bass, and they tackle with aggression a number of compositional varieties in what’s been called experimental jazz fusion.

Jungle hit stores in October of 1993, and the delivery it has today is just as strong as it was over 17 years ago. In fact, there’s an oddity about the music of MMW that can’t be said for very many bands. Most outfits record an album, and maybe they have but one or two good tracks on them. Maybe the release is above the norm and the majority of its cuts are top-notch. With Medeski, Martin, and Wood, however, every track that they record and produce can be labeled with the subjective “good” tag, meaning that these are talented individuals creating unique and amazing music that’s often amplified by the inclusion of also-talented guest performers.

Where variance comes in in rating the music, though, is, more often than not, done so on a scale of tolerability. What I mean by that is that MMW has demonstrated a tendency to balance their musical productions on the scales of atonality, or lack of key, which, in my mind, is uncomfortable on the ear. I say “uncomfortable,” though, to convey a sense of discomfort, not dislike, although personally the two often go hand in hand.

Atonal is not something most listeners are used to, but it’s also one of the best mediums for musical experimentation, which is precisely the alley that MMW paved for themselves. They tinkered with this a bit on Notes, and have done so on nearly every other album they’ve released, so much so that, for me, I prefer to listen to a compilation of favorite tracks spanning most of their albums.

Jungle is the lone exception, though. They sat down for a mere three days and crafted (what turned out to be) approximately 55 minutes of beautiful, eloquent, elaborate, and witty free-form jazz that is, all in all, tremendously pleasing to the tonally accustomed ear. I’m far from qualified to discuss the structure, history, and evolution of jazz, and I could say even less about experimental music or so-called fusion, but I know a home run when I hear it, and MMW’s second studio effort was a crisp trot around the base path, one that absorbed the sun, smelled the grass and the hot dogs, made eye contact with a fans along the way. I’m not one of these guys that has lists of must-own albums because musical tastes vary too far, too wide, but I’ll challenge any music fan to sit down to this one and come out afterwards with a downward thumb. Scope some samples here.

19. Songs for the Deaf, Queens of the Stone Age

Old No. 7:

18. The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, The Red Hot Chili Peppers


17. Huevos, Meat Puppets


16. Sex Packets, Digital Underground


15. Elephant, The White Stripes

Old No. 7:

14. (two-way tie)

In the Aeroplane over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel


Rift, Phish

In short, being a Phish fan is somewhat of a full-time job. Sure, the band has developed one of the most impressive followings in rock history, and they continue to kill the box office in terms of ticket revenues, but that’s what they’re known for: the live show. They’re also, in my mind, known for massive criticism from the music mainstream that can be attributed largely to the type of fan they attract, as well as their jam-band status, meaning that they have lengthy live numbers that may seem endless and without structure to the common ear. I’m of the opinion, however, that they are the most talented group of musicians to come along in the last 50 years. Yes, they even surpass the Grateful Dead.

This doesn’t mean to imply that they, on individual levels, are better at their craft than your particular favorite, but as a group, what they do as a unit, I would stack against anyone.

The problem to me is that the discussions seem to frequently begin and end with the live performances, and this is precisely why they continue to get crushed by the mainstream. On the inside of the circle, however, you have message boards, podcasts, Tweeters, etc. that continue to analyze highlights and lowlights of live shows, and frankly, the motifs and the vocabulary are occasionally incessant.

On a personal level, Phish has always been about relationships, specifically relationships that I have with each song on each studio album, and how those relationships flourish (or occasionally recess) when seeing the band perform live. And in reality, that’s no different than the relationships I have with songs by other artists, simply because I believe that a listener develops a kinship with a song, exists with it in good times and bad, and hearing a song live is like a release of all of the moments of the relationship.

Therefore, picking albums for this selection was tough. A small part of me wanted to take nothing but Phish albums for all of my selections, but that would’ve been foolish. There were three or four releases that really fought tooth and nail to win the one spot reserved for the band on my board, and in the end, Rift had to be the winner.

It’s been called their sixth release, but to me it will always be their fourth, and it came out February 2, 1993. A little over a year later, I heard it for the first time, and was hooked. I’d like to say that it would still be my lone Phish selection, had I heard another album first, but obviously I cannot make that claim. I do, however, feel that it’s the strongest album (out of 12) they’ve put out to date. There are plenty of other releases beyond the 12, but I’m including only albums that involved studio-recording sessions produced by a noteworthy label.

It’s possible that I’ve listened to Rift more than any album in my collection, so there’s some inherent bias, but the title track with which it kicks off might be the strongest track-one I’ve ever heard. Shared vocals, dueling instrumentation, and a great story line are the primary reasons why. The run of “Fast Enough for You,” “Maze,” “Sparkle,” “Horn,” and “The Wedge” are one of the most compelling runs I’ve ever experienced, and “Weigh” is solid as well. And its closing duo –- “The Horse,” attached to “Silent in the Morning” -– is likely also the strongest studio-album wrap-up ever laid down.

I could write 10,000 words on this album, and still not feel satisfied that I’d done it justice, but we’ll leave it at that.

12. Chronic 2001, Dr. Dre

When I selected Chronic 2001, questions arose as to why this November 16, 1999 release was taken over its seven-year previous predecessor, The Chronic. The answer is simple: The album released near the close of the century is a solid 10 times better. Making such a loaded statement requires some backup, and backup is what I’m prepared to deliver.

Perhaps the most important component in a direct comparison of the two hinges upon importance. The Chronic came out in December of 1992, and is one of the biggest solo-album statements in hip hop history. I say “biggest” because it was the first notable release coming from an artist who had previously been part of collaborations, thus paving the way for many a future rapper. But let’s back up yet another step.

While many artists in the rap, hip hop genres produced records both great and small, I’m of the opinion that N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton (August, 1988) took things to a new, unprecedented level. From that group, the world was exposed to MC Ren, DJ Yella, and most importantly, the trio of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre, who would all go forth from N.W.A. to have successful solo careers. Eazy’s debut Eazy-Duz-It hit stores one month after Straight Outta Compton and has sold roughly 500,000 fewer copies than Compton, though I posit that E’s solo debut grew in popularity first, only to be matched, and eventually overcome by the N.W.A.’s effort.

My colleagues and I have had conversations regarding the aforementioned trio from N.W.A., namely who was the best, who was the most important. I continue to waver on the details of this debate, but my current stance looks like this: Eazy had the best voice, but Eazy would possibly never have amounted to anything were it not for the intelligence and production of both Cube and Dre. Ice Cube is credited for writing a substantial amount of both solo and group material, while Dre deserves accolades for both rapping contributions and production. Ice Cube, globally speaking, could be the most important figure of the three, but I believe Dre gets a slight edge over Cube in terms of his body of work, style of rap, contributions to the genre.

So, Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-Duz-It were huge, but The Chronic, having its path somewhat paved for it, had a bigger impact and a larger reception (over three million copies sold). All that said, it is not Dre’s best work; the 2001 follow-up is. Chronic is a really stacked production, don’t get me wrong. Most of the tracks have solid beats, excellent sample choices, and profound lyrics. Plus, there is substantial comic relief in the form of interlude, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the solid lineup of guests: Snoop, Daz, Nate Dogg, to name a few. But it doesn’t match the integrity displayed in 2001, which track for track, is crisper, cleaner, and packed with more punch.

2001 has only one thing against in when comparing the two Dre releases: the audacity continuum. When Chronic was release, the audience was still getting used to the bold motif expression of sex, drugs, money, and crime. That is, other artists had done it, none with as much sparkle as those from the N.W.A. family. When Dre dropped Chronic, it had similar themes, but came at you with a larger sense of seriousness, or, hardassery. Any unpolished bits that remained in it as a release, were smoothed in 2001 via experience, dedication -– one month of recording for Dre’s debut; most of two years for the follow-up –- a broader range of emotion, and yes, an even star-studdier lineup of guests: Nate and Snoop back, Eminem, Kurupt, Xzibit, Jay-Z, and the D.O.C. added to the mix.

The main thing, though, is the focus of 2001. The beats, the instrumentation, the obvious upgrade in production, the themes and emotions explored, and, although more isn’t always better, it does have eight more tracks than Chronic. I mean no discredit to Chronic when I say this, but it has its weak points, and frankly, no matter how you slice it, the start-to-finish quality of 2001 is A-grade material.

11. No Depression, Uncle Tupelo

Old No. 7:

That's the first installment. The top 10 up next.