By Steven Capozzola
1. EXILE ON MAIN STREET, The Rolling Stones. Like many classic albums (and several on this list), EXILE takes time to fully grow on you. But ‘Rocks Off’ is a great opener (”The sunshine bores the daylights out of me…”), and the string of songs on side two (of this four-sided double album) includes some of the greatest country-rock ever recorded– especially my all-time favorite, ‘Sweet Virginia.’ The murkiness of the album, though, and all the inadvertently buried guitar notes and harmonies (like Keith Richards’ vocals on the devastating gospel track, ‘Let It Loose’), only serve to further reward frequent listening.
2. LONDON CALLING, The Clash. The only thing keeping this from being the greatest rock ‘n roll album of all time, in my opinion, is the lack of romantic quality that lends more warmth to an album like EXILE ON MAIN STREET. But LONDON CALLING is amazing. There’s maybe one truly “loud”/punk song on the whole album– ‘Death or Glory.’ Otherwise, the range of styles– reggae, New Orleans Jazz, blues, rockabilly–is unexpectedly, and incredibly, impressive for a band that started off making angry garage-rock punk. And just about every song has great, tuneful melodies. LONDON CALLING captures the highpoint of Joe Strummer’s and Mick Jones’ songwriting collaboration, and conveys all the desperation of late-Seventies England. As Mick Jones said of the album’s songwriting origins (in one of my all-time favorite rock ‘n roll quotes): “There was a sense that life really is a succession of heavy blows.” PS: LONDON CALLING has the best album cover of all time.
3. WHO’S NEXT, The Who. Not a rock ‘n roll album, but a rock album, WHO’S NEXT offers heavy songs (’Won’t Get Fooled Again’) alongside some really beautiful tunes (’The Song is Over’). I’m not the biggest Who fan in the world, but this is one of those great, majestic albums that carries us forward (just listen to the album’s percolating keyboard intro on ‘Baba O’Riley’). Plus, there’s not a bad song. It’s just great from start to finish.
4. THE WHITE ALBUM, The Beatles. Some of my favorite Beatles songs, like ‘Sexy Sadie’ and ‘I’m So Tired,’ reside on The White Album. And a lot great rock ‘n roll, too (’Revolution,’ ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road’). Interestingly, part of what makes The White Album so great is the snippets, song cuts, and studio chatter included between songs. After the studiously perfect ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ it’s still impressive to see that the Beatles would experiment with a more low-fi approach (Lennon’s “Hey-yall” shout before the start of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’; the snippet of flamenco guitar before ‘Bungalow Bill’; the false endings to ‘Helter Skelter’; all the creepy thumps and creaking doors in ‘Long, Long, Long’). A sprawling album of some of the greatest Beatles songs.
5. ABBEY ROAD, The Beatles. ABBEY ROAD contains the Beatles best studio performances, both in terms of studio intricacy and actual playing. Ringo’s drumming reaches a high point during the jazzy passages of ‘I Want You/She’s So Heavy,’ and McCartney hits those throat-shredding notes on ‘Oh! Darling.’ But everything about ABBEY ROAD has just the right sheen of polish, too, without losing oomph or soulfulness. ‘Something’ is exquisite, as is ‘Sun King’–both perfectly crafted and delving into sonic territory not seen on previous albums. Separately, ABBEY ROAD marked the first use of synthesizers by the Beatles (or pretty much by any band). What’s impressive, though, is that the Beatles, unlike many subsequent bands, merely “implied” the synthesizers– using them to add slight color tones and flourishes, rather than insert lots of garishly overplayed sounds. Just perfect songs, a perfect album, and the Clash’s only competition for the best album cover of all time.
6. EXODUS, Bob Marley and the Wailers. This is not my favorite Marley album; that honor goes, for personal reasons, to either RASTAMAN VIBRATION, or the posthumously released CONFRONTATION– a bold choice on my part, I know, but I maintain that it’s an incredibly overlooked album. EXODUS is particularly impressive, though, given the circumstances in which it was recorded, and what it ended up achieving. After surving an attempted assassination, Marley, his family, his band, and entourage fled Jamaica for the relative safety of London. There, they recorded two album’s worth of material. The sunnier material (which includes a starkly beautiful account of his flight, on ’Running Away’) ended up on 1978’s KAYA. But much of the heavier material emerged first on EXODUS in 1977. EXODUS offers most of Marley’s biggest hits (’Jamming,’ ‘Waiting in Vain,’ ‘One Love’) but also ranges from more than seven minutes of pounding dub (in the title track) to the Motown/R&B vibe of ’Turn Your Lights Down Low’ to the ominous trance that launches the album’s opening song, ‘Natural Mystic.’ Marley demonstates his widest range of songwriting styles, with each achingly and exactingly recorded at the Wailers’ musical peak. The album also perfectly straddles the line between musicality and political rhetoric, a balance less successfully achieved on 1979’s fiery SURVIVAL. All in all, a tour de force that transcends being a “reggae album” and ends up offering a sweeping, entrancing musical statement.
7. TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT, Neil Young. One of my favorite albums of all time, and one I’ve listened to obssessively, TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT is the only album on this list that I wish I could have recorded. Simply put, I’d love to write these songs, and I wish even more that I could someday have access to a band, a studio, and a late-night situation where I’d hang out with my friends and, when the mood struck us at midnight or 2 am, grab yet another beer, stroll into the studio, and record songs in relaxed, wide-open manner. That’s essentially what Neil and Crazy Horse did in 1973, when they shot pool, ate hamburgers, drank tequila, and recorded a dozen or so songs in a ramshackle, hand-built studio. No matter the loose, low-fi ambience that pervades the album, what shines through is camaraderie, soulful high harmonies, and great, melodic country rock. Particularly noteworthy is the three-song slam of ‘Mellow My Mind’ (which closes side one), ‘Roll Another Number for the Road,’ and ‘Albuquerque.’ Like the Stones tune ‘Sweet Virginia’ on EXILE, I’ve played ‘Roll Another Number’ hundreds of times, and still wish I could go back in time and steal it. Bottom line: if you want an easy, initial exposure to Neil Young, buy ‘Harvest Moon’ (a better, more consistent album than ‘Harvest,’ by the way) or the greatest hits collection ‘Decade.’ But if you’re any kind of rock ‘n roll fan, and you want to see just how good it can get, buy this album.
8. STICKY FINGERS, The Rolling Stones. I kind of think that STICKY FINGERS is the first “modern” rock album. Maybe it’s the vibe introduced on the album’s opener, ‘Brown Sugar.’ But STICKY FINGERS sort of signaled the start of the “recording industry” as a big entity. I dunno– there’s just something “big record business” about this Stones album, which was released in 1971. And that does nothing to detract from the album itself, which houses some of the Stones greatest, and most beloved, crowd-pleasers: the aforementioned ‘Brown Sugar,’ the country ballad ‘Wild Horses,’ the ubiquitous country-rock classic ‘Dead Flowers.’ [Side note: Can someone please put a moratorium on people playing 'Dead Flowers' at open mics. I don't think I can handle hearing this song strummed a 17,000th time. Same with 'Angel From Montgomery' by John Prine. Please, give me a break already. They're great songs, but not necessarily great when driven into the ground]. Anyway, STICKY FINGERS is the most assured and cohesive album the Stones ever recorded. Great songs– ’I Got The Blues’ and ‘Moonlight Mile’ are incredible. Just great rock ‘n roll from start to finish. PS: Often overlooked on classic rock radio, ‘Sway’ (”It’s just that demon life/that’s got me in its sway”) and ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ (with its lengthy instrumental jam) showcase the Stones at their peak.
9. BEE THOUSAND, Guided By Voices. I’ve seen my share of bands in my lifetime, and hands-down, the best show I ever saw was Guided By Voices at Irving Plaza, New York City, 1995. It was the last tour of the band in the line-up that recorded the low-fi masterpiece BEE THOUSAND. Many of you have probably never heard of the band or the album. And I can’t say that every one of you will love it. But some of the most achingly tuneful/soulful rock ‘n roll melodies I’ve ever heard are on this album. Singer-songwriter Robert Pollard was in his mid-thirties and an anonymous schoolteacher when he recorded this album sporadically in his basement, with various friends playing whatever instruments, on whatever songs, during occasional weeknight sessions. What makes the album so majestic, however, is that the dissonant guitars, mistakes, distortion, tape hiss, and poor editing simply add depth and nuance to very, very good songs. Let’s put it this way: if you have a catchy ditty, and you record it with perfect drums, and perfectly clean vocals and guitar, what you’ll get will be a squeaky clean product. It will be sugar sweet, but it won’t be very interesting. It won’t continue to move you after you absorb its initial sweetness. You’ll become immune to it. However, if all you can do is get the song down on tape, with scratches, warts, and all, what you’ll end up with will just have much more depth and tangible humanity. Pollard didn’t set out to record the songs poorly; he and his friends/bandmates did the best they could. But the attempt, the soulful trying, is what jumps out at you during repeated listens. And again, the songs are wonderful: ‘Smothered in Hugs’ may drone with guitars, but it sounds like perfect, stripped down Led Zeppelin; Tobin Sprout (the Keith Richards to Pollard’s Jagger) offers a beautiful folk ditty on ‘Awful Bliss’; ‘Echos Myron’ and ‘Gold Star for Robot Boy’ are great punk songs, with minor chords and catchy melodies; ‘Hot Freaks’ is some kind of dirty Motown groove that could’ve fit perfectly inside the darker moments of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Plus, Pollard is a consummate wordsmith and lyricist. Some of his best lines pithily capture an entire worldview– “She is having/the time of my life.” Anyway, this album still moves me tremendously. You may find it noisy at first, but if you’re in the mood for flat-out rock ‘n roll (and you have any previous exposure to both punk and mid-1960’s Who, stick with it). BEE THOUSAND is as soulful as rock ‘n roll can get, which may explain why both SPIN and MOJO Magazine have voted it into their Top 100.
10. A TIE: MY AIM IS TRUE, Elvis Costello; CLOSING TIME, Tom Waits. My buddy, Big Dave, who is a huge rock ‘n roll influence on me (and taught me guitar), would probably (and justifiably) smack me around if I didn’t include both of these albums. [Coincidentally, these are both debut albums, which makes them all the more impressive]. Anyway, you probably all know MY AIM IS TRUE, which contains some of Elvis Costello’s most enduring songs (’Alison,’ ‘Watching the Detectives,’ ‘Less Than Zero.’) It’s a perfect album. Every song is catchy, with singalong hooks and bright, stripped-down arrangements. In contrast, Tom Waits’ CLOSING TIME is a maudlin, boozy album. But every song exudes a certain dusty, bar-room beauty. Right now in my life, I listen to this album consistently and often. In contrast, almost every other album mentioned above is from an earlier listening period in my life. CLOSING TIME just gets better, too, with repeated listenings. I listen to it at night and absorb some of the dreamy lyrics, and the overall sad, wistful vibe. If you know Charles Bukowski, then you’ll find CLOSING TIME to be sort of the musical equivalent of Bukowski’s bar-hopping life. It’s bluesy and melancholy, with Waits playing terrific barrelhouse piano on a bunch of ballads and waltzes. I might even go so far as to say that you should listen to CLOSING TIME before any other album on this list.###