As mentioned in a previous post, I'm on a quest to listen to as many of the Rolling Stone Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time as I can before I either get bored or die. If you want to follow along with my thoughts and comment yours, I welcome you! Here are the ground rules I'm following as I go through the list:
1) I have no intentions of completing this project and listening to all 500 albums. I'm a realist. And since life and time are short, I've started at the top of the list and am progressing downwards, so that I get what are ostensibly the "best" albums in first. That means overall, this listen should be worse than the last one. Whelp.
2) I'm not ranking them myself or giving them stars. I personally find these varied musical styles too hard to compare and really have no interest in debating the merits of Beyoncé vs the Beatles. Instead, this log is more of an exercise in music appreciation. I want to better understand the history of popular music and branch out from my normal listening patterns.
3) I know nothing about music and will not be held accountable for any of my terrible opinions. My aim is to generally seek for the positive in all my comments, though I will be honest if something doesn't resonate with me. I give you full permission to disagree, especially if you can see the good in something that I'm struggling with. Those are the comments I most want to hear.
4) While going through this list, there're going to be moments where controversial figures in music come up. Generally speaking, I'm not planning on speaking to a particular person's legacy or their behavior. Any issues I do bring up will probably only be in as much as they immediately relate to the music. This is because, frankly, I don't have the scope to comment on every arrest, allegation and charge brought against these artists. There are SO MANY and lots who people don't think of as "problematic" do, in fact, have credible allegations brought against them and darn it, I'm just not here to sift through it all. However, if something in one of their songs makes me uncomfortable, that's fair game. Something I firmly believe is that bad people are capable of making good art and good people are likewise capable of making bad art. Today, I'm mostly concerned with just the art. Whether or not you personally choose to engage with an artist's work due to their legacy or charges against them is up to you and completely valid.
NOW ONTO THE NEXT LIST!
11) Revolver (The Beatles)
As I mentioned in my first post about these albums, while I consider myself very familiar with the Beatles discography, it's due to familiarity with their singles rather than their albums. Frequently, I'll know over half the songs on a Beatles album, but wouldn't have been able to tell you which Beatles album they came from. Such was the case with Revolver, which... well, having now listened to a grand total of two Beatles albums, this one isn't my favourite. Don't get me wrong! There are still good songs on it. In fact, my older sister's favourite Beatles song, Got to Get You Into My Life is here, along with other classics like Eleanor Rigby and Here, There and Everywhere. But there are also a number of songs on here I wouldn't consider the band's best. I honestly wonder what the criteria was for picking which Beatles album should go where on the list (you better believe there are a lot of them) but my kneejerk reaction is this one is ranked too high. I'm not the biggest fan of the Beatles' period where they borrowed heavily from Indian music. I usually hear those and find myself just wishing I was listening to actual Indian pop music. The discussion around what counts as cultural appropriation was obviously in a different place back in the Sixties, and I'm sure the Beatles never meant to grab ham-fistedly from a colonized culture but... that's kind of the whole thing about cultural appropriation, isn't it? There's a sense of "look how exotic this sounds!" with those songs that doesn't sit well with me. But like, Bollywood and Indian pop music? That stuff is great. Feels like a much more natural fusion. So yeah. The album as a whole didn't work for me, but there are some very VERY wonderful, classic songs here.
12) Thriller (Michael Jackson)
I mentioned during the Prince entry last time that growing up in the 90s, the 80s were seen as impossibly uncool. But there were some notable exceptions. Primary among them, Michael Jackson. If this was a list of the 500 coolest albums, rather than greatest, I honestly think this one would be #1. Thriller! Billie Jean! Beat it! The Girl is Mine! I listened to both this album and Revolver on the same day and... um... this album probably had the best content from Paul McCartney I listened to that day. (Okay, okay... SLIGHT exaggeration) There's something so delightful about both a Beatle and Vincent Price turning up on this album. Just goes to show how much power Michael Jackson had during the height of his fame. The first 70% or so of this album are straight fire. Seven of the album's nine tracks were released as singles and rightly so. The last 30% is less iconic, but still enjoyable music from the King of Pop. Altogether, an incredibly solid outing that absolutely earned its place so high on the list.
13) I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Aretha Franklin)
About a year after releasing the 500 Greatest Album list, Rolling Stone magazine attempted to rank the 500 greatest songs. This honestly strikes me as even more difficult and arbitrary than ranking albums. That being said, when they announced that their pick for the greatest song of all time was Respect as performed by Aretha Franklin, I was like, "yeah, I think we can all live with that." Going into this album, that was the only song I knew on it (most of her other big hits must be elsewhere) but GOSH DARN if this album wasn't consistent in quality from start to finish. Aretha Franklin's voice is so purposeful and powerful, it feels like every R&B singer since her is just chasing her. Years ago, Rolling Stone rated her the greatest singer of all time and listening to a full album of hers, their praise seems justified. Also, as a musical theatre nerd, I just want to shout out how clear and perfect her diction is. A lot of pop and rock singers loose their clarity, trying to add character to the way they sing. Aretha Franklin is simultaneously crystal clear and immeasurably expressive. The whole album flowed seamlessly along with her soulful voice, yet I still came out with a few new favourite tracks. My picks were Respect, (obviously), Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, and the title track, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.
14) Exile on Main St. (The Rolling Stones)
I can totally picture this being somebody's favorite album ever. In fact, I picture it in great detail and this hypothetical person is definitely over 50 and rides a motorbike. I am neither of those things, but that's not to say I didn't appreciate this listen. Few of The Rolling Stones big singles are on here and instead, the focus is on rock music itself. There's a fun fusion of blues, honkey-tonk and hard rock going on with this album. Much like how the Beach Boys clearly created the blueprint for arthouse indie-rock, you can absolutely hear the roots of punk music in this album. The Rolling Stones were early experts at exploiting the rough, ragged edge of rock music. I'm not the biggest Rolling Stones fan, but at the same time, it's obvious many of the modern bands I LOVE would not have existed without them, so it's a strange one to review. I'm guessing if I had lived contemporaneous to the height of their output, I would have been a bigger fan, because I wouldn't be taking for granted all the rock bands and subgenres that came after them and iterated upon what they made. When I think of how slick and polished much of the rock music from the sixties and seventies sounded, The Rolling Stones would have felt like a breath of fresh air. As for standout tracks, even without knowing any of the songs before hand, I picked out the lead single, Tumbling Dice, without any difficulty. It was, frankly, one of the only songs that sounded like a single (big change from Michael Jackson!). My favorite song on first listen was probably Sweet Black Angel, but then I looked up the lyrics and LET ME TELL YOU!
Hmmm. Okay, so this was an interesting lesson in values dissonance. For those not familiar with the song, it's written in AAVE and even features Mick Jagger using the "n word." It's not an unmotivated artistic choice, as the song is actually about the imprisonment of Angela Davis, a Black rights activist, during the early Seventies. So it's a protest song, and clearly trying to come from a place of allyship. I don't think you would see the same word/diction choices coming from a white writer today. I'm not sure if Mick Jagger is someone Black critics believe earned his "n word" privileges. I certainly can't say if he did. I mention it more so that if someone is going in for a listen, they know the content is there and are ready for it. Like I said, on first listen, the song just sounds very cool. And it was definitely trying to be on the side of Black rights. Was it successful? WHO AM I TO SAY????
I know this aside has already been super long, but I do think one of the interesting things about a tour through music like this is hitting some of these songs that clearly reflect the thoughts and values of a different place and time. And on the flip side, it's important to note that this "different time and place" shouldn't only be judged on the basis of what contemporary white audiences thought. It can be hard to ferret out intent vs impact and even harder to decide which of those matter more. And for those of us who weren't alive at the time, it can be even harder to understand how something was received during its own time, rather than how it would be now. (In a similar vein, I could write a whole essay on the perennial lightning rod song, Baby, It's Cold Outside) I'm genuinely curious what both contemporary and current perspectives from Black artists were with regards to Sweet Black Angel because I honestly don't know.
Anyhow, that was some great motorcycle music that got very politically charged for a hot minute. Fascinating!
15) It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Public Enemy)
This album marks the first time something on this list was explicitly influenced by an album that came earlier. Obviously other projects have influenced each other, (hard to picture how rock ever would have made it to Nirvana without first passing through the Beatles, for instance), but what's different here is how Public Enemy freely compared their ambitions with this album to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. They wanted to create something with a similar streak of protest and racial consciousness for rap audiences. And overall, I would say they were successful. There are so many thoughtful tracks on here that handle issues ranging from violence and police presence in Black neighborhoods to the arcane laws of the music industry that tried to put an end to sampling. There's also a song that tells Black women to stop watching soap operas and start reading books instead, which, I dunno. I found that kind of hilarious. Let the record stand, that I am in favor of books OR soap operas, so long as your media brings you joy. Even if I too, am personally "Team Book." What I'm saying is NO ONE ASKED YOU, CHUCK D AND FLAVA FLAV!!!! Let a lady watch her soaps!
The production on this album is loud and bombastic, something Public Enemy was aiming to increase in their work after they noticed how excited people got at their concerts. And I think the general loud, scrappy - sometimes even goofy - 80s instrumentation really suited the message of the album. Whereas Marvin Gaye asked the question What's Going On politely, Public Enemy have noticed that asking quietly has not yielded the results one might hope for. And so their message is loud, insistent and branded as "enemy" for no reason other than that it's loudly Black. There were some great songs on this, including Don't Believe the Hype, Louder than a Bomb, and Caught, Can we get a Witness? But if I had to pick a stand-out track, I would go with Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos which tells an absolutely gripping story of a prison riot. It's got the same story-telling quality of an old country murder ballad and the poetry is on point from start to finish. Overall, a fun listen that I would recommend to anyone feeling nostalgic for a good 80s record scratch effect.
16) London Calling (The Clash)
I've started looking at this list in units of 10 (since that's how long these posts are) and quite often each section of 10 has one album I've listened to before doing this challenge. AND GUESS WHAT! We reached this section's entry! Don't ask me why I prioritized The Clash over everything else here, but I went through a blip of intense interest in punk music during college and The Clash were the beneficiaries of it. That being said, unlike Fleetwood Mac, who I listened to constantly at one point, I barely remember this album beyond it's big hits. BUT WASN'T THIS FUN! I'm remembering now why I was drawn to The Clash as a youth. The wide array of stylistic borrowing they do on this album is so well done. I'm not sure why their use of reggae bothered me less than when the Beatles borrowed from Indian music - maybe because they explicitly mention the Rude Boys movement? I'm not sure, but the balance felt better. Or maybe it's because punk music mashed-up with reggae is just... interesting? Anyhow, Rudie Can't Fail was a great track. Later, hearing such thick British accents sing the Spanish lyrics on Spanish Bombs was super hilarious, so I was inclined to take the cultural borrowing less seriously. WHO KNOWS? I think one thing that surprised me was how much the album London Calling isn't about London. I always thought of The Clash as being very political within Britain, but hadn't realized how globally they were thinking in terms of their sound and activism. Overall, I really enjoyed this album. It hits that sweet spot of being something I can draw to, while also being rewarding on a closer listen, with more attention to the lyrics. For those who think of punk bands as the slobs who can only play a handful of basic chords, this is a great album to get a sense of how much variety can be packed into the scrappy sound of classic punk. Other stand-out tracks included the title track and Lost in the Supermarket. That last one in particular was a nice bit of suburban ennui to contrast some of the loftier ambitions of the rest of the album.
17) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West)
Kanye West is simultaneously one of the most well-loved and universally reviled artists working today. It fascinates me, because he's rarely had public opinion behind him on a personal level, even while most music critics hold him as one of the most important artists of the Twenty-First century. Putting full cards on the table, I come at Kanye knowing his biggest singles (which I generally like) but little else about his music. Anyway, all this is to say I really didn't know what to expect putting this album on and all I can say is that I never expected it to be THIS grandiose. I've mentioned before that the Rolling Stones magazine voting body clearly favors albums with complex production and GOOD GRIEF this album! Calling it a rap album almost feels misleading when there is just so much going on in every single track. Though Kanye is, of course, a great rapper. His flow is very expressive and I love how clearly he punctuates his rhymes so that you can catch the context behind his lyrics. That being said, aspects of this album weren't for me. Kanye is known for his very raw, personal, explicit lyrics and I'm honestly not interested in him as a person enough for all of that content to resonate with me. But when I just listened and vibed with the music, I REALLY liked it. I can definitely see why people get so excited about his work. One of the things that really shines on this album is his talent for choosing collaborators. It feels like everyone who was working in the music industry in 2010 made an appearance on this album and they're slotted in at just the right moment to make the sound bigger and better. Special shout out to Rhianna on All of the Lights, who really elevates that track. Also, someone needs to ask Bon Iver if he preferred working with Kanye or Taylor Swift because, frankly, the fact that he's worked with either of them is strange. Now knowing he's featured with both is downright mystifying. While I wouldn't say this whole album was for me lyrically, when it worked for me, did it ever. I loved Runaway and Lost in the World, which both made me very glad I listened all the way through to the end of this album.
18) Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan)
The last Bob Dylan album on this list honestly underwhelmed me, so I came into this one trepidatious. Was it a better experience than the previous one? Maybe? I think I liked this album a little more - the energy was a bit higher and more consistent throughout. It also just didn't feel as long and droning, which is interesting, because the closing track, Desolation Row, is over eleven minutes in itself. But I really liked that one. Dylan's poetry generally interested me more here. He's firmly in his "voice of a generation" phase and his songs touch on rebellion, the struggles of everyday Americans and the failure of the establishment to understand what's going on around them. Like A Rolling Stone is the album opener here and it sets the tone well. Also, I liked Dylan's singing more on this album than usual. I enjoy Dylan's stylizations generally, but it was cool hearing him try to hit some clearer notes as contrast to his usual gravel vocals. That bit of variation caught my ear and made the whole album more interesting to me. Aside from the songs already mentioned, Highway 61 Revisited was my other favourite track with it's really fun, unique imagery. I'm beginning to realize that Bob Dylan is an artist I can enjoy as a background element, or reading his poetry in an English class. But as a musician I get excited about? Well, there are better entries on this list for that.
19) To Pimp a Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar)
So far, this was the hardest album to summarize my thoughts about. I struggled to even know how to start this entry, because filtering this album through my eyes just feels so... wrong. To Pimp a Butterfly is so clearly not about me - a white woman living in Canada who grew up with very limited access to African American music and culture. Honestly, I think my opinion of it is kind of irrelevant. But I also think this album is emblematic of why I started this project in the first place. I wanted to listen to music that was outside my experience and simply put, I'm very glad I did. To Pimp a Butterfly might be the most emotionally complex album on the list and I'm still processing everything Kendrick laid raw in this album.
At this point, it's pretty easy to draw a line connecting the themes of protest in Marvin Gaye, through Public Enemy and now on to Kendrick Lamar. (Side note: Kanye's work definitely touched on themes of Black identity and power, but they're much more explicit here. Still, I don't want to give the impression these themes didn't also matter to Kanye) And perhaps appropriately, Kendrick just sounds like he's been at this same fight for way too long. In addition to being a rallying cry for Black empowerment, To Pimp a Butterfly is also a harrowing look at mental health, working through addiction, discovering self-love and trying to find the will to go on in a country that seems to hate you. There's a repeated refrain that ends several of the tracks, growing more lines with each iteration, that highlights Kendrick's own battles with anger and depression. As new lines are added, the surrounding songs mirror the changing tone of the poetry, which was super cool to see. The passion and rage of King Kunta gradually morphs into the thoughtful reflections of How Much a Dollar Cost until building to the self-love anthem of I. All of these were standouts, but there are plenty of other great tracks on here.
Musically, this album does a lot of genre blending, borrowing heavily from jazz, soul and funk. One thing I've really come to appreciate over this listening project is how incredibly collaborative rap music tends to be. Producers and guest artists clearly make valuable contributions and I think this album ends with one of the coolest samples ever - an interview with Tupac that Kendrick intercuts as if he were the one asking his long-time idol questions. Overall, it's a great listen. Though be warned, it can be emotionally rough at times. Kendrick doesn't pull his punches and he's rapping about some very sad things. Also, it feels like it should go without saying, but Kendrick is a phenomenal rapper. He varies his style and flow across each of his songs really well and is great at sliding into the right character or emotion for each track.
Also: Did you know that Kendrick's last name is Duckworth? Duckworth! That made me so happy. Other people probably already knew this, but in case you didn't, enjoy. What a great last name.
20) Kid A (Radiohead)
It is time.
I hate Radiohead. Now in fairness, I do not hate every song they've written. Creep is okay. Exit Music for a Film is so good, I became very confused and thought I might like Radiohead, but then that song prompted me to listen to Radiohead and I was swiftly corrected. On the whole, I try to keep these write-ups positive. Much as I disliked Purple Rain during the Top Ten listen-through, I could see why people liked Prince (especially in the 1980s) and I can picture a hypothetical Prince fan. In truth, I can picture a hypothetical Radiohead fan too, and they look an awful lot like me. They are white, came of age in the 90s/2000s, approach music with a high level of nerdiness and are suckers for good instrumentation. That's the main thing I can give Radiohead - they write really cool, really intricate songs that make use of things like modal interchange, microtonality and odd time signatures. And when I focus on the accompaniment, I can actually really enjoy them. Truthfully, when I think of the people I know who love Radiohead, none of them have been vocalists, driven to the band instead based on instrumentation. So what I'm saying is maybe I don't hate Radiohead. Maybe I just hate Thom Yorke.
I honestly cannot think of a more well-known, successful singer who I like less than Thom Yorke. Did consonants kill his mother or something? Because he seems determined to avoid them at all cost. And yet, he also clearly has a hate on for most vowels too, because every word he "sings" is flattened to an indistinct shwa. I kid you not. I memorized the lyrics to every song on this album, and that's because every Radiohead song has the same lyrics and they are "EeeuuuuuOOooooaaaaeeeeUUuuuUUuuuu" repeated on loop until we all want to die. The cruelest part of this, is the guy has enough vocal control that it's obvious he COULD sing if he wanted to. Exit Music for a Film is Radiohead's best song largely because Thom woke up that day and decided he knew what articulation was and so when he gets to the end and harrowingly falsettos his way through "we hope that you choke" it's just as haunting as it's supposed to be because you can understand what he's saying. But that song isn't on this album! I mention it, because it serves as a nice counterpoint to what is going on here.
I know Thom is making a conscious choice with his voice, but it is a wrong choice. He chose violence. Radiohead is actually well known for their lyrics, but I never find myself looking them up because his gurgling, sludge-mouthed performance makes me completely uninterested in what he's saying. With many of the other artists on this list, I would put on their albums, listen to them as background music for a bit, then inevitably go, "hmmm, I think I missed something interesting there" and look up detailed lyrics because something about their performance piqued my curiosity. Thom Yorke never does that. His voice squishes around at the same, mopey emotional level too, so that everything has this blanket, unchanging air of ennui. This album has no range to it. No ups and down. Just one long, droning "OOOoooaaaaeeeEEEEUUUUeeeeUUUUeeaaaOOOUUUUEEEE MOrning Bellllllllll" That's the one phrase I distinctly picked out. He definitely said the words "Morning Bell." Good job, Thom.
If you want a quick picture of how much I dislike Thom Yorke, I recommend listening to Idioteque, which was even more unlistenable than the rest of the album. Best track is the outro, Untitled, which has no lyrics. And if you just completely ignore Thom, there are some really cool instrumental bits in other songs scattered throughout.
Rapid Fire Summary
11) Not the Beatles's best, but c'mon. It's the Beatles.
12) Quintessential Michael Jackson makes me want to dance!
13) I wish I sang like Aretha Franklin.
14) Somewhere in the world, someone's dad is listening to the Rolling Stones.
15) Man, rap was fun in the Eighties! Fun ANGRY!
16) The Clash goes global and proves they know more than just scrappy guitars.
17) Kanye West uses every instrument and every musician ever and it... works?
18) Bob Dylan sure does Bob Dylan.
19) Wherever Kendrick Duckworth is right now, I hope he's having a nice day. He's earned it.
20) After this album ended, Do I Wanna Know by the Arctic Monkeys came on and I've never been more grateful for a palette cleanse in my life.
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