I hate it when people do things like this, but have to admit at the same time, very often I take the time to check out what they have selected. I've done so enough times to believe that most of them actually put very little thought into what is essentially an effort to create some content with the clickbait ethos that the more conflict and division you create the more readers you attract. Admittedly, I have created some things that involved using my subjective judgement of selected songs, artists, and lyrics and presenting them as being somewhat better than some others, but I don't remember ever entitling a piece "the best" or expressing the judgement that my opinions are ultimately superior to everyone else's.
I'm going to give it a shot though and up front I'm going to state two very good reasons why people should not lump this list in with most other clickbait fare. First of all, if it was really biased, it would be made up mainly of the recordings of the late Sixties which were the years in which most of my musical tastes were formed. Quicksilver Messenger Service's self titled album would be at the head of the list along with something by the Grateful Dead or the Rolling Stones. I loved Sixties Era psychedelic music, especially records coming out of the Bay Area and those containing the solos of iconic guitar gods like John Cipollina. As it is, none of first two even made the cut as I believe they recorded some markedly uneven material. As for the Stones, I cut them out of consideration simply because Mick Jagger once sang a song from the point of view of Satan. I haven't been able to take them seriously since, not to say that they weren't influential. There is only one album from that era, and it is the Beatles's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band, a choice I believe I hardly need to defend.
For some reason, I always downplayed my personal choice of music even to myself. I attribute it to an incident when I was young where one of my playmates called me out for being a know-it-all saying, "Why we always gotta listen to you? You ain't our daddy!" We were standing in circle in a small grove of trees, and I was explaining how we were going to reenact the Battle of Thermopylae instead of just playing war. The incident reoccurred in high school when another kid told my best friend that he didn't like me for much the same reason. I learned that people don't like people with opinions almost directly in proportion to their lack of an opinion of their own. For some reason, I chose to internalize that message.
Preparing for sleep recently, I decided to listen to one of my all time favorite albums. I discovered that I didn't have it in my library. I also noticed that what I did have was a lot of music I never listened to, music I had chosen to impress others, music that I felt would convey an image of myself as being somewhat sophisticated and eclectic in taste, but not the actual music that I loved. Most of the playlists that I had compiled over the years fit that description too. I had never made a single playlist containing just the music that I myself truly loved.
It wasn't that hard to decide what to put on it. There weren't a whole lot of albums that I played over and over and wore out. I only had to select albums that I had had purchased more than once. These were the songs that were the film score of my life; songs attached to the strongest memories good or bad with lyrics I couldn't listen to without crying or nodding my head in abject wonder. It was somewhat harder for me to convince myself that I not only had the right to assert this subjectivity but was also deserving of doing so. This is music that made me who I am, and I should not be ashamed who knows it.
Kind of Blue (1959) - Miles Davis
I love this album. When my ex-wife passed away from brain cancer within six months of my father having died, I was also inflicted with tinnitus. I almost went insane. I couldn't sleep, sit still, watch TV or listen to music with words. I became convinced that most of the things that came out of the mouths of human beings was pure blather. This album was the only thing that could sooth my anxieties. I could put it on, sit back and close my eyes and go somewhere else entirely. It is considered by most of those who know to be the greatest jazz album of all time, and justifiably so considering the collection of musicians who played on it. Personally, it is the greatest piece of recorded music ever. It is existential in nature and speaks a language not fully of this earth. Listening, you go places, and the journey is relaxing and exhilerating at the same time. I taught middle school Language Arts for thirty-one years and have long understood the simple truth that most of the young hate our music and love their own. Freddie Freeloader and Blue in Green are the two of only songs that the kids in my class ever requested that I play in the background while they worked. One of my fondest memories of teaching is the vision of a very challenging classroom of kids tapping their feet, nodding their heads, and swaying to the sound of Miles Davis and John Coltrane blowing the roof off of the room.
Past, Present, Future (1973) - Al Stewart
A hundred years from now, if humanity is still around, archeologists will puzzle over the discovery of this album. They will be amazed by both its brilliance and the fact that Al Stewart didn't reach greater heights in terms of public acceptance. He has achieved cult status and has his die-hards like myself, but most people who know his name consider him something of a one-hit-wonder because of the singular success of the song Year of the Cat, in my opinion, the most perfectly crafted pop song ever. It is a pity because there are at least three songs on this album I think should rank among the greatest rock songs ever recorded starting with the eight minute opus that begins side two The Roads to Moscow a song which tells the story of Hitler's invasion of Russia through the eyes of a young Russian soldier who is trying the survive the greatest episode of death and violence in the history of the world. The Last Day of June 1934 juxtaposes the scene of Hitler and his minions driving through the mountains on their way to murder Brown Shirt leader Ernst Rohm against the scene of a party at a chateau nestled in a vineyard as the lights from the party spills over the fields.Complete with some stirring Victorian brass, Old Admirals tells the story of a seaman who devoted his entire life to the Crown who retired and has to watch the sea battles of World War I play-out from the sidelines. It contains a lovely little line where Stewart expresses the sentiment that the saddest thing to be is an, "Old admiral who feels the winds but never puts to sea." This album isn't special just because it boasts the most cogent lyrics in the history of rock music; Stewart had already recorded several folk albums prior, this time, he backed it up with some very tasty rock music provided by the likes of Tim Renwick, Rick Wakeman, and Peter White.
Blood on the Tracks (1975) - Bob Dylan
This album changed my life. I discovered it in a bargain bin in a drug store while I waited for a prescription to be filled. I had never liked Dylan's voice enough to give him a serious listen, but it didn't take long for me to recognize his genius. At the time, the locus of my musical tastes resided in the area near my groin, and I prowled the streets of my small town with pot smoke and Deep Purple pouring out of the windows of my two-toned Pontiac Riviera. This album relocated the locus of my musical tastes to my brain, and within a few years, I began teaching reading at the local middle school. My great appreciation for Al Stewart and John Prime started here as did my love affair with the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller and Carl Jung. Dylan said that he spent some time with an artist who taught him how to takes the themes garnished from his subconscious and place them into the material plane. It's the slower songs that detail the breakup of his marriage that move me the most though. I still can't listen to the opening strains of If You See Her, Say Hello without tensing up. Its like he was writing about the breakup of my own marriage which ended tragically after thirty-one years.
"If you get close to her, kiss her once for me
I always have respected her for doing what she did and gettin' free
Oh, whatever makes her happy, I won't stand in the way
Though the bitter taste still lingers on from the night I tried to make her stay,"
I tear up regardless of where I am or who I am with. It's one thing to live with the knowledge of your own failings, but quite another to have Bob Dylan reminding you of them. Strangely enough, Dylan said once that he never completely understood the popularity of the album. It's personal, Dude; the pain of heartbreak is universal; the universe should have told you that.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band (1967) - The Beatles
There are a lot of people who feel that this album should be at the head of the list, and I wouldn't quibble with them. This is the album that took rock music out of its pelvic shaking past into the consciousness stretching future. It was the first real presentation of rock music as an art form. It is not as personal a record as most, being in part more of a force that engendered a generational shift in human consciousness. You couldn't be young and alive at the time it was released and not notice the difference in the very essence of things as Rock music proved to even its staunchest critics that it could exist as an independent art form. A Day in the Life has to be lodged near the top of any list of all-time greatest rock songs. Consider the opening lines.
"I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car;
He didn't notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They'd seen his face before
Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords."
They are still jarring enough to be considered revolutionary. Just think of the all the great music written after the appearance of this song that owes its existence to these lines.
At first, I liked the Stones a whole damn lot more than I did the Beatles. I was scruffy; they was scruffy. I was trying to figure what made the whole girl-boy work, and the people in charge kept testing us on questions like, who's better The Beatles of the Stones? Which was basically the question to 'do all the birds like scruffy more than smooth, or the other way around'? I settled on Jagger and the scruffy more because it was more in line with my family's economic situation than anything else. This album changed that. These songs informed us that there was a whole lot more to existence than breathing, eating, having sex, and defecating. In contrast, the Stones with Their Satanic Majesties Request and especially the powerful, incessent beat of Sympathy for the Devil seemed to want to inform us all that those things should be more than enough. It's not, but it's possible to fool yourself for a while into thinking that it is. The arguments that you use to justify things to yourself are always, no matter how seemingly mundane, worthy of Shakespearean treatment. This is the message that music still needs to be sending.
Diamonds in the Rough (1972) - John Prine
I was at somebody's house reading a record review about this record in a men's magazine. It mentioned some of the lyrics to the the beautiful song Souvenirs,
"I hate graveyards and old pawn shops
For they always bring me tears
I can't forgive the way they robbed me
Of my childhood souvenirs"
I was intrigued enough to run out and buy the record and was blown away at what I had discovered via that simple moment of chance. There isn't a single song on the record that didn't display Prine's natural ability to turn a phrase about something as modest as a break-up note into a dazzling insight into human nature. I was fortunate enough to see him in concert three times and even turned my daughters into devoted fans. We were all crushed when he died. I can't think of anyone else right off the top of my head who had put forth such a remarkable and consistent body of work.
I once got an A in a college speech class talking about the allegory in The Great Compromise, and I was in the middle of giving an eulogy for one of my childhood friends when the words from He Was in Heaven Before He Died popped into my head.
"The sun can play tricks
With your eyes on the highway
The moon can lay sideways
Till the ocean stands still
But a person can't tell
His best friend he loves him
Till time has stopped breathing
You're alone on the hill"
Imagine what Prine could have done with that image.
Loving in the Valley of the Moon (1977) - Norton Buffalo
Norton Buffalo and his band The Stampede showed up in Fresno just days after I had bought this album. I had listened to a clip of it on the headphones at a Borders store. I ran out and bought tickets to the concert, but at the last second my wife came down with a cold and couldn't go. She insisted that I give her ticket to her brother and take him. It was one of the best shows I had ever witnessed and was really excited when I came home and told her all about it. Sick as she was, her eyes lit up with joy when she saw how animated and happy I was. I remember looking at her that in the dim light of the bedroom and being quite affected by her selflessness. Norton was the greatest harmonica player of his generation and quite the charismatic performer. For years, a local television station used his lovely instrumental Another Day when they signed off the air, and every time it reminded me of that night. I wore this album out and replaced it at least three different times. He doesn't hit a false note on it. The title song is classic, one of my all time favorites. His follow up album Desert Horizon also had its moments but just wasn't as consistent. Norton played on a lot of records and accompanied almost every well-artist in the Bay Area at one time or another. He even had roles in a couple of Hollywood movies. He discovered he had cancer in September of 2009 and died a little over a month later. I didn't hear about his death until after he was gone. It made for weird night as it brought up the memories of my wife, who had left me by that time, and mingled them with the sadness of his passing.
Rainbow Bridge (1971) - Jimi Hendrix, Caravanserai (1972) - Carlos Santana, and Metamorphosis (1970) - Iron Butterfly.
These albums are a part of a trilogy of records that me and a few friends of mine consider to be kind of holy. They came out in an era of great experimentation when most of the people I knew followed the lead of the Bay Area crowd and undertook a series of exploratory psychic journeys. These were Sixties Era voyages of discovery, largely mythological in nature. We would stack the records on the turntable and each grab a sofa and lie down and let music sail us out to sea. We usually led off Rainbow Bridge. We would close our eyes and set out on our individual hero quests. When the record ended and the needle lifted, I would often open one eye and stare across the room into the one open eye of a fellow traveler. We never said a word but the silent gaze was as fraught with meaning as anything I've ever experienced. Then the needle would settle down unto the first groove of the next record, usually Santana's jazzy and largely instrumental Caravanserai; the eyes would close and we'd be off on the second stage of the journey. I believe that both records were the best music in their artist's repertoire. Rainbow Bridge was a posthumous album compiled from stuff Hendrix was working on when he died. Some people dismiss it because of this. I think, regardless, it his most cohesive album. He displayed some great lyrical talents in songs such as Roomful of Mirrors and I Hear my Train a Coming. I believe that Caravanserai was also Santana's best album. He was being very inventive and taking greater and greater risks and even though I have hard time listening to it straight (I admit I was twisted at the time) I well know its hidden depths and the sublime pleasures tucked away within its grooves. Iron Butterfly's Metamorphosis was usually saved for the last act of the drama. This was because the last song on the album Stone Believer was clearly the most intense song of the evening with an ascending bass line that mimicked the spiraling energy traveling up and down your spinal-chord, and it usually gently put us down somewhere in a good place. Iron Butterfly's other efforts were plodding and bloated with self indulgence and not much worth the listening. This album was special though. They had added the talents of guitarists Mike Pinera and Larry Reinhardt(El Rhino), and that addition made all the difference in the world.
O'Keefe (1972) -Danny O'Keefe
Like Al Stewart, a lot of people mistakenly think of Danny O'Keefe as something of a one hit wonder, the one hit being Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues. And like Stewart they are out of their mind. His songs has been recorded by a wide variety of well know artists including Jackson Browne's hit version of The Road. There is not a bad song on this album. He did catch lighting in bottle with this album. The others have their moments but are not nearly as consistent as this one. I first heard it while riding in the backseat of a friend's GTO while drinking Spanada wine from a green bottle, winding through the tree lined hills on our way to a swimming hole above Three Rivers California. It was a magical day when being young and alive was the greatest thing that a human being could possibly do. A few months later, I would be wrestling on the carpet of my sparsely furnished apartment with the Cotton Festival queen who had I snatched off a float of a parade. I would break every now and then to place the needle back at the start of the beautiful Valentine Pieces at the Queen's request. It's not everyday that a vagabond like me could cuckhold a Cotton King, and it was an event that required special music which Danny O'Keefe supplied. I can never listen to that song without hearing her laughing and giggling as I tickled her ribs.
As I said at the beginning, this is a very subjective and very personal list. I don't expect people to agree with its content. That would be pretty stupid. I did have a lot more mythical memories than just ten though, and there are times, depending on my mood, where I could replace one album with another without feeling guilty in the least. I still have a lot of albums like Jackson Browne's Running on Empty, Tower of Power's East Bay Grease, or B.B. King's Indianola, Mississippi Seeds and many others sitting on the shelves of my subconscious, each containing wonderful songs attached to powerful memories of their own.
I will close with a warning though of just how easy it is to lose sight of the most important things as we wrestle with the obstacles that life keeps throwing at us, and a few well chosen words from my good friend John Prine.
"Memories they can't be boughten
They can't be won at carnivals for free
Well it took me years to get those souvenirs
And I don't know how they slipped away from me."