1. Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (10/10)
Editing can work in jazz. Really. It isn’t just the music that is important (as well as great), it’s the production.
1. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (10/10)
A love-sick, drug-addled Eric Clapton recorded this with a group of musicians who, with one exception, supported him rather than competed with him. It feels perhaps a touch more collaborative than Cream. Anyway…
Clapton has never sounded more passionate. The shitty amp he used here gives him an edge to his tone you won’t hear on pretty much any other recording he ever made. It’s almost if he was possessed by John Fogerty (or even Neil Young). This gives a harsh-sounding nature to the playing of a man who has always possessed incredible tone. The change is glaring. And whether Clapton is dueling with himself or the famous guest star, it’s hard to think of another record where his playing sounds this urgent. (The amp helps.)
Added to that, Clapton sounds possessed on vocals. Rarely (if ever) has he sung with this much passion. Certainly there is no other record where he keeps the passion up for every track.
The backing band is a backing band, but Whitlock delivers equally impassioned vocals – though not struggling with the same demons, to the best of my knowledge – but they are mixed lower (or mic’d differently?) so there is no doubt who is the lead singer on all but one track. Radle and Gordon do their job, they don’t compete.
And then there’s Allman, who joins after the third track. For the most part, Allman is fine, to my ears. He only occasionally reaches his own personal heights (particularly on the title track, obviously). But here he functions as a foil for Clapton, playing a more supportive role to allow Clapton to do his thing. Allman’s solos are all very good, as are his supporting licks, but it sounds to me as if he was deferring. (Again, the title track, where it sounds like he is playing violin, is the exception.)
The songs are all solid to great. Clapton was never a great songwriter, only occasionally writing good songs. But Whitlock has brought out something in him and the originals are mostly excellent. And the covers are are good choices, even if the “Little Wing” cover reveals maybe a little too much about the band’s limitations (i.e. Clapton is not Hendrix).
The result is quite possibly the best blues rock album in history. I can think of no real competitors. Never before or since has a blues rock band captured so much of what is good about the blues and rock at the same time; usually it’s one or the other.
An absolute classic.
1. The Who: Live at Leeds (10/10)
Is this the greatest live album of all time?
4. Black Sabbath: Paranoid (10/10)
I have still not gotten around to listening to the debut, so take everything I say here with a grain of salt:
The band already feels like it is fully formed. Everything about this album (save, perhaps, one track) just screams Black Sabbath. The music is slow and heavy; and though it is still indebted enough to the blues rock that came before it to be recognizable to listeners at the time, the mood is so macabre that this feels like the birth of a new genre, even though it isn’t.
I should also note that Butler’s lyrics are mostly excellent. That’s something that can’t be said about most “hard rock” or “heavy metal” lyrics. (For example, Plant’s.)
My favourite track is, naturally, the only one that doesn’t sound like Black Sabbath, “Planet Caravan.” I don’t know why. I guess because it adds some unexpected variety. But everything here is classic. It feels like a greatest hits record at times.
Just an absolutely essential record.
4. Neil Young: After the Gold Rush (10/10)
I think I can talk myself into the idea that this is Young’s first proper solo album. I mean, the debut has a pretty weak reputation (though I haven’t heard it). And Everybody Knows this is Nowhere is very much a band effort. So, with hindsight, I think this gives more of an idea of what Young sounds like without Crazy Horse. And it runs the gamut of his sounds.
And this is the first time, I believe, that Young really gave full prominence to his excellent songwriting. Even though some of the tracks are fragments, and a few feel like CSNY rejects, here is an excellent collection of songs from someone who wasn’t even the main songwriter of his old band (which was possibly surprising at the time, I dunno).
About half the tracks here are absolute classics and the rest aren’t bad here either. The arrangements are spot on, ranging from full band rock performances to Young pretty much by himself.
It’s probably the best single-album introduction to Young the songwriter; it’s most accessible than some of his more difficult records from the decade (which I prefer, naturally…) and it’s got stronger songs than his biggest hit, Harvest.
It’s not among his very best albums from the decade, but that’s just because he got better.
4. John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band (10/10)
As everyone is aware, the title is a misnomer, as this is a solo record, properly Lennon’s first.
When Lennon record this, he was probably the most famous English language musician in the world. Maybe the most famous musician in the world.
He certainly was the most famous Beatle at this point. And, of all the Beatles, he was the most associated with elaborate musical productions, featuring heavily altered sounds – both on Beatles records and his work with his wife. So this confessional record must have come as a shock.
Lennon sings with as much passion as he ever has – often screaming – and his lyrics are simplistic and primal. It’s so raw that it makes other “confessional” singer-songwriter records sound dishonest or coy in comparison.
Not only is it a remarkable set of personal songs (including some of his very best, such as “God”), but it’s an extremely brave performance by perhaps the biggest (non-movie) celebrity of his era.
One of the best singer-songwriter records ever. If you listen to one post-Beatles record, make it this one.
7. Led Zeppelin III (10/10)
Full disclosure: this is my favourite Zeppelin album and I’m not sure I can be 100% objective about it.
Apparently when this was released, i through fans and critics for a loop. People had been expecting…oh, I don’t know. But what they weren’t expecting was a whole side devoted to, as some believed at the time, sub-CSNY/Grateful Dead type “acoustic music.” The idea that a) Zeppelin had never played any folk songs before CSNY did, or that b) these songs are somehow not as good, is kind of bizarre, but apparently that’s what some people thought. Also, this “criticism” (if it is a criticism, it’s a lazy one) ignores the first side of the record completely.
“Immigrant Song” is, in addition to being their first overt flirtation with Vikings (if memory serves), their most concise single and one of the few Zeppelin “rock” songs to not have a guitar solo. It’s pretty close to perfect for a hard rock song, despite its brevity (or, perhaps, because of it) and despite that lack of solo.
“Friends” is the first hint that this album isn’t going to be like the first two, as it features acoustic guitars and a string section! (The only time ever, I believe.) Jones always got the short end of the stick, and here is another example. This song works because of that string section.
“Celebration Day” is one of their most manic songs and the moog part that runs from “Friends” into it is perhaps the only time they’ve done something like that. Is this Plants most positive lyrics ever?
Even though “Since I’ve Been Loving You” was stolen from Moby Grape, like every other song they stole – pretty much – Zeppelin manages to take what was an alright song an elevate it to a classic. This has to be one of their top couple studio performances ever, featuring perhaps the best solo of Page’s career. Everything is note perfect, including the squeak of the drum.
“Out on the Tiles” is my least favourite song on the record. Even though it is “pummeling” as everyone notes, it’s kind of one note, in my mind, and just doesn’t do anything for me. But, if this is an album’s worst song…well, they’re doing pretty good.
The arrangement of “Gallows Pole” feels like it has become the definitive “rock” version of the song. It’s an elaborate recording, but it’s probably one of the few times I don’t find Page’s production quite good enough. (I should listen to the remaster, obviously.) There’s so much going on here and I love it, I just wish it didn’t sound quite so thin. The arrangement is fantastic and a great example as to how Page could assemble so many guitars (and similar instruments) to essentially create an orchestra.
“Tangerine” is cool in part because of the use of the synthesizer on the guitar solo, but also because of the heavy country vibe, which hadn’t yet made its way into Zeppelin’s sound. Plant is particularly strong on this one.
“That’s the Way” used to be one of my favourite songs. It’s one of these songs where the arrangement feels perfectly suited to the material – though I really don’t hear that dulcimer, if it’s there – and I love how the bass and tambourine come in at the end to sort of finish things off, like icing on a cake.
“Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” is probably the second best performance on the record, despite the rather sentimental lyrics about Plant’s dog. Page has rarely been better as a performer – or a producer, listen for the mistakes he left in – and Jones’ use of a unique bass guitar helps add a uniqueness to this recording.
The last song feels like filler sometimes. It’s a tribute to Bukka White more than it is Roy Harper – I’ve yet to hear a recording of Harper’s where he sounds like this – but it is among their most traditional blues recordings and a fitting capper to one the most adventurous sides in the then brief history of hard rock music.
I understand that Zeppelin has probably released better records, but for me, this is the one that resonates the most. It’s my favourite and will likely remain that.
8. The Allman Brothers Band: Idlewild South (10/10)
I think it’s safe to say that, with their debut, the Allmans invented Southern Rock, which is a pretty big deal, I guess. Nobody had really combined blues rock, southern soul, country and jazz like they did. And, of course, at the same time they became one of the definitive jam bands. But here, I think the songs are stronger and everything is more refined.
“Revival” may have a pretty hippy sentiment but the music itself touches on pretty much everything you’d associate with the Allmans.
“Midnight Rider” has perhaps the most country feel of anything they’d yet recorded – except perhaps for the guitar break in “Revival” – which is mostly due to the vocals.
“Don’t Keep Me Wonderin'” continues the predominant sound of their debut, featuring a prominent slide riff with an organ-heavy hook.
“In Memory of Elizabeth Read” is just straight jazz. I’m not sure an American rock band had recorded something so thoroughly jazz, except maybe Frank Zappa (or the Dead, albeit live). Aside from the fact that it’s a great piece, that’s a rather landmark thing.
Their take on “Hoochie Coochie Man” is much fresher than you might expect, and certainly adds more to it than most standard rock versions.
“Please Call Home” is the most soul-influenced song they’d yet recorded and is a personal favourite.
I feel like “Leave My Blues at Home” might be the weakest song on the album, but that is not really saying anything, as this record features perhaps their best set of songs, and obviously it goes without saying – as this is the Allmans, one of the most virtuoso ensembles in rock history – that the performances are excellent even when the song – such as this one – isn’t quite up to snuff.
An absolute classic.
9. The Grateful Dead: American Beauty (10/10)
Yes, this is very much Workingman’s Dead Part II. And, for that, I guess we could criticize them. If anything, though, they go even further into the country and folk and further from their jazz rock and psychedelic stylings.
But the thing that makes me like this more than its predecessor is the songs. I think this is the best set of songs the Dead ever had. They managed to top the set Workingman’s Dead, which must have been a surprise back in 1970. And its those songs that makes this their best album, albeit not particularly Dead-like. It’s probably also their last essential studio album (and there really are only 3).
Anyway, it’s one of the best – if not the best – of the country-drenched albums that appeared in the early ’70s.
18. The Stooges: Fun House (10/10)
There is very little music like this prior to the emergence of punk. (For some, I guess, this is punk.)
Arguably more aggressive and difficult than their debut, this albums is both as garage-y as it gets while also being avant garde – there is a free jazz influence here not heard within the rock world of the era outside the Magic Band. The only other band that had ever sounded like this were the Velvets, and they were frankly never this aggressive (and, also, had sort of started to play power pop by this point).
It’s too artsy fartsy to be punk. But it’s pretty much impossible to imagine punk and post punk without this record. Nearly as seminal as the Velvets first few albums.
Raw Power may be the easiest Stooges record to love. But this is the braver album.
PS: “TV Eye” is the greatest.
11. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Deja Vu (10/10)
Neil Young makes a big difference.
12. The Greatful Dead: Workingman’s Dead (10/10)
If you had been aware of the Dead in Spring 1970 but you didn’t live in San Francisco, you would have no way of knowing the band was birthed by a folk band in the mid ’60s. If you caught them live, you would have been familiar with how they were the first ever jam band – though the name may not have existed yet – or if you listened to their albums, you would think they were by far the weirdest psychedelic band to emerge from San Francisco (unless you only heard their debut). You certainly wouldn’t have guess they had country in them.
13. Spirit: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (10/10)
Well, it’s a few years late, but that’s okay. It’s hard to fault it for being late, because it’s done so well. Even if it is hippie nonsense.
14. The Band (10/10)
Not as the same level as their debut, the songs just aren’t of the same quality.
15. The Flying Burrito Brothers: Burrito Deluxe (10/10)
Still great but it’s got nothing on their debut.
16. Deep Purple: In Rock (9/10)
Deep Purple always seem to be the third wheel in the “(un)Holy Trinity of British [first wave] Heavy Metal”. Certainly if we are to judge by influence on the genre today, there’s no touching Sabbath, but if we go back in time to pre-BNWHM Zeppelin was the band. I think that undersells Purple’s role somewhat, as we can trace most metal genres to one of the three: black, doom, sludge, etc and the fascination with death to Sabbath; folk, world, funk, thrash etc and the fascination with fantasy novels to Zep; and hair, prog and “neo-classical” etc and the careless lyrics of all “party metal” bands to Purple. So Purple are important.
17. David Bowie: The Man Who Sold the World (9/10)
Whether or not the final product represents Bowie’s intentions – as multiple people involved in the sessions have claimed he didn’t do much beyond sing and play some rhythm guitar – this is the first (nearly) essential Bowie album. The first album to present a solid set of songs that display many of his preoccupations – philosophy, theatre, god, dystopia and so forth – and the presentation of these songs as Hard Rock just makes the album unique in his discography.
I can’t tell you how much I like this album. I know it’s not his best but it might be his most fun, despite the seriousness of his lyrics, if only because of the full-bore rock music that surrounds the songs. A personal favourite.
18. The Velvet Underground: Loaded (9/10)
It’s incredible to listen to Loaded and think it was recorded only four years after their debut and only two years (give or take) after White Light/White Heat, two of the most radical rock records ever made. You wouldn’t have the faintest idea from listening to this record. It’s a remarkable transformation.
Of course, that transformation had already started on the self-titled record, even if that album has some minor remnants of their previous experimental attitude. And so this wouldn’t have been the surprise that we might think.
But it’s still a rather shocking turn. And the set of songs might be even stronger her than they were on the self-titled (I haven’t made up my mind). It sure is loaded with catchy songs. And it stands as one of the earliest proofs that Reed was truly one of the great songwriters of his era.
Also, with the self-titled, it probably forms the foundation of power pop or underground pop, or what have you. Is Big Star imaginable without these records?
Anyway, it’s a great set of songs. The only reason it isn’t a complete classic is because of the existence of the self-titled record.
19. King Crimson: In the Wake of Poseidon (9/10)
Full disclosure: King Crimson is one of the bands that “changed my life” on a musical level and they remain among my favourites. I have trouble being objective about them. I’m trying, but it’s probably not possible.
20. Santana: Abraxas (9/10)
A slight improvement on the debut.
21. Emerson, Lake and Palmer (9/10)
ELP’s debut sounds very different from their other studio albums and I for one think this is a good thing. See ELP hadn’t yet invented their formula, wherein they would collect an Emerson epic, an adaptation of a “classical” piece, a “comedy” number and a Greg Lake ballad. This has to be one of the weirdest rock music formulas in history and, thankfully, on the debut it does not yet exist.
What is here are two absolutely pounding rock adaptations of Romantic pieces (one with a Baroque bridge) that set new standards for rock versions of “classical” music. Though both Lake’s epic “Take a a Pebble” and Emerson’s “The Three Fates” are probably overlong, they feature absolutely incredible piano and organ playing by Emerson. In fact, the whole album sets a new standard for virtuoso keyboard playing in rock music, a standard that has perhaps never been matched (save by Emerson himself).
Whether or not this is your best album probably depends on how you feel about the formula. The older I get, the less I can put up with it and though there are great moments on later ELP albums, there are also awful ones are pretty much every studio album. The formula was their creative doom and on this album, when there were no expectations beyond the silly “super group” label, and when the band was free to show off instrumentally without the (self-imposed?) need to cater to their different audiences, we just getting brazen, loud, bombastic prog rock of a kind no other band really tried.
22. Credence Clearwater Revival: Cosmo’s Factory (9/10)
It’s mind-boggling to me that CCR’s fifth album came out two years – two years!!! – after their first. Almost to the day. That makes no sense. I know LPs were shorter back then, but jesus, that’s a kind proclivity that is more common now than it was in the ’60s.
So it should come as no surprise that this album is nearly half covers. Forgerty must have been running out of stream.
“Ramble Tamble” is a jammy, borderline prog-rock (swamp prog?) that kind of presages where Fogerty’s ambition would go on Pendulum. There are maybe a few antecedents in their discography but not many. It’s like Rush doing CCR. It’s also the first indication that maybe this record is going to be a little more produced than the earlier albums.
“Travellin’ Band” is one of CCR’s great performance. I can’t really separate the song and performance, but the performance is just so on, and that it doesn’t matter whether or not the song is one of the great rock and roll road songs. Fogerty’s singing is fantastic, as are his solos. And the horns make sense, which couldn’t always be said of horn sections in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“Lookin’ Out My Back Door” is the most country Fogerty had got to date in his own songs (though they had covered “Cotton Fields”). It’s also his debut on dobro. It’s another classic Forgerty song even if it’s a little overproduced (four guitars? five? a piano…).
“Run Through the Jungle” has such a classic opening – copied a million times, I feel like – that the sort of pseudo-psychedelic production of the intro and coda is forgivable. It’s nice to change it up and have the harmonica handle a hook.
When I was younger, “Up Around the Bend” was my favourite CCR song. Well, pretty close. It’s still a great song. The doubletracking on the chorus is great.
“Who’ll Stop the Rain” is one of Fogerty’s classic ballads. I think it was a pretty big hit. It’s actually the lesser of the two ballads on here, in my opinion, but it’s still good as far as these “social comment” songs go (and there were just so many of them back then).
“Long as I Can See the Light” is probably my favourite Fogerty ballad and it features a surprisingly good saxophone solo from Fogerty. A great song.
As for the covers…
Their version of “Before You Accuse Me” was apparently initially intended for the debut. I haven’t heard the original in a while but this is a decent, if fairly straightforward, cover.
“Ooby Dooby” is an extremely dumb rock and roll song, but the performance is excellent, so there’s that. Still the weakest thing here by a lot.
“My Baby Left Me” is another straight-up cover. It’s also another traditional rock and roll song. One thing we can say for CCR, is that there was really nobody else (big) doing this at the time.
I don’t care what anyone says, I fucking love this version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” It’s my favourite version of the song. I used to listen to the CCR green album (too much) when I was in my teens and I could have hummed every note of the guitar solo, had I any musical ability. I don’t care if it’s too long. I just don’t care.
All in all it’s a pretty classic album. Really strong despite so many covers. It’s not their best, in my mind. That probably goes to one of the two previous albums. But it just goes to show you what strong songs and performances can accomplish. CCR was just barely deviating from the formula, but they always keep you engaged.
23. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: Weasels Ripped My Flesh (9/10)
Zappa takes his musique concrete collage obsession and applies it to a live album. It’s nowhere near as radical as the Mothers’ records at their apex – as this is mostly a collage of songs, rather than song fragments, jokes and the like – but it’s still hard to recall another live album of this (or any) era that is this deliberately constructed, and where the construction is visible on its sleeve.
Though I have yet to fully familiarize myself with Zappa’s post Mothers discography (beyond his biggest “hits”), this has to be one of the last times Zappa was as boundary pushing as he was in the heyday of the Mothers. A pretty great record.
24. Can: Tago Mago (9/10)
I am having trouble coming up with anything to say about this right now, except for that I like it.
25. The Beatles: Let it Be (9/10)
After years of being the most pioneering studio band in the world – or one of the two – the Beatles originally decided they would go back to basics and record an album in the manner of Please Please Me; that is, live in the studio. To that end they actually re-posed for its cover shot approximately six years after the original. (It eventually became the cover of one of their best-of compilations, The Blue Album.)
The idea involved an accompanying film, which turned out would wreak havoc with the attempts at putting out the album. The Beatles hired then up-and-coming Glyn Johns as the engineer – he would go on to engineer and co-produce some major records in the ’70s – but implying when he was hired that he was also the producer. They never informed Martin or Johns what their roles would be – were they co-producing with each other or what? Martin assumed he was the producer, as he always was. And Johns assumed he was the producer, because he had been led to believe that. Additionally the Beatles tried to rehearse in a film studio specifically so the film crew could work around them. That didn’t work: Harrison quit at the very beginning of the sessions – for the second time in only a few months – because of the recording conditions.
The Beatles then attempted to record in the studios they had acquired with their new label, Apple. Harrison claimed that Clapton’s presence on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” had made the band behave like humans to each other. So, to this end he hired Billy Preston to play keyboards for the sessions – once he had returned to the band. (This served a dual purpose since the band was without a keyboard player most of the time, if they were going to play live.) The band played an enormous amount of material – though often failed to complete the performances – during these rehearsals and recording sessions, including numerous covers – as part of the “back to our roots” approach. Only a little of it has surfaced officially on Let It Be and its re-release, Naked, and on Anthology, although there are apparently numerous bootlegs of the sessions.
The seriousness of the back-to-basics approach can be seen in the infamous rooftop concert shut down by police, that instantly became iconic and has inspired numerous surprise performances by major acts throughout the ensuing years. That a band who had been screamed out of performing live a few years earlier would embrace performing live again, if only to try to save something as it was falling apart, shows either how committed they were – at the time – to the idea of a complete rejection of their pioneering studio trickery, or how desperate they were to capture the good old days. It was probably a mixture of both.
There was no such thing as a warts-and-all / back-to-basics album before the attempt at Get Back. Until the invention of multi-tracking in the 1950s, it was a technical impossibility, let alone something that anyone would ever think of. And until psychedelia emphasized the excesses of multi-tracking in 1966 and ’67, why would anyone want to forsake new technology that made you sound better? The concept was still novel in 1969. Even though the Byrds went “back” to basics by making country music in mid 1968, they did not give up studio technology, going so far as to overdub Gram Parsons out of the band after he quit. When the Rolling Stones abandoned psychedelia almost as quickly as they took it up, to re-embrace their first loves in late 1968 – and the Indian instruments on a song don’t indicate a full abandonment of psychedelia – they did not forsake multi-tracking. Even CCR, the inventors of roots rock, overdubbed keyboards and extra guitar parts regularly. And if the Flamin Groovies recorded live in the studio, nobody even knew they existed so who cares what they did.
The album, as I’ve outlined above, was ready to go; everything had been recorded. More than enough had been recorded. The problem was that the Beatles disagreed on how it should be mixed, or whether it was even releasable. McCartney wanted to release it whereas the others seemed somewhat embarrassed. They would continue to fight over it for over a year; with various versions of the album being prepared to the point where copies were almost pressed a few times. Incidentally, McCartney’s interest in releasing the warts-and-all, original version of Get Back should dispel any notions of he was always about glossy, easy pop.
So the Beatles – even though they failed in their attempt – insinuated the idea of a return to the roots as a remedy for studio excesses into the rock and roll consciousness. Zeppelin released the nearly overdub-free Presence halfway through their career. The Clash tried to do it with Cut the Crap. There have been numerous other attempts. It is now a critics’ cliché; it has basically become part of the lexicon, just like any band that is really ambitious has to attempt a White Album style kitchen sink thing – on one CD or two. If a band gets totally out of control in the studio, the reaction of everyone is that they should go back to basics – even if the result rarely is overdub free. And this comes from the Beatles attempt at making Get Back in the near-death throes of their existence. Perhaps the fact that it was a failure is even more prescient, given how few bands have been able to take the concept to its logical end in a world full of endless overdubbing and editing temptations.
After Get Back had been rejected at least three times, and the Beatles had all started making their own records, their manager sought to make a little money. Hiring Phil Spector to create an album out of those sessions – especially the rooftop performance – Allan Klein – sometimes credited as acting on behalf of Harrison and Lennon and sometimes not – essentially put together the antithesis of the original album. Now there’s all sorts of disagreement about who was in favour of it and who wasn’t but the end result was that Let It Be definitely wasn’t Get Back. Yes, a couple of the songs still retain their origins as live-in-the-studio songs sans overdubs but even the ones not obviously effected had studio chatter mixed in from other sessions – as with this version of “Get Back,” for example. It’s hard to know whose album this was but the end result was that McCartney quit the band a week after finding out about it and thereby gained, at least temporarily, the ire of a lot of fans – who were unaware of the number of times the others had quit, or hadn’t quite put together that Lennon’s burgeoning solo career was leading to this eventually. The only Beatle to actually play on the Spector sessions for the album – in addition to a complete remix of the material, Spector recorded an orchestra and choir – was Starr, who re-recorded his drums for a couple songs. So we know McCartney didn’t like it and he was by this point the dominant voice. We know some people claim Lennon liked it – and Lennon did admit in interviews to liking some of what Spector did – but it doesn’t fit with anything he was doing musically at the time: his albums with Ono, his first solo album, his singles. Harrison likely approved – whether or not he personally hired Spector for this Beatles album – because he immediately hired Spector to produce his next solo album, the first one to focus on songs. And Starr explicitly approved by being the only Beatle to actually participate in the new recording sessions. It says it’s a “new phase” Beatles album on the cover, whatever that means.
So what do we do with it? It’s a Beatles album, as it was released before the official breakup to the group, credited to the group and performed by the group. But it doesn’t represent the intentions of the dominant songwriter of the group’s late period, and may or may not have represented the intentions of the band’s other main songwriter – since he wasn’t participating at all at this point – and it doesn’t represent the intentions of the group’s normal producer either. It is a Beatles album curated by the two least significant Beatles, in one sense. It was only named after the last Beatles’ single likely because that was the easiest way to move records. “Dear Beatles fans. Here is the album to follow up that single you are listening to all the time.” It is a “back to basics” album that is full of overdubs and editing; an utter contradiction.
But I don’t think that invalidates it. Until the release of Anthology 3 in 1996 – and really until the release of Let It Be Naked in 2003 – this was the only official version of Get Back that we ever received. (There have been bootlegs.) And while it is as far from the Beatles’ intentions with that project as nearly anything could be, it still lets us hear at least some of what would have been absolutely innovative for spring 1969: the first ever “back to basics” rock album, which has inspired numerous attempts at shedding the studio-as-instrument approach since. And, despite the plethora of covers and jams recorded for the album, and despite the infighting, it’s not like the band or their lead songwriter took the time off.
“Two of Us” is a folk-rock song by McCartney that really does fit the original concept of the abandoned album, only having chatter overdubbed at the beginning to differentiate it from its initial “finished” version. This final version is slower and softer than earlier run-throughs, but still contains enough charm – I think – and enough of the now typical Beatles unconventionality to appeal: changes in metre, uneven phrasing, and the like; by now standard Beatles tropes. It sounds like little else they had recorded to date. (It actually sounds, to me, like it could have fit in on Help! but it’s more mature stylistically.)
“Dig a Pony” is an impassioned love song by Lennon with mostly nonsense words; he repeatedly dismissed it over the years. Again, it manages to preserve the original feel of the project, despite the remix – which omits two parts of the original version. It is the first of Let It Be tracks to be taken from the rooftop concert. Pollack notes:
The tune makes broad and spicy gestures of contour. The verse starts off with a balanced arch that covers a full octave but ends up with a second upward sweep of that arch left hanging in air, just begging for some release or relief from the refrain. The refrain obligingly picks up where the verse had left things and proceeds to blow the roof off in terms of range; the downbeat of the refrain momentarily establishes a new melodic highpoint just above where the verse tops out, but then, in the second phrase, the tune jumps up practically a full octave to top out in falsetto on the C# eight and a half steps above middle C.
It’s this kind of rawness that I think discouraged the Beatles from following through with their intentions. They meant to do it initially – or at least McCartney did – but when they sat back and listened, with years of studio perfectionism hanging over their shoulders, they heard mistakes by the ton. Now we may like those mistakes – I do – but we are are also listening in a world where Let it Be is a famous record, which was not the world of the decision not to release Get Back was made in.
This version of “Across the Universe” was slowed down for an orchestra and choir. The overproduction also includes more effects – in addition to the effects the Beatles added in 1968 – so you can’t hear most of the original band, or the fan backing vocals. This version has become a radio staple; it is the version everyone knows and presumably loves. Lennon apparently preferred this one. My attitude is that this song had no place on this record but on the other hand Spector didn’t exactly destroy it, like he destroyed some others (see below).
The shortest Harrison song that the Beatles ever used – “I Me Mine” was virtually doubled in length by Spector and also given the full orchestra treatment. It is about ego, apparently. It features some fairly good playing by the composer but it was created completely independently of the Get Back project – recorded a full year later – and with full intent to overdub. (There are many even prior to Spector’s, as both Harrison and McCartney added additional parts.) Though I am a fan of the music – not of the lyrics – I can’t help but think it doesn’t belong, despite being the last “official” Beatles song to be finished.
“Dig It” is one of the innumerable jams and song fragments recorded during the sessions. Why this song was picked over others – and why this version was picked over other, longer versions of “Dig It” itself – I don’t know. Some versions ran to seven minutes but usually broke down. The lyrics changed from version to version – with Lennon spouting off the band’s catalogue during one take. It was edited together from two distinct performances by Spector and nobody really knows why. It’s one of the reasons this album is looked at as a bit of a mess.
The album version of “Let It Be” features the other guitar solo more prominently – Harrison recorded two, an original one and an overdub when they were thinking of releasing it as a single – fewer backing vocals and new and louder orchestration to replace Martin’s original, subtle scoring. Most of us Beatles snobs prefer the single version just because. (Really, because it was mostly a band product and it has taste.) I think even with the hatchet job the song still stands up. It’s one of the highlights of the album.
“Maggie Mae” was the first “cover” to appear on a Beatles album in years. It was a joke they recorded as one of innumerable covers to “warm up.” Earlier versions of Get Back contained other covers that they attempted more seriously. It is strange that this one was included because it was pretty incomplete compared to many of the other covers they performed back in January of 1969. However, a version of “Maggie Mae” was included by the Beatles themselves in the planned releases of Get Back – though in a different part of the album sequence – so there must be some reason why it is here; some attempt to make a kind of statement about where the band was at. Or just for fun. Or for sequencing purposes. I can’t figure it out.
For me, “I’ve Got a Feeling” is one of the highlights of this album. It combines parts of two separate songs – one by McCartney, one by Lennon as was usual by this time – but it is the better for it. It’s actually the first time the two had combined song-fragments to create a new song like this since “Baby You’re a Rich Man” in the summer of 1967 – rather than combining whole songs with fragments and the like, as they had on The Beatles and Abbey Road. The recording is another rooftop performance and as such, holds at least somewhat with the original concept. It’s probably my favourite song on the album and proof, for me, that they were capable of still being a pretty decent live band after years in the studio.
“One After 909” was actually a song from their earliest days. They thought about including it on With the Beatles even though it had been written something like six years prior to those sessions. At this point they were doing their own oldies as well as those of others. It was their attempt to write a “train song” back in the ’50s when such things were popular. The recording is another one from the rooftop concert. It’s certainly way louder and rawer than what they attempted in 1963, or 1960 for that matter. But otherwise it does give you a good sense of the kind of problems occurring in the band that January. McCartney contributed the concept and most of the new material. Lennon barely contributed anything. Of the stuff he and Harrison – and even McCartney – did contribute, most of the band couldn’t agree on. So they played covers and even resorted to playing songs of their own that they didn’t even like. Given that, I am at least impressed by the performance, which is far rawer than the original version – which can be heard on Anthology along with many of the outtakes I am referring to.
“The Long and Winding Road” is the most controversial track on the album as it features the most glaring intervention from Spector along with that on “I Me Mine”: a huge orchestra and choir and effects. It was one of the main reasons why McCartney publicly quit when he found out about the release of this album. If you think it’s sappy you should listen to the Anthology version which is considerably less so. The version we all know is not the right version but there’s no way around that now. It’s even harder for us to go back and erase, as it were, our memories of this version to hear the original, to decide whether it is actually not a sappy ballad, but rather a good ballad. I don’t know that I’ve been able to do that. It was supposedly an attempt to write in the style of Ray Charles’ poppier ballads.
“For You Blue” is Harrison trying to write a traditional blues song – with not so bluesy lyrics – and it features Lennon’s debut on the lap-steel – a steel guitar played on the lap, funnily enough. It’s as straightforward for the Beatles as it gets. But it’s still relatively charming. Harrison re-recorded his vocal but the chatter was put in by Spector. At least it doesn’t feature an orchestra for no apparent reason like the other Harrison contribution. I think Lennon acquits himself fairly well on the lap steel, which is somewhat of a surprise.
The album version of “Get Back” features all sorts of dialogue not recorded at the time. Otherwise it is actually the same as the single released a year previously – just a remix. So there’s not much to choose from between the two versions, which begs the question, why did Spector include the single version of this song when he created a new version of “Let It Be”? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does.
Let It Be was the first thing the Beatles released in ages – except Yellow Submarine of course – that can really be criticized by the standards of the time, and can be considered inessential in terms of rock music history. Get Back would have stood up amongst their best work – I am convinced – as yet another path-breaking record featuring (mostly) strong songs. But Let It Be is not Get Back. And as such, it has to be viewed somewhat as the group’s nadir – though, I think, Magical Mystery Tour could also be viewed that way. But as a nadir, it still features a lot of great music and four songs that have become part of the canon of “radio staples”, if not standards out right. Pick your favourite band from the ’60s and compare Let It Be to the worst album of their career. Who wins? I think you’re lying if you say it isn’t the Beatles.
26. The Band: Stage Fright (9/10)
The Band’s third album is considerably more accessible…no, that’s not the right word. More “contemporary”? With Dylan and their first two records, they helped invent Roots Rock (albeit a less obviously “rock” version of what CCR was pioneering at the same time). But here everything sounds more contemporary. The keyboards are even more obviously of their time. There is a decided funk influence to a number of the tracks. And the hooks feel more poppy.
But to balance out this seeming bid for greater commercial success (and who knows whether or not that was deliberate) is a penetrating set of lyrics documenting fear, depression, regret, love and a host of other complicated emotions. If Robertson wrote all the lyrics (and I don’t know that he did), this feels like his confessional record as a songwriter. Sure, there are still biblical-sounding parables, but there are way more lyrics that seem to be about him personally (or, perhaps, about what he thought Richard Manuel or some other member of the band was going through). And these lyrics are as rich and as the lyrics to their songs on the first two records. And this balances out the otherwise obvious bid for greater commercial success.
A near classic.
27. Liberation Music Orchestra (8/10)
This is like Mingus meets Shepp (in spirit, anyway) meets other free of the era (with a Latin tinge). It’s at times radical and at times thoroughly traditional and, if it could maintain that balance, it could be incredible.
However, as others have noted, it’s kind of schizophrenic, and sometimes it feels like various solo records and sometimes there’s this orchestra (a very compelling orchestra).
Unfortunately, it feels that the politics of the record may have been more important to Haden and Bley than the music. (That’s probably not fair, but that’s what it sounds like at times.)
I am torn between being frustrated and being awed. The awed feeling hasn’t quite won out yet.
28. Van Der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other (8/10)
The first proper VDGG album (2nd official) is about as loud as prog rock got in 1970, which is a good thing, but likely doesn’t give us a good hint of what they actually sounded on stage.
The songs aren’t quite there yet – though they are considerably better than some other prog bands’ – and the whole thing feels a little unfinished (both a blessing and a curse). Hammill is captivating as usual, but sometimes the arrangements around him are not quite there.
On the whole it’s pretty strong, and a good indication of where they were heading.
29. Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die (8/10)
A Steve Winwood solo album that basically turned into the traffic reunion album. It’s still very much Winwood’s thing, and substantially different to my ears than their first go round (obviously the jazz influence has increased a lot).
I used to love this record, maybe 9 years ago. I can’t stand Capaldi’s lyrics though (I think he wrote the lyrics) and it’s a little softer than I would like. But on the whole, this is excellent jazz rock. Like Van Morrison without as strong songs. Winwood remains one of the couple best British rock singers of his era. And it’s rather astounding that he’s so competent on so many instruments.
It sure doesn’t help to read about how the album came about, because it really doesn’t sound like the product of a band, even if the finished product does indeed sound like a band.
Probably my favourite traffic album. Certainly better than its sequel.
30. Bob Dylan: New Morning (8/10)
Ever since his motorcycle accident/self-imposed exile, Dylan had adopted significantly more straightforward/accessible lyrics, moving away from his revolutionary reference-drenched poetry of his earlier recordings.
That same more traditional approach is still present here, though he has mostly moved far away from the country that dominated his first two post-exile releases: The music is mus more diverse. In fact, musically this is one of Dylan’s most adventurous albums. That’s a relative thing obviously, but it’s still relatively out there for him.
Even though the set of songs isn’t quite up to his best – I would argue it’s still a pretty decent set, compared to some of his other albums – and even though this is, for Dylan, diverse, I think this is a great introduction to him.
For anyone who finds his early stuff impenetrable or his voice to grating, this is a great start. Because not only is it more accessible, it’s actually kind of fun.
31. The Kinks: Lola Versus the Powerman and the Moneygoround Part I (8/10)
Ostensibly Davies’ fourth (???) song-cycle, this album is really just a collection of vignettes about the music industry and related themes. I’m not sure there’s a story here and the theme is rather looser than the previous song-cycles, so to my ears it’s not quite the classic as some of their previous albums.
That being said, this is a pretty great collection of songs. “Lola” is the obvious standout, but there are plenty of other great Davies songs here. And so, though it is not among their very best work, it’s still a pretty good Kinks record.
32. The Doors: Morrison Hotel (8/10)
More like it. The change was a good creative decision. It’s a little over-rated though.
33. Joni Mitchell: Ladies of the Canyon (8/10)
Lacking something that her best stuff has in spades, but I’m at a loss for words as to what that something is.
34. Ten Years After: Cricklewood Green (8/10)
Lee can’t write lyrics to save his life. Fortunately the band is really good. Their best album.
35. Caravan: If I Could Do it All Over Again I Would Do it All Over You (8/10)
Would these guys ever be good if they just had a vocalist…okay and a producer.
The band doesn’t necessarily have the chops of some prog rock bands but they got a much better sense of groove than most British prog groups and they also write hooks. (Who the fuck knew?) The biggest problem is that they lack a charismatic singer, just like the Soft Machine, only the Soft Machine were such a good band in the beginning that it didn’t matter. The title track, which is gold, could have maybe been a serious hit hat they a real singer, instead of the “I’m exceeding my very limited range” Canterbury Scene thing they have going on.
The other drawback is the production, which, to their credit, they acknowledge in the liner notes. It is far more obvious with the bonus tracks attached (which were with a producer) which almost all sound way better. Apparently they worked with a producer the next time out so I am now eager to hear that.
36. Gentle Giant (8/10)
It’s crazy, but it’s a little too much…I don’t know what the word is. It just doesn’t work like the later albums.
37. Nick Drake: Bryter Layter (8/10)
Over-produced, though there’s nothing wrong with his songs.
38. Kaleidoscope: Bernice (8/10)
It’s more accessible, but that isn’t a good thing. Still lots of good music here, but it doesn’t compare to their earlier efforts.
39. Pink Floyd: Atom Heart Mother (8/10)
Like every other album they released between The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Meddle, Atom Heart Mother is a real mixed bag. On the first side is one of the true landmarks of early progressive rock. On the other side is a miscellaneous collection of stuff.
The significance and greatness of the title track cannot be overstated. Though maybe some other prog band might have beat them to it – I am thinking VDGG – this is the most ambitious piece of music a progressive rock band had yet recorded. The fact that it succeeds as well as it does makes this all the more incredible. The horns, cello and choral vocals all feel perfectly integrated. And this was the first time the Floyd really managed to combine their radical experimental music into a larger whole, where that music doesn’t feel just like a radical experiment. If you listen to any pre-Meddle Pink Floyd, listen to the title track of this record.
The problem is that the other side is just a hodgepodge. First, there’s yet another one of Waters’ bids at being taken seriously as a singer-songwriter. This one is actually a band recording, which is something. But it feels like this ambition of his is completely at odds with the rest of the band’s music. (In my opinion, it would take until Dark Side of the Moon to fully resolve this.) It’s a decent song, but is it really the Floyd?
“Summer ’68” reels like a relic of ’68. Despite the rather avant garde horns (did Geesin arrange these too?), it feels like it’s an outtake from Saucerful of Secrets and seems to indicate that, when left to his own devices, Wright was still hoping that they were a psychedelic band.
Gilmour’s contribution feels like a much less ambitious version of “The Narrow Way” and was apparently performed similarly. Again, as much as it’s pleasant, I find myself wondering, is this really the Floyd?
Finally, “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” takes a few unrelated jams and mixes them together using recordings of someone preparing breakfast. If that sounds good to you, great. But it pales in comparison to the title track in terms of its ambition, scope or music interest. It’s diverting and pleasant, but that’s it.
Still, it’s hard to be too hard on the record because of the title track.
40. Colosseum: The Grass is Greener (8/10)
I didn’t realize this was a weird, US-only hybrid album when I bought it. I somehow convinced myself it was their most recommended album. (I guess I was listening to some US critics…). Anyway…
The influence of Cream is particularly heavy here, on the opening track and the Bruce cover (even though it wasn’t a Cream song). It’s kind of shocking but it also acts as the missing link between Cream and so much jazz and prog rock.
The album is a hybrid of things not usually found together: jazz rock and prog rock. At their most jazzy, they don’t sound like they could convincingly play prog rock, and the opposite is true at their most proggy. And I guess that’s what I find so impressive is those two different skill sets, relatively evenly balanced (though definitely leaning towards the jazz rock side of things).
41. John Cale: Vintage Violence (7/10)
I like Cale. I think he is often a great lyricist – except on Slow Dazzle, where he is lazy – and I think he was certainly the most musically interesting member of the Velvets. But he is not a great songwriter. He lacks a bit of an ear for melody. The only record of his that I really notice any strong melodies is 1919 – which has become my favourite of his – and even then it took me forever to get into that. I have this problem on everything I hear by him, he just doesn’t write compelling songs to back up his often great lyrics.
I think one reason why this record has been lauded so over the years is that Cale was – to those who were aware – an ex-member of the underground band. And his debut was nothing anyone was expecting. Moreover, like the Velvets own work, his debut was totally out of fashion… and literate. That combination can be like opiates to a music critic. So people went nuts.
I am not for a second trying to say this is a bad record. But it is saying something when the thing that I find most striking about the album is a bonus track which wasn’t originally included (“Wall”). It’s just sort of pedestrian rock and roll with very good lyrics. That’s okay, but I’m not sure this deserves it’s place as a classic which so many people (well, critics) seem to accord it.
42. King Crimson: Lizard (7/10)
The third Crimson record is the second straight without a proper band, with Fripp and Sinfield relying on session musicians. (And two of those musicians did not like the music.) But a number of the shorter tracks are still early Crimson classics (save the ballad), especially “Cirkus,” which features incredible acoustic guitar playing by Fripp.
The biggest problem is the title track, Crimson’s one and only stab at that prog rock staple/requirement, the side-long piece. “Lizard” just feels like a couple of different pieces stuck together. And the final one goes on way too long. It’s certainly not up to the standard of contemporary efforts by the Floyd and VDGG.
The other problem is this sort of feels like the same old album, for yet a third time, albeit with weaker material.
But given all that, it’s still pretty good, albeit definitely for fans only.
43. Credence Clearwater Revival: Pendulum (7/10)
CCR’s sixth album in two and a half years (!!!) gets off to a good start with “Pagan Baby.” Yeah, maybe Fogerty forgot to write lyrics, but the song embodies much of what was great about CCR. And as you listen to the rest of the album, it’s a reminder of what’s missing; of why this album is the weakest CCR record to date, and why it’s their second worst.
Because, despite the presence of “Have You Ever Seen Rain?”, which you undoubtedly know, there’s not a lot of classic CCR here. And the problem, it seems, is that, on most of the tracks, Fogerty, one of the most engaging guitarists of his generation – a man who makes me love an 11-minute version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” – decided he’d rather play keys. Sure, there’s the odd guitar solo here and there, but there’s also a keyboard solo, and far too many tracks where Fogerty barely touches a guitar.
I’m not saying bands shouldn’t change, shouldn’t innovate, shouldn’t take risks. But Fogerty is not Al Kooper. And subbing keys for his guitar playing is not a 1-for-1. (And one of the times he does break out the guitar is a weird attempt at almost going prog on us.)
And so even though this is the only CCR record to have no covers, it actually feels like the first time Fogerty couldn’t come up with enough material appropriate to his band.
All this isn’t to say it’s bad – it’s still a pretty good record all things considered. It’s just not a classic and it’s the first sign that the band wasn’t great anymore.
44. Hot Tuna (7/10)
It’s competent, it’s enjoyable. It’s music that seemed like it was forgotten by mainstream music. It’s just not revelatory.
45. Jethro Tull: Benefit (7/10)
Not as consistent as SU.
46. The Guess Who: American Woman (7/10)
Three of the songs sound exactly the same. Another one is a do-over from the previous album. Otherwise, it might be their best album. It’s not.
47. The Guess Who: Share the Land (7/10)
For years and years I have been telling myself this was the best Guess Who album, even with Bachman awol, because it was the most “consistent” in my mind.
And I’m not sure that’s entirely wrong – it has one of the stronger sets of songs in their catalogue, though it might lack anything that ranks among their very best songs. The main thing that strikes me as a standout is “Three More Days,” which is their least pretentious/annoying long track – for lack of a better term, but I am referring to songs longer than 8 minutes. It has so much less of Cummings’ inane lyrics, and the jamming feels like it works towards the whole, rather than against it. It still features some hilarious over-singing, but then this is Burton Cummings.
As for the rest of the album, the songs are all fine. A few of them became hits (in Canada, anyway) and that makes some sense. But, as I noted above, there’s nothing here that ranks among their very best songs, which is why I am thinking I was wrong to rank this as their “best” record.
It’s still good by their standards. It’s just not great by the standards of the era.
48. George Harrison: All Things Must Pass (7/10)
It’s sprawling. I used to think that was a good thing. It’s too long, it’s got too much filler.
49. Al Kooper, Shuggie Otis: Kooper Session (7/10)
Al Kooper tries to capture lightning in a bottle again, replicating the old Super Session format this time with Shuggie Otis and a complementary change in sound. Both halves have their hits and misses but, for me, there is enough here to enjoy, even if this isn’t anything revelatory. The two halves definitely appeal to different tastes too, so that’s something that might put some people off, though I find the gospel and R&B stuff a refreshing change of pace for Kooper.
50. Syd Barrett: The Madcap Laughs (6/10)
The songs are okay, but he really wasn’t a genius. Let’s relax about that.
51. John Coltrane: The Coltrane Legacy (6/10)
A clearinghouse effort from Atlantic after his death. Definitely worthwhile if you are into him, but hardly containing anything that would get you to rethink his legacy…
52. Al Kooper: Easy Does It (5/10)
By the time Kooper released this double album in 1970 he had put out 6 albums (including this one) in something like 2 years. Yes, two of those were partially improvised, but Kooper was the prime creative force of all of them. So it should come as no surprise that this record feels like it doesn’t have enough content for its length. Some of the covers are good – and sometimes they are quite idiosyncratic – but Kooper’s songs themselves are not great. He’s pulled back on his artsiness on this record but he doesn’t have enough good songs and just seems to have included everything he recorded. Also, he reminds me of Burton Cummings on a few tracks, which is not a complement.