Like every other 10 Great Albums blog I’ve written, these ten share the criteria that they’re in my collection, are personal favorites of mine, and are generally considered great by a consensus of opinions. Half the albums hover around the year 1970, with only one from this century making the list. Proceed with caution: The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Huey Lewis and The News are not on here. Rock on.
1. Physical Graffiti — Led Zeppelin
I’m gonna start with my favorite rock album from my favorite rock band. This double LP on the Swan Song label, released in 1975, arguably marks the height of Led Zeppelin’s greatness. I can list many of their albums confidently as a ‘great rock album,’ but Physical Graffiti is my first choice mainly due to the strength of Side 3. The first three tracks on that side — In The Light, Bron-Yr-Aur, and Down By The Seaside — are right up there in my Top 10 Zeppelin songs of all time! (If you want to channel Eddie Murphy doing Muhammad Ali there at the end, feel free.) The cover is really cool too, as there is an insert containing the names of the songs, with letters that spell Physical Graffiti through the cut-out windows of the cover’s New York apartment building. The two record sleeves contain photos of band members and other people that also appear through the album cover. Another reason why vinyl is cooler than any other format.
In The Light
The intro to In The Light is magisterial, and the combination of instruments, vocals, rhythm, and lyrics make it my favorite track. Bron-Yr-Aur is a short acoustic instrumental with an ancient and mystical feel, which has been one of their distinguishing sounds. Down By The Seaside had me at its first couple of measures. Like several other songs on the album, this has distinct halves, distinct feels and rhythms, which help convey the lyrics’ meaning. In this case, it contrasts the city with the country, and the verse about people turning away takes on two connotations.
Like most albums I consider great, not only does this have tremendous songs, including Kashmir (the most popular and played-out, although that shouldn’t diminish its greatness), the entire album is great, start to finish. Beware, however, of anyone who says Side 4 is the best or their favorite.
2. Wish You Were Here — Pink Floyd
Originally released in 1975 on the Harvest label, this follows up the greatness of Dark Side of the Moon brilliantly with an homage to founding member Syd Barrett, who had left the band a few years before. Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1–5) leads off the album, setting the tone with elements of rock, jazz, blues, and a touch of symphonic flair. Welcome to the Machine ends the first side, while Have a Cigar and the title track Wish You Were Here (my favorite on here despite its constant airplay) begin Side 2. Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 6–9) finishes the album. Although I would rate Dark Side of the Moon greater in historical context as a higher musical achievement, I prefer to listen to this in its entirety more than Dark Side.
Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1–5)
3. Abbey Road — The Beatles
Whenever two or more people are discussing The Beatles for the first time, it’s seemingly inevitable that a question like this follows: “So, are you more of a Sergeant Pepper or Abbey Road fan?” When I first began listening to them in high school I would say Sergeant Pepper’s. For some time, though, I’ve been a staunch Abbey Road supporter, and once you say Abbey Road, it’s usually a question of being a John fan (Side 1) or a Paul fan (Side 2), although I would bet the majority are with Paul on this one.
There are very recognizable tracks on both sides (Come Together, Something, and Octopus’s Garden on Side 1, and Here Comes The Sun on Side 2). It’s not that Side 1 is bad, it’s just that Side 2 is incredible. Every song on Side 2 runs together in a huge dream-like sequence. Because and Sun King have a certain similarity in their vocal harmony intros and soothing ethereal quality, and I especially love the drum and guitar in The End. My favorite track is probably You Never Give Me Your Money. George Benson and Booker T. & The M.G.’s have both done a great job paying instrumental homage to this landmark album.
4. The Band — The Band
This album, like the other three, was introduced to me through a cousin’s influence during the summer before my junior year of high school, and has remained with me ever since. I remember listening to this in the lanai of my uncle and aunt’s house outside Tampa, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes with some family members and their friends. Released in 1969 on the Capitol label, it’s The Band’s second offering, with familiar songs such as The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up On Cripple Creek.
Their great storytelling comes through a variety of tempos, and has a certain comforting bittersweet quality to it. Most of the songs I really enjoy are slower, such as When You Awake, Whispering Pines, Rockin’ Chair, and The Unfaithful Servant. Look Out Cleveland and King Harvest (Has Surely Come) remain my favorite uptempo pieces on here.
5. Green Mind — Dinosaur Jr.
Originally released in 1991 by Blanco Y Negro Records, this was an album I listened to a lot in my late teens. My favorite track is Thumb, which laments the lack of direction in life especially common in the teen and early adult years. The album as a whole could be a soundtrack to that, as well as the ennui of trying to get with a girl who you constantly see but can’t quite hook up with.
I also like Blowing It and how it leads into I Live for That Look. J Mascis played all the instruments and I think was the producer and engineer as well. He may have even taken the photo on the front cover, which is classic. I didn’t spend much time listening to “alternative” music in the 90’s, but I’m proud to have connected with this and a few others. I’m also glad that Dinosaur Jr. is still putting out music.
6. Master of Reality — Black Sabbath
Released in 1971 on the Vertigo label, this album is so interesting because of its surprising message juxtaposed with the band’s name, album cover, and the dark sounds of early heavy metal. So much of the syncopated guitar riffs on here I presume were relatively new to rock, and were emulated by more artists than many might imagine — I don’t have any examples at the ready. Sweet Leaf, the first track, extols the virtue of discovering marijuana and exclaims that “soon the world will love you sweet leaf.” The very next song, which some might find incongruous, is After Forever, one of the clearest examples of the gospel message. Embryo is a beautiful 30-second violin solo leading into the peppery and fiery guitar riffs that begin Children of the Grave. It begins with what sounds like a haunting call to arms and revolution, but is rather an encouraging message to the youth of their day — and anyone who listens — to be brave and spread love or be cold and lifeless, that either choice affects themselves and others.
Into the Void
Side 2 begins with Orchid, another beautiful instrumental, this time with guitar and cello. Lord of This World is another eternally-minded track with infectious guitar, drum rhythm, and Ozzy’s eerily beautiful vocals. Solitude is a melancholy song of lost love with bass and flute, and Into the Void is your quintessential hard rock, giving a steady dose of electric guitar and changing drum rhythms to accompany Ozzy’s vocal imagery of the apocalypse. It’s beautiful! The back of the album cover has all the lyrics. If there was a rock concept album parallel to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, this would be it.
7. Moondance — Van Morrison
Part of me wants to talk about how Van’s got soul for a white guy, and the other, wiser part of me wants to refrain from expressing it that way because most great musicians have soul and express it in different ways, each in his or her own glory. There’s an expression about people who have a good voice for radio that they could read the phone book and make it interesting. That’s how I feel about Van Morrison’s unique vocal tone and rhythm.
This 1970 Warner Brothers release is on here because I enjoy listening to it in its entirety, and because it has a couple tracks that are great for wedding playlists. Moondance and Crazy Love are both great as dinner music and the latter, in particular, is great for a slow dance that requires nothing more than the ability to stand up with your partner and slightly move side to side. The rest of the album, like many others of his (Astral Weeks, His Band And The Street Choir, Tupelo Honey, and Veedon Fleece), is great background music that most people can agree on.
8. Graceland — Paul Simon
This 1986 Warner Brothers album is Paul Simon’s most critically acclaimed, and helped introduce world music to the western world, especially the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I couldn’t watch MTV in 1986 or ’87 without seeing You Can Call Me Al a thousand times. The title track Graceland and Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes are two more popular songs, both of which are great, but the reason to own this is to have the whole thing.
I remember watching a documentary on the making of Graceland several years ago and remembering something to the effect of Simon saying the album was to initially be called Graveland or Graveyard (either one makes sense in light of the lyrics from You Can Call Me Al), but he ended up changing it to Graceland because there was something inside him stronger that prevailed, so he went with it. I think that is particularly cool because it helps confirm to me God’s hand and spirit at work upon man, in many ways in spite of man’s own will. I especially get a glimpse of God’s work through writers and musicians (in Paul Simon’s case, both). The marriage of instrumentation, vocal harmonies, and lyrics is a big reason why this album has reached a mythical level. Adding to the mystique is the historical soil it grew out of, which I’m not gonna even attempt to delve into. The point is that it’s beautiful and unique and will stand the test of time.
9. Mudslide Slim & The Blue Horizon — James Taylor
Another musical giant makes his way on this list. Like so many of the artists who made this list (and many others who didn’t), there are several albums to choose from. In JT’s case, Sweet Baby James and One Man Dog come to mind. For all my marbles, however, I’m picking this 1971 Warner Brothers release (and Taylor’s fourth) as the album I’d take with me to an island if I were limited to just one album per artist. The most radio-friendly track — You’ve Got a Friend — is okay, but there are so many better songs on here, and I don’t say that because it’s been played to death. That’s just the way it is Bruce Hornsby. Riding On a Railroad is a classic bluegrass rock ballad before The Avett Brothers were a twinkle in their pappy’s eyes. Soldiers is short and beautiful. There’s definitely some soul and blues that comprise this soft rock—folk rock classic.
Mud Slide Slim
The title track is slow and funky and has a mellowness that exemplifies the album in that it’s substantial enough to listen to when you’re feeling blue, but it’s not gonna bring you crashing down if you’re feeling good. Hey Mister That’s Me Up On the Jukebox has a great bluesy country rock feel. Machine Gun Kelly is a soulful storytelling classic with a great mid-tempo rhythm. Highway Song is a song that can make you romanticize about the blues too much if you’re not careful, like you’ll go out of your way to self-destruct just so you can smoke Bob Seger’s last cigarette remembering what she said. The journey ends with the aptly titled Isn’t It Nice to Be Home Again, the album’s shortest track at 55 seconds.
10. Brothers — The Black Keys
These two dudes have blown up in the past couple of years for good reason. One is a certain void of a quintessential rock sound largely missing since the mid 70’s. (There are exceptions, of course, so don’t try to pick a fight with me here—let me make blanket statements without repercussions or a lengthy explanation, okay?) Another is the fact that they’re compelling to listen to. I remember the hype surrounding them a couple years ago and begrudgingly decided to give them a shot. I was pleasantly surprised with the opening track Everlasting Light — my favorite on here — which has a blend of 60’s soul with unadorned rock and an upbeat feeling of love. It’s also packaged in a digestible length under four minutes, as are most of the songs.
You can feel and hear the influence of soul and blues throughout this 2010 Nonesuch Records release, especially on Never Gonna Give You Up, written by soul artists Jerry Butler and legendary songwriting duo Gamble and Huff, popular for the Philly soul sound of the 60’s and 70’s. Black Mud is a short and sweet guitar interlude around two minutes, and Tighten Up and Howlin’ For You are the two big commercial hits, at least according to wikipedia. There’s not a bad song on here, and the cohesion is achieved by its strong current of lovesick blues (mostly, it seems, from triflin’ women) and as a result of a two-member band primarily featuring drums and guitar, although there’s just enough variety with other instruments and tempos to keep your interest.