Aretha Franklin - I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
Aretha was such a remarkably promising vocal talent that legendary record producer John Hammond (who has been associated with such premier talents as Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, Count Basie and Leonard Cohen) signed her to a Columbia Records contract when she was still in her teens, but the label never found the right approach for Aretha in the studio. It wasn't until she signed with Atlantic and released this album in 1967 that she was almost unanimously called the Queen of Soul.
After none of her Columbia singles cracked the Top 100 sales chart, Aretha's first Atlantic single - the captivating title track - zoomed to No.9. What made the record all the more remarkable was the flip-side, "Do Right, Woman," was equally haunting. But the second single - "Respect," was a song written by Otis Redding, not only went higher on the charts (No.2), but it also became a cultural anthem. And there's more to the album, including her splendid version of Sam Cooke's own pop anthem, "A Change is Gonna Come." The album carries the thrill of great talent finally finding her wings.
Oasis - Definitely Maybe
Few bands have ever stepped forward with a name that defined its place in rock as well as Oasis. At a time in the 1900s when the dominate tone of most noteworthy new American groups was darkness and anxiety, Oasis stood as precisely the "pleasant relief, refuge or change" suggested by its name. The music in this debut album was spirited and ultimately self-affirming. Part of the grand tradition of rock brothers that goes all the way by the Ray and Dave Davies, Iam Gallagher (the lead singer) and Noel (the writer) found strength in the legacy of British rock - from The Beatles and Stones through T.Rex and The Sex Pistols.
Liam led the band on stage at Oasis' LA debut in 1995 with the authority and swagger of someone who was already a sensation back home and knows he's about to become one here. "People say it's just a waste of time... (but) in my mind, my dreams are real," he declared in the band's opening number that night. "Tonight, I'm a rock 'n' roll star. From the wistful "Live Forever" to the snarling "Cigarettes & Alcohol," the album offered the enticing balance of individuality and accessibility that causes a song to stick in your consciousness. And Oasis did break through - a bit - in America. The band's second album, "(What's the Story) Morning Glory?," sold 4 million copies here, but the brothers Gallagher's constant feuding and perceived arrogance contributed greatly to their demise in America. Shame
Lucinda Williams - Essence
Williams is one of the few figures in recent years who can turn a honky-tonk into a concert hall and vice versa, thanks to the poetic sophistication and grace she mixes with the raw emotion of country music and the blues. "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," from 1998 remains her most acclaimed and best-selling work - a portrait of emotional instability in a real, Southern setting that was ideal for those country and blues instincts. Given all this, the expectations surrounding Williams' next album, "Essence," were enormous threes years later. She not only met them, she drove right past them.
In concert that year at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, the singer-songwriter made the club feel as lively as a back-road tavern deep in her native Louisiana. "Reason to Cry," one of the standout tunes on the new album, felt like it belonged on a country jukebox between vintage Hank Williams or Merle Haggard records. Her voice carries a restless yearning that takes you deep inside her world in an enthralling soul-to-soul embrace. Later in the show, "Blue," another jewel from the album, was built around a melody so lovely and delicate that you could picture it served up with strings before a black-tie crowd in a choice concert hall. The song is a brilliant expression of depression too deep to shake. "So go to confession / Whatever get you through / You can count you blessings / I'll just count on blue."
Joni Mitchell - Court and Spark
The first Joni Mitchell album you want in your collection is her 1971 masterpiece, "Blue" - a haunting, sensitive portrait of love and romance, from the times of semi-desperation and regret to comfort and celebration. The work was so personal and revealing that it remains - a half century later - the gold standard when it comes to music that explores romantic complexities, rivaled only perhaps by Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks."
"Court and Spark" is the Mitchell album of choice here because of its wider emotional landscape. After the brilliance of "Blue" and earlier Mitchell albums, it was hard in 1974 to imagine her being able to reach inside for fresh slices of insight and observation. But she did just that in such songs as "Help Me," "Car on the Hill," "Same Situation," and "Free Man in Paris." The album made it clear that Joni's strength was in her ability to explore and then honestly reveal - rather than soften or glamorize - her emotions and experiences, the pleasure and pain. There are moments in the album so tender and exposed that it almost makes you wince, but there are also times in the album of humor and rejoice.
Peter Gabriel - So
Peter first came to attention in rock as the lead singer of Genesis, but he has done his best work since leaving the group in 1974 for a solo career, turning the lead vocal duties over to drummer Phil Collins because he felt that Genesis was losing its creative momentum. His 1977 debut album, the first of three titled simply "Peter Gabriel," was a far more relevant and compelling work than anything Genesis was doing. He seemed on the verge of stardom, but he didn't court that mass following in his subsequent albums.
Instead of following up on the tuneful immediacy of such invigorating singles as "Solsbury Hill" and "Modern Love," he began experimenting with electronic textures and unfamiliar (non-U.S. or European) musical styles to find interesting new sounds and rhythms. But his triumph didn't arrive until 1986 - So, a work so stunning in its ambition and independence that it was both commercial (selling 5 million copies in the U.S. alone) and boldly adventurous. Among the musicians working with Peter on the album were French-African drummer Manu Katche and Brazilian percussionist Djalma Correa. The key tracks, notably the soaring, inspiring "Don't Give Up" (a duet with Kate Bush) and "In Your Eyes," are among the finest pieces of music of the rock era.
Jesus And Mary Chain - Psychocandy
Jesus and Mary Chain was not a gospel group, That much was clear the night I first saw them in 1985 at Safari Sam's, a small club in Huntington Beach. Less certain for many of the curious who turned out to see the controversial Scottish band's local debut was whether Mary Chain was even a legitimate rock group. several in the audience branded as sloppy and unacceptable lead singer Jim Reid's "man possessed" actions - including stumbling about the small stage so much that he twice knocked over the band's dry kit. On record, Jesus and Mary Chain delivered an equally sharp attack on the status quo of rock - perhaps the sharpest since the Sex Pistols, which is why they were controversial back home.
Most pop attractions, now and then, court audiences by giving just what the fans want - or what radio thinks they want. Like the Pistols and earlier New York Dolls, the Mary Chain separated itself defiantly from the rest of the rock pile to affirm it's individuality - and the audience's as well. Released in the U.S. early in 1986, the band's debut album "Psychocandy," was a deeply compelling, if sometimes unsettling vision. In it, the band balanced melodically seductive tales about searching for things and people to believe in against a steady stream of feedback that underscored the difficulties of that quest. Most of the tracks on Psychocandy tore at you with a chain-saw assault, making the "noise" itself become and integral part of the musical statement, adding commentary and emotion. Though it was an illusion, the Mary Chain future seemed unlimited.
Prince - Dirty Mind
Prince had already recorded two albums before "Dirty Mind" was released, but his vision was so much more compelling in this album that it's not out of line to speak of it as his debut work. "Dirty Mind," most surely, marked his artistic coming of age. Still it was possible, especially in Prince's second album, to see that something was brewing. When the young musician gave special thanks to God on the album sleeve and then sang in places with such thinly veiled eroticism, he mixed sin and salvation with the classic duality of such early rockers as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
But he turned up the burners on all fronts in "Dirty Mind," forging a confident and highly danceable blend of post-disco funk and tasty, hard line rock. His writing was bolder and his singing was sassier and more assured. When I first saw him in concert in early 1981, Prince showed he was already moving beyond the themes of this album. His ambition and vision, in fact, promised much of the bold sociological upheaval David Bowie had shown in his memorable Ziggy Stardust a decade earlier. Prince would surpass "Dirty Mind" in later works, but there is something disarming about listening to the moment the torch was first truly raised.
Beck - Delay
dBeck is a singer-songwriter whose foundation in the roots of rock 'n' roll is so strong you can picture him fitting in nicely on the country music circuit of the 1930s with the equally trailblazing Jimmie Rodgers, a blues club stage in the 1950s with John Lee Hooker or on a folk bill in the 1960s with Bob Dylan. As much as he loves those musical traditions, however, Beck, like Dylan, preferred to work in the musical language of his generation, which meant initially hip-hop and sampling. This album brilliantly summarized his musical vision in the mid-1990s. Beck even drew a parallel between the old blues roadhouse and the urban dance club in this album's jewel, "Where It's At," a salute to how a club or studio deejay can create dynamic soundscapes with two turntables and a microphone.
What made Beck so important is that he was able to mix these sonic adventures with warm and convincing songs - as he would later show wonderfully in his albums, "Sea Change." But this collection offered Beck's widest vision. Among the album's standouts, the melancholy, country-accented "Lord Only Knows," which sounds like a summit meeting between Keith Richards and Gram Parsons, and "Jack-Ass," a look romantic complications that is a puzzling and absorbing as vintage Dylan.
Alicia Keys - Songs in A Minor
The only name on the Roxy marquee the night of May 3, 2001 was Alicia Keys, but most of the industry crowd that packed the West Hollywood club was drawn by the evening's host: Clive Davis, one of the most celebrated executives ever in the record business - someone known for his ability to spot future stars. Among the artists whose careers he launched or shaped: Janis Joplin, Patti Smith and, most notably, Whitney Houston. So, everyone was eager to see who Davis was now touting. That's a lot of pressure for 20-yeear-old singer-songwriter-pianist, but Keys lived up to expectations with a varied, 40-minute set that included a marvelous version of a Prince song and intense, assured treatments of her own songs.
This album, released a month after the Roxy performance, represented a confident, silky update of soul music tradition. Her version of Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" was filled with enough attitude and sparkle to surely make Prince himself marvel. Her own "Fallen," was a tale of turmoil and tension in relationships that was equally commanding. She also showed a winning spirit on the playful, youthful vigor of "Girlfriend." Clive Davis was right again. Keys was a deeply gifted artist and future star.
The White Stripes - White Blood Cells
The duo's Jack White has always loved being mysterious about his personal history, even introducing his drummer Meg White as his sister, though she was really his ex-wife. So White would probably be delighted if someone started spreading the world that he was with Robert Johnson at the mythical crossroads when the legendary bluesman made a pack with the devil to gain superhuman musical powers. By the time this album was released, White - as a singer, songwriter and guitarist - was already so thrilling that one might have thought there might be something to that crossroads scenario. How else do you explain someone whose fearless independence and explosive artistry placed him in a great rock and blues tradition that stretched all the way back to Elvis, Johnny Cash and Sun Records roster Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters at Chess Records?
The Stripes music was smart, liberating, witty, teasing and wonderfully sensual, and this album is a wonderful introduction. White's songs range from the urgent blues-rock of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" and "Fell in Love With a Girl" to the invigorating rockabilly, Gram Parsons-inspired "Hotel Yorba" and the sweet, tuneful innocent, Paul Westerberg-like "We're Going to Be Friends." And don't think the Stripes was a one-man show. Meg White was a remarkably appealing and versatile drummer whose steady, insistent hand serves as an anchor for Jack's sweeping emotional excursions. After "White Blood Cells," you should proceed immediately to other Stripes albums, especially "Elephant" (2003) and "Get Behind Me Satan" (2005). At the start of the new century, there was no better band in America.
Janis Joplin - Pearl
Janis' vocals, by even most generous standards, reflected little of the discipline and polish expected of professional singers. It was coarse, raspy, often strained beyond and normal limits. But, as I wrote in the Los Angeles Times, she "brought a special intensity in her music that gave her performances far more vitality and emotion than any of her female contemporaries." Looking back, I see no reason to limit the comparison to female vocalists. I don't think I ever saw a singer bring more urgency and passion to the music; she reached out to the audience with such desperation it was alarming at times. "Pearl" is the album Janis was working on at the time of her death in 1970, and it is still hard for a fan to listen to it without feeling a deep sense of loss. However, "Pearl" is a classic album, not just a sentimental remembrance.
Most of the tracks are in the fiery style of her signature tune, "Piece of My Heart," but the highlight is her captivating version of Kris Kristofferson's country gem "My and Bobby McGee." The song is about loneliness and loss, and Janis brings a vulnerability to it that no one has matched in dozens of other versions of the song that have followed. It was, in many ways, a new direction for Janis - a sign of a widening of her musical style perhaps, and that tenderness and hope was all the more heartbreaking after her death. Even after all these years, "Bobby McGee" is one of the most single moving recordings I've ever heard.
Stevie Wonder - Innervisions
There are few moments more thrilling in pop music than watching a talented artist evolve into a great one, which is why one of my favorite concert nights was when Stevie Wonder opened for The Rolling Stones in LA on the band's 1972 tour. After nearly 10 years of warmly appealing pop-soul, such as "My Cherie Armour" and "Yester-You, Yester-me, Yesterday," Stevie wanted to move to higher musical ground with funkier textures and more challenging social themes. There was confusion among many of his fans at The Stones concert over the changes, but Stevie was determined to keep moving, as showcased in two albums that year: "Music of My Mind" and "Talking Book."
It was "Innervisions" late the following year, however, that was his true creative coronation - the inventive, influential mix of pop, rock and soul that brought Wonder the first of three consecutive best album Grammys. Containing such varied works as the gentle "All in Love is Fair," the harsh social comment of "Living for the City" and the streetwise sarcasm of "He's Missta Know-It-All," the album was a work of remarkable musical merit and convincing personal commitment. A pop genius in his prime.
The Verve - Urban Hymns
This deeply emotional album belongs on a shelf with "Tonight's the Night," Neil Young's brilliant 1975 look at disillusionment and despair. The difference is that "Tonight" is something Young wrote in the midst of depression (following the drug-related deaths of two friends), while the Verve's Richard Ashcroft apparently wrote most of these songs after overcoming personal and professional problems that caused the Verve to break up briefly in 1995. While you feel the lingering scars of the traumatic times in the melancholy strains of the reformed group's album, Ashcroft weaves elements of optimism and faith into the material in ways that are often quite beautiful. Unlike so much of rock, the enemy in the Verve's music isn't outside forces. In most cases, the focus is on inner contradictions and complexities, including the lure of obsessions, among them drugs. As Ashcroft signs in "Bitter Sweet Symphony":"I'm a million different people from one day to the next."
"Bitter Sweet Symphony" is the album's masterpiece and one of the most majestic singles of the 1990's. The song, which is built around a sample of a '60s orchestral version of the Rolling Stones'"The Last Time," is an ideal introduction to the band's outlook. And don't let the catchy Stones' sample mislead you into thinking the appeal of "Bitter Sweet" is a fluke. The most memorable Verve songs, including "Sonnet," "The Drugs Don't Work" and "Space and Time," exhibit a winning sense of melody, whether the tone is alluring or anxious. A superb collection.
Emmylou Harris - Pieces of the Sky
Despite the fascination with electronic exploration and sophisticated recording techniques, there is still nothing in pop music quite as evocative as a lovely voice and an honest, intelligent, truly emotional set of lyrics. One of the times I felt most strongly about that was when I heard Emmylou sing "Boulder to Birmingham," a song that she co-wrote on her first Warner-Reprise album, "Pieces of the Sky." Like the greatest singers, Emmylou was also a marvelous vocal interpreter whose greatest recordings made it feel like she was filling for us a musical void that we never knew existed until she pointed it out.
Though Emmylou gave us many other exquisite moments in this album - including her version of Merle Haggard's barroom lament "The bottle Let Me Down" to Lennon-McCartney's tender "For No One," "Boulder to Birmingham" was the collection's stand-out moment - a beautiful song that reflected both the despair of losing a loved one and the realization that life goes on regardless. The track was even more poignant when one learned it was written by Harris after the death of Gram Parsons, the great country-rock songwriter who was her musical mentor.
Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison
There's plenty to enjoy in Cash's early work on Sun with producer Sam Phillips and his final albums on American Records with producer Rick Rubin, but there is something about this 1968 concert before inmates at California's Folsom Prison that showcases all the qualities that made Cash such a valuable and unique figure in country music and beyond - his rebellion, his humor, his tenderness and his desire to spread a message of hope and redemption.
In some ways, Cash, whose drug addiction was threatening both his life and his career, saw the Folsom concert as his last chance to prove himself. He had chosen the prison site because he had done a few shows at prisons and the audiences had been so wonderfully supportive. That's partly because they figured - because he had been arrested several times and sang about prison life - that he had served time himself.
With the date nearing, he wrestled with the question of could he regain his old discipline and drive. "If I couldn't pull myself together for an album I had been wanting for years, I didn't know if I could ever find my way again," he once said. The concert proved magical and Cash was on his way to become one of America's most powerful and inspiring artists - not just in country, but all of American pop.
Nirvana - In Utero
Because of the sweeping power and appeal of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Nevermind," released in 1991, will always be the album most identified with Nirvana, but there is a naked emotion and superb craftsmanship in the follow-up that makes it an even more memorable collection. "I wish I could eat your cancer, when you turn black," Kurt Cobain screams in one song and it was easy, in a time of punk-driven extremism to think Kurt was simply reaching for attention. But Kurt, the father of an infant daughter, wrote the song - a love song, no less - after watching a TV documentary about a child with terminal illness. The move documented what a daring and original artist Cobain was.
In "Nevermind" and "In Utero," Kurt and the band gave us music reminiscent of John Lennon's first two solo albums in the way they juggle vulnerability and defiance. The Difference is where Lennon made his ideas more accessible in "Imagine" after the stark "Plastic Ono Band" proved a commercial disappointment, Kurt and mates did just the opposite. After the more accessible "Nevermind" became a commercial blockbuster, the band - and producer Steve Albini - delivered a rawer and more demanding work. It's a brilliant album.
Bruce Springsteen - The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle
There are few moments in pop music that are more exciting than the arrival of a vital new voice and that's what you find in this collection. There wasn't the full command and confidence that Bruce would show two years later in "Born to Run," but there was a wildness and innocence in this forerunner that remains wondrous and engaging to this day. You'll find some of Bruce's promise in his folk-flavored 1972 debut album, "Greetings From Ashbury Park," but his music seemed buried beneath some worthy, but far too noticeable influences, including Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. The challenge was to show more of his own identity and that's what he did in his follow-up.
Without sacrificing the surrealistic lyrics of the first album, Bruce's themes - normally reflecting the innocence, wonder, frustration and urgency of youth - were more disciplined and his musical backing bolder and more rock-ish than before. My favorite songs remain "Sandy," which brings together several of Bruce's favorite themes and set them against the natural illusion/fantasy of an amusement park setting, and "Wild Billy's Circus Story," which is one of the best songs about youthful dreams ever written, "Well, the runway lies ahead like a great false dome..."
John Prine - John Prine
After my glowing Los Angeles Times review of Elton John in the summer of 1970 was widely credited with helping launch his career in the U.S., I had the reputation in the music business of being someone who had magical powers to jump-start careers. Even though I was sensible enough to know that wasn't true, I wanted to protect any influence I did have so I looked long and hard before I gave another artists an Elton-like endorsement. The result is it took me 15 months before I felt so strongly about another new artist.
The breakthrough was the night I heard an advance copy of John Prine's debut album. For me, the album reflected the underdog sensibilities and poetic grace of such earlier folk-flavored singer-songwriters as Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. I started listening to the LP around midnight in my home office and played it over and over until around 4 a.m. I was enthralled by the empathy, commentary, wit and even humility in his songs. John never became a commercial superstar, but his writing over the years continued to be so exquisite that he did become a superstar in the creative community - acclaimed by such artists as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Jason Isbell, and Emmylou Harris
Elton John - Tumbleweed Connection
One of the reasons I was confident enough to declare Elton John a superstar-in-the-making when I reviewed Elton's U.S club debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in 1970 was that I hadn't only heard his first U.S. album, but also had an advance copy of his second album, which was released a few months later. That second album was "Tumbleweed Connection" and it came about as close to the ambition and craft of a Band album as anyone ever has - which is high praise indeed. Many of the songs, especially "Country Comfort," "My Father's Gun," and "Burn Down the Mission," reflected much of the same fascination with the American past, timeless themes and excellent musical design as the Band's early work.
Listening to it today, "Tumbleweed Connection" still stands as one of the most rewarding albums ever. Realizing that Elton and Bernie could give us both the tender, innocent "Your Song," from the first album, and the wonderful "Tumbleweed" slices of imagination and passion made me feel in that summer of 1970 that there was no stopping them. If you've never heard of "Tumbleweed Connection," you have a real treat in store. If you have heard it, I'm betting you will be amazed at how well it stands up after a half century.
Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Hill's enticing vocal on the remake of the Roberta Flack hit, "Killing Me Softly with His Song," on the Fugee's Grammy-winning 1996 album, "The Score," Was a strong calling card, but even that dramatic arrival didn't prepare the pop world for the remarkable creative and commercial spurt that propelled Hill to the forefront of the hip-hop soul movement. Her 1998 ascent began behind the scenes as the New Jersey-based artist wrote and produced Aretha Franklin's best single in years: "A Rose is a Rose is a Rose."
But the real breakthrough was a few months later with her own album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," which contained a series of assured and insightful songs about social and personal issues. The highlights included a poignant tune about a single mother looking back on her decision to give birth to her child - a track that was all the more affecting because Hill was talking about her own decision. An absorbing album.
Sam Cooke - Live at the Harlem Square Club
Blessed with movie-star good looks and a great voice with almost choir-boy purity, Sam Cooke wrote and/or recorded more Top 40 hits (29) than Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard combined, yet many pop fans were surprised in 1986 when he was one of the first 10 artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That's because lots of those early hits were tame by early rock standards. For every soulful "You Send Me," there was "Everybody Wants to Cha Cha Cha" and "Cupid." Cooke turned out those pale pop ditties because he (and his record company) wanted to appeal to mainstream white pop fans, not just Black R&B ones. He even played the famous Copa night club in New York in 1964, complete with a cane and top hat, singing pop hits such as "Mona Lisa" and "Hey There."
The other side of Sam Cooke is showcased in this live album, which was recorded in 1963 (before the Copa album) at Miami's Harlem Square Club, but shelved because it was considered to raw and gritty for his mainstream image. When the album was finally released in 1985, it was an eye-opener. It showed his contributions to the passionate and soulful gospel-pop synthesis that was reflected in the works of Otis Redding, Al Green, Smokey Robinson and others influenced by Cooke. The collection not only explains why he deserved to be one of the first figures inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but also ranks as one of the most important soul singers ever.
Dusty Springfield - "Dusty in Memphis"
Though she may be best known these days for "What Have I Done to Deserve This," her sensational 1987 hit with the Pet Shop Boys, Dusty has a string of hits that go back to the early days of The Beatles, including the bouncy, country-folk "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." But her most celebrated collection is unquestionably "Dusty in Memphis."
After signing with Atlantic Records, Dusty went to Memphis to record an album under the production team, including the famed Jerry Wexler, that had earlier worked with Aretha Franklin. Instead of being an all-out soul exercise, however, the album simply gave a Memphis R&B flavor to a wide range of material, including tunes by Carole King and Randy Newman. The standout track was Dusty's exquisite interpretation of John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins' country-soul marvel, "Son of a Preacher Man."
Bob Dylan - "Love and Theft"
This doesn't match the historical punch of Dylan's great 1960s albums or even the urgency of 1979's gospel-based "Slow Train Coming," but this gem - part of Dylan's amazing late-career run - may just be his most entertaining album. "Love and Theft" was the first time since "Highway 61 Revisited" that the music in a Dylan album was likely to catch your attention before the words. The arrangements - favored by the pre-rock country strains of country, blues, folk and even supper-club styles - are about as far from 2001 as you could get, and all the more delightful for it. Not that Dylan ignored the words; the lyrics serve as a wondrous, deceptively casual jigsaw puzzle of wit and wisdom that sometimes teases but more often jabs.
"Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum," the opening tune, rumbles out of the speakers with the liberating energy and authority that have been the hallmarks of great rock 'n' roll since the beginning. From the runaway-train intensity of the rhythm section to the locomotive wail of the guitars, the track is such a striking sonic force that you will probably find yourself turning up the volume and playing it over before moving on. Among the other highlights: the jump-blues exuberance of "Summer Days" and the Bing Crosby-like croon of "Moonlight."
Various Artists - "Movin' On Up"
When this collection of '60s protest music was put out in 1994, it seemed especially timely. It was just two years after the Rodney King police brutality case in Los Angeles and it served as a reminder of how little things had changed since the music was recorded three decades earlier. Another quarter century later, the album again seems especially timely.
The music ranges from landmark '60s hits, including The Impressions' "Keep On Pushing" and James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black & I'm Proud)," to such other memorable moments as Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn," about four young girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing, and Otis Redding's moving version of Sam Cooke's haunting "A Change is Gonna Come."
Sinead O'Connor - "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got"
As a critic, you've go to guard against letting one good song or single make you overstate an artist's potential. But Sinead's version of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" was such a haunting statement of obsession and need that I took to train from London to Manchester, where she was performing that night, because her musical vision seemed so immense. And, the trip was well worth it. She sang that song, along with some of her own marvelous compositions from this album, including "Feel So Different", "You Cause As Much Sorrow', and "The Last Day of the Acquaintance".
Recalling the intimacy and intensity of John Lennon's landmark first solo album, "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" is an eloquent statement about personal exorcisms and spiritual transformation. I interviewed her after the concert and was struck by the seriousness of her art and her impact on her fans. "This album is about finding yourself and finding a certain fulfillment, but I want to make it clear that I do not feel I am someone with all the answers, someone who is trying to covert others... Maybe the one lesson of the albums is that you can find the answers if you look hard enough. Everything in the new album happened to me - and I learned from it.' O'Connor's much publicized personal problems have tended to overshadow her art, but make no mistake about it: she is one of the truly great artists of the rock 'n' roll era.
Tom Waits - "The Heart of Saturday Night"
Songwriters have long been a major joy for me, and I felt this Southern California native was someone worth watching the first time I heard the song, "Ol' 55," on his 1973 debut album. As it turned out, that marvelously infectious tune about an early morning freeway ride didn't prepare me for this sometimes stunning second album. Waits, who was born and raised in Southern California, uses this area as his setting in most of the album's eleven compositions, but it's not the usual Southland scenes - the beach, the Sunset Strip or the peaceful isolation of the desert countryside - that interests him. Waits' songs are about the underbelly of life - the late night neon-lit world of bus stations, truck stops, barrooms or just a routine ride down.
But it's not the locale, of course, that gives the music such richness and character; the real thrust of Tom's music is the search by people who feel out of step with the regal (i.e. daytime) world, trying to carve out some happiness and sanity for themselves in the lonely, night-time hours when even a bus station can offer some refuge from the cold (at least emotionally) deserted streets. And search in an important pat of Waits' music. "San Diego Serenade" is a love song about the way one so easily ignores the important things around him or her: "Never saw the morning till I stayed up all night / Never saw the sunshine till I turned out the light / Never saw my hometown till I stayed away too long / And I never heard the melody till I needed the song."
Al Green - "Greatest Hits"
I fell in love with soul singers after hearing Ray Charles' string of hits in the 1950s, gradually adding Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye to my list of favorites. But no on had the consistency and character, both on record and (especially) on stage as Green, who was born in a small town in Arkansas in 1946 and burst onto the national pop and R&B scene in 1972 with four Top20 hits, including the spectacular "Tires of Being Alone" and silky, seductive "I'm Still in Love With You".
In the tradition of his idol Sam Cooke, Green knew the importance of understatement. His vocal style tends to be deliberately understated - a smooth, controlled manner that gives way to occasional, dramatic high falsetto bursts that exhibit extraordinary instincts of phrasing. He also has benefitted from his generous blend of several Southern musical styles - gospel to blues to country - into a richly appealing, even universal packages. I've listened to this album dozens of times, and never failed to marvel at his voice and style.
Various Artists - "The Harder They Come"
Though there have been a few lively hit singles in a reggae style earlier (Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion" and Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now"), this soundtrack album (from the marvelous Jamaican crime film of the same name) was by far the best demonstration of the almost irresistible charm and appeal of the lively Jamaican musical style. The album features a variety of artists, chiefly Jimmy Cliff, in a virtual sampler of some of the most engaging reggae strains. Thanks greatly to the impact of the widely popular film itself, the music built enough of a taste for reggae that the genre's greatest star, Bob Marley (not on this album), would soon be wildly embraced in the United States.
Willie Nelson - "Phases and Stages"
Concept albums were rare in country music when Nelson wrote about the breakup of a marriage; the first half devoted to the woman's side of the story, and the second half to the man's side. The result is an often dark, beautifully crafted reflection f the contradictory, semi-desperate feelings that accompany such an emotional upheaval. Nelson's vocal style is deliberately underplayed; restrained, yet dramatic in the manner of an actor rather than a traditional country singer.
Broken love is a common theme in country music, but few artists have examined the subject in such a bold or comprehensive manner. As it turned out, the album wasn't a hit, but it did open a door for Nelson and concept albums. When he recorded the more accessible and traditional country-sounding collection, "Red-Headed Strange," a year later for another record label, it went to No.1 on the country charts and established the Texas-native as a country superstar. To my mind, "Phases and Stages" is the superior work.
"Paul Simon - Graceland"
Without question, this is Simon’s masterpiece. The music’s accessibility and charm of the music makes the album feel almost effortless, but the achievement was both complex and extraordinary. Simon, one of the premier songwriters in American pop history, blended American musical strains with South African roots traditions in ways that gave us something startlingly new, a mix that is likely to influence musicians around the world for generations to come.
Paul recorded “Graceland” in the mid-1980s, describing a worldwide struggle to balance feelings of seemingly unlimited scientific advances (the boy in the bubble) and unexpected social terrors (the bomb in the baby carriage), yet the album addresses today’s complexities just as powerfully. The music is joyful and warm, frequently inviting you to step onto the dance floor. Simon’s words, meanwhile, strive for an essential healing, addressing a world community with empathy and a shared, spiritually-tinged idealism. Ultimately, he tells us, we all will be received in Graceland.