I enjoy music. I would never attempt to create a "10 Best" list or some critical list of the best albums or songs of all-time. You like your music. I like mine. That's fine with me. But I took an hour the other day during a brutally uninteresting meeting to open up a document and try to remember my favorite albums. I know, the idea of albums, or listening to a single band play 5 or 10 or 15 songs in a row is quaint, at best, and outdated to many. But when you think of favorite albums, its a different bar than just favorite songs.
A single song can grab you for any number of reasons, from a hazy, funny memory of twenty years ago (Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince) to absurdist lyrics set to a cool beat that are fun to yell when driving with the top down (Loser by Beck). But an album is different. It has to have twists and turns and changes of mood and direction but still come together as something larger than a collection of single songs.
The other standard of an album is timelessness. A single song can be fun as a throwback to any decade, even before the listener was born. If I hear a rap track from the early days of NWA or Beastie Boys or, instead, some now laughable guitar-driven hair band, I might think of my teenage years and how this stuff was the soundtrack of our endless summers. But I don't want to hear an entire album of it. At least, not just any album.
Without further commentary, in no particular order.
All-time favorite albums.
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue. Yes, its cliche to name this album. Its a long-time critical favorite and well known to influence musicians for the past 40 years. None of that matters to me. When I bought this CD, it didn't leave my stereo for several months and was the only album I listened to when I wrote my first book on an insane deadline in 2002. Years later, I still hear new things in it, and have found it to be a record very adaptable, regardless of mood and environment and circumstance. A masterwork of jazz, played by legends in a single take. This is kind of horn blowing that the cool kids were listening to while reading Ginsberg and Kerouac in the late 1950s, but it holds up remarkably well.
U2: Wide Awake in America. There was a time when U2 was playing music no one else had thought of yet, a fascinating mix of pop and politics and unique sounds. I was only 11 when this EP (that's a record with less songs, kids) came out. I only knew U2 from Boy, War and Under a Blood Red Sky because my sister was in college at the time, but it lasted as a favorite of mine. U2, over the years, hasn't aged well, and even though their new effort is decent, its not memorable or timeless or particularly unique. In 1985, U2 was all of these.
To appreciate just how good this album is, and how striking it was back then, consider that the radio in 1985 had these gems among the top 5 songs in the nation:
Madonna, Like a Virgin
Wham!, Wake Me up Before You Go-Go
Foreigner, Want to Know What Love Is
Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago. I love the quiet, sad vibe of this album. Maybe because it rains here in the summer every day and I drive a lot of miles, but I can't imagine a year I won't listen to For Emma at least 20 or 30 times. In the seven years since its release, this sound has spawned an entire genre, and sent many musicians into a secluded cabin with an acoustic guitar to reproduce the psychology behind this album. For Emma dusted off and updated the folk genre and made it more haunting, and once you've heard The Wolves live with an entire audience singing along to the sad refrain of "what might have been lost..." its a record that never leaves you.
Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. This is not a record for everyone. Its a loud, mad circus of noise wrapped up in very dark lyrics based in part, according to the artist, on recurring dreams of a Jewish family in World War II. You can hear mentions of abuse and alcoholism and probably other themes I've chosen to tune out. This record, to me, is a musical cross between Tim Burton and Tarantino films, and yes, that isn't easy to digest. But I think this album is brilliant.
I'm not a musician and I don't know a lot about production techniques, but I think even if did I wouldn't have the slightest idea how these guys pulled this record off. Years ahead of its time in both sound and production, Aeroplane debuted in 1998 while the world was watching The Titanic and the nasally frat house rock of The Dave Matthews Band was everywhere.