Top 100 Album Review: #88 – At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash (1968)

The Only Live Album I’ve Ever Found Worth A Damn.

Cash performs songs about prison life in front of actual prisoners as they whoop and holler — it’s surreal!

91cgDY8ocrL._SL1500_Rolling Stone’s Ranking: #88/100
My Rating: StarStarStarStarStar

My mom gave me Chaka Khan’s Greatest Hits Live as some kind of cruel joke. I was on an R&B kick and made a playlist that featured a few of her songs, and after hearing it, she proceeded to give me one of the worst albums I’ve recently heard.

“This is just awful,” I said. “Isn’t it though?” she replied.

But who should really be surprised? Live albums are traditionally awful. Favorite songs are mashed together with poor recording quality, long solo’s by unknown band members, and the realization that musicians aren’t perfect. The gap in talent between the recording studio and the live audience can be too large to bear; it breaks the transcendent spell music is supposed to put us in.

At Folsom Prison is the only live album I know where the format actually bolsters the performance. That’s because the audience isn’t a faceless mob hollering for an encore; it’s prisoners listening to music that reflected their life. Cash’s musical set was intimately linked to everyone in the room with songs that could have been a personal testament from countless in the room. Hell: one song he performed was WRITTEN by one of the inmates!

It becomes a surreal meta-narrative. As Johny Cash sings about the ennui of prison life, you get to hear those in the room reverberate with complete understanding. Then between tracks, a Warden drones out prisoner numbers to report to somewhere for something. The setting reflects the music which reflects the lived experience of those present.

It’s completely amazing. Continue reading “Top 100 Album Review: #88 – At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash (1968)”

Top 100 Album Review: #14 – Abbey Road, The Beatles (1969)

HOW DID THEY KEEP DOING THIS?

The artistic fountain continued to gush all the way into The Beatles’ last album. 

The-Beatles-Abbey-Road-Album-cover-web-optimised-820-820x600.jpgRolling Stone’s Ranking: #14/100
My Rating: StarStarStarStarStar

This is my last album to review from peak Beatles. Those six albums (starting with Rubber Soul and ending with Let It Be), are so full of material, range, and imagination. Abbey Road is just another pit stop — they don’t miss a beat.

My favorite thing about the best band of all time is how accessible their music is while pushing the boundary. It’s not untethered hippie rock with disjointed lyrics (which sometimes befalls Jimi Hendrix’s later albums). Instead, it has one foot on both sides of the fence; there’s always something avant-garde, but it’s crouched in enough familiarity and pop for it to be enjoyable.

Abbey Road’s schtick is that it ends on an 8 song medley of bits and pieces. It introduces songs at rapid pace with some only lasting little more than 60 seconds. It completely lives up to their reputation: it’s different and highly artistic but so tastefully done.

Continue reading “Top 100 Album Review: #14 – Abbey Road, The Beatles (1969)”

Top 100 Album Review: #89 – Dusty in Memphis, Dusty Springfield (1969)

A Sweet, Tender Album.

This Sultry Blue-Eyed Soul Album hits a nice niche. 

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Rolling Stone’s Ranking: #89/100
My Rating: StarStarStar

If I were to describe this album with one musical reference, it would be Burt Bacharach: it oozes his bubble pop feel with anthems of love over bossa nova beats. However, only one song is penned by him with the rest coming from Gerry Coffin, Carol King, Randy Newman, The Bergmans, and more.

I was genuinely surprised the album grew on me. At first glance, Son of a Preacher Man was the only track I recognized, and while a certified smash, I was hoping there would be others of its ilk lurking. Instead, I found what seemed to be a bunch of middling songs. None too high, none too low, none too memorable.

After getting out of my own way, I started to really appreciate the subtle moves of the  and Springfield’s ability.

Continue reading “Top 100 Album Review: #89 – Dusty in Memphis, Dusty Springfield (1969)”

Top 100 Album Review: #68 – Off The Wall, Michael Jackson (1979)

Transitory Vibes.

Not childish like the Jackson 5 but not quite mature like Thriller.  

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Rolling Stone’s Ranking: #68/100
My Rating: StarStarStarStarStar

When I came out of my house, I knew something was wrong: why is my car light on? It took a few more seconds to process, but someone had thrown a rock through the passenger side door stealing everything not tied down. My change drawer was raided along with my sun visor CD case. Assessing the loses, I found the jewell case for Off the Wall underneath the seat. Not even a few weeks in my possession, it was empty. I had been bumping this awesome album everywhere, and now it was over….

Until I realized it was still in the CD player — the only thing that wasn’t stolen.

This was around 2008 before MJ died. I was diving deep into his discography when the legend passed. What makes Off the Wall so different than his other adult solo work is the fact that it’s his first entry and thus the most innocent. There is no super fandom for MJ to contend with via political statements or anti-media harangues. This makes for a fun free listen — every song is a pop hit single.

Continue reading “Top 100 Album Review: #68 – Off The Wall, Michael Jackson (1979)”

Top 100 Album Review: #5 – Rubber Soul, The Beatles (1965)

Growing Up.

The Beatles finally arrive to adulthood. 

original_450.jpgRolling Stone’s Ranking: #5/100
My Rating: StarStarStarStarStar

One of the best adult moments I’ve had is experiencing the music of The Beatles. Consider that I almost made it to 30 before really appreciating the breadth and endless selection from the best band of all time. How did I avoid it for so long?

When I was younger, I was extremely pro African American music. I was the only white 17 year old I knew in the county of Hanover that could list every Stevie Wonder album and owned Marvin Gaye shirts. When driving my friends around, I felt it was my job to introduce them to Ray Charles, The Four Tops, and the like.

Out of spite, I defended it against all potential perpetrators, particularly The Beatles. My main evidence? The early creampuff pop entries that were fueled by Beatlemania and teenage girl hysteria. I didn’t know, or care to find out, about the later albums when the band grew up and began to push music forward in all sorts of ways.

Rubber Soul is the demarcation. After this album, The Beatles were no longer boys singing about wanting to hold your hand. There might still be a lot of relationship talk, but the edginess and experimentation is evident. There was no going back after this.

Continue reading “Top 100 Album Review: #5 – Rubber Soul, The Beatles (1965)”

Top 100 Album Review: #19 – Astral Weeks, Van Morrison (1968)

Aimless Wailing.

Squalling and yelling on top of multiple layers of improvised classical, jazz, and folk.

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Rolling Stone’s Ranking: #21/100
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

There is a lady who sings international music on the sidewalks of Carytown in Richmond, VA. Densely-populated with shops and restaurants, she sings inaudible oscillating pitches while improvising on foreign instruments as the shapeless crowd passes by. As far as street performances go, it’s okay.

To my knowledge, she’s never placed an album on a top 100 list which makes sense. Her venue matches her output. Astral Weeks, absolutely similar with undecipherable yelps and forgettable compositions, would be right at home on the same city side-block as her.

Continue reading “Top 100 Album Review: #19 – Astral Weeks, Van Morrison (1968)”

Top 100 Album Review: #23 – Innervisions, Stevie Wonder (1973)

Might Be My Favorite Album of All-Time.

I can’t find anything to debase — everything is perfectly as it should be. 

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Rolling Stone’s Ranking: #23/100
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545862962550cropped-smooth-star-e1545862962550cropped-smooth-star-e1545862962550cropped-smooth-star-e1545862962550cropped-smooth-star-e1545862962550

If I had to answer the impossible question of “What’s your favorite album of all-time?” this would be labeled Exhibit A in the evidence. Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions does everything well: it’s an eclectic collection of genres; it’s poppy, catchy, and weird all at once; it’s socially conscious and meaningful.

A deeply personal account that pierces your ego, it’s a rare piece of art where performer and listener almost overlap. Certain lyrics and measures cut me to the bone. The last time I remember someone being this open with their feelings on vinyl was Joni Mitchell’s Blue. The best part: it’s from a pop master, with every song sticking with you for days (or in my case, years).

Continue reading “Top 100 Album Review: #23 – Innervisions, Stevie Wonder (1973)”