JUST HOW HARD IS IT TO BE CONSISTENTLY….GREAT

Very….

I’ve never had strong opinions on whether Rock and Roll is ‘”album music” or “singles music.”

The debate more or less opened up in the wake of Dylan and the Beatles way back when. I don’t know if it gets a rise out of anybody these days, when every music is “download music.” But I started thinking along those lines (again) after all these years, in response to some of the on-line Hall of Fame discussions, which often center around the general conflict between Commerce (almost always code for a string of hit singles) and Art (almost always code for critically acclaimed LPs).

Of course, there have been a handful of acts, from the Beatles onwards, for whom the distinction was virtually meaningless..

But, trying to wrap my mind around it from a twenty-first century, middle-age perspective, I started counting up who–in Rock and Roll and Rock and Roll only–I really thought of as “album” artists.

For the purposes of this little list, then, I’m leaving out quite a bit.

No comps or live albums (certainly no box sets). No pre-rock artists (which for me would be Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday and Doris Day, make of that what you will) or contemporary artists who aren’t considered Rock and Roll, even in my own strictly big tent version. And no playing favorites (that would, incidentally, be a different list by at least half).

With that for the context, I stuck to artists who have made five or more original, studio albums I know well enough to have what I call sequence response: That is, if I hear something from that album in some other context (radio, commercial, computer mix, etc.), I’ll likely get a little jolt of surprise when the next song I expect to hear–i.e., the next song from the original album–doesn’t follow.

I thought there would be at least ten Rock and Roll acts who met this criteria, possibly as many as fifteen or twenty.

Not even close.

I only made it to six.

Turns out five is a very high number, when it comes to making compulsory-listening albums.

And all those reasonable caveats I mentioned above do dwindle the list considerably.

Which sort of confirms a suspicion I’ve long had about my listening (and judging) habits.

I tend to go free-form (not just comps but multi-artist comps, or else a lot of running back and forth to the shelves)….or very, very concentrated (box sets, the bigger the better).

So a lot of artists who have a great box set, or made way more great tracks than required to fill five (or even ten) LPs, still don’t make my list of five actual albums–James Brown, Brenda Lee, Janis Joplin, the Impressions, Aretha Franklin (who almost made it anyway) all come readily to mind.

So do the Jackson 5 and Jackie DeShannon, if you really want to know how deep a fifty-great-tracks list might run.

One qualification that would not have expanded the list much, however, is including non-rock acts from the rock (or now post-rock) era.

Again, there are plenty of favorites who have a wealth of great sides (Bobby Bland, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, maybe a couple of dozen country singers, not just the usual–Merle, Loretta, Patsy, Waylon, George, Dolly, Buck, but lesser known geniuses like Don Gibson and Connie Smith as well). But, for any number of reasons–time and money preeminent among them–I’ve never really listened to many of their studio albums at length.

The one exception is Patty Loveless, who is also the only artist of the last quarter century in any format whose albums I have any deep, consistent connection with.

It’s not that I don’t try–and not that I don’t find an occasional LP that moves me (Pink’s Missundaztood (2001) and the Roots’ Undun (2011) are fairly recent discoveries, for instance). But, if I said I heard great stuff all the time and probably just don’t have enough time to stay caught up (a frequent excuse as we get older), I’d be lying.

So I guess I could have included Loveless–on the grounds no one’s likely to be joining her on my little list.

I didn’t, though, because I’ve written extensively about her elsewhere and, again, I wanted to get down to the nitty gritty about specifically rock and roll album acts, So suffice it to say hers would be the longest list here, and would also cover the longest time-span, exceeding even Elvis. It’s possible–just–that compiling this list has sent my respect for Ms. Loveless (aka, “the Awesome One”) even higher. Which is fine, because compiling lists like this is partly an exercise in pinpointing what we value–and partly  an excuse to ruminate a bit on what it all means, not just to us, but to the Cosmos.

Which brings me to my last point:

Great rock and roll album acts–at least by my lights–tend to have a great run in them, which also tends to exhaust them on some level.

The most extreme example is the Rolling Stones. They made what I think is their greatest album in 1972, at the end of nearly a decade of sustained brilliance (and over half a decade of sustained album brilliance).

Then they were replaced by pod people.

That’s extreme.

But, except for Elvis (whose larger story is, in some ways, even more extreme), everyone on this list could be described by some version of the same story.

In rock and roll, when the real greatness goes, it tends to go fast, hard and for good (no matter how much “good” music is left–and often there’s quite a lot).

The same is true, incidentally–with little exception–for my near misses (Dylan, Aretha, Hendrix, Van Morrison, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin–see the complete list below).

These were acts that had three or four on my list and maybe a near miss or two.

The oddest cases were Dylan, who missed because I’ve never really connected with Blonde on Blonde and Morrison, who missed because I didn’t count his two fantastic albums with Them (which might be unfair, but I was sticking to the strictest criteria possible) and would have made it anyway if I’d ever connected with Astral Weeks or if my vinyl version of Into the Music didn’t have some weird fuzz on Side Two that made it unlistenable-but-unreturnable when I bought it new (and thus never replaced)!

I throw in that last to emphasize just how arbitrary such “judgments” are if you don’t get your records for free.

But I think the main point still holds. Except for Elvis (and Patty Loveless), everybody who made, or nearly made, this list, made their best five to eight (or even three to four) original albums in the space of a decade (usually much less). And that’s all irrespective of whether these are my six “favorite” artists or I think they are “the greatest.”….As it happens, my six favorite rock and roll acts, if somebody put a gun to my head, would probably look a lot different…only Elvis would be guaranteed (though the Byrds and Al Green would certainly be in strong consideration).

Make of that what you will.

In any case, I’d really like to hear from anybody who has a different take (or artists they’d put on their own list).

As you’ll see, I’m not exactly after rearranging the canon here!

(*Denotes what I think is the artists’ greatest LP, or, if you prefer, my personal favorite–order is chronological, from date of the first LP that qualified for my list).

Elvis Presley (Two gospel albums and a Christmas LP here….but I included them because that was his version of rock and roll. And he would have made the list anyway):

1957: Christmas Album
1960: Elvis is Back!
1960: His Hand In Mine
1967: How Great Thou Art
1969: From Elvis In Memphis*
1971: Elvis Country!
1975: Promised Land
1975: Today

The Beatles:

1964: Meet the Beatles
1964: The Beatles 2nd
1965: VI
1965: Help! (UK)*
1965: Rubber Soul (US)
1966: Revolver (UK)
1968: The Beatles (White Album)

[Note: Several of the early Beatles’ LPs, especially Hard Day’s Night, would almost certainly be here (perhaps substituting for US versions) if I had acquired the UK versions back in the days when I listened to them a lot more than I do now–I’m limiting these lists to albums I actually own (a function of finance), know backwards and forwards (a function of time spent), and happen to think are great listening experiences (a function of taste). See, I told you it was arbitrary.]

The Beach Boys:

1964: All Summer Long
1965: The Beach Boys Today!
1965: Summer Days (And Summer Nights)
1965: Party!
1967: Wild Honey*

and a fantastic live version:

The Byrds:

1965: Mr. Tambourine Man
1965: Turn, Turn, Turn
1966: Fifth Dimension
1967: Younger Than Yesterday
1967: The Notorious Byrd Brothers*
1968: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
1969: The Ballad of Easy Rider

The Rolling Stones:

1966: Aftermath (US)
1968: Beggar’s Banquet
1969: Let It Bleed
1970: Sticky Fingers
1972: Exile on Main Street*

Al Green:

1971: Gets Next to You
1972: Let’s Stay Together
1973: Call Me
1973: Livin’ For You
1974: Explores Your Mind
1977: Belle*

[Note: It’s worth mentioning that, in three of the six cases here, I thought the last great album on the list was the greatest. And, in the case of the Byrds, the two albums I list after Notorious Byrd Brothers were made with significantly different lineups. So, four times out of six, some point of crisis was reached. And the artists’ in question–be it faux-Satan worshiper Mick Jagger or the Reverend Al Green–were never really the same again. Something to bear in mind in any discussion where the spiritual cost of making great rock and roll happens to come up.]

(Near misses: Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Rod Stewart, Prince (if I only counted doubles as two!), Aretha Franklin, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, The Who, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac and, a very recent discovery, Spinners–I guess it’s pretty obvious I don’t think albums have progressed much after about the early eighties, but then, neither have singles.)

 

 

SO WHAT WAS 1960 REALLY LIKE?….I MEAN, JUST MUSICALLY SPEAKING.

“Nineteen hundred and sixty was probably the worst year that pop has been through. Everyone had gone to the moon. Elvis had been penned off in the army and came back to appal us with ballads. Little Richard had got religion. Chuck Berry was in jail. Buddy Holly was dead. Very soon, Eddie Cochran was killed in his car crash. It was a wholesale plague, a wipeout.”

(The always prone to understatement, but undeniably trenchant, Nik Cohn’s opening paragraph to the chapter titled “Rue Morgue, 1960″ in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, 1970)

When Cohn wrote these words he was basically summing up what a lot of third-rate romancers–mostly male, mostly white, mostly collegiate whether or not they had yet been to college (or would ever go)–had been saying and writing since, well, 1960.

1960 sucked and blew. Well, really that whole 1958 (the fall!) to 1963 (waiting for the Beatles to save us all!) period had sucked and blown.

But 1960?

That was the worst, the nadir (good collegiate word), the pits (as the actual greasers might have put it).

1960 was spiritual death. The bottom that had to be reached some time before the resurrection (Beatlemania!…or more accurately, the highly inventive new-chord-progressions-and-the-truth music and supremely witty collective style of the Beatles demonstrated in their respective persons, since mania was a highly unstable state, particularly redolent of suspicion as it was likely to be the specific province of screaming girls, who collegians and greasers both knew could give you cooties) could properly occur.

So the story goes. Give Cohn credit. He nailed the entire ethos in a few clipped lines.

Like I said. Trenchant.

That’s what you call controlling the narrative.

Well, you know I like to put these little narratives under a microscope once in a while, so I can’t really say if it was entirely a coincidence that–having just completed a re-read of Cohn’s classic account of rock’s early years–I took the occasion of my weekend drive (itself, the occasion for laying a Mother’s Day rose on a headstone) to pull out the mighty Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse: 31 R&B Classics That Rocked the Jukebox In 1960 for company.

Let me just say that if 1960 was the bottom of the pop barrel (as opposed to the political barrel, which really was dire in many respects) I wish we could go back there.

Bobby Bland, Jerry Butler, James Brown, Etta James, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, Ike and Tina, Gary U.S. Bonds, Jimmy Reed, Jackie Wilson, one-offs the likes of “Stay,” or “Something’s On Your Mind,” or “Let the Little Girl Dance,” or “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” (wait til the spell checker get’s hold of that one!).

And all of that’s before you get to the real kicker, which involves Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” (the only cut here that wasn’t an R&B hit, and virtually the only one that didn’t cross over to the Pop charts) running straight into the Shirelles’ “Tonight’s the Night,” followed by a teen-ager named Jimmy Charles giving a perfect imitation of the era’s white teen idols on “A Million to One” and a young woman who called herself Sugar Pie DeSanto (whose then producer/hustler husband went on to become a bank robber after they divorced–baby that was rock and roll) doing a straight cop, arrangement wise, on the Everly Brothers (who, of course, were still crossing over regularly to the R&B charts, though these sort of collections never acknowledge such things–not even when they are done by the Bear Family. The Nik Cohn’s of the world have had their effect).

1960, incidentally, was the year Cash Box, the other major trade magazine that competed with Billboard, suspended it’s R&B Chart for a time because the overlap between R&B and Pop, barely noticeable before rock and roll, was by then so great there seemed little point in keeping them separated. (Billboard would follow with a similar experiment in late 1963–that experiment lasted a bit longer than Cash Box‘s but was  nonetheless ended a little over a year later once the Beatles and the British Invasion had safely re-segregated the charts and more or less ended the post-racial dream which had caused so much panic sweat to rise from the thin, tender skin of Nik Cohn and the Future of Rock Criticism in the dread days of 1960, when black people and girls and, well, black girl people, were starting to litter up the pop charts and the hallways of the Brill Building like nobody’s business.)

Oh well. I guess one man’s “worst year that pop has been through” is another man’s extremely interesting times.

But the next time you hear that America needed the Beatles because of the Kennedy assassination or some such rigmarole (or better yet, to “rediscover” the black music which the British Invasion in fact shoved back to the sideline), just remember the carefully modulated warning later rendered by Pete Townshend, that most British of all prophets, when he said something to the effect of not getting fooled again.

Sugar Pie DeSanto “I Want to Know” (Studio recording…Reaching the bottom no doubt.)

CONTINUING WITH THE INTRODUCTIONS…Part Two

And now for the next update to my “value system”…

My TWENTY FAVORITE VOCAL ALBUMS: In rough chronology. Irrespective of genre. Avoiding comps when possible. I also did not consider “session” collections like the various longer editions of Elvis’ Memphis sessions. So these are all at least theoretically conceptual, confined by time and space if not theme…the classic LP format, in other words, retained so I could keep my mind wrapped around a small, round number like “twenty”.

If nothing else, you should be able to tell which years I refer to as the “golden decade of vocalizing!”

Louis Armstrong–The Louis Armstrong Story – Vol. 4: Louis Armstrong Favorites (1956): Put together by the record company long after, but the recordings are all from the same basic period (1929–31) and they certainly do adhere. This is where Armstrong earned the right to spend the rest of his life indulging his bottomless genius for minstrelsy.

Howlin’ Wolf–Howlin’ Wolf “The Rockin’ Chair LP” (1962): One of those albums small record companies used to put together after an artist had released enough singles to fill one–in this case, all sides released between 1960 and 1962. The great man’s peak, which is saying a mind-warping earful.

Bobby “Blue” Bland–Two Steps From the Blues (1961): By which he meant “not even two inches.”

Sam Cooke–Night Beat (1963): Cooke was shot and killed about a year after this album was released and in extremely tawdry circumstances. Conspiracy theories have abounded ever since. I don’t why it’s such a big mystery. The first time I heard this album I cracked the case. Sinatra obviously ordered the whole thing…and it was clearly self-defense.

The Temptations–The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965): Surely this needs no explanation beyond the title.

The Byrds–Mr. Tambourine Man (1965): I don’t know what it sounded like when it was released. By the time I heard it in the late seventies, it sounded like they had seen the whole thing coming. Which is how it still sounds.

The Beach Boys–Party (1965): Before which all other “concept” albums pale in comparison. The chatter that surrounds and bridges the sequence where the definitive version of “The Times They Are A’ Changin’” literally gives way before the definitive version (courtesy of Dean Torrence) of “Barbara Ann,”–is probably the purest example of surrealism anyone got on record, film, page or canvas in the sixties.

Aretha Franklin–I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Loved You (1967): She followed this with half a dozen albums that were just about as good, but there’s nothing like the sound of self-discovery–especially when it syncs so perfectly with a national sense of same.

The Everly Brothers–Roots (1968): Nashville’s lost children, cut adrift in the year the center refused to hold (and no, I don’t mean “almost”), recollecting what was about to be lost.

Dusty Springfield–Dusty In Memphis (1969): Where there was clearly something in the water.

Elvis Presley–From Elvis In Memphis (1969): On the basis of this alone, one can readily forgive the masses for assuming he could bear any burden we might put on him.

Led Zeppelin– Led Zeppelin IV (1971): Lest we forget, the once-and-forever dictionary of hard-rock singing and the height of absurdism.

The Rolling Stones–Sticky Fingers (1971): Their first studio release after Altamont, framed by their pretense of being unaffected by the whole affair. The affect holds until about midway through “Moonlight Mile” (the final track) and then breaks apart completely. They put it back together for one more album, after which the mask of cynicism stuck permanently to their faces and they began the shockingly brief march toward embarrassing themselves. Either that, or they were replaced by pod people.

Rod Stewart–Every Picture Tells a Story (1971): For one impossible moment, Bob Dylan with Sam Cooke’s pipes. Only if Dylan had been a layabout instead of a full-fledged bohemian and Cooke had spent his formative vocal years in bar bands instead of gospel choirs.

Van Morrison–Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972): I think this was actually an attempt to sum up the history of singing. Also, possibly, of religion. Irish dude. Little so-and-so’s are like that.

The Persuasions–Chirpin’ (1977): A capella group singing as though every bit of human history mattered, except the invention of musical instruments. And making it sound as though they might have a point.

Fleetwood Mac–Rumours (1977): Once upon a time, Dusty Springfield and Brenda Lee fetched up in a band with Brian Wilson. Only now, all of their sensibilities had been formed by the sixties rather than the fifties. Inevitably, sexual politics ensued….

Al Green–Belle (1977): Green made one more album after this before becoming the Reverend Al Green full-time. Trust a preacher’s son on this…It was either that or suicide.

Cyndi Lauper–She’s So Unusual (1984): The long-awaited, album-length sequel to the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” and the last rock and roll singer who carried that claim to the top of the charts.

Patty Loveless–Only What I Feel (1991): The end of her first great album cycle and–like all her other numerous great albums–the sound of Appalachia arriving in the suburbs at the very moment when middle-class erosion caused that to be a distinction without a difference.

 

BECAUSE IT’S ABOUT TIME I INTRODUCED MYSELF…

First of all, I had a nice rebound in traffic during October after the expected drop in September. Thanks to all for hanging in!

I’ve been doing this for about eight months now so I’m going to spend the next few weeks periodically doing something I probably should have done earlier, which is give some sort of outline of what I value most, “artistically” speaking. (It says so much more than one’s politics, religion or culinary habits.)

Figured I’d begin at the beginning, so here, more or less chronologically (that’s world chronology, not personal….I probably knew Cyndi Lauper before I knew Clyde McPhatter)….

MY TWENTY FAVORITE ROCK AND ROLL SINGERS (and five representative performances which also happen to be building blocks for a better world)…First a nice intro:

Brenda Lee “Break It To Me Gently” (Studio recording…with some nice pictures)

Then on to the list…

Clyde McPhatter (Dominoes, Drifters, solo)–Money Honey; Three Thirty Three; Treasure of Love; Without Love (There Is Nothing); A Lover’s Question

Elvis Presley (solo)–Good Rockin’ Tonight; Heartbreak Hotel; It Hurts Me; Long Black Limousine; Reach Out To Jesus

Tony Williams (Platters)–Only You (And You Alone); The Great Pretender; (You’ve Got) The Magic Touch; Smoke Gets In Your Eyes; Harbor Lights

Bobby “Blue” Bland (solo)–I Pity The Fool; Turn On Your Love Light; Queen For A Day; Two Steps From the Blues; Lead Me On

Sam Cooke (Soul Stirrers, solo)–Jesus Gave Me Water; Bring It On Home; Cupid; That’s Where It’s At; A Change Is Gonna’ Come

Brenda Lee (solo)–Sweet Nothings; Break It To Me Gently; Heart In Hand; Coming On Strong; Johnny One Time

Roy Orbison (solo)–Only The Lonely; Running Scared; Dream Baby; Blue Angel; Crying

Jerry Butler (Impressions, solo)–Your Precious Love; Make It Easy On Yourself; Moody Woman; Only The Strong Survive; Western Union Man

Frankie Valli (Four Seasons, solo)–Walk Like A Man; Rag Doll; Silence Is Golden; Girl Come Running; Fallen Angel

Gladys Knight (Pips, solo)–Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye); Midnight Train to Georgia; I’ve Got To Use My Imagination; Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me; On and On

Smokey Robinson (Miracles, solo)–What’s So Good About Goodbye; The Tracks of My Tears; The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage; Sweet Harmony; Cruisin’)

Bob Dylan (solo)–Talking World War III Blues (live); Maggie’s Farm; Like A Rolling Stone; Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; I Threw It All Away

Mary Weiss (Shangri-Las, solo)–Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand); Give Him a Great Big Kiss; Never Again; He Cried; Past, Present and Future

Aretha Franklin (solo)–I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You); Respect; (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman; I Say A Little Prayer; Rock Steady

Van Morrison (Them, solo)–Gloria; It’s All Over Now Baby Blue; Listen To The Lion; Almost Independence Day; Tupelo Honey

John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival, solo)–Fortunate Son; Lodi; Green River; Run Through The Jungle; Sweet Hitch-Hiker

Al Green (solo)–Tired of Being Alone; I’m A Ram; Here I Am (Come and Take Me); Take Me To The River; Belle

Ronnie Van Zandt (Lynyrd Skynyrd)–Tuesday’s Gone; Sweet Home Alabama; The Ballad of Curtis Loew; Gimme Back My Bullets; What’s Your Name

Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders)–Precious; Mystery Achievement; My City Was Gone; Middle of The Road; I’ll Stand By You

Cyndi Lauper (Blue Angel, solo)–Money Changes Everything; Time After Time; All Through The Night; When Sally’s Pigeons Fly; I’m Gonna’ Be Strong (solo version)

First Alternate: Arlene Smith (Chantels)

(Feel free to list your own….this is the fun part of the job!)