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.
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
1964: Meet the Beatles
1964: The Beatles 2nd
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)
1967: Wild Honey*
and a fantastic live version:
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*
1971: Gets Next to You
1972: Let’s Stay Together
1973: Call Me
1973: Livin’ For You
1974: Explores Your Mind
[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.)