THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2018, Countdown)

10) The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

After decades, this finally opened up for me in the last six months, thanks to the dual mono/stereo format in which the band’s albums now seem to be routinely released. Usually, I don’t have any trouble deciding which I prefer (especially with the Beatles–monomonomono!), but this one I go back and forth on. I wouldn’t say I’ve been listening obsessively, like I’m in the freshman dorm circa 1967, but I’ve finally been forced to pay attention to the stretch between “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Day in the Life.” That’s what life is for, I suppose. To live, to learn and to find oneself wondering if hearing the same thing in both ears is better than hearing different things in different ears. By Jove, I think they’ve finally got me!

9) The Rascals Anthology: 1965-1972 (1992)

This has always been more my speed. No shame there. The Rascals’ best music is as essential as anything in life and they never stopped being great–not something one can say for many bands who made the journey from 1965 to 1972 and actually tried to keep up. Even as a big fan, I still remember being shocked at how much force this had when I first heard so much gathered in one place.

I’m not shocked anymore–but it still hits hard, all of it. Their great theme was Love, in all its variants–good, bad, personal, political, lost, found. A classic case of someone being so completely of their time they transcend it. and remind all who attend them now of how much was lost when their time passed.

6-8) War All Day Music, The World is a Ghetto, Deliver the Word (1971, 1972, 1973)

No one has ever produced a greater trifecta. That these three albums, among the most radical ever made, went gold or platinum (The World is a Ghetto was the best-selling album of 1973) is still astonishing, as is the fact that singles as potent as “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto” were even more powerful as isolated extended album cuts–and mind-bending in the context of their respective LPs. From this distance, there really isn’t any way to process the existence of such music, let alone the idea/reality that it once topped the charts. No music has ever been quite so successful in reaching from the last dead end street all the way to the sky–and you can’t feel the full effect unless you listen to all three at once. I promise…

5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

As what I’m starting to hear as the most radical album ever released, this makes a nice followup to War at their peak. Astounding on so many levels, my favorite being that Lauper was the only singer who, as a singer, had a truly Punk ethos–she held nothing back, took more vocal risks than anyone since the fifties, more emotional risks than anyone since Janis Joplin, and meant to top the charts with it…which, oh by the way, she did.

Not the *&%$in’ British charts either.

More coming…eventually…I promise.

4) The Four Tops Anthology: 50th Anniversary (2004)

The first disc is devoted to the dark side of love and need. The titles tell most of the story: “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “7-Rooms of Gloom,” “Ask the Lonely,” “You Keep Running Away.”

But even when the words carry a hint of optimism–“Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Something About You,” even “I Can’t Help Myself”–Levi Stubbs’ voice and Holland/Dozier/Holland’s arrangements fill in the blanks. This man will never know happiness!

Second disc is good solid post-sixties soul music that starts near-great (like maybe he could be happy) and ends fair-to-middlin’-with-little-distinction (sort of sub-Luther Vandross), though “Catfish” is a hidden gem….an update of the Coasters, with whom the pre-fame Tops had competed in the fifties and as far from their persona as it was possible to get.

3)  The Stylistics The Stylistics (1971)

Speaking of post -sxties soul music, this is coming from the inspired angle. One of the great debut albums, from the era when Thom Bell could do no wrong, and it never quits. Odd, though, that the absolute killer was the only song Bell and Linda Creed didn’t write–and just possibly his greatest production. If there could be such a thing.

Also, just possibly Russell Thompkins Jr.’s greatest ever vocal.

If there could be such a thing.

2) Neneh Cherry Raw Like Sushi (1989)

It would be hard to overstate how hard “Buffalo Stance” hit the radio in the wasteland of the late eighties. It has lost nothing. It’s one of those records like “Eve of Destruction” which no one but a genius could ever follow up.**

Neneh didn’t turn out to be a genius and that was pretty apparent listening to Raw Like Sushi even then. She was, however, a talented hip-hopper, speaking from a street tough stance that the mainstream hadn’t seen much of at the time. These days, even in the wake of Mary J. Blige and a few others who could claim genius status, this still sounds fresh…and even Mary J. has never laid “Buffalo Stance” in the shade. Because nobody has and nobody could.

1)  Al Green Green is Blues (1969)

Al Green was always a genius. It was only with his next album (his third) that the world started to take notice, but all the elements were in place here: the Hi rhythm section, Willie Mitchell’s sure touch in the production booth, the startling taste in covers (here jumping from “Get Back” to “Summertime” at the close–Beatles to Gershwin in a bandbox Memphis studio with a bunch of little-knowns and unknowns in the late sixties, with psychedelia blooming all around. Nobody had done anything like that since, well that guy who walked into a bandbox Memphis studio in the mid-fifties. Of whom, as I’ve noted before, Green was the greatest descendant….and, as it turned out, Rock and Roll America’s last great hope.

**The Turtles turned down “Eve of Destruction” because they thought it would be a huge, career-suffocating hit and turn them into one-hit wonders. Mary Weiss has stated that she felt the same about “Leader of the Pack” and was reluctant to record it for that reason. They both made the right choice. If Neneh felt the same about “Buffalo Stance,” she did too. Comes to that, so did Barry McGuire, who took “Eve of Destruction” to number one as an Old Testament warning LBJ and Robert McNamara failed to heed at their–and our–extreme peril.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #2: The World is a Ghetto, 1972)

War_The_World_Is_a_Ghetto

The World is a Ghetto was released in November, 1972 and became the best-selling album of 1973.

Remarkable achievement?

Yeah, and then some.

The only previous times a black artist had Billboard’s #1 album of the year were in 1956 and 1968. ’56 was Harry Belafonte and Calypso. ’68 was Are You Experienced?, by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which was actually two-thirds white. Great as Jimi Hendrix was, the ofay component certainly didn’t hurt sales any more than Harry Belafonte’s purely mainstream image had done in the fifties.

In brief, black acts who identified strictly working class and hardcore representatives of the Street did not have #1 albums in Billboard’s Top 200, let alone the best-selling LP of a given year.

War was technically multi-racial. They had a Danish harmonica player and their Latin vibe was evidently sufficiently authentic to make them something like honorary citizens of Southern California’s Hispanic immigrant community.

But their music and their politics (that is, the politics of their music) were reflected in the title of their best-selling album and were a long way from the zones occupied by the music of Harry Belafonte, Jimi Hendrix, or any black (or white) artist who had the bestselling LP of any other year in the twentieth century (several rappers have taken the honors since 2000 as the world finally caught up to what War was saying all along..which was, basically, “watch out!”).

Of course, many–maybe all–of the last century’s bestselling album acts had working class followings. Hard to sell millions to the suburbs alone (even for Carly Simon or Elton John, the more or less typical examples who preceded and followed The World is a Ghetto at the top of the charts).

But there is a difference between having blue collar fans and making blue collar music. Big difference in the head and an even bigger one in the gut.

It isn’t only White America that appreciates the distinction. There’s no way to prove these things absolutely, but it is probably safe to assume that Black America loved Roberta Flack and Diana Ross–the only other black artists who scored #1 albums between the beginning of 1972 and the end of 1974–as much or more than War and probably did so irrespective of class distinctions or tax brackets.

Still, it is remarkable to think that War could nail the ethos of the coming reactionary age–when middle-class erosion would become not merely a reality but (so much more significantly) an accepted one, so thoroughly and resoundingly the default position of the entire political economy that everybody knows all talk of revival (whatever the source) is nothing more than can-kicking and no one can any longer conceive of a future where it will ever be anything else–so completely to the wall in 1973, let alone that they could storm the charts with it.

And more remarkable still is that everything–the entire serio-comic zeitgeist, up to and including the almost-too-perfectly divine absurdity of reaching #1 on Billboard with an LP anchored to a thirteen-minute instrumental that would have been right at home on one of Miles Davis’ jazz-fusion experiments from the same era and kicked off by a hit single that was either a complete goof on a children’s television hero or a Borges-level essay on the entire modern history of the political economy (race and class included) of the American Southwest, take your pick–is right there on the cover with its knowing cross between what you can’t really see in Rear Window and what’s available in the background of Superfly.

The ground, in other words, where most of War’s music–and most of American life–takes place.

Something to think about the next time the KISS Army starts complaining about how long it took to get their boys into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (where, for what it’s worth, I think they belong) while War, who made half a dozen albums of similar quality and import to this one, waits…and waits…and waits.