THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2020, Countdown)

10) The Prisonaires, Five Beats Behind Bars (1979)

The Prisonaires assembled in the Tennessee State Pen in the early 50’s. Their leader, Johnny Bragg, was a decade into his sentence after being convicted on six counts of rape at the age of seventeen. “Just Walking in the Rain,” a song the illiterate Bragg composed and gave a co-credit to a fellow inmate for transcribing the lyric, found its way to Sun Records and Sam Phillips after a local radio producer sent a tape of a show Bragg and his prison vocal group had performed in gaol. To hear the song now is to be caught between the last rock and the last hard place: Is this the pure expression of the soul of a rapist, or the spirit of Jim Crow being brought to its knees? The question haunts, because Bragg’s vocal is probably the most delicate ever recorded. Let out of prison on the strength of his musical ability and success, he was soon thrown back in for being caught riding in a car with a white woman: A violation of parole and never mind that she was his wife. Here’s the kicker, though. The whole thing is up to that standard, which leaves us with another question: If he’d never been in prison, would Johnny Bragg be as well known as Clyde McPhatter or never heard from at all?

9) Steely Dan Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

To be honest I’ve never been able to attend any of their other albums all the way through. This was one of the great debuts, though, and everything they would ever be.

You could even argue that everything they would ever be was in the first two sides, which were only “Do It Again” (a huge hit) and “Dirty Work” a non-single which has never been off the radio, whether because or in spite of vocalist-for-hire David Palmer coming as close to the spirit of Johnny Bragg as any white man who never saw the inside of a jail cell could is another question to keep you up nights while you’re trying to figure out what the crit-illuminati saw in the rest of the story.

8) Various ArtistsEasy Rider Soundtrack(1969)

If I’m being honest, I prefer listening to the soundtrack, which I’ve done three or four times, to watching the movie, which I’ve done once.

If I’m being further honest, it’s really too bad the Band’s version of “The Weight” couldn’t be used. If they had to go with Smith, they should have just put their bombastic hit version of “Baby It’s You” in the movie itself (and no, I have no idea if they had even recorded it yet). Worth all the meandering to hear Roger McGuinn close down the proceedings–and the 60’s–by reading Dylan and a version of his own self-composed title track that adds depth and nuance to the great version he did with the Byrds for their Ballad of Easy Rider LP, which is way better than either this or the movie.

7) Fairport Convention Fairport Chronicles(1976)

From 1968 to 1972, from whence the music here is drawn, Fairport and its off-shoots (Fotheringay, The Bunch) made music to equal anyone alive and this is the best of it, brilliantly programmed and sturdier than time, Stonehenge or the digital recording industry which never caught up with it. Richard Thompson was the stable genius, Sandy Denny the mercurial, self-destructive one, and for a time, they held the center of Britain’s best-ever collective of folkish musicians. It all went the way of dusty death, of course, but nothing’s ever beaten it and no CD comp comes close.

6) The El Dorados Low Mileage – High Octane: Their Greatest Recordings (1984)

Of all the bottomless rock ‘n’ roll genres, doo wop is the deepest. The El Dorados were one of the hundred or so 50’s era vocal groups that managed a hit (“At My Front Door”) among the more than ten thousand who made a record and God knows how many who tried. I’ve got a few dozen comps by the style’s “one hit wonders”….and every one of them is magnificent. Is it an accident that Black America’s tendency to ruthlessly compete against itself (on the way to competing with the world) has produced so much fine culture, and that the self-defeating tendencies of ruthlessness have forced so much of it to remain in the shadows? I don’t know…but I’ll never get tired of trying to figure it out.

5) The Clash London Calling (1979)

Did anyone else ever make a double LP where every song rode a killer riff? I don’t just mean a catchy riff, like Tusk or the White Album, but a killer riff?

If somebody did, please let me know. I mean even Exile on  Main Street lets up for a song or two and Prince, well he would always start noodling after a while when you gave him that much space.

Not this. This keeps punching from beginning to end and also flows like water. For that, I can forgive the politics being a tad naive, even for 1979. Wish I could feel that way again, so this wouldn’t carry the weight of a lost time and it wouldn’t give me a sense of peace it was never mean to convey. But so it goes.

4) Joe Tex I Gotcha (1972)

Yeah, Joe Tex, who was he anyway. He’d been making records since the 50’s, had a string of hits since the mid-60’s and in 1972, this got lost. Christgau gave it a B- (and didn’t grade the next item here at all). I’m not sure anybody else mentioned it at all. Too bad. Shame on them. The man who helped invent Southern Soul and get it on the charts was still going strong. This was as good as anything released in it’s year. If Otis Redding or Al  Green had done it, it would have been slavered over. But then, the white boy illuminati never did have room for more than one black southern male genius at a time. Heck, if Otis hadn’t died, I bet even Al would have been put on hold. You know that’s how it was, because this is as good as Al Green.

3) Joe Tex From the Roots Came the Rapper (1972)

So is this, which came out the same year, and without a big single (like I Gothca‘s title track), got even less attention.

Interesting that Rap became the dominant musical form of a subsequent age without ever challenging the limits of what Tex did in the early 70’s. The only people who really responded to his mix of country, soul, R&B, pop crooning and high comedy were record buyers. Plus maybe the black women he spent his career mocking, celebrating and humanizing by turns. Nobody ever got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doing that. If somebody ever does, it will be this guy.

2) Dion and the Belmonts 24 Original Classics (1984)

There have been a lot of ace Dion comps, up to and including his box set. This double-LP is the best (released on CD some time in the Dark Ages but evidently long out of print).

More than almost any other comp of its kind, it traces a journey–from the scorching, white hot doo wop of his youth through his dalliances with folk rock, heroin addiction, singer songwriter sensitivity, rehabilitation and a return to roots. There was more to the man to be sure–Christian music, a series of blues albums (which I really need to get hold of), and a standout version of Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” that might be my favorite of anything he ever did. But while I’m listening to this, I can’t be convinced anything’s been left out.

1) The Four Tops Greatest Hits (1968)

The Tops can sustain a much longer comp. Their three-record vinyl set is one of the strongest in Motown’s old Anthology series and I’ve got a 50-side double CD that does’t quit. But this straight hit between the eyes is one of life’s perfect things. I wonder how many people feel the desperation in something as jaunty sounding as “I Can’t Help Myself?” And how many think Levi Stubbs was a second-stringer based on his uncanny ability to shield them from the point? Although if you start obsessing on “Reach Out I’ll Be There” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love” where the desperation is impossible to miss–or run from–you can understand how they came out confused.

til next time…

JIVE PRINCE (Walter Becker, R.I.P.)

(For my more expansive thoughts on Steely Dan, you can go here.)

Steely Dan were rock’s consummate pedants, the kind the music was liable to produce if it stayed around long enough–which, rock and roll being what it was, and Rock and Roll America being what it was–meant too good to be ignored.

In the world that came spinning out of the 50’s revolution (the real revolution college bound white boys were bound to take credit for sooner or later, even if they had to draft working class Brits for front men–at a certain point, anyone would do, as long as they weren’t blacks or hillbillies, it was only a fluke that the Beatles really were geniuses), even the pedants were better than anyone had a right to expect.

I never shared the thrill so many others bought when Walter Becker and his partner, Donald Fagen, started releasing their pointillist masterworks in the seventies. I loved a few of their records (the musical highlights of which–David Palmer’s haunted vocal on “Dirty Work,” Elliot Randall’s cascading guitar line on “Reelin’ in the Years,” Skunk Baxter’s stinging/healing licks on “Change of the Guard” and “Old School”–were provided by someone other than Becker and his partner, who soon turned exclusively to hired guns anyway), but, really, their entire essence was in their first album’s two lead cuts.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYuxvhqOsWI

Not to say the essence didn’t have it’s merits–considerable even–but, despite all the accolades, the only thing that reached deeper than a mordant surface after the first album-and-a-half was a cover by the sort of group Steely Dan was meant to erase from history.

I can’t offer the kind of love Becker is getting elsewhere on the occasion of his passing (Terry Teachout called Becker and Fagen “the Stephen Sondheims of rock”…God love him, he meant it as a compliment).

But this is enough to stand for any man’s epitaph….