Thursday, October 26, 2006

25 to 1

25. The Allman Brothers Band

T: The prototype blues rock jam band, the Allmans leave their brethren in the dust for three reasons: Duane Allman and Dicky Betts, Gregg Allman’s soulful southern drawl and most importantly, great songs.

M: These guys created the template for what a good jam band needs – ample soul and a strong sense of direction. So why have so few of their descendents been able to follow the map?

24. The Clash

T: With apologies to London Calling, the Clash’s 1976 debut is the essential punk record. Seemingly sprung forth fully formed, The Clash crystallized everything I loved about music and destroyed everything I hated about it. Joe Strummer was punk’s soul and conscience… I miss him.

M: They would be among my favorites had they released only London Calling, the most indispensable of my desert island discs. But they also gave us the disciplined fury of The Clash and the unabashedly ambitious Sandinista!, not to mention the radio-ready Combat Rock, and Give ‘Em Enough Rope, which competently kept time between the era-defining first and third albums. I love the idea of this band – fusing the music, culture and politics of the first and third worlds with a rare precision and ferocity – more than any other band I know.

23. Elvis Costello

T: Possibly the only artist (along with Bowie) to give Prince a run for his money for stylistic jumps over the last 30 years, Elvis Costello is a celebrated songwriter and an under appreciated singer. His early troika (My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces) started his now long career with a big bang he’s never quite equaled. But each Costello release remains an event - Elvis is King!

M: Another artist near the very top of my personal list, Elvis C. helped turn me on to the power of language while simultaneously rocking my socks off. The breadth of musical territory that he and his comrades in the Attractions were able to traverse in their initial ten-year run was stunning – from new wave-tinged pub rock to lush pop to blistering R&B to pure country. And when the Attractions couldn’t achieve all the sounds he heard in his head, Costello assembled another band and came up with the brilliant King of America.

22. Stevie Wonder

T: By age 26, Stevie Wonder had amassed dozens of top 20 hits and recorded in succession Signed, Sealed and Delivered (1970), Where I’m Coming From (1971), Music of My Mind and Talking Book (both 1972 – nice year!), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) and Songs In The Key of Life (1976).

By age 26, I had my own apartment.

M: How can the human mind conceive of a rhythm track as hot as the one on “I Wish”? And how can that not even be his best song? He could record an “I Just Called to Say I Love You” every year for the rest of his life and it wouldn’t diminish his greatness one bit.

21. Radiohead

T: I’m buying that The Bends and OK Computer are great records, but there’s a lot of stray blips and unnecessary squonks on the meandering Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail To The Thief. Along with Wilco, the most unduly over praised band of the last 10 years. But Michael promises to show me the way.

M: Their recent arty abstractions are easier to admire than enjoy, but OK Computer gives me chills, and few albums stand up to extreme volume quite like The Bends, one of the great twin-guitar assaults of our time.

20. Paul Simon

T: While I would’ve like to see the Chuck Berrys and Buddy Hollys of the world up here in the top 20, you’ll get no quibble from me on Paul Simon. One of the few 60’s survivors to remain a viable recording artist in 2006, his legacy will be the rich wellspring of classic songs and the sweet harmony with Art Garfunkel.

Teek’s picks – “American Tune” and “Mother and Child Reunion”.

M: I saw him on the Graceland tour early in 1987, and people were picketing him for breaching the cultural embargo by bringing black South African musicians to the States. What those well-meaning dopes failed to realize was that by helping to expose the world to the beautiful, graceful and deeply human music of an oppressed people, Simon was doing more to destroy a corrupt system than any embargo or boycott ever could.

19. Elvis Presley

T: Nobody changed the face of music in the 20th century more than Elvis. The Sun sessions, the Ed Sullivan appearances, the movies, the Army, his Vegas period… everything he did was iconic. He wedded country and blues and birthed rock and roll. And besides Chuck D, who doesn’t love Elvis?

M: August 16, 1977. I’m nine years old. It’s a rainy day and I’m watching a rerun of A Family Affair on WTTV from Indianapolis when it crawls across the screen that Elvis had died. I understood that this was a very big deal, even if I didn’t know just why. Years later, I get it. Watch the old black and white film, and it’s obvious. He was nothing short of electrifying and he was ground zero of a revolution. The King, indeed.

18. Johnny Cash

T: The Mount Rushmore of country music and rock and roll, Johnny Cash was one badass motherf**ker. Gifted with the most commanding baritone and cursed with a troubled soul, his long goodbye (the American series) was a fitting and well deserved sendoff.

M: In the late 1980’s, I worked a show that he and June did with Waylon Jennings and Jessie Colter. I was backstage doing some menial task when I walked around a corner and there he was, a big man with more physical presence than I’d seen before or since, leaving me completely humbled. Perhaps the most honest artist on the list, one completely incapable of artifice.

17. R.E.M.

T: These guys invented indie rock and the DIY ethic. They brought southern gothic chic (who knew it even existed), mumbled vocals and garbled lyrics to millions. Of all the 80’s bands, REM consistently made the best records. I count eight classics from Murmur through Automatic for the People. And this spot still probably belongs to Otis Redding, Ray Charles or the Everly Brothers.

M: As a high school sophomore, I picked up Rolling Stone’s 1983 critics’ poll issue and saw that an album called Murmur by a band called R.E.M. took the top spot, ahead of Thriller and Synchronicity. Understandably intrigued, I bought the album, and some weeks later, my buddy Brian (who was a bit more metallically inclined) commented “Dude, R.E.M. is all you ever listen to.” Like there’s something wrong with that?

16. David Bowie

T: Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust still rock my world, and at 15 I was convinced that he actually might be an alien. The Ziggy tour at the Tower… that left quite an impression.

M: Has any other rock artist been as consistently ahead of his time and as willing to shed his past in order to move forward? Low and Station to Station are alternates on my desert island list.

15. Eric Clapton

T: This is a lifetime achievement award… surely not for his less than inspired solo work. Since Clapton’s best work has already been recognized in this countdown, I’m throwing this spot to the Rave Ups and the Undertones… for purely personal reasons.

M: The total body of work, from the Bluesbreakers and Yardbirds up through the best of his solo output, really is stunning, and I assume that his votes reflect his full career, not “Change the World.”

14. Bob Marley and the Wailers

T: Not many can lay claim to being the undisputed champ… Marley is reggae’s undisputed champ. Lively Up Yourself!

M: I was twelve years old when Marley died, so I only came to him later, like much of the world did, through Legend, an album that instantly changed my way of thinking. To the extent that I thought of reggae at all, I found it tedious, limited by the sameness of the rhythms. Marley destroyed the barriers I had built for myself. These were great songs that could have been rendered brilliantly in any style. On the version of “No Woman, No Cry” that’s on Legend, and on the entire Live! album from which the song was originally culled, Marley communicates with an audience in a way that I’ve never heard surpassed and rarely equaled. His original catalog remains the most spiritually satisfying music I know.

13. Van Morrison

T: I may own more Van Morrison albums than any other artist on this countdown, but yet none have ever connected with me as intensely and emotionally as Born to Run, Every Picture Tells A Story, Guitar Town, Otis Blue or countless others. I think the surly one deserves this spot and a quick check of reveals a whopping 17 four star plus albums. So what’s my problem?

M: You’ve written “Gloria” and “Brown Eyed Girl.” What do you do next? If you’re Van Morrison, you do this: “If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream/Where immobile steel rims crack/And the ditch in the back roads stop/Could you find me?/Would you kiss-a my eyes?/To lay me down, in silence easy, to be born again.” And then time stops.

12. The Who

T: I feel more of an emotional kinship to the Who than the Beatles or Stones, and I think I can trace it back to my all-consuming obsession with Tommy and Who’s Next. What did I love - Townsend’s guitar windmills, literary lyrics and breathtaking air kicks, Daltrey’s commanding vocals and macho swagger, plus Entwhistle’s stoic bottom that enabled Keith Moon to be the lunatic, wildly inventive drummer Townsend loved to hate. The Kids Were Alright.

M: Everyone likes to talk about the rock operas and the epic bombast of their 1970s albums, but can we pause for a moment to praise the magical singles that kick-started the Who’s career? “Substitute.” “I’m a Boy.” “I Can See for Miles.” “My Generation.” Each achieves a little immortality in a three-minute span.

11. Jimi Hendrix

T: Like Marley… the undisputed champ. Is there a more iconic concert moment than Jimi at Woodstock? A better Dylan cover than “All Along the Watchtower? Every rock guitarist since Hendrix…playing for second place.

M: Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful. We’ve had forty years to study this, and no one has replicated it yet.

10. Joni Mitchell

T: She could’ve written just “Circle Game”, “A Case of You” and “River” and earned this spot. Turning personal, confessional lyrics into universal truths, there’s probably not a songwriter since (male or female) that hasn’t taken something from Joni.

M: I had this cool teacher in high school. Not one who tried to project cool, but one who didn’t give a &#@$ what you thought about him, and who actually was cool. Anyway, we’d swap music, he taught me about the Velvet Underground, yada yada. One day he’s asked the question about the one artist most indispensable to him, and he responds “Joni Mitchell.” For me, this is a big “whoah” moment, like rock tablets from the mountaintop. And so somehow, I end up with a copy of Hejira (did he recommend it? did I stumble there on my own? memory fails), and the moment I hear “Amelia” is an epiphany. So elegant, so ethereal. How did she conceive of that? More than two decades later, I still haven’t figured it out.

9. Pink Floyd

T: Based on a random sample with an error margin of +/- 75%, I have determined that I am the only resident of North America between the ages of 15 and 65 that does not own a copy of Dark Side of the Moon. Full of bloat, Floyd is the Meatloaf of prog.

M: To the extent that Pink Floyd falls within prog (and I’m not sure they do), one thing that differentiates them is an embrace of black American music. Roger Waters walks the blues on bass, Rick Wright adds a funky clavinet and jazzy chords, and the back-up singers are straight out of "Gimme Shelter." I also get very turned on by David Gilmour's guitar playing; clean, melodic, lots of space. And Waters is a deft enough writer to pull off grand concepts that would look like tenth grade composition disasters in the hands of lesser men. I’m not much for the early psychedelic trips, but, at their peak, they were monstrous.

8. Neil Young

T: Either picking back porch country rock ballads or unleashing the holy hell of Crazy Horse, Neil Young has remained a contemporary, vibrant, compelling recording artist for 40 years. Besides Dylan and Van, what other rockers can say that? My favorite Neil Young record? I’ve got about a dozen of them.

M: Perhaps our most restless rock star, Neil Young refuses to coast on his past and has no fear of exposing any part of his vision, no matter how it might confound his audience. Isn’t that the definition of true artistry?

7. Grateful Dead

T: The most original and iconic of all American bands… and all that without even a serviceable lead singer. But I like them for different reasons than you… I make the case for Grateful Dead - classic singles band. I know I’m missing the point that experiencing the Grateful Dead live is, as Beck says, “where it’s at”. But I saw them once (once!) in September 1988, and the incessant noodling and 40 minute drum solo that opened the second half confirmed what I suspected – Grateful Dead concerts would never be for me. But their take on cosmic, rural country blues contains a bushel of great songs. That’s my alternative Dead… classic singles band.

M: I have a like-hate relationship with the Dead. When they latch on to a good take on “He’s Gone” or “Fire on the Mountain,” or when I hear the original recorded grace of “Box of Rain,” it’s a rare pleasure. When they get into a jam and they can’t get out, when they attempt to rock on any level, or when anyone, anywhere plays “Unbroken Chain,” I curse the day the Warlocks met. Anyway, the band is as much an anthropological phenomenon as a musical one, and we’ll never unravel their mystery here.

6. Led Zeppelin

T: As opposed to the Dead, Led Zeppelin was the album band. Their songs belong together on those six great albums and should be heard album length. Massive, thunderous doses of crunching metal mixed with idyllic, pastoral musings that seemed veddy British, Led Zep was this teenager’s favorite monster of rock. And the one-two opening of LZ4’s “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll”… oh yeah!

M: I feel like a Viking just thinking about them. The bruising riffs, the bone-crushing beat, the Dionysian golden banshee out front. The complete mastery of their craft and total occupation of the field. And, of course, the taking of the women. Valhalla, I am coming!

5. U2

T: For a couple of years U2 and REM were my favorite bands (until I heard the Replacements' Let It Be). U2 succumbed to rock star bloat after conquering the world in the 80’s. But before that they succeeded in making the personal universal, the mundane fantastic and Bono did his best to save the world and rock and roll. What’ve you done the last 25 years?

M: I’ve been a fan for close to 25 years, and I’ve followed them every step of the way, even through the misstep of Pop and the relatively uninspired . . . Atomic Bomb. At first, I admired the wide-eyed passion, even if it sometimes paired pretense with an almost comic lack of subtlety. But now, I admire the fact that they’ve become a professional rock and roll band. At one time, I would’ve considered that description a pejorative, but as I get older, I have a hard time finding the flaws in a band that knows how to craft songs and render them with an expertise that comes only with experience. And a big pat on the back for using their celebrity capital to help further the cause of humanity.

4. Bruce Springsteen

T: Without a doubt Bruce is my favorite rock musician… I make no apologies. I honor and respect Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, Chuck Berry – but you can only have one favorite. His songs are literate, passionate and joyous - and with that other worldly yowl he was the rock and roll savior I didn’t even know I needed. He was the next step in a lineage that went from Elvis to Fogerty to Bruce, continued on with Westerberg and Earle and still lives today in my current favorites Jesse Malin and the Hold Steady. His output has been all over the stylistic map – the “new Dylan” of Greetings, the channeling of Van Morrison on The Wild, The Innocent… and the ultimate statement Born to Run, which melds rock’s first 20 years and spits out something that sounds completely original. BTR was almost bettered by Darkness on the Edge of Town, where the lovable losers searching for a way out realized they weren’t going anywhere… and that realization somehow became heroic. Since Darkness Springsteen has made a few classics (Nebraska, Tunnel of Love and The Rising) but has always been consistently challenging. As a veteran of many Springsteen shows, his true genius has been delivering magical, mystical, galvanizing revival meetings masquerading as rock concerts… it’s at these shows that he cemented his # 1 rank on my list.

M: There is something that happens in the first five seconds of “Born to Run” that is difficult to explain and almost impossible to believe. The song explodes out of silence with a machine gun snare drum, announcing its presence emphatically and dramatically, joined immediately by a dense blast of piano, bass, glockenspiel (!), and most prominently, saxophone, the big horn signaling that this titanium-hard R&B is pure American music, eschewing Anglo angles for a four-square on-the-beat blast. Then comes a single electric guitar (the voice of modern rock and roll), rising above the wave of sound and delivering a battle cry, a clear, chiming, six note figure that introduces the song’s dominant motif. It is carefully calculated, yet completely thrilling, and it’s loaded with information that I’m still deciphering thirty years later. Springsteen has yet to utter a word about runaway American dreams or kids huddled on the beach in the mist, but he has already conveyed so many important things about himself as an artist. It’s the foundation of an idea that captured a cult audience and grew into a worldwide community. It’s five seconds. And the rest of his thirty-five year career lives up to the promise.

3. The Rolling Stones

T: Excepting Dylan… no one artist has made as many great records that have wormed their way into my heart. Mick and Keef… Keef and Mick. They have been able to adapt to the musical landscape and remain relevant in ways no other bands have. The Beatles may have produced the greatest records, but the Stones are the world’s greatest rock and roll band.

M: When I heard the songs on the radio, it only reinforced to me why the Stones were at the top of my list. The band moves like mercury, propelled by one of the all-time great drummers, with Mick dancing on top, tearing at words, smearing them for sound as well as meaning. The music doesn’t just rock, it swings, as Charlie’s left hand alters time and Keith leans into his Telecaster, proving that guitar godhood need have nothing to do with solos. And the other guitar player – be it Jones, Taylor or Wood – adds his own individual shading, operating in the space that the rhythm section creates. It’s blues and it’s post-blues, elemental and extra-terrestrial, primordial and apocalyptic. It is rock and roll, and rock and roll is the Rolling Stones.

2. Bob Dylan

T: The greatest American songwriter. His influence is pervasive in just about everyone else on this list. His 1962 to 1966 output should be required listening for any rock novice. He’s made great records since but nothing touches those records. They seem too good… how did he string those words together? Where did that melody come from? Omigod… that voice – possibly the greatest in all of rock for serving the song? That voice forever broke the mold of how people could sing. You’re welcome Tom Waits. Tip your hat Mr. Springsteen. I’ve pored over his lyrics, studied his records… obsessing over every detail. I still hear new ideas in 40 year old records and I’m never truly sure what he’s on about. And if you get me drunk enough, I’ll show you the one poem I ever wrote… in high school. Inspired by Dylan, I’ve not read it in at least 25 years. That’s how good Dylan is… he got me to write poetry.

M: It’s difficult to bring him into focus, this human kaleidoscope. The words swirl, sometimes directly conveying meaning, but often only implying it in hard impressionistic syllables. His disposition changes through the years, his sound changes through the years, his world changes through the years, but Dylan remains, sometimes in the shadows, sometimes in full view, and always with a gravity that can bring things into sharper relief even as the man stays elusive. People have spent years, written books, formed societies, to try to get their arms around Bob Dylan. But it misses the point. It’s not about what Dylan is as a man. It’s about what he does to us as people.

1. The Beatles

T: Way to go out on a limb. I really can’t add much to the Beatles lore. All I can say is they produced the greatest pop music the world has ever seen. They had the greatest songwriters, the greatest harmonies, the right producer and melodies that seem to have sprung forth from pop heaven. How about this... I think the Beatles are underrated. I still play Something New, Revolver, Rubber Soul, Beatles For Sale, Abbey Road, Help, Let It Be and they still thrill me – every time. And oh yeah… “In My Life” is the greatest song ever written.

M: And in the end . . . . It’s the Beatles. Of course it’s the Beatles. We weren’t going for obscurity here. The work is majestic, the influence incalculable, and the spot in the culture unique. And I don’t think there’s a thing I can tell you about them that you haven’t heard before. Good-night, sleep tight.

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