Part 1: albums with no duds
Big Blood - Unlikely Mothers (2014)
For much more about Big Blood, see my fan page, Ecstasy and Doom
. This double-vinyl doomfolk blowout is their crowning achievement. But it's so demanding that when I first heard it, I only liked two or three songs. Honestly, the only time I can listen all the way through is when I'm super-high -- and then it's the only thing I want to listen to.
Bob Dylan - Blood On The Tracks (1975)
Bob Dylan is my favorite male singer, and the most impressive thing about his voice is that almost anyone can imitate it and sound more interesting than with any vocal style they could come up with on their own. This album is the gold standard for no duds. Whatever the worst song is, it's better than the best song on almost any other album. It came nine years after his second best album, Blonde on Blonde, on which the last song was about his new wife Sara. This album is largely about their breakup, and it would be easy to blame her for all the lame albums he made in between. But I credit her for his tremendous upgrade in maturity. Compare One of Us Must Know
with If You See Her, Say Hello
R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
Of all the albums I listened to in my 20's, this is the one I keep coming back to, a psych-folk masterpiece that squashes the Byrds like a bug. The funny thing is, the band was miserable while they were making it. Peter Buck said it was a chore to come into the studio and record the banjo part for Wendell Gee, probably the most luminous bit on the whole album.
Hawkwind - Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974)
Of their many, many albums, this is my favorite, for its creative range and top-notch production. Next would be side one of Zones, and then Space Ritual and PXR5. Scroll down for my full section on Hawkwind
Camper Van Beethoven - Key Lime Pie (1989)
Only once in my life has the new album by my favorite band blown me away on the first listen. Key Lime Pie is focused, meticulously produced, epic, and luminous. Violin (by Don Lax) and electric guitar (by Greg Lisher) have never sounded so good together. What I wonder is, why doesn't anyone make pie out of regular limes?
Wet Leg - self-titled (2022)
This album is a taffy-spinning confection of celestial circus music. It's candy the way the Ramones are candy, with Chaise Longue covering the structure of Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue, and candy the way the Cocteau Twins are candy, dense with ethereal overdubs. Riffs and licks proliferate until you don't know which song is stuck in your head. Dreampop shifts into spacerock as seamlessly as Rush switching time signatures. The lyrics are clever, the production is airtight, and everyone is having fun. This is the best popular rock album since the 1990's.
Life Without Buildings - Any Other City (2001)
Four Glasgow artists formed a band on a lark, made one album, and went on with their lives. Sue Tompkins' vocals are from another planet, feral and stuttery, seemingly improvised -- and yet, in live perormances the songs are basically the same; and if you listen closely, her vocals are in sync with equally complex math rock. I've never heard anything so chaotic and so ordered. This is as brain-stretching as jazz and as blood-pounding as metal.
Pink Floyd - Meddle (1971)
Unlike the more famous albums that followed it, this has no unifying theme or sound, but it's the best set of songs they ever put together. I even like Seamus.
Gordon Lightfoot - Sit Down Young Stranger a.k.a. If You Could Read My Mind (1970)
I'm a big fan of Gordon Lightfoot, and this is an even better collection of songs than his greatest hits albums. If you get this plus Gord's Gold and Summertime Dream, you have only a handful of duds and only two songs of overlap.
Pasteboard - Glitter (2005)
Big Blood is difficult listening, R.E.M. is medium, and this Japanese one-shot is my go-to easy album: super-chill and yet completely beautiful.
Automatic - Signal (2019)
My soundtrack for 2020. On some albums, every listen unlocks a new mystery. On this, what you're unlocking is synergy. Drums, bass, and keyboard, it's not complicated, but it sounds like one thing, and it just goes.
Insecure Men - self-titled (2018)
Chill and psychedelic, with great songwriting all the way through. The watery sound grows less murky and more beautiful the more you listen.
Beat Happening - Black Candy (1989) and You Turn Me On (1992)
Their first two albums, Beat Happening and Jamboree, are the most alive and inspired. Their third, Black Candy, has the best songwriting. And their fifth, You Turn Me On, has the best sonic textures, and the most minutes of really top-notch stuff.
Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
As an untrained singer, Newsom put an edge in her voice that is either unbearably irritating or unbearably beautiful, depending on your ears. I was so overwhelmed by En Gallop that it took me several listens to even notice the words. This is the only album where she does it -- on two early demos her voice is clumsy, and while touring for this album, she damaged her voice, and then got vocal training. On her next album (Ys) the magic is gone. The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
Mark Lanegan - The Winding Sheet (1990)
Lanegan's solo debut is mostly acoustic, which was a radical choice at the time. According to Wikipedia, Dave Grohl called this one of the best albums of all time, and said it was a huge influence on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged. Nirvana's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" is a cover of Lanegan's cover of Lead Belly's version of an old folk song called "In The Pines". Lanegan's Where Did You Sleep Last Night
is the Citizen Kane of grunge: a lot of what it did has since been done to death, but in 1990, this sound was mind-blowing.
Miles Davis - On The Corner (1972)
When it came out, the jazz establishment hated it. And if you want to split hairs, it's not jazz but psych funk. But to my ear, it's whole evolutionary level beyond Davis's supposed masterpiece, Bitches Brew. The funny thing is, critics at the time
thought it was empty of content. There's actually so much content that I can't wrap my ears around it without cannabis.
Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)
Like Bitches Brew, this album is loosely structured, mostly improvised, and heavily overdubbed. But this was seven years sooner and much more raw. There are bits that sound like proto-metal, and when I mentioned that to Leigh Ann she said, "Charles Mingus invented heavy metal; Bob Dylan invented rap."
Part 2: albums with multiple 10/10 songs
Big Star - first three (1972-1974)
There was a brief window in the late 1960's when popular audiences wanted to be challenged, and somebody like Jimi Hendrix could get his foot in the door. By 1972, popular music was leaning into smoothness and bloat. Meanwhile, Alex Chilton was going the other direction.
In 1967, at age 16, he had a huge hit with the Box Tops, The Letter
. It's a perfect gem of songwriting, but in that video you can see him being intentionally sloppy with the lip sync, already pushing back against his own fame.
Big Star's first album had great catchy songs, in a power pop style not far from what Badfinger
was already doing, but the music was too
good, too dense and raw and personal in its beauty, for casual listeners to go there. The sound was largely the work of Chris Bell, who quit the band in frustration at their lack of success. He went on to do some great solo work, and died at age 27 in a car crash.
With Chilton in charge, the music became more chaotic. Compare this song from their first album, The Ballad of El Goodo
, with this song from their second, What's Going Ahn
. It's like the sound got drunk. The notes are more dissonant, the rhythms more sprawling, the sadness deeper.
When their second album also flopped, Chilton doubled down. In Kangaroo
, it's like he set the Big Star sound on fire and watched it burn, with rising swirls of luminous noise, and drummer Jody Stephens not even keeping rhythm but slapping accents on Chilton's dissipated strumming. For much more about this band, see the 2012 documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Big Blood - Sew Your Wild Days Tour Vol. I (1986)
The first two songs are 10/10, and the last song is my only 11. Again, there's more on my Big Blood fan page
Wireheads - Country Space Junk (2014)
Wireheads are a pretty good garage rock band from Adelaide, and this EP, squeezed between their first and second LPs, has four brilliant raw-cut gems separated by three experiments. This is the best space rock since classic Hawkwind, but the physical release was only 100 copies on cassette.
Orphans & Vandals - I Am Alive and You Are Dead (2009)
The best of these songs have complex, rambling structure like good prog rock, string arrangements like good chamber rock, and primal beats and chanting vocals like the Velvet Underground -- but nothing else that sounds like this can touch this.
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1966)
A perfect convergence of talents, mainly Lou Reed's songwriting and John Cale's sonic inventiveness. Even Andy Warhol helped by creating the space for something so far ahead of its time to not be polished down.
Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
I don't even like blues rock, but this album is so great and so popular that I wonder why everyone else didn't just give up. The only way to top this sound is to go weirder. Stairway to Heaven is not among my favorites, but the cool thing is that if you make a chart of its musical intensity over time, it really does look like a stairway, with sudden rises to increasingly high plateaus.
Rush - A Farewell to Kings (1977)
2112 is more important, Fly By Night has more light through the cracks, Caress of Steel has better solos, and Moving Pictures is more respectable. But this album has three of the highest peaks in Rush's whole discography: Closer to the Heart, Xanadu, and the incredible Cygnus X-1.
Neil Diamond - Tap Root Manuscript (1970)
Sixteen years before Paul Simon's smarmy Graceland, Neil Diamond was already putting African sounds into pop. I could listen to Neil Diamond all day, but this is his most experimental album and has three of his best songs: super-catchy Cracklin' Rosie, super-weird I Am The Lion, and super-spiritual Soolaimon.
Part 3: other albums
Camper Van Beethoven - self-titled (1986)
Big Blood described Sew Your Wild Days as having "exploded out of us," and the same thing must have happened with CVB's self-titled third album, because it was recorded right on the heels of their second, and it's as alive as anything I've ever heard, wildly psychedelic and overflowing with styles.
The Muffs - first three (1993-1997)
After one of their shows I heard someone say, in awe, "She's angry and
happy!" On top of her rare emotional tone, she's a great songwriter, and I love her voice. Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong said, "When we recorded Dookie, we listened to the first Muffs record constantly. We will hear that rock n roll scream from heaven."
Exuma and Exuma II (1970)
Primal, creative, and hard to classify. I like to tag Exuma as Voodoo gospel, even though he's technically Obeah.
Tom Waits - Rain Dogs (1985)
If I were a real Tom Waits fan I'd like The Black Rider best, but Rain Dogs is his best blend of great songwriting and the style he developed on Swordfishtrombones. Bone Machine is not far behind, and most of his early albums have two or three great songs.
Rex Holman - Here In The Land Of Victory (1970)
Holman was an actor who made only one album, and not one critic gets it: he's not aiming for an easy listening sound, and he's not just Gordon Lightfoot with more vibrato -- he's pioneering a subtle and very powerful weirdness. You have to go to Nicholas Talbot in the next century to find something this good in this direction. Best song: Come On Down.
Violent Femmes - Hallowed Ground (1984)
Their second album matches their famous debut in the catchiness of the rhythms and melodies, and exceeds it in creativity and darkness. Best song: Never Tell.
Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade (1984) and New Day Rising (1985)
Zen Arcade has more good songs and more raw energy, and New Day Rising has more complexity and depth.
Bone Cellar - Now That It's All Over (1994)
Of all the Seattle bands of the early 90's, Bone Cellar was the most honest. They also had awesome guitar solos and played the best live show I ever saw. Their second album, Lost in the Light of Day, is almost as good.
Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997)
A great band's best album, with nice sounds and good songwriting all the way through. My favorites are the catchy Little Honda and the hypnotic Spec Bebop. The next best Yo La Tengo album is Painful.
Mono - You Are There (2006)
From Japan, my favorite post-rock band. All their albums are recorded live in studio, and the others are almost this good. Mono plays the most civilized great music I've ever heard.
Ramones - Leave Home (1977)
This is their second album, not as inspired as their debut, but more consistently great. Appropriately, it was later repackaged to include Sheena Is A Punk Rocker, the only other Ramones song that could hold its own here.
Sleep - Dopesmoker (recorded 1996)
An established band, with a contract that gave them total creative freedom, made the best doom metal album of all time, and the record company refused to release it. That right there is the relationship between quality and commerce.
Moon Duo - Escape (2010)
They went on to make a lot of good stuff, but their debut EP is still the best. In The Trees, per the title, synergizes exceptionally well with weed.
Electric Moon - any live album (2010-present)
This German trio can improvise top-notch stoner/psych/space rock that rewards close listening and demands nothing.
Red House Painters - (rollercoaster) (1993)
Red House Painters have two self-titled albums, and the great one has a rollercoaster on the cover. When I was 26 the vocal track sounded deep and mature, and now it sounds like a whiny teenager. But New Jersey still holds up, and I still love the music.
The Pogues - Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash (1985)
Easily the best Pogues album.
The Police - Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)
Considered the worst Police album by almost everyone, and I agree that it has the lowest peaks, but I love the dark, echoey sound that fills the corners.
Antenna - Sway (1991)
When Juliana Hatfield went solo, the other two members of the Blake Babies formed Antenna, and made this really solid album of heartland indie rock.
Queen II (1973)
Queen's best album is an early and successful exercise in combining hard rock and prog rock.
Hawkwind has been my favorite band on and off since I was 16. They formed in 1969 in west London, invented space rock, and over the years have had a ridiculous number of style changes, lineup changes, and album releases -- many of them unauthorized or barely authorized compilations. Dave Brock has always been the leader and the sole continuous member, but he doesn't like to take center stage, so this role has been filled by people as diverse as an exotic dancer, Lemmy, sci-fi author Michael Moorcock, and Arthur Brown Jr. ("I am the god of hellfire!") The BBC made a great Hawkwind documentary.
Everyone agrees that they peaked in the 1970's, but there is some disagreement about which albums are better. This is a list of important ones and personal favorites.
Two solid folk songs, Hurry On Sundown and Mirror of Illusion, and some psychedelic rock with annoying vocals and great jams.
In Search Of Space, 1971
When I first heard this as a teenager it sounded like good songs with weird noise at the end. Now it sounds like great music with vocals to trick you into listening. Some fans like this album the best because of the more folky sound and complex drumming, but the title is accurate: they didn't actually find space until their next album...
Doremi Fasol Latido, 1972
Hawkwind's revolution came from a synergy of two drugs: everyone else used LSD, and new member Ian Kilmister (Lemmy) used speed. His blistering bass lines drove long droning jams, and with Brock's increasing use of guitar phase effects, more skill by the two synth players, and consistent sci-fi lyrics, this was the birth of space rock. Brainstorm put it all together, Space is Deep is their masterpiece, there's a nice Brock ballad (Down Through The Night) and a slow
Lemmy song (The Watcher).
Space Ritual, 1973
Double live album, featuring all four giants of Hawkwind: Brock, Lemmy, sax player and number two songwriter Nik Turner, and lyricist Robert Calvert, plus drummer Simon King, who would play on all their great 70's albums. It's easily their most powerful album, but it took me a long time to appreciate Calvert's sci-fi poetry and the album's overall rawness. Space is Deep is not nearly as good here as on Doremi, but Lord of Light is better. Two of my favorites, Orgone Accumulator and Seven By Seven, are not on any Hawkwind studio albums.
Hall of the Mountain Grill, 1974
I don't know what happened in the studio, but the sonic layering on this album is way better than on their other albums. Wind of Change and You'd Better Believe It are highlights, but every song is good and different, and it even has their best cover art, with a back cover
by space artist David A. Hardy. The title track was copied, with some changed notes, by the 1975 film Picnic At Hanging Rock.
Warrior On The Edge Of Time, 1975
Lemmy was "well out of favour" in his own words, and would soon be fired after being caught with amphetamines at the USA/Canada border. Some people love this album, but I think its centerpiece songs are dull, and only some of the side songs are interesting, especially the later release of the instrumental remix of Kings of Speed.
Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music, 1976
Hawkwind switched labels from United Artists to Charisma, and totally changed their sound by installing Calvert, who previously appeared only on Space Ritual and some singles, as front man. He was ahead of his time, but the band as a whole failed to put it together, and this album is mostly duds.
Quark, Strangeness, and Charm, 1977
Here the Brock/Calvert team hit its stride. Nik Turner and two other members were sacked for being too funky, and the new tight lineup made a great album of sci-fi rock, leaning into new wave. My favorites are Damnation Alley and Hassan I Sabha.
This album was cobbled together from scraps, recorded in early 1978 and released more than a year later. Maybe the chaos of the band falling apart led them to dig deeper musically, because all five of Calvert's songs are brilliant, especially the dystopian crescendo of High Rise. Infinity is Dave Brock's best ballad, and the closest they've ever come to a love song: "I met her in a forest glade, where starbeams grew like trees."
Hawklords / 25 Years On, 1978
Recorded after PXR5 but released before it. Briefly, Hawkwind had to change their name to Hawklords for legal reasons. I only like one song, The Only Ones.
Legendary drummer Ginger Baker replaced King, and the band went into the studio to make a decent album, but I'd say it's unnecessary because the best bits would be done better on later albums.
Sonic Attack, Church of Hawkwind, Choose Your Masques, 1981-1982
After Calvert's exit, the most interesting member of the band was Huw Lloyd Langton, who played lead guitar on Hawkwind's first album, and returned with a skilled and distinctive style, which you can also hear on Live Seventy Nine. But I don't hear any memorable songs.
A collection of scraps from the early 1980's. This was the first Hawkwind album I heard and it's still one of my favorites. On vinyl, side 1 is clean and light, with Ginger Baker on drums, unique airy keyboards by Keith Hale, Huw Lloyd Langton's smoothest guitar playing, and an exceptional live performance of Motorway City. Side 2 is dark and dirty live songs.
Independent Days volumes 1-2, 1995
Another solid compilation of stuff from the early 80's, including a tight new version of Lemmy's song Motorhead. Also two songs from 1969 and the no-vocal remix of Kings of Speed.
Chronicle of the Black Sword, 1985
A concept album based on Moorcock's Elric novels, promising but not that good. I think Zarozinia was Hawkwind's last good song, and the CD version includes the entire Earth Ritual Preview EP, which was previously available only on vinyl, and contains the essential song Green Finned Demon.
Nik Turner, Space Gypsy, 2013
Turner was a major contributor to the classic Hawkwind sound of 1972-74, and he did a good job of bringing it back, but the songwriting is forgettable.
There are many, many more, but I haven't heard any others worth mentioning. For a more complete list, go to: