This is an idea that's been kicking around in my head for a while now. Through my lifetime of musical discoveries I've come across so many one-off albums. Sometimes by reputable and famous artists who have only released one album that's interested me. Sometimes by relatively obscure artists who are only known for one album. But there have been so many great gems that have gone overlooked nestled in various discographies, either through their obscurity or because of some prejudice against the artist based on their other work or because who knows why. So I've decided to write about them, for several reasons. Firstly to call some attention to some albums that might have flown under the radar of even the most avid music lovers. Secondly to lend some redemption to some artists that people might not be giving a fair shake. And lastly to simply illustrate how incredibly frequently I've come across albums which at least somewhat meet this criteria.
There are some basic parameters for albums to have made this list, including some eliminators. I don't necessarily have to be familiar with the artist's entire discography. There might have been some great releases by some of these artists which I simply haven't discovered yet. It's ultimately a personal list, so I feel comfortable with limiting myself to my autobiographical knowledge, and also to my personal tastes and opinions. So don't condemn me if you unironically believe Guns n' Roses made more than one good album (rolling my eyes).
I'm more or less sticking to modern music here. While it's true that Johann Strauss Jr. only composed one piece of note, his time was well before the advent of the "album" so he doesn't count. While it's true that several jazz albums (particularly be-bop albums) might qualify for this list, I consider myself ignorant enough about the universe of jazz music that I'm going to leave it out of the discussion.
Before we begin, a specific list of exceptions: I found a lot of instances where a musician had put out only one
album I enjoyed, but who also put
out one or more other albums I enjoyed as part of a different band or project.
Since there would be one or a few musicians largely responsible for at least 2
great albums released under at least 2 different names, it seemed disingenuous to
include them under a list whose basic design was "the only album
they've done that I care about." Rather than including all these into
the main list as exceptions, I'm excluding them all, but still would
like to call attention to them as exceptions, just because there were so
many examples of this.
The format here is "artist name - album name (related artist/s which excludes this album)" listed in no particular order.
Fugees - "The Score" (Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill)
Wyclef Jean - "The Carnival" (Fugees, Lauryn Hill)
Lauryn Hill - "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (Wyclef Jean, Fugees)
American Football - "American Football" LP (Owen, The One Up Downstairs)
Owen - "At Home With Owen" (American Football, The One Up Downstairs)
The One Up Downstairs - "The One Up Downstairs" EP (American Football, Owen)
Wu-Tang Clan - "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" (multiple solo careers)
GZA - "Liquid Swords" (Wu-Tang Clan)
Raekwon - "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx" (Wu-Tang Clan)
The Police - "Synchronicity" (Sting)
Sting - "The Dream of the Blue Turtles" (The Police)
Audioslave - "Audioslave" (Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine)
Kyuss - "Welcome to Sky Valley" (Queens of the Stone Age)
Queens of the Stone Age - "Rated R" (Kyuss)
Brian Eno - "Here Come the Warm Jets" (Roxy Music, Eno & Bowie)
Paul Simon - "The Rhythm of the Saints" (Simon & Garfunkel)
Uncle Tupelo - "Anodyne" (Son Volt, Wilco)
Son Volt - "American Central Dust" (Uncle Tupelo)
The Mars Volta - "De-Loused in the Comatorium" (At the Drive-In)
Rod Stewart - "Every Picture Tells a Story" (Faces)
Crooked Fingers - "Crooked Fingers" (Archers of Loaf)
There will be a lengthy honorable mentions list after the main list. This was originally a list of 40, then 30, then 25, but it could've been 100. I'll be damned if I'm giving an overview/explanation of 100 different albums though. This has taken me long enough as it is. 25 felt like a good number for a list. And so here's 25 Albums I Love By Bands and Artists Who I Would Not Love Otherwise.
Yeah, I know the phrasing is awkward as hell but I'm trying to be precise here.
Format is "artist name/related artist which is also included - album title (year)" listed in alphabetical order by artist.
Allman Brothers Band/Greg Allman - "At Fillmore East" (1971)
Greg Allman is a master musician in his own right. He's been performing for forever, and he's crafted some well-loved hits. As part of Allman Brothers Band, Greg and his brother Duane proved
that a bona fide blues band can thrive in the ever-changing landscape of
rock 'n roll in the late 1960s and early 70s. But as albums go, even the largely successful platinum certified "Eat a Peach" and "Brothers and Sisters" albums leave something to be desired for me. There are plenty of strong singles to be found between the band's and Greg's solo discographies, but there's no one album that really stands out.
Except for this famous and well-celebrated gem of a live album. These blues jams and solos and performances were both amazing and incredibly important in calling attention to the blues revivalism which was the undeniable foundation of rock 'n roll, particularly in the western world. This isn't to downplay any efforts from bands like Cream or Creedence, whose blues influences are readily apparent. But the magical songs recorded from the infamous albeit short-lived Fillmore East venue are categorically blues songs performed with rock instrumentation. Their rendition of Stormy Monday is still my favorite slow blues song of all time, in an album full of mammoths. The recording quality and mastering are top-notch, especially for the time. The full recordings of the 1971 Fillmore East shows were released in 2014, and they serve to provide some great extra context and good additional performances. But the 7 songs that make up this original beast of an album will live on forever as legendary performances, especially from Duane, whose talents the world lost far too soon.
Avett Brothers - "Live, Volume 3" (2010)
When I look at Seth and Scott, the Avett Brothers, I see a lot of average. Some decent but inconsistent songwriting, some novel Folk-Appalachian instrumentation but nothing groundbreaking, some pretty standard chords and progressions and melodies and rhythms...everything they do is basic and decent but I don't see too much that's worth getting excited about.
But you put them on stage at a sold out Bojangles Coliseum in their hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina while on tour in support of their upcoming-at-the-time album "I and Love and You" and you've certainly got something to be excited about. There are few live albums featuring a crowd that's so knowledgeable, respectful, and adoring, and Scott and Seth feed off their energy in the best way. This is a really well-crafed setlist backed by excellent performances that give new energy and vitality to songs that were already fairly good to begin with. The band is more or less at the peak of their powers and popularity here, and every other release of theirs pales in comparison to this magic.
Barenaked Ladies - "Maroon" (2000)
Not many people take Barenaked Ladies seriously. And with the success of memeworthy songs like One Week and If I Had $1000000, I can see why. When your main selling point (or at least your main point of success and recognition) is a goofy sense of humor, you're bound to be dismissed to some extent even by those who like you.
But "Maroon" is BNL's "The Big Lebowski"--goofy on the surface, but very clever, very profound, and crafted meticulously and masterfully. For an album that's named after a singular color, it's anything but monochromatic. The moods tones and themes of this album are honestly all over the place when viewed as a whole. But everything feels so sincere that it works. Whether the subject is existentialism, self-actualization, short-term love, long-term love, infidelity, humility, show biz and marketing within capitalism, history, death, or secrets, every topic is thorough and enveloping but is still presented in a way that's lighthearted enough that this can still be considered a pop record. But a rather deep and ponderous pop record at that. Even when the songwriting might seem juvenile or even lazy at a glance, every song makes a point, set to a backdrop of bright and fun pop rock music. I love this thing so much. It's been a huge part of my life ever since it was released, and I can admit that I look at this thing through rose-tinted glasses and maybe give it more credit than it deserves. But there are a very few handful of albums which have inspired me and changed me the way that this one has.
Beastie Boys - "Paul's Boutique" (1989)
I'm not really down with Beastie Boys overall to be honest. Sampling and sample music culture was revolutionized over the course of their career, and their efforts have a lot to do with it. But by the time they were forced away from their sample heavy collage type music and towards more traditionally created music with albums like "Ill Communication" and "Check Your Head," I really lose interest. Their first album "Licensed to Ill" is pretty universally regarded as a classic but I think it has a lot of first album problems. It shows a lot of potential but it ultimately leaves me feeling cold and unsatisfied.
But "Paul's Boutique" is a masterpiece. It's not absolutely flawless, it definitely loses its focus and its luster towards the end. But its bright bold energy, clever and cheeky bars, its inherently referential nature, its creativity, and its ambition, paired with the fact that it would be virtually impossible to make an album on its scale of sampling mastery in today's music industry, make this one of the most special albums ever created. Plus for what it's worth the Boys come off a little less obnoxious and a little more artistic than usual for this album. And unlike so many golden era rap and hip-hop troupes, Beastie Boys work very collaboratively and do everything to compliment each other rather than to compete with one another. De La Soul's "3 Feet High and Rising" is almost always brought up in comparison with this album, because neither album can be closely compared to anything else ever made. Other Beastie Boys albums might have outsold this but make no mistake--this is the crown jewel.
Boston - "Boston" (1976)
I think of this album as one of the more obvious entries for a list like this. The rest of Boston's career wasn't a complete flop in terms of quality or success. Their followup album "Don't Look Back" had a couple solid songs, and the song Amanda from 1986's "Third Stage" 10 years after their debut was fairly popular at the time.
But for the most part, everyone who thinks about or talks about the band Boston is going to be talking about this album. It's so definitionally a studio rat album, made almost entirely by Tom Schulz in his home studio, and his perfectionist mindset is reflected in how polished everything sounds. The only part of this album Schulz was not responsible for is the vocals. Practically every song still sees heavy rotation on classic rock radio today. It's an absolute masterpiece, and the band that Schulz subsequently formed around this album would never even come close to living up to its greatness.
Built to Spill - "Perfect From Now On" (1997)
"Keep It Like a Secret" is probably Built to Spill's most celebrated album, and it's certainly not bad. It feels a little Shins/ordinary as pop-rock goes but it's a reasonably good listen of shorter and tightly crafted songs. I can admit the rest of their discog is relatively unknown to me and I'd like to see if there are any hidden gems in there but there's nothing else that stands out by reputation.
"Perfect from Now On" seems to have little in common with "Keep it Like a Secret" in the sense that the songs are mostly longer, fleshed out, more grandiose pieces that could only be likened to Secret's style of pop-rock through the instrumentation. The album is very guitar-oriented, with lots of different tones and effects and riffs and solos backed by some really beautiful production and engineering, and the rhythm section certainly performs up to par also. It's somewhat rambly, wandering, even psychedelic in places. But while it might seem incohesive at a glance it's held together by its overarcing tone and lyrical themes, and by its lyrical and musical self-references. It's a very well crafted little collection of 8 songs that really sit with you and grow on you. Even nearly 25 years later this feels inventive and fresh and worthy of admiration. It's dense and complex for the genre but beneath the surface of its massive ambitions there's a heart of gold to be found.
Harry Chapin - "Greatest Stories Live" (1976)
"Greatest Stories Live" is an appropriately titled album, as opposed to calling it a greatest hits live, because Harry Chapin was much more of a storyteller than a hitmaker. The charm of this record is undeniable, as Harry works the crowd with anecdotes and provides context for his simple yet effective songwriting, in a way that the studio recordings couldn't possibly replicate. It is technically one of those "mostly" live albums (like Thin Lizzy's "Live and Dangerous") as some editing and re-recordings were made in-studio afterwards, mostly to compensate for faulty recording equipment during the original concerts. There is also one studio-recorded song, the last song on the album. The music in these performances does take a bit of a backseat for the most part, serving as more of an accompaniment for the stories. But the musical arrangements are still played very well by Harry, by his brothers Tom and Steve, and by the rest of his backing band. The instruments neither call much attention to themselves nor do they cheapen the lyricism. Most of these stories are rather wholesome, sometimes sweet, sometimes tragic, usually poignant, and always illustrative. This all amalgamates into an album that's truly timeless. Whether you're a 7 year old or a 70 year old these are precious performances that are sure to stick with you from yet another fine musician who died far too young.
Phil Collins (with Mark Mancina) - "Tarzan" (1999)
Ok. So. Lot to dissect here. I guess you could call this an exception to the exception. Let's begin by saying I don't care for Phil Collins' solo career. Nope. Sorry. Don't care. Not a fan. Even if I could point to one or two good songs there's definitely not a whole album that's worthwhile. The same applies to a lesser extent to Genesis in the era(s) where Phil was the frontman. By comparison this produced many more solid and interesting individual songs than his solo career, but trio Genesis is the epitome of a greatest hits band - no good complete albums. The Peter Gabriel era of Genesis is where things get tricky. Phil and every other member of Genesis is given compositional credit for their golden run of albums from 1971 to 1974. That *should* be enough to technically disqualify Phil from this list. But I'm letting my bias prevail on this one - I just have such a strong distaste for Phil's solo career, such a strong preference for Peter's Genesis than for Phil's, and for better or for worse I'm a little bitter that so many people feel the opposite.
But man, this soundtrack though. Fully titled "Tarzan: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack," it is positively bursting with life. Admittedly a lot of this soundtrack is taken up with interlude music, remixes, reprises, etc. It really boils down to 5 core songs but they're just so good, and not only in the context of the movie. They're dramatic and atmospheric, they're well written well sung and well produced. Part of what makes it so successful is the use of dynamic contrast. The songs build and transition so well between their passages, from quiet and tender to exciting and kinetic seamlessly. It's one of the most effective and memorable Disney soundtracks of all time in my opinion, which is really saying something. Even as someone who takes every opportunity to criticize Phil Collins, I can't take anything away from how brilliant this is.
Shawn Colvin - "A Few Small Repairs" (1996)
To the people who know her, Shawn Colvin is a highly respected singer-songwriter. She doesn't try to be confusing or complex, she's not a showoff, and she doesn't seem like the type of person to want to call much attention to herself. But without a doubt, she's quietly one of the best folk guitarists of her generation, and she has consistently above average songwriting skills. These talents are reflected pretty well in albums like "Fat City" and "These Four Walls."
But nothing else catches my attention or feels as re-listenable as her breakthrough, "A Few Small Repairs". It's a shame that Colvin will probably go down in the mainstream music world as a one hit wonder, with most people only having ever heard the first song and hit single from this album Sonny Came Home if they've heard of her at all. Because this album is packed with excellent lyricism, basic but attractive rhythms and melodies, and a few somewhat experimental textures and tones which don't feel conspicuous or unnecessary at all. This is mastery of the basics. It's a truly solid Americana record that will always be a favorite of mine.
Harry Connick, Jr. - "She" (1994)
So for the most part you're either into Harry Connick, Jr. or you're not, right? Either you're down with crooners, and the kind of music painfully dubbed "easy listening," or you can't even get your foot in the door. Right? Well, as someone who does respect but who does not very much enjoy the work of performers like Tony Bennett or the solo career of Peter Cetera, I can't honestly call myself a fan of Harry no matter how objectively good "20" or "To See You" is. Stylistically it's just not up my alley.
But let me introduce you to the album that all of Harry's fans hate, and that all of Harry's non-fans don't know about. "She" is a deliciously funky, groovy, fresh and fun album that draws much more from his New Orleans origins than from his New York City conclusions, even more so than the "Oh, My Nola" album which is still pretty straight-laced overall. Unlike the rest of his discography, this album is NOT for squares. It has more flavor, more vibrance, and more noise than anything you would ever expect from the man based on his general reputation. If you've always been dismissive of Harry and the style of music he's associated with you ought to give this album a listen. Even if you don't like it, it's still important to acknowledge that he has another side.
Ramblin' Jack Elliott - "A Stranger Here" (2009)
Full disclosure: I don't know much about Ramblin' Jack Elliott except that he's a good ol' boy, well-respected within the folk community by the likes of Arlo and Woody Guthrie and by Bob Dylan (particularly in his younger days), among others. I trust that he's a sturdy and competent folk musician but the music is a little before my time and a little beyond my horizons for better or for worse.
My acquaintance with Elliott is almost entirely through his most recent Grammy award winning album "A Stranger Here." One of a few albums scattered throughout this writeup to be produced by one of my favorite musical figures Joe Henry, this album lends Henry's trademark moody and atmospheric backdrops to a solid collection of traditional Blues tunes, making for a simultaneously foot stompin' and intriguing delight of roots music. For an album that was made by a man in the week leading up to his 76th birthday, this thing has some soul and some bite, some play and some fight, some freshness and some spice, taking what is ultimately familiar and giving a modern lens through which to view it without bastardizing the heart of it.
The Fiery Furnaces - "Gallowsbird's Bark" (2003)
Brother and sister duo Matt and Eleanor Friedberger make up The Fiery Furnaces and man they're weird. Between "Widow City" "Rehearsing My Choir" and "Blueberry Boat" there's certainly a lot of good interesting ambitious experimental music. But while I can appreciate it, it's hard for me to really attach myself to it lovingly.
Maybe it's because the first album of theirs I sank my teeth into was their feisty debut "Gallowsbird's Bark." By comparison to their other albums the structure of these songs is a little more traditional and easier to consume in one sitting without a headache. But you might get a headache anyway if you're not accustomed to the level of noisiness and messiness that you might hear on a Pavement album or an early Flaming Lips album. This is really sporadic and sometimes even alarming, but it also has groove to it and some clear melodic roots lying underneath the noises and textures. It can be silly, cute, violent, unsettling, exciting, ferocious, tense, mellow, or any combination thereof. This has the certain charm you might expect from a couple of misfit kids making bedroom music, but done at the highest level. For my tastes this album in infectious, and I've rarely gone longer than a month without listening to it for years.
Filter - "Title of Record" (1999)
Once upon a time Richard Patrick was Trent Reznor's touring guitarist for Nine Inch Nails. After working for NIN for 5 years, at Reznor's encouragement Patrick broke away to form his own industrial music oriented band Filter. Their debut "Short Bus" saw some immediate success with the lead single Hey Man, Nice Shot, a song often misattributed to the suicide of Kurt Cobain and which was actually written about the public suicide of R. Budd Dwyer. The marriage of hard rock with electronic music was less common and more novel in those days (the "pre Linkin Park" era if you will). The album birthed a fanbase and is still considered something of a musical cult classic to this day. But apart from the single with its killer bassline, I find "Short Bus" a little shallow and uninspired, though not as shallow and uninspired as most of what Filter has produced in the 21st century.
But their second album "Title of Record" really hits the mark. There's a nasty edge to it, with Patrick's critical and cynical songwriting and impossibly high vocal range resting on top of some intense and heavily textured but also very steadily rhythmic-charged songs. It is perhaps a bit overproduced in places, but it's sharp, and well worth the years it took to create. By 1990s standards it's rather progressive and cutting edge for music that doesn't quite fall under the umbrella of what electronic/house/dance music was at the time (i.e. music that's not European). I can see where people could argue that it hasn't aged well, but I think it has. It's hard to say how influential it was because aside from the success of the pretty straightforward adult alternative song Take a Picture it seems to be a fairly obscure album. But an open minded listener shouldn't overlook what this has to offer--half screamy half trancy momentum, and fully seething observations by Patrick of the world and of himself.
P J Harvey - "Dry" (1992)
As her career has evolved, Polly Jean Harvey has gone against the grain to carve her own path into the mainstream. Between "Let England Shake" "Uh Huh Her" and especially "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea" she's managed to find some commercial success and critical acclaim without compromising her artistic vision and integrity. But back in the earlier part of her career, Harvey had no chill. She was amongst the many young and angry rock musicians to come out of the early 90s. Albums like "Rid of Me" and "To Bring You My Love" are downright nasty and brutal. While all of these albums have their merit and deserve respect, I don't find myself revisiting them much.
But her debut album "Dry" just hits different. Harvey would explain later that she was unsure if she would be signed to a record deal or if putting out this album was her first and last opportunity to make music professionally, so she felt like she couldn't hold back. This goes a long way in explaining how raw jagged and abrasive this album is. She's set herself at odds with the world here and the result is a masterpiece of discontent. Unfortunately its budget and subsequently its production quality were rather low. The drumming in particular is performed fairly well in a technical sense, but sounds really terrible. A lot of the guitar tones, reverbs, echoing, and mastering sound pretty clunky and amateurish as well. While that has its own kind of appeal to it and compliments the desperation of the album, I also wouldn't mind hearing a re-recording of these tracks (the album was reissued in 2020 but not really altered). But in any case I love the songwriting, I love the vocals, I love the rhythms, and most of all I just love the grit of this album. It's grimy and it's beautiful.
Indigo Girls - "Indigo Girls" (1989)
Another album which feels like a natural choice for this list. Indigo Girls have put together a below average but not entirely unrespectable career, with little pockets of quality and success here and there. But everything else they've ever done will always exist in the shadow of their self-titled major label debut. Closer to Fine is still recognized as a quintessential (or perhaps stereotypical) lesbian awakening song, but as someone who is not female nor homosexual the song still speaks to me and is brilliantly well-written. The opener is their most famous song, but it's a consistently high-quality folk album. The musical arrangements are simple enough but powerful nonetheless. What really shines through for me is the amazing two-part harmonies on nearly every song. Emily and Amy's vocal chemistry is apparent and potent. To me this album is as essential of a listen for masterful duo vocals as any Simon & Garfunkel album, especially within folk music. The album is poetic and emotional, and with the two sharing songwriting duties one can see how their styles and attitudes blend together well but can also be distinguished, like a venn diagram of two mostly overlapping circles. For being such a common and well known album it is insanely underrated.
Jets to Brazil - "Orange Rhyming Dictionary" (1998)
I've never been much into punk music overall. Although I admit Blake Schwarzenbach's band Jawbreaker is one of the better punk inspired bands out there, it's still not my cup of tea. Blake's second band Jets to Brazil is more my style. Although it's nothing groundbreaking musically, on the surface it sounds very much like an average 1990s garage band/indie rock sound, it's something I'm more naturally accustomed to and interested in compared to Jawbreaker. Jets to Brazil was a relatively short-lived project, churning out 3 albums over 6 years. The second of which, "Four Cornered Night" is simply bad. The third of which, "Perfecting Loneliness" definitely has its moments, but overall feels very bloated and non-cohesive.
But their first album "Orange Rhyming Dictionary" is a real tour de force. It was created largely as an autobiographical narrative (although a very lyrical and metaphor-heavy narrative) at a time when Blake's life was crumbling and his mental health was deteriorating. It was cheifly written during an isolated extended stay in a motel room in the midst of his divorce. It deals with the effects of substance abuse, the anger and reconciliation of post-breakup animosity and depression, isolation and self-awareness, suicidal thoughts, and the pressure that the stereotypical tortured artist puts on themself to harness suffering and channel it into something creative. In his own words, "pain that comes with clarity and fears in well-lit rooms." It also has a very happy ending in the song Sweet Avenue, almost sickly sweet, but balanced out by the often brutal rollercoaster of emotions that precedes it. I could go on for much longer about this album, but it's best experienced for oneself. Just don't expect it to fully sink in on the first listen. The songwriting on this album is dark and deep and masterful, and not to be taken lightly.
Joyce Manor - "Joyce Manor" (2011)
Joyce Manor really has their own way of doing pop-punk. Aside from their relative aggression, their most distinctive feature is the lightning pace and brevity by which they approach making music. According to Spotify's catalog their entire discography as of this writeup consisting of 74 songs from 6 LPs, 2 EPs, and 4 Singles totals to less than 2.5 hours of total runtime. That's an average of under 2 minutes per song. But as someone who's never heavily invested in punk or punk-rooted music, much of this music kind of goes in one ear and out the other for me.
But this album though, "Joyce Manor" a.k.a. "S/T" (as in self-titled). Man, oh man. This is one thrashing blistering mess of an album. This is 18 minutes of raw, often seething, sometimes sentimental, mostly self-deprecating and completely headbangable music. This is such a perfectly nasty encapsulation of late teen/early twenties alcohol-enabled contrarian unsatisfied angst. Its brevity lends itself well to its honesty, leaving nowhere to hide from the like it or not lyricism and in-your-face volume, making it utterly attention grabbing and thoroughly re-listenable.
Billy Joel - "Songs in the Attic" (1981)
Oh, Billy Billy Billy. So much can be said about Billy. Another artist with a long career of strong singles from weak albums, another greatest hits type of artist. An artist whose worst singles usually get the most radio play, and whose best singles have faded into obscurity. An artist who deserves to be taken seriously, but if all you know of him are the songs most responsible for making him famous, you'd have little reason to. I guess what I'm trying to say is don't blame your dad for liking Billy Joel because he's really not that bad, I promise.
And "Songs in the Attic" is the most solid proof of that. In the early 80s it was common in the music industry to package a live album as a greatest hits live album, especially while an artist was still hot. But Billy Joel opted to release a live album of his non-hits, or at least his less successful hits. More obscure songs which meant more to him personally, and which translated well to a live setting. Taken from various performances from his U.S. tour in the Summer of 1980, these are some spirited and excellent performances. Joel's backing band is really up to snuff, but there's no question who the star of the show is, except maybe when drummer Liberty DeVitto is absolutely kicking ass on The Ballad of Billy the Kid. As the cover art and album title suggest, Joel goes out of his way to shine a light on some of the best songs in his discography to put together a really complete musical experience here in what's easily the best release of his career. I understand if you're still skeptical after hearing Uptown Girl on the P.A. system at a gas station for the hundredth time, I hear you. But he does deserve respect. Believe me.
Jack Johnson - "Sleep Through the Static" (2008)
It's ok to like the Banana Pancakes guy. The guy who made the Curious George soundtrack. Jack Johnson, the laid back Hawaiian who makes mostly harmless sandal wearing music for people who only ever want to vibe to something chill. I don't hold it against him or any of his fans who only know him in this way.
But have you listened to his moody album though? With the exception of the most well-known song on the album Angel, "Sleep Through the Static" retains Johnson's mellow arrangements and delivery, but not his optimism. He really darkens the shade here, creating a bluesy deep and bittersweet album. He addresses loss of love, lack of purpose, political frustrations, and frustrations with human nature in general. But through these subjects he still manages to find purpose and choose to have a good attitude, showing grace in the face of despair. He chooses to believe in love and fatherhood and to retain the value of the cycle of life despite life's nature of suffering. But not without admissions that he's been hurt and humbled in the process. There's beauty in the struggle, and there's a lot of opportunity to grow, if you're willing to learn from observations and revelations like these.
A strictly personal aside: I've always liked this album, always pointed to it as evidence that Jack Johnson is capable of more complex and serious songwriting than what's made him famous. But if it's not readily apparent through this writeup and several other times I've alluded to it over the past few years, this album has come to mean more and more and more to me and my perspective and philosophy on life. It's even influenced my spirituality, and practically nothing external influences that. I think it's the sharpest and most important example on this list of contrast between one album and the rest of an artist's body of work, and it is the main reason why I bothered to put this list together.
King Crimson - "In the Court of the Crimson King" (1969)
Now hold on. I don't want to say anything too disparaging about Robert Fripp's King Crimson. Especially by the time we reached the "Islands" album and the lineup finally reached some measure of stability, this band gave us 5 solid years of challenging and intriguing music from which there is a lot to be learned and a lot to admire.
But let's just not compare any incarnation of this band to its original lineup, with Greg Lake and Giles and McDonald. Let's just not. Because the one album that this lineup produced is undeniably one of the greatest and most influential prog rock albums ever made, and it very much deserves its own category. Over 50 years later and there's still nothing else quite like it. Sporadic, dramatic, jazzy, gloomy, free-form, epic. It's like Beethoven's 9th - it doesn't necessarily have to be your favorite, but everybody knows it's the best.
Live - "Throwing Copper" (1994)
Live (rhymes with "dive" not with "give") has put together a handful of decent songs which are not from this album. Between "Mental Jewelry" "Secret Samadhi" and "The Distance to Here" you could probably put together an EP's worth of enjoyable songs, even if none of them made a significant dent on the Billboard charts or are even remembered in the world of mainstream classic rock.
But there's nobody who will try to argue which Live album is the best. "Throwing Copper" is one tight clean powerful and consistent album. It's their most successful and most celebrated by far, and nearly everything about it is solid. There's definitely some filler to be found in the back half of the album, but there are some underappreciated songs on the B side as well. The first half is classic after classic after classic. Some might be justifiably turned off by frontman Ed Kowalczyk's intensity and self-righteousness, especially in songs concerning his faith. But where others might find his attitude soapboxish I find it bold and I respect it. For a band with such straightforward garage rock arrangements (nothing but Lead guitar, Rhythm guitar, Bass, Drums, and Vocals) they really accomplish a lot and make a lush and memorable quintessential 90s hard rock album.
Lisa Loeb/Nine Stories - "Tails" (1995)
Another artist and album which will inevitably only be remembered for its hit single, in this case the song Stay. But it's an album that shows a lot of color and variety in its arrangements without making it seem like Loeb is out of her depth. Maybe the producer(s) deserve more credit for some of these arrangements than Loeb herself, but they can't claim credit for Loeb's occasionally whiny and immature but mostly solid songwriting. In any case it's a thoroughly enjoyable pop album overall, with one or two duds. I have a writeup on this album if you want to read a fairly extensive review. Loeb's followup album "Firecracker" (marketed as a solo project but made with essentially the same personnel) has a few good singles, but is packed with a lot of forgettable fluff and doesn't have nearly the depth of "Tails." Since then Loeb has tried to put together a respectable career, but hasn't really made anything of note.
Loreena McKennitt - "The Book of Secrets" (1997)
Loreena McKennitt is about as mainstream as it gets in that field of music nebulously characterized as either "world" music or "new age" music. To that end, she's kind of the musical equivalent of a typecast actor or actress. Her music has kind of stayed within the same narrow range of tone and timbre throughout her career. I won't sit here and pretend that albums like "The Visit" or "An Ancient Muse" are bad albums, for what they are. But frankly most of her records sound the same.
"The Book of Secrets" stands a step or two above the rest. Maybe that's because it's a little more melodic and accessible, the songwriting style and structure of the songs are a little more conventional, but I feel like it's just simply better written and more engaging than her other work. It's easy enough to see the simple and pastoral beauty of this album. Most of the songs feel very traditional in the sense that the narrator is separated from the stories. They feel theatrical without trying to be, as if they could've been recited by a bard with a lute in 17th century England. Ultimately this a collection of comforting, digestible, high-quality music that feels as though it comes to us from another time.
Talking Heads - "Stop Making Sense" (1984)
I usually avoid discussing Talking Heads. They are very popular in the retro music loving crowd, and I do have a good deal of respect for them. But I just don't think they're all that and a bag of chips. Where a lot of people find their rhythms very groovy and danceable, I see them as mostly rigid, repetitive, and uninteresting. And David Byrne as a lyricist is unquestionably talented but he's just SO sardonic. More often than not I feel like he's beating me over the head with his observations, leaving very little room for nuance.
But the somewhat-live-somewhat-recorded-somewhat-music video project "Stop Making Sense" absolutely slams. Compared to the studio versions of these songs the rhythms feel more filled in, the vocals are inspired, the instrumentation is lush, the tones are rich, and most importantly there's this kinetic energy and this "livelihood" (pun somewhat intended) that carries throughout the entire album. 95% of the time if I'm listening to Talking Heads, it's this.
U2 - "The Joshua Tree" (1987)
Oh, if only I could pretend. If I could only just take this album (and a small handful of other certain songs) and pretend like the rest of U2's 45-year existence never happened. All the commercialism and the pompous attitude that comes with acting like a revolutionary generation-defining band (regardless of whether or not it's true) set to a backdrop of mostly tepid and uninteresting music created simply as an excuse to make a fortune from international touring year after year, selling ridiculously priced shows to gen-xers who gobble it up like homemade soup (oh and um to use their platform and relevance for activism and philanthropic efforts too I suppose). If we could only wash it all away and just keep this.
But this? This thing? I mean...If you can set aside the fact that you've heard the first 3 songs a thousand times each. If you can forgive the fact that Edge is honestly a pretty one-dimensional guitarist in spite of the distinctiveness and uniquity of his style. If you can tolerate the fact that Bono is so incredibly full of himself and that his huge ego really bleeds through in his performances. Then, well...it's really one of the best albums ever made. They didn't just hit their stride here, they hit invulnerability. Every idea works. Every arrangement, every lyric, every bit of power on here translates and connects. The fact that this album sticks out so radiantly in their discography kind of makes me want to dislike them all the more. But as with all entries in this writeup you have to give credit where credit is due.
And now for that lengthy Honorable Mentions list. While I'd consider each of these albums to be the best album by their respective artists (the best by far in many cases) that is basically the only thing they have in common. The reasons why they weren't included on the main list are varied. In some cases such as Blind Melon, Indio, and Jeff Buckley, the artist didn't have many albums in their discography and it didn't seem fair to include them on the main list because there was little to nothing for such a great album to be compared against. In some cases I wasn't quite willing to say that I "loved" the album, and I just wanted to be friends. There were some that I simply didn't feel compelled to write about. And while it's true that these albums are my favorites of the artists, there are some artists here and also on the main list that I still appreciate if you take these albums away, just not nearly as much.
In any case, here's the best of the rest, again listed in alphabetical order by artist.
6lack - "East Atlanta Love Letter"
Air - "Moon Safari"
All Them Witches - "Our Mother Electricity"
American Music Club - "Mercury"
Arcade Fire - "Neon Bible"
The Bad Plus - "Prog"
Beach House - "Teen Dream"
Andrew Bird - "Armchair Apocrypha"
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - "B.R.M.C."
Blind Melon - "Blind Melon"
Blue Swerver - "The Art of Collapsing"
Billy Bragg & Wilco - "Mermaid Avenue"
(worth mentioning here that I do love Wilco and much of their discog, but not Billy Bragg, including the other albums in the Mermaid Ave project with Wilco)
Haley Bonar - "Golder"
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - "E. 1999 Eternal"
John Boutté - "At the Foot of Canal Street"
Jeff Buckley - "Grace"
T Bone Burnett - "Tooth of Crime"
Bush - "Sixteen Stone"
Kate Bush -"Hounds of Love"
Cake - "Fashion Nugget"
Manu Chao - "Clandestino"
Cloud Nothings - "Attack on Memory"
Paula Cole - "This Fire"
Counting Crows - "August and Everything After"
De La Soul - "3 Feet High and Rising"
Dead Can Dance - "Into the Labyrinth"
DeVotchKa - "A Mad and Faithful Telling"
Kristin Diable & the City - "Kristin Diable & the City"
DJ Shadow - "Endtroducing....."
Steve Earle - "Copperhead Road"
Faraquet - "The View From This Tower"
Ben Folds/Ben Folds Five - "Whatever and Ever, Amen"
Fun Lovin' Criminals - "Come Find Yourself"
Funkadelic/Parliament - "Maggot Brain"
Galaxie 500 - "Today"
Michael Gettel - "San Juan Suite" (no. 1)
David Gray - "Life in Slow Motion"
Guns N' Roses - "Appetite for Destruction"
Don Henley - "Building the Perfect Beast"
Indio - "Big Harvest"
Ingram Hill - "June's Picture Show"
Jane's Addiction - "Kettle Whistle" EP
Amos Lee - "Amos Lee"
Annie Lennox/Eurythmics - "Diva"
Low - "Things We Lost in the Fire"
Aimee Mann - "@#%&*! Smilers"
Maritime - "We, the Vehicles"
Maroon 5 - "Songs About Jane"
Massive Attack - "Mezzanine"
Matchbox Twenty - "Yourself or Someone Like You"
Erin McKeown - "Hundreds of Lions"
Sarah McLachlan - "Solace"
Melvins - "Bullhead"
Mercury Rev - "Deserter's Songs"
Modern Baseball - "Sports"
Mos Def - "Black on Both Sides"
Mumford & Sons - "Sigh No More"
My Brightest Diamond - "All Things Will Unwind"
My Morning Jacket - "Z"
Nickel Creek - "Nickel Creek"
Of Monsters and Men - "My Head Is An Animal"
The Offspring - "Ixnay on the Hombre"
Mike Oldfield - "Tubular Bells"
Over the Rhine - "Ohio"
Liz Phair - "Exile in Guyville"
The Pogues - "Rum Sodomy & the Lash"
Puddle of Mudd - "Come Clean"
Rammstein - "Sehnsucht"
Rodan - "Rusty"
Saigon - "The Greatest Story Never Told"
Sevendust - "Home"
Silversun Pickups - "Carnavas"
SINKANE - "MARS"
The Six Parts Seven - "Casually Smashed to Pieces"
Langhorne Slim and The Law - "The Way We Move"
The Slip - "Eisenhower"
Patti Smith - "Horses"
Spin Doctors - "Pocket Full of Kryptonite"
The Strokes - "Is This It"
Superchunk - "Come Pick Me Up"
Tedeschi-Trucks Band/Susan Tedeschi/Derek Trucks - "Everybody's Talkin' "
Television - "Marquee Moon"
The Naked and Famous - "Passive Me, Aggressive You"
Tindersticks - "The Something Rain"
Traffic - "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys"
Treble Charger - "Wide Awake Bored"
A Tribe Called Quest - "Midnight Marauders"
TV on the Radio - "Dear Science"
UNKLE - "Psyence Fiction"
(produced in part by DJ Shadow, who had a decent amount of input to the creative process here, but not enough to include this as part of the exceptions list)
Amy Winehouse - "Back to Black"
Wishbone Ash - "Argus"
Stevie Wonder - "Songs in the Key of Life"
Frank Zappa - "Joe's Garage"
For a total of 118 albums between the main list and the honorable mentions, plus another 21 on the exceptions list. That's a lot of one-offs. Not to mention the albums which initially made this writeup and which were removed for one reason or another. Goes to show that there's a lot of important and loveable music out there from artists who might not necessarily be favorites or have very deep catalogs. I looked up some basic dates and information but all content is original and mostly personal, therefore I have no sources to cite.
This has been another labor of love brought to you by the music nerd inside me.