Welcome, friends, to the sixth day of this insane countdown with a little commentary included. I did not realize just how much of an undertaking I was planning, but I anticipate the whole series to be a little better as the numbers get lower.
For some reason, I have been on an AOR kick. It began with me finding a couple of Dennis DeYoung autographed Styx albums at Half-Price Books last week, which led me to burning through that catalog, followed by Journey, and, now, today, Foreigner. And, yes, I’m going in chronological order since I am probably more left-brained than right, though all of those tests continue to say I have no brain. So, what’s a guy to do?
Except to just jump back into the list.
250. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1973). Once Motown gave Marvin Gaye his creative freedom, Stevie demanded and received the same in the early-70s. And that opened up the musical world for Stevie, who subsequently went on a five year creative run that is matched by few. Innervisions, an excellent album on its own, may be one of the weaker collections, though I’d think that most artists would love to have created this one. I am truly splitting hairs now.
249. Rush – Permanent Waves (1980). On Rush’s previous release, Hemispheres (1978), they took the whole prog rock-meets-metal thing as far as they could. Suddenly, the Canadian super trio found themselves surrounded by the new sounds of The Police, Talking Heads and the rest of the art school new wavers with their concise songs and polyrhythms. So, Rush challenged themselves to change with the times and thusly created a whole new Rush language. This album is the transition of their career to becoming rock gods.
248. Neil Young – Harvest Moon (1992). For the better part of two decades, record companies and Young’s fans had been clamoring for more music along the lines of Young’s most commercially successful album Harvest (1972). Along the way, the man re-invented himself as a proto-grunge artist and a proto-Americana artist, while also dabbling in electronica, rockabilly, AOR rock and straight on country. Young had recorded a formal follow-up to Harvest during the mid-70s called Homegrown but waited 45 years to release it (in 2021). Then, suddenly, the man plopped this brilliant gem down in the midst of a mini-career revival in 1992. And, the public rejoiced that he rediscovered his CSNY wheelhouse. And, then, just as quickly, the man went on to other sounds.
247. The Black Keys – El Camino (2011). Arguably the best and definitely the most commercially successful rock band of the 21st century, The Black Keys took a similar guitar-and-drums sound that White Stripes popularized in the early-Aughts, and made some terrific stripped-down blues rock. This is arguably their finest moment to date.
246. Michael Jackson – Dangerous (1991). At the very moment Jackson was defining the Eighties dance/pop sound with Thriller and Bad, along came some younguns with something called New Jack Swing, which was the first marriage between hip hop beats with R&B. Michael wasn’t the King of Pop for nothing, so he began to incorporate this new sound into his patented sound to create a Michael for the early-90s. Unfortunately, Michael began to lose to his muse at this time as his life devolved into tabloid fodder with exotic pets, a stunted maturity level, chronic pain and a pain-killer addiction and a purported penchant for young boys. But, before all of that, he was THE SHIT, as a college friend used to say.
245. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988). Sometimes, public tastes and band development finally collide that leads to an album becoming successful. Such is the case with alternative music stalwarts Sonic Youth. They finally got their experimental guitar sounds married to some concise pop strictures and created a wonderfully left-field album that would go on to influence the whole 90s Lollapalooza nation. “Teen Age Riot” is a fantastic slice of alternative rock heaven.
244. Jimi Hendrix Experience – Axis: Bold as Love (1967). The Experience did not suffer a sophomore slump on this album, their second. It was only a slight step down from the debut. It’s hard to believe that Hendrix only got three studio albums of material recorded before his untimely death. And 50 years on, no one has ever caught up with him.
243. Kiss – Alive! (1975). In 1975, Kiss was NOT a punchline to a joke. They were the underground darlings for teenagers all over. For some reason, their first three studio albums did not catch on with the public, but concert-goers were in love with the band’s extravagant live shows. So, it made sense to record a few concerts and create a sonically-enhanced “concert” with mistakes covered and crowd enthusiasm cranked up to 11 in the studio, all to give the fans the ultimate tribute to the band’s live prowess. And, it worked, as everyone in my middle school must have been given a copy of the album over Christmas 1975, except for my German Baptist friends whose religion prohibited them from enjoying the sinful life of their secular friends. Somehow, those kids heard, right Lowell?
242. Cat Stevens – Tea for Tillerman (1970). Back in the day, few singer/songwriters were as good a Cat Stevens. Seriously, this dude was super-talented. Then, fame and success freaked him out, so he discovered solace in practiced Islam. At the height of his career, Cat converted to Islam, became Yusef Islam and, unfortunately for us, withdrew from his music. Fortunately, a small revival of his music in the past two decades in film soundtracks and an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame drew him back to the public eye, without much of the intensity of his early years. This is his finest and most consistent album in a very fine catalog of music. His greatest hits package is a must-own album for anyone rock fan.
241. Tom Petty – Highway Companion (2006). Tom spent the late-90s getting a divorce from his first wife Jane; fighting a heroin addiction; losing his bassist to heroin; releasing a soundtrack, a box set of hits, B-sides, demos and shelved songs and a double-CD anthology, a veiled divorce album that was very good but could have been great; and, finally, in the early-2000s, released his “pissed off uncle” album ranting about the current state of radio when compared to the good old days that simply left fans scratching their collective heads. Then, quietly, he came back with his best album since Wildflowers. I cannot emphasize just how good this album is, even though it is without the Heartbreakers as a complete band.
240. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004). Back in 2004, I thought Arcade Fire was going to bring back the glory days of the anthemic bands blasting stadium crowds away, as if they were catching the torch being passed to them by Springsteen and U2. This album is glorious in that manner. Turns out they were more a Bowie-wannabe chameleon act. But, that’s cool in its own way. Yet, this album remains their most consistent mission statement.
239. Leon Bridges – Come Home (2015). Ever find yourself craving an Otis Redding-inspired vocalist? Look no further than Leon Bridges on Coming Home because it will completely satisfy your hankering. This album is fantastic at both looking back and forward through Southern-fried soul of the Stax era.
238. Bruce Springsteen – The Rising (2002). When confronting a death or a tragedy, healing is the last step in which to get back to a normal functioning life. So, why shouldn’t the one of the voices of the rock world who could speak across generational lines be the one to initiate the healing process of a major tragedy like 9/11 was. In steps New Jersey’s favorite son Bruce Springsteen to help a nation to begin to heal with this album that full of stories of redemption, the redemption of the families who lost loved ones, the redemption of a nation in mourning, and the redemption of a man reuniting with the greatest backup band in rock history, the E Street Band.
237. Norah Jones – Come Away with Me (2002). Every so often a new artist comes along and taps into the zeitgeist of the music-loving community. In 2002, that new artist was Norah Jones with her tales of love and love lost set to music that reminded older listeners of Carole King and Joni Mitchell, all the while the youngsters were connecting their lines back to Jewell. No matter which way you went, Norah Jones provided us solace during a time of turmoil.
236. Peter Gabriel – So (1986). I had become a Peter Gabriel disciple when I discovered his solo albums back during high school. So, imagine my delight when he released such a soulful song full of double entendres in the form of “Sledgehammer.” Plus, the album was NOT a one-hit and a bunch of filler album. Au contraire, So was full of music that never once compromised Gabriel’s integrity yet captured the ears of the rock aficionados everywhere. This was the album that both the artist and the public deserved.
235. Joy Division – Closer (1980). Joy Division never really got to cash in on the potential success of this, their last album. That’s because lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide on the eve of the album’s release and their debut tour of the USA. Over time, the album sold as the band’s reputation grew. Unfortunately, they were never a band of their time.
234. Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (1972). We are back in those magical years when Stevie Wonder could do nothing wrong. This album represents just the beginning of those wonder years.
233. R.E.M. – Reckoning (1984). With little fanfare, R.E.M. dropped their sophomore album on an unsuspecting crowd. Once again, word-of-mouth praise began to spread about Reckoning and the band that created it that the boys from Athens, Georgia, found themselves performing on David Letterman’s Late Night show, albeit behind white screens. This album was no Murmur part 2, but an album in which the vocals were up in the mix a little more and the lyrics slightly more intelligible. Yet, these guys were proving they were becoming a force with which to be reckoned.
232. Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (1986). Back in the 80s, it made perfect sense that punk rockers would love hip hop, because members of the two tribes had a mutual admiration club going. When Rick Rubin discovered three Jewish white boys who could rap with the best, he made the brilliant decision to take the Run-DMC sound to its fruition by totally marrying hip hop with not just hard rock and metal beats but the instrumentation as well. And, arguably, the greatest hip hop/punk/metal album was born. Unfortunately, the album also spawned the yucky sounds of the late-90s Nu Metal scene which totally forgot to bring the roll along with the rock of the sound.
231. The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta (1980). This was the album that broke The Police in the States. And, no, my old college and high school friends, The Police were not punk. They took the speed of punk’s playing, married it to a modified reggae beat, some prog-rock/post punk guitar and funky jazz basslines for their sound which was way different than the status quo at the time. Additionally, Sting’s lyrics were nearly poetic yet definitely literary. The Police were so much more than rock music.
230. David Bowie – Blackstar (2016). Bowie never told us that he was dying. He was too busy making this album his farewell statement. And, oh my God, what a statement of strength during a time of total weakness was simply breathtaking. Of course, Bowie died just as the album was being released, but he left us with something that will take future musicians 20 years to decipher completely and integrate into their sounds. Was it jazz? No. Rock? No. It was simply David Bowie in the 21st century. Then, rock’s most creative voice was silenced.
229. Beyoncé – Beyoncé (2013). These days it is so difficult for any major artist to quietly drop a joint on an unsuspecting audience. Yet, somehow, Queen Bey did it with an album chronicling her famous husband Jay-Z’s extramarital affair. This album proved once and for all who the toughest female on the planet was, Beyoncé. Moral of the story? You don’t cross Taylor Swift, abuse Tina Turner, and you sure as hell don’t cheat on Beyoncé!
228. Linkin Park – Hybrid Theory (2000). Does Linkin Park qualify as Nu Metal? I never really thought so because while they lyrics contained touches of Nu Metal nihilism, their music actually had some groove to it. Regardless of the outcome of that debate, Linkin Park’s debut album is a keeper.
227. Paul Weller – Stanley Road (1994). Perhaps rock’s most consistently great artist, all the while remaining its most underappreciated artist, Paul Weller assumed the mantle of the Modfather with this album showing the world just who had the most direct influence on some new UK sound called Britpop. No Weller, and his former bands The Jam and The Style Council, we would have never experienced The Smiths, Stone Roses and, of course, Britpop.
226. Prince & the New Power Generation – (The Love Symbol Album) (1992). While this album stands as his last big impact on the commercial charts, he was still evolving faster than his audience could possibly keep up. This album is pure funk (“Sexy MF”) interspersed with some fine pure pop (“7”) that showed that Prince still had his finger on the pulse of 90s music.
225. Beastie Boys – Hello Nasty (1998). Just when we think we have the Beasties all figured out, they drop an album that is completely out of left field. Once again, they drop the instruments again and pump up the forgotten turntable scratches. This album actually peaked with the hit “Intergalactic.”
224. Various Artists – Singles [The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] (1992). How did Cameron Crowe do it? He noticed that Seattle, the home of his then-wife and Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, was going to have such a cultural impact through its music scene. He wrote a coming-of-age love story screenplay, cast some up-and-coming Gen X actors and got music from nearly all of the great grunge bands of the era. The whole package is a time capsule, especially the fantastic alternative rock soundtrack with the likes of future hitmakers like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins.
223. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin (1969). To the public, this album is a touchstone, as if music totally changed to serious musicianship and heavier music with fantasy lyrics all based in the blues. To critics, they were all crying that Jimmy Page simply ripped off the Jeff Beck Group. When you compare this album with the JBG’s first two which came out first, the similarities are undeniable. But, for my money, Zep swings a bit more. Plus, its a little disorienting hearing Rod Stewart singing over heavy blues sounds.
222. Chic – C’est Chic (1978). I think the whole idea of Roxy Music being the source of influence on Chic got lost simply because people hated disco. But Chic was so much more than disco as displayed on this album. They are funk, jazz, rock and more all decorated in a disco setting. They were African-Americans who were aspiring to bigger things in a white world. They were simply ahead of their time while being of their time. Sophisticated, witty and just plain excellent is the way to describe this album.
221. Madonna – Madonna (1983). To people my age, there was before Madonna and after Madonna. Before Madonna, disco sucked in the public’s imagination. After Madonna, disco was still a dirty word for another decade or so, but her version was dressed up with rock, Motown, and the ever-80s sound of synthesizers. Suddenly, punks and rockers were being found on the dancefloor because of this album and its hits. “Borderline” will always have a special place in my heart.
220. Daryl Hall & John Oates – Daryl Hall & John Oates (1975). After three albums with Atlantic, that label did not know what to do with this duo that was equal parts folk, rock and soul. But, when “The Silver Album,” as this album is known to Hall & Oates fans, arrived, it was obvious that RCA turned them loose and allowed the duo to follow their impeccable instincts. Of course, the highlight is “Sara Smile,” written for Daryl’s then-longtime love interest Sara Allen.
219. Chicago – Chicago Transit Authority (1969). So what do you do when you are enrolled in DePaul University’s School of Music but want to make a mark in rock music? Well, find the best musicians in the school and form a band. Oh, and you hire an unschooled musical prodigy on guitar who just happened to have a voice similar to Ray Charles and begin to finish the jazz/rock fusion began by Blood, Sweat and Tears. And, the legend of Chicago, the band, was born. In the early days, before drugs and the death of guitarist Terry Kath started the band down the ballad road, they were one of the hottest bands in the American rock underground. They were so good that supposedly none other than Jimi Hendrix said they were his favorite band and Kath was the best guitarist on the planet. This double album shows the band’s vision was nearly fully developed.
218. Van Morrison – It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974). From what I understand, seeing Van Morrison perform live was a shaky proposition as you never knew which personality of the mercurial singer you would see. Either he was transcendent or he was horrible, with the middle rarely visited. But, if you take what you hear on this album as his normal, you would think that Morrison was a nightly god onstage. He does the hits with a passion matched only by Springsteen.
217. The Zombies – Odessey & Oracle (1968). Sometimes, record companies need to get out of their own way. Initially, this soon-to-become Zombie classic was held up because of some corporate idiot. Then, when it was finally released, the band had dissolved. Now, alternative pop artists view this album as a modern pop classic, often citing it next to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. It’s THAT good.
216. Daryl Hall & John Oates – Big Bam Boom (1984). Rock’s most successful duo proved their 80s revival was still no fluke with Big Bam Boom. Sure, cracks were beginning to show a bit in the rushed songwriting for this album, but they continued to absorb their NYC surroundings, absorbing sounds and implementing them into their music. In this case, the duo and crack touring band led by the incomparable bassist Tom “T-Bone” Wolk and guitarist G.E. Smith (later of SNL Band fame), added hip hop textures and beats of the day to their patented rock ‘n’ soul sound to great effect. Unfortunately, the toll of success caused the whole band of brothers to retreat and go in their separate ways.
215. Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends (1968). As I have stated earlier, it took me a long time to begin to fully appreciate Paul Simon’s solo output as well as the stuff he did with Art Garfunkel. But, I now get it. And, this album to me is the beginning of Simon’s impeccable string of terrific albums.
214. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dreams (1993). To many, this album represents peak Pumpkins since the band was still in BAND-mode and not a vehicle for leader Billy Corgan’s ego. The sound fluctuates between dreamy and grungy, showing a love for the guitar work of Styx and Boston while taking it all down a post punk highway. There is just some terrific material on this album and makes one helluva mission statement for the band.
213. Run-DMC – Raising Hell (1986). This is THE album that broke hip hop into white suburbia, all the while reviving Aerosmith’s drug-riddled career for a second shot at stardom on the highly influential cover of “Walk This Way.” But, c’mon, we all loved “My Adidas” and “It’s Tricky” even more. I cannot stress the importance of this album on rock history and the trajectory that music has taken ever since.
212. Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full (1987). While this hip hop duo did not reach the commercial crossover appeal experienced by Run-DMC, they proved to be more artistically influential in the long run. I believe history will show that if Rakim is not the genre’s greatest MC, then he is definitely its finest lyricist. His influence has been felt through the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Jay-Z and Eminem. In other words, pretty much all of post-Rakim rap royalty.
211. Steely Dan – Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972). If this band were new today, the industry would not know what to do with them. And this was the band’s debut album! All I need to say is the guitar in “Reelin’ in the Years.” Case closed. Next!
210. Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual (1983). Back in college in 1983 and 1984, if this album wasn’t played at a party, someone would have demanded it to be played. We honestly had real arguments while listening to albums as to who would have the bigger career, Madonna or Cyndi? Ponder that one for a moment. We didn’t know how the future played out, but the consensus was the Lauper was going to become HUGE. She had the better voice, better songwriting and better backing band. Plus, she truly seemed like a genuinely good person beneath the skirts made of shredded newspapers and Goodwill clothing. Still, I love her and the influence of the strong woman portrayed on this album will live on.
209. Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967). Columbia had no idea what to do with a vocal prodigy named Aretha Franklin. So, she signed with Atlantic who teamed her with a group of Southern white boys who were musical geniuses that brought out the Queen of Soul. Here is the beginning of Aretha and Muscle Shoals studio band inventing the southern-fried soul sound that has become synonymous with Franklin, Otis Redding and other stars of the era.
208. Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970). I was six or seven when the debut album of these purveyors of heavy music was released. My first encounter with the album was at the babysitter’s house. Her middle school-aged smart ass boys locked me in a dark closet and played the intro to “Black Sabbath.” It scared the living shit out of me, while at the same timing thrilling me. Those a-holes laughed. I can just imagine some high peaceniks playing this for the first time and reacting as I did. That vision of the dark closet makes me laugh now. I’d like to thank my long-time friend Walter Ring for getting me into Sabbath fully back in middle school.
207. The Time – What Time Is It? (1982). By 1982, Prince was ready to record music of all kinds. So, besides recording his classic 1999, he wrote, played and arranged albums by two groups under the pseudonym Jamie Starr. One group was his attempt at a 80s version of The Supremes dubbed Vanity 6, with his then-flame Vanity as the front of this all-female singing trio. The other was his Frankenstein monster in which he did his work as Jamie Starr again but put his boyhood friend Morris Day in front as the lead vocalist. After recording two albums, Day put together one of the hottest funk/pop/rock bands ever. This was The Time, and they got so good that they were on the verge of upstaging their creator on tour. So, Prince went out of his way to get in the way of this band from developing into the commercial force they seemed destined to become. This album was peak Time.
206. Tears for Fears – Songs from the Big Chair (1985). Talk about a out of left field hit! Tears for Fears became stars with this album, their second. It is stuffed full of hits and should have been hits that you’d think you were listening to a greatest hits album. I was never so happy that a band got back together as I was this year when these guys released new material. But, they were at the top of their game on this album behind the singles of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Shout” and “Head Over Heels.”
205. Sheryl Crow – Sheryl Crow (1996). On Sheryl’s second album, she got a little more grungy in her terrific songs. But anything that contains a song that Prince would cover on an album, “Every Day Is a Winding Road,” in addition to “If It Makes You Happy,” you must have one hell of an album.
204. John Cougar Mellencamp – Scarecrow (1985). Hoosiers tend to back their own. If you lived in the state from any amount of time, we tend to back your career. So, when Mellencamp (he HATES “Cougar”) first began making inroads on the rock scene and charts, we were there in droves to back him up and buy his records. Then his songs began to reflect our lives, we fell further in love with the “Little Bastard.” Finally, he became an American treasure with this album and his subsequent work for farmers via Farm Aid. After Uh-Huh, he upped the ante on this one behind the abundance of hits like “Lonely Old Night,” “Small Town,” “Rumble Seat” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” Man, those were the days.
203. Boston – Boston (1976). Hands down, one of the greatest debut albums ever. It’s right up there with The Cars and Appetite for Destruction in my book. This album, along with Queen’s A Day at the Races, was the soundtrack for my 8th grade year. “More Than a Feeling” was the hit, but “Foreplay/Long Time” was our party anthem.
202. Raspberries – Raspberries (1972). Here is the beginning of the American power pop formula. The album would be a classic if it only contained “Go All the Way.”
201. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982). The story goes that Springsteen was listening to Woody Guthrie quiet a bit and that began to influence his own songwriting. Initially, he put these songs on tape acoustically, called his band and began the recording process. Then, in a stroke of brilliance, The Boss and his manager/producer Jon Landau both felt the band was diluting the power of the demo versions of this collection of songs. So, they bagged the recording sessions, and put out the demos, after a little cleaning, for the public. They made the right decision because the stark instrumentation only enhanced the power of the lyrics. And, this whole project flew in the face of music being over-produced in the 80s. The album was still a hit! It just so happens that Nebraska only set the stage for what was to be dropped on us in a couple of years.