Top 30!!!!! Woo hoo!!! This long and winding road of self-celebration is beginning to wind down, and, quite frankly, I will be relieved when it’s down. The prep time for this was long and arduous, yet when I started I was enthusiastic and hyper-focused. And as is the case with me and my short attention span, once the research is done, then I become bored with the process and ready to move on. This time, I really became bored when this big countdown began. Yet, I fought through it. I believe this endeavor will only help me learn to write when I feel both good and bad. This just may have been a great exercise to help me learn to write for an extended period of time in order to write a fiction book.
Regardless as to whether I write a book or not, I will continue this exercise. I do this because I have stored all this seemingly useless information about rock music that I want to get out of my system. So, I still have not run out of ideas to cover on this thing.
Now, let’s get going with the countdown.
30. Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life (1976). By the time Stevie Wonder released this double album plus an EP, he had been at the top of his game after obtaining his artistic freedom from Motown since 1972 across four albums, including this one. This stunner of an album has Wonder flexing his muscles across many different genres, from sweet soul (“Isn’t She Lovely”) to ambitious soul (“I Wish”) to a jazz/big band/modern dance number (“Sir Duke”). With this album, Mr. Wonder reached the top of the summit to which he clung for another seven years before his commercial appeal began to decline.
29. Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (III: “Melting”) (1980). During his tenure with prog rock gods Genesis, Peter Gabriel showed that he was theatrically quirky, unafraid to bring to life the lyrics of a song through costumes and pantomime. So, when he went solo back in 1977, fans were anxious to hear and see just how the man would perform. On his first three solo albums, all of which were titled Peter Gabriel, including this one, Gabriel came off more in line with the Do It Yourself (D.I.Y.) ethos of the post punk era than his old band. With this album, Gabriel made a haunting album with a drum sound that generally ignored cymbals that influenced a generation of band sounds, including the drummer from Genesis, the guy who became the new leader of Gabriel’s old band and had been the drummer all along Phil Collins. Collins took the sound to whole new levels on his first couple of solo LPs. The best songs on this album are the anti-war anthem “Games Without Frontiers” and the ode to a South African hero called “Biko” (the man’s name was Stephen Biko).
28. Pixies – Doolittle (1989). I remember this album being so huge on the Oxford, Ohio, radio station I used to listen to back in the day WOXY-FM 97X (97.7) that the local record store could not keep the album in stock. That meant I had to special order the record through them in order to assure me getting a copy. And thank goodness I did! This album was a complete mind-blowing experience in which to listen. Those of you too young to remember this album, what a shame. However, it’s no wonder Nirvana’s Nevermind was a moment in time because of the sonic similarities heard in both albums. The difference lies in Pixies lyricist/songwriter/singer/guitarist Black Francis (Frank Black) who’s lyrics are abstract and dark (the direction made popular by U2 on Achtung Baby). Go out and buy this album if you don’t own it. There is something innately beautiful lying underneath all the noise on top, making the musical dynamics perfectly compelling.
27. Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman (1988). The music of 1988 seemed totally up for grabs with dance pop and hair metal dominating the charts. In the midst of this musical chaos, a subdued, understated folk album by a new artist chronicling the plight of her fellow African Americans throughout the States captured the imagination of the critics and music-buying public with her direct lyrics set to the finest folk music since the pre-electric days of Bob Dylan. Aging hippies to the alternative skater kids of the late 80s all found common ground with this album. While “Fast Cars” was the hit song, the a capella “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” was the soul of the album. Chapman had difficulty duplicating the success of this album, but that should not diminish her significance in music. At a time when few were outside of the hip hop world were describing the plight of inner city minorities, Chapman accomplished the same thing without the bombast. Unfortunately, much of what Ms. Chapman described on this album still rings true today nearly 40 years later. Which only leads me to wonder, “Why?”
26. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981). This album arrived in stores around the time I graduated from high school, so it coincides with a major change in my life. That summer, this album was planted on my turntable. It seemed as though each and every song on the album was written by Tom about me. It was as if my whole psyche had been set to music for everyone to hear without any of them knowing that truth. Plus any album that begins with the greatest opening lyrics of an album ever, “Oh, baby, don’t it feel like heaven right now?/Don’t feel like something from a dream?”, is going to be an all time favorite of mine. This album is the perfect Petty album in that he had not yet jettisoned his Byrds-influence jangle and power pop sound for his more adult take on the Traveling Wilburys acoustic rock. While Petty’s later albums spoke to the adult version of me, this album is truly the last one to relate to the younger, non-adult version of me.
25. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991). Hello, USA! Welcome to the punk rock movement on Top 40 radio. Say a big, “Thank you!” to Mr. Kurt Cobain for finally finding the correct formula that appealed to the public. For whatever reason, punk made very few inroads on the commercial side of music. That is until a Beatle-loving punk from the rainy Pacific Northwest brought his town of Seattle’s punk rock amalgamation called grunge to the forefront. Suddenly, Cobain and the rest of Seattle scene cohorts became stars seemingly overnight, even though most of them were slugging it out in the clubs up there for the better part of a decade. What Kurt did was give voice to all the pent up frustrations of Generation X, who were the first to grow up as latch key kids from predominantly divorced parent households. Reaganomics were not kind to these families despite what Mr. Reagan’s campaign ads told us. And it was that frustration and alienation that Nirvana, as well as the rest of the grunge and alternative nation, gave voice to. Remember, this album knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album out of the top spot on the Billboard album chart during the Christmas holiday. Translation, this was NO fluke!
24. Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979). Is there an album that touched the zeitgeist of my generation any better than Pink Floyd’s The Wall? I honestly believe that no album better explained what the younger Boomers and older Gen X-ers were going through at that moment in time as you are attempting to leave your teenage years behind and move into adulthood. Bassist Roger Waters wanted to do a concept album about the effects World War II had on his family and subsequent life. Yet, the war became a metaphor for so many of us who either lost a parent in Vietnam or to some other tragedy or our family was broken because of our parents’ divorce. With the Wall we collectively built for each other as individuals as well as societal, many of us had stunted growths until much later in our lives, as the hero in The Wall experienced. This album became the first album to really explain the Generation X psyche. Plus, the music is so damn good. Too bad its recording led to the subsequent demise of the band with Roger Waters still playing bass and conceptualize album themes.
23. The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969). On SNL, Chris Farley had a regularly occurring sketch known as “The Chris Farley Show” in which he interviewed various celebrities appearing that week on the big show. There was one sketch in which Farley was “interviewing” Sir Paul McCartney. He asked Paul, “Uh.. remember when you were in The Beatles? And, um, you did that album Abbey Road, and at the very end of the song, it would.. the song goes, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”? You.. you remember that?” Paul then replied, “Yes.” Then, Chris came back with, “Uh…is that true?” Paul, keeping a straight face the whole time, comes back with, “Yes, Chris. In my experience, it is. I find, the more you give, the more you get.” Now, that was all in jest, as we know. But, when Farley mouthed the phrase, “That’s awesome!” while pointing to Paul, we all realize that Paul’s song had now reached a critical mass in which most people understood the reference. And Abbey Road is stuffed full of memorable moments like George Harrison’s two contributions, “Here Comes the Song” and “Something,” giving us a preview for his first solo album, while John dropped the eternal “Come Together.” But it was Paul’s montage of partially written songs joined together as “The Medley” that at one time explains The Beatles’ greatness while simultaneously putting the final nail in the coffin of the band. This album became the last album recording session in which all four members participated.
22. New Radicals – Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too (1998). By the end of the 90s, I was beginning to feel my age becoming an impediment for enjoying popular music. So, one day I joked to my boys that I wished Todd Rundgren’s sound would make a comeback. Lo and behold, a few months later, I heard this song on the radio that made me recall the Rundgren sound of my youth called “You Get What You Give.” So, I made a bee-line directly to Target that very day to find this CD and purchased it immediately. Then, it never left my house CD player unless I was going to play it in the car because I was hearing Rundgren AND Hall & Oates all over this thing. And, I was momentarily in heaven once again listening to new music. Unfortunately, that was the last time I reacted that way until the 2019 Bob Mould album Sunshine Rock. Then, as suddenly as New Radicals appeared, they broke up in order to become, and remain, a one-hit wonder. And, with that news, my dream of music following me into the new millennium ended.
21. Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill (1995). First off, there is nothing worse than a woman scorned. Other than that said woman putting her relationship to music so that all the other scorned women realize they have a voice for their frustrations. Good lord! 1995 was a rough year in which to coach and teach young women in high school with this album getting big play on the radio, MTV, in their cars and at their homes. If they didn’t collectively all have little attitudes that year that was probably deserved. I saw the guy pool they were choosing their dating pool from, so I got why they were angry. Seriously, I do have an inkling that a female artist with this kind of anger just might be the thing now that Roe vs. Wade has been overturned. I just want women to know that I am on their side! Oh, and by the way, Alanis made a terrific alternative rock album that will live on in history. It’s just a great album that was released at the right time in history.
Next time, we are on to the Top 20! Peace.