The day has finally arrived. The day in which I list MY 10 favorite albums of all time. This was purely an exercise in fun and self-indulgence. Over the course of this countdown, I have listed many well-known albums and artists. But, I may have also introduced some of you to some unknown artists and albums, or at least some overlooked albums by the terrific music of the past and present. The purpose of such a venture was totally to inform and entertain.
Of course, Millennials and Gen Z-ers will be disappointed not to see many of their favorites. And, that’s okay. Boomers may also be disappointed by the very same prospect. But as a person who is listed as both a late-Boomer AND an early-Gen X-er, I have an obligation to stay true to my wheelhouse. Therefore, my true focus will always be those years covering my middle school, high school and college years, let’s say from 1974 through 1989. But, by now, that should be obvious, and I make no apologies.
I also make no apologies for my lack of diversity in my selections. If I were listing my favorite singles, then the music pallet would be all over the place. However, I am mainly a follower of alternative music, from punk to 90s alternative nation, with disco, funk and AOR thrown in for good measure.
Many of you may know which albums are in my Top 10, but you probably have no idea what the order is. But, if you have followed me for any length of time, whether on this blog, Twitter, Facebook or have crossed my path in life, you will not be surprised by my top pick, and many of the others will not surprise you either.
So, let’s finish this thing off! Buckle up!
10. Prince – 1999 (1982). Although I was made a fan of Prince way back in 1979, I did not become obsessed with the man’s music until his breakout year of 1982. Within a month or so of Michael Jackson’s Thriller being released, another important artist of the 80s released what would become his commercial breakthrough album. I was home for Thanksgiving Break, and it was Black Friday. I went shopping for Christmas presents. Since I was single and in college, this spree would not last long. Once the presents had been purchased, I turned my attention to the local record store, where I purchased three albums that day: Thriller, Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove and 1999. I had loved Prince’s first four albums, but 1999 blew it all away. As a matter of fact, 1999 completely rewrote my musical tastes over the course of two albums. Prince had unleashed upon us a musical vision that remained untapped after mental illness took Sly Stone out of the rock game. When I say that I could play Sides 1 and 2 of Record 1 of 1999 and have the dance floor burning is no hyperbole. And that’s only FIVE songs! Plus, Side 2, consisting of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “D.M.S.R.” may be the hottest dance combo ever released. But, Prince’s artistry showed its muscles on the second record as we got ballads, dance cuts and some rock that only scratched at the surface of Prince’s brilliance which had yet to be unleashed.
9. R.E.M. – Murmur (1983). So much was happening musically in the early 80s that it got to be a daunting task to attempt to stay abreast with it all. After reading a couple of early reviews about this debut album from a new band who refused to sign with any major corporations piqued my interest. But to say I was NOT prepared for the aural assault that my ears took when I put the needle into the groove on this album is a major understatement. Much like 1999 did to me a scant nine months earlier, Murmur rewrote my musical tastes. Finally, I was experiencing music on two levels. First, these guys in the band had come of age with the same music I did just by the way they sounded on this album. It’s all there, from bubblegum and punk to classic rock and power pop. Second, and perhaps more importantly, these guys (Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe) just might have become the first important rock from my age group, and that was exciting to many of my peers. You knew R.E.M. were from the South by their sound without being an obvious Lynyrd Skynyrd knock-off. Instead, they filtered that gothic approach through a Velvet Underground/Patti Smith soundscape to construct a sound that launch a thousand imitators (starting with 10,000 Maniacs and running through Counting Crows, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Hootie & the Blowfish). And, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
8. Talking Heads – Remain in Light (1980). You know it! I am a big fan of The Heads! Like I’ve said many times before, it started with their appearance on SNL and only grew as I got older. But, this album, the band’s third collaboration with producer Brian Eno, was arguably the first commercially successful rock album to integrate world musical sounds into the band’s off-kilter pop songs. Talking Heads were in the first wave of punk rock from NYC’s CBGBs scene to knock on the mainstream. So, by 1979, the band were being coaxed by Eno to expand their funk sound. He and lead singer/songwriter David Byrne got interested in African rhythms they were discovering from a multitude of sources and sought to incorporate them into The Heads’ music. Reluctantly at first, the other three (bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer (and husband of Tina) Chris Frantz and keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Jerry Harrison) joined in with the experiment. Quickly, the band called in musicians from the disparate likes of former sidemen from Parliament/Funkadelic, jazz artists, David Bowie, African artists and Frank Zappa. The mixture made for madhouse recording sessions until the final result was heard by band members. To say the experiment was a success is an understatement. Simultaneously, Talking Heads opened up America to the musical sounds from around the world, avant garde guitar sounds, and a new kind of funk that would take the hip hop world a decade to catch up. To this day, I cannot think of another album I’d rather listen to while cruising through the back roads of my hometown on a summer night with the windows rolled down.
7. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984). The Summer of 1984 will never be duplicated. That summer was awesome for so many reasons. The music was fantastic as it was stuffed full of songs and albums by the likes of Prince & the Revolution, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, The Jacksons, Tina Turner, ZZ Top, Van Halen, Hüsker Dü, etc. The Olympics were fun that summer. The Detroit Tigers were making a run on baseball history. The NBA gave us what we had been waiting to happen for five years: Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers were in the Finals, and it was magnificent. And, most importantly, I met my wife. Yet, there were two albums that defined the 80s were released that summer, Purple Rain and Born in the U.S.A. Born in the U.S.A. became The Boss’s biggest selling album with a carload of hit songs. This album was the culmination of a decade of prep work being completed at a very high quality, then being amalgamated into this very moment. The success was based upon the excellent quality of singles, from the synth rock confection of “Dancing in the Dark” to the anthemic title song to the sexually yearning “I’m on Fire,” mixed the perplexingly unreleased “Bobby Jean” (arguably the best song on the album) and concert pleaser “I’m Going Down.” This album was a run through of everything Bruce had done on each of his previous albums and spit-shined to a glistening 80s sheen.
6. Queen – A Night at the Opera (1975). For some reason that I will NEVER understand, the Baby Boomer rock critics hated Queen. I remember reading review after review and article after article with the writer editorializing his or her venom toward Queen. So, it has been left to my age and younger to rewrite history to reflect the truth. And the truth is Queen was the most daring band ever. Sure, that means the four members had over-sized egos, but I have one as well. These guys were not your run-of-the-mill working class blokes. The greatest frontman ever Freddie Mercury studied art in university, while drummer Roger Taylor studied dentistry, bassist John Deacon electrical engineering and guitarist Brian May astrophysics. So, maybe it was due to their intelligence. Maybe it was their musical talent. Maybe it was because everything else was simple to them in life that they should not have any limitations on their musical ideas. Personally, my obsession with this band began in 1974 with their “Killer Queen” single. But, it was “Bohemian Rhapsody” that pushed my love for Queen to full-tilt. Sure. But , The Beatles did many mind-blowing things musically before their breakup (the rhythm of “Eleanor Rigby” being based solely upon strings or the whole “A Day in the Life” come to mind), as well as all that prog rock stuff could be quite compelling at times (“Roundabout”? Are you kidding me? Or “I’ve Seen All Good People”? Shit!). But Queen took it all to whole new level. Then, there’s the rest of the album. Hard rock kiss-off with “Death on Two Legs.” Sexual innuendo on “I’m in Love with My Car.” An extraordinarily beautiful ballad “Love of My Life.” And the pop perfection of “You’re My Best Friend.” Queen honestly began their rock reign on A Night at the Opera, one perfectly executed album that was exquisitely produced. Queen is King!
5. R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992). Here is the most recent album in my top 10, and it just turned 30 years old this year. What can I tell you? I’m a geezer. Regardless, Automatic for the People was the moment in which R.E.M. completely transformed for cult heroes into major label rock gods. No longer were these the cute alterna-boys on the block, but now were men with true musical chops and a new lyrical maturity that all came to light under the direction of producer Scott Litt. This led to the band’s finest album, with its sole being a wistful instrumental called “Nightswimming.” The seriousness of the band’s stances concerning AIDS, women’s reproductive rights, the LGBT+ community and a slew of other liberal causes were popping up everywhere by now, especially with mental health being directly addressed on “Everybody Hurts.” This band was serious and so were most of their music. Still, the boys from Athens, Georgia, had a playful side, as displayed on the eternally silly yet musically brilliant “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.” This is the perfect R.E.M. album.
4. Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (1975). I will always remember the first time I heard The Boss’s signature song. It was about a week after Thanksgiving, and my family were decorating the Christmas tree, for, in retrospect, turned out to be our last Christmas as a unit. Still, I had the huge family room console television/stereo system tuned to the local play of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. Somewhere in the 20s, Casey introduced this new song by a man who just had his picture on the covers of Newsweek AND Time magazines the exact same week. As “Born to Run” blasted from the stereo speakers, I slowly became mesmerized by the sound of true rock & roll being sent down Mt. Olympus for this mere mortal to hear for that glorious three-to-four minutes of pure nirvana. I dutifully wrote down the title and artist on my list of the complete Top 40 that I did every week from middle school until I graduated from high school. But, that day I was struck by lightning in the form of “Born to Run.” I wasn’t burned, but my heart did palpitate a bit. When I regained my bearings, I noted that I HAD to own this album. When I did finally add it to my collection I discovered one of the few perfect albums ever recorded. From the iconic opening strands of “Thunder Road” to the closing of the epic “Jungleland,” Bruce takes the listener through the romantic possibilities that life holds for a young man on the verge of adulthood. The album made me anxious to begin my own journey outside of my childhood home, albeit my story would begin in a dormitory on the Ball State campus. And, through the whole passage of time, this album was my life’s soundtrack. Plus, who else could influence a young man to quote some lyrics in his wedding vows? Only The Boss could have such a hold.
3. Prince & the Revolution – Purple Rain (1984). Here’s the other classic album from the magical Summer of 1984. This album represents the culmination of the pop perfection of the first stage of the funk/rock Prince sound, known back in the day as the Minneapolis Sound (Vanity/Apollonia 6, The Time, Sheila E., The Family, Jill Jones, etc.). I remember telling anyone that would listen to me that this album was the Sgt. Pepper of our era. And I think that assessment continues to hold up today. It was at once experimental yet accessible, funky yet very hard rock, psychedelic but still 80s pop. It was so diverse that it had a Bob Seger-esque finale in Prince’s now trademark title song. After I initially listened to Side 1, I had to excitedly go on a three-mile run before I flipped that damn album to play Side 2. Then, I did that and got further blown away that it left me emotionally depleted. I knew right away I was listening to not just a classic album but one for the ages. From the preacher sermon opening of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the open-chord ending of “Purple Rain,” the album is stuffed with all the stuff that initially made Prince so great. Little did we all realize how quickly he would jettison that style to explore more diverse and complicated takes on his rock/funk world than anyone could imagine. This wasn’t the ending at all. In fact, it was just the beginning. It also taught us that you can only be the “IT” person for so long and that star burns out. The legacy begins when the initial fire subsides. Prince actually assumed his throne AFTER Purple Rain ran its course.
2. Prince – Sign ‘o’ the Times (1987). I don’t think there is another artist in rock history that could make so many classic multi-record albums as Prince. A quick rundown shows 1999, Emancipation, Crystal Ball (though technically its a compilation of great songs from The Vault), Graffiti Bridge, not to mention nearly all of his CD-era albums, along with this one, Sign ‘o’ the Times. This album has only grown in stature in my eyes as the years pass. Prince covers so much ground that it is nearly impossible to list everything he did on here. The title song was not Prince’s first political take (“Ronnie Talk to Russia” immediately comes to mind), but Prince did tackle some unusual topics and sounds. He went new wave on “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” flipped gender identity on its head with his Camille recordings but none more than with “I Wish I Was Your Girlfriend,” and tackled children’s songs with “Starfish and Coffee.” Then, he teamed up with Scottish pop singer and all-time babe Sheena Easton with the sly sexual tease “U Got the Look.” But, through all the funk, rock, jazz and other displays of prowess, the cornerstone of this tour de force is “The Cross,” in which Prince directly discusses his pre-Jehovah’s Witness conversion spirituality. It was the emotional high point of the album and many of his concerts. Allow me to say that the version to own is the 13-vinyl record box set since it includes many of the outtakes that could have been released on rumored versions of this release known as Crystal Ball (a triple album version) and Camille (a single album with vocals that had been electronically altered to make Prince sound androgynous to feminine). Additionally, many of the songs would have also ended up on the notoriously shelved follow-up known as The Black Album, which got a CD release in the 90s and has been on the bootleg market on vinyl for decades. Prince recorded so much material in this era that The Estate could be releasing music long after I am gone.
1. The Clash – London Calling (1979). This is the one album that affected me more than any other, London Calling by UK punk gods The Clash. By the time this album was being recorded, The Clash were generally considered to be the best punk band, possibly with The Jam, as the best band from the London punk scene. Over the three or so years of their existence, the band actually became quite proficient with their instruments, especially after they replace drummer Terry (Tory) Chimes (Crimes) with percussionist-extraordinaire Topper Headon. Suddenly, bassist Paul Simonon became a greatest bass player, while co-leaders Mick Jones and Joe Strummer both became great songwriters and guitar players. All of this meant the boys were ready to move on from the punk beginnings to something that transcended rock music. The hype sticker on this album read, “By the Only Band That Matters,” well, you had better believe it.
The album begins with a call to arms on “London Calling.” Immediately, you knew the guys were not fooling around and were taking no prisoners. Throughout the album the foursome displays a musical dexterity that few possess. They show that as a band, no one could surpass them by covering a 50s-era song (“Brand New Cadillac”), doing a faux-Bobby Darin (“Jimmy Jazz”) and even a little disco-rock a la Blondie (“Lost in the Supermarket”). But, for all the styles covered, the band decided to all yet a 19th song to the lineup without giving that song any listing on the cover OR the label. The song, arguably the best on album and the US hit single, “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)”. This song ironically is the closest the band got to a power pop anthem since their cover of the Bobby Fuller Four classic “I Fought the Law” a few years earlier.
Basically, The Clash, for a brief moment, proved they really were the only band that mattered. For, in essence, they made their case on this double album of no filler, all killer songs. Only Prince could come close to doing what The Clash did on London Calling. It’s a shame that Joe didn’t follow Mick’s vision into the rock/hip hop hybrid he was envisioning at the time, because if the band had pulled it off, they would have set the musical idea in motion a whole half decade BEFORE the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Faith No More got recognition for such a thing. Then, maybe they would have handled Topper’s heroin problems better. And, maybe Joe wouldn’t have fired Mick and Topper and tried to go backwards into a dying punk scene. And, maybe having The Clash would have stymied U2’s ascension to rock stardom. And, maybe, just maybe, monkeys would have flown out of my butt.