Well, here we go, just as promised. As I briefly stated last week, I have been working on perhaps my largest undertaking for this blog. That’s right, I have identified 1000 albums that I love and/or feel are important enough to mention. Some are obvious. Others are not. Many are critically acclaimed, while a few are critically ridiculed. Many are generally considered to be groundbreaking, while a few are obscure and near to my heart.
Previously, I stated that none are compilations. Well, that is not entirely true. Actually, the first two albums that I will cover are considered to be greatest hits packages. However, those artists, Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry, never really released important albums, yet both had many important singles that became the foundation of this thing we love called rock music.
First of all, I tend to focus on singles and songs in this blog that it may surprise you that although I LOVE the single, I find the album to be the ultimate statement of an artist’s talent and musical vision. Whether that album is a concept album, such as Tommy or American Idiot, or a simply a flex of musical muscle, like Pet Sounds or London Calling, those long-playing records are the statement of that artist’s musical mindset. Many of these albums were never intended to be a collection of songs with a cynical eye toward selling loads of singles and surrounding those couple of hits with filler. No, all of these albums are considered to be huge musical statements by the artist.
So, let’s get this thing going, chronologically.
Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings (1990). Robert Johnson’s life and talent is full of rumor and debate. Regardless, of whether the man was actually Robert Johnson, received his talent from the Devil, or some other story, his music was highly influential to many of the Sixties blues-based artists especially Eric Clapton. The English youngsters of the Sixties took this as the foundation of their careers. This box set collects all of his important recordings in one place.
Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty-Eight (1982). Say what you will about who is the King of Rock, whether you think it is Elvis Presley, Little Richard or even, according to their album and song, Run-DMC, a case can be made for Chuck Berry. These 28 songs represent the actual foundation, along with Johnson’s songs, of rock music. You can hear Berry’s influence in the early hits of The Beach Boys and throughout the career of The Rolling Stones.
Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours (1955). To hear my wife tell it, Frank Sinatra set the stage for the reaction of teenybopper females to a singer. But by the time 1955 rolled around, Sinatra’s star was fading a bit when he was teamed with arranger Nelson Riddle. Together, this duo created what many consider to be the first artistic musical statement across a 33-and-1/3 rpm long playing record. And although Sinatra’s music is not really rock music, his attitude and vulnerability is, and this album may just be the one that has influenced rockers from Bob Dylan to Bono. It’s full of melancholia and evokes the whole feeling of leaving a bar by yourself.
Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley (1957). Here’s the beginning of rock & roll in album form. Simply put, everything about this album is just flat-out rock. From the timeless songs, many of which were left over from Elvis’ Sun Records sessions, to the album cover artwork, this album set the standard. The album cover photograph alone influenced a whole rock photography industry, but the artwork signaled the times were really a-changing. And, I have yet to really mention the music. Certainly, possibly the actual Sun Sessions compilation might show the immediacy of Elvis’ music, but this album displayed the commercial clout that rock & roll would have from this moment onward.
Little Richard – Here’s Little Richard (1957). Little Richard liked to remind everyone that HE was the King of Rock. And, when you here his unparalleled flamboyance and energy on this set of songs, you believe his assertions. If this album only contained “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Rip It Up,” it would be a classic album, but throw in the rest of the kitchen sink and it becomes timeless. Without Little Richard, there’s no Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton nor Prince. The man was the whole package: songwriter, arranger, singer, pianist and visual artist.
Howlin’ Wolf – Moanin’ in the Moonlight (1959). What can you say about this blues/R&B classic that broke down the door for the Chicago blues sound? This was Wolf’s debut, and it is stacked with classics that set the standard for the icon himself. The title track, “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “Evil (Is Going On)’ are the standards of the album.
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (1959). Not too many artists have released an album that defined a whole genre, but Miles Davis, quite possibly THE coolest musician ever, did it twice. Kind of Blue was Davis’ first, and perhaps, most visionary album. This album defined jazz for many decades to come. This album continues to be a source of discovery sixty years later.
Ray Charles – The Genius of Ray Charles (1959). When Rock & Roll hit, there were many talented musicians out there, but none had the ability to synthesize a new sound from disparate forms of music like Ray Charles could. And, when you factor in the knowledge that he had the foresight to allow his friend Quincy Jones to arrange many of these songs, you realize Charles is a man of unparalleled vision. Unbelievably, this is NOT Charles’ biggest musical statement, even though the album does contain is great hit song “Let the Good Times Roll.”
Etta James – At Last! (1961). Okay, I understand in this era of all those televised vocal competitions that people think the Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey/Christina Aguilera-type of vocal dynamics are the standard. But, please people, go back and listen to this album to hear a voice that emotes and growls and displays a female toughness that is missing in today’s pop. James takes the R&B/Blues mantle with this album. If she had only recorded the title track for this album, it would be a classic. But, throw in “Anything to Say You Are Mine,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and “Stormy Weather (Keep Rainin’ All the Time,” and you have an album for the ages.
Ray Charles – Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962). Brother Ray’s management thought he was crazy when Ray proposed making an album of country music standards. What does a black man know about this stuff? Are you kidding me? Ray had a grasp of every form of music including country, which was ingrained in him as a child. But he made these songs HIS own. There is not a dull moment on the album, becoming quite possibly the first out-and-out classic album of the rock era as Charles celebrates American music.
And, there are the first ten albums on my list, and only 990 more to go. Honestly, this has been a wonderful time just listening to these albums all over again as a refresher. I hope this inspires all of you to go through these albums because they represent my time capsule and the soundtrack to my life.