Thursday, September 29, 2011

Some Top 10's, Pt. 1--British Rockers

This is another in a series leading up to my All-time Rock Playlist, in which I will list my top 200 (I'm now thinking) songs, with a per-artist limit of one each (and an honorable mention or two, if applicable). I've previously given listings for a couple of the tougher ones to pick favorites--John
and Steely Dan.

For a few artists, though, ones with huge breadth of work and many great songs, I'm going to go into more depth. I need to elaborate, to explain a little my quirky preferences, and just to help me work through the task. In today's listings, we will field some really tough calls from the British Isles.

Pink Floyd
came to Floyd relatively late. I'm not so crazy about "Atom Heart Mother" (I like the cover art, though), "See Emily Play"-type stuff, or even (sacrilege!) "Dark Side of the Moon" (except the last cut). In spite of my ambivalence about the early Syd Barrett phase, I especially like the album that was clearly devoted to the absence of the late Mr. Barrett, namely "Wish You Were Here".

10. Grantchester Meadows/Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict--but of course! (Ummagumma)
9. Nile Song (More)--The hardest that Floyd rocks.
8. Fearless (Meddle)
7. Careful with that Axe, Eugene (Ummagumma)
6. Run Like Hell (The Wall)
5. Pigs (Animals)
4. Comfortably Numb (A Momentary Lapse of Reason)
3. Great Gig in the Sky (Dark Side)
2. Echoes (Meddle)
1. Wish You Were Here (the whole album belongs on the list; clearly “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”--either part, or both--would belong, I'm opting here for the title cut)

King Crimson
As I've raved previously, we're still waiting to catch up to where Robert Fripp was forty years ago. I love about 90% of Crimson's output, and about half of Fripp's other stuff. My feeling is that the middle period--"Lizard" through "Red"--has held up best.

I recently read the Wikipedia article on the band, from which I learned some new things. The most interesting was the quote from percussionist Bill Bruford—a hero of mine; he left the guaranteed celebrity and money of Yes for a musically more challenging, roller-coaster of a job with Crimson. The quote, from his biography, said that coming to KC he got a reading list including Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.

This told me quite a lot; I had a fling with schools of esoteric knowledge based on those two (with reference to great Works which had concealed references to their doctrines) in the early '80's (it ended when my jealous first wife confronted my teacher about the money I was paying for the school, and we all agreed I should give it a rest). There's a lot of good in the program,discussion about personal development and exercises to free the mind from its normal binding habits, but also a lot of outrageous blarney that you are required to follow literally. It's possible, if the band's cranky genius Robert Fripp was deep into that stuff, that some of the various machinations and formations and deformations of the band were partially due to judgments of Fripp's mentors about changes he should make to continue his personal development—and the advice of the teacher is paramount in the program.

In particular, I figure the League of Crafty Guitarists (a “solo” effort with 15-20 guitarists trained by Fripp playing together) could have been his teacher's order for him to share his skills and develop his interpersonal skills. Anyway, my top 10 from Crim:

10. Cirkus (Lizard)--The album deserves better, but it's hard to pick out an individual track other than this one for special commendation. The whole thing has a great feel, high production value.
9.Exiles (Larks' Tongue in Aspic)--I don't know what to say about it, except that it belongs in here; there's a wistful sound to the instrumentals, the tone of the lyrics, that is so appropriate for the band..
8. Trio (Starless and Bible Black)--Incredible improv., recorded live and put on this (otherwise) studio album. Bruford got writing credit for recognizing in mid-song that the performance needed no percussion whatsoever.
7. Cat Food (In the Wake of Poseidon)--I had this album on 8-track in the 70's and listened to it too much; hearing this song recently made me re-discover my appreciation of it.
6. Larks Tongue in Aspic (part 2)--Does it make sense to say it's both subtle and powerful?
5.Waiting Man (Beat)--For my money, this album is their underrated one from the '80's. I saw them on tour with this album outdoors on NYC's Pier, and this was the most memorable song they performed.
4. 21st Century Schizoid Man (In the Court of the Crimson King)--Their groundbreaking first album deserves better treatment from me, and I like all the songs (even “Moonchild”), but I couldn't squeeze them in. This song—almost perfect--is an uncanny vision of the future, and 40+ years ago, when it came out, we knew it. It was really just a matter of seeing the present with great clarity..
3. Great Deceiver/Lament (S&BB)--It's not a cheat linking the two cuts; they blend these two perfectly on the album, and together they are a marvelous study in dynamics, with some of their best lyrics.
2. Starless (Red) The best of their many organically built, chromatic instrumentals—and it's got good vocals, too (a bit melancholy, though).
1. The Night Watch (Starless & Bible Black)--Unlike a lot of their tunes which are almost perfect, this song is perfect—-it's flawless, a masterpiece. If you haven't studied it, the topic is the painting by Rembrandt by that name, and musing about the people in the painting.

Eric Clapton Even more than Fripp/Crimson's, his is a never-ending story that's hard to break into clear segments. When it comes to The List, I will probably split it into E.C. solo and E.C.-subsumed-into-bands, but that is a difficult task to draw the dividing line. Anyway, here's my miserable attempt at ranking his top 15 or so (I note a definite tone of tragedy):
15. Sittin' On Top of the World— (Cream) Many (the majority) of E.C.'s best efforts were on songs he didn't write. This song's history is as old as the hills.
14. Further on Up the Road ("solo")--This is the song Clapton chose to perform for The Band's finale concert, filmed by Scorsese, "The Last Waltz". It refers to a love affair gone bad (of course), but I see it as Clapton looking ahead to better times.
13. Layla--(Derek and the Dominos) probably deserves a better rating, but let's face it, we're all tired of hearing it, even the slow version on “Unplugged”. .
12. I'm So Glad--(Cream) after this, the sarcasm gives way to sincerity.
11. Tell the Truth (Derek and the Dominos)—pick a version, I like the really slow one.
10. Strange Brew (Cream)—-I could mention several other songs on the Cream masterpiece album, “Disraeli Gears”, such as “Dance the Night Away” or “We're Going Wrong,” (great drumming on both of those), or “World of Pain”, or “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (Clapton at least shares songwriting credit on that one), but next I would list:
9. SWLABR--says here that it stands for "She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow"--no comment!
8. In the Presence of the Lord (Blind Faith)--a moment of Clapton seeing his future redemption.
7. Had to Cry Today (Blind Faith)-it's mostly a Steve Winwood song, but I don't think the guitar solo is...
6. After Midnight (solo)--it's by J.J. Cale; I'll take that over his Cale's “Cocaine” any time.
5. White Room (Cream)—has always been my favorite big Cream hit (over "Sunshine of My Love")
4. Badge (Cream)—my choice for the best Clapton performance—singing/playing—of the early years.
3. It Hurts Me Too (solo)--pick any song out of "From the Cradle", as they're all great, all covers.
2. Tears In Heaven (solo)
1. Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad—-(Derek and the Dominos)--The studio version w/Duane Allman was superb; the one on “In Concert” even better.

This is really unfair; I could have filled the entire top 10 with songs from “Achtung Baby” and wouldn't have felt cheated—the album is that good. I settled for four of the top 10, so I could include some others that particularly fascinate me. I'm trying to give the band the respect they are due, and their work, despite stylistic and contextual changes, is all of one piece, one unchanged set of individuals. And I freely admit that I have shortchanged their excellent albums of the 2000's in favor of some of their more aged classics.
10. Gloria—My first exposure to the band; also the first music video I really liked (they're on a barge in a harbor—Belfast?)
9. An Cath Dubh—A quirky song, title is Irish for “the black cat”; from their first album, “Boy”, which I really should have represented more fully, but there's just no space.
8. Love Is Blindness—Achtung Baby!
7. Gone—This song (originally on "Pop", but remixed nicely for their best of 1990-2000 release) is rising rapidly up my chart.
6. New Year's Day—One of their best live songs; the guitar is searing. Same comments apply to another special “Day”, as in “It's A Beautiful (Day)”>
5. Until the End of the World—here I need to mention “The Fly”, “Zoo Station”, “Even Better Than The Real Thing”, and my wife's favorite, “Mysterious Ways”, all similarly great songs from “Achtung! Baby”.
4. Two Hearts Beat as One—My favorite song from “War”
3. One—A.B. Just as it's fair to say every song on the album is great (OK, maybe not “Who's Going to Ride Your Wild Horses”), it's also fair to say this one is clearly the best, for its simple but profound message of love.
2. Unknown Caller—My best from their last album, “No Line on the Horizon”. I don't mind that it's clearly religious, because it's so unconventional. For U2, religion is an irritating necessity of the human condition, which is a pretty reasonable take on it (See also "Staring at the Sun").
1. Pride in the Name of Love—My very favorite song of the '80's; this song made me realize how high their ceiling would be. .
0. Bad/Where the Streets Have No Name—OK, this is a cheat, I know, doubly so, but the way they combined these two songs (from different albums) seamlessly in their live concerts (c. 2002) was spine-tingling. I had to slip it in at the bottom, er, top.

Paul McCartney
My taste with Sir Paul is for the clever jokester rather than the romantic balladeer or the sporadic hard-rocker; he's a clever, talented fellow and that's what I think he does/did best. First, some Honorably Mentioned songs, maybe not quite serious enough to make the top 10: Oh! Darling, Rocky Raccoon, The Night Before, Maxwell's Silver Hammer, I've Just Seen a Face, Fool on the Hill.

10. When I'm 64—he's actually now 69, and going strong.
9. Hey Jude—without the “Na na na”, it's a great song with well-chosen lyrics.
8. Drive My Car—Yes, You Can!
7. Can't Buy Me Love—not with money, no, no, no.
6. Uncle Albert/Helen Wheels –the only post-Beatles song by him that makes my Top 10 list.
5. Mother Nature's Son—pretty close to autobiography
4. Penny Lane—even closer.
3. Eleanor Rigby—his masterpiece collaboration....with George Martin.
2. Lady Madonna—Of his big hits, my favorite.
1. Back in the USSR —you can call it dated; you can call it a petty dig at the Beach Boys; I'd call it inspired, and intensely clever.

Elvis Costello
OK, this guy is a chameleon. He's a great songwriter, but a lot of his best work has been collaboration and covers of others' stuff. He can rock with the best, but he's always turning his back on rock and trying other stuff—usually sappy, like his country music, or his current turn as a lounge lizard (probably it's just an effort to try to impress his wife, who's much better at it). Anyway, this list will pay due homage to his cover efforts, but none at all to when he strays from what he does best, which is intricately-worded, fast-paced rock.
10. Days—A song by Ray Davies of the Kinks, which E.C. Covers brilliantly on the “Until the End of the World” soundtrack.
9. Good Year for the Roses—If you've spent any time in England, you'd appreciate this commentary on the incessant rain.
8. No Hiding Place—Great piece on 21st-century living with fame, from “Momofuku”
7. I Want You—I love the intensity.
6. Lipstick Vogue—Great rhythm, and despite what you would think from its title, actually not sarcastic.
5. Radio Radio—My favorite from the early, Attractions-do-Buddy-Holly rocker period.
4. Beyond Belief—My favorite of his Dylanesque scornful songs about love.
3. What's So Funny about Peace Love and Understanding?--a signature Costello cut, it's by Nick Lowe.
2. I Don't Want go Go to Chelsea—I love the sharp edges, both in the music and the lyrics.
1. Oliver's Army—never more sincere or clever with his lyrics. Certainly never more politically on target (Oliver refers to Cromwell, and the song's basically about the British military occupation in Northern Ireland).

The Who
With time, critical attention has turned from their concept albums (“Tommy”, “Quadrophenia”) to their early pop and to Pete Townshend's pieces intended for the never-quite-realized “Lifehouse” masterpiece that eventually became the guts of “Who's Next” and “Odds and Sods”. Not so for me—I still love the early rock operas, as well as the hits, some of the early experiments and other Townshend
gems that didn't become hits, such as much of his collection of demos, “Scoop”. With all that scope to choose from, it's not easy for me to narrow down to a few favorites.
My experiences seeing them live—and they were at the top of the list of the very best live performers, of the ones I ever saw—came in the middle-late period, when they were doing “Who Are You” (1979) and re-creating Quadrophenia (1996). After Keith Moon, but they still had Entwistle and Townshend at peak level, playing seriously.
From the live cuts on the extra disc that came with “Endless Wire”,
though, I don't think I'd want to see them now.

Before I count down my top 10, here are 10 great songs which somehow didn't make my
list: “The Kids are Alright”, “I can See for Miles”, “Go to the Mirror”, “Amazing Journey/Sparks”, “Bargain”, “5:15”, “Trick of the Light”, “Mary Anne (with the Shaky Hand)”, and two great ones from “Scoop”--”Mary”, and “To Barney Kessell”.

10. A Quick One (While She's Away)--first preview of what would become “Tommy”
9. Eminence Front—the band's last great single
8. Naked Eye—in case you don't recognize the title, the tag line is “It don't really happen that way at all.”
7. Helpless Dancer—I always liked this short piece the best out of all the great “Quadrophenia” album.
6. Zelda—It's from “Scoop”; if you've never heard this album, and care at all about The Who, you must.
5. Won't Get Fooled Again—about as close as they ever get to a political statement, one that's held up—it's basically an eternal truth.
4. Pure and Easy—Contrary to some opinion, The Who can be uplifting, though it's not easily so.
3. Who Are You-a great, honest late statement
2. Underture—I love this piece, but it's not my #1 because it lacks Roger Daltrey's vocals; he's been a great mouthpiece.
1. Behind Blue Eyes—I think it's what they—and particularly Townshend--are all about.

Gang of Four
This is a tricky one; the range of their product is not all that broad, but it's really top-notch, with a unique approach to building a song in layers and some great chicken-scratch guitar, plucked bass, and very politically pointed lyrics (but very post-modernist in the ambiguity of their stance). My problem is that they have ten or so songs that are superior work and its hard to prefer one over another.
10. Outside the Trains Don't Run On time
9. Satellite --best of the songs I've heard from their later work after the early '80's.
8. Call Me Up--”give me a reason for living”--a later one, as in not from the first two albums.
7. Natural's Not in It
6. In the Ditch—antiwar, or is it?
5. History Is Bunk—they can't really mean that, can they?
4. Damaged Goods – their first hit
3. I Love A Man In a Uniform—clearly sarcastic, I think.
2. Anthrax—a truly bizarre, hypnotic piece: “Love is like a case of Anthrax”
1. I Found that Essence Rare—yes, it is. The bass line will knock you over.

And That Leaves, Of Course... No, not Led Zeppelin: "When the Levee Breaks", with mentions for "Kashmir" and Robert Plant's recent cover of Low's "Silver Rider".
Nor Stevie Winwood, one of my all-time favorites: my clear choice for him is "Gimme Some Lovin'" with mentions for "Empty Pages", "Night Train", and "While You See A Chance" (theme music at my wedding--not kidding). As with Clapton, I may break down Stevie's into pre-solo and solo for The List, as a little bit of cheating is permitted by Blogger to me.

Speaking of cheating, though, we are of course now up to talking about "The World's Greatest Rock 'n Roll Band", or whatever. The Stones. My preference is generally for their work from the Brian Jones Era (through sometime in 1969), though I have to give some credit for the body of work since then (up until about 1990 or so, and none after that). So we've got 22 songs here, 10 of which were from the
BJEra, 10 not, and the other two being ambiguous, from "Let it Bleed", which was recorded before Jones died--with little help from him, according to his survivors--and released after that event.

22. Waitin' on a Friend
21. Before They Make Me Run
20. Get Off Of My Cloud (BJ)
19. Can't Always Get What You Want
18. We Love You (BJ)
17. Some Girls--despite the misogyny.
16. Under My Thumb (BJ)--despite the misogyny.
15. She's a Rainbow (BJ)--now, that's more like it.
14. Gimme Shelter (BJ)
13. Midnight Rambler*
12. Shattered--the classic Stones-in-NYC song--Mick Jagger's probably the most famous person I saw hanging out on the streets there, ever.
11. Wild Horses
10. Street Fighting Man (BJ)
9. Jumpin' Jack Flash (BJ)
8. Dandelion (BJ)
7. Let It Bleed*
6. Gimme Shelter
5. Paint It Black (BJ)
4. Can't You Hear Me Knockin'--there was a period when you had to have sax on your record. This was from then, for them, and they used it well.
3. Ruby Tuesday (BJ)
2. Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)--"The po-lice in New York City..."--see above comment about the sax.
1. 2000 Light Years from Home (BJ)--Give me the Mellotron, every time.

No "Satisfaction"? No "Satisfaction"!! I also lied about how many Brian Jones Era songs there were. Deal with it.

Bruford's comment on being given Ouspensky and Gurdjieff to read when joining the band is in his autobiography (per the Wikipedia): Bruford, Bill "Bill Bruford – the Autobiography", Jawbone Press, 2009.

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