In 1970, Johnny Cash recorded a song called “What Is Truth?” The answer to that question is found here in the honest and unadorned voice that fills this record. Cash’s albums for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label are all excellent, but this stands above the rest. Unexpected covers (Glenn Danzig’s “Thirteen,” Nick Lowe’s “The Beast In Me”) abound, and often flirt with Cash’s darker side. The humility which suffuses tracks like Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?” makes it not too surprising that Cash considered naming this album after his two dogs (the two sitting on the cover), Sin and Redemption.
9. The Who – Who’s Next (1971)
Sometimes I wish Lifehouse had come to fruition, but it would be tough for Townsend to improve on this album, a bargain at any price. The Who are known for being raucous virtuosos, but this albums shows they weren’t lacking in melodic chops. Splendid experiments in synthesizer – its first use in popular music – bookend this album and augment several other tracks. Nicky Hopkins' soulful piano is pure and easy on "Song is Over," lending the near epic a light, breathy yearning feel. And still Keith Moon bangs the drums harder and faster than anyone else in the history of rock.
8. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)
A man howls like a dog lying wounded, his voice echoing the hollowness of humanity across the rolling plains – this is the landscape of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. Down lonesome country roads roll killers and gamblers, and their pathos fills the stark soundscape with a wall of regret. This is the album that is borne out during the dim hours of midnight, sung from the hood or a rusted out Ford truck whose engine might never rev again. The desperate cracks of steel strings snap against the soul as the desperate vocals of roughshod earth and iron deliver you from nowhere.
7. Prince – Sign O’ the Times (1987)
On the cover, a blurred Prince walks through a world that is all surface, a rich carnival scene painted on a yellow cotton sheet. In the materialistic facade of the mid-eighties, one couldn't have blamed Prince for losing his artistic focus; as it happened, it sharpened into its finest point. In turns frenetic, apocalyptic, sumptuous and effervescent, Prince turns his talents loose over jazz, techno, balladry and the best George Harrison imitation outside of a Ween album. The subject matter is equally diverse: abstinence, broken homes, AIDS, and starfish as a breakfast food. So what keeps it together? Sensational bravado.
6. Jayhawks – Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)
With vocals more harmonic than Crosby, Stills and Nash and guitars brighter than any sun, the Jayhawks cook up a late summer jam session. Despite song titles like "Blue" and "Bad Time," the music keeps a friendly veneer throughout. It sounds so casual it could have been recorded in your kitchen. The album lives up to its name, planting a seedling in the heart of the listener so that their days will grow greener as each morning arrives. Even when it's a "bad time to be in love," it is a good time to be in love with this record.
It wasn't until I heard Joni Mitchell sing that I realized how badly I want to be a redneck on a Grecian isle who knows how to do the goat dance very well. The introspective melancholy that pervades this album shoots right through the soul, but it’s often enough a price paid for ecstasy that the listener isn't left wanting to slit their wrists. Mitchell's fingers caress the piano, massaging fertile tone from its keys. The original detail, especially in the "Last Time I Saw Richard," brings a warm, quotidian realism to the album that makes it accessible to anyone.
In listening, I followed you –
a young lad, rosy-cheeked and leather-clad,
you roamed the streets of
ducking in and out of
down past the shops,
to where she lay beside you.
You still found the strength
to look straight in her eyes
and see the pale horse galloping
through her lens.
You found the courage to finger the jagged grain
and accept that pain for all of us, to etherize your love,
to stretch your pain across a starlit sky.
And here I sit, ears taut with grief,
afraid to touch
those twelve jagged bars of rejection.
“Nick Walusko – vocals, guitar, eye-patch, carrots.” I have no idea what an eye-patch sounds like on record, but it makes me proud to know that someone out there is playing one. The carrots are easy to identify as their crunchy chomp provides the percussion on “Vega-Tables.” Is this album overly drug-laden? Probably, but it’s still the happiest hodge-podge of
Costello’s first record featured the phrase “Elvis Is King” hidden among checkered boxes. On King of America, he steals the King of Rock’s, the other Elvis’s, band to do what no other foreigner has done so exquisitely – deconstruct the American Dream using the nation’s most proto-typically American idiom, country. From “Brilliant Mistake”’s opening cocktail chatter to the soldier circle jerk that closes “Sleep of the Just,” Costello points a contrarian microscope at
If you blend torch ballads and hip hop, stir in a cup of political angst, sprinkle in some virtuoso keyboards and garnish with irony, you get Nellie McKay. The album cover says it all: our heroine busts a chorus-line pose in a red, hooded pea coat in front of a graffitied construction site. Every track is melodically eargasmic and McKay’s lyrics are filled with the wit we would expect from a twenty-first century vaudevillian. From the moment she starts scatting in Yiddish (hcabnesie? maybe?) on “David,” McKay performs a sultry intellectual seduction that anyone who can hear falls victim to.