Picking top 15 albums isn’t easy

For a Facebook meme, I was asked to name the 15 albums that had the biggest impact on me, with no more than one from each artist. I somehow came up with 15, but the final cuts were painful.

It’s especially tough for someone like me who has both a pretentious streak and a pop streak. A couple of my choices are artistic landmarks that changed the direction of music. Some are artistic triumphs that didn’t break through into public consciousness. Some are just cult favorites or personal favorites.

Some “albums” are coherent works that share a lyrical or musical theme. Some are just the best 8-10 songs a band had at the time. In making such lists, I veer toward the coherent works, but that’s not always a fair representation of what has been in heaviest rotation in my CD players and iPods over the years.

When music critics make these lists, they’re trying to impress other music critics or perhaps trying to make a bunch of people listen to some offbeat personal favorite. I’m not trying to do that. I’m trying to answer the question of which albums had the most impact on me. If they affected rock music as a whole and I enjoy listening to them, then they’re good nominees. But I’m not going back to dig up something that may have influenced music if it only interests me as an historical artifact.

Besides, some of my favorite bands never attempted a grand statement on one particular album. They went through peaks that may spread over 2-3 albums. How do you pick just one?

Some of the problems are evident in my list of nominees, which I’ll give chronologically here so the innovative works stand out. But I didn’t whittle it down to the 15 I listed on Facebook. This is the full picture.

In chronological order, my nominees were:

1966: Revolver – Beatles. Perhaps Sgt. Pepper would be the more common choice, but the sonic innovations on this one paved the way for Sgt. Pepper and everything that followed. And the songs are better.

1971: Fragile – Yes. This band had two peaks, the first spanning three albums in the early 70s (this is the middle one), the second one with the early 80s revival of 90125. The gimmick on Fragile is that each member did a “solo” piece — two of them literally solo performances, two of them featuring a band member, one of them taking a complex Bill Bruford drum part and assigning guitar, bass and keyboards to duplicate various parts of the drum kit. But the solo efforts, particularly the Bruford piece, aren’t the highlights. The full-band songs are all strong, with three of them practically required on every Yes set list for the next 39 years.

1971: Who’s Next – The Who. The ultimate salvage job. Pete Townshend was working on a project called Lifehouse that just didn’t work. But several of the songs or musical ideas worked their way into a powerful collection of songs, four of which became classic rock radio staples. None of the tracks is filler — even John Entwistle’s novelty My Wife somehow fits.

1973: The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd. Moreso than Sgt. Pepper, this one is a must-have on any list of classic albums. Unlike Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side is indisputably the band’s best — Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall and A Momentary Lapse of Reason are very good but not quite the genre-changer that Dark Side proved to be. It stayed on Billboard’s Top 200 for a decade and a half for a reason. The concept of meditating on modern stresses could’ve been a train wreck, but the melodies and jazz touches are gorgeous, and synthesizers took another step forward.

1975: Blood on the Tracks – Bob Dylan. Like Dark Side, this Dylan work transports listeners to another aural landscape and state of mind. While Dark Side called on a large sonic palette, Blood on the Tracks is mostly acoustic guitar and Dylan’s voice, giving understated dignity to broken and confused relationships.

1980: Making Movies – Dire Straits. Brothers in Arms was the band’s international smash, and justifiably so, with a handful of smart pop songs and the breathtaking antiwar titletrack. But Making Movies stands up better over time, with Mark Knopfler’s guitar and guest Roy Bittan’s keyboards providing the backdrop for Knopfler’s lyrical sketches.

1981: Exit … Stage Left – Rush. This is cheating. Rush hit a peak from Hemispheres to Moving Pictures, and this was the live album following those three.

1983: Synchronicity – The Police. Despite the two songs with the “Synchronicity” title, this one is more of a collection of great songs than an album built around a particular theme. With Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland always determined to sabotage Sting’s grand designs, the Police never could’ve managed a full concept album, anyway. They’ll settle for four big hits and a handful of intriguing songs.

1983: The Crossing – Big Country. Yes, this album was more than just In A Big Country and Fields of Fire. It’s a full collection of thoughtful songs with that Scottish sound.

1984: Learning to Crawl – The Pretenders. Not a coherent album by any stretch of the imagination, with a couple of stray songs with fill-in musicians (including Tony Butler, who soon wound up in Big Country). And I never need to hear Thin Line Between Love and Hate again. The rest of this is sheer brilliance and resilience, with Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers picking up the pieces after the deaths of two bandmates and coming back stronger.

1985: Fables of the Reconstruction – R.E.M. Surely my most controversial pick. When R.E.M. set about recording its third full album, the guys hit a massive identity crisis. They packed up for London, unsure about how and whether to be the big-time band the critics thought they could be. What resulted was a quirky mix of tunes that captured the myth and mystery of the South. I could’ve picked several R.E.M. albums, of course, but this one is the most interesting of an excellent catalog.

1986: Skylarking – XTC. Best known for Dear God, a track that almost didn’t make the cut, the cranky English band churned out a charming collection of post-Beatles whimsy.

1987: Warehouse: Songs and Stories – Husker Du. So prolific during their brief time together, the Minnesota trio simply had to finish up with a double album that rarely lagged.

1987: … Nothing Like the Sun – Sting. After exploring jazz-rock in Dream of the Blue Turtles, Sting kept a bit of that influence but also branched out into other realms with a diverse album that included everything from a tribute to an eccentric friend (Englishman in New York) to the definitive lament on violence (Fragile).

1987: Diesel and Dust – Midnight Oil. The Aussies entered their golden period with songs inspired by a trip around their country and their work with Aborigines.

1990: Time’s Up – Living Colour: Could just as easily go with Vivid, but I like the experiments here and the majestic self-assurance closer This Is the Life.

1991: The Reality of My Surroundings – Fishbone. Robert Christgau calls himself the dean of American rock critics. He declares that this inspired romp and rant through urban America is not worth comment. We can therefore declare that Christgau is no more the dean of anything than I am the dean of Norwegian ice fishing.

1991: The Real Ramona – Throwing Muses. Might not compete with others on this list for artistic depth, at least not to someone like me who can’t decipher Kristin Hersh’s lyrics, but you won’t find a collection of better hooks.

1991: Achtung Baby – U2. Perhaps a tough choice over The Joshua Tree, but I thought the introspection after years of musical activism was a nice change of pace that few bands could pull off so convincingly.

1992: Little Earthquakes – Tori Amos. Tori has come up with many intriguing songs since her debut, but she may never again come up with such a strong set of tunes ranging from the playful to the shocking, with a few moments of beauty throughout. (Just as pro wrestler Mick Foley.)

1992: Erotica – The Darling Buds. Like The Real Ramona, this is just a solid collection of guitar-pop-rock hooks. Perhaps it wouldn’t stand out so much if anyone knew how to write a bloody guitar hook these days.

1993: Siamese Dream – Smashing Pumpkins. The previous Pumpkins effort was Gish, which was brilliant in its own right. Siamese Dream explored much of the same territory but did it a little bit better. The album has no unifying theme or sound, but it all fits together as one intense Dream. Billy Corgan was a master of dynamics, taking listeners into a quiet trance that would lead to a loud, violent release. After one last thrash, the Pumpkins follow up with two sweeter, softer songs to end everything on a more peaceful note. When classical music fans speak of the possibilities of a symphony, this is what they’re talking about. Pity no classical composers ever did quite as well. And it’s a pity that Corgan meandered through his subsequent career.

1993: Star – Belly. Tanya Donelly left Throwing Muses and emerged with a creepy collection of songs with lyrics and guitar riffs that were equally haunting.

1995: Cockamamie – Jennifer Trynin. This one might just be a personal preference, but almost every song pops into my head at some point in a given month or two. That’s an accomplishment.

1999: Lost and Gone Forever – Guster. When they expanded to a full drum kit and more complex arrangements, they recorded some fantastic songs. But this is still their most consistent album, and it’s a neat capsule of their original sound.

2003: The Complex – Blue Man Group. With 60-minute CDs replacing 40-minute albums, bands took more of a scattershot approach to recording. Albums were more likely to feature half-baked experiments that might have been B-side curiosities or offbeat compilation fodder in the previous era. And when downloading came into vogue, the “album” started to die. The Complex is different because it’s more than an “album.” It’s the soundtrack to a live show that makes a grand artistic statement on isolation and the power of music to help people overcome it. Some of the songs don’t make sense out of context, and perhaps this is the first case of a DVD being a better “album” than the CD itself. But the songs are strong enough to merit repeated listening, and if you’ve seen the show, you’ll “get” the whole thing.

2008: Narrow Stairs – Death Cab for Cutie. Yes, I’ve raised a few complaints about this one in the past. But I was nit-picking. The album has four outstanding songs and three very good ones.

Unfortunately, DCFC might be the only band that can come up with a reason for me to revise and update this list.

Monday Morning Music: Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Monday Morning Music is sick of people bashing this song. A bunch of British and Irish folks (plus Jody Watley and a few stray members of Kool and the Gang) gathered for a nice simple charity tune, launching a movement that also gave us the blistering Sun City and the wretched We Are the World. The latter seemed to imply that Band Aid should be doing USA for Africa’s catering.

Paul Young and Boy George’s nicely understated vocals blow away the ego trips on USA for Africa. The chorus is bright and hopeful, not whiny and groaning. And if you’re hung up on the “no snow in Africa” lyric, you’re obviously the target demo for those VH1 specials with Mo Rocca and other postmodern-irony hucksters reading Mellencamp lyrics literally. Congratulations.

So unless you’re Jeff and Jason writing Mellowmas entries taking down cynical Christmas cash-ins, Monday Morning Music has no patience for your Christmas cynicism. Just shut up, find your checkbook and listen.

Newspapers can be just like new media whiz kids! (But not in a good way)

A few days ago, I angered some of my Twitter followers by referencing a truly twisted piece of soccer opinion-writing at Bleacher Report. I can’t give a blanket condemnation of the site in deference to a couple of buddies who work there, but I can say the post in question has the following fatal flaws:

1. Somehow connecting the U.S. men’s soccer coach to the country’s failure to land the World Cup on the basis that he occasionally voiced support for it. (By that argument, Morgan Freeman should stop acting, Landon Donovan should stop playing soccer, and Bill Clinton should stop being Bill Clinton.)

2. Insisting that the “new president and coach” of U.S. Soccer should organize competition for Under-20 players, failing to notice that such competitions already exist. (Not to mention the multiple national championships for U19s and below, plus the PDL.)

3. Insisting that the new regime should switch from a 5-4-1 formation to a 4-4-2. When, exactly, has a U.S. team played in a 5-4-1?

4. Suggesting that Jurgen Klinsmann be named not just as U.S. men’s national team coach, a fairly popular opinion but not quite a majority, but as president. The case for: He’s “capable of propelling these changes.” Maybe I’ll take a random poll at the NSCAA convention and see how everyone thinks Klinsmann would fare at changing every aspect of U.S. soccer. (Then again, if he wants the USA to “change” to a 4-4-2 and institute Under-20 competitions, he could claim success on Day 1!)

Silly blogger, right? Thank goodness we can turn to respected newspapers …

… and find this piece from NYU econ professor William Easterly lamenting celebrities’ efforts to go beyond John Lennon’s simple call to “give peace and chance” and actually study issues, meet with politicians and work to bring attention to their causes.

He’s close to a legitimate argument, suggesting that celebrities should be more confrontational outside the system and less conciliatory within it. But why should one approach fit all? If Bono has the patience and kindness to meet with Jesse Helms and appeal to their shared religion (in general terms, at least) to work toward common ground on ending poverty and AIDS, why shouldn’t he?

But that argument isn’t enough to put the good professor alongside our Bleacher Report blogger in our gallery of misguided writing. Ready for this comment on Bono?

Little wonder that he hasn’t cranked out a musical hit related to his activism.

Except Walk On, about Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

Or Where the Streets Have No Name, about reaching beyond the labels put on us by our street addresses. (That’s one plausible take, at least.)

Or The Unforgettable Fire, inspired by artwork of the Hiroshima bombing.

Or Sunday Bloody Sunday, a desperate cry for peace in Northern Ireland.

Or Pride (In the Name of Love), an homage to MLK.

Or (admittedly not major hits) Bullet the Blue Sky and Mothers of the Disappeared, both inspired by El Salvador’s civil war. (Live, Bono has been known to call out a few people in the spoken-word section — Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts among them.)

Or Silver and Gold, a protest of politicians emphasizing money over civil rights, which originally appeared as part of the Sun City project, in which Bono joined Little Steven and many others to tell the Sun City resort they’d refuse to play there as long as South African apartheid remained.

I’m not one to take random potshots at academics. They’re under enough fire from political movements attempting to bend reality to their wills. But that comment reminded me of “hip-hop scholar” Michael Eric Dyson giving a purposefully offensive commencement address at North Carolina, in which he not only went out of his way to offend all the grandmas who had come to see a nice batch of December graduates but also mentioned Alanis Morissette singing about “fellatio in the back seat of a car.”

Car, theater … same thing.

So perhaps I’ve been too hard on our Bleacher Report blogger. If academics are going to be rewarded for failing to do the most basic bits of research on their pop-culture references, what kind of example does that set for the rest of us?

(Or maybe I’m just venting.)