These days, with digital music so easily streamed, albums seem not as central to music as they once were. Artists still make them; it’s even possible to buy vinyl versions of some new albums (there are those who still see vinyl as better than digital), but the industry no longer revolves around the idea.
In any event, a conversation topic I’ve enjoyed starting is the question of one’s perfect albums. Which is not to say one’s favorite albums — the two are not necessarily the same. A perfect album is one where you love — love, not just like — every single tune.
Lists differ, of course. The fun is seeing what people have in common.
It’s interesting just seeing what people select as their perfect albums. It’s a good way to discover new music, and a conversation starter in any case.
There are some restrictions on album eligibility.
A key one is collections — especially best of collections. Such albums typically consist entirely of favorites, and they have a body of work to select from.
A related restriction involves live concert albums, which usually are also collections of favorites and hits from the artist’s oeuvre.
That means, in addition to Greatest Hits (1988) by Fleetwood Mac (in may regards, the soundtrack of my early 20s), I am forced to also disqualify Hot August Night (1972) by Neil Diamond (both cherished favorites and perfect albums to me).
Some soundtracks are disqualified on similar grounds. Many are collections of existing tunes, which rules them out. Original soundtracks are another matter, and I don’t see a reason to rule out musicals. The requirement is a set of original songs created for that set.
Christmas music is ruled out because it’s all perfect.
Here are (some of) my perfect albums (the list is not exhaustive):
This is one many have in common. It’s got the well-known hits “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al”, and also “The Boy in the Bubble” and “Under African Skies” (one of my favorites among favorites).
Plus,… well, plus every other song on the album. That’s the point, every song is a winner. None of them make you want to press [Skip]. You know them, love them, sing along with them all (get them stuck in your head for days).
And ya just gotta love that tasty zydeco sound!
(One tip about Paul Simon: Don’t read too much into his lyrics. There is all kinds of meaning, hidden and overt, but he’s said he sometimes uses lyrics just because of the way they sound. For him, sometimes the words are just another musical instrument.)
Special shout out…
…to the four Simon & Garfunkel albums that were my first “rock & roll” albums ever. My dad’s actually, the first two. Given to him by the younger members of his church seeking to expand his musical horizons (my folks were pretty strictly classical and church when it came to music). It was my horizons that expanded.
Some of it’s nostalgia I’m sure, but all four of these, especially the first and last, are perfect albums to me. I had all four piano song books, so I knew (and still know) these tunes well.
The title cut of the last album is especially near and dear. It’s one of my favorite pieces of piano music, and I struggled mightily to learn to play it (and never really quite got there). But what an awesome tune! (See here for a clip.)
Most people of that era remember “Baker Street” (with the great sax solo). As it turned out I love every song on the album — some of them way more than that hit (which got old from over-exposure; it’s the one tune I’m most likely to barely notice now).
Sadly, the other Rafferty album I have, Another World, is unremarkable to me. None of the tunes engages me. I’d be inclined to suggest Rafferty “Did a Boston” with City to City, but it’s hard to tell how much is just my taste and how much might be that the album really does stand out (according to the Wiki article, Another World was a departure for Rafferty, so maybe I should give his other work a try).
This has to be one of my favorite albums of all time. If I’m honest, a small part of the original attraction was the profanity, which was new and shocking to me back in the early 1970s. (“You’re breaking my heart. You’re tearing me apart. So fuck you!”)
But the tunes are both funny and great rock, which draws me to them much more than funny tunes with pedestrian musical accompaniment (which, to be honest, is most funny tunes — the emphasis is all on the lyrics).
There is also that the songs speak to me. I’m totally behind the message of “I’d Rather Be Dead (Than Wet My Bed)” and “The Most Beautiful World in the World” always makes me smile.
It’s funny how much I love this album while at the same time never having been much of an Elton John fan. Which is shouldn’t be taken as any kind of reflection on Elton John. Far from it.
It’s almost a case of ‘so much music, so little time’ — one can’t be into everything that is good. (If my life revolved around music more, it might be different, but music is just one of the things I love and explore. The bottom line is that some things don’t make the cut no matter how good they are.)
For me the star of the album is “Candle in the Wind” — in part because it’s such a good tune, but it part because I really like the piano in it (as with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” it was part of my repertoire long ago).
This one appears on a lot of peoples’ lists. It has one of the best album covers ever. It spawned two sequel albums (see below) and a musical. It’s one of those Albums Everyone Has Heard Of.
As with Graceland, it has some of the most memorable tunes in rock and roll.
For one: “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” (it must have been while you were kissing me) has a great title, a great story, and that spoken intro that begins: “On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”
For another: “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” which also features a spoken part. If you’ve never heard it, you’ve missed one of rock’s fun treats — it contains part of a (fake) baseball game (by a real announcer). Wonderfully connects the dots on “getting to first base.”
The cover is so well known Terry Pratchett referenced it in his Discworld novel Soul Music, which has rock and roll as its central theme.
Bat Out of Hell II – Jim Steinman & Meat Loaf (1993)
This one also has great tunes with memorable titles: “I Would Do anything for Love (But I won’t Do That)”, “Life is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back”, “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”, and “Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)”.
If I have a complaint about this album (and I do), it’s the over repetition of hook lines. The latter two tunes listed above are particular offenders. After hearing, for the 30th time, that “objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are,” even in Meat Loaf’s crooning voice, I’m sorely tempted to hit the [skip] button.
So while the tunes are so much fun I have to include the album, this is one is a little marginal. Kinda gets included because the first one is such a classic.
(Showing how out of touch I am these days. There’s a third album. I had no idea.)
My first exposure, way back in high school, to this double-vinyl was, believe it or not, a library loan. I was enthralled! I listened to it over and over during the loan period. Once I began to have some spending money, it was one of the first albums I bought for myself.
I’ve always been more of a fan of The Who than of the other two major British bands, The Rolling Stones and that other group that was popular. The funny thing is, I was never really into that other group — I liked the Stones more.
That said, no one escaped The Beatles, and I had some albums and, in fact, sheet music for most of their songs (for piano or guitar). There just was no escaping the Fab Four.
I used to know every song by heart. (We sang the entire libretto several times while on a high school sponsored trip through Europe back in the 1970s.)
I still have a piano music songbook for it. I used to play most of the tunes. A lot. Loved this opera!
I was especially fond of “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” (which has such a powerful emotional arc), “King Herod’s Song” (which is such a fun honky-tonk tune), and “Everything’s Alright” — they sounded best as piano pieces. Most of the other tunes did better with a bit of orchestral support (there should really be someone on bass guitar for “Heaven on Their Minds” for instance).
There are some runners up or close misses…
Commonly known as the “Skull & Roses album,” the title intended by the band but vetoed by the record company is Skull Fuck. Sadly, it’s disqualified due to being a live album.
It doesn’t quite make the list anyway due to a typically indulgent drum solo (that I usually skip), but it’s one of my very favorite albums.
Drum solo aside, it has some really great cuts: “Bertha” (a major fave), their version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”, their version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, their version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”/”Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad”, and — above all, one of my favorite cuts of all time — their version of “Me and Bobby McGee” (which I think is even better than Janis Joplin’s version, and that’s saying a lot).
I went through a whole Bruce Springsteen phase, in part due to unexpectedly seeing him in the concert promoting the album.
But then he got a bit too popular — too revered — for my taste, and some of his later albums didn’t much grab me. (In fact, he did Nebraska in 1982 right after this, and I didn’t care for it. Not what I was looking for. I wanted more rock & roll!)
To be honest, my affection centers on this album. The first two are okay, but his work doesn’t really grab me until Born to Run (1975). The last album I bought was Luck Town (1992), and I’ve pretty much tuned out since.
But this was a favorite album for a long time, and I do love the tunes.
Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? – soundtrack (2000)
Many of the songs are old traditionals or from America’s past, and the tracks are by a variety of artists, so it’s definitely a collection, but I do love nearly every song on it. Something about it grabs me.
There are some I’m a bit lukewarm on, but others compensate. I especially love the rich harmonies of “Down to the River to Pray” — it’s a powerful tune to begin with and Alison Krauss and company do it justice.
This movie soundtrack is the second time I decided, while watching the movie in the theater, that the very next day I had to go buy the soundtrack.
The movie stands out as the first time the music caught my attention so much I decided I had to go buy the soundtrack the very next day. The thing is, it was background music, which I tend not to notice much.
But in this case, it was the tasty jazz piano by Grusin that caught my ear.
The soundtrack album alternates between Grusin’s original material for the film and cuts by other artists that were included in the film. An eye-opener for me involved some of the other artist stuff. I had to watch the film again to realize they were tunes briefly playing on radios in the background.
Little Big Town, especially, has had serious staying power with me. I was a Fleetwood Mac fan, and I like do country/rock, so they’re a hit with me.
David Gray was a discovery I may have over-indulged in to the point of over-dosing. Hard to say if that’s over-exposure or exhausting the interest. Time will tell.
On the flip side, there are albums where I love only one tune. Albums I bought because I heard and really liked a tune but wasn’t generally familiar with the artist. And then it turned out I only liked that one tune.
But that’s a post for another day.
Stay musical, my friends!