2016 – Favorite Records 10-1

It’s over, once again.

After doing this a few times, it’s tough to think of new things to say about these records. But, it’s the task I’ve assigned myself. So… git er dun!

10
Gillian Welch 2001
Time, The Revelator

Score: 731 W/L/T: 13 / 3 / 2
They don’t vary their style much from album to album; it’s always just the two of them doing that minimalist old-time country thing. What changes from record to record is the quality of the songs. They’re always good, but this album has the best songs. There’s plenty of lovely minor key gloom. But there are some upbeat tunes, too, and some with a pleasantly dreamy vibe. The lyrics seem a bit sharper, more honest and personal. A couple of songs stretch out with long hypnotic instrumental sections, letting the great David Rawlings take his time.
9
Joni Mitchell 1971
Blue
Score: 739 W/L/T: 11 / 4 / 1
But of course there are no lyrics more sharp and personal than Joni Mitchell lyrics. Nothing I’ve ever heard comes close to being such a clear and direct picture of someone’s thoughts; and few people have ever been able to put their thoughts into such beautiful words, let alone sing them with such a lovely voice. And even if it’s an illusion, that seemingly direct line to her inner life makes all the songs, from the heartbreaking “River” to the silly-sweet “Carey”, so much more poignant than the uncountable similar songs of lesser artists.
8
Paul Simon 1972
Paul Simon
Score: 769 W/L/T: 18 / 4 / 2
Paul Simon is another fantastic lyricist. But he typically doesn’t arrange diary entries for music like Mitchell seems to do; he’s more of a storyteller. The literal truth of the stories as they relate to Simon himself doesn’t seem so important. They seem allegorical.
And he delivers them with that soft and effortless voice that always feels nice in my ears. His guitar playing is pretty great, too (ex “Armistice Day”, linked above).
7
Miles Davis 1959
Kind Of Blue
Score: 841 W/L/T: 15 / 2 / 2
Every time I listen closely, I’m astounded. Every time I listen casually, I’m comforted. The songs are long and their structure leaves worlds of space for the three horns and the piano to spin long thoughtful melodic lines; and there aren’t any crashing changes in dynamics or flashy changes in tempo. And that makes for nice background music. But, it’s even more fun when I can close my eyes and follow the soloists around and marvel at Bill Evans’ watercolor melodies.
6
REM 1984
Reckoning
Score: 861 W/L/T: 14 / 1 / 4
There’s something unsettled about the best REM songs. The sad songs are wistful; they don’t wallow. The upbeat songs aren’t shiny and happy; they second guess elation. That’s what makes them interesting, keeps them from being one dimensional. And it’s always best when Stipe’s lyrics are opaque. That way, you can bring your own interpretations.
5
A Tribe Called Quest 1993
Midnight Marauders
Score: 862 W/L/T: 18 / 2 / 1
I was introduced to this and to the Beastie’s Ill Communication the same night, by the same person: a college girlfriend from a very different background than mine. Before then, I knew pretty much nothing about hip-hop outside of the top-40 stuff that I couldn’t avoid at parties. So, mostly goofy novelties: the adolescent stuff from the Beastie’s first record, Run DMC’s “Walk This Way”, “Funky Cold Medina” and “Baby Got Back”, shiny dance hits like “Groove Is In The Heart” (which incidentally, has Q-Tip from Tribe on it). I’d heard Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet – my roommate played it a lot when it first came out – and I’d never call those guys goofy or dumb. But that record never clicked for me. The sound of it is just too harsh and brutal for my delicate ears; it sounded a lot like the “industrial” bands that were almost popular at the time – dense, grinding, repetitive. But these two records really, seriously, blew me away. This one, especially. I had no idea there was this kind of depth and musicality in hip-hop; I didn’t know there were rappers who were intelligent and fun. Midnight Marauders is laid back and jazzy and smart and fun and it was just what I needed at the time. And it’s stuck with me ever since.
4
Sea And Cake 1995
The Biz
Score: 885 W/L/T: 14 / 1 / 1
There’s a lot going on in these songs; bass and guitar are usually playing counterpoint to the rhythm guitar and vocals, and the drummer often uses a light quick touch that skitters along like Stewart Copeland. But it all meshes nicely and feels organic and unassuming, never studied or showy. But that’s all pretty much standard Sea And Cake stuff. What sets this album apart is its generally relaxed and sunny vibe. Like a late summer afternoon. Even though their chords and melodies are always unconventional by rock standards, the songs here are especially straightforward and easy to get into. They’re simply arranged, without the synths and drum machines you find in their later stuff. Guitars are up front and clear, and it sounds almost live.
3
Pavement 1994
Crooked Rain Crooked Rain
Score: 887 W/L/T: 14 / 3 / 1
This is the point where they balanced their sometimes over-indulgent weirdness with their ability to come up with truly great rock songs. It’s still got plenty of weird, but that doesn’t overwhelm things. After this, they’d adjust that balance back and forth, but they’d never get it just right again.
2
Sea And Cake 1994
Nassau
Score: 990 W/L/T: 15 / 0 / 4
Even though this was released just a few months before The Biz, they feel like two very different albums. It certainly sounds different. It doesn’t sound quite as live as The Biz; the guitars aren’t quite as clear and sometimes sit deep in the background, drums are more prominent, vocals are double-tracked and processed. It’s more polished, which isn’t always necessarily a good thing, but not necessarily bad, either. There are plenty of songs here with that Biz-y simple, sunny, breezy feel, but on the whole everything is more adventurous and sonically interesting, a little more jazz-ish, too. But what really separates this one is that this was my first Sea And Cake record. As with Midnight Marauders, it was eye-opening. This showed me that all those strange chords I’d been messing with could actually be used in rock songs, and that new music didn’t have to be all about hipster slackers or grungy burnouts. It could be deliberate and arty and melodic, it could borrow from jazz, and still be interesting and unpretentious.
1
The Beatles 1969
Abbey Road
Score: 994 W/L/T: 21 / 3 / 4
Taking the top spot by a mere four points! I’m going to admit that a bit of its placement is due to the fact that I just spent a couple of weeks learning how to play the solo in “Something”.
I can’t link to anything but “Hey Majesty” because everything else on the album has been blocked on YouTube. I assume you all know the album anyway. And if you don’t, you should.

That’s it.

Done.

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