Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Second Five of My Personal Top Albums List

This is the second installment of my personal list of top albums. They're in order, so Randall Bramblett's Thin Places clocks in at number six. My list certainly may differ from yours, and I'm glad we all tend to have differing views of things; it makes for a richer existence. To help keep myself in line and to avoid a list that would be much longer than this, I made myself a few simple rules. 1 - No greatest hits, anthologies, or multi-artist compilations. 2 - It’s my personal Top 10 list, so I will try not to be overly influenced by the critics. 3 - There is no limit on the number of albums an individual or group can have in the listing. 4 - All songs on an album count, not just the best ones so a bad cut counts against inclusion.
Randall Bramblett - Thin Places Wonderfully jazz influenced rock and roll for grown-ups. If it can make a sound, then I’m pretty sure this multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter can play it, and play it well. You might know Randall Bramblett from Sea Level or from his many gigs as a session musician for everyone from Robbie Robertson to Widespread Panic to Gregg Allman.
If you haven’t heard Randall Bramblett, then this Jesup, Georgia, native will come as a wonderful surprise. Bramblett has several superior albums, but this one is my favorite.
There is not a bad song on this album. The lyrics are thoughtful, insightful, and make a lot of sense in a world that seldom does. The music matches the mood of the music perfectly, perhaps best exemplified with “Gotta Stop Somewhere” bouncing between nearly frenetic to more controlled statements. This is a great album that never got the listens it deserves and that’s a shame - not just for Bramblett, but more for the people who have not had an opportunity to listen. As Bramblett says in “Black Coat”: “There’s nothing left to do but to laugh and feed the angels . . .” And listen to this great recording.
Rod Stewart - Every Picture Tells a Story Rod Stewart’s embrace of disco in the late 70s nearly put me off him for life. I still abhor disco, but after a decade or two, I was able to go back and listen again to Stewart’s non-disco output and it was impressive. Stewart is thought of mainly as a singer and a songwriter, but there are only three Stewart original songs on this album. The three songs he wrote are brilliant, but it's the arrangements of the cover songs that shines here.
Every Picture Tells a Story features Stewart’s great songwriting (Every Picture Tells a Story, written with Ronnie Wood); Maggie May; and, Mandolin Wind) and brilliant choices of cover songs including the definitive version of The Temptations’ (I Know) I’m Losing You as well as the great Reason to Believe from Tim Hardin. Among the other covers is Stewart’s arrangement of the traditional Amazing Grace and Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow Is a Long Time. I’ve got to say, I love the the choice of instruments and how they’re used here. Listen to the drums fills at the end of the lines in the title cut and, of course, the mandolin, guitar, and steel guitar interplay across the album. The production is perfect; it’s straightforward and for these songs that is exactly what is needed. You’ll likely never hear the song Every Picture Tells a Story on the radio again; the politically correct would get a case of the vapors, but you can still hear it on the album. Once again, this is an album I can put on, sit back, and listen to the whole thing without the urge to skip a track or shake my head.
Bob Dylan - Blood on the Tracks If I run across anyone who has never really listened to Bob Dylan, this is the album that I recommend they listen to first. It’s a wonderful album, even though Dylan himself couldn’t understand how people enjoyed listening to it. In a radio interview, he told Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul & Mary), “A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that—I mean, people enjoying that type of pain.” Dylan associates the album with pain, but it’s hard not to see “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” as a love song about an amicable, but reluctant, parting. Perhaps it’s two sides of a coin, because Dylan’s marriage was in trouble during this period. Dylan denies that he writes from personal experience - with one admitted exception and this ain’t it - so perhaps that isn’t why he associates it with pain. I’m not saying there is no pain in this album, and I’m not saying there isn’t a lot on here that’s reflective of Dylan’s life at the time, but I am saying there is beauty.
“Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” are about star-crossed lovers, though in the latter only one of the two cares. “Simple Twist of Fate” is especially intriguing because of the post one-night stand role reversal. The thing that stand out for me about the lyrics are how descriptive and detail-oriented they are without being lengthy. Dylan gives just enough to flesh out his stories and the songs are easily excuses to call Dylan a genius. As for the production, for some reason Dylan was in a hurry to finish this off and the production suffered. Perhaps, Dylan was less forthcoming about the inspiration for these songs and the “pain” he refers to was very real and very contemporary. Either way, the shoddy production is a fact, but that cannot diminish the greatness of the songs. The songs make this a favorite of mine and number eight of my top ten albums. Continued after the jump.
The Band - Northern Lights - Southern Cross I fell in love with this album the first time I ever heard it. I’ve heard this album described as having “a New Orleans feel” to it and I believe that’s right. Certainly, Garth Hudson’s horn playing qualifies for that thought. These eight great songs, written by guitarist Robbie Robertson, performed with great skill and enthusiasm in a new studio that allowed a previously unknown freedom for the group don’t just hit the mark - they set the mark. “Forbidden Fruit” takes Garth Hudson’s keyboards and Levon Helm’s vocals on a great ride. Still, it’s Robertson’s song that is the star and this song is about a lot more than might be apparent at first listen: “High and lonesome out on Times Square; Ain’t got a dime; ain’t got a prayer. Deliver us, Lord, from this golden calf; People only want what they cannot have.”
“Hobo Jungle” is about futile love that survives a rough life and even death, but it’s also about a choice between love and freedom. Richard Manuel’s thoughtful, plaintive delivery and voice are the right instrument for this song. “Ophelia” could have been a regretful song about loss, but the music and Levon Helm’s in-you-face vocals make this a fun romp. From Hudson’s opening horns and Robertson’s opening guitar, you know this is going to be fun. “Acadian Driftwood” may be the best of Robertson’s compositions. The sweet sound of guest performer Byron Berline’s fiddle and the tasteful accordion, the blended vocals, and the French lyrics at the end set the stage. It’s the true story of the Cajuns (actually Acadians, as the song shows) displaced by their defeat in the French and Indian Wars, as we call it here in the US. “The war was over, And the spirit was broken; The hills were smokin', As the men withdrew. We stood on the cliffs, Oh and watched the ships, Slowly sinking to their rendezvous.” The Band doesn’t quite deliver funky with “Ring Your Bell” but the opening is mighty bouncy. Rick Danko’s bass and Hudson’s horns come as close as this group ever got, but the tune quickly settles down somewhat, but it’s still full of energy. “Asphalt justice, you’re gonna find my ass across that borderline” delivered as only Levon Helm can deliver it. The tear-jerker is “It Makes No Difference.” This may be the saddest song ever written, even sadder than John Prine’s, “Hello in There”. Even Robertson’s melodic guitar opening sounds defeated and Danko’s vocals are laden with sad wretchedness. Hudson’s clarinet near the end is so pure that it’s heartbreaking. This song is about regret, lost love, and inconsolable sorrow. If you have regrets this is not a song to hear when you’re already down, but it is beautiful in its gray, all-enveloping cloak of haunted despair. “Now there's no love As true as the love, That dies untold But the clouds never hung so low before.
It makes no difference how far I go Like a scar the hurt will always show It makes no difference who I meet They're just a face in the crowd On a dead-end street And the sun don't shine anymore And the rains fall down on my door . . .”
Thankfully, “Jupiter Hollow” is a much happier tune. Full of fantastic images, this is a winner with its funky bass. “Rags and Bones” is a great way to finish off this great album. A street life landscape featuring a vendor happily working in the rain says life goes on and in that life there is beauty. The Beatles - Rubber Soul When my youngest son was seven, his favorite song was the George Harrison-penned “Think for Yourself” from this album. I had made a CD that contained all of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver and in our trips around San Antonio and our drives between Georgia and Texas, he heard it a lot. The funny thing is that we had a conversation about George Harrison’s body of work just a week or so ago and he told me that he preferred Harrison’s post-Beatles work over the later work of the other Beatles. I agree if for no other reason than the gorgeous “Here Comes the Moon”. Sorry Sir Paul, Mr. Lennon, and Mr. Starkey (though I’ll always have a soft spot for “It Don’t Come Easy” just because of what Ringo was trying to do). Back to the classic album in question. This is head-and-shoulders over previous Beatles offerings, and that is not meant to put them down, but this . . . this was something altogether different. The songs are better, more mature both musically and lyrically. “Norwegian Wood” isn’t great solely because of the sitar, though that is definitely what catches my ear. The story it tells is quite funny and, no, I don’t buy the theory that the last verse refers to arson.
“Drive My Car” sounds great and many people miss the joke. In a later, more politically correct era, some people even called this song misogynistic. Their problem is that they didn’t listen. This isn’t Paul McCartney the rock star telling a girl she can be his driver; it’s the girl telling him. Here it is: “I told a girl I can start right away; And she said listen babe I got something to say. I got no car and it's breaking my heart, But I've found a driver and that's a start. Baby you can drive my car; Yes I'm gonna be a star; Baby you can drive my car; And maybe I'll love you.”
“You Won’t See Me”, “Nowhere Man”, and “In My Life” are beautiful songs; reflective and with a point. In “You Won’t See Me,” McCartney has been ex-personed by a lover. “Nowhere Man” is encouragement to the disengaged to become involved. Life really is worth living. “In My Life” puts life in perspective with love. This album and Revolver were necessary stepping stones to get to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the underappreciated Magical Mystery Tour, and Abbey Road. The good news is that these two albums are great on their own merits. I rate this above the other Beatles albums (and nearly every other album ever made) for two reasons. First, it changed everything. I would say this is the album where The Beatles grew up; they went from wunderkinds to brilliant adult musicians. This album also forced everyone else to up their game or be left behind. Second, everything on here isn’t just great; it’s both great and memorable.

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