Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Album Rankings: 10-1

10. Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender

A few years ago, I moved to a strange town 3,000 miles away from home for graduate school. I knew no one in town and it promised to be an interesting adventure. My first night in my new apartment, before I had even gotten a bed, I listened to this album at 3:00 AM surrounded by boxes and with only my iHome set up. That will always be the association I have with Ms. Newsom's most sparsely orchestrated work. Her vague but interesting lyrics are right up my alley—I prefer the ambiguity.

9. Joanna Newsom: Have One On Me

This is the most recent album on this list, and also my most recently acquired, so I haven't had a lot of time to spend getting to know it intimately. As a result, it could easily move up or down the list in another six months or so. That being said, from the moment I heard the opening violin, I knew it would be one of my favorites. Only one other album's release has ever excited me as much (Elliott Smith's From a Basement on the Hill). For now, my favorites are "Easy" and "Soft as Chalk," but that could easily change after I get to know it better. I am absolutely thrilled to hear so much piano on these discs. I hope she's writing and recording for at least another 30 years.

8. The Beatles: Revolver

This album would be in the top five if not for "Yellow Submarine." However, I can forgive that travesty, because everything else on this record is pure gold. I worked at McDonald's when I was seventeen and, needless to say, it was a horrible job. But after we closed and had to clean the restaurant, I was finally allowed to put on my headphones. This is what I listened to more than anything else. Therefore, I will always associate it with cleaning chemicals and greasy meat trays. Yum!

7. Bob Marley and the Wailers: Rastaman Vibration

This has been my favorite Marley album for a long time, so I am surprised to find out that most critics consider it one of his lesser albums. Clearly these critics don't understand awesome the way that I do, or, in other words, the right way. From the noggin-themed brilliance of "Crazy Baldhead" and "Who The Cap Fit" to the political and social import of the Haile Selassi I penned "War," I consider this Marley's strongest work. The title track has the uplifting message of many of the songs of Legend, but has a darker sound that makes it infinitely cooler. "Rat Race" closes out the album perfectly. I can't stress enough how underrated this album is. Why don't people understand awesome?

6. Love: Forever Changes

Remember my friend's dad who introduced me to The Velvet Underground? (See #40) This is the other album he gave me that day, and if not for him, I may have never discovered one of my favorite albums. Its only weakness (if it can be considered a weakness) is that every song is so great that nothing actually stands out. This is one of the few albums on this list from which I can't listen to only one song—if I turn this on, I'm listening until the final measures. And this is why it rests comfortably in the top ten.

5. Nick Drake: Bryter Layter

A few weeks ago, I was listening to some rock and roll. My wife requested that we listen to something a little softer, so I turned on this album. I later revealed that the joke was on her, because this is the most rocking album that Nick Drake recorded. Of course, if you're familiar with Mr. Drake's music, you are aware that that's not saying much. The lack of rocking aside, this album is incredible. When you can write, play, croon, and orchestrate the way Nick Drake does (I don't actually know if he did his own orchestration; I kind of doubt it, actually), then you don't need to rock hard. Nick Drake rocked just by being his mellow self, and it's a shame he never saw any dividends from his awesomeness. People always want to talk about the tragedies of Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, but they were nothing compared to Nick Drake.

4. The Beatles: Rubber Soul

The Beatles are the most timeless, influential, and ridiculously awesome groups to ever spring into existence, and this is their finest album. I don't know how many likeminded people there are on this; I know of a few, but I think most people would disagree. But here's the thing: every Beatles album have one or two throwaway songs, but not this one. Every song is pure brilliance. Also, my favorite Paul McCartney song can be found here, "I'm Looking Through You." There's something about Paul's bitterness that is just intoxicating. After Linda came along, we never again hear anything like it. Also, I view this album as the one that bridged the gap between their Ed Sullivan days and their hippie days. Why? "Nowhere Man." Did you know this was the first original Beatles song not relating to girls or romance? Think about what a sad place the world would be without "Taxman," "I'm Only Sleeping," and "Rocky Raccoon." And it all started here.

3. Elliott Smith: XO

Elliott Smith held the hugely coveted position of my favorite musician longer than has any other band or person. He has been supplanted, but that doesn't mean I don't still love his music. XO is his very best work. Many of my favorite songs are on his other albums, but this is his most consistent and brilliantly written set of songs. "Independence Day," "Tomorrow Tomorrow," and "Sweet Adeline" are absolute masterpieces. The a capella "I Didn't Understand" is a perfect ending to an album: unique and haunting. I believe that albums with final songs that have novelties, but are not necessarily novelty songs, are superior to albums that end with more of the same. Elliott Smith pulls it off perfectly.

2. Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left

Up to this point, I have hesitated to throw around the word "perfect" in regards to albums. No more. This album is absolutely, positively perfect. It easily could have been ranked in the number one spot, but I decided to make it second. I know exactly how I discovered this record, too. Six or seven years ago, I decided that I really liked the cello, and was looking for pop songs that used it. Lo and behold, I discover "Cello Song." Thank heaven for that title. It helped me find the perfect album.

1. Joanna Newsom: Ys

This is the other perfect album on this list. I first heard it coming from my old roommate's bedroom. I don't know why—it's not really his type of music. At first I thought it was musical theater, which is even less his type of music, and I was intrigued. I don't think he listened to it again, but I got a copy from him and put it aside for a couple of months. Then I noticed that a good friend of mine had a copy of the record sleeve framed in his house. He told me it was one of his favorite albums. Finally, after a couple more weeks, I plugged in my headphones and listened to it. It blew my freaking mind. I listened to it repeatedly for the next several months.

In general, I dislike the harp. Why then, you may wonder, is my favorite musician a harp player? It's the way she plays! First of all, and really most importantly, she completely avoids glissandos. The glissando is the worst thing that ever happened to harp music, and makes me want to break down in tears whenever I hear it in an otherwise brilliant piece. Second, she plays incredible contrapuntal accompaniment patterns and picks out melodies that most classical harpists fail to accentuate every time. She's an absolute virtuoso. (On the other hand, I don't really know anything about the harp. It's possible that everything I just said is nonsense. But the fact remains: I generally find harp to be an unpleasant instrument, but in Ms. Newsom's hands, it is angelic.)

The subtleties of the orchestration are incredible. Van Dyke Parks should earn just as much praise as Ms. Newsom for the brilliance of this album. I've never heard anything like it. My one minor, minor complaint is the lack of orchestration in "Sawdust and Diamonds." Sure, it's a brilliant song, and I certainly have no problem with the solo harp on her other records, but what truly makes this my favorite album is the orchestration. It's a fine song without, but with some added instruments it would have been absolutely celestial. As it stands now, this album must settle for merely perfect. Such trials I must endure! Oh, well. It stands proudly and strongly as my absolute favorite album.


Now that this vast project is over, I would like to know what the three or four people who read my blog think! I welcome praise for my brilliance and support for my obviously correct rankings, but, even more, I hope you disagree with me. Then I can tell you why and just how wrong you are. Or, I could be super humble and respect your opinions! Either way, I will feel good about myself, and isn't that what life is all about? Making me feel good? Assuming some people did, thanks for reading.


  1. Nick Drake? Joanna Newsom? Eliott Smith?
    Where's Frank Sinatra, who is THE most celebrated singer of the 20th century? ... I believe he did numerous albums, not one of which has appeared on this particular Top 10.
    May I suggest that his comeback album of 1974, "You Will Be My Music," was outstanding. And that his "Trilogy" album, a three-record set containing songs of the Past, Present and Future, from 1980, was nothing short of sensational.
    "Sinatra, The Main Event," live from Madison Square Garden in Oct. 1974 was one of the most compelling concerts of all times.
    I'm just a little dismayed to see a music expert leave out such a widely known and heroic performer ...

  2. I've been wanting to comment for a few days, but am finding it a monumental task. Where to start? I definitely think there are some good picks on here, but choosing 100 best records is, I think, very subjective. What criteria did you use? You reference a point scale a few times. How does that break down? bren

  3. Hey Bren,

    See this post for the explanation of my ranking system: