Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The jwalkernet Musical Canon: Part One

I've seen a few other bloggers doing this over the course of the last several months, and I'm nothing if not a bandwagon jumper who loves to impress upon others his own musical tastes, so it's time to implement my newest long-term writing project: an in-depth look at my 100 favorite albums, three to five at a time. I'm shooting for one post added to the list a week, maybe more. My ultimate goal is to have posted my write-up for #1 by my birthday at the end of June. We shall see.

The rules aren't really rules as such, but guidelines I did consider while assembling the list. They are as follows:
  1. Albums only. You may not have noticed this, but I'm kind of an anal-rententive dork. Hence, when I construct a list of albums, that's what you're going to see: albums. No greatest hits compilations, no live albums, no remix collections, no EPs, no box sets. Van Morrison's It's Too Late to Stop Now is one of the most astonishing pieces of music I've ever heard, but it's a live set, so it's not here. Now, one of these titles does feature quite a lot of live material, but it's mixed with studio-recorded music and...well, that's a prickly one that we'll get to when we get to it.
  2. My current listening habits are more important than nostalgia. This is a list of my 100 favorite albums today. If it were a list of albums that were most important to me on the grand scale of life, Metallica's black album would be #1, no question. But I don't listen to it much anymore, and haven't listened to it at all in probably four years, so it's not. This also means that the titles here are fairly fluid, especially in the top half -- another day, and it would be a different list entirely. Oh well.
  3. There was no limit on the number of titles per artist. Not intentionally, anyway. I thought about imposing a three-album-per-artist limit, but found I didn't need to. Only two artists have more than two albums here...and they're probably not who you think they are. (Okay, one probably is.)
I invite any and all commentary you wish to provide. Like I said, the list will be an ongoing project. If a few weeks go by and I don't mention it, feel free to take me to task.

With that, let us begin.

100. Toadies, Hell Below/Stars AboveToadies - Hell Below / Stars Above
If there's anything you'll notice glancing through my music library, it's this: I am an obsessive completist. If I hear one song by a band I like, I'm going to track down everything they've ever recorded. Case in point: Toadies, who had a few hits on their debut, Rubberneck, and then faded away. That album is wildly inconsistent and pretty mediocre overall, but their follow-up showed a far more solid and compelling approach. I've read everyone compare them to the Pixies, which is ironic, because I can't stand the Pixies (edit: Okay the Pixies have started to grow on me. But I still like the Toadies better). But the style is pretty much the same -- low-fi grungy guitars and strained vocals competing with one another for attention amidst the noise. Toadies, I suppose, put a little less emphasis on the noise half of the equation, remembering to actually write some good songs.

My favorite aspect of Toadies, and this album in particular, is Todd Lewis's voice, which is again ironic because Lewis can't really sing. But his strained warble works perfectly here, especially on the raucous opener "Plane Crash."

It's a little weird to see this one as the benchmark record, but there you go. I apologize to the great albums that didn't get past it. (Axl Rose, particularly, is probably sobbing somewhere, wondering why Use Your Illusion II is absent. Sorry, buddy.)

99. The Donnas, Gold Medal The Donnas - Gold Medal
Again: I'm an obsessive completist. The Donnas contributed "Take It Off" to the first Guitar Hero game, and I followed that song to their next album, Gold Medal. The Donnas are an all-girl rock group (and I firmly believe that there aren't nearly enough girl rock bands) that are, essentially, what KISS would sound like if they weren't guys. Or didn't, ya know, suck. They sing a lot of power-chord anthems about parties, drinking, fucking, and pretty much being the coolest people in the room. Gold Medal actually finds them branching out a bit, both lyrically and musically -- their best song is probably the title track, which brings in an acoustic guitar and a piano solo to accentuate a surprisingly somber lyric.

This album probably doesn't work as well without its predecessor, Spend the Night, for comparison. You'd probably do well to track them both down, tell the truth.

98. Jethro Tull, Thick as a Brick Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick
Ian Anderson didn't really appreciate that everyone interpreted Aqualung as a concept album. So he responded by pulling a rather elaborate practical joke on the media, his fans and the entire progressive rock genre: Thick as a Brick, the concept album to end all concept albums. It purports to be a musical interpretation of an epic poem by an eight-year-old boy, and features only one multifaceted 43-minute song. (So long, in fact, that it had to be split in two to meet the limits of vinyl LPs.) The music itself stretches all genres, from hard rock to classical to jazz to folk, and features an impressive array of instruments -- an astonishing number of them played by Anderson himself, who also produced the album. (And, of course, it was he who wrote the "epic poem," not the little boy featured in the gloriously clever newspaper that served as cover art.)

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