If you’re new to this, you might want to go press the ‘What is this?’ button at the top for more details. Can’t be bothered? Fair enough. The short version is that I’m listening to all the albums of the Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums of All Time list, for reasons surpassing understanding at this point.
425 albums down, I'm well and truly into the home straits now, which is why all of these albums are going to be totally amazing, right? Let's find out...
75 James Brown – Star Time: Loading up this leg of the challenge on Spotify, I saw immediately that it was going to be a struggle. Two four-disc career retrospectives, as many two-disc best of’s and a rather unpleasant ladle full of Bono. I have said it before but I really fail to see the point of multi disc retrospectives like this seemingly endless James Brown compendium. I don’t mind me a bit of Mr Please Please Please himself, but to be honest even a standard album of his repetitive funk groove and his ‘Ooh’ Argh’ warblings is testing. Stretch it out to 71 tracks and nearly 300 minutes and at times I genuinely started to empathise with Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. There’s so little variation going on here, the beat just throbbing onwards endlessly, no choruses, just different slogans being chanted again and again. Endless. Somewhere around disc three I could feel my mind unspooling with every deadpan wah wah guitar lick. I started to hear the groove in my sleep over the three days it took to listen to it all the way through, and when it finally ended I have to admit I had a little tear in my eye. What a great start to this leg.
74 Neil Young – After the Gold Rush: That’s better. If this whole escapade has done nothing else, it’s given me a deep and profound love of Neil Young. This is his highest ranking album on the list and it’s utterly captivating and brilliant. Not bad for a guy whose singing voice is roughly akin to a bird being strangled.
73 Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti: The only rationale I can think of for this bloated double album being higher up the list than ‘II’ is that one of the Rolling Stone editors must have had Kashmir as the first dance at his wedding. It’s not a bad album, although the production is slightly tinny, but it’s not up there with their first four albums.
72 Curtis Mayfield – Superfly: Blaxploitation soundtrack soul with more drugs references than a pharmacology textbook. Enjoyable enough but Mayfield lacks the emotional oomph you’d really want to hear on something this high up the list.
71 Paul Simon – Graceland: There are arguments that can be made about Simon’s exploitation of the indigenous artists and wider issues of cultural appropriation, but hey, I’m just going to ignore them, because I bloody love this album, and I’m a white guy, so it’s kind of our ‘thing’. Bought by my parents when they brought home a shiny new contraption known as a CD player, I fell completely in love with it, and listening back now I can see why. The songs on here are so strong, the production has a huge kick to it and the bass playing in particular is just stunning.
70 Billy Joel – The Stranger: Argh! Sleazy sax attack. I was starting to settle into something approaching comfort there, presuming that so close to the top of the list I’d be relatively safe from anything too dreadful. How fortuitous then, that I have this as a stark reminder of the awfulness of people and their miserable, god-awful choices. This is hideous, and if you don’t believe me, it has ‘Just the Way You Are’ on it. Still don’t believe me? It also has ‘She’s Always a Woman’. Cloying, middle of the road pap, if this is the seventieth best album of all time then my name is Adolf Hitler.
69 Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV: I mean, it’s Led Zeppelin IV. What is there to say? It’s good? This is the challenge that will face me moving forward, I think. What the hell can I say about some of these albums that hasn’t already been said? I mean, I’m already deflecting from having to talk about this one by rambling on. Anyway, it’s a very good album, even though it has the most overplayed song that isn’t Bohemian Rhapsody in history. You know, the one about Thora Hird bemoaning the price of elderly mobility. Doesn’t she know stair lifts are really cheap from Stannah?
68 Michael Jackson – Off The Wall: It’s probably not a surprise there are so many sociopaths on this list, what with that being the kind of personality you need to survive such a high stakes world. Here we have Jackson before he fully developed his own full-blooded sociopathy and was being purely fuelled by his father’s. Which is pretty depressing, whichever way you look at it. It’s a cracking pop album though.
67 Radiohead – Kid A: I’ve waxed lyrical about this band before, but this was the point where they lost me for a while, mainly because when it came out I heard it through the floorboards from the room of the dreadlocked vegan below me on endless repeat for what seemed like the entirety of time. Then he moved out, I listened to it again and realised what a work of utter brilliance it is. Miserable, inventive and miserable again.
66 Van Morrison – Moondance: This is absolutely gorgeous, a mix of jazz, folk, unabashed commerciality and one hell of a voice. One of those rare albums on the list that I’ve wanted to go back to listen to again immediately, but I can’t because there’s another sociopath’s life’s work to trawl through.
65 Phil Spector – Back to Mono (1958-1969): On the one hand, this is crammed full of pop hits, which both show what an ear for a hook Spector had and serves as a document of the evolution of studio wizardry. On the other, Spector is a lunatic who murdered a woman, it’s got songs on it like ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)’ which is genuinely horrific lyrically, and, finally, IT’S NOT A FUCKING ALBUM. I had hoped that as we got to the top of this list that we might be done with these insanely long career retrospectives that aren’t actually albums, but apparently not. Imagine the balls on the good folks at Rolling Stone Magazine when they sat around a table and one of them pitched the idea of this list and someone else chimed in with ‘hey, you know what’d be really fucking funny? We make it a list of the ‘500 greatest albums of all time’, right? But then we make about one fifth of the list out of best of’s and multi disc box sets, yeah? That’s be fucking hilarious. Because THEY’RE NOT FUCKING ALBUMS.’ What an absolute pack of bastards. Don’t they realise that some people are going to be stupid enough to try and listen to the whole thing? Not normal people, obviously, but stupid people, like me. If I ever meet the people responsible for this list I don’t think I’ll legally be liable for my actions. And breathe. Sorry about that. This genuinely isn’t that bad. I quite enjoyed listening to it. Okay, what’s next? Oh for fuck’s sake.
64 The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers: Maybe it’s because I’m glad to be back in the land of the respectably-lengthed album, but this wasn’t as bad as I’ve come to expect from the Rolling Mumfords. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I liked it, but it wasn’t as offensively awful as some of their other efforts. Maybe I should revisit my preconceptions moving forward.
63 U2 – Achtung Baby: Or maybe not. I once had a girlfriend who absolutely loved U2, and as much as their music makes me want to stab a parker pen into my eye, I do get the appeal of Bono and his merry band of tax avoidance warriors, with their earnestness and the whole lighters-in-the-air thing. Listening to this for the first time since that relationship collapsed like a flan in a cupboard, the nostalgia makes me want to be even handed, but I can’t. I still hate it. Stupid Bono.
62 Guns N' Roses – Appetite For Destruction: Ah, here it is, my musical ground zero. The first album I pestered my Dad to buy for me on cassette as a young and wide eyed child, excited by my friend’s recommendation that it ‘had loads of swearing on it.’ It completely turned my world upside down, and opened a musical portal that I tumbled headfirst into, and have been falling through ever since. As is the way of such things I’ve not actually listened to this in a good decade or so, but musically it still holds up, with razor sharp riffs, Slash’s still brilliant solos and, of course, Axl’s demented banshee wail, all of which coalesce into one urgent, throbbing ball of energy. If there’s anything wrong with this it’s that it’s somewhat disheartening to hear just what utter misogynistic bell-ends the heroes of your youth actually were, but this album still sets my pulse racing that little bit faster, just like it used to those nearly thirty years ago.
61 Sly & The Family Stone – Greatest Hits: Funky funky funkity funk. This is harmless enough, and happy and joyful and all of those other things that other people seem to be from time to time. There’s nothing here I haven’t heard before, and by that I mean that it’s a greatest hits album, this time largely containing songs that I’ve already heard on Sly albums lower on the list.
60 Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica: This is one of those albums that I’ve heard of for years but never bothered to get around to. Considered to be a masterpiece in ‘out there’ experimental music, it’s about as much fun to listen to as a George Osborne speech on economic stimulus. I like to think myself a reasonably open minded kind of chap (clearly I’ve not been reading my own work so far then) but this is just unlistenable shit.
59 Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle: Again, and I don’t mean to harp on about it, but I will anyway, here we see the gulf between genuine albums and cobbled together best of’s. The Creedence albums I’ve listened to on this journey have been brilliant, but this meaningless collection of ‘the hits’ with a few covers thrown in for good measure is pretty flat. Singles are often not the best songs on an album, and so it proves here, with several of the songs here little more than chart fodder from a band that balances out their commercial sensibilities with more interesting songs over the course of an album. This is why albums are brilliant. They are the novels to the pop song’s short stories. A best of is like reading Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King. It’s fine, but you’d rather be reading Misery.
58 The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet: Am I genuinely starting to change my mind about The Rolling Stones? I quite enjoyed this, which means either they’ve won me round or that we’ve finally reached the point in the list where the inflated reputation is finally met by the kernel of quality at its centre? I would guess it’s the latter.
57 Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life: This is excellent, aside for the odd song sprinkled here and there that’s been ripped off wholesale by other artists, like I Wish, which is Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, or Pastime Paradise, which became Coolio’s, well, you can probably work that out. Of course, it’s not Stevie’s fault other people pissed all over his legacy, but it does somewhat dampen my enjoyment of what’s otherwise a fantastic meld of pop, funk and soul.
56 Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley: Going back to the bee lodged securely in my bonnet, this is an album. A genuine, crafted album, and it was released in 1956. As far as I’m concerned anything that comes after this that is a collection or best of has no goddamn place on the list. Anyway, this is brilliant, an absolutely flawless album with nary a duff track, an incredible feeling of energy and one of the best album covers ever made. You can see why it had the impact it did, even six decades later.
55 The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland: That Jimi Hendrix was quite good at guitar, wasn’t he? This is mostly brilliant, but Hendrix’s own penchant for experimentation and noodling does make it feel a little flabby in places, a bit like me really. But look how loveable I am!
54 Ray Charles – The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Recordings 1952-1959: Skipping over the obvious point, this is fantastic, albeit far too long. I love Charles’ mix of blues, soul, rhythm and blues, jazz and country; there’s just something so gloriously nostalgic and warm about it. Still, after 56 tracks it does become a bit FUCKING TEDIOUS.
53 The Beatles – Meet the Beatles!: Ah, we’re starting to reach The Land of Paul and John, where every other album is worshipping at the altar of the MOST IMPORTANT BAND EVER. There’s so much overblown hype and hyperbole about this band and their legacy (I’m sure we’ll get into that at some point), but even the most jaded music fan can’t help but be bowled over at just how good these four scousers were at writing pop songs, and this early foray into the US market is ridiculously good.
52 Al Green – Greatest Hits: Top tip; if you’re flitting about the channels and you stumble across modern day Al Green performing his old hits, perhaps on something like Later…. With Jools Holland, and you think, ‘oh, awesome, I bloody love Al Green’s voice, wonder if he can still sing as well as he used to’, just keep on flicking by. Gawd bless him for carrying on, but nobody needs to hear that. This, on the other hand, is excellent.
51 Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Waters: I thought that this challenge might take some bands that have been on the periphery of my knowledge and give me a deeper appreciation for them. I hadn’t reckoned on it taking bands I used to like and making me dislike them. I used to really quite like S&G, based on the few songs I knew, but, Bookends aside, I’ve found every instance of them on this list to be as interesting as watching porridge cool. This is utterly tedious. Still, it’s the last time I’ll run across them on this list. Hooray!
So there we are, another leg down and only two more to go.
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