1. Steely Dan – Katy Lied (1975)
Steely Dan organized the tightest group of ABC studio musicians and cut their darkest album. There are songs about pedophilia, heroin addiction, all with the usual smooth sound and sardonic lyrics from the sharpest (and best) lyricists in rock history.
2. Pat Metheny – Pat Metheny Group (1978)
The Holy Grail. Proof that some people really are better than others. Wunderkind Metheny released this just after he turned 19. This is the same age when most of us devote our ingenuity to not getting caught beating off. The music is ethereal and brilliant. Metheny’s guitar isn’t even the star – the arrangements and Lyle Mays’ keys steal the show. Some may call this muzak – these people can get more barbed wire tattoos.
3. Pedro The Lion – Achilles Heel (2004)
This album has really stuck with me. The instrumentation is pretty sparse, drums, bass, crunchy rhythm guitar, and occasionally some monophonic synth. David Bazan tells good stories, particularly on “Discretion”. The lyrics are despondent but the melodies keep it well above a dirge.
4. Roxy Music – Avalon (1982)
Roxy Music is iconic for pushing rock’s boundaries and launching Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno into relative celebrity. Roxy’s earlier albums are certainly “cutting-edge”, while “Avalon” is slicker. Bryan Ferry does not compromise his vision for the sake of sheen, though.
5. Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend (1990)
For some reason, “Girlfriend’s” singles were set to some kind of interstellar anime. It works. Robert Quine’s guitar work is at least as explosive as fictional robot battles. Seriously, no one plays like him. I think of Matthew Sweet as the heir to Alex Chilton’s throne. Like Chilton, he’s been unjustly forgotten.
6. Supertramp – Crime of the Century (1974)
As close as the UK got to having their own Steely Dan. The music was tight, the lyrics were cutting, and the instrumental passages were extended. Supertramp owed more to British hard progressive rock than Jazz, and that edge is on display here. Check out the groove on album opener “School”.
7. Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire (1973)
This is as hard as fusion gets. John McLaughlin collected the best jazz musicians in the world, and made the heaviest possible music that could still function within the fusion paradigm. Alternatively, he proved that there is no fusion paradigm. Drummer Billy Cobham is so deep in the pocket that mere mortals can hardly count out his patterns. It all works, though.
8. REM – Reckoning (1984)
My favorite album from my favorite band. The finest “college rock” committed to record. For the first time, Stipe’s lyrics kind of make sense but it’s all in his delivery. Stipe’s baritone cuts through REM’s distinctive Byrds-meets-Joy Division arrangements and makes great music as close to perfection as alternative rock ever got.
9. The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle (1968)
The last great psychedelic pop album. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were back to being straight-up rock bands (with Beggar’s Banquet and The White Album respectively representing a return to their guitar roots). Lush reverb turns Colin Blunstone’s already airy voice into a comforting woodwind. The whole thing is brilliant, with “Time Of The Season” capping it off with a surprisingly deft organ solo.
10. The Jayhawks – Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)
The Jayhawks got lost in the furor surrounding the country-rock revival, though “Tomorrow The Green Grass” is better than anything Wilco, Ryan Adams, or Uncle Tupelo ever released. “Nothing Left To Borrow” sounds like a modern Gram Parsons song and “Two Hearts” is one of the 90s’ better ballads.
11. The dB’s – Stands for Decibels (1981)
The peak of American post-punk came early. The dB’s proved just how aggressive clean electric guitar can be. The production is simple, the instrumentation is simple, and the energy is palpable. Between The dB’s and REM, it’s clear that the South does more than country.
12. The New Pornographers – Mass Romantic (2000)
The New Pornographers hit their stride right away, throwing every power-pop idiom into this songwriting masterclass of an album. Before Jenny Lewis stole everyone’s heart, there was Neko Case stunning listeners with her upper-register clarity.
13. Elvis Costello – My Aim is True (1977)
My Aim Is True was recorded over 24 non consecutive hours in 1976. Elvis Costello was 22. No other 22 year old has ever written lyrics this cutting. Costello rips on relationships, consumerism, youth culture, and himself over twelve unbelievable songs.
14. Prince – Sign O’ The Times (1987)
You’ll find rabid fans preferring either side of 1980s pop duumvirate of Prince and Michael Jackson. In their primes, no one could touch them. While the King of Pop had Quincy Jones applying his trademark jazz-disco production to classic albums “Off The Wall” and “Thriller”, Prince did everything himself. In Prince’s exclusive purview were composition, (most) recording, and production. The result is the most twisted R&B record this side of D’Angelo, and the clearest example of auteur theory in popular music.
15. Stevie Wonder – Fulfillinginess’ First Finale (1974)
Wonder is that unique singular talent who in his prime operated at the peak of human creativity. Try and sing a Stevie Wonder melody. The average person can’t do it. Fully realized music just flowed out of his head with a prodigy not unlike Mozart. His voice and hands were virtuosic, and his sense of melody will never be rivaled. Toss in a budding interest in synthesizers (you can almost taste the bassline in “Boogie On Reggae Woman”) and music fans everywhere should just say “thank you, may I have another?”
16. Primal Scream – Screamadelica (1991)
I have no idea how to classify this bizarre mélange of rock, 80s dance music, soul, and psychedelia. No one else has made music like this. Some of it sounds like a club remix of The Beta Band, and some of it sounds like Stephen Stills. Brilliant all around.
17. Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque (1991)
This is it. The album the music press thought was better than Nirvana’s “Nevermind”. In a rare twist for music journalists, they were right the first time. I’m sure they’ve all since recanted. The chiming guitars and heavenly harmonies had critics coining it as “Big Star’s 4th”. It’s true, Big Star’s DNA is all over this record. Teenage Fanclub shut out the tempting sounds of grunge and shoegaze and created this relic masterpiece.
18. Big Star – Radio City (1974)
After being name dropped a bunch of times, here’s Big Star. I had a hard time deciding between “#1 Record” and “Radio City”. Ultimately, I chose Radio City because “September Gurls” is one of the finest songs ever – and the reason that Katy Perry spelled “California Gurls” the way she did (weird, right?). Pop music as high art. I recommend the whole catalog.
19. Joe Jackson – Look Sharp! (1979)
Joe Jackson is often viewed as lesser Elvis Costello. The two are similar – clever lyricists, borne of the British punk rock scene but not quite embracing full-on Punk music. Other than this, the comparison is flawed. Jackson’s melodies were more sophisticated and catchier, and his lyrics were turned away from society onto himself – though they are at least as clever as Costello’s.
20. Al Stewart – The Year Of The Cat (1976)
Thirty years before Vampire Weekend twisted lyric writing into a nonsensical mix of PSAT vocabulary and references to the AP English canon, Al Stewart was brilliantly weaving history and literature into his stories. The references are there for the people who will appreciate them, with no self-conscious effort to demonstrate how much smarter the singer is than the listener. The lyrics are perfect, and the music is the ideal complement, especially on the title track.
21. The Allman Brothers – At Fillmore East (1971)
My top live album of all time. The Allmans were at the height of their powers here, before the deaths of slide player Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley. The Allman’s unique double drumming setup was never tighter. The two drummers are so in sync that to the listener it sounds like one drummer playing patterns that are physically impossible. Duane provides the album’s crown jewel, the slide solo on Dickey Betts’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”. If you don’t at least appreciate that (don’t have to like it) you don’t like music.
22. Suede – Suede (1993)
This was, at the time, the fastest selling debut in UK history –faster than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Clash, and so on. It has been largely forgotten in the US as it was overtaken by grunge and the so-called “Second British Invasion” of Oasis and Blur. Listen to it and hear what you get when you mix the 60s greats, David Bowie, and The Smiths.
23. Freddie King – Getting Ready (1971)
One of blues’ “Three Kings” (with B.B. and Albert), the “Texas Cannonball” lit up stages with his hard-driving electric blues. Getting Ready is his first collaboration with the ubiquitous Leon Russell, and the two create a distinctly American blues-rock owing nothing to the British variety.
24. Dinosaur Jr. – Where You Been (1993)
Dinosaur Jr. architect J Mascis is a weird cat. His unkempt white hair reaches well below his shoulders and he speaks in a frustratingly laconic and detached way. He has a lot of detractors; many consider Dinosaur Jr.’s music sloppy and noisy. That’s exactly what makes it good. The absolutely massive guitar sounds just seem to click with Mascis’ drawling vocals.
25. Paul Butterfield Blues Band – East West (1966)
Legend has it that guitarist Mike Bloomfield composed the title track after an all night LSD binge that led him to “get” Indian music. Whatever actually happened, it’s clear that Bloomfield was listening to a lot of Miles and Coltrane. Chicago’s racially integrated, white-led blues band unwittingly invented fusion here, combining modal jazz with electric blues.