Archive for the ‘Reading Table’ Category

Once Again, Old Records Top The List

Friday, May 25th, 2012

A couple weeks ago, I went down to the local drug store to get my prescription filled. There was a line – I saw no sign of Mr. Jimmy – and then the pharmacist said that it would take at least twenty minutes to fill my order. So I headed to the magazines to see if there was something I wanted to buy; that way I could at least have something to read as I waited for my pills.

And there was a Rolling Stone special: The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. I thought: Didn’t they just do that not so long ago? But the copyright date was 2012, which meant I didn’t yet have it, so I pulled the publication off the rack and looked at the foreword from Elton John as I waited for my prescription. And when I got home, I went to the bookshelf.

I was right. It truly was not that long ago that RS compiled a similar list: For its edition of December 11, 2003, the magazine put together a list of five hundred albums after polling a pretty wide-ranging group: writers and critics, working musicians and folks from record companies and the world of radio. The publication I picked up the other day has the exact same cover art and mostly the same copy as the 2003 list, offering historical and critical commentary about each of the five hundred albums – ranging from a couple of pages for the big guns to a paragraph for most of them – with lots of photos and some sidebars thrown in here and there. As for updating, the new edition is a combined version of that original 2003 survey and a 2009 survey that looked at the best albums since 2000.

And the results are pretty much the same as in 2003, at least at the top of the list. Here are the albums that RS says are the top twenty-five of all time:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles [1967]
Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys [1966]
Revolver by the Beatles [1966]
Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan [1965]
Rubber Soul by the Beatles [1965]
What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye [1971]
Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones [1972]
London Calling by the Clash [1980]
Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan [1966]
The White Album by the Beatles [1968]
Sunrise by Elvis Presley [1999]
Kind of Blue by Miles Davis [1959]
The Velvet Underground and Neco [1967]
Abbey Road by the Beatles [1969]
Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience [1967]
Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan [1975]
Nevermind by Nirvana [1991]
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen [1975]
Astral Weeks by Van Morrison [1968]
Thriller by Michael Jackson [1982]
The Great Twenty-Eight by Chuck Berry [1982]
The Complete Recordings by Robert Johnson [1990]
Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon [1970]
Innervisions by Stevie Wonder [1973]
Live At The Apollo by James Brown [1963]

With the most recent album – Nirvana’s Nevermind – having come out twenty-one years ago, that’s an old bunch, to be honest, and it’s made even older when one recognizes that three of those albums are compilations of music recorded during even earlier years: Sunrise is a collection of the work Elvis Presley did at Sun Records in the 1950s, The Great Twenty-Eight is made up of recordings Berry made from 1955 to 1965, and The Complete Robert Johnson presents recordings from 1936 and 1937.

That kind of temporal dislocation is prevalent in both the 2012 and 2003 lists: A quick glance at portions of both found many compilations listed with issue dates falling long after the original recordings. They included albums from Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Linda Ronstadt, ABBA and Sam Cooke, among many others.

Comparing the two lists, the top twenty-five are almost identical. The only change in the 2012 list is the presence of the Robert Johnson collection; it displaced Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which fell to No. 26.

Oddly, the 1990 Robert Johnson collection wasn’t included in the 2003 ranking. Instead, two separate albums of Johnson’s work were mentioned: King of the Delta Blues Singers, a 1961 release, was ranked at No. 27, and King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, a 1970 release, was ranked at No. 424. I’m guessing that the editors of Rolling Stone decided to combine the votes for the two and consider those as votes for the 1990 set of complete recordings, a decision that is at least a little dubious and should be explained somewhere. But if there’s an explanation anywhere in the new book, I can’t find it. (A note at Wikipedia states that the substitution of The Complete Recordings for the two earlier albums took place and was explained when the 2003 list was published in book form in 2005.)

Something similar took place with Sunrise, the Presley collection from Sun Records. It wasn’t mentioned in the 2003 poll. In that survey, the 1976 collection The Sun Sessions sat at No. 11, and the RS editors replaced it with Sunrise, although this substitution – also dubious to my mind – was at least noted.

I mentioned earlier that the list was revised to include more albums from 2000 on than were present in the 2003 package. So where did the albums from the 2000s end up? Well, the highest ranked album of newly recorded material from those years was Radiohead’s 2000 album, Kid A, which landed at No. 67. Why do I specify “newly recorded material”? Because in another case of temporal displacement, The Anthology, a 2001 collection of Muddy Waters’ recordings from the years 1948 to 1972, was ranked at No. 38, and that was the highest ranking given to an album released in 2000 or later years.

For a historian, the many cases of compilations being credited to years far removed from the time of the original recordings skew things when one looks at the decades that birthed the five hundred albums listed in the new book (and in the 2003 magazine as well, for that matter).  Nevertheless, here are those counts as RS presents them in the back of the new book:

1950s: Eleven albums; highest ranked is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

1960s: One hundred and five albums; highest ranked is the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

1970s: One hundred and eighty-seven albums; highest ranked is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.

1980s: Eighty-two albums; highest ranked is the Clash’s London Calling.

1990s: Seventy-five albums; highest ranked is Nirvana’s Nevermind.

2000s: Thirty-eight albums; highest ranked is Muddy Waters’ The Anthology.

2010s: Two albums; higher ranked is Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

So what is it about the 1960s and 1970s? Was the music truly that much better then? Are those who were polled weighted down by the mythologies of those decades?

I really don’t know the answers. I do know that the audience for pop/rock/soul music in the 1960s and 1970s was more unified. There were outliers, yes (like the kid who listened to John Barry and Al Hirt), but for the most part we all listened to the same things on the radio and on the stereo. Today, there is no mass audience, and that’s something that’s been increasingly so for, oh, at least twenty years if not more. So I would guess that, year by year, there would be fewer and fewer albums that would catch the critical ear of enough of those polled to be included on a list like this. And then, historic assessment takes time. Listeners have had roughly forty and fifty years to consider stuff released in the 1960s and a shorter twenty to thirty years to assess the music of the 1980s. I think that matters.

Beyond those points, there may be some generational blindness. When I looked at the names of those who were polled, however, they seemed to cut wide generational swaths, and none of those who were polled – as far as I know – have reputations for fuddy-duddy-ism. So maybe these rankings are a relatively accurate picture of the critical merits of the greatest albums in rock, pop, soul, R&B, jazz, blues and all the rest. Or it might all be commercially inspired hogwash. I don’t know.

I do know that I’m a little baffled by the continued presence of Sgt. Pepper atop the heap. I think that every major survey of pop-rock albums I’ve ever seen has that 1967 album at No. 1. Is it great? Yes. Is it that great? I tend to think not. I’ve written at least once in this space that Sgt. Pepper isn’t even the Beatles’ best album, much less the best of all time. I’d put Revolver and Abbey Road and possibly Rubber Soul higher among the Beatles’ work, and over the past few years, I’ve concluded that the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street is the best album ever. (And I think those statements are congruent with others I’ve made over the years here.)

I would guess that Sgt. Pepper gets votes for the top spot at least as much for how it affected its audience and how it influenced the making of albums as for its musical quality. And that may be a fair assessment. It’s a great album, and the fact that its place in history is a topic worthy of discussion almost forty-five years after its release underlines that greatness. And my opinion that six other albums are greater – the four mentioned above, Blonde on Blonde and Born to Run – does nothing to negate either the album’s greatness or the usefulness of the discussion.

And there I ultimately find the value of books like the one I bought the other week and the one from 2003 that I pulled from my shelves for comparison: discussion. Those of us who love music – who listen to it, write about it and read about it as much as we do – might never resolve the questions raised by The Five Hundred Greatest Albums of All Time and similar lists. But it’s worthwhile, I think, to spend time trying to – in effect – separate myth from music. That gets harder to do as the years pass, whether we’re talking about the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams or Robert Johnson (and maybe ten or twenty or fifty others).

Along the way, I learn. I know the top twenty-five albums – maybe even the top hundred albums – pretty well. Beyond there, in any list of this magnitude, there are records I don’t know that I probably should. I might not like them all, but I should check them out. That should keep me busy for a while. And all of that newly focused listening should bring me at least a few insights into the development and direction of the various types of music I love.

To close, I decided to let the RealPlayer find a tune from one of the five hundred albums listed in the 2012 list. I did veto a few that seemed too obvious, so it took some time, but eventually, the player settled on “Don’t Forget About Me” from Dusty Springfield’s 1969 album Dusty in Memphis, which wound up ranked at No. 89.

Something kept nagging at me as I edited this post this morning and then again when I was out running errands. As I left the Ace Bar & Grill after lunch, I realized what it was. The 2012 edition of The Five Hundred Greatest Albums of All Time clearly says that the listing was compiled from polls of experts in 2003 and 2009. How, then, can two albums from 2011 be included? They are the Beach Boys’ Smile (2011 Version) at No. 381 and Kanye West’s previously mentioned My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at No. 353. I find no explanation in the book, and that bothers me.

This, That & The Other

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

In the category of things I learn from readers: A frequent commenter who calls himself “porky” dropped by Tuesday after I wrote about “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis & the Playboys and the nearly simultaneous answer record by Wendy Hill.

He said that there was another version of the song out there at about the same time – Musicor put out a single by R&B singer Sammy Ambrose – and that both singles were highlighted in Billboard magazine the same week. He also said that Lewis got to perform his version of the song on Ed Sullivan’s influential television variety show. That exposure, along with Lewis’ Hollywood connections – his father was comedian Jerry Lewis – might have provided the younger Lewis’ version of the tune with a significant boost, porky said.

After reading porky’s note, I was a little annoyed with myself for not checking to see if any other versions of “This Diamond Ring” had made the charts. Muttering at myself, I wandered off to YouTube and found Ambrose’s version. It turns out that the record spent one week in January 1965 at No. 117 in the Bubbling Under section of the Billboard Hot 100. It’s a decent take on the song.

Early this month, I saw the news that on March 5, Robert Sherman had passed on, and there was a twinge. Along with his brother Richard, Robert Sherman wrote many of the songs and soundtracks for Disney’s movies. A list at Wikipedia of major film scores to his (and his brother’s, I assume) credit run from The Parent Trap in 1961 through The Tigger Movie in 2000 to an announced 2013 release titled Inkas the Ramferinkas. The Shermans also wrote what is perhaps the most annoying song in show-biz history, “It’s a Small World,” used first for the Pepsi pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York and then at rides at Disneyland in California and at other Disney parks around the world.

But that annoyance aside, the Shermans’ work resonates most loudly for me in their work for the 1964 film Mary Poppins. The duo won Academy Awards for “Best Substantially Original Score” and for Best Song, with “Chim Chim Cher-ee” winning the latter honor. For a few hours after I read of Robert Sherman’s passing, that tune and the others from Mary Poppins were roaming through my brain. Along with “Chim Chim Cher-ee” came “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly A Kite,” the mammoth nonsense tune “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and a few others.

But the song in my head that augmented the twinge of sadness I felt at Sherman’s passing was “Feed the Birds.” From the first time I heard the song in a movie theater in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1965, it’s been a favorite of mine. Here’s the scene from the movie in which Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins sings “Feed the Birds” as a lullaby to Jane and Michael Banks (played by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber).

I think I’ve probably seen the word “dystopian” in the news more this month than I have in the 702 months of my life that came before this one. The word’s use has come, of course, in descriptions and reviews of the film The Hunger Games, which comes out tomorrow. That’s not to say that “dystopian” isn’t a perfectly accurate description of the world that Suzanne Collins has created in her trilogy of young adult novels. (The Hunger Games, 2008; Catching Fire, 2009; Mockingjay, 2010.)

The first of the three – and forgive me if you’ve read or heard this elsewhere – introduces readers to the land of Panem, a nation on the North American continent where things have gone horribly wrong. Each of twelve generally poor districts is required to send two children each year to the Capitol, where residents live lives of excess. Those twenty-four children compete in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised lethal competition that ends when only one child – the winner – survives. The series’ heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from District 12, the poorest of all districts, which is somewhere in what used to be called Appalachia.

I’ve read The Hunger Games and I enjoyed it. It didn’t pull me in so hard that I’ve had to go find the next two books without having breakfast, but I will likely read them soon. And I think I’ll get to the movie, though probably not for a few weeks; I’m going to give the crowds of young’uns time to thin. One thing I likely will do soon, however, is get hold of a copy of the film’s soundtrack, which I’ve been listening to bit by bit on Spotify.

Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack – titled The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond – in fact sounds like the book felt, with strains of Appalachian music and other Americana combining with tougher and disquieting rock songs. The roster of artists on the soundtrack is pretty impressive: Neko Case, Arcade Fire, Secret Sisters, the Decembrists, Miranda Lambert, the Pistol Annies, Maroon 5, Taylor Swift, the Civil Wars, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and more.

Heather Phares of All-Music Guide likes the soundtrack, too: “The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond would be an impressive collection even if it weren’t associated with one of 2012’s most anticipated films, but the care put into the soundtrack makes it an experience that much richer for fans of the books, the movie, and any of the artists here.”

There are a few tracks that don’t seem to work. One of those is Taylor Swift’s “Eyes Open,” though I suppose it might grow on me. Her collaboration with the Civil Wars on “Safe & Sound” is, however, one of the album’s highlights. Other tracks that caught my attention positively during the first couple of listens were “Abraham’s Daughter” by Arcade Fire, “Dark Days” by the Punch Brothers, “Just A Game” by Birdy and “Come Away to the Water” by Maroon 5 featuring Rozzi Crane. Here’s that last:

‘A Dreamclock Chiming . . .’

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

I spent a good portion of last weekend reading Stephen King’s newest novel, 11/22/63. It tells the tale of Jake Epping, a disaffected English teacher from Maine who is given a chance to go back in time and prevent the assassination of President John Kennedy.

I like time travel tales, and I like King, and, caught up in the story, I pushed onward late into the evening Sunday and then early into Monday morning, finally sitting at the dining room table, rereading the last five pages with my eyes more than a little misty. I’ve read almost everything King has ever published. The series about Roland the Gunslinger left me cold, and I’ve not read all of that, nor have I been able to read Duma Key on my first two tries. There may be a few more things I’ve missed, but I’ve read nearly all of King’s substantial output and enjoyed most of it. But 11/22/63 was the first time a Stephen King book made me cry.

Now, I’m a sentimental guy. Lots of stuff can make my eyes leak more than a little bit: songs, movies, novels, memories. But along with the damp eyes early Monday morning, I read the last pages of 11/22/63 shaking my head with some admiration. As the story came to its climax and made its way through its dénouement, I had been baffled how King was going to pull the story to an end that would be acceptable both to readers and to the demands of his tale. I saw several possibilities, some of which would be pleasant but not sufficient to the tale and others that would be good on a critical level but leave me – and most readers, I think – not only unsatisfied but dissatisfied.

I should point out that King’s time-travel mechanism – though it’s never fully explained – has a couple of useful conditions: First, the traveler from our time always emerges into the past at the same time on the same autumn day in 1958, and when he returns to the present, two minutes have gone by here, no matter how long he might have spent in the past. Second, the next time the traveler goes back and emerges in 1958, things are re-set; anything the traveler did in his previous jaunts is erased.

What that entry date means to Jake, of course, is that he’ll have to spend more than five years in the past to get from September 1958 to November 1963. And a man, even when he’s spending his time in an era not his own, lives a life. Things happen. Jake falls in love. And King’s book, as well as being a thriller about a man trying to erase one of the greatest crimes in American history, becomes a meditation on love and responsibility and on the question: Which matters more, individual happiness or the needs of society?

As I said, I was baffled how King was going to pull things together at the end to satisfy the reader and the needs of the story. Once I got there, I re-read the last few pages several times, partly to figure out how he did it but mostly to re-enjoy the great ending of one of his best books.

My favorite passage? It comes when Jake – as a schoolteacher in 1963 small-town Texas – is watching two of his students dance:

For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? . . . A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

Here’s Eric Bibb with “Dance Me To The End Of Love” – it’s a Bibb original, not the Leonard Cohen tune – from his 2004 album Friends.

Now that we’re here, let’s take our time.
No need to hurry anymore.
There’s no other place I’d rather be,
No other face I’d rather see than yours.
Hold me as only you can do
And dance me to the end of love.
Dance me to the end of love.

I’ll follow you when you want to lead.
You’ll follow me sometimes too.
There’s no other body I’d rather hold.
My heart, soul and body’s been waiting on you.
So hold me as only you can do,
And dance me to the end of love.
Dance me to the end of love.

Erroneous book title corrected after posting.

Finding A New Realm To Explore

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Almost three years ago, I wrote about my fascination during my adolescence and young adult years with The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s massive fantasy saga. I didn’t say then, as I might have, that no other piece of fantasy fiction had ever come close to filling the hole in my reading appetite that was left when I finished the trilogy the first time.

I tried to fill that hole, as I wrote (in a post that is available at Echoes In The Wind Archives), with regular browsing in Tolkien’s work and annual re-readings of the entire trilogy. That frequent browsing ended sometime in the mid-1970s, probably around the time I left college and entered the working world. The annual readings stopped sometimes in the 1990s, I’m guessing. (Most of the 1990s blur in my memory, primarily because not much happened.) But even as I was browsing through Tolkien’s appendices or re-reading his account of, say, Gollum’s treachery at Cirith Ungol, I was still looking for a book or series of books of fantasy fiction that could compare to Tolkien’s work.

It took years to find that rarity. During college, browsing in the St. Cloud State library and in the college bookstore, I tried first one and then another fantasy epic, but saw in all of them nothing more than pale imitations of Tolkien. In search of a fantasy fix as the years went on, I dug lightly into Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and the various volumes titled The History of Middle-earth compiled and edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. But those left me dissatisfied.

One set that came close was the Majipoor series of novels and stories by Robert Silverberg, which I discovered during graduate school in the early 1980s. The series begins with the 1981 novel, Lord Valentine’s Castle and now continues through nine more assorted novels, novellas and story collections, according to Wikipedia. I read the first novel avidly and the next two with mild interest, and when nothing more appeared for some time, I didn’t care. I see from Wikipedia that Silverberg re-threaded the needle in 1995, but by then, my fiction menu was pretty much drawn from historical, legal and detective novels. Will I go back to Majipoor? I think it’s unlikely.

But I have found that rare series of books that can rival Tolkien, and it’s thanks to HBO. I’ve enjoyed over the last few years the various historical series that HBO and the other premium cable networks have been airing: Rome, Deadwood, The Tudors, Mad Men and a few others. And in late winter, I began seeing promotional spots for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Intrigued, I watched the first episode of the series and was hooked. I watched it again with the Texas Gal, and she was hooked. The series became one of our few must-watch hours.

And of course, we learned that the HBO show was based on the first of five novels – with more to come – by George R.R. Martin, novels collectively called A Song of Ice and Fire. As the first season of Game of Thrones came to an end, the Texas Gal and I wondered if the quality of the writing in the books matched the quality of the story being told. So we tentatively bought the first of the five volumes, A Game of Thrones. It came to my table first, and I made short work of its nearly seven hundred pages, and as I passed the book along to the Texas Gal, I ordered the next volume, A Clash of Kings. And then, in quick succession, we ordered the next three.

As you might guess, we find Martin’s work remarkable. The world he’s created for his tales has – like Tolkien’s – a deep and rich set of histories for each of its cultures. The long game of thrones in which his characters and their cultures are engaged is enthralling, drawing me deep into the tales and keeping me there. As I read further into the books – I’m about midway through the fourth of the five, A Feast for Crows – I find my attention drawn away from other pastimes: I’m about three weeks behind on my reading of Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated, and a pile of about two dozen CDs sits on my desk awaiting logging into the database.

I think I was likely as engrossed in Tolkien’s work the first time I read it so many years ago, taking any spare moment available to move forward another few pages. But there are major differences. First of all, Martin writes much better than Tolkien did. Part of that, I imagine, is the era, with Tolkien’s work coming from the years that bracketed World War II, and part of it, I would guess, is because Tolkien – an academic whose real career was the study of languages and myth – came to write The Lord of the Rings at least partly as a result of his experiments in creating languages. Martin came to write A Song of Ice and Fire because he’s a writer.

And that leads to two of the other major differences I find between the two works. First, Tolkien’s work was set out in stark black or white; nearly all the characters – the notable exceptions being Boromir and Gollum – were either good or evil. There were no real enduring shades of grey in Middle-earth. In Martin’s Westeros and the surrounding lands, shades of grey are the norm. There is evil and there is good, there are evil characters and there are characters that are mostly good. But I cannot think of a character in Martin’s work who is so unfailingly and purely and unrealistically good as was Tolkien’s Aragorn. And that’s fine with me. People are flawed.

And the last of the major differences I find as a reader comes about because flawed characters are more realistic than are perfect characters. I care about Martin’s characters in a way that I never cared about Tolkien’s. Oh, I worried as I read years ago about the hobbits Frodo and Sam, anxious to know not so much if they would finish their quest – that seemed foreordained – but whether they would survive and, if so, would they remain whole? (As we know, they were both altered fundamentally by their quest, a very human fact that – as I look at it from the age of fifty-seven – is one of the more real things about Tolkien’s work.) But I also realize as I look back that I cared very little about anyone else in The Lord of the Rings. Part of that was being fourteen, but part of it was the one-dimensional nature of most of Tolkien’s characters.

Martin’s world, however, with its shades of grey and its very human characters, has made me care about nearly all the major characters I’ve met so far. I don’t like all of them; there are some I detest wholly. But I see them as human, not as the archetypes that peopled Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

So I turn the pages, anxious to know who thrives and who doesn’t. And as I do, the quality of the writing, the complexity of the tale and its characters, and my wishes and worries for those people I’ve come to know in those pages are making A Song of Ice and Fire one of the great reading experiences of my life.

To close, as always, with music, here is the opening sequence to HBO’s Game of Thrones. The main theme is by Ramin Djawadi, and it’s won the affection of the soundtrack geek who loved his time in Middle-earth and is now thrilled and terrified as he wanders through Westeros and its surrounding lands.