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Bye-Week Thoughts: Fifteen Perfect Albums

These are called “laser discs,” kids

Welcome back to another addition of random thoughts and lively comments! In writing the article about TV shows, I learned three things:

1. Never (even jokingly) pretend like my opinion is the correct one on the internet.

2. What were my parents thinking giving birth to me in the 70s? I missed out on a ton of great television content!

3. Never forget Seinfeld (even if I didn’t have the channel).

So instead of posting a list of “the best” albums, I’m just going to list fifteen albums (ten was too hard) that got a lot of play from me. In order to make this list, the album itself had to have no tracks that I would skip (which took some planning with an 8-track cassette), had to be a full-length studio album and not compilation, and probably had some personal connection with me on a deeper level. Unfortunately, I can’t include any Beatles albums, because all I had was a mixtape from my friend with songs spanning their entire career. That’s not to say they didn’t have perfect albums, but I just didn’t have them. (Besides, even John Lennon claimed he wasn’t happy with any of their records.)

I have pretty eclectic tastes. I like just about every genre of music except for death metal and all the garbage kids listen to these days. (Get off my radio!) I will try to include descriptions of each album and why I like them so much, but words are not music. If you feel so inclined, give them a listen with an open mind (if you haven’t already), and share an album that has influenced you in the comments and I will give it a listen in return.

0. Seinfeld

In order for this list to have any legitimacy, I have to include this one.

1. Sergei Rachmaninoff—A Window in Time

So I’m starting off the list with a compilation (but it’s not as if there were such things as “studio albums” in Rachmaninoff’s day). And while we have some recordings of his performances, they were very early (Edison recorded some) and not very good quality. But this is actually Rachmaninoff’s performances, recorded on piano rolls (complete with pedal cues), and digitized using a new method of capturing these priceless pieces. It is amazing to hear how fast his fingers move across the keys and how emotive his playing was. Truly, he was a master composer and performer. (I believe he had the largest hands of any composer, which makes sense why you don’t see the Burger King playing any of his songs in commercials.)

Favorite Track: “Prelude in G Minor” (Listen for the beautiful melody climbing through the storm of notes in the middle and you start to wonder if he was also playing with his feet.)

2. Beck—Sea Change

One of the most heart-wrenching albums ever recorded. Some of you might know Beck for his catchy, beat-driven numbers with the confusing lyrics (see “Loser”), but this guy never lets him be defined by any genre. He dabbles in everything, using many great artists from the past as inspiration (see his cover of “I Only Have Eyes for You”).

This album was recorded after Beck’s girlfriend of many years left him. (Shoulda “put a ring on it,” right?) All of us have been here at some point, whether someone has left us or even passed on; where we question why we are still left behind to linger in misery. Check out these lyrics :

It’s only lies that I’m livin’,

It’s only tears that I’m cryin’,

It’s only you that I’m losin’,

Guess I’m doing fine.

Favorite Track: “Lost Cause

3. Louis Armstrong—What a Wonderful World

I think I was sort of a weird teen. I would rather listen to jazz and big band music while swinging in a hammock and reading a book than getting bruised in a mosh pit to Nirvana (not that I didn’t do that once or twice).

This album could put me in another time and place. It was somewhat short, but each song spoke peace to my being. I could imagine swimming in the Mississippi under the warm, summer sunshine while cottonwood fairies slowly danced in the air.

His song “Home Fire” accurately describes what it’s like to miss all the familiar sights, sounds, and people you grew up with:

The noises, the TV,

The rusty old pipes,

The cat always teasin’ my dog,

The neighbors, the quarrels,

The scream of the kids,

For the first time in years,

I’ll sleep like a log.

Favorite Track: As much as I love the title track, I have to go with “Hello, Brother” (The world needs to hear this right now.)

4. Radiohead—The King of Limbs

Those of you who are familiar with Radiohead are probably wondering why I didn’t go with OK Computer, or In Rainbows. I own everything Radiohead has ever released (including B-sides and covers), except for their debut album Pablo Honey (which was, funny enough, too mainstream to catch my attention. Don’t label me a hipster, I just get excited by seeing and hearing new things—Football, not baseball).

Kid A was my first Radiohead album, and I’ll be honest, it took me a few listens to “figure it out.” Some might label them pretentious, but if you really analyze what they are doing in their music, you can see true genius shine through. From switching or combining time signatures, to adding underlying harmonies that create a whole new sound, they understand music and the emotional weight it carries.

The reason I went with The King of Limbs (one of their more recent albums), is because every song challenged me to understand it on some deeper level. I had taken all five of our young kids on a trip down to Bloomington Lake the year this came out, and we spontaneously decided to make one of the songs on the album (“Codex”) into a music video about brotherhood at the lake. Of course, Youtube has blocked it because of copyrighted content, but someday I’ll pay ASCAP or BMI for the rights and share it with you.

In the meantime, watch Thom Yorke do interpretive dance and don’t forget to read the comments (some of the funniest on Youtube.)

Favorite Track: “Codex,” doy.

5. Jim Croce—Photographs and Memories

I can’t listen to this album without shedding a few tears.

When I was a boy, my dad got this cassette stuck in the tape player of our truck. That didn’t bother him none, since he knew every song by heart and would “jam out” (much to the embarrassment of us kids) to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” (baddest man in the whole “downtown”—Edited for our tender ears), “Rapid Roy, That Stock Car Boy,” or “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.”

Every time we went up to the dump, we were all singing along with Jim Croce.

Favorite Track: “Time in a Bottle” I think of this song in context of remembering those good old days when my daddy was still alive and jamming out to the tape on endless loop.

6. Punch Brothers—Phosphorescence Blues

Besides having the best band name ever (take that Goo Goo Dolls and Lady Gaga—Hey, they should tour together and call it “Goo Goo, Gaga!”), this group includes some of the most talented musicians at their respective instruments ever assembled into one unit.

Chris Thile (pronounced THEE-lee), was a prodigy on the mandolin at age 6, and went from his “alternative bluegrass” band Nickel Creek (not Nickelback), to form this new band comprised of other musical geniuses. Everything you hear them record they can play live without you wondering how much “post-production” was needed.

This album is a fantastic landscape of sound! They perform their own arrangements of classical pieces by Debussy and Scriabin using a mandolin, guitar, violin, banjo, and upright bass (your basic bluegrass setup), as well as their own numbers. They can all sing, and do so in perfect harmony while playing very complicated scales.

Even more amazing is watching them play live. I’ll include a video of how they play off each other and improvise here.

Favorite Track: “I Blew it Off” These lyrics are the perfect illustration of our device addiction, as it tells about a man who has become a recluse whose only human connection is with his phone. “There’s nothing to say, that couldn’t just as well be sent…”

Fun fact: Chris Thile is the new host of Prairie Home Companion since Garrison Keillor retired, now called “Live From Here.”

7. Led Zeppelin—IV

Many hours spent rocking out to this album in my friend’s truck when we were in high school. This is the album that made me a Robert Plant fan for life. (Have you heard his albums with Alison Krauss? How was that supposed to work on paper? Genius!) There are plenty of classics on this album, but of course, “Stairway to Heaven” has endured the test of time. I liked that song so much, that I learned to play it on the piano, and have since taught my kids how.

Favorite Track: “Stairway to Heaven

8. Kings of Convenience—All Three of Their Albums

I just happened to hear one of their songs on Pandora one day, and I was immediately hooked. This doesn’t happen very often with me. Sometimes, it takes a bit of “recognition” after hearing it a few times for me to like a song, but these two Swedish guys… whoo! I thought maybe this song was their “one hit” since I hadn’t heard of them before, but when I looked up their other albums on Spotify, I loved every single song! Not only that, I listened to their other two albums, and that day, I bought all three and listened the heck out of ‘em! (Yes, kids, all my albums are paid for. Every artist you love deserves your support.)

They remind me of a modern Simon and Garfunkel

Favorite Track: “Scars on Land,” but my youngest daughter loves “I’d Rather Dance,” so you might too.

9. Simon and Garfunkel—Bridge Over Troubled Water

Speaking of whom… this record got so many spins from me when I was younger. My childhood friend, Brandon, took me up to his parents’ room one day and pulled out a record, cueing the needle up to a memorized track. We both jammed out to “I Am a Rock,” over and over.

Then I went home and saw this very same album was in my parents’ collection!!! What are the chances? Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in front of the record player with a pillow and a book, listening to the catchy folk music of Simon and Garfunkel. (I think “Scarborough Fair” is the only song I still have memorized on guitar.)

Favorite Song: Ten-year-old me would have said “Cecilia,” but I think “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has replaced it.

10. Grizzly Bear--Veckatimest

No, silly, it’s not a real singing grizzly bear! That’s only at Disneyland.

This band out of Brooklyn was introduced to me when a friend from the Marines sent an email out to all his friends gushing about an album he just bought. He went on for a few sentences, practically devoting his firstborn to this band, then struck it all out and wrote, “Hey you should listen to this.”

So I did, and he was not wrong. This band captures a lost sound, I believe. The echoey Gibson guitar playing of Daniel Rossen and 4-part, do-wop-style harmony from the 50s. Each member of the band can play and harmonize beautifully, and sometimes just singing “oh” is all it takes to make you tingle. That may have come out sounding unintentionally sensual.

This album came out right when I got a job at my alma mater teaching art (We’re loyal to you, Poky High…). Since my mom and dad graduated from there, I always thought of it as the traditional school setting from the 50s and 60s, as seen in Grease. So it made sense that this would become my soundtrack for this period of life.

Best Track: Too tough to choose just one. Maybe “Cheerleader?”

11. Antonio Vivaldi—Four Seasons (as performed by Nigel Kennedy & the English Chamber Orchestra)

Think you’ve heard Four Seasons? Nope. This is the definitive performance of Vivaldi’s most well-known work. I will give you one movement for you to see what I’m saying. This first video is by any schlub violinist with an orchestra you can find in the bargain bin at Walmart (or just pick your own):

Now let’s compare that with Nigel Kennedy’s version:

The intensity, movement, and passion is how I imagine the master himself playing his music. If you stayed through the movement to the part where the orchestra is sharply hitting those descending notes, you can see why this always gives me goosebumps.

Favorite Track: Your mom?

12. Jeff BuckleyGrace

Some of you Nuggies might be more familiar with Jeff’s father, Tim Buckley, but it just goes to show the apple doesn’t fall far from the cider press. Jeff was a master of paying homage to songwriters that came before him, all the while adding his own touch. He sang in beautiful falsettos, then could belt out a phrase with all the power of a thunderstorm. You are probably most familiar with his cover of “Hallelujah,” which many agree is better than Leonard Cohen’s original, and many have since tried to duplicate (poorly). The emotion in his voice is very raw, as if the sweet lover who broke him was his own.

Favorite Track: Well, I guess you’d better listen to “Hallelujah” after that build up.

13. Coldplay—A Rush of Blood to the Head

Okay, haters. Get it out now…

Done? You may claim they sound pretty vanilla, but if you really give Coldplay a chance, you’ll notice how great they are at building to a musical climax. It gives their music movement and a focal point, just like a painting that draws you in, causing you to analyze just what it is about it that attracts you. Not just verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse chorus. I’ve actually bought all of their b-sides too, wondering if I’ll ever come across a song of theirs that I don’t like. Hasn’t happened yet.

I think this is the best of their albums, though, just because of how much play I’ve got out of it. The music is catchy and inventive, and motivated me through some tough years in college.

Favorite Track: “Amsterdam.” Listen to the end to see what I’m saying about their buildup.

14. George Michael—Listen Without Prejudice

This is a perfect album. So much emotion and variety. There are some authors whose words I read and think: They have such a mastery of the language that I couldn’t fathom a better way of putting an idea forward. Such was George Michael as a musician. He had a voice that could say so much just with how he changed his tone. He could go from a full-voiced plea to a breathy cut-off in a phrase, singing the thoughtful lyrics exactly how they needed to be sang in order to convey the feelings behind them. One of his songs, Mother’s Pride, asks the heart-wrenching question about what war ultimately accomplishes when it robs people of those closest to them. Don’t get me wrong, I proudly served my country in the Marines, but I still wish there was no need for war to solve our problems. Couldn’t the leaders just thumb wrestle?

Favorite Track(s): So hard to choose. “Cowboys and Angels” (for the heart) and “Soul Free” (for the feet). RIP, George.

15. John Mayer—Room for Squares

This album was groundbreaking. It sounded so fresh, and the lyrics are among the cleverest I’ve ever heard (and that includes “The Girlie had a Mustache” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince). John Mayer sings about sending photographs instead of being together and seeing a sunrise in person on “3x5” and changes the meaning of the familiar phrase, “I guess you had to be there.” He “plays a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shaker” when he says the wrong thing over dinner at a date and things turn awkward on “My Stupid Mouth.” When he returns to his childhood home and sees it inhabited by someone else, he laments, “that’s my plastic in the dirt” on “83.” From “No Such Thing,“ he sings, ”I am invincible, as long as I’m alive.”

Maybe his music speaks to me because we’re the same age. Whatever it is, he’s amazingly talented. And according to some guitarists, the guitar solo on “Neon” is the easiest part of the song to play (he invented his own style of picking that’s crazy hard to do).

I really like John Mayer! He’s very aware of his “normal guy” persona, and uses that to his advantage (seriously, watch that video: It’s so hard not to instantly like him). He’s got to be one of the most likable musicians ever!

Favorite Track: “83

Honorable Mentions:

Duran Duran—The Wedding Album (made me a Duranie)

PM Dawn—The Bliss Album (the only hip hop album that meets my criteria)

Dawson Hollow—Boy of my Youth (pretty new group of all siblings)

There are many others, but I really tried to limit myself to my absolute top 15. I’m sure I’ll remember one that should have been on this list after I hit publish, but oh well. I think this is pretty much reflective of my tastes.

Share some of your “perfect” albums in the comments, and I’ll give them a listen when I get the chance. Hopefully, you’ll give some of mine a try.

Have a good bye week, and GO BRONCOS!