Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums

Recently Rolling Stone magazine put out its special issue “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. This issue is an excellent source of information for choosing good popular music from the ‘50s until today. Rolling Stone magazine has always been about rock & roll, so their album choices are mainly rock albums or albums that influenced rock music. The title of this special edition is misleading,”…best albums of all time”, you won’t find any classical music or big band music and not many country, bluegrass, jazz or folk albums. But strangely there are two Frank Sinatra albums on the list, what’s up with that? I like Frank, but why make the exception unless you also put in a Tony Bennett album or Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington or any number of great singers and musicians from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan have the most albums on the list at 10 each, followed by Bruce Springsteen with 8 and The Who with 7. The number one album is The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and second is The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”. I’m happy with the one and two spot. We now know that the Beatles were so impressed when they heard “Pet Sounds” that this influenced them to create the “Sgt. Pepper” album. We have to credit Brian Wilson with elevating rock music to a new level and creating the first album that is not just a compilation of songs, but works thematically as a whole. Number 3 is The Beatles’ “Revolver”, number 4 is Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” and number 5 “Rubber Soul” also by the Beatles. These top choices are albums and musicians who had a significant influence on popular music, changing it forever.
What Rolling Stone Magazine does well is educate us on the roots of Rock & Roll. There are albums on the list by many artists who were a direct influence on the genre, like Robert Johnson, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and Etta James. An omission in this category is Woody Guthrie. I think Dylan would gladly give up an album or two of his 10 to let in one compilation of Woody’s songs and maybe slip in an album by Pete Seeger, Woody’s friend and the godfather of American folk music.
There are many “greatest hits” type albums. The king of rock & roll, Elvis, doesn’t appear until number 11, probably because he didn’t produce many great albums, just great songs. “Sunrise” is a compilation of his early Sun recordings put out in 1999. The next early rocker at number 21, is Chuck Berry. “The Great 28” album is also a compilation of hit singles. Chuck should be higher on the list. Other early rockers that make the list are Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley. Three blatant omissions are The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson. All of these guys had a huge number of hits and were true early rockers. Couldn’t they have dropped an album or two by The Beatles, who actually credit the Everly Brothers as an important influence on their singing and harmony? Or take a couple away from Bruce? Elton John has 5 albums on the list, I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded making space for Roy.
The Beach Boys have 3 albums on the list, but not one of them is from their early surfing/hot cars/hot chicks albums. Of the 3, the earliest is “The Beach Boys Today”, a good album but not representative of those early ones. They should have at least included one of their greatest hits albums to cover the early years. Included on the list is the Beach Boys album “Smile”, which to me sounds like it was written by a 6 year old on acid, probably not far off from Brian’s state of mind at the time.
Also included is the first Blood Sweat and Tears album, when Al Cooper led the group. It has some very good bluesy songs with big band back up. But the second BST album, with David Clayton Thomas, is much more consistent and has all those great hits. In 1968 it won Grammy of the year for best album beating out “Abbey Road”. Typical of Rolling Stone, edgy/hip won over popular/melodic.
The poets of the baby boom generation are largely the singer/songwriters. The top 500 hundred includes some of them. There are 3 Jackson Brown albums, his 2nd, 3rd and 4th, which I am happy about, but not his 1st, “Saturate Before Using” which belongs on the list, 2 Joni Mitchell albums, “Blue” and “Court and Spark”, but not her first 3 which are great “Songs to a Seagull”, “Clouds” and “Ladies of the Canyon”. The list includes 2 of Paul Simon’s solo albums, “Graceland” and “Paul Simon”, but doesn’t include my favorite “Still Crazy After All These Years”. There is only one Leonard Cohen album, “Songs of Love and Hate” an excellent album, but so are his first two, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” and “Songs from a Room”. Including “The Best of Leonard Cohen” album could have covered much of his early music. There’s only one Carole King album “Tapestry” and one James Taylor album “Sweet Baby James”, but there should be more.
There are 2 Johnny Cash albums, 2 Willie Nelson albums but no Waylon or Kris, and no Highwaymen albums. There are no Leon Russell albums and that is just wrong. There are no Moody Blues albums, not even “Days of Future Passed”. There are no Animals albums and no Young Rascals’ albums.
Folk music and Folk Rock were hugely popular genres in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I feel these genres are sorely underrepresented on the list. Included are albums by The Byrds, and a lot of Graham Parsons (if you were good and died young, you make the list). John Sebastian should have died young, because there are no Lovin’ Spoonful albums or any of his solo work, no America, no Doobie Brothers (with or without Michael McDonald), but somehow a Carpenters album slipped into the list, which I’m OK with, but this almost blows my theory about Rolling Stone not honoring what they consider to be “twinkie” music. There are no John Denver albums, my list would include “Poems and Prayers and Promises” and “Rocky Mountain High”. There are no Jimmy Buffet albums (it seems that out of all those voters, there must have been one or two Parrot Heads among them) and no Gordon Lightfoot. There are no albums by Joan Baez and Judy Collins, the two women who introduced us to the songs of some of our greatest singer/ songwriter/poets like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell.
There are no albums by Dionne Warwick(what a shame to leave out all those great Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs). There are no albums by Johnny Mathis (how many of us boomers fell in love with “Misty”, “Chances Are” or “When Sunny gets Blue” playing in the background). Nobody can sing a love song as well as Johnny Mathis.
There’s album after album on the list of groups I never heard of. I can’t intelligently argue against music I don’t listen to and probably never will, but something in me doubts whether some of this music is really worthy to be on the list. In spite of everything, I think Rolling Stone gets it right a lot in the areas where I have some knowledge and a host of opinions. They included and honored many of my favorite albums and artists. One pleasant surprise was their inclusion of one of my all time favorite albums, not even remotely connected to rock & roll, at number 447 “Getz/Gilberto”. I loved it back in the ‘60s and still do. It’s a super group of jazz artists, Stan Getz on Sax, Joao Gilberto on guitar and pianist Antonio Jobim who composed most of the songs.
The top 500 list is an excellent way to sample and choose from some of the best popular music of the last 6 decades. Here are a few albums that are not on Rolling Stone’s top 500 list, but would definitely be on mine: “Famous Blue Raincoat” Jennifer Warnes, “All My Life, The Best of Karla Bonoff”, “The Austin Sessions” Kris Kristofferson, “Carney” and “Retrospective” Leon Russell, “Blue River” Eric Anderson, “Mixed Bag” Richie Havens, “My Griffin is Gone” Hoyt Axton, “The Circle Game” Tom Rush, “Diamond Life” Sade, “Wildflowers” Judy Collins, “Genius + Soul=Jazz” and “Ray Sings, Basie Swings” Ray Charles (there are so many more great Ray Charles albums), and as long as they include Sinatra, “Sinatra at the Sands” & “The Best of the capitol Years” Frank Sinatra.
Just like Rolling Stone magazine, I too have left out a ton of great music.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Music of the 1950s

My friend, Erran, recently bought his first MP3 player. He knows I’ve liked popular music my whole life, so he asked me to give him some recommendations for songs and albums starting around 1950. He wants to catch up on the popular music he missed when he was growing up. He wasn’t exposed to the popular music of the time, because his parents exclusively listened to classical, opera and folk music, which seems to me like a great musical base to start life out with, but man did he miss a lot of great music!

I’ve been waiting all my life for someone to ask me for my music recommendations, but I have to admit, I feel a little intimidated.  Music is such a personal thing. I enjoy all kinds of music, but being an early baby boomer, I consider rock & roll to be my music. In 1950 rock & roll did not exist yet. The ‘30s and ‘40s were dominated by the big bands, 15-20 musicians playing well orchestrated arrangements with very talented singers. In the late ‘40s the big bands all but died out. I always wondered why this great music was replaced by two guitars, a bass and a drum set. Comparatively, rock & roll musicians have very limited musical ability. Some early rockers played barely more than three chords and their singing ability was of a limited range.

Doing a little internet research, I discovered a few of the reasons for the big bands’ rapid demise. Big band music is essentially dance music. The bands traveled around the country from city to city playing in ballrooms where the young people showed up to dance. In 1946, when the war was over, the American culture was rapidly changing. The young people were settling into jobs and family life. They no longer went out dancing much anymore. Television was fast becoming their primary source of entertainment. And many of the band members themselves were tired of touring and life on the road. Unions were getting stronger and the band leaders were having trouble paying band members the new union scale.

From 1946 to 1956 big band music was rapidly replaced by pop vocalists. This pop vocalist phenomenon actually started in 1942 when Frank Sinatra quit being the front man for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra and went out on his own. He was booked at the Paramount Theater as a solo act. His audience was mainly young girls who continuously screamed and hollered. One account said that some even threw their underwear at him. This was probably the first time in US history that a singer was showered with ladies’ undergarments. Frank Sinatra was not the first American heart throb. There was Rudy Vallee in the ‘20s and ‘30s before him. But I think the mobs of “Flappers” kept their underwear on. The next guy to get ladies’ underwear flung at him would be Elvis in the next decade.

Rock & roll songs did not show up in any significant number on the Billboard pop charts until 1956. In the early ‘50s black people’s music, called “race music” was separate from white people’s music. Most white people did not listen to or even hear much of the black music. Some of the rhythm & blues songs of the time were direct precursors to later rock & roll, like the 1947 song by Wynonie Harris “Good Rockin’ Tonight” or Jimmy Preston’s 1949 song “Rock the Joint”.  In 1951 Sam Phillips of Sun Records recorded “Rocket 88” by Jimmy Brenston. Jimmy got credit for the song, but he was actually part of Ike Turner’s band. This record is thought to be the very first rock & roll song.

Phillips was searching for a white singer who could capture the sound and spirit of black rhythm and blues. He found his guy in 1954 when Elvis wandered over to the Sun Studio  for the second time to cut a demo record just to hear what he sounded like. Sam liked what he heard and signed Elvis that Spring.

The first white rock & roll band was Bill Haley and His Comets. Bill Haley also wanted to capture the sound of rhythm & blues. In 1953 he had a hit with “Crazy Man Crazy” and then in 1954 an R&B cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll”. Haley changed much of  the lyrics from a sexually explicit bluesy song into a more palatable rock song for the white audience radio stations. But rock & roll did not begin to catch on across America until 1955 when Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” was featured in the movie “Blackboard Jungle”. The song became an anthem for rebellious youth.

There are very few musicians who single handedly change the course of popular music. Frank Sinatra was one of them and the next to come along was Elvis. Bill Haley had the rock & roll sound, but not the charisma. He was an older guy, sort of pudgy and balding. Elvis was good looking, had a great voice and used his entire body to express the music. He was the whole package. It was 1956 when he burst into the national airways. I was nine years old when I first heard him on the radio and its one of those vivid memories where I know exactly where I was and what I was doing. I was blown away.

In 1954 ”That’s Alright Mama” was on the charts, but didn’t get much national airplay. From January of 1956 until March of 1958, when Elvis went into the army, he totally dominated the rock & roll scene. No one who listened to popular music at the time would dispute his title, “King of Rock & Roll”. He was the first rock & roll star and he did it better than anyone.

Just before the rock & roll era began, popular music was dominated by white pop singers like, Frank Sinatra, Eddie Fisher, Doris Day and Perry Como. There were a few black pop singers also, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Junior, Lena Horne, and a few black R&B singers, Lavern Baker, Fats domino, Ray Charles and Muddy Waters. Doo Wop groups were gaining in popularity—like The Spaniels, The Platters, The Penguins and The Moonglows. In 1954 Bill Haley had a hit with “Shake Rattle & Roll” and there were a few R&B songs that were instrumental in the later development of rock like Ray Charles’ “I got a Woman” and Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man”.

On the Billboard top 50 popular song chart of 1955, I count only two rock & roll songs, “Rock Around the Clock” and ChuckBerry’s “Maybelline”.  In  January of 1956 when Elvis’  Heartbreak Hotel” began playing on radios across the country, rock & roll took off.

I recommend any and all of Elvis’ music from 1956-58. He was the heart and soul of rock & roll at that time. His early music is raw and simple, but the fresh and alive quality still comes across. Most of the songs by the pop singers of the early to  mid 50s sound so corny and dated to me, like Muzak. Doo Wop and rhythm & Blues are the exception. Doo Wop was popular throughout the ‘50’s and into the ‘60s and  shaped the sound of rock and pop music. Ray Charles is a category unto himself and I recommend any and all of his music from the ‘50’s.

In the early ‘50s Frank Sinatra’s singing career died out for a couple years. In 1953 he signed with Capitol records and made a comeback. I think his best songs are from this period and I love the musical arrangements. There is a wonderful compilation album called “Frank Sinatra, The Best of the Capitol Years”.

More recommendations from the 1950s will be forthcoming in my next blog. Sorry Erran. You thought you were just going to get a few song recommendations and not the whole history of rock & roll.