Saturday, December 23, 2006

The best rock album of all time

How's that for a pretentious title?

I'm not talking about the album with the best song on it, or the album with my favorite song, or the album with the most good songs, or the album that sold best, or the one that's most significant in the history of rock, or anything like that. I'm talking the album that is best at being an album, period.

Obviously I'm not qualified to really put the "of all time" bit on there because there's plenty of albums I've never heard. There's whole swathes of rock albums I'm not familiar with. There's a period of about six years I barely heard anything new, and then all the time since those six years, I've been still fairly out of touch.

But hey, this is my blog, so who cares about that? I'm going to post my answer and let everyone else post theirs in the comments.

And the winner is:

Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell

The individual songs are each strong, without a single one that feels like filler or doesn't live up to the standard of the album. They fit together with one another, with a good sense of pacing and balance, allowing each track to lead into the next. As an album as a whole, I find this to be essentially without flaw. It's that rare creation where a large number of strong talents came together, but the result didn't feel like a hodgepodge, but like a single cohesive creative vision. Listening to this album, I cannot think of a single thing I could imagine changing that would make it stronger as an album, not even the tiniest of changes. And that's what makes it win: every other contender has some tiny thing I can imagine could have been done better.

Of course there are runners-up that are very, very close. Ask me on another day and I might choose a different winner, they're that close. Here are some:

Pink Floyd - Dark Side Of The Moon

Probably the first choice to leap to most people's minds, and for very good reason. Holds together as an album even better than Bat does, providing an experience that is second to none. The only reason I am not picking it first is because I think that some of the songs don't stand as strongly on their own as each other, giving the album a sort of unevenness. It's a very slight unevenness, mind you, but it's enough in this cut-throat competition.

Led Zeppelin IV

Every song is a gem, and this album contains a few of the best hard rock songs ever written. And they hold together pretty well, too. But they don't hold together perfectly; there's some uneven pacing.


Never was there a better example of the freshman band that blew all its best work on their first album. Almost every song could have carried an entire album, and some of the instrumental work is spectacular. The pacing is good too. In the end, though, it's just a bit too shallow to win.

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours

An inevitable inclusion if only because of its hit-generating, chart-lurking staying power. The breadth of the music on this album is remarkable, and almost every song feels solid, but it also feels a bit of a mismatched hodgepodge. While that has its virtues, it's not what I was going for with this ranking.

Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

I'm including this mostly so I won't get lynched. I don't deny for a minute that this is a seminal piece of work, a breathtaking breakthrough. But I really don't think it belongs on this list. Maybe it made all the other things on this list possible, and it was certainly the winner at its time, but it was soon surpassed as an album -- personally I think Abbey Road is the best Beatles scorer in this competition, in fact.

U2 - The Joshua Tree

I've come back to add this one to the list while wondering why I didn't add it before. When the album first came out, I didn't like it that much, but after I came back to it later, it really wore well and became my favorite U2 album by far. The last song is a little weak, though.

Now I'm looking forward to being told how wrong I am. I am sure my #1 choice will not be agreed to by many! Plus I'm sure there are a lot of albums that I've never heard that will be nominated. Have at me!


Anonymous said...

I only like one song from any of those albums and that one is Paradise by the Dashboard Light.

Not even sure if it is included or not.

litlfrog said...

The interesting challenge for me is to restrict my choices to "rock" albums. Rock and roll triumphed so completely by the 1960s that pop and rock aren't really distinct categories anymore. I couldn't label some of my favorite albums "rock," though--XTC's Skylarking, Bjork's Debut, Nick Drake's Pink Moon. You and I have quite different tastes in favorites; I can appreciate the appeal of your top albums, but most classic rock sounds tired and ossified to my ears. That said, here are my picks for best rock albums.

Are You Experienced?, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. There had been nothing like it before. Hendrix created new, compelling sounds that enormously expanded the vocabulary of rock and roll. One of the most important albums of the decade.

Damned Damned Damned, the Damned. Probably the most solid punk LP. "New Rose," "Neat Neat Neat," "So Messed Up"--they had all the energy of the UK punk scene and significant technical ability to boot.

Swordfishtrombone, Tom Waits. Waits had a good shtick going--a world-weary crooner singing tales of the down-and-out in Los Angeles. With this album, he chucked it for a totally new sound full of percussion and competing basslines. "16 Shells from a Thirty Ought Six," "Gin-Soaked Boy," and the title track were deep and menacing--and contained some of the best poetry in America.

the Pogues, If I Should Fall From Grace With God. Shane MacGowan and company reminded everyone that Irish music wasn't just for old men playing solo in pubs. It mapped well to punk energy and rollicking ensemble playing. With this album, the Pogues stretched their wings and got away from the formula of their first two albums to find that they were great songwriters and arrangers as well as virtuoso players.

Los Lobos, Kiko. Los Lobos was a successful roots rock act out of California, combining Tex-Mex sounds with vintage rock and roll. Kiko shows, as much as any album in history, the power of a good producer. Mitchell Froom added a sharp edge and otherworldly background to their sound that perfectly complemented the band's growing songwriting skills.

and my pick for BEST ROCK ALBUM EVAR:

Metallica, Master of Puppets. They haven't been my favorite band in twenty years, but nothing rocks as hard--and as intriguingly--as this album. Quick tempo and dynamic changes, heartfelt lyrics of alienation, extended songs that weren't just extended solos--James, Cliff, Kirk, and Lars were light years beyond anything happening in metal at the time. More than twenty years since its release, it rocks just as hard as the first time I heard it.

Hawthorn Thistleberry said...

For what it's worth, I don't think any of the albums on my list would be my "favorite" album. Maybe some of them were once upon a time, but all of them are way too familiar now to stand a chance. They're background music most of the time, at best; they're unthreatening and comfortable and nearly invisible.

But it doesn't seem fair to hold against them that they came out a while ago and I heard them a lot -- that's not their fault, it doesn't diminish their greatness.

What would someone who'd never heard any of these albums pick as the best, if we sat them down and let them listen to all of them for the first time today?

Hawthorn Thistleberry said...

It'd be hard to pick a "favorite" album now because I don't listen to things as albums nearly as much as I used to. It'd probably be one of these:

Norah Jones - Come Away With Me
Gjallarhorn - Grimborg
Michelle Branch - White Lilies Island

But that's an ephemeral honor.

Hawthorn Thistleberry said...

I've just added U2 - The Joshua Tree while wondering why I hadn't included it in the first place.