40 Years of Stereophile: The 40 Essential Albums ROCK/POP part 2
It wasn't the decibel levels—though they were high, God knows—that made the Zep such a watershed rock act. It was their élan, their panache, their clever way of taking blues-rock and making it both a hit tune and something slightly more thunderous than an atomic bomb. While the first album, Led Zeppelin, was where their style began and so was more of a surprise, and Led Zeppelin III has legions of passionate supporters, "Zoso" wins out, if only for "Black Dog," "Rock and Roll," and, yes, the tune that turned air guitar into a plague, "Stairway to Heaven." Annoying or not, "Stairway" is, with the Doors' "The End," one of rock's two greatest epic poems.
BOB MARLEY: Exodus
The first Bob Marley album to be recorded outside Jamaica and the first to be recorded on 24 tracks instead of 16, Exodus was the album that crossed Marley and reggae music as a whole over into the rock mainstream. The bouncy "Jamming" became the first reggae track to receive heavy radio airplay in the US. The funny thing is, although Exodus was made just after a nearly successful assassination attempt on Marley, its most charming tracks are love songs: "Waiting in Vain," "Three Little Birds," and "Turn Your Lights Down Low."
THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION: Uncle Meat
Many of the more than 60 albums by Frank Zappa, with or without his Mothers, could have been named here: for instance, his acerbic response to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, We're Only In It for the Money, or the instrumental Hot Rats. But Uncle Meat gets the nod for being the most dense, complex, and full realization of the decidedly fractured vision of Zappa and his first band. FZ makes his points almost purely musically in this mostly instrumental set, originally released on two LPs. Uncle Meat has a dark, foreboding prescience and undeniable authenticity: the reptile brain of America's pop culture croaking and wheezing through an amalgam of avant-garde jazz, 12-tone serial composition, big band, junk rock, doo-wop, and found recordings. Who else, in 1968, would title an instrumental "Nine Types of Industrial Pollution"? A year before Charles Manson's murderous misinterpretations of the Beatles' "White Album," and already Southern California seemed a very scary place.—Richard Lehnert
WILLIE NELSON: Stardust
Proof that Shotgun Willie, the man who wrote "Crazy" and who once laid down in the middle of Nashville's lower Broadway hoping to be run over, was much more than just a country singer/songwriter. Pipes once thought too nasal to sing country music make cuts like the title track sound ethereal and haunting. The one country album music lovers of any stripe should (and do) own, the transcendent Stardust is also a cherry-picking survey of the great American songbook: "Georgia On My Mind," "Unchained Melody," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "All of Me." The list goes on. Tin Pan Alley has rarely sounded so good.
Nearly 20 years after it began, punk music finally won mass acceptance with this record. While its follow-up, In Utero, has a more desperate edge ("Rape Me") reflecting leader Kurt Cobain's struggles with success, Nevermind is the sound of a band making history. From the opening roar of rock's last great anthem, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," to the psychoid guitar solo in "Come In You Are" (whose darkest line, "I don't have a gun," is repeated again and again), to the massive sound and "I don't care, I don't care, I don't care" verse of "Breed," this is the last great rock album. Period.
N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton
When it comes to records that changed the world, few can match the impact of this nuclear explosion of gangsta rap. Brimming with anger, threats of violence, and superhero-like fantasies, this white-hot session made stars of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, the late Eazy-E, Yella, and MC Ren, attracted the attention of the FBI (who feared the album's infamous rallying cry, "(Fuck) the Police"), and put West Coast rap on the map.
PINK FLOYD: Dark Side of the Moon
There's an old joke about how marijuana use and audiophilism go together. Never has that been more true than with this album. A generation or two grew up leaning back, eyes closed, consciousness altered, headphones strapped on as Dark Side eased its psychedelia-lite way into the spacey strains of "Breathe in the Air." But pot's not the only reason this sprawling, paranoid chronicle of alienation lingered in Billboard's Top 200 chart for 741 weeks. For one thing, the sarcastic "Money" became an unlikely single. And tunes like the instrumental "Any Color You Like" are representative of the cream of the Roger Waters-David Gilmour partnership before they began trying to outdo each other. Hey, don't fight it, just close your eyes and...
RADIOHEAD: The Bends
The current crop of overly manicured, ballad-heavy English rock bands (Coldplay, Starsailor) began here. The ever-gloomy Thom Yorke's approach and impassioned singing have launched a (literal) thousand imitators, and The Bends is their bible. The emotions and musical ideas come from all directions—Yorke is world-weary and cynical yet leavens his misery with a discernibly soft side. Ed O'Brien and Johnny Greenwood create a shimmery curtain of guitar textures, some dark and off-key, others filled with obvious cleverness. Guitar pop has never been this sweet and sour.
THE RAMONES: RAMONES
Simple? Definitely. Too Loud? It's debatable. Dumb? Certainly. Yet this is where punk rock began. Recorded for around $6000 and lacking any song longer than two and half minutes, this sonic assault is fun before anything else. Originals like "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Judy is a Punk," and "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" established the formula the band would never deviate from: come on fast and loud, with no pretension, and in the process change the rock world forever.
OTIS REDDING: Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul
With James Brown, Otis Redding remains one of the two greatest male soul singers of all time. His presence looms ever larger today, when most "modern R&B" singers don't know his work, much less possess the talent or the determination to equal it. Redding never made a bad or even mediocre album in his tragically short career, but Dictionary of Soul is the best of the studio albums, showing his gritty voice and forceful delivery in top form. His career-defining cover of "Try a Little Tenderness" is here, as are "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)," the ballad "You're Still My Baby," and the blues "Hawg for You."
Choosing the most influential or most fully realized alternative record is like choosing the top punk record: impossible. While Big Star birthed the genre, R.E.M.'s fifth full-length disc is as good a choice as any for top record, and showed that an unassuming "alternative" band on an indie label could break through to larger success. And for the first time on record, lead singer Michael Stipe forsakes gibberish for English and has learned to pronounce words rather than babble. The result was "The One I Love," the band's first hit single. But it's in the tracks inside this record—"Exhuming McCarthy," "Disturbance at the Heron House," the intelligible jabberwocky of "The End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)"—that the band's energy and ideas, and the killer playing from Mike Mills, Bill Berry, and especially Peter Buck, combine R.E.M.'s art-rockisms and Byrdsian tendencies into a whole. It gives "jangle" new meaning.
ROLLING STONES: Exile on Main Street
Rolling Stones/Atlantic (1972)
Unlike their good-boy counterparts, the Beatles, the bad-boy Rolling Stones actually have made a number of, if not actually bad, then certainly dispensable albums. This two-LP set was the band at its mid-'70s finest. As the famous inside photo of Keith and Mick singing into a single mike while holding a pint of Old Grandad also makes clear, this was the Stones when they were still young and self-abusive. Unlike the traveling wax museum and cash cow they've since become, here, in songs like "Rocks Off," "Sweet Black Angel," and the sublime "Sweet Virginia," the rock'n'roll fire burns hot.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Darkness on the Edge of Town
While Born to Run was his breakthrough and Nebraska may be his most resonant album, this tortured masterpiece is Bruce Springsteen's most powerful and heartfelt record. When he recorded it in 1977, he had just settled a multi-year legal struggle with his ex-manager, Mike Appel, and the time away from the studio, and the bitter taste in his mouth, had left Springsteen humbled and angry. While "Streets of Fire" and "Adam Raised a Cain" personify that anger, the title track tells you what else he was feeling, in such lines as "Some folk are born into a good life / other folks get it any way they know how / Now I lost my money and I lost my wife / those things don't seem to matter much to me now." Add the anthems "Promised Land" and "Badlands," and you've got a classic.