“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y’all have knocked her up”. And that’s the way this magnificently bizarre concoction of Jimi Hendrix style guitar jams, Sly Stone inspired funk, environmental politics and gobs and gobs of LSD begins. Track #1 on the album is a 10+ minute guitar solo by Eddie Hazel which I swear is the best non Jimi Hendrix electric guitar solo I’ve ever heard. Another slightly less ballistic near 10 minute jam closes the album and in between are 5 relatively short (meaning under 4 minutes) funk jams, 4 of which are either classics or near classics. “Can You Get to That” is one of Funkadelic’s best cuts and was recently sampled by the indie-rock band Sleigh Bells on their great “Rill Rill”. “You And Your Folks, Me and My Folks” is a post Kent St. and Richard Nixon update of Sly Stone’s “Everyday People”.. “Hit It and Quit It” and “Super Stupid” are vintage early Funkadelic- raw & grimy. “Maggot Brain” is Funkadelic’s most essential album of their early years, pre 1974 years. They updated their sound fairly drastically after ’74 to keep it more in line with disco and the more commercial Parliament. It may even be their best album overall but if you’re interested in Parliament or Funkadelic you’ll need more than just one album. For further listening though check out the awesome 2 CD Anthology “Motor City Madness”- the more Funkadelic in your life the better!
Buy Maggot Brain – Maggot Brain
*Single track not available via Amazon
Buy Can You Get to That – Maggot Brain
*Track not available via Amazon
Though he made three near perfect albums before tragically dying way too young, I have to say that his middle album “Bryter Layter” is my favorite of the three. All three are incredible albums for both different and similar reasons. While Drake’s other two albums are quiet and spare, “Bryter Layter” is relies much more on additional instrumentation. Drake brought in multiple members of the great Brit-folk group Fairport Convention as well as ex-Velvet John Cale and others, who play elaborately arranged tracks with a jazz bent. The music is closer to Van Morrison than early folk era Bob Dylan. Though there is something to be said for the intimacy of just a guy and his guitar, to me the trumped up production of “Bryter Layter” makes Drake’s music more interesting and prone to repeat listening. And the album contains his best bunch of songs as well, including my all time Drake favorite “Northern Sky”, who a bad ass friend of mine was cool enough to pick as her wedding song. “Hazey Jane Parts 1 & 2”, “At the Chime of the City Clock”, “Poor Boy” and “One of These Things First” are all at the top of his canon as well. Because Drake died so long he left us with nothing but perfection- every album is essential. “Bryter Layter” though may be the best place to start.
“Station to Station” is a bridge album between two important phases in David Bowie’s career and because of that it often gets a bit overlooked. It came at the end of Bowie’s coke fueled ‘Thin White Duke’ plastic soul phase exemplified especially by his previous album “Young Americans”. Moving to Berlin in 1977 and collaborating with super producer Brian Eno and mountains of cocaine began Bowie’s Berlin trilogy- made up of the “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger” albums, which experimented with electronic music paving the way for both post punk and early techno. Though the Berlin era is more celebrated, and it is justifiably important, I prefer “Station to Station” over any of those albums. Though it is certainly an avant-garde, art album, made up of just six songs (only one is under five minutes long), it is more song-oriented and resonates more with me as a whole. “Golden Years” was the big hit- a nod to the disco prevalent at the time in urban areas, but the 11 minute title cut stands as one of my single favorite Bowie moments and minor hit “TVC-15” is another standout. Ballad “Wild As the Wind” is also an underrated Bowie deep cut. “Station to Station” stands alone as a signature Bowie album but has it’s feel in both his previous plastic soul and the later experimental stuff. Bowie was operating on a different plane in the 70’s and to me this was one of his finest moments.
Alex Chilton, fresh off of two brilliant, beautiful power pop masterpieces in 1972 and 1974, which completely belly flopped and had practically no sales or airplay, found himself at the end of his rope in 1975. His great band Big Star was close to dissolving and his record company, always miserable to promoting Big Star, was on the verge of bankruptcy. Well sometimes great art is created out of angst and desperation. Steering away from the power pop of Big Stat’s first two albums, Chilton recorded bunch of anti commercial, anti radio songs which were stylistically all over the map. He was out Velvet-Undergrounding the Velvets. The result is a beautiful, harrowing mess of an album, which was left on the shelf for three years, then subsequently repackaged and reissued a number of times in different versions with different track listings, adding to the albums chaotic vibe while feeding the Big Star cult. Though to me the album doesn’t stand up quite as well as the first two as a proper album, there are plenty of moments of brilliance on it that match anything on the first two. The ironic kiss off “Thank You Friends” starts things off perfectly. Later on are the beautiful but desolate “Holocaust”, “You Can’t Have Me” and “Jesus Christ” which put an exclamation point on Chilton’s less than sunny disposition at the time. This is music as autobiography. And it’s great. Chilton would remain nothing more than a cult hero until (and past) his recent death. But the music is strong enough on this album, that I believe even if Big Star never made the first two, Chilton and Big Star’s legacy would be set.
The Cars debut album sounds like their greatest hits. The album contains the first three Cars top forty hits “Good Times Roll”, “My Best Friend’s Girl” and the Cars signature song “Just What I Needed” But just as good are album cuts, and modern classic rock radio staples “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”, “Bye Bye Love” and the phenomenal “Moving in Stereo”- what guy my age doesn’t remember the Phoebe Cates pool scene in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High?” Yes most of these songs are overplayed. And no the album certainly does not sound as fresh as it once did. But along with “Parallel Lines” by Blondie this album defines commercial American New Wave music like no other album The Cars had even a less punk bent than Blondie- they took all of the weirdness of punk and synthesizer cues from far more outrageous bands like Suicide and were able to package it into perfect 3-4 minute slices of great radio music. The Cars were the template of the New Wave band designed for mass consumption right as record companies were trying to find a way to package punk music into a more agreeable and accessible format. But don’t hate the Cars for it. As overplayed as this stuff is, it still stands the test of time. And the Cars is still a perfect album- not a week song on it. They recorded an underrated near classic with “Candy-O” the following year and had a blockbuster hit with “Heartbeat City” in the mid 80’s and a few big hits in between, but other than that their debut stands as the band’s definitive document.
“Radio City” is the third Big Star album in my last eight entries- I told you these albums were close together in quality. Though “Radio City” is not quite as consistent as “#1 Record” and not nearly as desperate and eccentric as “Third/Sister Lovers”, it does split the difference between the two, taking the power pop of the first record to a sadder, more urgent place. After “#1 Record” so-writer/vocalist Chris Bell left the band so with “Radio City” Alex Chilton was now Big Star’s de-facto leader. The album has Big Star’s signature song “September Gurls”, later covered by the Bangles, and simply one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded. Album opener “O My Soul” and “Back of a Car” are two other huge highlights as is the heartbreaking album closer “I’m In Love With a Girl”. With their first two records Big Star provided a bridge between the British Invasion music and folk-rock of the sixties and the beginning of the alternative scene with R.E.M. in the early eighties. With all three of their records they provided a template for all underachieving cult bands that came after.
T. Rex was an absolutely huge band in their native U.K., and a one hit wonder (courtesy of “Electric Warrior’s”- Get It On (Bang A Gong)) in the U.S. How a band both this good and this accessible was for the most part ignored in America I’ll never truly understand. T. Rex was born out of the ashes of the tremendously weird folk-rock last 60’s combo Tyrannosaurus Rex, also fronted by talented eccentric and Brit pin-up idol Marc Bolan. “Electric Warrior” was the first album released under their new moniker, and it is still their best, despite several other excellent efforts, including the “Slider” album (#91 on this list). While “Warrior” remains an underheard cult classic to their American fans, it was pretty much the album that kick-started the glam rock era in the U.K., paving the way for Bowie, Sweet, Gary Glitter etc…And outside of Bowie’s material it’s the best album of the whole movement. Sassy, swaggering, sexy and nonsensical, every song on “Warrior” is a winner. Both ballads and rockers drip with sleaze and come-ons. Even if the lyrics are impossible to interpret literally their implied meaning leaves nothing to the imagination. It’s about sex sex sex and you can dance to it. Both Bolan’s vocals and his guitar playing are singular and memorable. No one sounds quite like them and their music hasn’t aged a bit.
“The Harder They Come” is the only soundtrack, or multi-artist album that made this list- with apologies to the very great “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack that just missed inclusion. Normally I ban various artist comps from my ‘Best Of’ lists, but because Jimmy Cliff has four songs on it, and because the soundtrack itself is so groundbreaking, and genre defining I had to include “The Harder They Come”. Despite a few charting singles by Millie Small and Desmond Dekkar in the 60’s, “The Harder They Come” was really America’s introduction to Reggae- a hybrid of Jamaican ska & rocksteady combined with early American funk & soul. Bob Marley was still a year away from his first American album release and Reggae was only an American underground phenomenon until the release of Marley’s “Legend” album 10 years after that. Only two Cliff tracks, the outstanding title track and the equally great “You Can Get It If You Really Want It” were originally made for the movie, which Cliff also stars in. The rest of the soundtrack is basically a Reggae’s greatest hits from ’68-’72 and shows the listener how wonderful and varied the music could be. And sure enough tracks like Scotty’s “Draw Your Brakes”, Toots and the Maytals “Pressure Drop”, Desmond Dekkar’s “Shanty Town” and Cliff’s own “Rivers Of Babylon” and “Sitting in Limbo” are some of the best tracks in Reggae history. If you can sit down and listen to this album and not be moved by it you can safely say you’re not a reggae fan. It’s absolutely essential.
OK so the first six Zeppelin albums are all pretty close to note perfect and may just be the most ridiculously great sustained run of amazing albums in rock history even including the Beatles and the Stones. 6 albums. 6 classics. And again they were the band’s first 6- incredible! Each of Zep’s first four albums was quite a bit different from the other, but “Houses of the Holy”, their fifth album, was where Zep really started to experiment. Tracks “Dancing Days” and closer “The Ocean” are the straight forward rockers, albeit funkier than most past Zep material. “The Crunge” is Zeppelin’s attempt at pure James Brown-inspired funk and to me is the only major misstep on the album, though it certainly adds to “Houses” eclecticism. Hook-fest “The Song Remains the Same” keeps pace with the band’s past enormous album openers and it’s one of my very favorite Zeppelin tunes. The acoustic follow-up “The Rain Song” is one of the most gorgeous songs in their catalog. “D’Yer Mak’er” is their attempt at reggae music, and was a hit, but to me has worsened with age and overplays. The seven minute, haunting“No Quarter” sounds unlike anything else the band ever did. John Paul Jones switches over to electric piano and stretches the band to the jazziest place they’ve ever been “Houses of the Holy” would mark the career pinnacle for almost any band but Led Zeppelin was not “almost any band.” Believe it or not for me it’s my least favorite of their first six albums. Zeppelin was flat out operating on a different plane than any other band in the early seventies.
If 1977’s “Exodus” is Bob Marley’s biggest ‘pop’ record, “Natty Dread” is his biggest ‘reggae’ record. Where “Exodus” for the most part focuses on love songs, “Dread’s” main concerns are spiritual and revolutionary. Many call “Natty Dread” the ultimate reggae album of all time. I’m not quite sure it’s even Marley’s best but it IS pretty damn amazing. It was Marley’s third American release (after 1973’s duo “Catch a Fire” and “Burnin’”), his first without former bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone, and his first billed as Bob Marley & the Wailers. This was Bob’s show and he made the most of it. The Wailers rhythm section was kept in place and Bob added the wonderful female backing vocalists The I-Threes, featuring his wife Rita. The only song on “Legend” you’ll find here is “No Woman No Cry”, one of Bob’s signature songs andd perhaps his best known ballad. Album opener “Lively Up Yourself” is at least as good and is also quite popular despite its exclusion from “Legend”. “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”, the title cut, “Revolution” and “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Road Block) are all standouts as well and political calls to arms, doing for the 70’s what early Bob Dylan’s songs did for the 60’s. If you dig Marley but only know “Legend”, pick up “Natty Dread”. It will likely make you want everything in his discography.