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Rogue Critic Unbridled: Tris McCall’s Top Twenty Five Albums of All Time

July 21, 2009
Tris McCall

Tris McCall

Part 10 in an ongoing series of Top Ten lists of Sarah Andrew’s favorite photographers, writers, athletes, and musicians.

Introduction by Jonathan Andrew:

Tris McCall is pop music. He’s the summer’s hottest hip-hop jam, a twee indie hit with a singalong chorus, a haunting folk revival ballad. Joni Mitchell at the piano, KRS-One on the mic, Richard Thompson strangling his Strat, Bruce Springsteen prowling the stage of Giants Stadium—Tris McCall is all these and more. That’s because when he puts pen to paper (or, more likely, fingertips to keyboard), his wit, his passion, his humor, and his energy easily match those of his musical heroes.

For the last I don’t know how many years, Tris has honed his irreverent critical voice in publications such as the venerable Jersey Beat and, since 2002 or so, on his own site. An enthusiast of a wide variety of pop music styles, he weighs in on Jersey indie music, mainstream rock, and chart-topping hip-hop with the same vigor and critical acumen. He tirelessly champions his favorites, yet isn’t afraid to skewer sacred cows that he finds undeserving of the critical praise they receive. His output is as insightful as it is intimidating.

While many bloggers and online critics embrace the instant-gratification, fact-checking-be-damned ethos of Web 2.0, Tris’s arguments are always reasoned, his research always thorough, and—perhaps most importantly—his style always entertaining. Poring over his yearly Pop Music Abstract and the week-long posting of results from his annual Critics Poll have become mainstays of my holiday season, eclipsed only by the creation of my Amazon wishlist (Which Isaac Hayes CD should I ask grandma-in-law to get me this year?). His writings have shaped how we, in the tri-state area and beyond, think about music and scene culture.

On top of his impressive critical output, Tris is also a working independent musician with a sizable discography as both frontman and sideman, including several studio full-lengths and a live album released under his own name.

So what does this rogue critic and indie musician think is tops when it comes to music? We are honored to present Tris McCall’s Top 25 albums. Enjoy. -Jonathan Andrew

Preparing to skewer another sacred cow

Preparing to skewer another sacred cow

TMC’s all-time Top 25, 1967-1994

So this was the hardest homework I’ve ever done. This was tougher than that assignment in college where I had to hunt down primary texts from the Council of Chalcedon. This was tougher than trying to get Jim Florio re-elected, even. It takes me a month of hard thinking (or what passes around here for hard thinking) to do my annual Top Ten albums list. Distill all of that into a Top Ten of all time? Shouldn’t I turn that in to the pastor during last rites?

I drew up some limits. No repeaters on the list; if you’ve got one album there, the rest of your records are disqualified. Otherwise, there’d be about thirteen Joni Mitchell albums in the top ten. No, seriously. I made the restriction broad: a solo album by the principal songwriter of a group that’s already on the list counts as a repeat entry. That means no Pros & Cons Of Hitchhiking, which, on reflection, is probably better than Pleasures Of The Harbor. If I played it a little looser, Roger Waters would be in at #20.

Also, I applied the fifteen-year rule. Asked in 1971 to evaluate the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai famously said it was still too early to tell; how am I supposed to know how Black Sheep Boy and More Adventurous will weather? Get back to me in 2025. Gun to my head?, I’d find a place in the Top Twenty for 808s & Heartbreak. I don’t negotiate with terrorists. 1994 is my cut-off date.

Also, I can’t bring myself to list a Beatles album. I suppose I could stick Abbey Road in at #5, but it’s a guess — especially since the guy who wrote #4 spent twenty years kneeling at the Lennon-McCartney altar. And he’s hardly been a congregation of one. Everybody on this list owes an incalculable debt to the Beatles. Can I get a pass on this one? Because any place I list the Beatles feels wrong. Rather than do a Fab Force, I’m leaving them out. Put them in at number zero: the arithmetic phenomenon that makes the rest of the counting sequence meaningful.

Okay, let’s count ’em down: album, artist, year recorded, and maybe a little commentary if I’m feeling loquacious. Hey, I have a bad reputation to uphold.

25. Genesis — Selling England By The Pound (1973)
Sort of the U.K. version of the album that tops this list, Genesis number four tries to do what The Kinks’ Arthur (which just missed) tries to do: make sense of the hash that British people have made of their own country. Ray Davies’ version is more poetic and his observations are sharper, but he didn’t have Tony Banks and Phil Collins shooting out the lights behind him. After this, Peter Gabriel would drive his obsessions over his screwed-up sexuality to the brink of incoherence, which ought to shed some light on what has happened to Kevin Barnes. But in ’73 he had his shit together. As the Blair-Brown economy continues to disintegrate, “The Battle Of Epping Forest” feels more relevant than ever. It’s figurative language, sure; what, you wanted a policy paper?

24. Prince — Purple Rain (1984)
Best party album ever. I don’t even like parties, and still I know this.

23. Nick Drake — Bryter Layter (1970)
Belle & Sebastian is arguably the best band of the last fifteen years. And yes, that argument mainly comes from wimpy aesthetes like me; still, we do make it as strenuously as we can manage between inhaler hits. But Stuart Murdoch isn’t a wimp — he likes to play the tough guy on record, yammering on about killing bullies and cheering the Iraqi army. He just does it all in that fluffy voice of his. It’s a trick he learned from Nick Drake, the doomed British folkie who could (and probably would) have decked Donovan in a streetfight. On his first and third albums, Drake hammered murderously on his acoustic guitar strings, but his vicious little folk-pop songs were often strangled by his own depression. On Bryter Layter, the sun comes out long enough for him to ponder possible futures — even if his basic relationship diagnostic goes “I just sit on the ground in your way”. Hey, you need a pick-me-up, go listen to Bobby McFerrin. Indiepop — the whole enterprise — is inconceivable without this album.

22. Boogie Down Productions — By All Means Necessary (1988)
Toss-up between this one, Criminal Minded, and the underrated Edutainment. I pick By All Means Necessary because as great as Scott LaRock was — and he was pretty great — you’re not here for the beats. KRS-ONE is rap’s answer to Bernard Shaw: a writer whose wit is too monumental to be restricted by formal conventions, and whose (justifiable) enthusiasm for his own titanic intellect forgives him even his stupidest excesses. “Illegal Business” condenses his worldview into two brutally-efficient verses; quibble about the economics if you must, but it’s not like CNBC has had anything better for you lately. Some joker in Blender recently called KRS one of the worst lyricists in pop history, spilling another toxic slick of wrongness into an Internet full of wrongness. In sheer embarrassment, I declare a five-year moratorium on white people writing about hip-hop. Which means I need to stop doing this list right now. Right, you’re not getting rid of me that easily. On to…

21. Marillion — Clutching At Straws (1987)
Marillion doesn’t get much respect, and some of the blame can be pinned to Fish’s own peacoat: his syntax is flowery to a fault, and he’s never met a metaphor he can’t torture. But as a kid growing up in the Eighties, with Winger to the left of me and Warrant to the right, I was relieved to hear a band that refused to insult my intelligence. Clutching At Straws is a neo-prog version of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano: a writer confronted with political and emotional destabilization takes refuge in mythology and alcohol. A lot of alcohol. Superficially a divorce-breakup album, Fish snaps halfway through the second side on the monumental “Slainte Mhath”, and lets you know what’s really eating him: the sense that World War II had been fought in vain, the postwar dream was an unsustainable illusion, and emotional fascism had become our operating interpersonal framework. Okay, guitar solo!

20. Phil Ochs — Pleasures Of The Harbor (1967)
Bob Dylan called him a journalist and meant it as a dismissal; Ochs took it as such, and never really got over the insult. Dylan was many things, but a journalist he wasn’t: his music is “timeless”, which means it tells you more about universal truths, or Dylan’s flinty version of universal truths, than about the place or year it was written. Ochs didn’t go in for that kind of thing: reporting was his mission, and specifics were meant to be chronicled for posterity. Feed him a newspaper article, and he’d shoot you back a beautiful ballad about Congress, or conflict, or crustaceans. “Outside A Small Circle Of Friends” turned the Kitty Genovese story into an eternally-quotable — and strangely funny — poem. “Miranda” surveyed the Cali counterculture from an excited newcomer’s perspective; “Pleasures Of The Harbor” was pure nineteenth-century Romantic storytelling. And then there’s “The Crucifixion”, an eight-minute examination of the Kennedy assassination, the execution of Jesus, the growing cult of the rock star, and the lethal undercurrents animating American history. He’d push it even further on the next album, but he was never paired with better or more visionary musicians: berserk woodwinds, a twisted string quartet, and an ornate pianist (Lincoln Mayorga) who sounded as if he was enjoying the brown acid a little too much. There’d be plenty of head music released in ’67, but none of it was trippier — or more telling — than this. Representative lyric: “the Howard Johnson’s food is made of fear”. Eat up.

19. Maddy Prior & June Tabor — Silly Sisters (1975)
With apologies to Anne Briggs, the competition for greatest British folk-revival album comes down to The Pentangle’s jazzy debut, Liege And Lief, and this one. It’s awfully close, but my money is on Silly Sisters. No collection of songs better demonstrates why patriarchy sucks — not merely because it’s unfair, but because it turns men and women alike into humorless, status-seeking automatons. Plus, the album contains June Tabor’s definitive reading of “Geordie”: for my money the sexiest recording ever made by a white person. Some like it when the girls sing about their milkshake bringing all the boys to the yard; “the blood would have flowed upon the green before I lost my laddie” is more my speed. This is the first album I spin when the weather changes in the spring.

18. Public Enemy — Yo! Bum Rush The Show (1987)
Don’t believe the hype — the best P.E. album is still the first. Not Chuck D as the spokesman for his race, or for his generation, or as a social commentator or talking head, but as a great emcee, dangerous and difficult, rapping confrontationally about his frat, his car, and his crew. And sure, Flav was always a joke, but in ’87, his role hadn’t yet degenerated into caricature and weird subservience. Most of the political stuff is left implicit, but everything in his arsenal of metaphors feels explosive. After this, Public Enemy albums would always have a whiff of NPR about them; from time to time, Chuck would even get apologetic about his vigorously-stated opinions. Not here. No equivocation on Bum Rush — just non-stop challenge.

17. Liz Phair — Exile In Guyville (1993)
Phair’s debut earned notoriety upon release for its blue language — folks weren’t used to liberal arts girls singing about dicks. Fifteen years later, Guyville sounds kinda tame; honestly, it sounded tame then, too. She opened the next album by admitting that she was secretly timid, as if we didn’t already know. She meant that all the curse words were, principally, show business. Still, there was never anything hesitant about her writing. Me, I’ve never been the kind of listener who’d gush about a chord progression, because usually I could give a damn. But Liz Phair’s pop-compositional architecture was so audacious that it demanded notice: check out “Stratford On Guy”, or “Girls, Girls, Girls”, or “Shatter”, or the opener. Those who loved her as a provocateur and feminist have found her subsequent records bewildering, but I think it’s telling that most pro musicians recognize Phair for what she is: one of the finest pure songwriters in rock history. Subtly innovative on the electric six-string, too.

16. Black Sheep — A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing (1991)
Wolf opens with the only good g-rap parody ever done, and closes with a male chorus (courtesy of Millie Jackson) singing “fuck you” in multi-part harmony. In a round. In between, Dres picks up girls and strands others on the dancefloor, waxes fatalistic about fleeting fame and the cruel machinations of the music industry, and attempts to establish the middle finger as an alternative greeting to the handshake. Deejay Mista Lawnge handles the funny voices and Mandingo penis jokes, and Q-Tip and Chi-Ali cover anal sex and underage drinking, respectively. Incredibly funny and weirdly moving, A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing is inexhaustible: every listen reveals new punchlines, new angles, and adds further nuance to Dres’s crazy-complicated perspective. Oh, and if this was an all-time singles list, “The Choice Is Yours” would stand a good chance of topping it outright.

15. Graham Parker & The Rumour – Squeezing Out Sparks (1979)
Now this is what they told me punk rock was supposed to be like: choruses that hit like blunt objects over the head, musicians going as hard and fast as they can, and the singer spitting snake-venom that gets in your eyes and stings like hell. Not a nihilist on the mic, but a hopeless romantic so bruised by his encounter with the world that he’s incapable of doing anything but lashing out. No band on earth could ever sound as angry as Graham Parker actually is, but on Squeezing Out Sparks, the Rumour comes close. And maybe it was just dumb serendipity that the old grease monkey happened to come up with his strongest batch of songs (and that’s saying something): ten rollercoaster rides through England in decay, no seat-belts, no stopping, no mercy on the high hills. Parker and his group sing and play every note like their lives depended on getting through to their listener, and considering the raw emotional state of the principals in ‘79, it probably did. Yes, there are a handful of better rock albums. But no album rocks any better.

14. Jungle Brothers – J. Beez Wit Tha Remedy (1993)
The problem with Zappa’s Freak Out!, insofar as there is one, which there really isn’t, is that it never seems like the Mothers are freaked out. Even when they’re ranting on about Suzy Creamcheese and the brain police and the son of Monster Magnet, Zappa’s rebellion against convention feels comprehensively storyboarded. The band is in absolute control, and madness, or “madness”, is just another option in the playbook. There is a conceptual precision to the project that undermines the band’s subversive intent. It has come to my attention over the years that the very best records are always at least a little unhinged — genuinely and sometimes frighteningly chaotic — and the wackos who make these albums don’t always realize how far out they’re going. For instance, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that in 1993, the Jungle Brothers considered J. Beez Wit Tha Remedy a perfectly logical and reasonable successor to their first two records and well within the accepted bounds of avant-rap expectation. Listening sixteen years later, it blows my mind that it ever got released. No alternative emcees, or, for that matter, alternative rockers, have ever come within a country mile of its towering dementia — not even the Divine Styler on the frequently-terrifying Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light. I write not only of the wigged-out tape experiments on side two, but of the three-minute hip-hop songs on the first side, all of which are creepy and sinister, road-weary, dream-haunted, and terminally paranoid. J. Beez Wit Tha Remedy has often been dismissed as a blunted indulgence, but you’ve smoked marijuana, too, and you haven’t cut any records like this one. Somebody in this project (probably Afrika Baby Bam) flipped his wig and made an album that could only have been released during that brief window of opportunity when major labels didn’t know what was going on with that newfangled rap thing that the kids seemed to like; but what the hell?, let’s just put it out there and see what happens. The world has changed: these days, mild departures from hip-hop expectation like Q-Tip’s Kamaal The Abstract molder in record company vaults, deemed unsuitable for a mass audience. The irony is that the side two sound-collage peaks with “For The Headz At Company Z”, a complaint about music-industry bullying unparalleled in its anguish. Warner Brothers had rejected the original Bill Laswell sessions for Remedy, and the JBs were pissed. Those tracks are noisier and busier than those that finally made the cut, but they’re no more insane, because you can’t get any more insane.

13. Richard & Linda Thompson — Pour Down Like Silver (1975)
Funny (but not really) that the most staggering 20c devotional music written in the English language is addressed to Allah. And unmistakably so: this is Muslim music, right down to the sweet surrender, the veil of darkness, and the never-ending dance. It took the son of a London policeman and his reluctantly-converted wife to get us to the desert; once there, we’re spellbound. If Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali’s stark, radiant, and proudly skeptical Sufi theology could be translated into song, this is what it would sound like.

12. Paul Simon — Graceland (1986)
Lots of vicious stories about this one; if you believe sax player Steve Berlin, Paul Simon swiped “The Myth Of Fingerprints” wholesale from Los Lobos. Much of the music credited to Simon was in fact purchased — or maybe purloined. Two decades later, the project still feels unethical and vaguely colonial: wealthy American pop star journeys, field-recording device in hand, to Africa to tape the natives? (It didn’t help that Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s most notable subsequent contribution to stateside pop was their CremeSavers commercial.) That Graceland sounds far more like a Paul Simon album than anything by Papa Wemba pleases provincial old me, but I’d understand if an Afropop fan considered it a hanging offense. As ethnomusicology, or as an exercise in international ethics, Graceland is a world-class failure. But even if you consider Paul Simon amoral, you couldn’t ever call him slow — and he’s way ahead of his critics here, writing persuasively and poetically about hemispherical collisions, cultural dislocation, and the tidal pull of history. Of course “Under African Skies” is exploitative; that’s part of the point. This is how a privileged, intellectual New Yorker encounters Johannesburg — or the American South — and to pretend otherwise would have been an aesthetically-bankrupt move. And aesthetically-challenged is about the last thing Simon is on Graceland: soul may have been sold and melodies may have been swiped, but he still sings and plays it all like an old master. If you don’t think Simon knows exactly what he’s doing — precisely how close he’s skirting the line between inspiration and outright theft — you need to listen to “The Boy In The Bubble” again. Even if it was assembled by sleight-of-hand, Graceland remains the most honest appraisal of rock’s debt to its African and African-American influences ever waxed. In order to be a hero, sometimes you’ve got to risk villainy; even The Dark Knight knew that.

11. Van Morrison — St. Dominic’s Preview (1972)
Only two guys are elemental enough to have earned the nickname “The Man”. Stan Musial’s twenty-two seasons in a Cardinal uniform were characterized by astonishing quality and consistency; he batted .315 as a 21 year old, and .330 two decades later. Musial was so good that baseball fans sometimes seem to take him for granted — when seamheads discuss the all-time greats, his name doesn’t always come up. Ditto for that other Man: we all acknowledge his massive influence, his electrifying performances, and his mastery of the rock and soul idioms, and hey, how about that Sex Pistols debut? But Van the Man was no flash in the pan — he has now recorded thirty-six albums of original material (thirty-eight if you count Them), and they’re all great. No, really, they are, every single one of them. St. Dominic’s Preview is my favorite, but you might prefer the hallucinatory poetry on Veedon Fleece, or the amaranthine pop hits on Moondance, or the ‘verbed-out soundscapes on A Sense Of Wonder, or the Celtic folk readings on Irish Heartbeat. There is no wrong answer. There are moments on Down The Road (particularly “Choppin’ Wood”) that are every bit as glorious and resonant as those immortal improvisational passages on Astral Weeks that every young mystic has memorized. Nobody else can boast a track record like that — forty years in the biz, never fading, never falling off, continually challenging himself, his audiences, and the ghosts that have followed him from Caledonia to Marin County, and back again.

10. PM Dawn — Of The Heart, Of The Soul, And Of The Cross: The Utopian Experience (1991)
The way I see it, God keeps two artists in his almighty record collection. (Others are there, of course, but they’re not indispensable to Him). When he’s feeling punk rock, he spins George Frideric Handel and has Himself a cosmic mosh. And when he’s feeling funky, he listens to this.

9. Pink Floyd — Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
I’m usually a pitchfork-wielding philistine who throws stones at abstract art, but every now and then, I get sold into giving a chance to one of them there “experimental” records. Some of these are even cool. But, honestly, if you’ve heard the Floyd, nothing is going to surprise you. There hasn’t been a single production innovation in pop music for the past forty years that Pink Floyd didn’t anticipate. You name it: they did it first, and they did it best. Ground broken on the band’s late-Sixties and early-Seventies albums is still fertile today. Great groups are always inimitable: even at the zenith of U2’s popularity, it was always apparent that other bands would be able to mimic their sound. Every musician with progressive proclivities (and plenty with none) has attempted to recapture the Dark Side magic; has anyone come close? Has there ever been a more effective piece of musique concrete than those infernal clocks? Has any techno knob-twiddler ever challenged the mind-warping supremacy of “On The Run”? How many cheap imitations of “Great Gig In The Sky” do you want to sit through before you go and spin the original? A few final words on a tremendous loss: the recent death of Rick Wright robbed rock music of its finest synth player ever (and anybody who wants to contest that designation doesn’t know what he’s talking about.) No musician ever coaxed more evocative textures out of an analog patch bay. He exposed the jazz in the machine. Every time I sit down at an instrument of mine, I think of Richard Wright. He showed us the way.

8. Randy Newman — Good Old Boys (1974)
Randy’s best band, and best bunch of melodies, and probably his best argument, too. Critics weren’t ready for the “funny” racism back in ’73, and perhaps that speaks well of the critics. But as we’ve all gotten more comfortable shooting our mouths off for effect, the reputation of Good Old Boys has only ascended. Newman wants to show us the cost of our provincialism, and expose what’s really hiding behind our liberal platitudes, and if he had to give voice to redneck logic to make his points, I consider it a boon that he knows this territory well enough to make it all sound convincing. Those who refused to catch the irony must have ignored the part where Randy sings “we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground”. He meant everybody, see; not just the hicks, but the East Coast sophisticates who believe they’ve managed to transcend four hundred years of racism by watching the right movies and TV programs. He was right then, and he still is.

7. Terry Allen — Juarez (1975)
Terry Allen’s raw piano-blues masterpiece is sort of a Western version of Good Old Boys: the story of the European encounter with native American culture, the English speaker’s tussle with those who habla espanol, and our bizarre relationship with the country on the other side of our southern border. Allen distills this into a fractured narrative of lust, graffiti, flight from the law, and death in the desert. Which kinda makes it sound like the Lifetime channel. But there’s nothing sentimental about Terry Allen’s vision, nor does anybody have his knack for allusive storytelling. He keeps stopping the music abruptly to deliver disturbing narration about his characters, he turns on the radio in the middle of a song and delivers a critique, and in a masterstroke of applied deep psychology, uses the sound of breaking glass to represent a murder (or worse). Throughout the set, Allen hammers on the keys like he’s trying to do structural damage to the floor beneath the piano, and sings his songs in a knowing cowboy croak. The trip peaks on “Cortez Sail”, a retelling of the North American foundational myth so blunt and uncompromising that I’m surprised Allen didn’t get his citizenship revoked. Although Juarez was cut thirty five years ago, its mid-‘00s reissue couldn’t have come at a more appropriate moment. To me, it will always be the definitive artistic statement about the Bush presidency — one made by a recalcitrant Texan with remarkable prophetic powers. We see best into the future when we study our own history. Sadly.

6. Joni Mitchell — For The Roses (1972)
“Come with me, I know the way”, purrs the poet, “it’s down, down, down the dark ladder.” And when you get to the bottom of the dark ladder, Joni, what do you see? Orual from Till We Have Faces — in many ways the jonimitchellest character in Western literature — descends into the pit and there discovers gruesome secrets about herself. Mitchell does, too, but she’s not alone on this trip: an emo version of Ludwig Van Beethoven is hanging out down there, too. Here is her portrait of the tortured artist in verse, in language evocative of the civil rights movement (I am including an extended quote, because once you start, it’s not so easy to stop). “You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning/ you’ve got to roar like forest fire/ you’ve got to spread your light like blazes all across the sky/ they’re going to turn the hoses on you/ show ‘em you won’t expire/ not ‘till you burn up every passion/ not even when you die/ c’mon, you’ve got to try/ if you’re feeling contempt, then you tell it/ if you’re tired of the silent night, jesus, then you yell it/ condemned to wires and hammers/ strike every chord that you feel/ that broken trees and elephant ivories conceal.” “Judgment Of The Moon And Stars” is to emo as Marx’s “Manifesto” is to revolutionary communism. Every confessional singer-songwriter ought to have that pinned to the bulletin board for inspiration. I’ll bet Will Sheff does — he’s certainly ripped off the rest of this album with gleeful abandon.

5. Yes — Close To The Edge (1972)
So, yeah, you can keep your Led Zeppelin. Oh, I know how great they were. Listening to Led Zep over the years has occasioned some memorable kickings of my ass. But what if you’d like to rock just as triumphantly, but do it in a manner that keeps your ass intact for further use? What if you want your ass elevated? No, I don’t mean Mix-A-Lot style; I mean lifted up on cloud nine and carried straight to the stratosphere. What if you want your ass hoisted to a realm where the air is thin (but oh so sweet), the sights are crystalline and sapphire-blue, and Mother Earth’s sacred ecology pulses and swells beneath you? What band can get you that high? C’mon, don’t say Radiohead; that’s silly. There’s only one mystic stormbringer — one chosen quintet with enough ozone to negate a lifetime supply of fluorocarbons. Sure, they get called names sometimes; weren’t you? Years ago, when it was still déclassé to admit liking them, I dreaded the day I’d turn the corner and discover what everybody else claimed to know: that Yes were bloated, self-indulgent, incomprehensible, and too fantasy-fey to rock the crowd. I braced myself for it; I resigned myself to the inevitable; I expected my teenage favorite to be torn from my hands by a gale of common sense. So I am ever so pleased to report that my appreciation of Close To The Edge has only deepened. Every gesture made on this album stands in contradiction to conventional wisdom. Every note has a purpose. Every performance is pointed. Jon Anderson’s lyrics are shockingly hard-eyed and weirdly prescient. The rock is ferocious when it ought to be, and as delicate as it needs to be. So druids rejoice!, Yes has arrived to exalt the globe and expose some elven soul. At their peak, they were the best band ever, glorious and mesmerizing, boldly experimental and unashamedly pop. Gaia will never see their like again.

4. Game Theory — Lolita Nation (1987)
For an alleged contrarian, I don’t really go in for idiosyncratic picks. In 1983, I was spinning Thriller along with the rest of the tweens on my block; my #1 album of 2008 sold millions worldwide. Much of the stuff in this post shows up on “best of” lists made by other goofs. I never mind rocking out to obscure records, but I’ve got no investment in keeping them secret. So it is with unmixed pleasure that I report that Lolita Nation has finally begun to be acknowledged as the classic that it is. Not by your mom, or by your square older brother on the varsity lacrosse team, of course. But if you’ve got a cousin in one of these new fuzzed-out pop bands that are all the rage in the hipper sections of the big city, he knows Lolita Nation as a cornerstone of the sound. If he’s a bit of a nerd-rocker, he’s probably got the album cover framed and hanging on the wall. For those still in the dark, Lolita Nation is a double album’s worth of hyperactive, hyper-literate, and insanely-catchy guitar-pop, plus berserk synthesizer and game-show instrumentals, plus tape experiments and funny voices, plus day-glo auditory hallucinations. This is a fifteen-car pile-up of ideas on a Northern California freeway, complete with sirens and flares and white city lights in the distance. Much like Prince, Scott Miller is a caffeinated Eighties superbrain with a penchant for computer-logic and a will to testify like a soul man. Unlike Prince, he doesn’t run his vocabulary through the strainer of public acceptability — so he sings (passionately!) about ailerons, the Heisenberg threshold, gravity, neuroscience. These are metaphors, sorta. He references Captain Kirk and makes fun of David Carradine. He pulls the conventional pop song apart, limb by limb, in “The Waist And The Knees”, and inserts bizarre contractual language into its chest cavity in lieu of a pacemaker. But he also makes room for two of the smartest songs any lovelorn intellectual could ever croon to his bespectacled girlfriend: “Nothing New”, and the ridiculously-gorgeous “We Love You Carol And Alison”. The wigged-out third side is new wave pulverized: pop smashed into shards and blown at the listener in a sonic sandstorm. Nothing to do on the fourth but pick up the pieces, and Miller does so with grace, poise, and unerring ear for melody intact. Most great rock records stick the landing; Lolita Nation floats down from the uneven bars like an angel descending. Scott Miller is a generous guy; he knows you’re going to need some time to recover from your encounter with his brilliance. He gives you a head start.

3. Elvis Costello & The Attractions — Blood & Chocolate (1986)
Costello famously called “revenge and guilt” his motivations for singing. This is the record where he makes good on that threat. And then some. I’m not sure who these songs were about, but whoever she was, she sure was spoken to.

2. De La Soul — De La Soul Is Dead (1991)
How many hip-hop albums contain a blanket dismissal of the genre in their liner notes? Penned by the lead vocalist? “Eye hate rap”, writes Posdnuos, who goes on to explain that he’s bought himself a trombone and is taking lessons. A trombone? Well, Pos did always pride himself on his marks of distinction; that’s what “Me, Myself & I” was all about. Normally a respectful and polite interview, he once flew off the handle when asked if De La was jumping on the jazz-rap bandwagon. “De La Soul doesn’t jump on any bandwagons”, he made clear. Inspiring, then, that this proudly complicated and pugnacious emcee and his equally incisive partners are still rapping. They can tell the sort of survivor’s tale that’s only available to those who’ve always had to struggle to make themselves heard. In ’91, they were just getting started, and only beginning to grasp the contours of the adversity they’d always have to face. De La Soul Is Dead describes a phantasmagoric Amityville, filled with two-faced promoters with secret agendas, clumsy amateur critics out for blood-sport, professional bullies and supercilious bitties. Spiritual conversions are bunko, drugs are rampant, violence can come from anywhere, and dissent is silenced by the iron fist of the lampin’ proletariat. The deejay gets his Pathfinder stolen; Santa molests his stepdaughter, and is shot dead in the department store before an uncomprehending jury of kids. Parts of the album unfold operatically– stories take place in real time — but nobody understands what anybody else is doing, and the listener is made to hold on by his fingernails as the narrative whizzes by. Don’t ask De La Soul to slow down for you; they’re not going to slow down. They’ve got their redoubts, their power-bases: the donut shop, the rollerskating rink, the local radio station. Most importantly, they’ve got each other. They don’t need anybody else to ratify their vision, and if their hometown finds it all a little confusing, a little cerebral, too bad. They’ve thought plenty about the relationship of the successful rap act to its community, and if they’ve decided that Amityville only cares about them insofar as their success can be treated as a public utility, it’s hard to begrudge them their bad moods. Often misrecognized as a retreat, De La Soul Is Dead is actually nothing of the sort: it’s a cold-eyed assessment of the crippling obstacles that face a conceptually-demanding act. Caustic and disgusted as they are, they let you know they aren’t afraid. They recognize how difficult it is going to be for nonconformists to make any mark in a world that won’t make room for difference; they acknowledge the cost of hanging in there. Then they go ahead and do it anyway. This album — and this group — is ten times tougher than all the L.A. gangster acts put together. They rap like they know it.

1. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band — Born In The U.S.A. (1984)
Not because he’s from Jersey and I’m from Jersey and us Turnpike mooks gotta stick together. Not because of the strength and consistency of the songs. Not because of the economy of the lyrics; verses pared to the sinew and bone by one of rock’s wordiest writers. Not even because of Bruce Springsteen’s electrifying vocals, or the possessed performances coaxed out of a talented bar band that should have been capable of no such things. None of those are the reason I’m putting Born In The U.S.A. on top of this list. No, Springsteen claims the title because he saw it all coming; and I mean all of it. From his vantage point during Orwell’s year, he asked whether American identity still meant anything, and what it was going to mean for those who’d inherit the mantle. Surveillance, militarization, epidemic incarceration as the lazy answer to the loosening of the ties that bind; it’s all here. These archetypal-American characters are all slipping toward the penitentiary or to a rootless existence on an endless road; once born to run, they’ve come to realize that all their possible destinations have evaporated. Endless war and disenfranchisement of those citizens unlucky enough to fight in them, sickness and insecurity (economic and psychological), the fading of the flag, alienation and estrangement from things that were once familiar — here was our future, said The Boss, and the twenty-five years since the release of Born In The U.S.A. would prove the forecast accurate. Liberals worldwide cringed when Ronald Reagan tried to co-opt “Born In The U.S.A.” for his ’84 re-election campaign, and Brucie had to tell the president to cease and desist. But be fair: Reagan knew showbiz, and he could recognize a patriotic gesture when he encountered one. Nothing jingoistic about “Born In The U.S.A.”, but if The Boss wasn’t a true patriot, he wouldn’t be out in the heartland, howling for justice. Born In The U.S.A. has gone platinum fifteen times over, and it’s beloved by the warden and the prisoner alike; protesters and war profiteers can sing you back these verses. If any songs have been scratched into our souls, as Craig Finn puts it, it’s these. Cynically, you might say that this proves only that protest songs provide us with nothing but a tune for the hangman to whistle on the way to the gallows. It’s a valid interpretation. But I’d like to think it means there’s hope for us yet.

Fifteen amazing albums that just missed the cut: Rickie Lee Jones, Rickie Lee Jones (1979), Bruce Hornsby, Harbor Lights (1992), Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Bongwater, Double Bummer (1988), Digital Underground, Sex Packets (1990), Donald Fagen, The Nightfly (1982), Fleetwood Mac, Tusk (1979), Jefferson Airplane, After Bathing At Baxter’s (1967), The Pentangle, The Pentangle (1968), The Feelies, Crazy Rhythms (1980), A Tribe Called Quest, The Low-End Theory (1991), The Police, Synchronicity (1983), Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians, Element Of Light (1986), Sir Mix-A-Lot, Swass (1988), The Who, The Who Sell Out (1967)

Twenty worthy albums disqualified by the “no repeaters” rule: Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle (1973), Nebraska (1982), De La Soul, Buhloone Mindstate (1993), Elvis Costello, Get Happy!! (1979), Imperial Bedroom (1982), Game Theory, Real Nighttime (1985), Yes, The Yes Album (1971), Joni Mitchell, Blue (1971), The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975), Hejira (1976), Pink Floyd, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967), The Final Cut (1983), Roger Waters, The Pros & Cons Of Hitchhiking (1984), Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (1968), Veedon Fleece (1974), Richard & Linda Thompson, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974), Shoot Out The Lights (1982), Jungle Brothers, Done By The Forces Of Nature (1989), Marillion, Misplaced Childhood (1985), Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded (1987)

Twenty solid bets for the next edition of this list: The Pharcyde, Labcabincalifornia (1995), Sammy, Tales Of Great Neck Glory (1996), Ras Kass, Soul On Ice (1996), OutKast, ATLiens (1996), Spiritualized, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (1997), Hefner, The Fidelity Wars (1999), Brian Dewan, The Operating Theater (2001), Tori Amos, Scarlet’s Walk (2002), Nas, God’s Son (2002), Belle & Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003), Mos Def, The New Danger (2004), Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous (2004), Mannie Fresh, The Mind Of Mannie Fresh (2004), Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy (2005), The Fiery Furnaces, Rehearsing My Choir (2005), The Streets, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living (2006), The Early November, The Mother, The Mechanic & The Path (2006), Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, Knives Don’t Have Your Back (2006), Brooke Fraser, Albertine (2008), Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

TMC, pondering whether to listen to something from the 2009 demo stack or just spin Close to the Edge again

TMC, pondering whether to listen to something from the 2009 demo stack or just spin Close to the Edge again

12 Comments leave one →
  1. sherri l. permalink
    July 21, 2009 9:04 am

    Wow, pretty eclectic, some unexpected picks. I applaud your lack of trendiness and your instincts to like many things across all genres.

  2. July 21, 2009 10:04 am

    Great list, and great writing, as usual!
    A few of my thoughts:
    1. Purple Rain is the best single of the eighties, but the album wouldn’t crack my top 200.
    2. Misplaced Childhood would kick the crap out of Clutching at Straws, but Sugar Mice is the best thing Fish era Marillion ever did. Period.
    3. I’d take Pros and Cons over Dark Side, but I’d look pretty stupid doing it!
    4. Close to the Edge is awesome, but I’d go with The Yes Album for the guitar solo on Starship Trooper alone.
    5. The Nightfly!

  3. July 21, 2009 10:47 am

    I laud “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” being in some list someplace anywhere.

  4. July 21, 2009 4:43 pm

    Once again, the brilliant Mr. McCall comes up with an idiosyncratic bunch of quality albums. Although many, many more of mine are in your “missed the cut” section (not listing a Dylan album in the top 25 is blasphemy–and where is neil young???), but I see nods to albums that consistently knock me out with their weight. You are one of the few that would mention Joni, and that is to your credit, indeed. Imperial Bedroom is way better than Blood & Chocolate. Talk about fighting… And the cheek of suggesting that PM Dawn be up there! But I had no doubt of your #1. I can’t say that I agree, but it all made for happy reading. Thanks, tm.


  5. July 21, 2009 5:19 pm

    No Motown, Stones or Dylan?

  6. Angie Delgado permalink
    July 21, 2009 6:58 pm

    Considering what you just wrote about MJ, I am surprised Thriller isn’t on this list.

  7. July 21, 2009 10:06 pm

    “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Police’s “Synchronicity” must be 26 and 27 respectively. Both albums are structured with such brilliant thought to the narrative that the songs and their order tell.

  8. tony permalink
    July 22, 2009 7:31 pm

    some nice choices indeed……..great span of music…….actually took out my G>Parker & yes CD’s & cranked ’em’s been a while………GREAT stuff
    glad you didn’t add Kanye West, which was your #1 ablum choice last year

  9. July 23, 2009 1:47 pm

    charles: motown is a tough call for me. i have always wanted to like *what’s going on* more than i do. i should try again with that one. especially since i know james jamerson’s performance on that album is drop-dead amazing. stevie wonder’s ’70-’76 albums are all pretty great, but i’m not sure they’re great enough to land in a top 25. there’s usually a song or two on there that i’m tempted to skip. if somebody wanted to put *innervisions* or *fulfillingness* in their top 25, i’d never argue with that. smokey robinson’s *make it happen* is really fun, but it feels more like a collection of singles than an album in the *dark side* sense; ditto to *more hits by the supremes*. i know it’s unfair to judge these sets by a standard set by pink floyd in 1973, but that’s why this game is absurd to begin with. anyway, there were *so* many albums released on that imprint in the sixties and seventies that i’m sure i’ve missed lots of terrific ones. i’m uncomfortable that motown isn’t represented on this list, and i think it can be put down to my own (relative) youth and (not-so-relative) ignorance.

    i *am* comfortable leaving off the stones. if this was a singles list, or a greatest-bands list, they’d definitely be there. but their albums are way too uneven. even *let it bleed*, which is my favorite by far, has junk like “country honk” on it. i do consider mick jagger one of the greatest lyricists in pop history, and charlie watts one of the greatest drummers, and bill wyman one of the greatest bassists. hopefully that will be satisfactory for the stones fanatics?

    dylan… how shall i put this without getting into more hot water than i did when i said that michael jackson was more talented than paul mccartney? for starters,*bringing it all back home* is on my “bubbling under” list, so i’m a pretty big fan. a wise man who may or may not be referenced in this top 25 list once told me that with the beatles, there’s always more there than you initially think there is, and with dylan, there’s always less. at the time, i was in the midst of a heavy dylan period, and i made believe i didn’t know what he was talking about, even though i secretly did. because even then i could acknowledge that much of dylan’s appeal had to do with the feeling i had that listening to bob dylan albums was an *intelligent* thing to do. dylan is very good at singing things in a voice that is supposed to make the listener think that he’s in on a joke that the non-dylan unwashed don’t have the intellectual capacity to get. many of his songs are completely brilliant. others are actually kinda stupid. but he’s a fabulous performer, and he can sell the stupid stuff like the stupidity is actually code for something very smart. every dylan album evaporates a little on close inspection. some more than a little. other objections to dylan are detailed in the phil ochs entry.

    sarah: i’m just not that big a neil young fan. *everybody knows this is nowhere* is probably my favorite. but honestly, i think i’d put a carole king album on the list before that one.

    no arguments about elvis costello. everybody has their favorite, and if *imperial bedroom* is yours, it’s certainly worthy. i think the only ec album i can’t imagine anybody putting on a top 25 is *punch the clock*. *goodbye cruel world* is usually called his worst, but there are some tremendous songs on there (“home truth”, “peace in our time”). *blood & chocolate* has “i want you” and “blue chair” and “battered old bird”, and i don’t think there’s a weak moment on the set. the performances are ridiculous.

    pm dawn probably lost their chance for critical rehabilitation when prince be had his stroke. but there will always be a hard core of fanatics who are simply batshit about that act. and we’re not just in jersey city!

  10. July 24, 2009 10:49 pm

    What, no Merel?

  11. August 8, 2009 6:45 pm

    A few albums from my own Top Ten I don’t see here and would like to read your thoughts on: “Bat Out Of Hell,” “Trout Mask Replica,” “Marquee Moon,” “Rocket To Russia,” “Stukas Over Disneyland,” “96 Tears Forever: The Dallas Reunion Tapes,” “The Modern Lovers,” and “Every Picture Tells A Story.”

    Kudos for honoring Genesis *and* Marillion, for “Clutching At Straws” over “Misplaced Childhood” (even though I disagree), and for picking the first Public Enemy album over the second (I thought I was the only one, although frankly, a band that won’t repudiate Farrakhan doesn’t belong on anybody’s honor roll). “Misplaced Childhood”– which begins with one soul’s hungover huddled misery and ends, so far as I can tell anyway, in a rushing vision of peace and unity transcendent of that suddenly-obsolute scourge nationalism–provides, amongst other treasures, an earlier manifestation of Fish’s bold scope. (You’ve heard “13th Star” by now, I presume?)

    And while I won’t contest you on Rick Wright(except the misplaced period), you’ll have to explain to me how he cuts Eno, Bernie Worrell, Wally Badarou, Allen Ravenstine, Rick Wakeman, and Kit Watkins. (Tomita, Klaus Schulze, and Walter/Wendy Carlos set aside on the grounds of insufficient rockage.)

    And while I haven’t listened to him yet, thanks for turning me on to Terry Allen.

    I await your thoughts.

    All my best,


  12. Charles Pravata permalink
    October 21, 2010 1:25 am

    22. Boogie Down Productions — By All Means Necessary (1988)

    One of the all time greats. Much respect for puting this one up and giving mention to Criminal Minded. BDP never got the national recognition they deserved.

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