The Classic Albums:
IN THIS PHOTO: Joni Mitchell
Critical Mass vs. Relative Weight
I am almost done looking at Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band…
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles
but, before I move on, it has raised an interesting question in my mind: are those big albums, that get critical passion, really the finest work from a legendary act? It might sound like a rather random point but, bearing in mind the debate around Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – and whether it is as good as everyone says it is – I have been looking at those iconic albums and whether they are the best representation of an artist. I look at those acts that have created critically acclaimed treasures – but debate whether it is the truest representation of their sound.
THE CRITICAL FAVOURITE: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
I completely understand the relevance and effect this album has had on the generations. It is an enduring and groundbreaking work that changed music in 1967 and showed what can be done in the studio – when you take the time and truly push its boundaries. Upon its release, it gained a huge wave of acclaim and stunned critics. Fifty years later, it is regarded, by most critics, as The Beatles’ best and most important work. It contains some of the best work the band had ever produced – She’s Leaving Home, A Day in the Life and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – but does contain a couple of filler tracks. Its innovation and genius cannot be faulted and it arrived at a time when the band stopped touring (they could not hear themselves sing any longer) and wanted to create a new persona and change music. The impact it has had on music as we know it cannot be disputed.
THE FINEST WORK: Revolver (1966)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is The Beatles’ most important work but can it be considered their best?! That is a debate that will divide fans but, for me, Revolver is their best – although my favourite work is Rubber Soul. I feel the predecessor is a stronger beast and gave them the confidence to create a work as experimental and ambitious as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Whereas George Harrison’s sole contribution to their 1967 epic (Within You Without You) did introduce Indian/Far East sounds to popular music, it is not considered a truly great work. Revolver’s Taxman is a much stronger work and highlights Harrison’s songwriting brilliance. The entire band seemed more unified and strong on Revolver. If Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has maybe four or five world-class Beatles songs; Revolver could claim to have even more. From Eleanor Rigby’s haunting graveside story to I’m Only Sleeping’s somnambulism tones; Yellow Submarine’s singalong joy and Tomorrow Never Knows’ trippy, head-spinning kaleidoscope – it is a marvellous work and, to me, the strongest work from The Beatles.
THE CRITICAL FAVOURITE: Blue (1971)
There are few that would argue against the merits and brilliance one discovers on Blue. Following her relationship with James Taylor – and the experiences they shared – it resulted in a very personal work that resounded with critics. Many sources have cited Blue as a pinnacle and turning-point in songwriting. It is an extraordinary work that pulls together many of Joni Mitchell’s finest songs. A cohesive and fascinating glimpse into a peerless songwriter, it has compelled and driven many current songwriters – each trying to provide their take on Blue.
THE FINEST WORK: Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
Whilst it did not contain anything as biblical as Carey, Blue or River; I find Ladies of the Canyon, the predecessor to Blue, a more rewarding and accessible work. It can be argued Blue is a more impactful and emotional work but I find Ladies of the Canyon a broader and more nuanced collection. Intelligent compositions and arrangements built on her early albums and, in my view, this was the moment Mitchell announced herself as a truly wonderful songwriter. Blue built on the success and gained more critical favour but Ladies of the Canyon has a greater range of emotions: from playfulness and glee to serious love songs; it is a masterful collection from the American icon. Woodstock and Big Yellow Taxi are two of her most-celebrated works whilst Morning Morgantown and Ladies of the Canyon are extraordinary works that reveal their colours and true nature over repeated listens.
THE CRITICAL FAVOURITE: Hounds of Love (1985)
In the same way Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band gets plaudits because of the way it drove music forward and inspired future generations: the same can be said of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love. There are so many young songwriters, male and female, who cite this as a crucial work. Certainly, it saw Bush dispense with a certain methodology and working structure: making music in a much freer sense and taking her time to craft a record that was a lot more ambitious and personal than previous efforts. Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God), Cloudbusting and the title track and the three tracks we associated with the album. The conceptual second-side is an immersive cycle that documents someone behind trapped at sea and seeking rescue: that feeling help would never come and wanting to escape the icy ravages. Many are divided about that second-half whereas the first side, aside from the standout trio (aforementioned) do not get a lot of critical mention. It is certainly an important work but, in terms of quality, I argue Hounds of Love is not as strong as a lot of Bush’s earlier work.
THE FINEST WORK: The Kick Inside (1978)
If one needed an alternate argument to Hounds of Love’s superiority, few might go for Kate Bush’s debut – perhaps The Dreaming would be a stronger choice. I find The Kick Inside a stronger work than Hounds of Love because it was the introduction and exciting arrival of a music treasure. Yes, there are not huge numbers like Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) and would never suggest any song on The Kick Inside rivals it. I feel Bush’s debut is a more consistent, beguiling and solid work that relies less on division and concept and more on a young woman exploring music and proving what a prodigious artist she was/is. Wuthering Heights was the first self-penned number one from a female artist; Them Heavy People is a slice of Reggae and joyful moment; Moving an extraordinarily emotive and atmospheric opener; Strange Phenomena looks at how synchronicity and déjà vu often mingle in meaningful ways. The fantastically mature songwriting and sensational vocal range make The Kick Inside one of the most important debuts ever. Some may argue, if going against Hounds of Love, there are better examples but I feel The Kick Inside has the consistency and variegation Hound of Love lacks – whether you consider it a more important album is down to you.
THE CRITICAL FAVOURITE: Blood on the Tracks (1975)
I am a massive fan of Blood on the Tracks and, if looking for that perfect break-up album, this is the one. Bob Dylan’s fifteenth album arrived a couple of years after Planet Waves – an album that was not met with huge praise and is seen as a rather forgettable effort. Few people expected anything as intense and staggering as Blood on the Tracks. The songwriting throughout marries heartbreak and regrets with moving on and pragmatism. At the time, critics were mixed and it is only in retrospect the album has garnered the plaudits and congratulations it deserved. Another record, like Blue, that is a blueprint for many modern artists – the influence it has had cannot be faulted. Sure, a Dylan album of this calibre cannot be ignored but I feel the truly strong moments – most found on the first-half of the album – are not balanced with the same quality later on. I recognise this is the most important work from Dylan and one of the finest albums ever but feel the master created a much better record in…
THE FINEST WORK: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
I cannot ignore an album that has Like a Rolling Stone, Ballad of a Thin Man and Ballad of a Thin Man on it. Blood on the Tracks it that personal and meaningful look at love and divorce whereas Highway 61 Revisited is a broader work closer in nature to Dylan’s previous albums. With contemporaries such as The Beatles and Beach Boys releasing near-career-defining work; Dylan was not to be outdone. The poetry and epic story of Desolation Row brings fictional characters and historical figures into a phantasmagoria masterpiece. I feel Highway 61 Revisited is the best example of Dylan’s lyrical diversity and core strengths. On the one hand, you have the revolutionary and visionary songs but more insular and reflective works. There was controversy about Dylan going electric, but here, he gave the nod to any fellow musicians to create surging and surging Rock albums without fear of reprimand and critics. Certainly one of the most exhilarating and exciting albums of the 1960s; it is a staggering album that moved music on in the 1960s and inspired waves of artists ever since.
THE CRITICAL FAVOURITE: Physical Graffiti (1975)
Again, perhaps an album that gathered its reputation in hindsight: Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin at their ambitious best. It, with albums like Rumours, considered near-perfect and beyond criticism. It is a tour de force that ranges from Folk and Rock through to orchestral sounds and Blues. It is the band’s attempt at a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: throwing everything into the mix and pushing themselves like never before. The band never knew Physical Graffiti was going to be a double-album and that shows in some places. The huge tracks on the album – Kashmir, House of the Holy; Trampled Underfoot and In My Time of Dying – are astonishing but there are too many filler tracks – from an album that is seen as timeless and hallowed. The band showed they were confident and committed but there are a fair few songs that do not hit the mark and pass you by. Maybe it is a case of those titanic songs compensating for weaker moments but, whilst they are epic songs, you need greater consistency in a double-album. In the same way The Beatles’ eponymous double is a scattershot and fascinating work – it suffers the same lack of cohesion and overall quality.
THE FINEST WORK: Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
Before Physical Graffiti came, in my opinion, Zeppelin’s finest work: the astonishing Led Zeppelin IV. Whether you see the title as a continuation of their previous work – some say it is untitled or ‘Four Symbols’ – or not that does not detract from the exceptional songs that define it. Black Dog then Rock and Roll: surely no better Rock one-two has been unveiled before or since?! Before the first-half is done, you have their anthem and greatest moment: the unstoppable Stairway to Heaven. Yes, like Hounds of Love, perhaps the best moments all come early but there is plenty of quality to be found later on the album. Misty Mountain Hop and Four Sticks offer diversity and variation. There is the typical mix of Blues, Folk and Rock but, unlike Physical Graffiti, there is greater connectivity and focus. No two songs encroach and there are no truly weak moments. If you want something intriguing and calmer, then you have Misty Mountain Hop but it is those raw and intense workouts that maketh the album. Closer When the Levee Breaks is John Bonham at his multi-limbed best: a pummeling and relentless workout that ranks as one of the band’s best songs. They showed they could try something more Folk-y and emotive: The Battle of Evermore and Going to California are brilliant numbers that, strangely, sound completely natural alongside the more invigorating and bracing tracks.
THE ROLLING STONES
THE CRITICAL FAVOURITE: Sticky Fingers (1971)
It is another case of a classic album being quite top-loaded and having a (comparatively) weaker ending. Sticky Fingers is, undoubtedly, one of the best albums of the 1970s and a fantastic work. Brown Sugar, Wild Horses and Can’t You Hear Me Knocking are all stone-cold classics but there are fewer standouts when you look at the second-side of the album. It is the boys in rude and confident form: strutting, protruding and swaggering with intent. That said, there is plenty of emotion and tenderness that proves The Rolling Stones could provide contrast and balance whilst creating an urgent and energised work. It is one of those albums more defined by its ‘classics’ than the entire body. True, those standouts are among the best songs of the band’s career but there are a few weak spots – Dead Flowers and Moonlight Mile – that means Sticky Fingers has a less-than-spectacular end.
THE FINEST WORK: Let It Bleed (1969)
If critical attention is going the way of Sticky Fingers; it seems fans are more enamoured of albums like Exile on Main St. and Let It Bleed. To me, the latter is the most solid and cohesive work from the guys and a perfect way to end the ‘60s. Gimme Shelter, Live with Me and Let It Bleed ensure the album has ample quality in the opening stages. Unlike some Rolling Stones albums, there is little bloating towards the end. In fact, Monkey Man and You Can’t Always Get Wat You Want are fine ways to bring Let It Bleed to a close. Gimme Shelter and You Can’t Always Get What You Want deal with real-life and reality; accepting there are limitations and unveiling some raw emotions. Capturing the panic and dread that was present in the 1971 air – around the time of the Vietnam War – it is no less effective in 2017. A band could have avoided the mood and anxieties yet The Rolling Stones confront it head-on. Because of that, Let It Bleed is a snapshot of a tense time in world history but, strip the politics away, it is a visionary work that should be everyone’s first stop-off when visiting The Rolling Stones.
THE CRITICAL FAVOURITE: OK Computer (1997)
In 1997, as Labour came to government, there was a chance for a change but an uncertainty that came with that. OK Computer is twenty this year and is being talked about by a lot of people. It is, rightfully, a much-lauded album and one that fully announced Radiohead’s presence in the world of music. My favourite album of theirs is The Bends – although, as I show, perhaps not their best – but here is where everything changed. Throughout the twelve tracks, the Oxford boys provide chilling and haunting sounds (Exit Music (For a Film) and a multi-part epic (Paranoid Android); a creepy, stalker-in-the-house gem (Climbing Up the Walls) and two of the band’s most celebrated works: No Surprises and Karma Police. It was only fitting the band took the album to the Glastonbury stage in 1997 and little wonder it was such an iconic show. I feel it is an album that deserves acclaim but is a little over-hyped. It is a brilliant work but I feel it is not the easiest album to listen to. I connect with it sporadically and do not keep coming back – a record when I am in the mood, essentially. It can be suffocating and tense at times and, given the sheer celebration and reputation the album has been afforded, find myself rooting for other works.
THE FINEST WORK: In Rainbows (2007)
It is complicated separating the ‘critics’ favourite’, ‘your favourite’ and ‘the best’ albums from any artist. I prefer The Bends but, when it comes to quality, I think In Rainbows is Radiohead’s greatest work. It arrived after the lukewarm reception Hail to the Thief received. That was a political and nervy album that, whilst brilliant in place, was a less-successful update of Kid A and OK Computer. In Rainbows was Radiohead doing love songs. That might not sound like an appealing scenario but, after only one listen, you are hooked and spellbound. There are classic Radiohead rockers – Bodysnatchers and Reckoner – and swooning, elegant numbers (Nude). Strip away the marking campaigns and pay-as-you-like scheme that the band introduced and focus on the brilliant music throughout. It is the band’s most accessible album but had plenty of abstract sounds and odd moments. That colourful fusion of emotions and themes go into one of the most grounded and warm records of the band’s career. If Radiohead are more synonymous with machines and less bonded to instruments: here, they produced a pure and proper album that still had plenty of experimentation and oddity.
THE CRITICAL FAVOURITE: Nevermind (1991)
Nirvana’s back catalogue wasn’t huge but there seems to be this consensus Nevermind is their best work. It is a classic case of critical/mainstream viewpoint and that of fans and the band. Nevermind is a vital work and, because of Smells Like Teen Spirit, saw the band on MTV and catapulted into everyone’s living room. The songs are tight, memorable and extraordinary throughout. The trio show what a connection they have and, aside from one weak song, On a Plain, it is a masterful record that deserves a lot of love. The album, to me, is a little too polished and not quite as ramshackle and experimental as it should be. Perhaps it was aimed at the charts and popular success: a chance to get the band playing on the big stages but a little too soulless and shiny in places.
THE FINEST WORK: In Utero (1993)
In Utero was a chance for Nirvana to get away from big studios and make an album they really wanted to. A way of stepping away from the polished Nevermind; In Utero was quickly recorded with few studio gimmicks. The record reacted to Cobain’s newfound fame and the reaction the band had received. The band definitely did not go mainstream and, instead, created a direct album many mainstream artists would have been jealous of. It is a hard listen and one full of anger but does not pander to Rock clichés and stereotyped songs. It is, in my view, Cobain’s finest songwriting and singing: Dave Grohl presents some of his best drumming whilst the bass work is exemplary from Kris Novoselic. It is a look inside Cobain’s mind as he tries to make sense of everything and react to the world around him. Taking in that huge success and pressure; the spotlight on the band and how his life was unfolding – it is honest, brutal but instilled with beauty and intelligence. If you want a short, sharp blast then you have Very Ape (famously sampled by The Prodigy) whereas Pennyroyal Tea and Dumb nod to Nevermind – All Apologies an emotive and affecting closer to rival Something in the Way. It is very much Nirvana but a looser, edgier and more primal example: one that is made in the image of the band themselves and not the critics.