a list obligatory. the best albums for vinyl.

This week we’ll look at the ten albums a new vinyl collector should look to own first. These are the best albums for vinyl.

I held off for as long as I could. I just had to eventually give in. Now I suppose I have to admit it. I love everything about vinyl. I love walking into a dusty music store and pouring over the shabbily built record shelves. I love chatting with the clerk while I’m checking out. I love feeling of opening the cellophane and getting that first look at the wax inside. I love pouring over liner notes while I listen to an album for the first time. Then there is the format itself. Of course, you have that standard warmth of sound that every vinyl hound raves about. But there is also the ritual of pulling out the giant black disc and gently placing on your turntable. Most importantly, there is this strange element of danger that only accompanies playing LP records. In a very real sense, the way I handle this music is going to effect the way I hear the sound. Not only does every disc have it’s own individual quirks, but each listen changes based entirely upon my actions; like the album is continually adjusting specifically to me. Those might be imperfections, but they are my imperfections. Best of all, I love knowing that I’m going to be forced into having the artist’s full intended experience. I like the format of an LP and enjoy granting a work the attention that it deserves. Far too often, we call someone a ‘genius’ after hearing maybe three good songs. The real geniuses are the ones that can make twelve good songs even better by positioning them in just the right order or making sure each side plays for just the right amount of time. I love realizing that my favorite song on a record is one I would have never thought about unless I’d been forced to listen to it several times over.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the digital age too. I’ve spent more hours fretting over iPod playlists than I’d care to admit. I know full well that it is perfectly silly to spend so much money and time procuring and storing these giant pieces of wax that will invariably sound a little worse with each new listen. The record collection that currently takes up half of a room would fit into my iPod twenty times over. But, then again, that is also a little something special about having the records. There is a certain finite nature to the whole thing. You can only afford so many records. You can only find so many records. You can only store so many records. That makes each selection you make that much more important. Those albums mean something special to you, so you are happy to afford them more of your time and money than that random free download taking up less than one tenth of a percent on your hard drive.

So, over the last few years, I’ve become a sort of collector. I’ve always picked up vinyl here and there throughout my life when I’d see something at a garage sale. But, it hasn’t been until recently that this has become something of a hobby. Okay, it’s become something of an addiction. As I’ve been going along, I can’t help but wish I had known a few things about collecting vinyl from the start. Jumping into this sort of hobby is nothing sort of daunting and it is extremely easy to waste your time, excitement, and money before getting a proper idea of the right way to go about things. So, I decided to devote a column to the best albums to own on vinyl. It is somewhat ridiculous for me to claim that I could begin to be an expert on the ten record that sound best specifically on vinyl. That’s not really the goal here though; at least not the whole goal. Instead, what I’m trying to do is offer a little guidance to the new collector about the ten best records to start your collection with. I’ve decided to judge this based on two categories:

Quality of Album on the Vinyl Format:

Of course, the first thing you need to consider for this week’s topic is not just how good the album is, but how good it is on vinyl specifically. I think of this in two ways. First, how well does the sound of the music lend itself to the warmer sound you get on the turntable. I usually throw this in support of records that were recorded with traditional ‘acoustic’ instruments over electronic sounds. I just think you benefit more from the depth of sound there. However, you also need to consider whether or not an album was recorded before the age of digital technology. In many cases, artists took the time to record specifically with the vinyl format in mind. As a result, some older records actually sound better on vinyl or as an originally intended mono recording. Furthermore, there are many cases in which we’ve canonized an album after it received some much needed love from a remastering you’ll only find on CD or digital copies. A case here that I always point to is the difference between what you’ll here on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts from an original pressing vinyl to a modern CD pressing. I only found out there is clearly a difference on spending far too much money on a copy of the former.

The second thing to consider is how well the album utilizes the LP format. With CD and particularly mp3, it is far too easy to skip to the next song. In the case of vinyl, it is all that much more important that the whole album plays well as a piece. When the long playing format was first invented, it was out of a necessity to add convenience to the constant disc changing involved with trying to listen to one opera or classical piece on eight to ten small 78’s. While the 45 addressed many of the sound quality issues inherent in those 78’s, it didn’t increase the run time of the disc. With the 12 inch 33 1/3 disc was born the capability to provide longer form dynamics to your sound. Even then, the concept of utilizing the length of the technology in the artistic expression of the music itself wasn’t really utilized until the late sixties, with the birth of psychedelic pop music (and most prominently Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). This is when the LP ceased to be just a tool for delivering the music, but an integral part of the expression itself. I think that is of key importance on this topic. These albums are more than collections of good songs, but whole pieces with immaculate consideration given to everything from the run time of each side to how one song moves into the next. In the case of vinyl, the album really does need to be greater than the sum of its parts. At least, that’s what it takes to make it on to this list.

The Dreaded Price Factor:

More unfortunately, but I think also more importantly for this discussion, you have to consider the cost, value, and availability of what you are getting into. Unlike the vast universe of virtually free digital music, a record really is an investment of one thing over another. You are getting this music, and as a result, you aren’t getting another piece of music. As such, it would be utterly irresponsible of me to tell you that The Replacements’ Let It Be is the album you should own, knowing full well it could cost you $100 to get a playable copy of the thing (particularly when you can pick up Tim for $17). There is a lot to consider when thinking about this. How many times has the album been reprinted? Are the prices unnaturally inflated by other music geeks that will pay anything to get their hands on a copy? Should you save money and gamble on a used copy or splurge on a virgin 180 gram copy of the record? As usual, the concept of value is entirely subjective. Nevertheless, I feel pretty confident in saying that paying $20 for The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillys is a much better deal than spending $40 on The Village Green Preservation Society. I’m even more confident in saying that spending $50 on a used copy of Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs or Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats is ridiculous, no matter how good the record is.

So, with these things in mind, it’s time to dive into the albums I think every beginning collector should set out looking for. Remember, the most fun when it comes to collecting vinyl is the hunt. There are going to be times that you find that ultra rare, never played version of Exile On Main Street at a garage sale for ten dollars. Those are the moments that make it all worthwhile. What I’m trying to do here is give you a great way to get the most out of your budget while you still don’t know what the hell is going on. Now, let’s talk about some records.

 

honorable mentions.

Minutemen – Double Nickels On The Dime
Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (Car)
The Pogues – Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash
Villagers – {Awayland}
Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
Tool – Undertow
T. Rex – The Slider
The Beach Boys – Endless Summer
Queen – A Night At The Opera


 

a notable exclusion.

 

This week, the notable exclusion is an album that I’m of two minds about. On the one hand, I’ve always felt that Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten is one that was made well out of it’s time. In the heart of the CD age and during a decade known sonically for incredibly flat production styles, Ten is a record that is absolutely saturated with sounds for vinyl. The atmosphere on this record is so thick that even the silence has a certain warmth to it. In short, this album is perfect for vinyl. In a way, it makes sense. Being disciples of Neil Young, Pearl Jam were one of the first acts I can remember to openly champion vinyl (at least of younger artists). But, then the other shoe drops. Ten is most widely available as one of those ‘superior’ vinyl collections that offers two mixes of the album at a premium price. That nasty price point was enough to keep it from making this week’s list. Nevertheless, if you can get your hands on an affordable copy of this record, it is worth the listen. Ten is easily one of the crown’s of my own collection.


 

 

the ten.

 

10. Todd Rundgren – Something/Anything?

 

We begin this week’s list with a selection that proves it pays off to be a music geek. Sometimes, an artist that was hugely successful in their time has been lost to modern audiences. As a result, you have a market flooded with great records you can snag for almost nothing. Such is the case with Todd Rundgren and his greatest album. Something/Anything?, released in 1972, is Todd Rundgren’s third solo album. It peaked at #29 on the Billboard 200 and was certified gold three years after its release, and remains the singer-songwriter’s best-selling album. In 2003, the album was ranked number 173 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. “Hello It’s Me”, recorded earlier by Nazz and featured on side four of the record, reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 the following year.

Rundgren was a guy that loved playing with the LP format as an artform and I would argue Something/Anything? was his crowning achievement in that respect. Having achieved confidence in his instrumental abilities, Rundgren decided to play every instrument (as well as singing every vocal) on the first three sides of the double LP while recording in Los Angeles, attributing his productivity to Ritalin. He contemplated recording more tracks to make up a double album in a similar manner, but following an earthquake soon after recording, he decided to relocate to New York and hold a live recording session with session players. Along with two small extracts of archive recordings featuring Rundgren in the 1960s, this made up the fourth side. In the liner notes, the first side of the album is described as “a bouquet of ear-catching melodies”, the second as “the cerebral side”, the third as “The kid gets heavy”, and the fourth is titled “Baby Needs a New Pair of Snakeskin Boots (A Pop Operetta)”. Todd always had fun with this kind of stuff, but there is no denying that you lose something when moving this record to CD or mp3.

Retrospective reviews of the album have been overwhelmingly positive. Allmusic especially praised the album’s endearing tone and often adventurous variety of styles, commenting that “Listening to Something/Anything? is a mind-altering trip in itself, no matter how many instantly memorable, shamelessly accessible pop songs are scattered throughout the album.” Robert Christgau also applauded the strong variety: “The many good songs span styles and subjects in a virtuoso display… And the many ordinary ones are saved by Todd’s confidence and verve.” The song “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” has had a major influence on artists in the power pop musical genre, with music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All Music Guide calling it one of “the great songs that provided power pop with its foundation”. Yet, somehow, Todd Rundgren has never been fetishized as a pioneer in the same way that artists like Tom Waits and Frank Zappa have. So, there are hundreds of thousands of copies of this album still floating out there that haven’t had the price artificially inflated by making this nearly perfect album a ‘collector’s item’. That’s always a good situation for a new collector. You can easily find a nearly perfect copy of Something/Anything? for ten dollars or less. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a historic steal.


 

9. Mott the Hoople – All the Young Dudes

 

Considered by many as a one hit wonder today, it is my contention that Mott the Hoople is one of the most undervalued acts in rock history. As a result, it’s easy to find some absolutely classic vinyl at a dirt cheap price. The group made eight albums with Ian Hunter, eight of which are nothing short of fantastic (I refuse to acknowledge the group’s post-Hunter/Ralphs work). Mott the Hoople was something of an underground favorite in the early seventies, name dropped by Queen on their classic “Brighton Rock” and generally well considered by other British musicians. The band had already released four critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful albums before All The Young Dudes. Their initial album for the CBS Records label (Columbia Records in North America), it was a turning point for the then-struggling British band. They were about to break up when David Bowie stepped in and gave them the song “All the Young Dudes”. Bowie also produced the album, which, according to Rick Clark from All Music Guide, took Mott “from potential has-beens to avatars of the glam rock movement”.

The title track, “All the Young Dudes”, was released as a single prior to the album and charted worldwide, becoming the “ultimate ’70s glitterkid anthem”. “Sweet Jane”, a cover of the Velvet Underground song from their 1970 album Loaded, was issued as a single in Canada, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United States, though not in their home market of the UK. “One of the Boys”, originally the B-side of “All the Young Dudes”, was also released in North America and Continental Europe. “Ready for Love” was later reworked by Mick Ralphs’s later band Bad Company on their self-titled debut.

In 2003, All the Young Dudes was ranked number 491 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. All Music Guide gave the album a five star rating and legendary rock critic Robert Christgau gave it an A-.

I’ve always held to the theory that punk music is custom made for the pops and crackles of the turntable. I’ve also held that Mott the Hoople is the missing link between David Bowie glam and New York Dolls punk. So, what we have with All the Young Dudes is an ultimate value. Because those great old punk albums have been elevated to the level of ‘collector’s gold’ and the Bowie/T. Rex glam albums are either hard to find in good condition or high dollar reissues, you can get the best of both worlds by picking up an excellent copy of Mott the Hoople’s single best album for little more than a few dollars. I think this one is an absolute staple for any collection.


 

8. Cannonball Adderley Quintet – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at ‘The Club’

 

Jazz poses a double problem for beginning collectors. Not only do you have to wade through the troublesome economics of vinyl, but you’ve also got a genre as laden with pretentious false prophets as wine collecting. This is such a problem that I’ve previously devoted an entire column to wading into the sea of jazz itself. It’s all too easy to drop WAY too much money on a great Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Dave Brubeck record when there are plenty of other fantastic jazz albums you can pick up for nearly pennies. Believe it or not, there was a time when jazz songs were also mainstream pop hits. Of course, it took someone with the chops of Cannonball Adderley to make it happen. Originally from Tampa, Florida, Adderley moved to New York in the mid-1950s. His nickname derived originally from “cannibal,” an honorific title imposed on him by high school colleagues as a tribute to his fast eating capacity. His educational career was long established prior to teaching applied instrumental music classes at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Cannonball moved to Tallahassee, Florida when his parents obtained teaching positions at Florida A&M University. Both Cannonball and brother Nat played with Ray Charles when Charles lived in Tallahassee during the early 1940s. Cannonball was a local legend in Florida until he moved to New York City in 1955, where he lived in Corona, Queens.

It was in New York during this time that Adderley’s prolific career began. Adderley visited the Cafe Bohemia (Oscar Pettiford’s group was playing that night) where he brought his saxophone into the club with him, primarily because he feared that it would be stolen. He was asked to sit in as the saxophone player was late, and in true Cannonball style, he soared through the changes, and became a sensation in the following weeks. Prior to joining the Miles Davis band, Adderley formed his own group with his brother Nat after signing onto the Savoy jazz label in 1957. He was noticed by Miles Davis, and it was because of his blues-rooted alto saxophone that Davis asked him to play with his group. Adderley joined the Miles Davis sextet in October 1957, three months prior to John Coltrane’s return to the group. Adderley played on the seminal Davis records Milestones and Kind of Blue. This period also overlapped with pianist Bill Evans’s time with the sextet, an association that led to recording Portrait of Cannonball and Know What I Mean?.

His interest as an educator carried over to his recordings. In 1961, Cannonball narrated The Child’s Introduction to Jazz, released on Riverside Records. The Cannonball Adderley Quintet featured Cannonball on alto sax and his brother Nat Adderley on cornet. Adderley’s first quintet was not very successful; however, after leaving Davis’ group, he formed another, again with his brother, which enjoyed much more success. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at ‘The Club’ was the group’s biggest hit, recorded in 1966. Though the original liner notes state that it was recorded at the Club DeLisa in Chicago, it was actually recorded at Capitol’s Hollywood studio with an invited audience and an open bar. The reason for this discrepancy, according to the liner notes in the CD reissue, is that Adderley and the new manager of Club DeLisa (which had been renamed “The Club”, after operating for years in Chicago under its old name) were friends, and Adderley offered to give the club a bit of free publicity.

The title track from the album became a surprise hit, reaching #11 on the Billboard charts, and has been re-recorded numerous times (usually with lyrics added), perhaps most successfully by The Buckinghams in 1967. On this album, Joe Zawinul played a Wurlitzer electric piano; however, subsequent live performances saw him taking up the new and mellower-sounding Fender Rhodes instrument. The Allmusic review by Steve Huey awarded the album 5 stars and states “Adderley’s irrepressible exuberance was a major part of his popularity, and no document captures that quality as well — or with such tremendous musical rewards — as Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”. The Penguin Guide to Jazz awarded the album 3 stars stating “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy is a hard swinging live album with one of Cannon’s hottest outings on “Sticks””. The most surprising thing however is that you can find this record still sealed in the two dollar section at your local record store. It was a hit, so there is a lot of it out there. It’s been nearly forgotten, so the price is cheap. Best of all, this nearly perfect performance is fantastic on vinyl. The deep tones you get from your wax is custom made for both jazz and live performance. As a result, this is a record you should absolutely be looking out for.


 

7. The Who – Live at Leeds

 

This one really confuses me. How can one of the greatest concert albums of all time be so readily available to us at such a low cost? In comparison to other canonized rock artists of the sixties like the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Kinks, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Bob Dylan, it is relatively easy to find used, great playing copies of old Who records for extremely reasonable prices. In particular, it seems like Live at Leeds continually pops up in the bargain bin. That’s a crime I’m fully willing to take advantage of. By the end of the 1960s, particularly after releasing Tommy in May 1969, The Who had become one of the best live rock acts in the world. According to biographer Chris Charlesworth, “a sixth sense seemed to take over”, leading them to “a kind of rock nirvana that most bands can only dream about”.

Realizing that their live show stood in equal importance to the rock-opera format of Tommy, the group returned to England at the end of 1969 with a desire to release a live album from concerts recorded earlier in the US. However, Townshend balked at the prospect of listening to all the accumulated recordings to decide which would make the best album, and, according to Charlesworth, instructed sound engineer Bob Pridden to burn the tapes. Roger Daltrey cast doubt on this rumour in a 2006 BBC interview, but it was supported by Townshend during an interview (broadcast by the radio station Planet Rock on 11 February 2010) celebrating the 40th anniversary of the original recording. Townshend further supported this claim in his book Who I Am.

Two shows were consequently scheduled, one at the University of Leeds and the other in Hull, for the expressed purpose of recording and releasing a live album. The Leeds concert was booked and arranged by Simon Brogan who later became an assistant manager on tour with Jethro Tull. The shows were performed on 14 and 15 February 1970 at Leeds and Hull, respectively, but technical problems with the recordings from the Hull gig — the bass guitar had not been recorded on some of the songs — made it all the more necessary for the show from the 14th to be released as the album. Regardless of great approval of the Leeds gig by many fans and critics, the band members believed the recordings at Hull sounded better, as the acoustics projected better in the more spacious venue.

Live at Leeds became a critical smash, with The New York Times acclaiming it as “the best live rock album ever made.” Its reputation as such continues decades later with Q magazine putting it at the top of its 2006 list of the greatest live albums of all time. The album’s reputation has become so lofty that the venue at which it was recorded, the University of Leeds Refectory, has been named a national landmark in the UK, commemorated with a blue plaque. On 17th June, 2006, over 36 years after the original concert, the Who returned to perform at the Refectory, at a gig organized by Andy Kershaw. Kershaw stated the gig was “among the most magnificent I have ever seen”.

As to why Live at Leeds hasn’t become unnecessarily expensive, I have two theories. First, the CD reissue of Leeds included a second disc of the entire performance of Tommy. I feel like that that extra disc has come to be considered the ‘definitive’ version of the recording, leaving the vinyl version stranded as a bastard stepchild. Second, there just seems to be a lot of Who records available in general. I actually had a bit of a hard time deciding what album from their collection met the criteria of being the best sound for vinyl and the best price/most available. Who’s Next, Who By Numbers, Tommy, and The Who Sell Out are all pretty easily found for a good price. At the end of the day, Leeds will give you the biggest bang for your buck while going to prove my argument that this band is the absolute definition of rock ‘n roll at its most powerful. Long live The Who.


 

6. Rockpile – Seconds of Pleasure

 

Here’s another example of an album that I can’t believe isn’t a collector’s rarity. Rockpile is a band that every fan of solid old rock music should love, and because they only made one record (a perfect one at that), it baffles me that Seconds of Pleasure isn’t a gold standard collector’s find. Nevertheless, this is one that you can not only find just about everywhere, you can find it everywhere is excellent condition and at a fantastic price. The band consisted of Dave Edmunds (vocals, guitar), Nick Lowe (vocals, bass guitar), Billy Bremner (vocals, guitar) and Terry Williams (drums). In actuality, Rockpile recorded four albums, though only one (Seconds of Pleasure) was released under the Rockpile banner. Two other albums (Tracks on Wax 4 and Repeat When Necessary) were released as Dave Edmunds solo albums, and one more (Labour of Lust) was released as a Nick Lowe solo album. Scattered Rockpile tracks can also be found on a few other Lowe and Edmunds solo albums. Additionally, Rockpile served as backing group on tracks recorded by Mickey Jupp in 1978 and Carlene Carter in 1980.

In 1980, Edmunds submitted the solo album Twangin…, which was mostly a collection of outtakes from his prior solo albums, to complete his Swan Song contract, freeing Rockpile to record a true band record for Jake Riviera’s new label F-Beat Records. Released in the fall of 1980, Seconds of Pleasure featured lead vocal turns by Edmunds, Lowe and Bremner, and spawned the minor hit “Teacher Teacher”, sung by Lowe. Twangin… was issued six months after Seconds of Pleasure, and featured Rockpile on nine of its eleven tracks.

Rockpile also backed Lowe’s new wife Carlene Carter (Johnny Cash’s stepdaughter) on most of her 1980 album Musical Shapes. In August Rockpile played the noted Heatwave festival near Toronto, which with 100,000 attenders was the first large punk or new wave music event, and where Rockpile were the most experienced of the several major bands. But tensions between Lowe and Edmunds led to the band’s dissolution in 1981. As Lowe put it, “We got together for fun and when the fun had all been had we packed it in.” Nick doesn’t have a tendency to overstate. The two would only work together once more and even that was seven years later.

“Teacher Teacher” was the only Rockpile single to ever chart (though the group would have a few hits on the Dave Edwards and Nick Lowe records), topping out at #31 in Canada and #51 in the United States. Since their dissolution however, the status of Rockpile amongst musicians and fans has only grown ten-fold. In a recent interview on Sound Opinions, Nick Lowe actually remarked that he spends more time today answering questions about that band than anything else in his storied career. That’s something considering this is the guy that produced the first few Elvis Costello albums. I thought I was stealing gold when I found my copy of Seconds of Pleasure in perfect condition for five bucks. Then I came to find that it’s a pretty standard price for this record. Maybe because the people that loved Rockpile were already serious music fans that took care of their vinyl, for whatever reason, there are a lot of great, cheap copies of the seminal album available that you should find immediately.


 

5. Big Star – Radio City

 

I’m sorry, but I can only think of one group (to be named later) with a sound more suited to vinyl than Big Star. Because the band has experienced a massive upturn in popularity over the last ten years, it’s now easy to find newly released copies of all their albums and compilations for less than twenty dollars. I think you might as well call it free for the quality that you are getting from this music. Radio City is the second album by Big Star. Released in 1974, Radio City was recorded during 1973 at Memphis’ Ardent Studios. Though not a commercial success at the time, it is now recognized as a milestone album in the history of power pop music. Critically acclaimed upon its release, the record sold poorly, partly due to a lack of promotion and the distribution problems of the band’s struggling record label, Ardent Records. The album included “September Gurls” and “Back of a Car”, which remain among the most famous Big Star songs; both the Searchers and the Bangles have covered “September Gurls” (among many others).

The original Ardent Records LP featured record-jacket photographs by noted photographer William Eggleston, including The Red Ceiling on the cover. Eggleston was a close friend of band member Alex Chilton. Radio City is notable for its unique, chewy guitar sound and live-sounding yet meticulous textures, and for its somewhat tortuous recording history. The album shows a southern US band under the influence of British Invasion bands such as The Beatles and The Kinks. while original copies of the album are hard to find, recent reissues have brought Radio City back to the masses on vinyl and we’re all better off as a result. The depth of this band’s sound and the innocence of Alex Chilton’s fantastic vocals are custom made to come from a vinyl record. Technically, this is why you could select any of the original three Big Star albums in this spot. I’ve gone with Radio City because I feel it is the perfect balance between the pop of #1 Record and the devastating heartbreak of Third. Radio City sits right in the middle and proves why the legacy of Big Star is so important to appreciate. Some of the outtakes from the album include “I Got Kinda Lost”, “Gone with the Light”, “Motel Blues” and “There Was a Life” (an early version of “There Was a Light” from Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos CD). The singles released from the album were “O My Soul” and “September Gurls”. Radio City‘s reputation has grown since its release, with many critics and listeners of the opinion that it is not only the definitive power-pop album but one of the finest rock-music albums. As writer Richard Meltzer told an interviewer, “Big Star…is the means through which most bands today who are influenced by the Beatles get their dose of the British Invasion.”

On its release in January 1974, Radio City met with general acclaim. Record World judged the musicianship “superb”; Billboard described the album as “a highly commercial set”, and Cashbox called it “a collection of excellent material”. However, sales were thwarted by an inability to make the album available in stores. Stax Records, primary distributor for the band’s Ardent Records label, had recently placed distribution of its catalog in the hands of the much larger Columbia Records; Radio City’s release coincided with a disagreement between Stax and Columbia, which left Columbia refusing to distribute the catalog. As a result, the album achieved only minimal sales of around 20,000 copies at the time.

Giving an “A” rating, Robert Christgau calls Radio City “Brilliant, addictive”, observing meanwhile that “”The harmonies sound like the lead sheets are upside down and backwards, the guitar solos sound like screwball readymade pastiches, and the lyrics sound like love is strange [...] Can an album be catchy and twisted at the same time?” Allmusic’s William Ruhlmann considers that the band’s follow-up to #1 Record “lacked something of the pop sweetness (especially the harmonies)” of the debut but captured “Alex Chilton’s urgency (sometimes desperation) on songs that made his case as a genuine rock & roll eccentric. If #1 Record had a certain pop perfection that brought everything together, Radio City was the sound of everything falling apart, which proved at least as compelling.” In 2003, the album was ranked number 403 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Rolling Stone also ranked the song “September Gurls” as number 178 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Sound And Vision ranked it number 43 on its The Top 50 Albums of All Time list. Radio City is an absolute jewel of my own collection and is a must-own for you too.


 

4. Pavement – Wowee Zowee

 

I have had absolute knock-down, drag-out arguments inside my own head about what my favorite Pavement album is. It usually depends on whichever one I’m listening to that day. I can easily see an argument being made for anything they made being their single ‘best’. However, when it comes to a discussion about which album is the best for the vinyl format, I have absolutely no question about my selection. Wowee Zowee is the third studio album by Pavement. The album showcased a more experimental and spontaneous side of the group, returning them to the clatter and unpredictability of their early recordings after the more traditional rock sound of 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. The songs “Grounded,” “Flux=Rad,” “Pueblo,” and “Kennel District” were originally written at the same time as the songs that became Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and rough versions appear on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: LA’s Desert Origins disc 2. The album’s title is an homage to former drummer Gary Young, who would frequently yell “Wowee zowee!” when excited. The phrase also notably dates to Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention’s 1966 album Freak Out!, which featured a track titled “Wowie Zowie”. Dick-Sucking Fool at Pussy-Licking School (conceived by Bob Nastanovich) was briefly considered as a potential album title, but discarded after being considered too risque by the rest of the band. Nevertheless, the phrase is included in the album’s booklet art. The would-be title was a nod to the Rolling Stones’ “Cocksucker Blues”. The album was recorded at Easley Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, with the exception of some tracks recorded at Random Falls, a recording studio based in New York. As of 2010, the original version of Wowee Zowee had sold 129,000 copies, and the reissue had sold 32,000 copies. These numbers are a notable drop-off from their previous release, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which sold 246,000 of the original and 75,000 of the reissue.

The cover art was painted by New York-based artist Steve Keene. The painting is a copy of a photograph originally found in Life Magazine’s 1972 World Library title “The Arab World”, which depicted two sitting women, dressed in dark robes. To their right stands a dark colored goat with curled horns. Omitted from Keene’s copy of the photograph is a girl in a tan dress holding a baby, stationed between the two sitting women. The caption below the original photo reads, “A midday rest is enjoyed by three Arab women and a goat on an arbor-shaded porch. Fellahin women often wear black robes over their other clothing.” Malkmus picked the artwork from a stack of 50 or more works that Keene produced during a live painting session at one of his exhibitions. Malkmus chose the piece due to its resemblance to Guru Guru’s 1972 album, Känguru (an album cover that he had always admired).

Rolling Stone speculated that the relative success of their previous album (having sold 169,000 copies by this time) was a reason for this album’s eclectic nature; the magazine’s review claimed Pavement were afraid of success. Stephen Malkmus refuted this, attributing the stylistic shift to excessive marijuana consumption. Rolling Stone later voted Wowee Zowee the 12th Coolest Album of all time. I put this album on the list because I think it shows every tool in Pavement’s bag. If you are only going to have one Pavement album in your collection, this is the one to get. Also elevating this record is the inexpensive printings of ever Pavement album that Matador has thankfull dropped onto the market. Instead of pressing extremely expensive ‘collector’s’ 180 gram vinyl, Matador and the band decided to go the cost-saver route and re-release Pavement’s catalog on cheaper 120 gram vinyl, still providing a great virgin listen but without that ridiculous $20-$30 price tag. That easily makes Wowee Zowee on of the best new editions you’ll be able to add to your growing collection.


 

3. Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade

 

One of the greatest punk albums ever created and you can buy it brand new for $12. You damn straight Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade is a player on this week’s list. Originally released as a double album on two vinyl LPs, Zen Arcade tells the story of a young boy who runs away from an unfulfilling home life, only to find the world outside is even worse. The album incorporates elements of jazz, psychedelia, acoustic folk, pop, and piano interludes, concepts previously unheard of in the world of hardcore punk. Zen Arcade and subsequent Hüsker Dü albums were instrumental in the creation of the alternative rock genre; the band would later abandon the hardcore aesthetic entirely in favor of a post-hardcore style of melodic, guitar-driven alternative rock. While not commercially successful, the influence of Zen Arcade has stretched beyond the underground music sphere, it is frequently included on lists of the all-time best rock and roll albums and it continues to have a cult following.

Hüsker Dü had gained notice in the American indie music scene of the early 1980s as a fast and aggressive hardcore punk band. They were the first non-West Coast signing to the California independent record label SST Records, which at the time specialized in releases by hardcore bands, most notably Black Flag. However, the trio’s music was becoming more melodic and nuanced with each release; songs such as “Diane” (from the EP Metal Circus), a true story about the rape and murder of a young woman, covered subjects not addressed in hardcore at the time, and the band indicated an interest in 1960s rock by covering The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” In an interview with Steve Albini for his Matter column in 1983, singer and guitarist Bob Mould told Albini: “We’re going to try to do something bigger than anything like rock & roll and the whole puny touring band idea. I don’t know what it’s going to be, we have to work that out, but it’s going to go beyond the whole idea of ‘punk rock’ or whatever.”

Upon its release, Zen Arcade received positive reviews in many mainstream publications, including NME, The New York Times and Rolling Stone. In his review for Rolling Stone, David Fricke described Zen Arcade as “the closest hardcore will ever get to an opera … a kind of thrash Quadrophenia.” Zen Arcade placed eighth in the Village Voice annual Jazz & Pop poll and Robert Christgau declared in his annual review of the poll’s results that, while he preferred peers The Replacements’ Let It Be, the song “Turn On the News” garnered his nomination for song of the year. The critical praise given to the album garnered attention from major labels, including Warner Bros. Records, with whom Hüsker Dü would eventually sign in 1985.

By spring of 1985 Zen Arcade had sold 20,000 copies, and in subsequent years it has maintained a high critical status regardless of commercial success. Allmusic says in its review of the album that “Hüsker Dü try everything” and while “that reckless, ridiculously single-minded approach does result in some weak moments,” it is “also the key to the success of Zen Arcade.” In 1989, it was ranked #33 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has placed “Turn On the News” on its list of “500 songs that shaped rock and roll.” It was ranked #4 on Spin magazine’s list of top 100 Alternative music albums, ahead of Nirvana’s Nevermind (#5), and Patti Smith’s Horses (#6). It was also ranked the 32nd best album of the 1980s by Pitchfork Media, who also included “Pink Turns To Blue” in The Pitchfork 500. Slant Magazine listed the album at #73 on its list of “Best Albums of the 1980s”.

I think punk albums sound right at home on vinyl. The flat production and raw energy are perfect for the skips and pops of an album. Also, there is just something philosophical that seems to jive behind listening to punk on the world’s most outdated and inconvenient music format. It makes sense. Unfortunately, most collectors agree with me and the punk records that we all seem to agree are the best are also the hardest to get and/or most expensive. Don’t believe me? Go onto eBay and look yourself up a copy of London Calling. Call me when your face finally looks like you didn’t just walk in on your parents during adult time. Amongst the American Underground/Hardcore Punk records of the 80’s, things get even more dire. The Replacements’ Let It Be has not been reissued and original copies will easily run you a bill or more. Thank God for the continued vigilance of Greg Ginn’s SST Records (Black Flag, Minutemen, Bad Brains, and Hüsker Dü) and Ian MacKaye’s Dischord Records (Minor Threat, Fugazi, Jawbox, and Rites of Spring). These two great American labels started out making sure they were providing great music at a bargain price and that ethos continues today. Instead of offering deluxe (read: expensive) reissues of their greatest works, SST and Dischord continue to press their records at the same price; $8 for an single LP, $12 for a double LP. That’s right, you can buy one of the greatest punk albums ever made for $12. Makes that $150 Metallica box set of S&M on vinyl seem pretty damn silly.


 

2. Neil Young – Live Rust

 

I have said this before and I will stand by it; Neil Young is the greatest live performer of his generation. With that, Rust Never Sleeps/Live Rust may just be the greatest live concert recording ever made. Some people might argue that a live album should hardly be considered as the greatest work of any artist’s catalog. Typically, I would agree. Neil Young is anything but typical. He is one of the exclusively few artists that is more often transcendent than anything else in concert. Whether he is playing an acoustic guitar by himself, or rocking harder than ever with Crazy Horse, Young is constantly and fully engaged with that one performance. He uses his live show to work new songs and breathe new life and interpretations into old ones. It hasn’t been out of the question throughout his career to play songs on one night that would never be heard again. In the case of Live Rust you have all of that with the added benefit of a vital artist, at the top of his game, responding to one of the most important transitory periods in rock history with all guns blazing.

The beginnings of Rust are part of the key to its magic. 1977 was a watershed year in music with the birth of punk. This new guard made their distaste for the rock heroes of old a battle cry. Very few of those older artists adjusted well to the temperature change. Those that did took to the new ‘wave’ as if it were a challenge. I’m talking about people Lou Reed, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and (luckily) Neil Young. These were the guys that were wanting to work with these new guys and see where they could take one another. Much has been made of Neil Young’s still unreleased madcap film Human Highway. I could spend a few pages talking about that, but the most important bit of information for this discussion was that the film marked a collaboration between Neil Young and Devo. While on the shoot, the former Cleveland ad company employee Mark Mothersbaugh used the term “rust never sleeps”, a pitch he created for Rustoleum. Young took interest in the phrase. With that little coincidence, the Rust Never Sleeps tour was born. The image of rust is important here. With punk, Young is feeling that maybe his career is all too quickly coming to rust. So, what is he going to do? If you’ve heard the album, the answer is pretty clear. Hell, the title says all you need to know; Rust NEVER Sleeps. It’s better to burn out than turn to rust.

Quizzically, you can find a lot of great condition used copies of rust out there for a great price. My personal copy was $7. Like Live at Leeds, this live album is a great way to get around having to drop money on incredibly expensive records like Harvest, After the Goldrush, and On The Beach. It a dream setlist from one of the world’s greatest performers, recorded specifically to tell a story through vinyl. That makes Live Rust a clear top candidate for this list and one of my favorite albums of all time.

Though Rust Never Sleeps was generally liked amongst critics, Live Rust was not received well for reasons I have yet to understand. Though Never Sleeps features a few key songs that aren’t on Live Rust, the latter is a pitch perfect encapsulation of Young’s catalog to this point. Young breathes new life into every song he touches in these performances, whether it be “Cortez the Killer” or “Comes A Time”. He’s also playing new songs, most notably acoustic and electric versions of “Hey Hey, My My”. These tracks serve as the thematic glue of the record. You literally points a finger at Johnny Rotten and says, “try doing this sonny”. Furthermore, the full double LP is a showcase for everything that Young can do in concert. He plays acoustic alone. He plays the burning electric rock with Crazy Horse. He does both extremely well. I’ve always held that there are a few magic ingredients to a truly great live record. Most important among them is timing. If you can get an artist after they have made their greatest songs, but before they have lost the ambition to do something new with those songs, there is a chance at greatness. Add to that Young’s full blaze retort to the punk movement. He has something to prove with Rust. As a result, he makes a live record that is more fondly remembered today than almost anything the punk movement created. If you can’t listen to Live Rust, then you aren’t a Neil Young fan.


 

1. The Beatles – Abbey Road

 

Everyone should have at least one Beatles record on their own list. I just don’t understand people who rage against the Beatles. Arguing that this wasn’t the greatest band in rock history is a bit like trying to live forever; eventually you’ll die and still be wrong. As with many of my early favorite records, my introduction to Abbey Road was due entirely to my father. My dad’s record collection is a gift of knowledge that I treasure to this day. It was like an advanced course in musical taste. He had everything you’d need to get a good grasp on classic rock. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Bob Dylan, and more where all in there. As good that those records were, his first Beatles record was actually a CD. I was with my dad when he bought Abbey Road. I was familiar with the Beatles, but I didn’t know these guys on the cover. When I was younger, what I saw of the Beatles was the early “Love Me Do” mop-top days. We would see old Ed Sullivan clips or the occasional showing of Hard Day’s Night. It was clean, British invasion pop and, frankly, I didn’t care much for it. But the four guys on the cover of Abbey Road…well…they were hippies! I listened intently as my dad explained that the reason Paul was barefoot was because there was a rumor he had died in a car wreck and been replaced by a lookalike. He was so excited when he bragged that it was the first album to play an entire side continuously (a claim I can’t verify, but it doesn’t particularly matter). Needless to say, I was sold on this record before the jewel case had been cracked.

However, as great as Abbey Road is in any format, it wasn’t until I got my hands on a copy of the vinyl that I really began to treasure this LP. Everything about Abbey Road works better on wax. From the continuing medley of Side B to the depth of George Harrison’s guitar, this record is perfect for the turntable. Luckily, it’s also dirt cheap. A story you don’t often hear reported is that Abbey Road is still consistently one of the best selling new vinyl albums every single year. One of the reasons for this (or perhaps because of it) is that it’s the only Beatles record that is constantly being pressed and sold without a ridiculous price hike. Sure, everyone wants that first pressing mint copy of Abbey Road. But, the music is more important and when it is this good for this price, you must have it in your collection.

Abbey Road is the kind of album that delivers on every level. Some records just have their own aura that set them apart from anything else on the planet Earth. Abbey Road certainly isn’t an album that gets boring, splitting time between the loving (“Something”), the silly (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), and the downright dread-inducing (“Because”). Yet, there is a warmth that pervades the album. “Come Together” and the final “Golden Slumbers” suite are the kinds of recordings that feel like a perfect Spring morning. Paul’s lyric writing is in rare form and working on all cylinders with Lennon’s harmonies throughout, but the major strength here is George. The guitar on “You Never Give Me Your Money” is as good as it gets, not even mentioning his turns with “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something”. For me, Abbey Road provided a context for not just the rest of the Beatles’ catalog, but everything else I heard for the next several years. It is a measuring stick for how good music can be.


 

 

Think I got something wrong? Want to add your own list or nominations? Make sure and leave a comment below.

No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.

Read previous ‘a list obligatory’ columns here.

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About Chris Bell

Chris Bell was born in the suburbs of Kansas City, MO in 1981. His path toward a life enjoying music began at ten, when he first heard Queen. Chris attended Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, where he studied English and Communication Arts. While there, Chris spent three years working as an on-air disc jockey for 88.7 KTRM Radio. Chris was the host/creator of the weekly ‘Tangled Up In Bob’ show and a frequent guest on the station’s weekend talk format, serving as a guest commentator on music and politics. It was during this time that Chris was first published by the National Communication Association. His work, ‘Dylan and the New Left: How Political Song Changed American Political Rhetoric’ was presented at the 2002 NCA National Convention in New Orleans. Chris was the only undergraduate to present research on his panel, ‘Rhetorical Strategies in Music’. After college, Chris moved back to Kansas City and started his own talent management company, Poker Face Productions. He continued to manage that company until moving to Brooklyn, NY to pursue a business opportunity in 2008. While there, Chris started as a weekly column writer and album reviewer for 411music.com. Now back in the Midwest, Chris is hoping to bring what he learned about music media in New York to his hometown and support an already vibrant arts culture in Kansas City. His areas of concentration include American Roots, Glam Rock, Punk, Psychedelia, Chamber Pop, American Underground, and Garage Rock.

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