This is not a music blog, but I thought I would put together a collection of albums worth listening to, new and old, that you may have missed along the way. Please feel free to add others in the comments. These are “albums” in the truest sense of the word – solid from start to finish, and better with each listen. This is not a “greatest albums of all time” list, obviously – you will find no Beatles or Bob Dylan here. But, that fact doesn’t make the listed albums any less worthy of recognition. Music is one of the greatest things in life, and it’s worth the effort to find the good stuff. Give my recommendations a try. I don’t think you will be disappointed.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
This album has a consistent musical and lyrical theme throughout, which results in a wonderful listening experience when played from start to finish, which I would recommend. However, the songs are so strong on their own that you will not feel short-changed if you pick and choose, so any way you approach this album you will be pleased. The Suburbs is a career-defining album for Arcade Fire, and is one of those albums I always come back to – equal parts haunting and uplifting, and unlike most music you will hear (if you are familiar with this band, then you know what I am talking about). The Suburbs won Album of the Year at the 2011 Grammy Awards, and was well-deserved, unlike most recipients of this honor. This is the album Roy Orbison would have made if he was in his 20s and making music in the 21st century.
(Companion listen: Orbison’s Mystery Girl, his posthumously-released 1989 album. The songs are great, and the voice is still other-worldly).
The Shins – Port of Morrow
Lyrics are important, but unless the songs sound good, I have no interest in your music. A really good tune – one that sounds good on first listen and only seems to get better – is a rare find, and an exceptionally rare find is an album full of good tunes. Port of Morrow is one of those exceptionally rare finds. The songs on here just sound so good – impeccably-made pop-rock songs. You can hear the melodic influences of Brian Wilson and Elton John all over this album. It is highly recommended.
(Companion listen: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. A classic album, obviously, but an interesting comparison to Port of Morrow).
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil
One of the greatest singers of all time covering some of the greatest classic country songs of all time. That’s pretty much all you have here, and the result is magical. The standout track is a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Til I Gain Control Again” – just about perfect.
(Companion listen: Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose. This is a truly great late-career album produced by Jack White, whose influence is pervasive throughout. Loretta’s voice is front and center and wonderful).
U2 – POP
POP, released in 1997, is considered one of U2’s lesser works by many, and I think undeservedly so. POP was released around the same time as Radiohead’s OK Computer, and many critics could not resist comparing the two, ultimately proclaiming POP to be the inferior product. OK Computer is truly great, but I think POP holds its own, and to my ear sounds fresh and adventurous to this day. The album has a hurried, chaotic feel and Bono’s voice sounds ragged – both results of U2 scheduling a world tour before the album was finished and running out of time, and qualities which garnered much of the album’s criticism – but I think these are two of the album’s redeeming qualities. The result is a composition that stands in stark contrast to the over-produced top-40 pop mess on the radio today – a contrast I’m pretty sure U2 intended to create. The album is called “POP,” but it is not a pop album by any measure.
(Companion listen: The National’s High Violet. Another moody album and a good compliment, though very different).
Ryan Adams – Gold
Gold, released just couple of weeks after 9/11 with a first single entitled “New York, New York,” remains Adams’ best and most complete work, even if it probably is a tad too long and bogs down a bit in the second half. Heartbreaker runs a close second, but I believe it’s a little overrated. My quibbles with Gold are minor, because the majority of the album is very strong – well-executed pop-country-rock songwriting. The album feels disjointed, but it works, and I think that was probably the intent – to throw a bunch of really good songs together, seemingly at random, and see what happens. The result is a listening experience that leaves you wondering what will come next. “When the Stars Go Blue” could have been a George Jones country classic.
(Companion listen: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. This is the album Ryan Adams was clearly trying to make).
Other albums worth a listen:
Billy Joe Shaver – Freedom’s Child. The sounds of an aging country outlaw, who may or may not be a little crazy.
Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun. A feel-good nostalgic late-career album in the Beach Boys tradition, without all the weirdness of Smile.
Elton John & Leon Russell – The Union. Two masters at work, and in fine form.
Elvis Presley – Elvis’ Christmas Album and Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas. No joke here. I unashamedly endorse these albums. They are essential listening in December, and the only two Christmas albums that matter.
Ennio Morricone – The Mission (Soundtrack). A great film score from the 80s.
Frank Sinatra – Sinatra at the Sands (Live). The Chairman of the Board at his best, with a surprisingly strong voice.
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach. A weird concept album with a guest appearance by my favorite rapper on the first track.
M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. An unexpectedly soulful double-album from a French electronic duo – good stuff.
Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Transference. Two solid albums from this very much underappreciated rock-n-roll band from Texas.
The Strokes – Room on Fire. Their second and best album – great tunes in there.
TV on the Radio – Dear Science. A killer album that will hook you in the first 30 seconds.
U2 – Achtung Baby. You probably know half the songs already, but a start to finish listen is still thrilling. Their best album, period. Timeless.
Vampire Weekend – Contra. Obvious Paul Simon influences abound, which is not a bad thing.