Earlier today I posted an article on the prematurely announced death of the album format in music. As a companion piece to that, I decided to post about five albums that define the form as an idiom. Of course, these albums are filled with masterpieces of the recording craft, and virtually any track can be listened to and enjoyed as an independent entity. But in all of these cases I’d argue that the sum is greater than even the majestic individual parts. If the album is dead, then take me to heaven I say, just as long as you’re spinning some of these on the ol’ celestial record player in the sky.
Kind of Blue – Miles Davis
Kind of Blue is considered by some to be the best jazz album ever recorded. And with over 4 million copies sold, it is also known to be the all time best selling album of the genre. Why has it sold so many copies? Sometimes, things just come together in such a way that you make a perfect work of art, and this is one of those times. The songs are great. The arrangements are enthralling. And the improvisation is otherworldly.
Part of what makes this album so magnetic is the sheer magnitude of the musicians playing on it. The name on the album is Miles Davis, possibly the greatest jazz player of them all, but saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans are legendary figures in their own right as some of the greatest bandleaders of all time. Combine them with the great Cannonball Adderley on the alto sax, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, and you have a jazz band for the ages. (Wynton Kelly, in addition, played the keys on “Freddie Freeloader.”)
The music here isn’t hot and frenetic, but cool, laid back, spacious and exploratory. This isn’t a night tearing up the dance floor but rather an evening spent in a dimly lit corner of a New York City nightclub, cigarette in one hand (well, back then) and stiff drink in the other. The album feels so roomy in large part due to the modal nature of the music – rather than performing over traditional major and minor chords like most prior jazz albums, it is based in musical modalities, which gave the musicians more space to improvise melodically without having to worry about a rigorous and frenzied chordal structure restraining them.
Composed of five songs, all written by either Davis himself, or Davis and Evans, to me the album peaks with the drop-dead gorgeous and lushly poignant “Blue In Green.” But to call out any particular track as an album highlight is somewhat misguided, as each and every track on this album is in itself a classic. However, don’t be fooled – this album is meant to be enjoyed as simply that – an album, and what a glorious one it is. Whether this is your first foray into jazz or you’re a seasoned connoisseur, Kind of Blue will have you returning again and again like your favorite gin joint waiting to cradle you in its arms.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles
If Kind of Blue is the greatest jazz album of all time, this might just be the greatest album period. The conceit of this almost-to-be concept album is that of a “fake band” played by The Beatles that is performing for an audience, but this concept is abandoned after only the second track of the album. Nevertheless, the tracks on this LP are one of a piece, and the result is a grand, symphonic experience.
To me, this is the album that proved once and for all that rock music is as worthy an art form as any, and that the possibilities of the form are virtually endless. The tunes on this one certainly run the gamut. “With a Little Help From My Friends,” a rare vocal lead by Ringo, is basically a catchy little pop song, but then suddenly you are thrown into the psychadelic, drug-hazed musical collage that is “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” and you are forced to acknowledge that this is no silly little pop record. This is rock elevated to high art.
Ranging from the practically classical “She’s Leaving Home” to the mad-house carnival ride that is “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” to the spiritually engrossing, sitar-based “Within You Without You,” there’s a musical shock around every corner. But this world treasure culminates in what may be the all-time best Beatles song, the eclectic, internally contradictory, dream-like pop majesty “A Day In the Life” which ends with one of the most grandiose and culture changing piano chords in all of music history as the closing note to one of history’s most beloved albums.
Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
Time. War. Pain. Crisis. Elation. Madness. It’s all crystallized and captured here, in an existential crisis musically personified. This isn’t a mere collection of songs, this is a symphony or an opera, and a tragic one at that, but also one that could not possibly have been condensed into anything shorter or less grand. The sounds are incredibly versatile, from the slow, despairing crawl of “Breathe” to the proto-electronica paranoia of “On the Run” to the gospel hysteria of “The Great Gig In the Sky.”
It’s not just full of classic songs like the dirty, gritty ode to greed “Money” or the emotionally trenchant anti-war protest “Us and Them,” but is packed from top to bottom with playing of the highest quality. This is most notable in David Gilmour’s thick, melodic guitar solos, but is featured in a variety of different musical voices, from spacey synthesizer to biting saxophone and shrieking female vocals.
Equally an artistic and commerical giant, this is one of those albums I’m pretty sure you might be able to find in every single person’s home. I have to admit that to me, nothing else in the Pink Floyd catalog even comes close as an album, though other Floyd albums certainly have their partisans, and even though their best songs may actually belong elsewhere (I’m looking at you, “Comfortably Numb” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”). With Dark Side of the Moon, It’s nearly impossible to catch your breath until the very last heartbeat.
Led Zeppelin – IV
Blues rock. Hard rock. Proto-metal. Whatever you want to call it, you can’t possibly escape it. And why would you want to? I have to admit, Led Zeppelin was probably the last of the great classic rock bands that I really “got,” but once they took hold of me they never let go. And I imagine most Joe Bonamassa fans at least appreciate the work Jimmy Page accomplishes on this one.
Yes, yes, “Stairway To Heaven” but there’s so much more to this album. I think one of the most underrated aspects of Led Zeppelin – although not amongst their serious fans – is their sonically adventurous while still nostalgic acoustic-grounded pieces, and “The Battle of Evermore” is a great representation of that sound here. And “Rock and Roll” in contrast may be the greatest ever “roll your windows down and play it LOUD” rocker in the catalog.
Like the other titles on my list, any of these songs can be thoroughly enjoyed as individual tracks. But from the acapella / full band call-and-response of “Black Dog” to the rousing and rocking “When the Levee Breaks” this album never lets up and I just dare you to shut it off in the middle.
Kid A – Radiohead
I’m throwing a contemporary classic on this list. Unlike Led Zeppelin, this might be as far as a rock band has ever gotten from the blues rock style of music that Joe Bonamassa plays, full of electronic beeps and clicks, spacey pro-tools manufactured soundscapes, and virtually no guitar soloing, but I think even if you don’t like it, it’s easy to appreciate just how adventurous and musical this album is
It’s been hailed by some as the best album since 2000 – the year it was released – and I think I’d agree. When the album opens with the robotic, flattened and distorted vocals of Thom Yorke and that otherworldly keyboard sound, you feel like you are positively on another planet. On the other end of the spectrum is the tortured but positively uplifting “How To Disappear Completely” with its droning acoustic guitar and sweeping string orchestra. And the somber but soaring closing cut “Motion Picture Soundtrack” will surely have you brimming with emotion.
Like it’s predecessors in album rock history, Kid A has inspired a generation of musicians and fans, and I can only hope that this landmark LP proves the naysayers wrong and is just one step along the unending journey of album rock history, rather than part of its swan song. But with stellar artists like Joe Bonamassa continuing to explore the album format with fervor and virtuosity, I’m not overly concerned.
– Brian R.