So here are my top ten or so record albums. Well, CDs. Not really in any particular order.
Note that I'm pretty restricted in genre and mainstreamness; obviously there's lots of great music outside rock 'n roll and outside commercial releases you can find in Tower Records; but I only have so much time. If you dig through my website you can find a (slightly dated) list of my entire record collection, with minimal annotations about my favorites, but ok:
1. Lisa Germano Happiness
Lisa Germano's concept album Geek the Girl probably accomplishes more than her previous record, Happiness, but the 4AD release of Happiness is pretty much my favorite disc ever. She combines a keen sense of melody with very simple harmonies, with subtle melodic touches to push things away from a too-simple 1-4-5, like the flat ninth in Puppet or the flat sixth in the vocal melody of Everyone's Victim. The rich arrangements, especially the 4AD version, push it strongly away from her folky roots, off into an atmospheric place where her predominant violin creates a sound unlike any other.
The lyrics are confessional, mostly bad-relationship fodder, most of the blame self-directed: "You never wanted this to last; you'd always rather feel bad" (Energy); "What a waste, what a waste to feel the way I feel when happiness is just around the corner" (Around the World). Rarely are things couched in metaphor, and that metaphor is never obscure; e.g. Puppet's "But if I was a puppet, we'd get along just fine"; more likely is a simile like "Relationships are like a cow: growing strong just for now--poor little cow" (Inconsiderate Bitch).
Most important, and the defining characterstic of my top five: I like every single song. There's a lot of variety, and all the songs work for me. Certainly an album could make the top five with a couple of unsatisfying songs, but it couldn't do it on the strength of only a few.
(I suppose I'm biased, because I really really like Lisa Germano; witness that I run this site; but then, isn't this supposed to be about subjective stuff?)
2. The Beatles Abbey Road
If I have to pick just one Beatles' album, I pick this one without hesitation. There are many great songs on The White Ablum and Revolver, but Abbey Road has the best density of great songs. It offers Ringo's best song ever, Octopus's Garden--although on close analysis it doesn't reach the writing standards of his bandmates, it's hardly an embarassment to have included it, as Don't Pass Me By seems on The White Album--George's two best ever, Here Comes the Sun and Something; adequate coverage of the range of John's output, with the John-patter song Come Together, the almost self-parodying Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam combo, and the gorgeous Because; and some good work from Paul, especially the medley section and the perfect She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.
To be fair, this album doesn't cover Paul and John's greatest moments: there's no Yesterday or I Am the Walrus here, and nothing really close to that level. But Abbey Road hangs together as an album, as a consistent achievement all the way through, in which the other records do not.
It's also a little more true to the Beatles themselves, offering a bit less of George Martin's orchestral arrangements--which are brilliant, don't get me wrong; he deserves writing credit on a lot of the songs, in my book--while at the same time showing some of the most effective use of synthesizers ever, before the obsession with replicating real sounds dominated (which, once it succeeded, naturally led to the attempt to replicate the sound of the old analog synthesizers, rather than just running off looking for new wackiness).
3. The Police Ghost in the Machine
Another hard choice to pick exactly the right album. Zenyatta Mondatta and Ghost in the Machine are radically different from each other, and yet they both represent, I think, the high point of The Police's writing.
While Zenyatta has some strong songs--from Don't Stand So Close To Me to When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around and marks the end of the strongly reggae-influenced sound for The Police, judging the albums by how many really good songs they have, Ghost in the Machine gets the nod.
It doesn't hurt that it has what I consider Sting's best song ever: Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic features great songwriting but even better arrangement, with its synthesizer and piano bringing a really dramatic flourish to capture the excitement of a crush in the choruses, offseting the awkwardness in the verses. But there are other strong songs: Spirits in the Material World offers a clever guitar riff; Invisible Sun easily evokes a sparse landscape in the verses that the choruses counterpoint against;
4. The Smiths The Queen is Dead
The Smith's masterpiece, written while guitarist Johnny Marr was struggling with alcoholism--he calls it his darkest days, that he wouldn't want to ever return to.
Although it lacks the highest point of their recording career--the beautifully constructed How Soon is Now?, it offers the similarly strong Bigmouth Strikes Again with its relentless guitar riff. I Know It's Over takes Morrissey's lyrical whining far beyond over the top, but it's carried by his skillful vocal control: gliding here, vibrato there, with just the right touch of wistfulness when needed.
But over and above anything, this is Johnny Marr's album. Instead of the riffs from the eponymous first album, which still hung around here and there on Meat is Murder, here the centerplace is chords and harmony, but with the trademark Marr guitar bits placed everywhere, from the atmospheric sound of The Boy With The Thorn In His Side to the downplayed raging wah and feedback of the title track to the layered construction of Bigmouth or the bits that drop in and out of I Know It's Over. There's A Light That Never Goes Out is a high point of Marr's musical lyricism and Morrissey's self-deprecating humor, with a rare synthesizer appearance adding faux strings and a flute-like effect.
The American compilation Louder than Bombs pulls together all their singles, many of which have an "upbeat music" with "downbeat lyrics", which is a great effect found almost nowhere on this album, which has much more of a minor-key feel. But I personally go for The Queen Is Dead first.
5. Machines of Loving Grace Concentration
I was torn between two Nine Inch Nails albums--Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral. The former introduced a new form of danceable industrial pop; the EP Broken introduced a darker, heavy guitar tonality that was much more fully explored in Downward Spiral. And yet, when I stop and listen to the songs, and hold it to the standard of "a bunch of really good songs", the album Concentration by an entirely different band claims the spot.
Clearly, Concentration is a post-Pretty Hate Machine, and owes a lot to the sound that Trent Reznor invented. But it's an album that consistently surprises me when I forget what's on it; I pick it up, expecting to hear two or three good songs and a bunch of forgettable things, and as each song starts, I'm always "Oh, right, I remember this song". Although the lyrics seem to be opaque to the point of probably not really having a real meaning beyond evocativeness, it's the arrangement of the music and the sound of the vocals that stays with me. The power guitar chords are included much more cohesively, without descending into metal cliche or the darkness of Downward Spiral. The synthesizer riff in Butterfly Wing offers an appropriate sense of delicacy to underscore the message of the song; the minimalist guitar riff of Acceleration bounces off a single note synthetic gong; the clever interplay of synthesizer and guitars in the versus of Limiter are followed by the sudden growth in the chorus, underscored subtly by a real string section (which returns more dramatically for Ancestor Cult); Lilith/Eve with starts an erratic synthesizer that sets off the sparser verses and their simple vocal effects.
I shouldn't downplay the lyrics too much: most of the time I really can't make them out, so my opinion is based on reading them. Of course, there are moments where the words and music all merge into a beautiful sound, and certainly bits of coherent lyrics that I remember easily: "and if the doors of perception were finally cleansed / I could see your face again / and my love for the world would be wild and pure / if not for this goddamned limiter" (Limiter); "it's what you say by what you buy into, it's what you say by what you buy into, that obsesses me, that turns me on, that makes me cheap, that fills me up" (Cheap); "there's got to be a pill for forgiveness / there's got to be a trigger for happiness" Trigger for Happiness; "smell the ripe budding America / a sweetfaced straightlaced pornograph actress / that's her draw / no one could believe she'd appear in this smut / face smiling perfect through innocent teeth / unaware of the debauchery beneath / face smiling perfect through innocent teeth / unaware of the wolves running wild in her streets / in the / land of the free" (Albert Speer, which is packed full of evocative stuff).
6. Belly King
Not a sophmore slump album at all; King is an amazing pop album, with beautifully crafted songs all the way through. From the gorgeous guitar sound of Seal My Fate to the charming wordplay of The Bees ("now the bees behind my eyes sing 'beware', but my bee-stung tongue wants in there") to the riff-driven Super-Connected to the drama of Untitled and Unsung to the lady walking on her hands in Judas My Heart, King is simply a great pop album, with every song memorable for a catchy phrase or a guitar hook or a hummable tune or all three. I picked the above list for variety, but I could just as easily have mentioned the chorus of King or Silverfish or L'il Ennio.
7. David Byrne & Brian Eno My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
They both have worked on other great records--Eno's Another Green World, Byrne's Catherine Wheel, both of them on Talking Head's Remain in Light--but if I have to pick one, it's this. All the vocal tracks were found, and set to music that makes rhythm, not melody, its central tenet. Tracks off this pop up all over the place; I've seen them on science shows on PBS, and two tracks were in the movie Wall Street.
8. Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon
Although I'm also partial to the albums on either side of this one--Meddle and Wish You Were Here, Dark Side of the Moon achieves more with less; although you'd hardly say it wasn't self-indulgent, it lacks the excesses of the album-side-long Echoes on Meddle or the multi-part Shine On You Crazy Diamond. It's just a bunch of neat pop songs strung together with wacky bits, the rare album that really coheres into a unified whole without really being one.
9. Mr. Bungle California
I first noticed Mike Patton with the famous single Epic by Faith No More. His contributions were marked by wordplay ("You want it all, but you can't have it; it's in your face, but you can't grab it. What is it? It's it") and his ability to sing in a number of distinct voices.
The first Mr. Bungle album turned my beliefs about what rock music could be upside down, creating an indescribable melange of power chords and power tritones with saxophone to create what was most easily described as death-metal-cum-circus-music-jazz.
After a lackluster second album, Bungle turned my world around again with their third, California.
I honestly find it defies description. As I listened to it, I was struck by a simple sense: I would never have thought you could do these things and what you would get out would be something that would cohere and feel like music. This language is perhaps overly strong; maybe it makes you picture people banging on found metal in a junkyard and calling it music. Rather, California simply defies genre boundaries and categories, even within a single song. I suppose some people might find it silly, but for me it works. With the first album, this was simple to describe: you'd a hear a bit of the heaviest ever death-metal, and accompanying bizarre lyrics, and then after a verse and a half the music would veer off into circus music, and then take an extended jazz break.
Here, on California, there's simply no types to be offered. One track, Ars Moriendi, can be perhaps described as the melding of some eastern style of music (Arabic maybe? not my strong suit) with metal. Oh yeah, and polka. But that's perhaps the weakest song, being so cliche. The other songs mostly defy categorization.
The album opens with the hardest one to describe, Sweet Charity, which opens with parody: surf, squeaking birds, and a slide slide guitar hawaiian-style and accompanying whistling. After almost half a minute, the song proper begins: a faint acoustic guitar, dramatic synth strings, bass and electric guitar providing a sparse root structure, and Patton's distinctive vocals; a bell swings us into the melodramatic chorus, musically dominated by multi-tracked Patton's worldless bassline playing off against tympani. After a brief quiet transition, and an-out-of-nowhere-dramatic rhythmic banging for half-a-measure, we get something not quite like the original verse, which after half a verse suddenly changes pace and tempo--evocative of the old circus music--but this time to parody lounge music, which then gives way to hawaiian guitar again, which finally gives way to something arranged more like the original verse, but not really, then finally back to the chorus.
The album includes credits for who wrote once, which makes it clear that guitarist Trey Spruance is responsible for most of the madness--his co-written None of Them Knew They Were Robots and solely-written Golem II: The Bionic Vapor Boy take the insanity to their most gratuitous--sudden 50's breaks, sections where three repeats of a musical phrase answered by a fourth section totally consisting of random sound effects.
Mike Patton seems the most to indulge in genre parody, with the aforemention Ars Moriendi, Air-Conditioned Nightmare and it's riff on the Beach Boys and Wipeout; Pink Cigarette (which never transcends the cheesy light rock genre it's mocking), and Vanity Fair, which melds doo wop with something more modern, but never goes anywhere with it.
Meanwhile bassist Trevor Dunn is just off in his own space, turning in Retrovertigo--seemingly soft rock until the melody takes an odd turn, and then suddenly going impossibly heavy at the 2/3 point; not quite the surprise of Spruance's song, but still something--and the out-of-place The Holy Filament, inappropriately pretty and exotic. It doesn't belong because it never goes anywhere, but it somehow works in context of the album, providing a needed release from the tension of Golemn II.
Lyrically, Bungle has moved beyond the bodily-function humor of the first album to something lying between pretentious intellectualism or a parody thereof. Which is None of Them Knew They Were Robots? "Mendel's machines replicate in the night / in the black iron prison of St. Augustine's light / He's paying the bills and they're doing him proud / They can float their burnt offerings on assembler clouds". (Later it offers a section of repeating, whispered phrases--in Latin.)
Or what of: "Your lips say one thing / but the drugs say another / How can I massage / this intergalactic ulcer?" (Goodbye Sober Day.)
10. King Crimson Starless and Bible Black
I lost the LJ upload that explained this, so screw it.