Having listened to every album on the Rolling Stone list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, I’m making my own list. This list will be only 250 albums, although I had to make some tough cuts. The list includes a mix of works of musical genius with the pure nostalgia of some albums I’ve loved throughout my life. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about these albums and what your favorite albums are. I will continue the countdown every other Wednesday throughout 2022.
Artist: Various Artists
Title: O Brother Where Art Thou?
- “Down to the River to Pray” – Alison Krauss
- “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” – The Soggy Bottom Boys
- “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” – Chris Thomas King
- “I’ll Fly Away” – Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch
- “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” – Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch
- “O Death” – Ralph Stanley
- “Lonesome Valley” – The Fairfield Four
- “Angel Band” – The Stanley Brothers
The First Time I Heard This Album …: Right after I saw the movie in 2000
Thoughts: Pretty much every genre of American popular music saw it’s origins in the South. O Brother Where Thou?, the Cohen Brothers pastiche to the mythology of the South, appropriately features a soundtrack of bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, and Southern folk music tunes mainly performed by modern day artists. The soundtrack became a phenomenon in its own right with tours and live concert recordings and big boosts to the careers of all involved (and some who sounded like them).
Bonus Sounds: A few years before O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Smithsonian Folkways issued the compilations Crossroads: Southern Routes, an excellent primer in the variety of music from the South.
Artist: Various Artists
Title: Wattstax: Highlights from the Soundtrack
- “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” by The Dramatics
- “Oh La De Da” by The Staples Singers
- “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Kim Weston
- “Respect Yourself” by The Staples Singers
- “Walking the Back Streets and Crying” by Little Milton
- “Pick Up the Pieces” by Carla Thomas
- “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right” by Luther Ingram
- “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes
The First Time I Heard This Album …: 2007, after watching the movie
The soundtrack to the movie made of the music festival held at Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972 as a benefit for the African-American Watts community seven years after riots devastated that neighborhood. The recording features performances by some of the great soul, gospel, R&B, blues, funk, and jazz artists of the time. The concert was organized by Stax Records, hence the name Wattstax (which is a play on Woodstock, of course).
Bonus Sounds: So, something I embarrassingly didn’t know is that soundtrack recording called Wattstax: The Living Word was released in 1973. It features a lot of performances that don’t appear in the movie while omitting some songs that appear in the movie. Up to now I’d only been familiar with the 2004 release which more strictly corresponds to the movie. Anyhow, they’re both great and complement one another.
Artist: Vinal Avenue String Band
Title: Live at Tir na nÓg
- Front Porch Song
- Tear Stained Eye
- Place for Me in Heaven
- Tear My Stillhouse Down
- Tír na nÓg
- Lighthouse Light
- Stupid Motherfucker
The First Time I Heard This Album …: 2000
Thoughts: This is a personal album for me in many ways. Tír na nÓg was a pub in Somerville’s Union Square. The Vinal Avenue String Band was a group I saw perform their multiple times (on Monday nights!) in my early years living in Somerville. The trio was made up of Boston folk luminaries Sean Staples, Kris Delmhorst, and Ry Cavanaugh. The owners of Tír na nÓg eventually decided to foolishly sacrifice the bar on the opposition to state restrictions on smoking. The Vinal Avenue String Band is no more. But this fantastic recording of a band in a bar remains!
Bonus Sounds: Ry Cavanaugh made another great album with his wife Jennifer Kimball in their band Maybe Baby who released an eponymous album in 2003.
Title: The Divine Comedy
- Gentleman Who Fell
- It’s Your Life
- Bang Your Head
- Don’t Fade Away
- You Did It All Before
The First Time I Heard This Album …: Late 90s, I think?
Thoughts: The stereotype has it that an album of songs that a model/actress wrote as a teenager would be self-indulgent and bad. But Milla Jovovich created a fantastic collection of folk rock/pop tunes with deeply introspective lyrics.
Bonus Sounds: Jovovich has contributed music to film soundtracks but not released another album focusing mostly on acting.
Artist: The Be Good Tanyas
Title: Blue Horse
- The Littlest Birds
- Rain and Snow
- Lake of Pontchartrain
- Only In The Past
- Up Against the Wall
The First Time I Heard This Album …: 2001, not long after its release in the U.S.
Thoughts: The Canadian trio plays traditional folk/bluegrass instruments and creates beautiful harmonies on folk standards and originals.
Bonus Sounds: The band’s follow-up album, Chinatown (2003), is also quite good.
Artist:A Tribe Called Quest
Title: The Low End Theory
- Verses from the Abstract
- Show Business
- Vibes and Stuff
- Check the Rime
- Jazz (We Got)
The First Time I Heard This Album …: azz was the first widespread African American popular music but by the end of the 20th century it had been elevated to art music. A Tribe Called Quest used hip hop, the newest African American popular music, to revive jazz. I remember this album being big when I was in my first year at college and I’m kicking myself for not getting my own copy, but albums were expensive, and I made some poor choices regarding which ones to acquire or not., last year…
Thoughts: Jazz was the first widespread African American popular music but by the end of the 20th century it had been elevated to art music. A Tribe Called Quest used hip hop, the newest African American popular music, to revive jazz. I remember this album being big when I was in my first year at college and I’m kicking myself for not getting my own copy, but albums were expensive, and I made some poor choices regarding which ones to acquire or not.
Bonus Sounds: Midnight Marauders is also excellent!
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Title: Physical Graffiti
- In My Time of Dying
- Houses of the Holy
- Down by the Seaside
- Boogie with Stu
- Black Country Woman
The First Time I Heard This Album …: Late 80s/high school
Thoughts: Led Zeppelin’s double album – 8 newly created songs with some unreleased tracks leftover from earlier albums – is a box of chocolates full of treats. The album includes a lot more of the band’s acoustic and British folk sound in addition to (and entwined with) their bluesy hard rock.
Bonus Sounds: Back in the day I was so enamored with Classic Rock that I even got an album by perhaps the most inspired tribute band of all time, Dread Zeppelin. The band performed reggae covers of Led Zeppelin tracks lead by an Elvis impersonator.
Artist: Bob Marley and the Wailers
- Trenchtown Rock
- Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)
- No Woman, No Cry
- Get Up, Stand Up
The First Time I Heard This Album …: Late 80s/high school
Thoughts: The live concert recording from London in 1975 is a compendium of Bob Marley and the Wailers early hits. The imperfections, such as the audience singing along a bit off-key or the feedback in “No Woman, No Cry,” have always made this album more endearing to me. After watching the documentary Uprising, I became even more aware of the importance of reggae to the West Indian community in London in the 70s and 80s.
Bonus Sounds: The reggae compilation Rhythm Come Forward was my introduction to the genre as a child. It included some early songs from when The Wailers were a ska band including this great rendition of “One Love.”
Artist: Eddie From Ohio
Title:Portable EFO Show
- Very Short Fuse
- Payday in the Village
- The Three Fine Daughters of Farmer Brown
- This My Town
- Very Fine Funeral
- The Bridge
- Oh My Brother
- The Train Song
The First Time I Heard This Album …: Picked it up at a concert on the day the album was released.
Thoughts: Despite the name, Eddie from Ohio were a folk/indie pop quartet known for their funny and insightful original songs. They’re one of those bands whose energetic concert performances and rapport with the audience never translated as well to their studio performances. So this album collects a lot of their best songs the way they were meant to be heard.
Bonus Sounds: I was a huge EFO fan from about 1997-2003, attending a couple of dozen live performances in that time. I had all their albums and consider A Juggler on His Blades (1992), Actually Not (1993), Big Noise (1997), and Looking Out the Fishbowl (1999) to be their best.
Title: Oracular Spectacular
- Time to Pretend
- The Youth
- Electric Feel
The First Time I Heard This Album …: 2008
Thoughts: This album is one of the first gifts of the millennial generation to popular music. The psychedelic/New Wave/synthpop sounds of the Connecticut duo’s debut album bowled me over when I first heard it and drew me out of a period when I wasn’t listening to much new music.
Bonus Sounds: I reviewed MGMT’s most recent album Little Dark Age back in 2018. It’s okay.