There’s this meme going around Facebook right now where people nominate each other to post their top 10 album covers without any description. My colleague Andrew Stonerock nominated me; normally I don’t go for these chain mail things, but it was fun compile a list. I elected to break the rules and provide a bit of background on each, including my favorite track. I also decided that greatest hits albums would be banned from my list, which I sort of skirted around with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin choices. In alphabetical order by performer:
The Beatles are my favorite band. I don’t have the words to explain why, so I won’t even attempt. That being said, how could I pick just one album? Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is so diverse, Abbey Road contains the greatest love song of all time, Let It Be is iconic, and so on. Luckily George Martin, along with his son Giles, created the Love album for the Cirque du Soleil show of the same name; their mission was to provide the entire Beatles experience in a condensed period. The album does just that, capturing everything from early Beatlemania to the artsy psychedelic tracks and beyond. It’s hard to pick a favorite track, but Drive My Car/The Word/What You’re Doing is a delightful mashup (which also includes Paul’s roaring guitar solo from Taxman and horn riffs from Savoy Truffle). George Harrison’s Something doesn’t get much of a special treatment on this album, but it remains my favorite Beatles song. (For my favorite treatment of Something, check out Paul's solo version that starts on ukulele and...well, you can see the rest for yourself.)
Perhaps one of the lesser-known names by the general population on this list, Brian Eno has worked as a collaborator or producer for some of the biggest names in music for almost five decades, including David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay, and Genesis. He even created the startup sound for Windows 95 (ironically, he used a Macintosh computer to create this sound). In the late 1970s, he set out to create a series of four albums of ambient music to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” This first installation was designed to reduce the chaos of a bustling airport setting—and it does. It’s one of the most relaxing things to listen to, particularly because you don’t actually need to actively listen to it to get the full effect. The whole album is entirely ignorable, which is weirdly its greatest strength. It doesn’t lend itself to having a favorite track, because it belongs in the background.
David Bowie effectively recorded Blackstar on his deathbed. He knew it would be his final offering, and the album carries that weight throughout. Every single performance on the album is stellar from both Bowie and the backing musicians. The title track is fantastic, but Lazarus probably stands out as my favorite track, particularly the gut-wrenching saxophone solo (which was cut for the music video version, so make sure to check out the full album version!).
Ok, so the title track is a pop culture sensation, an epic narrative that becomes an instant sing-along when played, and has even inspired a Weird Al parody. It is admittedly just a very good song. But have you ever listened past that opening track? Two tracks later comes Vincent, a stunning tribute to Vincent Van Gogh (“The world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”). Later on comes my personal favorite, The Grave, a chilling tale of a soldier that perishes in the Vietnam War. The whole album is far more brilliant than it ever gets credit for.
Jacob Collier is, in a word, nuts. He’s a musical phenomenon that beggars belief, redefining what is possible. His understanding of harmony is unparalleled, and he has a rhythmic language that incorporates Latin styles, Indian music, and more. And, despite all of this brilliance, he manages to package everything up in a way that anyone can understand. You can study his use of microtonal voiceleading, his rhythmic pulling, his use of mixed meter, and so on, or you can just listen to his great music and enjoy it. His slow jams are every bit as entrancing as his uptempo stuff. Impossible for me to pick a favorite on this one, but if I had to, it would probably be Don’t You Know—hip use of odd meter, crazy harmonic extensions, and killer solos. (There's also a version of Don't You Know with Snarky Puppy, but I prefer the solo version.)
Keiko Abe is my favorite marimba player. She has been involved in every aspect of playing this instrument, including repertoire expansion, instrument design, and technical development. Marimba Fantasy contains some of her best-known compositions, all featuring her astounding gigantic marimba sound. My favorite track is probably Variations on Japanese Children’s songs; the raw power she achieves blows every other marimba player out of the water. This was (and still is!) my reference point for what a marimba should sound like.
John Bonham is probably my favorite drummer. His high-octane drumming could create enough electricity to power the continental United States. It is perhaps a bit ironic, then, that I selected the one Led Zeppelin album that he didn’t play on. For those not in the know, he tragically passed away in 1980, and Led Zeppelin disbanded after. Led Zeppelin did reunions in 1985, 1988, 1995, and 2007; Celebration Day is a live recording of the 2007 reunion, featuring John Bonham’s son, Jason Bonham, on drums. Jason’s drumming proves to be every bit as electrifying as his late father’s, and the rest of the band is as tight as they were in their heyday. My favorite track has to be the final encore, Rock and Roll. The opening line alone (“It’s been a long time since I’ve rock and rolled”) contains so much sentiment, excitement, and power.
Paolo Nutini seems relatively unknown in the US, in spite of the fact that he has two quintuple platinum albums. His third album, Caustic Love, is the least commercially successful one, largely because it doesn’t contain any of the pop hits of his previous two (i.e. New Shoes). In spite of this (perhaps because of this), I think it’s his best album. My favorite track is, by far, Iron Sky. It contains an audio excerpt from Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, with an Orwellian message of rising up against an oppressive power to make “life free and beautiful.” (There's also a music video of a session at Abbey Road where they recorded Iron Sky, but it falls short of the album version.)
I learned of Ravi Shankar through the Beatles, and as soon as I started listening, I was hooked. This album has bits of narration at the beginning of the tracks to explain the melodic and rhythmic forms used in Indian music, which serves as a particularly nice introduction for the uninitiated. My favorite track is Bhimpalasi, which has 14 beats to the bar...try to keep track of that with your Western ears.
If you thought the last album on my list would be an Icelandic ambient rock album, you would be correct. It’s just a masterpiece—one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. It’s like the Brian Eno album above in the sense that it can perfectly fade into the background. Unlike the Brian Eno album, though, it somehow manages to demand the listener’s attention as well. It’s absolutely riveting in its understatement. Every track is untitled, and the lyrics are in an entirely made-up language called Vonlenska, inviting the listener to create his own meaning for the music. My favorite is probably the third track—the sort of searching, spiraling piano line feels soothing to me.
And that's my top ten!