Maxwell: Embrya (1998)
I saw Maxwell live once while I was living in Columbus, Ohio in 2000 and will never forget it. In my opinion, there is not a more under-appreciated musical artist out there today–this guy has got some serious vocal chops. He is not accordingly well known partially because he does not seek the spotlight; I read an interview a few years ago where he explained that he took a full eight years off in between Now and BLACKsummers’night in order to seek some privacy in his life and to “work on a relationship,” which only increased my admiration for him. He’s definitely got the privacy thing down about as well as one can manage these days, as he’s the only singer I can think of whose real name I don’t know (at least among those singers whose name I would care to know).
In any case, about the album and the music: Embrya is a little bit of a deviation from his traditional sound. Whereas he is often rightfully described as the heir to the sound and legacy of artists such as Marvin Gaye and Al Green, Embrya has more of a hypnotic and dreamy feel to it (the underwater shot on the cover is perfectly apt). But although I’ve picked up through interviews and articles through the years that many of his fans apparently don’t care for it, it is easily my favorite of his albums. It strikes a unique chord for me and is one I always find myself coming back to. Oh and I should also say that if you like his sound, definitely check out his MTV Unplugged set too, it’s fantastic–especially the last track that covers NIN’s “Closer.”
Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks (1975)
I was leafing through Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs at the bookstore a few months ago and went straight to the section that talked about Jobs’ love for music: his lifelong obsession with Dylan and the Beatles, the hi-fi vinyl system he set up in his house, and his negotiations with U2 and Bono to get them on board with their own custom iPod about 10 years ago. Jobs, like many Dylan fans of his generation, felt strongly that Dylan’s best albums were the four that he released over just two to three legendary years of inspired frenzy in the mid-60’s: The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964), Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). And there is no question that these four albums (five if you throw in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan from 1963, which is not too shabby either) showcase Dylan at the height of his creative power and are collectively right up there with the most impressive musical achievements of the 20th century.
But I beg to differ with Mr. Jobs on a couple counts. For one, I feel pretty strongly that Blood on the Tracks is his magnum opus. For me anyway, I would at least insist that it’s his most aesthetically pleasing album. The first two tracks–“Tangled Up In Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate”—are absolute monsters and easily rank amongst the best stuff he’s ever done. And all the rest of the tracks are great too; it’s one of those albums that really doesn’t have any bad songs (I get tired of the drawl of “Idiot Wind” and usually skip over it, but it’s still a classic). The second place where I have to take issue with Jobs is when he claimed that everything Dylan did after the 60’s was a big step down from the standard he had established during that decade. I think both BOTT and Modern Times (2006) can easily stand up to anything else he’s done.
One last thing I’ll say about Dylan here. Two summers ago I heard a Chinese cover of Boots of Spanish Leather while on vacation in Taiwan, and the more I’ve thought about it since then, I’m curious how large a following he might have here and in China. Of course he has some following in China–it would be almost impossible not to in a country of over a billion people–but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t significant, because the Chinese and Dylan are, in many ways, a perfect match: they both love word games, poetry, subtlety and nuance. I’m looking forward to digging into this a bit more over the next few years.
U2: Achtung Baby (1991)
I’ve been a huge U2 fan since high school and have seen them multiple times live. There is such an energy about them, they just have that je ne sais quoi that made them fated to become the world-straddling, colossus of a band they are today. I recall reading once about how Bono was describing some of their early auditions in Ireland in the late 70’s–he basically said (paraphrasing from memory here), “there were a lot of other bands at these competitions and festivals that we would go to who were much more talented than we were, but we had a spark that propelled us forward.” I have a lot of personal admiration for Bono (Paul Hewson) himself too. He is a very sincere political activist and the work he does with the ONE foundation is pretty special:
Anyway, this was a tough choice of which U2 album to pick for this list. I was originally going to go with The Unforgettable Fire, but ultimately decided I had to go with Achtung Baby (I know, The Joshua Tree is often considered their best, but for me those first three tracks have been so overplayed through the years that they’ve become a bit passe. I’d rather listen to the “Please” single…the transition from “Please” into “Where the Streets Have No Name” on that live track always gives me goosebumps). Perhaps Achtung calls to me because of my primarily Irish-German heritage; U2 is, of course, from Dublin and this album was recorded in and significantly influenced by the city of Berlin (recall that the Berlin Wall had just come down in 1989, and U2 were trying to capture some of the energy that was pulsing through the city at the time). But from the exuberant vitality of “Zoo Station” and “The Fly,” to the lyrics of “So Cruel” and “One,” to the brilliance of “Mysterious Ways” and “Ultraviolet,” I think this album has to be considered their best.
Radiohead: Kid A (2000)
Most Radiohead fans would probably select OK Computer here, which many magazines touted as the best album of the 90’s. Radiohead is, along with U2 and DMB, my favorite band and it’s so tough for me to choose one album to list here, as I think everything they’ve done is fantastic (with the exception of their first CD, Pablo Honey. Anytime somebody says, “Oh yeah, Radiohead! I love Creep!” I literally want to smack them upside the head. I hate that song, it’s so terribly depressing). I only list Kid A here because of “Everything In It’s Right Place,” which is my favorite song of theirs, but pretty much could have chosen any of their other albums as well.
Anyway, Radiohead is, as I like to say, the real enchilada. They are everything that Coldplay is not, which is to say a creative and artistic band with genuine depth (exhibit A: Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead’s virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, is a composer-in-residence for the BBC orchestra). Coldplay has a lot of catchy songs, and I admit to owning and enjoying a lot of their work, but they can’t hold a candle to Radiohead at the end of the day. Honestly, the biggest grudge I have against them (and the only reason I feel compelled to say anything negative about them here) is because every time I see Chris Martin interviewed, he always seems to refer to themselves as “the biggest band in the world,” and he doesn’t ever strike me as saying it tongue-in-cheek or with any humility whatsoever. Which kinda makes me think he’s a wanker. So there’s that.
Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More (2009)
All I have to say is that Marcus Mumford is a freak of nature. You shouldn’t be 23’ish years old and be able to write and coordinate an album the likes of Sigh No More, which I would have to say is one of the ten best I’ve ever heard. He followed that up with Babel just a couple years later, which is more or less on the same level. I’m guessing that Bob Dylan saw something of himself in him too, as he sought the band out to play with him at the Grammys a few years ago (and I’m pretty sure that Dylan virtually NEVER seeks out others to play with him like that). I read in Rolling Stone how Marcus was actually listening to some old Dylan tracks when he got the phone call that Bob wanted to play with him at the Grammys, and he literally just started running down the street, screaming his head off. Pretty neat story.
One last thing about this album: for anyone not aware, as a good and true Englishman, Mumford devised the title as a reference to a line from a Shakespeare play, in this case Much Ado About Nothing:
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever.
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)
You really have to listen to this album to appreciate it; I’ve never heard anything like it before in my life. If I to pick one word to describe it, it would be: ROLLICKING! The four long tracks here are just a non-stop cacophony of boundless energy (you can often hear Mingus shouting in the background on many of his records, including this one). In this regard it’s probably a good reflection of the man himself, as Mingus was supposedly a man possessed of a dominating personality, a fierce temper, and huge appetites, sexual and otherwise. One other tidbit about Mingus that I just learned recently: apparently his mother was of Chinese and English descent, which means he was around 25% Chinese. Interesting stuff.
Thievery Corporation: The Mirror Conspiracy (2000)
TC is a group based out of Washington D.C. and have long been at the forefront of the lounge & downtempo scene, while also integrating a lot of samba and world music into their sound. I remember when I was visiting some friends down in Brazil about five years ago and staying at a little pousada (a small beachfront house), somebody put this CD on during a lazy morning after having been out late at the club the night before. I kinda started laughing and basically just explained: este es me CD favorito! (even though they speak Portuguese down there, sometimes I would just mess around and practice my limited Spanish with them). It was cool to hear one of my favorite CD’s in such a perfect setting half a world away. But anyway, this has been my favorite downtempo CD for the past decade and probably still will be in another 10 years. When it comes to cutting edge lounge music, it really doesn’t get any cooler than these cats.
Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto: Getz/Gilberto (1964)
Speaking of Brazil, if you wanna impress your friends as a true music hipster, what would you recommend when you would like to melt away your worries with the help of some sonic bliss? Rather than suggesting something along the lines of Norah Jones or Bob Marley, give this album from 1964 a listen. I think it’s probably impossible to be in a bad mood after hearing it all the way through; it’s the ultimate album for drifting out onto a beach during a melodic daydream.
Van Morrison: Moondance (1970)
So Van Morrison doesn’t suck. Another good Irishman on this list, Van is something of a poet and mystic who loves to “rave on” about any number of historical figures during his live performances. I could have also easily picked 1968’s Astral Weeks instead, which is often considered to be his best. But if it is, Moondance has to be a close second, and I chose it because it has my favorite track of his, Into the Mystic. What a wonderfully beautiful song that is.
Miles Davis: In a Silent Way (1969)
I love Miles, and I love his fusion period in the late 60’s the most, which also includes Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. These albums have been explained as forerunners of ambient and electronic music; Miles was always innovative and ahead of his time. I just bought his autobiography in hardback last summer and unfortunately didn’t get around to reading it, but it’s high on my to-do list, as it’s legendary in the jazz world:
Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds: Live at Luther College (1999)
I wasn’t a DMB fan at all while in college in the late 90’s, when pretty much EVERY frat boy out there loved them. Actually, I’m positive that that’s precisely why I didn’t like them…because everyone else already did. And so I think deep down I always kind of assumed that they were commercial garbage. But then I actually started to really listen to them in earnest for the first time five or ten years ago, and quickly realized that I really, really liked them. Dave is so unique–originally from South Africa, he was a former bartender in Virginia (where he originally met Tim Reynolds, who would come in to the bar called Miller’s he worked at and play acoustic gigs) and I’m pretty sure somewhere around that same time he went to study music at Berklee. But there is really nobody else like him out there and he’s impossible to define as a musician, which I mean as high praise. And Dave and Tim just have a special chemistry when they play together for acoustic shows. The fact that this was recorded in my home state of Iowa is just a bit of gravy for a double-length album that’s already superb.
Bon Iver: Bon Iver (2011)
Bon Iver was originally formed by a dude named Justin Vernon, who hails from Wisconsin. Ummm…they are amazing. Recent legend has it that he spent a long winter alone in the woods at the family cabin in northern Wisconsin, which served as the incubation period for his creative work to follow (it also served as the inspiration for the band’s name, as Bon Iver means “good winter” in French, a la “bon appetit” and “bon vivant”). If you haven’t heard it, listen to this album, especially Holocene. I also really like the album art on the cover, as it reminds me of a traditional Chinese landscape painting.
Chicane: Behind the Sun (2000)
Probably by far the most obscure album on this list, this is a super-cool electronic set compiled by a guy named Nick Bracegirdle that features a song called Saltwater, which blows my mind every time I hear it. It incorporates vocals by Moya Brennan from Clannad and “Theme from Harry’s Game.” Also, a quick note for any Enya fans out there: Clannad is her family’s band that includes many of her siblings and is quite famous throughout Ireland and beyond.
Massive Attack: Mezzanine (1998)
Coolest. Album. Ever. At least if you’re into dark, trippy, Matrix-esque stuff. Which I am.
Sting: …All This Time (2001)
This album has an interesting story behind it, as it was recorded at Sting’s villa in Tuscany on Sept. 11, 2001. If you ever watch the DVD, it has extra footage showing the band deciding whether they should play that night after hearing about the NYC attacks. I’m glad they decided to, as the version of “Fragile” that it opens with is one most poignant tributes to that day that I could ever imagine. Anyway, this disc is a bunch of jazz renditions of many Sting classics, and like most everything he does, it’s excellent.
One other thing I’d like to say about Sting: there are some who find him pretentious and a bit full of himself. To which I say: bollocks. I mean, if he didn’t have real talent and tried to do the intellectual sort of music that he does, then yeah, he’d be a bit of a joke, but there’s nothing disingenuous about the guy. As a former college prof of mine used to tell me, “the proof is in the pudding,” and all that really matters is the quality of the music he makes–at the end of the day, that speaks for itself. Maybe I’m a little biased in his favor because he was once a high school teacher who decided to become a musician, but I’ve always been a big fan.
Koop, Waltz for Koop. This is a group from Sweden that puts out some highly unique and uplifting jazz tunes–I think the female lead vocalist on this album is half Swedish and half Japanese. Try “Summer Sun,” it’s guaranteed to put you in a good mood.
Janet Jackson, janet. and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. I had a massive adolescent crush on Janet when her “Escapade” video came out when I was in 8th or 9th grade and have loved her music ever since.
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon. Pretty standard fare here, this album is on many people’s “best of” lists, for good reason.
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV. There’s always been a longstanding place in my heart for Zeppelin…much more so than Dylan, who I didn’t really get into until just a few years back, and the Beatles, whom I’ve never really gone through a big phase with. If this were a list of favorite groups rather than albums they would easily be in my top five, but I grew up listening to their big 4-CD box set, so I’m not really all that familiar with their individual albums.
In any case, there are very few groups out there with Zeppelin’s kind of range: they can go from the most tender of ballads (“The Rain Song,” “All My Love”) to exuding the energy of a bunch of marauding, rampaging Norsemen (“Immigrant Song,” “Whole Lotta Love”) in an instant. There’s just something about the combo of Robert Plant’s voice with Jimmy Page’s virtuosity on guitar that’s timeless, and for me they embody the soul of the late 60’s more than any other act.
You also gotta love how Page and Plant were also both huge Lord of the Rings fans and all the references they worked into their songs: they refer to the book in “The Battle of Evermore,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” (you can hear Plant shout ‘Strider!!’ at the end of the song, which was a nickname for Aragorn and the name he gave his dog), and most famously, in “Ramble On”:
Mine’s a tale that can’t be told, my freedom I hold dear.
How years ago in days of old, when magic filled the air.
T’was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one, crept up and slipped away with her…
Van Halen, Live: Right Here, Right Now. When you need to kick some arse and get stuff done, there’s nothing quite like cranking Van Halen all the way up to give you a charge. If I could combine my favorite tracks from OU812 (“When It’s Love,” “Feels So Good”) and 5150 (“Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Dreams,” “Get Up”) into one album, I would for sure place it in the list above. “Right Now” from their live album is great too.
Eberhard Weber, Fluid Rustle. This is a pretty obscure album from a German bassist, but a friend turned me on to it a number of years ago and it’s got a really nice minimalist/ambient vibe. There are a handful of other ambient albums I could have listed here just as easily, including Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Global Communication’s 76:14, and Ulrich Schnauss’ A Strangely Isolated Place.
John Digweed, Global Underground: Hong Kong. I like my trance hard-hitting and tribal with a lot of deep thumping bass and no vocals; tracks 4-8 on disc 1 fit the bill, “The Baguio Track” especially.
Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams. These guys just put out this first album a couple years ago and it’s got a great western-rock sound to it that just works. “In the Wind” is my favorite track.
Keane, Under the Iron Sea. These guys are a pretty simple outfit–I think they are just a singer, bassist, and keyboardist–but the guy’s voice is really unique and pulls it all together.
Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream. Love the Pumpkins. Bunch of classic tunes here and on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness too.
Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life. Kinda like the Beatles, I’ve never truly gone through a big phase with Stevie Wonder, but I generally like and appreciate all his stuff.
Tallgrass, God, Sin, Whiskey and Women. I gotta give a quick shout-out to this album, which some friends of mine in Colorado released a few years back. I wouldn’t list it here if it were crap, but it’s seriously really good stuff with a pretty unique “dirt-stomping soul” sound–check it out if you’re so inclined:
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