Nico? On the top of the list?

On newsstands until July 25, 2012

Number 13 on the list of all-time best albums, according to Rolling Stone, is the 1967 Verve Records release, The Velvet Underground and Nico. It’s also the number 1 album on The  Observer’s 2005 list, “The 50 Albums that Changed Music,” which is, in fact, more interesting than the new Rolling Stone standalone $11.95 magazine now on newsstands.

I decided to explore the web in search of other top 500 lists, and their kin.

My very favorite list comes from the British music magazine, The Wire because it discards the arbitrary distinctions and deals with music, not categories. So we’ve got  work by Igor Stravinsky, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Cecil Taylor, Lennie Tristano, Oliver Messaien next to the inevitable Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Marvin Gaye.

I especially like The Observer list because it acknowledges world music, beginning with their #24, Youssou N’Dour’s Immigres, and because each of the list’s entries are explained in a clever way: “Without this … N’Dour wouldn’t have met Peter Gabriel, there’d have been no African presence at Live 8. In fact, ‘world music’ would not exist as a section in Western collections.” Similarly, the Fairport Convention gets its due for introducing folk music into the British rock scene as #45, Liege and Lief, an absolutely lovely album with a lineup that includes the spectacular Sandy Denny as female lead vocalist. (Similar due should have been paid to Peter, Paul & Mary on the American / Rolling Stone side, as the celebrated Bob Dylan’s career (he occupies RS slots #4, #9, #16, #31… ten slots in all) would have mattered less without the spectacular success of their top ten single versions of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

The Virgin 1000 list is fun because it is massive. And, sure enough, there’s that critically acclaimed Nico album in the top 15, with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue nearby (these lists don’t quite know what to make of jazz, or country, or most of the other genres–no bluegrass, a bit of gospel, etc.), but every list seems to include Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. For those who wish to explore jazz beyond the limited view of Rolling Stone and other mainstream music publications, one good starting place is an Amazon list of jazz recordings, whose top ten includes Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, João Gilberto, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. An equally worthwhile list of world music recordings is also found on Amazon, a category mostly ignored by the RS list, save for Bob Marley albums, and, happily, The Indestructable Beat of Soweto, a stunning collection of South African music from the mid-1990s. On that Amazon world music list, I’m not sure that I would have placed Fela Kuti’s adventure with Cream drummer Ginger Baker at #3, but I’m sure glad to see the Bulgarian State Television Women’s Choir hanging out near Ali Farka Toure, Gal Costa, and Huun-Huur Tu, all artists with spectacular albums and names that most Americans have never heard before.

The top 200 albums on RS’s list also confused me because just three of those top 200 were made in the 21st century (Radiohead’s Kid A, Kanye West’s Late Registration, and Arcade Fire’s Funeral), just five if you go up to the top 250 (add: Green Day’s American Idiot and Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP). Sure, there are the weird choices–that happens with any list like this–so The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle claims slot #100, and  Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1969 album, Happy Trails, makes it to #189.

And you know that I’m ending this article with my list of albums that Rolling Stone missed, but should have included:

  • T-Bone Walker – Complete Imperial Recordings
  • Folkways: The Original Vision – mostly songs by Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie
  • The Essential Pete Seeger – or any of the various compilations of his work for Columbia Records
  • Chet Atkins – Guitar Legend: The RCA Years
  • Peter, Paul & Mary – Moving or Album 1700 or Ten Years Together
  • Harry Nilsson – Harry and also Nilsson Sings Newman
  • Larua Nyro – Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Gonna Take a Miracle, and the spectacular, surprising Time and Love 3-CD collection
  • Blood Sweat & Tears – their second album
  • John Sebastian – Best of, or his first solo album, John B. Sebastian
  • Billy Joel – Piano Man (among some of his best character / story work)
  • Elton John – his first album, as sweet as they come
  • Weather Report – the jazz group’s first album, self-titled
  • Van Morrison – Tupelo Honey
  • The Traveling Wilburys – their first album

Sorry my list isn’t longer or more interesting (kinda heavy on the late 1960s early 1970s–just as the RS was, in fact!). I’m writing away from home. More later on this.

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