In Search of Perfection: The 10 Most Perfect Albums
I recently embarked on a mission, a quixotic quest, and likely a ridiculous and thankless one, too, to identify the 10 most perfect albums in rock history. Perfect being the operable word here. Not strictly the best albums – though surely the Venn diagram overlap must be considerable – but perfect! Why? Because I heard an enchanting old song. We’ll get to that later. So what’s perfect, you ask? Can perfection be identified, let alone described? Possibly not. But here’s my thinking, at least: Absolute fluid greatness from one track to the next. Not one, even tiny, misstep from start to finish. There can be no place whatsoever where the momentum of magnificence slows down at all. I’m talking not just consistency but totality. Consider it this way, too: at every single song there must be an inexorable feeling generated in the listener of “Yeah!” or “Aaah!” but certainly never “Meh.” A bodily feeling at that, I’d say. Um, can you feel me? I bet your mind’s already spinning through some possibilities, so let’s get started.
Perfect can be the enemy of good
Well not just yet. First to some considerations I chose not to consider. For instance: it’s a thumbs-down for Pet Sounds, the astonishing, sophisticated, progressive pop orchestration that became Brian Wilson’s ambitious self-realization. It’s surely one of the great works in rock history, but I’ve always found there to be some filler tracks present, too, and sorry, we’re in search of perfection here. Also, a big “no” to most critic’s seemingly default top Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was groundbreaking and all (I guess, even though it’s acknowledged to have been directly inspired by the aforementioned Pet Sounds) but for me it’s really no better than the 6th best Beatles record (Revolver, Rubber Soul, White Album, Meet The Beatles!, and Abbey Road, all easily preceding it). Besides, ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite’? C’mon. As for Abbey Road, possibly, but for the final fluffy :25 seconds of Paul’s pointless ‘Her Majesty.’ Oh so close (if only ‘The End’ had truly just been the end). Similarly, Led Zeppelin IV possibly has more classic rock classics on it than, well, any other record ever, yet when we get to ‘Battle of Evermore’ it’s pee break time.
Some other otherwise perfect playing records, such as Bob Marley’s Legend or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Chronicle could easily have qualified, except for the fact that they’re greatest hits collections disguised as albums. Not fooling me, that’s a no-go. I could, on the other hand, contemplate a compilation of artists album, the greatest to me being The Last Waltz. However, in what is otherwise a truly extraordinary assemblage – and still the greatest concert film documentary I know – history may have forgotten the indelicate inclusion of Neil Diamond for one number, but I haven’t. Yer out.
Finally, what of the prodigious extended double album sets, paragons such as London Calling, Exile on Main Street, The White Album, Physical Graffiti, Songs in the Key of Life, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, to name but a few. Eligible, yes of course – I mean, I just listed six of my favorite albums ever. But the double album, that much material, frankly it’s just too hard to meet the perfect standard. Just one slip-up is all it takes!
In a perfect world
Alright, now we’re ready to get started, with the top 15 “perfect” albums (did I say 10 earlier? I couldn’t make that work; let’s try for 15 instead):
This Year’s Model (Elvis Costello): Following Costello’s – let’s face it – equally unimpeachable debut, My Aim Is True, his sophomore effort, the first with The Attractions which brought along the prominent organ of Steve Nieve to his sound, was a magnificent manifestation of new with old. Melodic joys recalling early Beatlesque rock & roll and sharp surliness landing hard in the new wave ‘70’s. Like the best key lime pie, Costello proved throughout this record his tones could be sweet while still wickedly tart. In the penultimate track ‘Lipstick Vogue’ he crooned “Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being.” Nailed it.
Brothers and Sisters (Allman Brothers): Seven heaping servings of southern boogie, blues, and country, delicious from top to bottom including the ‘Jelly Jelly’ in between. All the more remarkable coming, as it did, as the first full studio recording following the death of original brother Duane Allman. Chuck Leavell, newly added on piano, managed to help fill the massive void, while Dickey Betts went from Ramblin’ Man to de facto leader. Somehow the brotherly love never sounded better.
Aja (Steely Dan): It’s funny, if I were strictly ranking Steely Dan records I’d have this one fourth (behind The Royal Scam, Pretzel Logic, and Can’t Buy A Thrill). But in terms of our chosen category of perfection, this one’s simply impeccable. The apotheosis of hip, cosmopolitan studio compositions, which included no less than 40 ace musicians helmed by the ever-demanding brilliance of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. There’s nary a chord progression, key change, pithy lyrical phrasing, or recording mix element throughout the LP that doesn’t feel like it was labored over and calculated to exactly its idealized distillation. And yet it somehow also brimmed with genuine hits: ‘Black Cow,’ the title track, ‘Aja,’ ‘Deacon Blues,’ ‘Peg,’ ‘Home at Last,’ ‘I Got the News,’ and ‘Josie.’ That’s all of them, in running order, that’s the whole album. Nothing but superior jazz-rock artistry, every damn one.
Back in Black (AC/DC): Mere days after Bon Scott’s death during rehearsals for the album, the band found his replacement in gravel-throated Brian Johnson and proceeded to throw down the absolute exemplar of hard rock craftsmanship. Every single track on the album grabs you by the throat and shakes you all night long. But while delivering strutting guitar and lascivious attitude with sledgehammer subtlety, the Young brothers, Angus and Malcolm – along with producer extraordinaire (and future husband of Shania Twain) Mutt Lange – also stirred in the secret sauce: catchy melody. Rolling Stone called it “the apex of heavy-metal art.” I call it balls-out beauty.
That’s The Way of the World (Earth, Wind & Fire): Kicking things off with the iconic ‘Shining Star’ – if it’s good enough for Austin Powers, it’s good enough for me – this album had it all. Brawny funk, sultry soul, panty-dropping balladry, jazzy accents, driving horns, dynamic polyrhythms, and some of the most incredible singing ever by the peerless pairing of Maurice White and Philip Bailey. And it never let up. This is the consummate funk/soul album of the ‘70’s – even atop Rolling Stone’s #1 album ever What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, which, as spectacular as it was, did also contain some repetitiveness and gaps at full listen.
Perfection may take different forms
Hold on, I know we’re just getting going but let’s take a little break here. Realistically, I couldn’t put these following albums on history’s most perfect list; admittedly, they’re a bit more niche. Still, I figured I could take a quick tangent to note a few of my personal personifications of album perfection. I stopped at five (well, five-and-a-half), and considered that quite restrained.
Loveless (My Bloody Valentine): To be honest, I totally don’t get this shoegaze noise. But my son considers it the most perfect thing ever recorded and his own vital musical beacon. So there you go, Max.
Texas Flood (Stevie Ray Vaughan): Even though track 9 ‘I’m Cryin’’ is essentially a note-for-note replaying of track 2’s breakout hit ‘Pride and Joy,’ I don’t care…I wanted to hear it again! In short, nothing will ever compare to this album for me. It broke my blues cherry, and contained the greatest guitar playing I’ve ever heard – except for every other Stevie Ray Vaughan record. RIP SRV.
This Perfect World (Freedy Johnston): Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle. Freedy Johnston (that’s right, it’s “Freedy” not “Freddy”) has had a respectable career, but to most I’d suspect he’s decidedly unknown (though not to the Farrelly Brothers, who featured multiple Johnston tunes from this album in their film Kingpin, the funniest movie about bowling and The Amish ever made). This melancholy masterpiece can somehow make me feel sadness and mirth at the same time. It just works. Everywhere. (plus, the title alone should qualify).
Zoysia (Bottle Rockets): Put this wax in a time capsule and let future civilizations call it Rock & Roll. Or Americana. Or Alt-Country. Or Roots. Or heartland songwriting with bitchin’ fuzztones and feedback. However it may be labeled now or then, it’s robust, red-blooded American music from the pride of Festus, Missouri, the Bottle Rockets. For nearly 30 largely unheralded years, they put out masterfully unbridled music that sticks to your ribs, never more so than on this eclectic 2006 record that felt part Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, part wistful singer/songwriter, part twangy outlaw country, and all a hardworking construction of stylized musical grit.
Girlfriend (Matthew Sweet): The absolute archetype of a power pop record. Lush, harmonic, and as vivid as the photo of Tuesday Weld on its cover, but also with plenty of sharp edges from the unhinged guitar contributions of both Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. Never, if you will, too sweet. I could listen to this album forever. And I have.
Outlaws (Outlaws): Give me the truth serum – shit, I don’t even need it – and I’ll tell you this is my single favorite album. Numero uno. Casual observers would say, “Oh yeah, that’s the one with ‘Green Grass and High Tides’ on it.” Yup, that’s true. But I’d still probably list that all-time epic of a jamming southern rock anthem last as I go through my favorites of favorites on this record. The guitar-work, the harmonies, and the production are freakish and flawless. And hearing it was a life-changer.
Present and future perfect
Alright then, let’s resume the main list as we enter perfection’s Top 10.
Frampton Comes Alive! (Peter Frampton): Breaking through the double album curse outlined above, and animating like Dr. Frankenstein’s uncontrollable creation, it’s Frampton Comes Alive! – changing the course of stadium rock and staying on the Billboard charts for an unprecedented 97 weeks. With apologies to Waiting For Columbus, At Fillmore East, Live at Leeds, Live at Budokan, Live Bullet or so many others, this remains the album by which all other live albums must be measured. Every last moment of this 78-minute Homeric epic – including each delayed crowd response during the bombastic finale of ‘Do You Feel Like We Do’ – remains indelible, captured in musical amber. Neither before or after would Frampton ever again attain the otherworldly heights of this breakthrough, era-defining record, nor would his feathery hair ever look as groovy as on the front of its gatefold.
Boston (Boston): The self-titled 1976 debut sounded unlike anything that had come before. Brilliant melodic hooks and stacked harmonies behind a gargantuan wall of guitars Phil Spector could scarcely have imagined, that produced an almost classical feel to rock and roll. All conceived, engineered and executed by rock’s mad scientist Tom Scholz in his apartment basement. Every single track remains in constant rotation on classic rock radio. ‘Nuff said.
Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd): Call me a classic rock-head, but how could this not make a list of perfect albums. My stars, was this ever a visionary masterpiece. It was a true concept album – the concept basically being original bandmember Syd Barrett is insane – but in addition to mental illness it explored themes of conflict, greed, time and death. And the tunes all wove together seamlessly like a trippy tapestry; one long throughline, though marked with radical ebbs and flows, of fanciful mischief and musical magic (except for the ringing alarm that starts ‘Time’ – man, that used to scare the crap out of me when in a certain state). It’s difficult to identify highlights, there are simply too many, or pinpoint any weaknesses, for there are none. This record-breaking record took you on an unconstrained, 43-minute spiritual journey every time the needle dropped. And somehow was somewhat different each time after that.
Some Girls (Rolling Stones): I’m not even sure I liked it that much at first. Some Girls was definitely a change of direction and a change of sound for the self-declared World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band. By the late ‘70’s The Rolling Stones popularity was in decline and the music industry had become dominated by disco and punk. And here came this record, led off by the tune ‘Miss You,’ which was, what, a dance track? In short order the Stones’ acumen became eminently more clear: shrewdly they’d developed the ability to blend contemporary music trends with their own signature style. The electrifying output covered an almost comically wide gamut: gritty rockers with a dash of jagged punk aggression, bawdy blues, Brit country, even a Motown cover. And bookending it all were – sorry Ol’ Blue Eyes – possibly the two greatest songs ever centered on New York City: ‘Miss You’ to start and ‘Shattered’ to finish. Everything sounded different, and yet it all sounded Stonesy familiar. Every single song was exactly right. They were back.
Innervisions (Stevie Wonder): Don’t make me do it, don’t make me choose between Innervisions and Talking Book. To me they’re basically interchangeable: the two were released less than ten months apart; both were made for Motown records on the Tamla label, where Wonder now exercised full musical direction and control (not Berry Gordy); both landmarks were recorded during his “classic period” when he’d transitioned fully from the child prodigy Little Stevie Wonder (“the 12-year-old genius”) to a mature, socially conscious, fully-realized superstar artist; and, of course, both were works of staggering brilliance from start to finish. Fine, I’ll choose Innervisions, and here’s why. The liner notes credit Stevie with playing all of the instruments on seven of the nine tunes (he was obviously a slacker for those other two). That’s drums, piano, bass, and most critically, the revolutionary TONTO and ARP synthesizers on which these records were built. He was, in essence, a one-man band. In addition, the same gang of one wrote, composed, arranged, produced, and needless to say, sang on all tracks (all while lacking what the rest of us take for granted as you’re reading this). And, lest we forget, all of those songs, the nine of them, were unassailable genius.
Moondance (Van Morrison) Oddly, I don’t go back to listen to this album all that much, but just observe its murderer’s row of tunes: ‘And It Stoned Me’/’Moondance’/’Crazy Love’/’Caravan’/’Into The Mystic’/’Come Running’/’These Dreams of You’/’Brand New Day’/’Everyone’/’Glad Tidings.’ That’s insane! (that last track, the album closer, even played as Tony Soprano finally took out his cousin Tony Blundetto, as well as reprised over the credits after Johnny Sack got nabbed by the FBI…two Sopranos appearances for the same song is pretty legendary). On Moondance Van The Man smoothly incorporated soul, jazz, pop, R&B, even Irish folk and made nothing but pristine romantic tunes. Each one of them.
Who’s Next (The Who): The fact that arguably the one weakest link, John Entwistle’s twisted paean ‘My Wife, is still a great song hopefully settles one point. The next, that the songs have been played to death for decades on classic rock radio (and, in the case of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ on CSI: Miami), is not actually a critique but a gigantic compliment. Sure, it’s possible that at this point I might even swap channels on Sirius’ Classic Vinyl when I hear the likes of the opening keyboard tinkling of ‘Baba O’Riley,’ but that doesn’t for a second alter how awesome this unbelievable collection of songs was, is, and will always be. They’re all worthy of having been played to death! For goodness sakes, in addition to the two aforementioned staples of ‘70’s hard rock, there’s ‘Bargain,’ ‘Getting in Tune,’ ‘Going Mobile,’ and ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’ Plus, underappreciated (i.e. not quite as played out) gems ‘Love Ain’t For Keeping’ and ‘The Song Is Over.’ Bedrock tracks, every one of them. And they all sound so good: a hook-laden, power quartet attack that shows off four of rock’s finest musicians (yes, Daltrey’s voice is an instrument), combining with unapologetically monolithic song construction and production. Trouble me not about hearing this album’s songs too much; that’s how great they all are.
Rubber Soul (Beatles): Among so many valid possibilities, this has got to be the Beatles’ apex, right? It plays like a greatest hits collection, yet there it was, just another full-length LP of incomprehensible pop treasures, one after another after another, put forth by the only group that could’ve done so, the greatest rock & roll band of all time. It’s an outright embarrassment of sublime pop riches: ‘Drive My Car,’ ‘Norwegian Wood,’ ‘Nowhere Man,’ ‘Michelle,’ ‘I’m Looking Through You,’ ‘Run For Your Life,’ ‘You Won’t See Me,’ ‘In My Life,’ ‘Girl’ and on and on. By this juncture, I get even extra enjoyment listening to the only-slightly less likely jukebox regulars but equally remarkable tunes also present: ‘Think For Yourself,’ ‘The Word,’ ‘What Goes On,’ ‘Wait,’ and ‘If I Needed Someone.’ For chrissakes, ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘We Can Work It Out,’ recorded during the same sessions, couldn’t even make it onto the album! (they were instead released as a double A-side single accompanying Rubber Soul). Just ridiculous. George Harrison called Rubber Soul “the best one we made.” Perfect list: meet the perfect band’s perfect album.
Darkness on the Edge of Town (Bruce Springsteen): I can think of no album delivering greater locomotive force, a blistering 43-minute onslaught, and yet remain more emotionally evocative from start to finish than this: painful, joyous, redemptive, an absolute gut-wrenching, life-affirming, rock and roll awakening throughout. The intensity is unrelenting, from Bruce’s throat-ripping screams in ‘Something in the Night,’ the anthemic might of ‘Badlands’ and ‘Prove It All Night,’ an utterly incendiary ‘Adam Raised a Cain,’ the piercing fury of Bruce’s guitar solo in ‘Candy’s Room,’ and ultimately exhausted deliverance to ‘The Promised Land.’ Springsteen salvation in ten timeless tracks.
Tapestry (Carole King): ‘So Far Away’ came on my Sirius The Bridge channel recently and for some reason it hit me just how crazy gorgeous a song it is. Encouraged by Laurel Canyon friend James Taylor to sing her own tunes – not just continue writing the stream of hits she’d generated for others for a decade in the Brill Building – King had in 1971 created the incomparable album Tapestry. At this thousandth listen, all the interesting choices stuck out to me: the intimacy of King’s plaintive vocals, the bubbling bass, the richness of the piano, the glittering flute solo. Shortly after, I heard ‘It’s Too Late,’ and the reaction was similarly intense. Lavish, intricate sound. Stunning musical beauty. Not to mention the instantly compelling storytelling (“The songs are like sonic movies” said Tori Amos). Revisiting through the entirety of the album’s tracks – while again paying unusual attention – I experienced nothing different. Even I was surprised when it came around to this, but yes, it’s Tapestry that tops my list of most perfect album. 50 years on, and not a single phrase – neither musical or lyrical – could be tampered with. Not a note. Every single exquisite and vibrant tune washes over you with an almost indescribable warmth, a comforting, motherly feeling. I really don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s just the feeling of simple perfection.
A perfect game
So there you have it, the perfect perfect list (maybe?). Do I realize that all 10, nay 15, are incredibly old albums? Yes, yes I do. But per my section on Who’s Next, there’s a reason the classics are the classics. Yeah, I thought about some more “modern” records; Nevermind, Ten, Appetite for Destruction, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory and others, but could find fault with at least parts of them all. Nitpicky, yes, but that was the game and the rules (and yes, I also recognize the unintended humor in citing, for instance, four albums from the late-‘80’s/mid-‘90’s as modern. I guess as Popeye said, I yam what I yam). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great music being made today. Tons! But maybe I’m a bit too jaded to assign a label of perfection to something current, or even relatively new. And, maybe I’ll compile another list in the future of just music from, you know, this century.
More importantly, what did I get right, and – I know some will be dying to tell me – what did I screw up? In other words: what did I unforgivably overrate, misconstrue or entirely leave out? Frankly I’m already pissed about what I’m sure will soon be pointed out to me as worthy albums I’ve omitted. But do understand, both the criteria and the whittling-down process are pretty damn tough. So if you’d like to submit your comments, corrections, gripes, plaudits, or best, your own preferred lists, that would be, well, just perfect.
Now how about we have a listen to the song that started all this stuff.
(Carole and her cat, Telemachus. Picture perfect).