I think that everybody has--in music, books, movies, or anything else a they really like--a few examples of what ideal or near-ideal success in that medium is. These are the music albums by which I rate all others.
A weird start to this list, I know, but if you're like me, you pretty frequently get frustrated with music and wish you could hear something that not only
1) wasn't like what you'd heard before
2) was GOOD
This album isn't quite like anything Eno had done before or since, solo or with other groups or as a producer. It's also not like anything Byrne had done or has done since. But it manages to be interesting, compelling, hypnotic, and even CATCHY, in the absence of any clear melodies, or chord progressions, or anything that you previously thought music needed to have. I don't mean to kick this off by being so pretentious, but really, this album is incredible.
When the dust settles on hip-hop many years into the future, some album is going to end up representing "rap" in its most fully realized, essential form, the way that, say, Exile on Main St. represents "rock 'n roll" or London Calling represents "punk," or Nevermind represents "grunge." None of those are the first in their respective genres or subgenres, but they've come to be something more than just pioneering or excellent--they're emblematic. Maybe I'm a hypocrite for not putting any of those albums on here, but that's just because I don't think any of them are as good as this one.
The production, by DJ Premier and Q-Tip, among others, is about the best example of production matching a rapper's style that exists. Nas's rhymes and flow manage to be just about as technically proficient and complicated as any rapper ever on record as well as being eminently and immediately listenable. And the guy was NINETEEN when he recorded it. This is about the most genuine prodigy story of modern music I have heard. Here's hoping that Illmatic is the album that makes that slot for the admittedly broad category of "rap."
Here's the pitch for this album--the sloppiest, goofiest, most fun band of slackers in the world make a perfect pop record. I don't know if it was magic, or what--and I know it's on the poppy/catchy side for some Pavement fans--but this album strikes one of those balances that you feel like almost never happens, and when you're listening to it, it feels serendipitous. They're more calculated than they seem, I'm sure--but it sure does feel like they just walked into a studio, pounded out 14 absurdly catchy tunes with sometimes-meaningful sometimes-nonsense lyrics, then walked away with the guitars still ringing.
I feel a little guilty for not putting more jazz on here--especially because I used to listen to more jazz than I do now. But in any case--this is my #1 Miles Davis album, and it probably always will be. The Gil Evans/Davis collaborations are my favoite of his albums, and this one is just so perfectly playful when it needs to be and somber when it needs to be and showcases Miles when it can and brings out the ensemble when it can. Just listen to the first track--"Springsville." Isn't that exactly what you always wanted to find in a jazz album?
What's the best way to talk about this album? Do you go track by track through it, stopping on EVERY SINGLE song, all of which are about as purely wonderful nuggets of folk/rock/country/pop ever written (and by that I mean all four genres, not just the meld), or do you talk about how the whole thing ebbs and flows and seems like it has written in it some higher purpose without that purpose being yelled at you? (Okay, it's yelled at you a little in the title track, but it feels right when it is.) All this, and it was made by a CANADIAN? I am so gay for Neil Young.
I know I already said that I hope that Illmatic goes down as the most definitive, pure example of what good rap/hip-hop is. So what is a different album doing higher on this list? Well, 3 Feet High and Rising is in no way a definitive, pure, example of anything, really. It's a collage of tons of different ideas and samples, and somehow, impossibly, it coheres into this big mess of goofy fun, Steely Dan, numerology, transmissions from space, and lyrical brilliance. It's older than Illmatic but certainly younger than hip-hop itself--and it's responsible for a lot of the different directions the genre went in since. And it's a fucking GREAT album.
Let's see. Did I already use my "sloppy heros make incredible pop album" line on something else? Damn. I did. Well Let it Be is like that, but then some. Because Let it Be isn't just about pop perfection, it's also about the most eloquent, poetic, and emotionally compelling narrative of teen years ever put down. One of their songs is here, for that reason exactly. If you've been a teenager, you've felt everything in this album. It's fun and it's wacky and it'll tug ya heartstrings LIKE YA WOULDN'T BUH-LIEVE.
When I set out to make this list, I knew this would be number one. I think it's a little goofy to have a "favorite" when clearly the albums here on this list are all my favorites--but I think this album provides maybe the best example of setting an artistic goal, then achieving it, then going above and beyond. This album's lyrics have some of the most dense and brilliant turns of phrase ever put to record ("Just before our love got lost you said / I am as constant as a northern star / And I said 'Constantly in the darkness, where's that at?' / If you want me I'll be in the bar"), and at every step of the way you feel like Joni's showing you something that she couldn't possibly show you any other way. And she couldn't--that's what great art is.
But look at me, I'm gettin' all gay over music. Over GIRL music. Seriously, though, if you don't have any of these albums, please get them. If not for yourself, FOR ME.