Description: A response to Mojo's Top 100 guitar albums
Date: 29 July 2003
Oh, Mojo magazine, how I love thee in thy rock snobbery. I'm a little surprised to see Beck and Captain Beefheart on the list, and sort of embarrassed that Jimi Hendrix tops it. I'm feeling too dull to revise it now, but maybe soon.
I'm sure that "rock critic" is a terrible job. Sporadic employment, hours listening to mediocre albums in order to write reviews no one will more than skim, poor pay, no health insurance. But, more than anyone else, they do get to make lists. No other kind of writing privileges the list like rockcrit: lists of fives, twenties, hundreds, even the occasional thousand, on any topic. I love the elegance of the list, and the assurance that not only can the things of the world be objectively quantified, but can then be contained by round numbers. There's even a website devoted to rock lists [offline in 2007], suggesting that others share my obsession. The latest rock list to capture my attention is Mojo's Top 100 guitar albums, packaged with the last issue as an independent booklet. Although Mojo really knows their stuff, there's always a burning need to argue with any list (that satisfying authority I mentioned is clearly an illusion). In this case, it's the exclusion of the prototype of the "guitar album" Led Zeppelin II, the template for all hard rock guitar heroics. Clearly, I must make my own list, if only to defend the honor of Jimmy Page.
When writing a list, you need to start with ground rules. With me, I always quibble with the semantics of the category. What is a "guitar album," and how should it be judged? An album is not simply the contents of a vinyl lp or a cd, but must be conceived of as a unity by the creators. This eliminates most of the pre-rock era, based on singles and live performance. That's fine, because no other genre ever exalted and mythologized a single instrument to such an extent. I've decided to limit my list to rock music since the mid-sixties, which is an ample field. (I do regret the exclusion of Robert Johnson, Elmore James, and others, but rules are rules). But while rock is largely guitar-based, not every album can really be considered a guitar album. The pleasure of the album must be intrinsic to the pleasure of the guitar sound, which will vary among listeners. Therefore, it's not right to include an album featuring guitars simply because it's a good album. For instance, I love Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville. It's got perfectly good guitar, but the guitar sound isn't a decisive factor in my enjoyment of the album (though even as I write this, the opening chords of "Divorce Song" ring in my head). My final rule is that no guitarist be included more than once. This saves me the embarrassment of ranking Back in Black, High Voltage, and Highway to Hell 1-2-3.
Having limited the field, I must devise criteria. Some technical competence should be exhibited, though I wouldn't want to differentiate between Ywngie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. As the saying goes, "it's only rock and roll," and more important than technical ability is an appealing sound, which might be something you've never heard before, or the joyous perfection of something you've heard a lot of. My ultimate criteria are simple: that I like the album a lot, and I the way the guitars sound is a significant aspect of what I like.
And so, without further ado, I present the list:
20. She Hangs Brightly (1990)/ Mazzy Star: One thing that appeals to me in music is texture. I might be starting an architecture-y jig here, but in this example, I mean the lovely result of David Roeback's thick, round guitar entwining with Hope Sandoval's narrow, delicate voice. It's not a strict dichotomy, male-female or otherwise, as both are shades of darkness.
19. Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (1998): Ribot is probably best known as Tom Waits's main guitarist, especially for his exceptional work on Rain Dogs. On this album he finds a Latin groove with his own band, including John Medeski on organ, on a tribute to Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez.
18. Days of Wine and Roses (1982)/Dream Syndicate: I chose not to worry about influence with this list. If I did, these third-generation Velvets wouldn't have much of a chance. But since I didn't, I can recommend Karl Precoda and Steve Wynn's clashing, feedback-drenched duels that form the basis of songs like "When You Smile." The recent rerelease includes alternate takes that I like as much or more than the studio versions.
17. Moving Pictures (1981)/Rush: Rush may be known as a musicians' band, but it's the drummer and bass player who usually get the attention. Moving Pictures is thought to represent the transition from the live-oriented prog rock of the seventies with a new studio-polished contempo version. Alex Lifeson fits right in to the fabric, devising ingenious solos on Tom Sawyer, the instrumental YYZ, and the infamous Red Barchetta.
16. Toys in the Attic (1975)/Aerosmith: This sounds like music you wouldn't need long fingers to play, but I'd take it over a stackful of Eddie Van Halen records any day. I was planning on commenting how nobody's ever noticed how funky Aerosmith is, especially Joe Perry's playing, but then I remember somebody did notice: Run-DMC. While on the topic of 80's rock-rap cross-overs, let me give a shout out to Slayer's Kerry King's guest solo on "Fight for Your to Par-tay." It's a shredder.
15. Mellow Gold (1994)/Beck: Beck's known as many things: ironist, synthesizer of junk culture, post-modern gadfly. You don't often see mention of his guitar playing, but I love it on this album, especially the ZZ-Top under-water impression (Mountain Dew Rock).
14. Sign of the Times (1987)/Prince: I questioned my rule about guitar being integral to my enjoyment of the album. While I love this album, it's Prince's attention to and control of detail that captivates me. But his guitar playing is a crucial aspect of that. On the few guitar rave-ups (like Your Got the Look, I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man, The Cross) he shows complete command of rock guitar vocabulary, from power chords to funk lines to feedback, all almost too well polished. Yet even on tracks where the guitar is less prominent, it provides crucial (there's a Princian word for you) color. Consider for instance the title track, where the guitar comes late with an offhand three note figure, almost a throw-away, before continuing with a gripping, rhythmic solo. While this is one of those albums where Prince did everything himself, he's employed other talented guitarists at times. My all-time favorite solo is Wendy ("Yes Lisa") Melvoin's minimalist groove on "Kiss" from Parade, an album which does not otherwise extensively (crucially) employ guitar.
13. Talking Timbuktu (1994)/Ry Cooder & Ali Farka Toure: Two truly guitarists working together. Toure is often written about as a sort of "missing link" between the African griot and the American bluesman, but reducing him to a cultural anthropological phenomenon is a great injustice to a wonderful musician. Cooder's involvement in world music, between this and the Buena Vista nexus, strikes me as more ethical than other dablers. There's a real dialogue going on here, unlike Paul Simon's or Peter Gabriel's appropriations. Not that I'm particularly troubled by the latter two, but this work is more dynamic as it speaks to potential rather than existing as a static assemblage.
12. Trout Mask Replica/Captain Beefheart: I think the first duplicate from Mojo's 100. Zoot Horn Rollo and Antennae Jimmy Seimens work is dissonant, surprising, and inspired. My favorite: "Ella Guru."
11. Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987)/Metallica: Mojo picked Kill 'Em All, which is probably right, but I've got a soft spot for this one-off covers album. I tuned into Metallica after Master of Puppets was out, so this was the first album of theirs I was waiting for. (And Justice for All, their next album, was the last.) The assassination of the slow doomy intro of the Small Hours by the speed demon riff is paradigmatic Metallica texture. This album is now available with a buttload of other covers on Garage, Inc.
10. Living With the Law (1991)/Chris Whitley: I listened to this a lot working in the kitchen of a restaurant. One day my friend Jared walked in during the feedback-laden solo of "Dust Radio" and remarked "That's some burly guitar." That's the final word for me.
9. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs(1970)/ Derek & the Dominoes: Caused a dilemma with the "one per musician rule." Not Clapton, who I hate except for this and Cream, but Duane Allman. I considered Eat a Peach, but picked this for Allman's slide on Layla's coda.
8. Let It Bleed(1969)/Rolling Stones: Keith Richards playing from Between the Buttons to Tattoo You is also an embarrassment of riches. The Richards-Jagger interplay is echoed by the lead guitar- singer dynamic in a lot of other bands (like Aerosmith, most obviously) and it's the guitarist who's the silent, dangerous author of the noise and the singer is a prolix loudmouth who adds nothing so much as visibility. God bless them both.
7. Paranoid/Black Sabbath: Another one from Mojo, the only repetition from their Top 20 Maybe it should be number 11, in honor of the volume, but I think it deserves a little better. Mojo has a nice feature in their blurbs, which is designated a "key moment" by track time. They nailed it for Sabbath: "War Pigs" 0:52, where Tony Iommi emerges from primordial ooze.
6. Sister (1987)/Sonic Youth: "Tuff Gnarl"= Portrait of the Artist. Thurston Moore's really smart and he's really fast. He's got a tuff gnarl in his head: The saving grace is a sonic pig pile, amazing grazing strange and raging. You gnarl out on my nerves; crush the cranking raunch
5. Shoot Out the Lights (1982)/Richard Thompson: The implication of the singer/guitarist dichotomy that I've invoked with the Stones and Mazzy Star is that a small drama is enacted in their interchanges in every performance. Obviously, that dynamic is missing when the singer is the guitarist, as is the case on several tracks here. (On the the remainder it's soon-to-be-ex-wife Linda, so the inherent drama is clear.) The story of the telling then is different; instead of resistance there's depth. Not to say that Fairport Convention didn't have depth, but this is a much lower place.
4. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere/Neil Young: There's a story that Neil Young wrote "Cowgirl in the Sand" in bed with a fever. Young and Danny Whitten capture that creative fever on that song and a few others.
3. Led Zeppelin II (1969): I'd begun to form a theory of guitar moments a little while before this list came out. The greatest moment of them all is when the band comes back from the radiosphere on Whole Lotta Love. After a couple of thudding chords, Jimmy Page leans back (your can hear him lean) and tosses of a quick, slightly pinched solo. A lot of pointless solos were born from this, but in the context the original is perfect--a bit of an "oh, this?" bravado before finishing the song and starting the rest of the album that created 70's rock.
2. Back in Black(1980)/AC/DC: Anybody know how to make that little lightning bolt on a computer keyboard? If this is "better" than other albums is irrelevant, as it is now and forever The Holy Writ of Heavy Metal. Everything that Living Loving Maid implied is pushed to its absurd, wonderful extreme.
1. Electric Ladyland (1968)/Jimi Hendrix: Any list not topped by Hendrix lacks credibility. I chose Ladyland instead of Purple Haze because I've heard the latter so many times I can't really hear it again, and in this double album lets Hendrix range further than he ever did elsewhere. The key moment is the "slight return" of 'Voodoo Chile' which is gigantic, immortal, anything but "slight."
Well, that's it. Someday I want to dig a little deeper into what I like so much about lists (even in books from the Bible and the Iliad to Rabelais to Gilbert Sorrentino. Not to mention pop-obsessed Nick Hornby's High Fidelity), but that can wait for another day.
I'm suspending the Cheever quote of the week until next time, but here's what else I've been up to:
Reading: Wuthering Heights, the Creeley anthology, The Business of Books by Andre Schiffren
Watching: Sports Night, 28 Days Later.
Listening: what do you think?