By artist name, in alphabetical order.
Chet Baker Sings
Pacific Jazz, 1954
Chet Baker considered himself a trumpeter first but it was after he was convinced to sing that he became a pop culture icon. This simple aspect sometimes overshadowed just how influential he was both on trumpet, as one of the quintessential West Coast Cool musicians, and as a vocal interpreter, with that legendary, androgynous tone that made both guys and girls dream. Nobody could breathe new life into an old standard quite like Chet and this iconic record is as good as it gets (and it’s also one of my all-time favorite albums).
Top Tracks: “Time After Time,” “My Funny Valentine,” “I Fall In Love Too Easily.”
State Buoni Se Potete
Acclaimed Italian minstrel Angelo Branduardi’s award-winning score to the 1983 historical comedy-drama of the same name. A nice collection of Baroque pop tunes, representing a style of music that is unusually transportive while strangely in vogue in Italy at the time.
Top tracks: “Vanità di Vanità”; “Salomè”; “Tema del Villaggio.”
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Such Sweet Thunder
Duke Ellington and longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn let loose their creativity in a concept album where each track is inspired by a different work by William Shakespeare. Another inspired and beautiful album from a stellar period of one of the most sophisticated and influential large ensembles in all of jazz history, showcasing their skills within a wide-ranging program on Such Sweet Thunder.
Top Tracks: “Such Sweet Thunder”; “Sonnet for Caesar”; “The Star-Crossed Lovers (aka Pretty Girl)”; “Half the Fun (aka Lately)”
O amor, o sorriso e a flor
The second bossa nova masterpiece in chronological order by the one and only João Gilberto, who basically originated it. There are two contrasting aspects to this record. On the one hand, the brief tracks reveal an eagerness to strike the iron of this creative era in Brazilian music while it was hot. On the other hand, the sophisticated and delightful arrangements show that all musicians involved weren’t willing to compromise the integrity of their aesthetic vision.
Top Tracks: “Samba de una Nota Só”; “Doralice”; “Trevo de 4 Folhas”; “O Pato.”
The Hives ruled garage rock revival in the early 2000s, awakening a slumbering music scene with their tightly engineered hard and fast sound. Tyrannosaurus Hives was their most focused LP up to that point, complete with Rolling Stones wailing, Kinks guitar-slamming and elaborate arrangements that would have made Glenn Miller proud!
Top Tracks: “Abra Cadaver,” “Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones,” “Walk Idiot Walk.”
Hannah Montana [Miley Cyrus]
Walt Disney, 2006
Miley Cyrus’ de facto debut album was an unbearable bubblegum country-pop soundtrack to season one of her Hannah Montana Disney series, which turned her into a breakout star. Primarily aimed at an audience of young white girls, this is the type of commercial venture with few (if any) redeeming aspects about it. It’s interesting to note how, on Wikipedia, the Hannah Montana discography is kept well separate from the Miley Cyrus one, as if that separation was more significant than that between David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust.
Top track: “This Is the Life.”
Helter Skelter, 2002
Heathen Chemistry may lack the edge of earlier Oasis albums. However, it also benefits from a higher level of musicianship than previous lineups. Noel Gallagher dishes out no “Champagne Supernova,” but is particularly inspired and even loosens his grip on the band’s sound. Liam Gallagher also makes his (proper) songwriting debut with “Songbird” and, in the process, almost steals the show.
Top tracks: “The Hindu Times,” “Songbird,” “Stop Crying Your Heart Out.”
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark [OMD]
OMD definitely put out some of the best synth-pop of all time but Junk Culture is where it all started going south for me. Aside from a few standout tracks, to me, this is the sound of a band trying to figure out whether to embrace an adventurous and idiosyncratic direction or do whatever it takes to remain commercially relevant. The end result awkwardly falls somewhere in the middle.
Top Tracks: “Tesla Girls,” “Love and Violence,” “Talking Loud and Clear”
Ghost in the Machine
The Police’s discography might have been negatively impacted by the introduction of synthesizers to their fabled “regatta de blanc” sound. In reality, it pulled them out of a creative corner. In “Ghost in the Machine,” it even broadened their expressive range. For example, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” may be their most joyful tune, while “Invisible Sun” might be their darkest one. In spite of some of Sting’s overly-pretentious concepts, which mostly fly over a listener’s head, this is a bloody awesome album.
Top tracks: “Spirits in a Material World,” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” “Invisible Sun.”
Lust for Life
Iggy Pop trades mid-tempo introspection (and the suffocating atmospheres of The Idiot from that same year) for a no-nonsense rocking sound on his second full-length collaboration with David Bowie. Lust for Life features some of his best-known solo songs and carries enough pop sensibility to have cajoled its way into mainstream consciousness. Yet, upon closer inspection, its lyrics are profound, dark and sometimes downright frightening, like surreal beat poems about desperation, madness and lives hanging on by a thread.
Top tracks: “Lust for Life”; “The Passenger”; “Success”
The Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones Records, 1981
Repurposing outtakes and completing unfinished tracks from previous sessions may seem like the basis for a throwaway project. But when you’re working with any Rolling Stones material from the ’70s, those preconceived notions go out the window. Besides, it’s clear that Jagger and Richards approached the idea of playing with splice-heavy post-production with the right creative attitude. What you get is a cohesive blend of songwriting powerhouse with some of the band’s most psychedelic, sensual grooves ever.
Top tracks: “Start Me Up,” “Hang Fire,” “Waiting On a Friend.”
Letter To You
Apparently emerging after a writers’ block, Bruce Springsteen reunited his historic E Street Band to perform new originals and old discarded material on his heartfelt Letter To You. This wonderful new collection features introspective lyrics reflecting on regret, aging and dying, but its dense and intense rocking sound has nothing to do with disenchantment. In other words, this is no swan song. If anything, it shows The Boss still has a lot to say and more than enough energy to say it
Top tracks: “Letter To You,” “House of a Thousand Guitars,” “If I Was a Priest,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
Just Enough Education to Perform
Welsh band Stereophonics’ most popular and, arguably, best album to date. Featuring their international smash hit, “Have a Nice Day,” and an enjoyable take on “Handbags and Gladrags.” It’s a solid record of relaxed rock with walls of droning distorted guitars and Kelly Jones’ hoarse vocals front-and-center.
Top tracks: “Vegas Two Times,” “Step on My Old Sizes Nines,” “Have a Nice Day.”
The Strokes have never quite repeated the standards of their first two amazing albums. I remember buying this record the day it came out. The memory is enough for me to grant it a nostalgia bonus point. But even then, it seemed disappointing. Julian Casablancas continued to have nothing to say. The guitar interplay between Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. elevates the standards. But aside from a few obvious standouts, “Angles” is ultimately a half-hearted collection of under-developed concepts.
Top tracks: “Macchu Picchu,” “Under Cover of Darkness,” “Taken for a Fool.”
The Velvet Underground
All things considered, this infamous Velvet Underground record with no original Velvet Underground members in it is not that bad. In an odd way, it may even be enjoyable. Granted, Squeeze sounds more like a collection of Beatles B-sides than anything and Doug Yule’s songwriting talents are no match for those of Lou Reed.
Top Tracks: “Caroline”; “She’ll Make You Cry”