The Greatest of All Time?
Exploring your own history through someone else’s list.
A Celebration of African-American Music Appreciation Month at The FADER is presented by MetroPCS.
Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time, compiled by their critics in 2003, sounded to me like some sonic Mount Everest—a challenge I welcomed scaling with mountaineer enthusiasm. Their musical inventory listed 111 albums I’d heard before. (Incidentally, of the entire list, 113 were by African Americans.) Through streaming, downloads, library visits and my own record collection, I scrambled my way up to Run-DMC’s Raising Hell (#120) before losing steam. With hundreds more records to discover, I’ll make it to the peak one day. Nevertheless, I discovered plenty of gems in the top 120 alone.
Obviously, sitting with headphones listening to days’ worth of music is a music nerd amusement, not for the faint-hearted. Albums like Marvin Gaye’s social protest soul classic What’s Going On (#6) or James Brown’s funk powder keg Live at the Apollo (#24) were barely 30-something minutes long in their entirety. On the flipside, multiple box sets abounded full of several CDs each: Brown’s Star Time (#79); blues giant Muddy Waters’s The Anthology (1947-1972) (#38); soul legend Ray Charles’s The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Recordings, 1952-1959 (#53). Their rewards were deep, but the entire journey is quite a time investment.
Any heavy music enthusiast will want to remix their own list of that all-time greatest albums list, or from their own instinctive travels down the paths of rhythm. For sure I’d argue higher ranks for Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life (#57), Prince’s 1999 (my personal favorite of his, lodged at #163) and pop royalty Janet Jackson’s high-water mark, The Velvet Rope (#259). Hip-hop was definitely lost in the sauce on this list, submerged in all the rock music surrounding it: Nas’s Illmatic (#402), A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory (#153) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (#314) all deserved much better. For sure that trio of albums meant more to everyone I know than anything by Van Morrison or The Band.
Personally, I was after discoveries. King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 1 (#27) by Robert Johnson educated majorly, particularly songs later covered by celebrated gods of classic rock. The Rolling Stones have their own version of Johnson’s “Love in Vain” on Let It Bleed (#32), and Led Zeppelin stole the lyrics of his “Traveling Riverside Blues” on “The Lemon Song”—featured on Led Zeppelin II (#79). The most I’d really known about Johnson were the most popular factoids: he’d supposedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to learn his guitar skills, and he died at 27 (like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to follow). But the music, recorded in 1936 and ’37, frankly sounded a little too timeworn to relate to.
Where more modern blues are concerned, pioneering singer-songwriter Muddy Waters was a revelation. “Mannish Boy,” “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Baby Please Don’t Go”—the swagger evinced through his strident strumming and spirited harmonica solos floored me. Rapper Nas sampled “Mannish Boy” on his 2004 single “Bridging the Gap,” musically linking hip-hop to the blues on a duet with his father, jazzman Olu Dara. Beyoncé and Mos Def starred in 2008’s Cadillac Records (featuring Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters), a biopic on the seminal Chess Records label of Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry. But nothing beats the source material.
The traditional roll call of African-American musical legends on the list were no surprise to me. They’d given me endless pleasures on dance floors, in reflective moments and all points in-between: Michael Jackson, John Coltrane, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, Sly Stone. And that’s just the albums I managed to play. Aural delights from Parliament-Funkadelic, Whitney Houston, Labelle, Mary J. Blige, Barry White, D’Angelo and loads more lay further down the list. Once again, the discoveries made the weeks of listening the most worthwhile.
Like Love’s Forever Changes (#40). Lead singer Arthur Lee passed away from cancer three years after I first heard Forever Changes, but I get why this L.A. band was such a psychedelic rock influence on The Doors. Their trippy, esoteric lyrics transported me back to the countercultural 1960s as fluidly as Jimi Hendrix. My parents have always told me Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly (#72) was one of my favorite toys; I’d slap the vinyl onto my plastic Fisher-Price turntable several times a day, scratches and all. Hearing it as an adult is a different sort of fun; the blaxploitation-era funk and soul of “Freddie’s Dead” and “Pusherman” are their own edifying reward. Rediscovering Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (#99)—the murky, Woodstock-hangover blues of “Time” and “Just Like a Baby” in particular—led me on the path to publishing a book about the making of the album years later.
Ultimately, a list like this isn’t much meant to be taken at face value at all—sorry editors. Its real usefulness is as a guide to new music, and a guided explanation for why that music matters. Unless you’re in your 80s (and even then), exploring past musical legends will always yield some worthwhile surprises: songs you’ve never heard and artists you’ve never heard of. Music moves deeply, and though nobody can listen to absolutely everything, discovering new choice gems for the spirit is worth it. Having taken a breather for several years, I could stand to dive back into the list for more treasures. I still haven’t heard Muddy Waters’s Folk Singer (#280), War’s The World Is a Ghetto (#449) or Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Natty Dread (#182) to name a few. Who’s with me?