From 'Graceland' to 'Purple Rain' to 'The Magician's Birthday'

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·9 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Paul Simon
    Paul Simon
    American musician, songwriter and producer

Jan. 1—ALBANY — It was 20 years ago today ... Sorry to go all "Sgt. Pepper" (No. 2) on you, but it wasn't actually 20 years to the day. It was, however, 20 years ago that I undertook a passion project for this newspaper: Naming my Top 100 albums of all-time.

The music industry, as anyone paying even slight attention knows, has undergone a sea change in those 20 years, one of the most obvious differences being that no one actually buys albums anymore.

Oh, they'll download some artists' collected works, but today's younger generation of music fan basically downloads individual songs and ... that's about it. And, sure, I know vinyl is making a "comeback," actually outselling CDs now, but the numbers now are miniscule compared to the heyday of the album: from the Beatles era in the mid-60s through the Boy Band rage of the mid-late-80s.

Last I checked, only Adele and Eminem and sometimes Taylor Swift were regularly selling albums, and news of a new release by today's superstars — comparable to the likes of a Led Zeppelin or Elton John or Metallica from different eras — which in the past would have had record-buyers lining up on release day to make sure they got their copy as early as possible now generates little more than a blip on fans' radar.

The album has undergone a complete metamorphosis since the days of the top-selling collections of all-time: Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (49.2 million); The Eagles "Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)" (41.2 million); the "Bodyguard" soundtrack, which featured mostly Whitney Houston (32.4 million); The Eagles' "Hotel California" (31.5 million); AC/DC's "Back in Black" (29.6 million); "Led Zeppelin IV" (29 million); Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" (27.9 million); Adele's "21" (26.4 million); Metallica's self-titled album (the "Black Album") (25.2 million); Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" (24.4 million); Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" (24.3 million) and The Beatles' "1" (23.5 million).

(The reader might note that of those 12 albums, six were released in the '70s, one in the '80s, three in the '90s and two after the year 2000. Oh, and one of those 2000 hits was "1," a collection of Beatles hits that all were recorded in the '60s.)

The Top 10 in our list contains seven of the Top 10 from 20 years ago: The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," (No. 2 on the new list, No. 1 20 years ago); "Led Zeppelin II" (No. 3 vs. No. 2); Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" (No. 6 vs. No. 7); Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" (No. 7 vs. No. 9); The Beatles so-called "White Album" (No. 8 vs. No. 3); Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" (No. 9 vs. No. 4), and Pearl Jam's "10" (No. 10 vs. No. 6).

While that change is rather minimal, it is notable that two albums on this new list entered the top 10 from well outside the 2002 list (Paul Simon's "Graceland" at No. 1 from No. 17, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Californication" at No. 4 all the way from No. 34 on the previous list). And what can only be chalked up to a mental lapse 20 years ago, Jackson Browne's amazing classic "Running on Empty" is No. 5 here after not making the original Top 100.

Why is Paul Simon's 1986 Grammy-winning classic the No. 1 album of all-time? The easiest answer to that question is simple: It just is. Any doubting Thomas (Dolby?) is easily convinced with a simple listen to the album. It's hard to believe anyone won't fall immediately in love. (I do all over again every time I listen to "Graceland," which I must hear all the way through, from "Boy in the Bubble" to "Myth of Fingerprints," every time I play it.)

Paul Simon is a god when it comes to writing songs, perhaps the second-greatest American lyricist ever next to Dylan, but on "Graceland" he managed to write an entire album that's perfectly suited to his voice. He gets fascinating accompaniment from South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo ("Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes," "Homeless"), Linda Ronstadt ("Under African Skies") and Los Lobos ("Myth"). But at no time is there danger of Simon's magical voice being overshadowed.

There are familiar upbeat tunes that'll keep you moving ("Graceland," "Call Me Al," "Boy in the Bubble," "Crazy Love"); zydeco that would do Clifton Chenier proud ("That Was Your Mother"); a bass-crazy/accordion-filled juke joint-worthy stomper ("Myth of Fingerprints"); a lovely duet with Ronstadt (one of her finest vocals ever ... "Under African Skies") and the Afro-centric vocals of LBM ("Diamonds" and "Homeless") that evoke world music at its finest.

"Sgt. Pepper" is the Beatles at their absolute best (saying a lot) on an album that, out of nowhere, changed rock music overnight. No more simple, beatific boy-band vocals and harmonies, this classic took the Fab Four — and, thus, the music world — in a whole new direction.

"Led Zeppelin II" is the best hard-rock album ever by the best — real — hard-rock band ever, and "Blood on the Tracks" is the master songwriter, Bob Dylan, offering a crash course on his craft. "Are You Experienced?" offers reason anew to mourn the loss of guitar god Jimi Hendrix, leaving us to wonder what otherworldly music he might have created had he not died so young. The Beatles' "White Album" expanded the greatest rock band ever's musical palate even beyond the experimentation of "Sgt. Pepper" and "Magical Mystery Tour" and proved them rock and roll's great innovators. Pearl Jam's "Ten" was a stunning first album by the Seattle band that rode the silky baritone of singer Eddie Vedder to heights not enjoyed by others of the grunge era, even forebears like Nirvana.

"Running on Empty" is the fulfillment of the promise of Browne, who has the chops to stand alongside Dylan, Simon, John Lennon and Paul McCartney among rock's great composers. It's a hybrid album, recorded on the road in front of audiences and in hotel rooms along the way. The songs flow together — "Running on Empty," "The Road," "Shakeytown," the hilarious "Rosey," and the cover of Maurice Williams' "Stay" — much like a concept album, and there is the common theme of life on the road running through the album.

But, ultimately, this is Jackson Browne being Jackson Browne and cementing his place among rock's most accomplished artists.

The clever play on words — "Californication" — might be too smart for its own good wrought by lesser musicians, but the Chili Peppers have a rocking good time playing some of the best music that came out of an era dominated by boy bands and pop princesses who all sounded the same. The title track, "Otherside," "Scar Tissue," "Around the World," "Get on Top," and "Parallel Universe" maintain the deep-rooted funk (Flea is the ultimate bottom man) on which the band made its bones, but the structure of this album's selections proved the Peppers were more than just funk knuckleheads. They'd matured into one of rock's most unique combos.

In addition to the leap from my mindlessness to No. 5 by Browne, other significant albums rejected by yours truly claimed their rightful spot on the list this time: Deep Purple's "Machine Head" (No. 26), Simon & Garfunkle's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (No. 31), Eric Clapton's "461 Ocean Boulevard," "The Yes Album," Spirit's "12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus," The Kinks' "Lola vs. Powerman and the Money-go-'round," "Hotel California," and the Stones' "Some Girls" were just a handful of the great albums that were not on this guy's 2002 list.

When it comes to precipitous drops, perhaps the biggest fall within the list is Alice in Chains' "Facelift," which fell from No. 13 to No. 114 on this list. Santana's "Abraxis," Green Day's "Dookie," Boz Scaggs' "Silk Degrees," Public Enemy's "It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back" and The Toadies' "Rubberneck" were some of the albums that fell out of the list altogether, victims of timing and change in taste.

James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" made a large leap from the previous list to this one, jumping from No. 74 to No. 11. (It probably didn't hurt that the writer had seen Taylor and Browne together in concert as this list was being compiled as far as the significant moves by the artists.) ZZ Top's "Tres Hombres" made a leap from No. 98 to No. 30, and former Beatle George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" leapt from No. 89 to No. 29.

Eminem's "The Eminem Show" and War's "The World Is a Ghetto" moved considerably up the separate charts as well, the former from 57 to 25, and the latter from 58 to 27.

Sir Elton John had the most albums on this latest list with seven ("Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy," "Caribou," "Honky Chateau," "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player," "Madman Across the Water," "Tumbleweed Connection"), while the Beatles had five of their albums ("Sgt. Pepper," "White Album," "Abbey Road," "Revolver," "Rubber Soul") and three by former members ("All Things Must Pass," "Ram" by Paul and Linda McCartney and "McCartney" by Paul McCartney).

Five Led Zeppelin classics made the list: "II," "IV," "Physical Graffiti" "I," "Houses of the Holy."

Some of the top live albums on the list include Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding "At the Monterey Pop Festival," REO Speedwagon's "You Get What You Play For," The Allman Brothers' "Live at Filmore East," Peter Frampton's "Frampton Comes Alive" and Neil Diamond's "Hot August Night."

A couple of Broadway musical/soundtrack albums — "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Hair" — also made the list.

As we noted earlier, the music industry has changed dramatically in 20 years. The next new wave may take a turn back toward nostalgia, or it may go in an entirely different direction altogether. There's no question, though, that these great works will stand the test of time for all time. They are, simply, gifts from musical gods and goddesses that will live forever ... as long as there are turntables.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting