In this edition of tearing apart the Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Albums list, discover an extra verse to “Imagine” that would have made the song ten times better, hear why Graceland is the unlikeliest of great pop albums, and find out why Prince is the true King of pop.
80. John Lennon, Imagine
This album’s inclusion on Rolling Stone’s top-100 list shows the absurdity of its creators. John Lennon, the most overrated Beatle, never created more than ego and an iconic pair of glasses. Yeah, I said it.
My problem with Lennon lies not with his achievements as a member of the Beatles, however, but with the insistence by everyone from 10-100 years old who must interject every conversation about music with a reference to John Lennon. He may have been a great songwriter (even though 90% of the Beatles’ hits can be attributed to McCartney), but his legacy has been blown far beyond the accurate scale of his ability. This flaw is apparent when you compare him to any other solo artist from his day. Was Lennon really a better musician or performer than David Bowie? No. Did Lennon unveil any depth to his songwriting that Bob Dylan had not already grown tired of? Nope. These flaws reveal why, after Lennon and his side-piece Yoko Ono had broken up The Beatles – oh yeah, I forgot to mention that – he never achieved half the success as he did with his former band.
Imagine, therefore, sounds like a burnt out popstar clinging to relevancy. Some songs like “Oh! Yoko” seem to harp on the subtle delicacies of early Beatles tracks. These tracks allow the listener to enjoy a fast, well-produced track with a simple thesis. Delightful.
“Imagine,” however, has retained the belt for “World’s Most Overrated Song” for the last 48-years. After stripping “Imagine” down to its lyrics, the insanity of Lennon’s proposal is revealed. For example, the line “Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / no need for greed or hunger / a brotherhood of man” sounds like it was plagiarized from the second chapter of Karl Marx’ Das Kapital. How did that work out for Marx, anyway?
But, if your name is John Lennon and you can play the piano softly enough, the masses will follow you to their death.
If I may, I’d now like to propose an additional stanza to “Imagine.
Imagine there’s no Lennon
I wonder if you can
No one to plague your eardrum
Who is worse than everyone in his band
Imagine all the people, free from his mediocrity, you-oo-oooo
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join me
And the world will be as one
79. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II
Led Zeppelin II is the first album on this list that can seriously be considered for the top-10. Instead, Rolling Stone’s staff writers whom they hired from the United States School for the Deaf, have decided to discard it one spot in front of John Lennon’s Imagine. Someone needs to remind Rolling Stone that Zeppelin’s second album, along with containing perhaps the most iconic riff of all time on “Whole Lotta Love” or the most identifiable drum solo from John Bonham on “Moby Dick,” is the band’s most complete album from the first track to the last.
Led Zeppelin II simply does not falter for a second. In these reviews, I usually try to pick out one or two songs that stand out from the pack, songs that embody the spirit of the album and the identity of the artist. That is impossible to do on this album. Can you blame me? Yes? No?
Here, I’ll prove it.
“The Lemon Song” is essentially five songs in one. In his best performance on the album, Robert Plant dances through Jimmy Page’s squealing guitar, and bounds across John Bonham’s ever-present symbols before leaving his children “down on this killin’ floor.” The track “Thank You” is in contention for Zeppelin’s greatest love song. Along with providing a beautiful melody to open the song, Jimmy Page decided to add an organ to the song that elevates it to a heavenly status. If “Ramble On” contains the most iconic guitar riff of all time, “Heartbreaker” features the second most iconic riff just four songs later. Not bad for a 9 song, 41-minute album. Though “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” displays the band tapping into dirty, blues-fueled energy in 159 seconds, “Ramble On” emphasizes polishes their sound to deliver a more cohesive and compelling portrait of their potential. Finishing off the album, Led Zeppelin delivers a track that is as dirty as it is crisp, as sexual as it is authoritarian and as heartwarming as it is bone splitting. Simply put, “Bring it on Home,” has everything. If you still aren’t convinced, plug in some headphones, turn them to 11, and press play. End of discussion.
78. Otis Redding, Otis Blue
Otis Redding should go down as one of the most profound, genre-defining voices of the soul and Motown movement that ignited the hearts of Americans throughout the ‘60s and into the modern culture of today. Otis Blue marks the high point for the artist, solidifying his legacy through iconic covers and original songs that bridged the gap between the first, polished sounds of Motown such as the Temptations with the more tortuous, wide-ranging vocalists of the late ‘60s such as Aretha Franklin.
If one were to make a list of the artists that influenced Otis Blue and those that used the album as an influence for their own music, it would resemble a list of the greatest artists in music history. From his cover of the Temptation’s “My Girl” to Aretha Franklin’s monumentally successful covers of “Respect” and “A Change is Gonna Come” that earned her a place on this list with I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, Otis Blue marks a significant link that held soul together with two outstretched arms.
Otis Blue is perhaps the most emotional, bone-shaking soul album that has featured on this list so far. Though Otis Redding deserves a seat at the table of America’s most influential soul musicians, Otis Blue may have outkicked its coverage on this list. The album is full of iconic numbers and performances; however, the lack of a standout song that defined Redding’s discography, makes me question whether Rolling Stone selected the correct Redding album for this list.
77. AC/DC, Back in Black
Created in the torrent of an emotional downpour following the death of lead singer Bon Scott, Back in Black became the purest incarnation of hard rock that the genre has ever seen. Though the album pays homage to elements of blues and early rock ‘n’ roll, the record stands alone as an ode to a new transition in the history of rock. In 1980, Led Zeppelin had already paved the way for the dark and melodic rock that would eventually be imported by the pioneers of metal. What was missing from the music scene was an album or a band that could show off the explosive and satirical energy of metal within the framework of classic rock. Back In Black was the perfect piece fit to fill this void.
Today, “Back in Black,” “Hells Bells,” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” can be heard at any sports venue from a minor league baseball stadium to a professional hockey rink. The lasting energy behind these tracks have made them important additions to any spectacle, film, or show that desires to convey a sense of freedom, power, and potential. For a band to create such a masterpiece only months after the death of their lead singer whose raspy, blues-filled voice had paved their road to stardom on songs like “T.N.T.” and “Highway to Hell” is a truly incredible feat.
Though the bad deserves immense credit for this achievement, one cannot help but gasp at the placement of Back in Black in front of an album like Led Zeppelin II. Not only is Led Zeppelin II a central influence to AC/DC but it is also a superior album in every respect. Technically, Zeppelin was excellent on every instrument. Song by song, not a single AC/DC track delivers half the intensity as its comparable Zeppelin song. See, ranking Back in Black above Zeppelin’s second project is the equivalent of ranking Tracy McGrady as a better basketball player than Michael Jordan. Yeah, McGrady was great, but he wasn’t the king.
76. Prince, Purple Rain
Warner Bros., 1984
Prince is a genius. Purple Rain is his masterpiece. The landmark album of a generational force, Purple Rain follows Prince through a semi-autobiographical story of his career as a sex-obsessed R&B superstar prodigy who is struggling to recognize his true potential. The album is a chaotic barrel of uranium tossed into a Macy’s that is then bombed with warheads filled with flowers and purple glitter. Simply put, it’s incredible.
When the album released in 1984, the public felt similarly. The album spent 24 weeks atop the charts. A black kid from Minnesota – I’ll repeat, Minnesota – was beating Bruce Springsteen and Madonna week in and week out. His preaching of love, angst, recklessness, and desire cut straight to the point. Unlike Springsteen, Prince didn’t need a depressing album full of moody odes to immense tragedy before putting out his most excellent, most commercialized album. Unlike Madonna, Prince didn’t need to flash his… instruments… just to be deemed “provocative.” Nope. Prince just got on with it. He played the music, sung the songs, and blew everyone’s mind in the process.
The title track of the album is an epic song that can rock arena’s during a super bowl half time show as well as it can bring tears to the eyes of regulars at a bar in St. Paul. Prince infuses the song with such passion and emotion that the reverberating guitar, pleading vocals, and submerging arrangements turn the track into a 9-minute Baptism. Maybe this Jehovah’s Witness thing has some legs to it. I mean it clearly worked for Prince.
“Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry” mark equally significant crosses between personal lyrics and electrifying productions. Though both songs are immense in their own right, when they are assembled on an album as a platform for the final track, “Purple Rain,” their significance adopts a complexity and fulfillment not experienced when played alone.
On Purple Rain, Prince unveils himself as a ghetto-created force of nature that has been forged on the wires of mainstream radio and shot out of a cannon to the top of the charts. Yes, Prince debuted an iconic character on the album – himself – but do not let his theatrics undermine your understanding of his talent.
Prince played guitar better than the best guitarists, he sang better than the best vocalists, and he could do more on stage with a microphone and a guitar than Michael Jackson could ever do with a sparkly glove and a fedora.
This album deserves to be in the top 10 pop albums of all time.
Prince is the true king of pop. Purple Rain is his claim to the throne.
75. James Brown, Star Time
Putting this compilation on the top-500 list seems a bit like cheating. With a total of 71 songs, Star Time clocks in at just under 5 hours long. If the list were ranking the most excellent musicians of all time, Star Time would be the ultimate guide to why James Brown should be in the top 5. From jazz to soul, soul to funk, and funk to rock ‘n’ roll, James Brown established himself as a conqueror of multiple genres. And let’s be clear, James Brown did not merely try his hand at various styles of music, he took them by the shoulders and shook them silly. The greatest way to categorize Brown’s music, as this massive compilation attempts to do, maybe to grant it a category of its own, the James Brown genre. After all, James Brown was an entertainer first and a musician second. Without his influence, the mention of names like Michael Jackson, Prince, and even Eddie Murphy would not spark excitement in the way they do today.
But we will be revisiting James Brown later on this list. For now, I’ll leave you with a video of him performing “The Payback” live in Zaire in 1974 and a video of him performing “Please, Please, Please” on the 1964 TAMI variety show. See you in a few.
74. Neil Young, After the Gold Rush
You know the feeling when you have something stuck in your teeth and, no matter how much you maneuver your tongue, you just can’t get it out? That’s a bit like listening to After the Gold Rush.
In my review of Young’s earlier selection, Harvest, I mentioned Young’s position at the schism between hard and soft rock. After the Gold Rush, the album released immediately after his time spent with a little known group called Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, is no different. Similar to Harvest, an album Young released two years later, Young delivers a quick series of tunes dedicated to the delicacies of love, nature, and hope. After just a few tracks, however, Young begins to sound repetitive. No longer does his high-pitched, constant voice-crack of a vocal performance sound quaint and endearing. Instead, these quirky additions to his music feel tiresome and overplayed.
The highlight of the album is the title track, “After the Gold Rush,” which encapsulates the spirit of Young’s early persona in just under 4 minutes. What I like most about the song, however, is that it is built on top of a piano rather than a guitar. At last, Young breaks out a technique for his music that is not centered around an acoustic six-string. This new tool allows him to appear more like Springsteen on “Jungleland” than his usual sidewalk songwriter persona.
One Neil Young album in the top-100 is more than enough. Rolling Stone, I’ll let you choose which one to keep.
73. Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti
Swan Song, 1975
Though personally, I believe Zeppelin II to be the band’s crowning achievement, Physical Graffiti puts that statement to the test. Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin’s sixth album, was released six years after Zeppelin II and displays a level of growth and continuity that never has or will be repeated again in rock history.
As the story goes, Led Zeppelin was beginning to break apart at the seams as they wrapped up their 1973 tour of the United States. This deterioration made sense. It was their ninth tour of the states in just five years, a span in which they had released five albums. This workload would have been a feat of nature for a solo artist with an interchangeable band like James Brown. For Zeppelin, the biggest group in the world with egos that soared far beyond their place on the charts, the schedule was enough to tear them apart. Also, the progressive themes and unexpected production of Houses of the Holy had led to fans shoving the album to critics who hounded the project for its audacity to evolve.
After taking a break to catch their breath, Led Zeppelin regrouped in the spring of 1974 to rechart the course of their future with an album that would dig its heels in their early material while reaching for a provocative, weighted, and experimental tone. After creating an hour of grungy, head-spinning material, the band was satisfied with their creation. After piecing the tracks together, however, a problem soon arose – the album played far beyond the 40-minute restrictions of a single record. Jimmy Page, who produced the album, quickly discovered a solution. Rather than peeling a track from the original collection, the band would dig up unused tunes and session experiments from previous albums to turn their single record into a double.
Including such a variety of tracks meant that Physical Graffiti contained funky, spinning tunes like “Custard Pie” and “Trampled Under Foot,” heavy rock hitters like “The Rover” and “Kashmir,” and Zeppelin’s homages to their early sound on “Houses of the Holy” and “Sick Again.”
The album transcends into a level of supernatural on songs like “In My Time of Dying,” “In the Light,” and “Ten Years Gone,” in which Led Zeppelin deliver enduring belts of sweet electricity and potent meaning. It is in these few songs that Zeppelin took a massive step forward on Physical Graffiti. No, the album should not be placed above Zeppelin II. As a stand-alone project, it is scattered, untethered, and sporadic in comparison with the band's second album. Ultimately, however, Physical Graffiti made a statement to the world that Zeppelin were not entirely done yet. The album is a masterpiece that deserves a spot on this list that, like Led Zeppelin II, should be at least twenty places higher.
72. Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly
The success of Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly makes little sense. Both on this list and in popular culture, the persistence of Mayfield’s third studio album is mind-boggling. How can the soundtrack to a blaxploitation flick be regarded as one of the greatest funk albums of all time? More immediately, how is this album ranked above two Led Zeppelin albums, a collection of James Brown’s greatest hits, and Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison? This rating must be a sham, right?
Super Fly achieves a coalescence of political statements, psychedelic funk, and an orchestral production all while serving as the soundtrack for a film. Curtis Mayfield pulled this incredible juggling act off without a hitch. The album grooves and shakes from the first seconds of “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” and does not slow down for anything. The persistence of the album is its strongest characteristic. Through songs like “Pusherman,” the advertisement of a drug dealer, and “Superfly,” the ultimate concoction of soul and passion, the album keeps a steady head. The vocals do not belt over the top lyrics or experimental melodies. Instead, they ride with the beat, whispering the words as a sort of complementary instrument that is tangled in with the album.
Though Super Fly is a refreshing portal to the black-power era immediately following the civil rights movement, its transformative powers stop there. Unlike some of the albums that Super Fly has outplaced, Super Fly fails to make a severe statement in its genre that makes it deserving of a top place on the list. Super Fly, therefore, must soar off to the 138th place where it will be in its rightful place alongside such albums as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and The Replacement’s Tim.
71. Paul Simon, Graceland
Warner Bros., 1986
Since seeing Graceland feature on this list, I’ve been looking forward to revisiting it. Graceland, Paul Simon’s seventh solo studio album, was released when the singer-songwriter was forty-five years old following the collapse of his marriage and the massive failure of his album Hearts and Bones. If you look at the rest of this list, you will not see many musicians like Simon, who, after breaking away from a massively successful group, went on to have a successful solo career wherein their seventh solo-album was their most successful. The achievements of Graceland stand as a testament to Simon’s status as one of the great American songwriters of the last sixty years.
Though Graceland succeeds due to Simon’s soft and pure vocals, the albums extraordinarily crisp production, and the perfectly placed infusions of percussion and base, the ultimate engine behind the album is Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The South African vocal group provides backing vocals on the record that lends authenticity, emotion, and, most importantly, color to the project. Had Simon sung alone on the album, his tone would have sounded pretentious (a major flaw of his other projects) and the record would have lacked any claim to originality.
Much of the album was recorded in Johannesburg, South Africa where Simon rediscovered a passion for an art form that had morphed into a business in the past decade of his career. Simon’s relationship with his craft, therefore, marks the true love story of the album. While “Graceland” is a touching story of hope and destiny, tracks like “I Know What I Know,” “Boy in the Bubble,” and of course, “You Can Call Me Al” (which has one of the great bass solos of all time) are just, well, fun.
In 1987, Graceland won the Grammy for Album of the Year. On Rolling Stone’s top 100 list, the album is tucked away perfectly in a position that reflects the ability of its creator and the joy contained in its 41-minute playtime.