In this edition of tearing apart a project that took Rolling Stone Magazine years to create, hear me pick apart why Phil Spector is an embarrassment to this list, demand that Sly and the Family Stone need to pack their things and leave, and curse the magazine for placing Sticky Fingers so low on their list.
70. Billy Joel, The Stranger
The American Elton John features in 70th place with an album that would make any listener respond: “Ok?” Billy Joel’s The Stranger is fine. It is fine. That’s all. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Sure, “Only the Good Die Young” is an impressive number. That’s great, but it doesn’t make up for the rest of the album which is the musical equivalent of washing your hands until your skin rubs off. It’s a meaningless exercise that leaves you wondering why you would do such a thing to yourself in the first place.
I am always amazed to see Billy Joel is selling tickets for an absurd run of sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Fair play to the guy, I wish I had a job like that. But for a Bob Dylan imitator who never made a song good enough to feature as a b-side on a single Dylan album, Joel’s unfading presence feels tinged with an element of superficiality. Is The Stranger really 21 albums better than Goodbye Yellow Brick Road? Is Billy Joel a greater revolutionary in music than Prince or Johnny Cash? Rolling Stone Magazine thinks so and, for that reason, Rolling Stone Magazine can go to hell.
69. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV
The third Led Zeppelin album of the last ten selections, Led Zeppelin IV, stands out as perhaps the band's commercial peak. Not only was the record the pinnacle of ‘70s hard rock but it established the group as true renegades not only for their unique sound but for their ability to cross into mandolin-based ballads such as “Battle of Evermore” without a hitch.
As with every other Zeppelin album that this list has featured so far, one cannot help but think it has drawn the short end of the stick. In just the albums from 70-61, Rolling Stone rank IV lower than a Guns N’ Roses album, U2’s most overrated album, and Radiohead’s angsty fourth album that not only sounds like but embodies the title of “garbage.”
What more does Zeppelin have to do to get its deserved respect? Not only does IV feature songs that ring out like the soundtrack to judgment day like “When the Levee Breaks” and “Black Dog,” but it also includes melodic odes to hope and regret such as “Going to California.” The genius of this crossover stems from Robert Plant’s expansive lyrics that showcase his ingenuity, foresight, and emotion with greater clarity than any other Zeppelin album. When the genius Plant and Page collide, brilliance is sure to emerge. On no song is this more evident than the eight-minute dreamscape of rock that is “Stairway to Heaven.” “Stairway” is a song that really needs no adjective-filled description of its brilliance. The greatest testament to the track is that, after forty-eight years, high school kids still blast the song from their car stereos and classic rock radio stations refuse to pull it off the air. Though many listeners have grown tired of the song’s constant presence over the last five decades and have tried to cut it out of their lives completely (Sorry Wayne, “No stairway. Denied!”), “Stairway to Heaven” sounds as fresh, mysterious, and utterly overwhelming as it did in the late months of 1971.
Led Zeppelin IV is by no means the bands most excellent album. It may not even be in the top three. To discriminate against its brilliance by placing it behind Guns N’ Roses and Radiohead, however, is unforgivable. Shame on you Rolling Stone Magazine. Shame on you.
68. Michael Jackson, Off the Wall
Michael Jackson’s breakout solo record stands up as a masterpiece. Off the Wall was Jackson’s first album released with Epic records. This marked a tangible departure from the Motown sounds of R&B that filled his previous records. In a sense, Off the Wall was Michael Jackson’s first display of genuine personality. His range, energy, and style were brought to the forefront of his project and, 40 years later, continue to spring from the speakers.
I would say that the album marked a completion of Jackson’s maturity from his Jackson 5, idolized child-prodigy days, into a fully-fledged adult but… well… you know… the word “maturity” and Michael Jackson really shouldn’t be in the same sentence.
Regardless, Michael desperately wanted to depart from his image as a child star into a true artist of the next generation. No longer did he wish to be known as “that kid who sings ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘ABC,’” now he was “MJ,” a singer with a brand new start.
Michael Jackson will forever be ridiculed and parodied for his inability to grow into his adulthood. His obsession with his Neverland palace, his suspicious soprano, and the damning allegations of child-abuse seem to validate claims of his immaturity. For a few years from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s, however, Michael’s vision for himself matched his music.
Off the Wall exudes joy and excitement. Set to a flourishing set of disco-based beats, the album never stops to take a breath. For this short period, Michael Jackson’s music paralleled his vision for his identity. Even Michael Jackson, however, could not escape time. Soon, the melodramatic themes, elaborately dressed characters, and over-stylized productions of his albums reflected an out of touch man desperately clinging to the past. Off the Wall stepped away from an equally tragic and pathetic whirlwind of a life and onto the dance floor. The place where MJ belonged.
67. Radiohead, Kid A
Slated by the public, lauded by the critics – this is the story of a band called Radiohead. Kid A is an album that was birthed in the halls of an art school, raised on a soundboard of lasers and distortion toggles, and released into the wild with enough pretension to make John Mayer jealous.
Kid A is among the most overrated albums of its decade. Listen, I like Radiohead. Really. I do. The Bends and Ok, Computer are among the best albums of the ‘90s. These highlights from the band’s discography sprint along the thin line between soul-crushing alt-rock and useless techno elevator music. After the success of The Bends and Ok, Computer, Radiohead decided to ditch their road of success and make a sharp 90 degree turn off a bridge and into a river of delusion. How’s that for an extended metaphor.
66. Van Morrison, Moondance
Warner Bros., 1970
As far as soft-rock goes, Van Morrison’s Moondance is an advertisement for the genre. The project contains catchy melodies and enjoyable tunes whose lyrics and emotions paint a much darker portrait. This billboard hippy had already enjoyed the success of his 1968 album Astral Weeks when he decided to head back to the studio to create an album that took up a different tone from his previous production of love-anthems and singalongs.
Morrison has been cited numerous times as creating Moondance as an ode to Bob Dylan. Dylan, the only contemporary that Morrison though worthy of his attention, presented the holy grail of songwriting that mixed folk, rock, and blues in a revolutionary stew. Morrison’s attempt to emulate his hero is apparent throughout the album and leaves the listener thinking, “If this is just Morrison making a Dylan impression, why don’t I turn on Highway 61.”
That’s what I thought when I listened to the album, and I’m listening to “Like a Rolling Stone” as I type this review.
65. Phil Spector, Back to Mono (1958-1969)
There are few albums on this list that are less deserving of their spot than Phil Spector’s Back to Mono. Rolling Stone, however, claim that the collection of Motown and soul tracks that spanned an entire decade deserves a spot due to Spector’s revolutionary “wall of sound” production techniques. These techniques may have been profound for their day, but to slap Spector’s name onto an album that features hits like “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes and “Da Doo Ron Ron” by the crystals feels totally disingenuous. If you want to praise the individual accomplishments of specific artists, go ahead. Do not, however, credit producers like Spector for the unique talent of the bands they produced.
Rolling Stone chose to give this compilation a spot above the masterpiece albums of bands and songwriters who toiled for years to produce pieces of music that would bear their names for the rest of time. Spector, however, took the opposite route. He produced vast swaths of music and, after ten successful years, picked out the greatest hits, put them on a record, and put his name at the top.
Also, though it has nothing to do with his musical endeavors, it must be noted that Phil Spector is currently serving 19 to life for the murder of Lana Clarkson. So, not only did Rolling Stone choose to assemble decent music by numerous artists under the banner of its producer, but they did so knowing that they would be helping establish the legacy of a murdering lunatic. Rolling Stone, do better.
64. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
Rolling Stones Records, 1971
Here we go. The Rolling Stones were heralded as the best band in rock n’ roll for nearly two decades. Sticky Fingers may be their peak.
In the history of rock, few bands parallel the shifting politics, ambitions, and desires of an entire generation as closely as The Stones. They broke onto the scene sporting tight-suits and mopped hair, they began to sing with darker, more cynical intentions, and, in 1969, they kicked off perhaps the most remarkable four-album run in history with a little song called “Sympathy for the Devil” on the album Beggars Banquet.
Sticky Fingers, sandwiched between Let it Bleed and Exile on Main St. catches the band in full sprint. Following the success of Let it Bleed, the group set out on a tour across the United States that ended with the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. Altamont, billed as the “Woodstock of the West” earned an infamous slot in the annals of rock history after the concert’s chaotic construction spiraled into the disaster following the arrival of the Hells Angels, two hit-and-run car accident deaths, and the murder of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter. The concert collided the free-loving generation of the ‘60s with the raucous, political fervor of the ‘70s. Altamont ended an era of peace-and-love for an entire generation. The Rolling Stones did not emerge unscathed, leaving California with a new understanding of the decade that lay ahead, an understanding that would reveal itself throughout Sticky Fingers’ 10 tracks.
Though the album does not have a “Gimme Shelter” or “Sympathy for the Devil,” Sticky Fingers presents The Stones ultimate intersection of ego and experience, hype and delivery. Whereas Exile on Main Street is Keith Richard’s scattered collection of brainstorming blues rock, Sticky Fingers contains a more deliberate approach to its creation. Keith Richards flows throughout the album with beautifully weighted riffs, and Mick Jagger caps the songs with as good of a vocal performance as you will find on any other Stones album. The band also received a shot in the arm thanks to the arrival of guitarist Mick Taylor after the firing and death of Brian Jones. Finally, the album received a final anointment of “cool” thanks to Andy Warhol’s overtly sexual album cover that left little to the imagination.
“Brown Sugar” kicks off the album with as raunchy a blues-rock track as you will find throughout any Stones album. The album rattles along with bolts of stuttering electricity on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Bitch.” The album hits its peak, however, when it soars into the broad plains of country-western. Jagger’s potent vocals and Richards’ sweeping guitar on “Wild Horses” have echoed through nearly five decades of pop culture. “Dead Flowers,” the most underrated song of the album and of The Rolling Stones’ catalog, contains the despair of Kieth Richard’s guitar with sarcastic optimism of Mick Jagger’s singing.
No longer were The Stones imitating the blues musicians they heard on the radio in the early ‘60s. At last, The Rolling Stones had taken hold of the genre for themselves and were not about to let go.
Sticky Fingers is without question one of The Rolling Stones top four albums. That alone qualifies it as better than any album by The Beatles who have four albums in the top ten of this list. If that doesn’t show you how absurd these rankings are, I’m not sure what will.
63. U2, Achtung Baby
U2 deservedly have two albums in the top 100. One is wholly deserved, the other is Achtung Baby. Achtung Baby, the first of U2’s Bowie inspired trips to Berlin, provides a decent attempt at an ‘80s rock band stumbling into the ‘90s. As bands like The Stone Roses in England and Pearl Jam in the United States bounded into popularity, U2 had to decide whether they would stay the course with their traditional soaring ballads or dive into an unknown territory of a genre I’m going to call alternative pop-rock.
U2 decided to take the plunge. The result was a 12 track, 51-minute collection that contained songs as varied as the images on its album cover. Of U2’s albums, Achtung Baby scrapes into their top 5 on a good day. The psychotic squeal of The Edge’s guitar on “The Fly” and Bono’s heartwrenching performance on “One” ensure the album is not bereft of hit songs. These tracks, as well as other belters like “Mysterious Ways,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” Look, these are some great tracks. In the collection of U2’s discography, however, they fail to compete with their raw performances on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. Compared with these classic albums, Achtung Baby sounds stripped of energy and pumped with artificial electricity from the soundboard.
Achtung Baby remains an album with many moments of brilliance. In an era when grunge and Brit-pop trapped U2 between continents, the band proved their staying power with an album that did more than just keep them afloat. So, I’ll applaud Rolling Stone for having the guts to put a second U2 album in the top 100 rather than filling the spot with some useless Sly and the Family Stone or Neil Young album. When it came to their picks for U2’s best albums, however, Rolling Stones whiffed on a fastball down the middle of the plate.
62. Guns N’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction
If someone knows why Rolling Stone favors ‘80s hard rock over the classic rock groups that inspired the genre with greater albums and more profound content, please let me know.
Appetite for Destruction may be a fun album to listen to thanks to a couple of tracks like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” but it simply does not hold up against any competitors from the decade before its creation. While Guns N’ Roses were creating Appetite for Destruction, hip-hop was entering its golden era, pop music was at its commercial peak, and classic rock had all but bit the dust. So, when Guns N’ Roses turned up with a somewhat alternative album, people fainted in awe. Today, however, the album doesn’t stand out amongst the swaths of sticky, hard rock that spawned Kiss, Aerosmith, and, eventually, the Roses themselves.
Remember, Rolling Stone ranked Appetite for Destruction higher than two Aretha Franklin albums, every Zeppelin album but one, Prince’s Purple Rain, and even Johnny Cash’s only album on the list. That’s a criminal offense. By what standards to they make this claim? In their description of the album, Rolling Stone claims that, because the album is “the biggest selling debut album of all time” the rational conclusion on the album's position in music history is that it must be one of the greatest of all time. Wrong! Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time is also one of the most successful debut albums of all time but is it anywhere on this list? Nope.
Now, to claim that Slash or Axl Rose deserve their album on the list because they are great characters in the history of rock may be a compelling argument on the surface, but reveals massive holes when given close observation. If anything, Slash and Rose are just costumed musicians who let loose their guitars well beyond the peak of the overindulgent glam rock they attempt to recreate. Guns N’ Roses is a Spinal Tap cover band that took themselves seriously. Let that sink in.
61. Sly and the Family Stone, Greatest Hits
Get off of this list. I said it before on There’s a Riot Goin’ On, but the persistence of Sly and the Family Stone makes absolutely no sense on this list. If you are going to put a compilation album from a band or musician on this list, that is automatically the only album they get. If the task is to rank great records and their albums aren’t as good as their compilations, then don’t put their albums on the list. It’s not that hard, Rolling Stone.
Alas, Sly sneaks back into this list with an album equally forgettable as his previous selection. I do not mean to say that Sly and the Family Stone are a terrible group; however, they lack any spark, soul, or energy to make them stand out from the far more exciting and experimental funk groups of their day. This is a waste of a pick for numerous reasons. Fix it.