Great Rock Albums

Here's my list of what I consider to be the great rock albums. The criteria is simple: these are the albums that I enjoy listening to over and over again. Many have gone down in history as all time classic albums, many remain relatively obscure, all are essentials to any serious collection of rock's finest moments.

Live At Leeds - The Who (1970)

When this was released it was hailed by Rolling Stone as the greatest sounding live album ever. Today, 33 years later, it still sounds great. On the original vinyl release, the audience could just be heard at the end of each song but on the recent CD release, it's much clearer. Apparently, they forgot to put microphones on the audience and the stage mics could only just pick them up. The CD release also doubles the payload but I think the original delivers the best bits. It's worth noting the difference in editing between the two releases.

What I found interesting about The Who was that, after their first couple of albums, they never tried to reproduce their recordings on stage, they just sort of cranked it out with no apologies. In some cases the songs would change drastically as a result. This is probably the best and earliest example of the post hippy / hard rock / pre-punk movement that would be fully developed by others a few years later. Some say they were punks before there was such a thing. They held the Guiness Book Of Records record for the loudest rock band on earth, from memory they were measured at about 120dB, louder than the concorde jet. An honour they would pay for dearly in later life.

The album opens with Entwistle's marvelous Heaven And Hell, followed by I Can't Explain and Fortune Teller (a cover of a cover of a cover) and Tattoo. Next is Young Man Blues, an old Mose Allison tune, my personal favourite, full of anger and attitude, it's a genuine anthem. This is followed by the obligatory chart songs: Substitute, Happy Jack and I'm A Boy. They then proceed to perform a full rendition of A Quick One While He's Away. Personally I can live without this tune, while I appreciate the historical value (Tommy's parents) it's just not a good song. Finally they get into the really good stuff starting with Amazing Journey / Sparks, Summertime Blues and Shakin' All Over, the last two really gutsy full blooded versions of classic rock and roll songs. My Generation starts off as a song and turns into a sort of medley of riffs and tunes both known and obscure. One critic commented that once they'd decided not to smash up their instruments they couldn't figure out how to end the song so they just sort of kept going. I think he missed the point. The encore is Magic Bus turned into an extended Bo Diddley style jam, with the emphasis on the pulsing rhythm pumped out by Entwistle.

Every member of the band is right on the mark. Daltrey is tight and powerful, Moon is as manic as ever but always knows exactly what's going on, a trait few understood, Entwistle has perfected the bass sound from Hell, full bodied but with plenty of edge to deliver that lovely crisp rhythm, sometimes you'd swear there must be several guys playing it. If you ever doubted Townshend as a guitarist this recording will cast all that aside. Pay particular attention to Young Man Blues and Amazing Journey.

If you like your rock and roll heavy and in your face, you can't pass this album up.

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By Numbers - The Who (1975)

The Who had many great albums: Tommy, Quadrophenia, Whos Next, Who Are You. After the excesses of the late sixties and early seventies, this album represents a refreshing return to the basics. The lyrics reveal a tired and disillusioned Townshend suffering from alcohol abuse and probably going through an early mid-life crisis examining himself and his place in the world.

The production is clean and uncluttered. Townshend's guitar playing steps off the "guitar god" pedestal and shows a new level of taste and creativity while Moon proves that he really can keep time.

Slip Kid is probably the stand out track. Squeeze Box was respectable as the album's single. The lesser known tracks are the real gems though: However Much I Booze, How Many Friends and Dreaming From The Waist are priceless confessionals, Blue Red And Grey is a quirky little 'crazy man' ditty, They're All In Love and In A Hand Or Face are classic Who songs. As always, Entwistle's contributions are priceless, in this case Success Story.

This is The Who coming down from the high and looking for a new direction while still delivering classics.

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Close To The Edge - Yes (1972)

The magic here is that the side length title track works. While there are distinct sections, each with its own character, they are merely individual parts of the greater whole. It flows effortlessly from one section to the next, moving from rock to mysticism to pipe organ, baroque rock and back to the start in a single, unified fashion. It feels like a single composition rather than a series of tunes tacked together like Topographic Oceans. Every member of the band contributes incredible creativity and virtuosity. There's all the usual prog elements such as weird time signatures, crazy scales, manic playing, opaque lyrics, the latest electronic gadgets and of course the Hammond and Mellotron, and yet it works; like a great symphony works.

Side two opens with And You And I, a beautiful tune that opens with multi-tracked acoustic guitars augmented with some magic electronic keyboards, moving eventually into a slow rock and then into a most majestic, almost pompous slow symphonic section featuring the mellotron and big echoed pedal steel guitar before crumbling back to the acoustic guitars and starting over. The closing track, Siberian Khatru, is basically a rock track featuring strong bass, guitars and vocals. It still manages to include all the usual Yes prog signatures but never dwelling.

This album was a defining moment for Yes as a band and for the whole progressive rock genre.

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Going For The One - Yes (1977)

Yes had possibly already peaked by the time this album was made. They'd worked their way through their pretentious double concept albums and numerous line-up changes. This album however, represents a return to the classic line-up and doesn't pretend to be anything more than a collection of great songs. There's not a single bad song on this one. Every track has a distinct and unique character and goes exactly as far as it should and no further.

The opening title track is an all out full production rocker with some great slide guitar from Steve Howe. Turn Of The Century is a masterful mood piece with very tasteful harmonies, keyboards and acoustic guitar. Parallels is probably the best rock recording of a pipe organ ever, the solo will blow you away. Side two opens with Wonderous Stories which made a respectable showing on the singles charts. The final track, Awaken, is probably the best thing they ever did. About 16 minutes long, it takes you on a musical journey through every Yes style from mystical Jon Anderson, hard edged rocking Steve Howe through to the baroque mastery of Rick Wakeman. It moves smoothly from one movement to the next without sounding contrived.

During the recording of this album, Jon Anderson made a conscious decision to reduce the level of theocracy and the result is an object lesson in the magic that comes when you just let it happen.

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Your Mama Won't Like Me - Suzi Quatro (1975)

This is Suzi's third album and represents a mature and established artist looking to break out of the mold that was cast for her. According to Rolling Stone, she was looking to break into the American market and consequently introduced many American influences. She's no longer playing the straight pop-rock that made her famous in England and Australia (although there are still those elements) but rather experimenting with genres and production values that clearly show her desire to move on. It is chronologically and artistically somewhere in between her earlier Devil Gate Drive period and her later 'soft rock' period.

On side one the stand out tracks are I Bit Off More Than I Could Chew and Your Mama Won't Like Me, both punchy rock songs augmented with a brass section and gospel style backing vocal chorus, meticulously crafted to perfection. The keyboards provide the very funky Stevie Wonder style rhythm. On side two she performs a complete ninety degree turn with the laid back Can't Trust Love, New Day Woman and the jazz classic, Fever.

The album didn't fare well as evidenced by the fact that you can't buy it on CD except as part of a double set, most people probably see it as a 'transition' album but in reality it's a very sophisticated blend of pop rock, funk, soul and gospel without losing Suzi's traditional raw power. Once you get past the 'glam' label, you'll notice that every single member of the band is actually extremely talented. Suzi herself is a sensational bass player. Yes, it's a blatent stab at the American market, so what, it sounds great!

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The Six Wives Of Henry VIII - Rick Wakeman (1973)

Rick Wakeman became famous as the genius keyboard player in Yes in the early seventies. Given his classical training and compositional abilities, it was inevitable that he would develop a need to find expression outside of the band and lay down the ideas that were flowing like the proverbial tidal flood at that time.

And so the best example of "baroque rock" came into being. I say baroque because it's obvious but there's many other influences. For example, when he plays just piano there's more than a hint of Mozart in there.

The album consists of six tracks, each loosely representing the lives and characters of the six wives of Henry VIII. The opening Catherine Of Aragon is bold and decisive, jumping from one thing to the next, driven mainly by the piano, the second, Anne Of Cleves exhibits an extended series of magnificent solos using the Hammond organ. Catherine Howard, exhibits both modern and classical influences. Track four is Jane Seymour, a baroque pipe organ tour de force, slightly repetitive but nonetheless powerful. Anne Boleyn displays the Mozart style virtuoso piano playing, the final track Catherine Parr closes the circle with bold and decisive strokes.

There were many more masterpieces to come but this album is the master at his finest.

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Revolver - The Beatles (1966)

While everyone raves about Sgt Pepper's, I didn't find it that great an album. Revolver, on the other hand, was a genuine ground breaker and turning point for rock and roll. It displays all five members of the band pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone and into the realms of the unknown without totally losing sight of the great songwriting.

The opening track, Taxman, is probably one of Harrison's best early songs and immediately set the pace for copycats for years to come. Eleanor Rigby went on to be one of the great classics. She Said She Said is classic Lennon projected introspection. Good Day Sunshine and Got To Get You Into My Life are both great McCartney pop tunes. Dr Robert is one of those gems that no-one talks about. The album closes with the brilliant Tomorrow Never Knows, their most experimental recording to date with sitars, backward guitars, tape loops, weird noises and severely drug induced lyrics. This could have easily been a disaster but with George Martin at the controls it became the stuff that legends are made of.

This album clearly demonstrates both Harrison's and McCartney's burgeoning guitar abilities and Lennon's preoccupation with the more bizarre aspects of his own id. Ringo Starr, as always, remains one of the great underrated drummers of rock. If you only ever get one Beatles album then this is the one to get.

The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life - Frank Zappa (1991)

The story goes that Zappa put together the most awesome band in the world, rehearsed them to death for four months and set up a world tour that was to last for over a year. There were 12 people in the band including a five piece brass section. They performed on the USA east coast and in Europe, all of which were recorded. Apparently, they arrived in town for the next gig where Zappa put his deputy in charge of rehearsals while he went to do a radio interview. When he returned he was informed that the troups were not taking instructions from his deputy and he promptly sacked them all and went home. So ends the story of the best band you never heard in your life.

According to the liner notes, "... it is from those performances that this compilation has been made. All material contained herein is 100% live and there are no overdubs of any kind". If you know Zappa's music at all you'll know that at the very least it's very complex and at times bordering on impossible to play but this band pulls it off damn near to perfection.

The opening track, Heavy Duty Judy, gets all the 'guitar hero' stuff out of the way early so they can concentrate on the 'serious' stuff. This is followed with a comical reggae version of the Johnny Cash classic, Ring Of Fire before settling in to such Zappa classics as Cosmik Debris, Find Her Finer, Zombie Woof, Zoot Allures, Florentine Pogen and Inca Roads interspersed with wacky renditions of things like I Left My Heart In San Francisco. Somewhere in amongst this is possibly the best rendition of Ravel's Bolero I've ever heard. It is amazingly faithful to the original while still finding room for 'improvements' like wailing guitars and descending trombones.

Disc two opens with Purple Haze and Sunshine Of Your Love as only Zappa could play them. Next is Let's Move To Cleveland and more wacky things followed by a very funny four minute evangelist style monologue and The Torture Never Stops. Much of the rest of the disc is taken up with Zappa's preoccupation with the raging corruption of the t.v. evangelist community at the time and a nine minute rendition of The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue, finishing up with a great version of Stairway To Heaven. He probably meant for that to be as warped as some of his other covers but it actually comes out sounding pretty faithful to the original given the lineup involved with the one exception that the guitar solo is played by the brass section, note for note, very funny.

This is probably as good as Zappa gets in terms of his rock music, every musician is a master of his craft and there are some exceptional guitar moments from Zappa, but more importantly the album stands as one of the great live recordings.

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Bridge Of Sighs - Robin Trower (1974)

One of the world's great unknown blues guitarists, Robin Trower to this day continues the tradition he took up in the late sixties. While he denies any conscious decision to follow in Hendrix' footsteps, the connection is unmistakable. Regardless, this is some of the best blues rock you'll ever hear.

The album opens with a bang with Day Of The Eagle, a full tilt blues rock number, next is Bridge Of Sighs, a slow burning blues that really brings out those Leslie rotating speakers. In This Place continues the slow burning blues and exemplifies Trowers ability to layer his guitars without overpopulating the tracks. The Fool And Me is an upbeat funk number that sets up a cool groove and doesn't let go. Side two opens with Too Rolling Stoned, a rocking number with yet another of those cool Trower blues riffs before settling back into a classic slow funk jam. About To Begin brings on the slow burning blues once again, this time in 3/4 time, a real masterpiece. Lady Love is probably one of my favourite Trower tunes, an upbeat pop number that neatly encapsulates the Trower experience with those rich vocals, a smooth and melodic bass line, blues drums to die for and the masters layered guitars. The closing number is Little Bit Of Sympathy, a nice little boogie jam thing to round out the set.

This album reached number 7 on the Billboard charts before sliding into obscurity but the impact it's had on blues guitarists around the world is enduring. But don't think of it as a 'guitar' album, think of it as great rock with some real soulful blues thrown in.

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Live - Foghat (1977)

These four english lads took that distinctive American style southern boogie sound, added a few decibels and threw it right back in their faces. It took a few albums to get it right but by 1977 they had it perfect, it was big, fat and totally energized. The long hair, the handlebar moustaches, the slide guitars, the big arena sound; for a brief moment in time everything was right in the world.

This represents the acme of their career although the band continued to perform with various lineups for another two decades. "That was as big as we ever got." Every single track on this album is a killer. Each is an extended version of the original but not just padded out with long boring guitar solos or worse yet, drum solos, these extend the arrangements by adding new sections and building on the originals to produce much more involved but still readily accessible boogie rock and roll. It's very evident the album was made after considerable time on the road allowing the band to rethink and perfect the material but before they started burning out.

The opening track, Fool For The City, while described as bombastic, gets you on your feet from the opening bar. Home In My Hand backs off a fraction and provides ample evidence of what these guys have been doing for the past few years and provides a great example of well controlled high volume feedback. The closing track on side one is I Just Want To Make Love To You, an old Willie Dixon rambler pumped up into great southern boogie. This is a perfect example of how to take a three and a half minute radio song and extend it out to over eight minutes and still leave the punters wanting more. There's no ego trips here, just plenty of creativity. Side two opens with Road Fever followed by Honey Hush, another old blues tune turned into something totally frantic and maniacal. How he manages that double kick drum, I'll never understand. The album's closing track is Slow Ride, the band's big success story to date. This starts off almost too slow, all you want to do is put the pedal to the metal but they hold back. For about five minutes it crawls but still you can feel the tension building, finally they crank through the gears and still they go faster and faster until it's nearly out of control. The ending just builds and builds to an amazing climax and by the time its all over you realise the whole eight minutes was engineered to perfection leaving you totally satisfied.

This is a great sounding live album with all of that cool arena ambience that guarantees an exciting show almost before it starts. Add to that a hard working rock and roll band who have spent years on the road perfecting their art and half a dozen kick arse boogie tunes and we end up with one of the great rock albums.

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In The Court Of The Crimson King - King Crimson (1969)

At the very least this album presents an excellent introduction to facial mechanics, but in addition you also get an excellent introduction to the roots of progressive rock. This album goes where no-one has dared venture before and this was just the beginning. Predating all the great progressive rock albums by several years and having enormous influence on the up and coming artists of the day makes this seminal album a milestone in anyone's language. It remains unique in the world of popular culture.

The album opens with the stunning 21st Century Schizoid Man, in itself worth the cost of admission. A full on jazz rocker that explodes in your face and never lets up until it self destructs in a blaze of glory seven minutes later. In the interim you're attacked with some singularly poignant and socially relevant lyrics. Before you can figure out what's hit you, the album does a complete 180 in the second track, I Talk To The Wind, a gentle, meandering tune with tasteful acoustic guitars, flutes and haunting lyrics. Epitaph is a favourite of mine with the extraordinary and dramatic use of the Mellotron. Side two contains the ponderous and lengthy Moonchild complete with ten minute improvised "noodling" as one reviewer describes it. The most divisive track of the album, it definitely requires one to be in the right frame of mind. The final, title track is bold and gothic and well worth the wait. Again with excellent string arrangements played on the Mellotron and extremely poetic and imaginative lyrics (some would liken them to contemporary fantasy novels), the orchestration and dynamics are well thought out and executed.

With its dark character, extreme mood swings and 'out there' music, lyrics and arrangements, this album is not for the faint hearted. Nonetheless, a must have for the serious collector, connoisseur and those interested in early progressive rock and jazz rock.

Are You Experienced - Jimi Hendrix Experience (1967)

Cited as one of the greatest rock debut albums ever, it continues to impress me over thirty years after first hearing it. What I appreciate most these days is how Jimi took his roots rhythm and blues and ramped it up into very powerful, psychedelic pop rock. You need to listen to the bootleg recordings of Jimi from 1965/1966 to fully understand the heritage.

The album opens with the screeching feedback of Foxy Lady, the lyrics representing a statement of Jimi's lifestyle philosophy. This song sets up a great groove that's been borrowed heavily by others over the years. Manic Depression hits you over the head with that manic riff, the manic drums and the solo from another universe. Red House could be your standard delta blues except for the insane guitar playing that left people like Clapton in the dust. Notice there's a rhythm guitar part that is actually played by Noel Redding on the bass. Can You See Me, Love Or Confusion and I Don't Live Today continue the manic jazz rock drumming, distortion, feedback and general mayhem and psychedelia; "There ain't no life nowhere".

Side two changes the approach with May This Be Love, sounding like it might have been lifted from Electric Ladyland. Fire was an obvious single but it took two years to be released in the USA and Canada. It remains a popular cover for heavy rock bands. "Aw, move over, Rover, and let Jimi take over...". Third Stone From The Sun is a rare instrumental with two short monologues in the middle using slow speed overdubs, breathy vocalisations, lots of feedback, string bending, some really nice jazz drums and vast quantities of reverb to produce a surreal industrial, trippy atmosphere. Remember is a loving reproduction of the rhythm and blues he was playing every night only a year earlier. The closing title track combines backwards guitars and drums in a "psychedelic symphony" summing up Jimi's ideas of an "electric church" calling on his followers to join him on his journey.

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Jimi Hendrix - Rainbow Bridge (1971)

There's a bunch of Hendrix albums I could include here. There are two in particular I listen to a lot. One is the white "Jimi Hendrix" soundtrack album to the documentary movie of that name which is a collection of the best live recordings and Rainbow Bridge which contains a collection of completed studio recordings and one live recording released the year after his death.

These are without a doubt the best songs Hendrix had in the can and despite being hobbled together after his death, it feels like a complete album. The production is consistent and immaculate. A problem I have with earlier albums is the excessive and messy guitar overdubs but here the balance is perfect. While there's still plenty of guitars, here they work together rather than compete for attention giving it a sense of being in control. The arrangements and orchestration make for a much more accessible listening experience.

The opening Dolly Dagger and Earth Blues are both upbeat rhythm and blues rock with the beautiful soul chorus backing them up. Pali Gap is a magnificent instrumental that uses alternating guitar lines as if there were multiple players. There are only two chords in the entire song but the constant introduction of new ideas keeps the interest up throughout. Room Full Of Mirrors makes use of the echo machine to convey the 'mirrors' theme, a joyous song about breaking free of ones innate narcissism. Jimi's studio rendition of Star Spangled Banner closes side one. Listen to the detail in the arrangement, this is Jimi doing his industrial, electric church, symphony thing. There's an abundance of guitar harmonies, double speed, half speed, feedback, missiles, machine guns etc. Pretty much every trick in the book and a flute!

Side two opens with the powerhouse Look Over Yonder. This is the most manic track on the album and easily one of the most ball-tearing solos he recorded in the studio. Next is the live Hear My Train A'Comin', eleven minutes of pure blues magic. Jimi spends the first two minutes attempting to tune the ol' Statocaster while still ripping out some amazing blues. By the time the first verse comes around he seems to have it under control and from there we are treated to the most amazing electric blues ever committed to tape. The album closes with the gentle Hey Baby (New Rising Sun), a contemplation of his hippy, sci-fi, mystic space trip thing.

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More to come...