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Friday Fun Thread for February 10, 2023

Be advised: this thread is not for serious in-depth discussion of weighty topics (we have a link for that), this thread is not for anything Culture War related. This thread is for Fun. You got jokes? Share 'em. You got silly questions? Ask 'em.

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I may have mentioned this before, but for those of you don’t know, I’m an unapologetic music junkie. Since 2010 or so, I’ve been making my way through the corpus of music history in a semi-systematic way that makes sense only to me, and rating albums as I go through it using a scale of 0 to 5 stars, half stars included. To date, I have awarded 186 albums the highest ranking the criteria for which are as follows:

The crème de la crème. Albums that have no serious weak moments and many transcendent ones. Any weak spots or less than captivating songs are overshadowed by the splendor of the glorious majority. In any event, these are minor enough that pointing them out is the kind of petty nitpicking that even fans of the work in question will argue over. Nearly all of these records defined either the genre which they belong to or the era in which they were recorded.

I don’t normally rank the albums as I rate them, but I’ve done so for the top tier. As a sort of personal indulgence, I will include capsule reviews for all the albums on this list over the next several Fridays, including as many reviews as character limits allow. Without further ado:

186 Lynyrd Skynyrd – One More from the Road (1977)

Most live albums are superfluous—they include pleasant live renditions of the familiar studio material but rarely offer anything essential. The best live albums are usually the shorter ones that highlight a few key performances rather than attempting to provide the full concert experience. Unfortunately, there was a trend in the 1970s where any artist nearing the end of its contract would release an obligatory double live album that clocked in at over an hour and contained everything a fan could want in a live release. Most of these are decent, but inessential. This record is one of the few exceptions. Lead guitarist Steve Gaines had recently joined the band and would only be present for one studio album, but the performances he gives here are nonpareil, giving the familiar classics a level of sophistication they hadn’t had previously. And the performance of "Freebird" that ends the album makes it abundantly clear why calling for it at the end of unrelated concerts became such a cliché 20 years later.

185 Strawbs – Ghosts (1975)

Strawbs were about as undistinguished a Progressive Rock band as you could get, never having any commercial success, always showing flashes of brilliance but never making a truly great album (though Hero and Heroine came close). Then, in 1975, as Progressive Rock was in its death throes, everything finally came together. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the album, just that it combines great songs with enough of the usual progressive elements to keep things interesting.

184 Organized Konfusion – Organized Konfusion (1991)

Most rap albums—even the important ones—suffer from some critical flaw that prevents them from achieving the highest ranking. I’d be remiss if I claimed that this album held any particular degree of importance in the history of rap music, but it manages to run for nearly an hour without a bum track in sight. The liberal Steely Dan samples don’t hurt, either.

183 Thievery Corporation – Sound from the Thievery Hi-Fi (1997)

Downtempo albums can be difficult to judge because they are, at some level, supposed to exist in the background as much as the foreground. Ones that emphasize the former tend to be generic and unmemorable. Ones that emphasize the latter can be good albums, but they aren’t really effective as Downtempo albums. Not only does Thievery Corporation manage to strike this balance perfectly, they also manage to strike a similar balance between Hip-Hop and Easy Listening, making this album equally suited for smoking a joint as it is to being played in a department store. And, of course, the individual cuts are great as well.

182 The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)

It seems odd looking back at the catalog of one of the most significant bands in Rock history that this was the only album they released that makes this list. There are at least five other Byrds albums that probably have better critical reputations than this, and they are very good albums, but all suffered from pretty significant flaws. What makes it all the more unusual is that this album was recorded at an uncertain point in the band’s history; personnel changes were rampant, with the only constants being Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, and session musicians were used to complete the songs. Nonetheless, this album manages to encapsulate everything that was great about the Byrds: “Goin’ Back” echoes back to their early Folk-Rock period, “Wasn’t Born to Follow” looks ahead to their Country-Rock future, and there’s plenty of psychedelic weirdness thrown in for good measure.

181 Bob Seger – Night Moves (1976)

While Bruce Springsteen has always fashioned himself as the working-class Heartland Rocker par excellence, Bob Seger is a much better choice for that distinction. He’d spent the past decade as a true working musician, putting out albums regularly, touring constantly, and getting little recognition outside of Michigan for it. His breakthrough album was the typical double-live Live Bullet, but this was his first real studio success, containing great songs that encapsulate the heartland approach without resorting to the theatrical bombast of Bruce Springsteen or the overearnestness of John Mellencamp.

180 Roy Harper – Stormcock (1971)

Roy Harper’s claim to fame among most Rock fans is as the namesake of the Led Zeppelin song “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” and as the lead vocalist on Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar”. He was always bound to be the kind of guy that was more popular among musicians than among the general public. This is certainly an unusual album in the Rock canon—only four tracks, two per side, just acoustic guitar and vocals. But the length of the songs works to their advantage, as Harper is talented enough to make them seem epic rather than overlong, and his guitar playing is intricate enough that the spare instrumentation never seems inadequate.

179 Boards of Canada – The Campfire Headphase (2005)

The critical consensus may be that Music Has the Right to Children is the best Boards of Canada album, and while that record was more influential, it had to much weirdness for the sake of weirdness to make it into the top tier. By the time The Campfire Headphase was released, the band was no longer on the cutting edge, but the more deliberate composition and integration of acoustic instruments made this the better album.

178 Donovan – A Gift from a Flower to a Garden (1967)

Donovan was by far the dippiest member of the British Folk-Rock scene (he went to India with the Beatles and actually took the whole trip seriously), so it’s no surprise that he recorded a children’s album that was more than a lazy cash-in. While the individual songs are relatively short, the album is a double, and it’s clear that he was contributing A material. The dippiness actually works to this album’s advantage, as Donovan can parlay that into a sense of whimsy rather than simply dumbing-down the music, as so many other musicians are wont to do when playing for children. The end result is a kid’s album that you wouldn’t even know is a kid’s album unless someone told you.

177 Fleetwood Mac – Tusk (1979)

Lindsey Buckingham abandons the tight pop songs that made Fleetwood Mac icons in favor of his own eccentric weirdness, which isn’t merely limited to his contributions but to the arrangements he provides to the Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie songs. And it works! The counterbalance the rest of the band provides makes this more palatable than his solo material (where he simply runs wild). The rest of the band would tell him to cut it out after this and release more conventional pop albums, but they’d never reach these heights again.

176 Big Star – No. 1 Record (1972)

This is one of those overrated critical darlings whose reputation precedes it. As much as I want to resist fellating this album the way so many critics do, I have to admit that this is a pretty near perfect collection of Power Pop songs, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

175 Heart – Dreamboat Annie (1976)

Heart has developed a reputation as a sort of female-fronted Zeppelin, and while that characterization isn’t entirely fair, what makes their early career is their Zeppelin-like ability to blend Hard Rock riffage with more contemplative acoustic material. By the time the ‘80s rolled around, commercial pressures forced them into a generic power ballad arena band, but at the beginning, they were able to craft thoughtful albums with a cohesive artistic vision.

174 Rush – Hemispheres (1978)

Most people would rate their next two albums as better than this, but for me, this is as good as Rush ever got. The title cut might be the last great sidelong suite, “Circumstances” is a solid Hard Rock cut, and the Harrison Bergeron-inspired “The Trees” doesn’t disappoint either. But the real standout here is “La Villa Strangiato”, which is the best instrumental of Rush’s career and is in the running for best Rock instrumental of all time. Rush would find a more distinctive voice in the ‘80s, but they never really topped this.

173 Bad Company – Bad Company (1974)

Bad Company’s reputation isn’t the best since they’re viewed as responsible for all the generic arena bands of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s like Journey, Foreigner, Loverboy, and, well, all the other Bad Company albums. But this is still a killer collection of songs that remains unparalleled in the genre, and that won’t change regardless of how much crap it inspired.

That's it for now. Let me know what you think!

Looks like we have similar taste / views on music.

They're a bit of an outlier on my usual listening habits. But I think King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard is the greatest band alive today. Curious if you like them?

Appreciate it. Ghosts is cool and i haven't known where to go with Donovan since I fell in love with the Sunshine Superman album. This "children's music" is solid! Trouble is, I really just want to listen to Bert's Blues again.

Can you expand on what you think is weirdness for weirdness' sake in MHtRtC? Although I love all BoC albums nearly equally, the reason I tend to put Campfire Headphase below both the first album and Geogaddi is basically yours but mirrored: it's exactly their greater amount of weirdness, not just for its own sake, but genuinely quirky, interesting weirdness, that makes those two albums the ones with the more lasting and deeper impression on me in comparison.

Second the request for more, love reading about music and being introduced to new material. The only two records I didn't know from this list (Big Star and Organized Konfusion) I liked a lot. If it's not too much work, I'd suggest adding a favorite & least favorite track mention for every album, opinions on that are always very interesting to see.

I went back and revisited MHtRtC today since it had been several years since I last listened to it and I wanted to make sure I didn't miss something the first time around. I've noticed my grading has gotten more lenient over the years and since that was like a 2014 rating there's a good chance I could have been wrong. But in retrospect, I still stand by my original evaluation. There are two essential weirdness faults. The first is that the synths are out of tune throughout most of the album. I understand the effect they're going for, but it's simply overdone. The other problem is that some of the individual quirky sounds are overdone as well. It's one thing to do something different, but electronic music is repetitive, and it's hard for something distinctive to have the same impact the 138th time you hear it. It's still a 4 1/2 star album, and I like it a lot, it's just that the weird aspects are enough of a flaw for me to keep it out of the pantheon.

If it's not too much work, I'd suggest adding a favorite & least favorite track mention for every album, opinions on that are always very interesting to see.

It's my contention that these albums are great because they stand as cohesive entities, so picking and choosing best and worst cuts isn't really in the spirit of the enterprise. A lot of these albums don't really have any cuts that would even qualify as best or worst because the quality at this level is so consistent that I'd really have to stretch to make that kind of judgment. There's also the problem that since I'm only doing this once a week and am limited to 10,000 characters I have to keep things concise if I have any expectation of getting through this list within the next year. I might get into more detailed reviews as I approach the higher numbers, but at this point I'm limiting myself to capsule reviews until I put a dent in this. That being said, if you have any specific questions about any of the albums listed or want to hear more, I'm happy to discuss these albums at further length in the comments.

Seger, Heart, Boards of Canada and Tusk instead of Rumours? Marry me. And then we need to have our first serious fight, because I can't believe you called Heart generic.

'70s Heart isn't generic. '80s Heart is. If you really want to defend Private Audition and Passionworks, go for it. And it's not necessarily Tusk instead of Rumours; there's no limit to one album per artist on this list.

Oh ok, where is Rumours on your list? Also I wouldn't put alone above crazy on you, but I would put it above barracuda, although only just. And Heart's self titled album came out in 1985 too, and it's a great album.

Giving sneak previews of the list would defeat the purpose of the slow reveal, so you'll just have to wait to see where Rumours is on the list, if it's even on it. As for Heart, whatever you think of the 1985 album, that was around the point when Capitol wrested creative control from the band, dumping Mike Flicker to bring in hot rod producers like Ron Nevison and Keith Olsen and turning to hook-for-hire songwriters to pen all of the group's singles. They were generic by design. I'm not a huge fan of generic '80s arena rock, but if you're into that sort of thing, I'm not going to criticize you for it.

And yet they remain the only multi platinum woman fronted arena rock band in existence. Whatever, enjoy Rumours.

I'm not sure I see your point. Yeah, they had commercial success, but I don't see what record sales have to do with anything. At a time when they were fading into irrelevance studio execs parlayed their credibility to give them a second life, but part of the process was stripping away what had made them distinctive in the past. I really don't see how they're any different from Jefferson Starship/Starship of this period. Both had Ron Nevinson and Keith Olsen giving them the same slick sound, both had Diane Warren writing hits for them, both bore little to no resemblance, music-wise, to their earlier incarnations that gave them artistic credibility. Heart could have easily had a hit with "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" that wouldn't have been radically different than the Starship version. This is part of what I find so frustrating about what happened to classic artists in the '80s—in a bid to stay relevant, they all succumbed to trends and abandoned what made them distinctive in the first place. It's one thing when the band reaches that point organically, like Genesis did, but it's another when a deliberate effort is made to reduce the band itself to nothing more than frontmen (or women) for the machinations of record executives. This says nothing about whether the resulting product is actually good or not, but merely why I described them as generic (and if they're not, what would be generic arena rock, exactly?). And what's your problem with Rumours?

That's it for now. Let me know what you think!

Well, it's a hobby I guess, like say, collecting beetles, or building 10000 SPM bases in Factorio. We all need one, I'm told.

Apart from the tone and content reminding of the infamous music scene in American Psycho[1], I confess I don't really get 'rating' albums. Most music is .. just bad.

Even music from my favorite musicians is just .. kinda meh. Also, while looking up some music I discovered Arvo Pärt, one of my favorite composers isn't Finnish, but Estonian. TIL.

The most extreme case ever was Pixies. I liked 'Where is My Mind', downloaded what looked like the entire discography, tried listening to it and then deleted all of it.

[1]: this is the superior Tom Cruise version benefitting from the Tom Cruise bonus. He was apparently an inspiration for the actor for the role of Bateman.

The point of the music scene in American Psycho wasn't so much to demonstrate that Bateman was a music junkie as it was to demonstrate that his opinions on music reflected the yuppie popular consensus almost exactly. To Bateman, Genesis didn't become worth listening to until their position on the popular radar was enhanced by the more radio-friendly sound they developed in the 1980s (as opposed to the '70s, when they were a Progressive Rock band). He recognizes that Phil Collins's solo material is more commercial, and he admits that he finds it more appealing, but in a limited way. Well, what else is he supposed to think about it? After all, pop music is designed for mass appeal, but astute adults aren't fooled into thinking that this crass commercialization represents sophisticated artistic expression. Phil Collins initially launched his solo career because he had written a number of personal songs about his divorce, and didn't feel they were appropriate for a Genesis record. But his solo career soon turned into a commercial force that ultimately became bigger than the group, and the introspective songs were replaced by material that Collins felt was too commercial for Genesis, before it became his primary focus and led to the band's ultimate demise. But Bateman doesn't think this way; a musician's best records are those that are the most popular, at least the most popular among his peers. There's a scene in the book where he's dating a woman who likes Rap, and he proceeds to buy every Rap album available at his local record store before telling her he doesn't see the appeal. He likes thinking of himself as a person who cares about music enough that he's not going to cast judgment on anything before giving it a fair shake (or, in this case, an unreasonably fair shake), but he's enough of a conformist that his ultimate judgments aren't going to cut against the consensus of his peers. His peers don't listen to Rap, it's not marketed to them, so there's no reason for him to listen to it. That being said, I didn't think the movie or the book were all that great, so don't read this analysis as an endorsement or anything.

That's the point - he was as much of a music junkie as he was a normal person. A shallow facsimile.

Anything that looks like reviewing art acts like a fnord on me.

As such, reading your post just made me recall the scene - it's the only thing in my memory related to it-

I think you're kind of missing the point. Most people who are really into music have tastes that are at least somewhat offbeat—they're into groups that aren't mainstream and have no problem goring sacred cows, whether critical or commercial, and usually have strong disagreements with their peers on at least a few points. Bateman may or may not be a music junkie, but that's beside the point. From what we know about him, his critical ability is limited to what he reads in Entertainment Weekly. He doesn't have opinions so much as canned justifications for why he likes the same music everyone else likes.

The most extreme case ever was Pixies. I liked 'Where is My Mind', downloaded what looked like the entire discography, tried listening to it and then deleted all of it.

I enjoy Pixies, but 'Where is My Mind' is exactly one of the songs I skip.

I'm wondering if we'll ever find out why preferences differ this much. E.g. most of what my sisters listened to in adolescence (a lot of punk and.. ska? ) sounded like complete trash to me.

Is it an effect of culture and exposure, or is there a neurological reason ?

Well, they're all coming. Eventually.


For completeness' sake, here are the criteria for the remaining ratings in the system:

****½ Records that would be 5-star albums but for one or two serious and unavoidable flaws. This category also includes records that have no major flaw but that either don’t gel when taken as a whole or that lack the kind of transcendent material necessary to achieve a 5-star rating.

**** An “average great album”. These records may have serious flaws that are outweighed by an abundance of good to excellent material and can be recommended without hesitation. These records don’t represent significant milestones in the history of rock music, but are solid albums that go beyond what could normally be considered routine.

***½ Records that have one or two great-to-excellent cuts but are dominated by material that isn’t quite up to standard, though often coming close. Can also be used for records that would receive a higher rating but contain material that is unforgivable. A routine album from a band that normally puts out great music, and a minor highlight from a band that normally puts out pedestrian music.

*** Above-average. These are essentially 3½-star albums that don’t contain any great-to excellent cuts. Sometimes the underlying approach is interesting enough but the songwriting just isn’t there. Other times the filler crowds out the more considered material. Overall these are worth hearing, as long as one keeps their expectations in check.

**½ Represents the Platonic ideal of an “average” record – one or two decent but not great tracks surrounded by mediocre filler. In practice these are often albums that have 3-star songwriting but without a 3-star approach. This is the point where casual fans of a group will usually get off the train.

** This is where mediocrity has come to not only dominate the record but to completely overwhelm it. The material is not exactly bad, per se, simply boring and uninspired.

*½ A distinction is in order here – mediocre means that while the material isn’t exactly good, it’s still at least listenable, the kind of thing that could play in the background without incident even if you’d never want to listen to it closely. Bad material is actually offensive to the ears, making you want to turn it off. These records are mediocre at best and bad at worst.

  •   Albums that should never have been released. Either unlistenable failed experiments that while bad aren’t entirely without interest, or records where the bad material starts to drown out the merely mediocre.

½ Albums that never should have been recorded. Unlistenable in their entirety, these albums nevertheless have some small silver lining that saves them from the lowest category.

0 Reserved for the very rare album that manages to offend from the opening cut to the last. It can’t be overstated how bad a record has to be to land here.

I included this description because I want to make it clear that just because I ranked an album toward the bottom of this list, or indeed, because I did not rank it near the top of this list, does not mean that the album is deficient in some way. Any record rates a half-star higher on a good day and a half-star lower on a bad day. As such, while to some extent these albums naturally seemed to fall into tiers, it isn’t always obvious that Record X is necessarily better than Record Y, and one’s opinion is always going to be dependent on his own subjective judgment. Furthermore, rating albums using the rubric established above is difficult enough, but it is relatively easy compared with sorting them sequentially based on quality. For an album to rate 5 stars it only has to be free of major flaws. To rate high on a list like this, though, there is an essential conflict between historical relevance and enjoyability—it’s one thing to recognize an album’s greatness in an abstract sense, another to actually want to listen to it regularly. This becomes problematic when one has to make the decision whether to rank a personal favorite higher than an established part of the canon. The point of all this is that compiling a list like this is a highly subjective process. Any album on it could get a ranking of forty places higher or lower depending on whether it’s a good day or a bad day. People are bound to complain that a dozen of their favorite recordings are omitted from the top ten. To that I have to say: Make your own list; I’d love to see it.

I'm not much of a music head, but I do watch and review a lot of movies and was struck at how neatly your 5 star rubric matches to mine for movies, like almost to a T. Even the 4.5/5 star distinction where a 4.5 star is basically perfect, but to get that last little mmph it needs to move me in some way, or change me. Transcendent, yes!

Do you have some examples of 0 stars? I would enjoy seeing those

I was going to include the zero star albums as a separate "Bonus Feature" one of these weeks, but since you asked:

The first broad category is experimental garbage by minor artists who seem to specialize in experimental garbage. Daniel Higgs manages two enteries in this category; Magic Alphabet is 42 minutes of him fooling around with a Jew's Harp, and Say God is a weird quasi-religious mess where he plays harmonium and does that sing-songy chanting that priests sometimes do. Also in this category are Eric Copeland's Strange Days, which sounds like a mashup of random snippets taped off the radio unartfully combined, and The Messy Jessy Fiesta by Blectum from Blechdom, an Indie Electronic duo who obviously don't have any musical training and have the musical sophistication of a 13 year-old fooling around with a cheap keyboard.

Moving into slightly more mainstream territory, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone's debut album Answering Machine Music is a bunch of generic emo songs set to a programmed Casio keyboard and other cheap instruments. The Moldy Peaches are best known for the annoying song that appears at the end of the movie Juno and their lone album (which contains the song) is similar crap that sounds like teenage poetry set to simple melodies and recorded in the cheapest way possible, on purpose. And of course there's Lou Reed's classic Metal Machine Music, the first entry we have by a mainstream musician, except that the four sides of guitar feedback were recorded as an intentional Fuck You to his record company so there's an asterisk here.

Moving on to albums by mainstream musicians that were intended to actually be good. First we have Rod Stewart's 1984 album Camouflage, which includes "Some Guys Have All the Luck", easily his worst single, and the rest of the album is even worse, just a gloss of bad '80s production over unmelodic crap. Jeff Beck's 1985 album Flash is something of a twin to this (Stewart sang on an awful cover of "People Get Ready" and Beck played guitar on some cuts from Camouflage) and is bad for all the same reasons. The Beach Boys 1992 album Summer in Paradise is nothing more than a Mike Love cash-in that sounds like it was recorded entirely with 1992-era Pro Tools presets. Finally, there's Queen's soundtrack to Flash Gordon which is incredibly kitschy and, to my recollection, is mostly dialogue from the movie. It should be mentioned that, apart from Flash Gordon, all of these mainstream records include terrible covers, proving that songwriting isn't the only problem here. In addition to the version of "People Get Ready" from Flash, Stewart's Camouflage contains a cover of "All Right Now", and Summer in Paradise has an awful cover of "Hot Fun in the Summertime". To put an exclamation point on this, Jeff Beck released a zero star single around the same time, a cover of "Wild Thing" that's worse than anything on either his or Stewart's record. It also gets bonus points for having the worst picture sleeve in the history of music, a photograph of what appears to be a clown from an S&M club.

This is cool. Do you have any folk music recommendations? I've been hooked on Dave Van Ronk for the last six months and have gone through just about everything he's put out. Are there any folk albums in the DVR vein that you like?

Unfortunately, folk is one of my blind spots and any recommendation I could give you would probably just be stating the obvious. That being said, the Roy Harper album on this list might fit the bill, though he's not exactly in the same vein as DVR as Harper is British and progressive whereas DVR is American and traditional. Still worth checking out, though.