N.B. For me, numbers ten through six can change hourly, daily, moving as far up as spot five or four. Also, I try to limit this list to one album per artist. Blood on the Tracks was actually Time out of Mind until the last minute. I’ve never really ranked Born to Run ahead of Darkness on the Edge of Town (or, for a few years, Lucky Town), until now. Earlier this year, Tommy Cutter made a Bob Dylan mash-up for me that re-demonstrated that thinking of any of this as anything more than a sketch is to live life a notch or two below maximum. And I’m not interested in that.
6. – 10.
Ike Reilly Assassination, We Belong to the Staggering Evening
Marah, If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry
Wilco, Being There
The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
Todd Snider, East Nashville Skyline
5. Pulp, Different Class
I was OK with American music in the early- and mid-90s, but I missed most of it because I so loved what was going on in the UK. Blur was fantastic, but Pulp were the ones that truly shook me. For me, they define the era.
Look, I’m a lyrics guy. And Jarvis Cocker doesn’t really write songs so much as short stories. Short, cathartic, romantic, dirty, anthemic stories about the best and worst days of your life. The love, the lust, the pursuit, the hangover. With soaring melodies and waves & waves of build-up. I dare you not to climb on top of the couch with a molotov cocktail, to jump off the highest diving board, to pass on the wrong side of the road. On your bicycle. Pulp songs always pay off.
The great American rock band Marah has a song called “Why Independent Record Stores Fail” and it includes this lyric: “I ain’t too good at saying things, but I can tape you certain songs.” And that’s the truth. In 1995, I drove across the state to put a copy of this album underneath a girl’s windshield wiper. Don’t you love it when a song sounds like it’s a true story from your life? “Disco 2000″ on Different Class was like that. And continued to be.
Songs about longing, about not getting the girl—bummer songs—they’re just the best. That was the feeling I hated—and loved—more than any other. A girl breaking your heart…I mean, as a person in an “artistic” discipline or whatever, there’s nothing better for creativity than getting your heart broken, having your hopes dashed and shattered. I still go back and tap into those feelings. And realistically, I could use more of them. Seriously. Readers, break my heart. I’m begging you. Please.
(By the way, that girl and I played this album at our wedding many years later.)
4. Tim Rogers, What Rhymes with Cars & Girls
Tim Rogers’ day job—Australian rock band You Am I—is on most nights the world’s greatest rock band. At the band’s heart is Tim’s passion and redline approach to the live performance, and the songs. When I first heard it, What Rhymes was as close as I’d ever seen to a musical eclipse; the perfect alignment of everything I liked about music, all in one place. All the things I think are right (or wrong) about great songs were more right (or more wrong) on this album. That, and lyrics for miles. (“I was doing all those things which I used to hate the worst, I was listenin’ to Joni Mitchell and I was a-tuckin’ in my shirt.” “She said she came down from a north-west town in a ’63 Holden EJ, with potato from Kentucky and a fresh pack of Luckys and a Bowie compilation tape. She told me a real good story, never let the truth get in the way, and that’s the reason I’m still standing here today.” “Take me out and get me well, well-shickered, for all the promises I never delivered, take me out, take me out…”)
Plus, You Am I. OMG YAI !! The rock band that finally took the hook-laden, power-pop, anthemic, last, best weekend (of this week) crown from Pulp.
A few years ago, Tim came to town. It’s a long story, for another Dial post; one about how a long-limbed Moxie drinker from Sydney Australia can kick over a domino with his pointed shoes & checkered pants and dance to “I Will Dare” while throwing magic dust in the air and remind you that every day—every day—you’re creating your legacy.
3. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
As he has done for countless others, Bob Dylan redefined everything I thought possible with art, with writing, with creativity. I read a quote about Bob once, it said, “Instead of burning the candle at both ends, why not take a blowtorch to the middle?” and that pretty much precisely captured the way Dylan’s music made me feel.
I could have picked any album and we’d have been just fine. This is the breakup record, though. I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Tangled up in Blue” in the basement of our apartment at 515 East 14th Street in Bloomington, Indiana. You see, the girl who is #1 on my Top Five Girls Who Didn’t End Up My Wife list and I had recently broken up; she was a redhead. The song’s lyrics, well, “Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal…” If you know the song, you know the song.
I fell in love with Bob’s music and his live shows in the mid-90s, and it was a great time to do so. My best friends and I went to see 40 or so concerts during this time, and those memories and stories were a life’s riches. Bob’s refusal to stay the same—and his commitment to reinvention—inspires me to this day. (We put a big “He not busy being born is busy dying” sign on the wall when OLG opened its office space.) Every show was different, every performance representing the latest final version of the song. Well, until tomorrow. What a band. And that guy playing the pedal steel, there? His name’s Bucky Baxter. When he left Bob’s band, I bought a guitar from him…
2. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
Around my place, it pretty much all starts and ends with “Thunder Road.” The song has got it all, really. Romance. Idealism. Youth. The belief that you don’t have to do things the way they’ve been done before.
For me, seeing Bruce Springsteen in 1992, hearing this song for the first time…it captured the magic, the majesty, the ministry of rock & roll in such a perfect way, that I’ve spent most of my life since then chasing that sound, that courage, that conviction. That optimism and belief in…believing. I was a freshman in college, and changed my major the very night of that concert. To this day, I probably make a bigger deal out of the anniversary of that show than I do my own birthday.
Last year, I saw a documentary about the making of Born to Run‘s follow-up, Darkness on the Edge of Town. In it, Bruce said, “More than famous, more than rich, more than happy…I wanted to be great.” You could always feel this in his music, and these words spoke to my soul.
I’ve been carrying around this black velvet painting of the man ever since the summer of ’93, and a week won’t go by where I don’t give it a wink, and facing a difficult decision, ask myself what Bruce might do. (It’s worked so far.)
1. Grandpaboy, Mono
Show of hands, who has a text document on their computer’s desktop that lists the songs and albums to play at your funeral? I like you people, I really do.
Grandpaboy is Paul Westerberg (who used to have a band called The Replacements). Grandpaboy is an alias, a nom-de-sloppy-rock that gave Paul an outlet for the garage-y, shambolic, cocksure, blisteringly beauteous rock & roll mayhem that he would create as something of an alternate reality to his (somewhat) more mature solo records.
This album arrived in early 2002 when I really couldn’t use anything more in my life than a new Westerberg record. Those were not happy days, not for any of us. Half a spin in, the album was immediately everything I’d ever hoped or wanted it to be. It’s tear-off-the-steering-wheel, lose-your-voice-hollering-along music.
Mono—recorded in mono, and the rabble-rousing brother to the simultaneously released proper Westerberg album, Stereo (S&M!)—arrived with all kinds of theories that it was actually a re-formed version of The Replacements, all playing under various names: Elrod Puce. Zeke Pine. Henry Twiddle. Luther Covington. Grandpa Boy. There were rumors they were going to do the un-played dates and cities on “The Winter Dance Party” tour that had ended in the small plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. (Of course, it turned out all instruments were played by PW, in his basement, with the sound of his mind slowly unraveling.) I loved all the mystery; the sparseness of the packaging, the mythology, and the songs—the songs, the songs, the songs.
Songs like “Eyes Like Sparks”…which is maybe the most perfectly written song. Look, I was an English Lit major. I love lyrics. I love the quintessentially American, cinematic novella that is “Thunder Road” and I love Dylan’s wild imagination, painting the corners of the mind, pondering the great questions. But it doesn’t have to be so academic, so serious. I mean what I love about music…what I’ve learned, more and more…the thing you can do with pure, simplified passion, and a great riff, is like a key that can open any door. This is one of my all-time favorite songs, with maybe the best lyrics ever. Every word, the truth. It’s just about…butterflies, I guess. Attraction. Things you can’t, or shouldn’t, do. In case you don’t track it down, the lyrics are:
“Just stay where you are;
baby, stay away from me
with your eyes like sparks,
and my heart like gasoline.”
(Yes, that’s all of it, repeated about a hundred times.)
Truth time: A couple of years ago, PW put out a thing called 49:00 which is even better than this one—everything you could ever love about the burn-in-your-veins greatness of rock & roll in one funny, sneering, frustrating, ridiculously creative, sadly beautiful single 40+-minute track. One that sounds like a hundred hoarse, out-of-tune, hit singles.
But, you see, I’m still gonna stay with Mono. Because it was like a rocket that shot through my life at an incredibly pivotal time, and never stopped shooting. That, and because I have it tattooed on my skin, and in my blood.