Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My Top Twenty Albums Of All Time: 10-1

10. Black Sabbath - Heaven & Hell (Previous Rank: 10)

 Ronnie James Dio is rightfully legendary, and while his work with Rainbow and Dio both contain transcendent moments, his best album is this one, where he showed that Black Sabbath was so much more than they were with Ozzy. In these forty minutes, Black Sabbath redefined who they were by writing songs that were more reflective of the skills they possessed. The band and Dio brought out the best in each other, and songs like "Neon Knights", "Children Of The Sea", and "Die Young" are gripping pieces of metal that I have often considered the greatest metal album ever made. That has changed, but "Heaven & Hell" is the highlight of these legends' careers.

9. Matchbox Twenty - Mad Season (Previous Rank: 6)
 Having grown up listening to pop music, I still have a huge soft spot for when it's done well. "Mad Season" is a jukebox of all the ways that can be done. We get the dark rock song in "Bent", the sickly sweet ballad "If You're Gone", and the buoyant "Crutch". The album mines every vein of pop, making a grab-bag of sounds that could have been a disaster, if not for the songwriting prowess that holds it all together. From the aptly-titled "Angry", to the ornate beauty of "Leave", this album is, by virtue of when it came out, almost an obituary for the style of pop music I grew up listening to.

8. Avantasia - The Metal Opera Pt II (Previous Rank: 8)
I can't always explain why certain albums work hit me more than others. For instance, I seem to be the only person who believes this is better than the first installment of "The Metal Opera". While that one was good, it was too generic. This album saw that all change, as Tobias Sammet embraced his inner Meat Loaf for the first time, and made a true metal opera. It's gigantic, swaggering, cheesy for sure, and a riot to listen to. Tobi has long been one of metal's best songwriters, and despite the slightly underdone production here and there, this is his most accomplished set of songs.

7. Bruce Dickinson - The Chemical Wedding (Previous Rank: 9)
 The greatest metal album of all time? My answer is a resounding yes. Few will agree with me, but Bruce Dickinson managed to do the impossible by making a trilogy of solo records better than anything Iron Maiden has ever done (which I say as someone who is an Iron Maiden fan). This is the best of that trilogy, and it's a stunning work of genius that never ceases to amaze me. Without devolving into eight-string madness, Bruce and his band have made one of the most aurally and intellectually heavy metal albums ever. The sound is a growling, chugging metal machine, and Bruce soars above it all with his dramatic take on the life and work of William Blake. Few could have imagined such a record, and no one else can top it. It is criminal that this record is only legendary in the underground.

6. Tonic - Sugar (Previous Rank: 7)
 Much like "Mad Season", mentioned earlier, "Sugar" is a songbook masquerading as an album. The set of songs is not a common thread, but instead is Tonic exploring all the avenues they had in front of them following their platinum success. There's hard-driving rock, shimmering pop, and one massive hit in the form of "You Wanted More". In many ways, "Sugar" is the definitive Tonic record, because it's the one that shows all of the band's influences and capabilities. They try on different guises, and they all work, because Emerson Hart is a masterful songwriter. The diversity of the record is its strength, giving you a different experience every four minutes.

5. Elvis Costello - King Of America (Previous Rank: 5)
 No album has taught me more over the years about the art of songwriting than "King Of America" has. It is a masterclass taught by Elvis Costello, as he has stripped down his songs to the bare bones, often just his acoustic guitar and ghostly band members barely percolating above the background silence. But in those songs, Elvis shows that it isn't production or layered band arrangements that make songs work. The song itself needs to be built on a foundation of steel. That is what these songs are, portraits of America that need no adornment to be powerful, no lush orchestras to be beautiful. It's the simplicity of a man and a guitar that makes this album work. It also contains one of my favorites quips from a song, "she said that she was working for the ABC News, it was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use." No one could twist a knife quite like Elvis.

4. Dilana - Beautiful Monster (Previous Rank: 4)
It's easy to become jaded and think that you've heard everything there is to offer, that no new music can ever stand up to the memories you already have. And then something comes along to blow up the wall you've put up around yourself. That's what Dilana did with this album, a piece of music I spent many words originally trying to convey my thoughts on. I was a jaded critic, and still am, but a record like this is able to pierce through that facade and hit me somewhere deeper. This is as raw and emotional an album as I've ever heard, one where Dilana's peerless voice is able to make you feel each and every word she sings. It is a somber affair, yes, but it is a catharsis that is necessary. Music like this makes it possible to clear out the junk, and make room for honesty.

3. The Wallflowers - (Breach) (Previous Rank: 3)
Everyone remembers "Bringing Down The Horse", but few ever even heard the record that followed it up, which is a shame, because it's better in every way. Jakob Dylan came into his own on this album, writing the kind of American rock and roll that Tom Petty preached, and that his father's electric excursion could not have produced. While "Mourning Train" is a somber procession (in the best way), the meat of the album are muscular rock tracks that wind guitars and keyboards together in tight little knots of intricacy. There's always something going on in the background, while Dylan delivers his finest poetry. "Letters From The Wasteland" and "Sleepwalker" are muscular tracks that show power can take forms other than heaviness. Dylan's melodies are relentlessly catchy, and he delivers one of the finest lines I've ever heard in a song when he sings, "I can't fix something this complex any more than I can build a rose." That's how I feel about the record.

2. Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell II (Previous Rank: 2)
Few record have the power to transport me to another place. The second, and best, installment of the Bat series is one of them. This is two men at the height of their powers, putting it all on the table, because there was no telling if they would ever get a shot. I don't know if any record has ever been more bombastic, more overwrought, and more dramatic. Jim Steinman is a hero of mine, and this album is the main reason why. No one else could have written these songs, and no one but Meat Loaf could have sung them. It was a moment in time where everything came together, and every time I listen to these songs, I'm transported back to when I first fell in love with music. It was because of this record, and it still holds up as a mad genius' most ostentatious display.

1. Tonic - Lemon Parade (Previous Rank: 1)

But my favorite album of all time is "Lemon Parade", for two separate but intertwined reasons. The first is that it is a truly amazing record. This might have been a debut album, but it is a lived-in classic rock record that could have come from the late 70s without missing a beat. It had all of Emerson Hart's trademark songcraft, but wrapped up in a package that was more powerful, heavier, and rock oriented. The other reason is that, in addition to the songs themselves, "Lemon Parade" is the album that I've been chasing. As a musician myself, we all have influences we try to live up to. "Lemon Parade" is the album I wish I could make. Not only did "If You Could Only See" lead me to pick up my first instrument, but it and this record remain the blueprint for everything I have tried to do with it. Any record that leaves that kind of impact on me has to be my favorite album of all time. That is "Lemon Parade".

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