Some science suggests that age plays a significant role in what we determine to be our favorite music. This recent NYT piece summarizes it nicely.
My Top Rock Album
For me, the greatest (and my favorite) rock album is Who’s Next by The Who. This selection more or less jibes with the article’s thesis. It’s one of the first albums I remember vividly as a teen. I first heard “Baba O’Riley” in Sam Goody mall on a pair of Acoustic Research 3as. This was in a sound room with a sliding door and a couch. I was too young to understand the concept of “teenage wasteland” but old enough to appreciate the interplay between the band. Hearing this for the first time was fantastic.
What Makes It Great
- Timeless Core Songs – Most of these were worked out and rehearsed before recording through the whole “Lifehouse” disaster. As a result, each song is full of nuances and interplay that only comes from taking them on the road and working out the pieces before they are recorded. For “Getting in Tune” to be the sixth-best song, well, that says something about the quality of the material. There is a Deluxe Edition reissue that has some earlier versions of the songs, and you will see what a difference rehearsing them in front of an audience has!
- Lyrics – Pete Townshend captures teen angst and spiritual aspiration better than anyone. These lyrics are all great. Also, his use of the “confessional middle eight,” as in “I sit looking around, I look at my face in the mirror…” when delivered by Pete after Roger’s wailing vocals, is unique to the Who. No other rock band used two singers quite that way – except maybe the Beatles. The way the Who does it with Pete’s tenor conveys emotion.
- Great Performances – Arguably, this is the Who at their combined best, and all were virtuosos with their instruments. Quadrophenia has equally great playing and singing, but the production by Glyn Johns is superior here and makes everything easy to hear. With the more energetic songs all well-rehearsed, it sharpens all the performances. I also love Nicky Hopkins’s piano contributions on “The Song is Over” and “Getting in Tune.” He’s a much better pianist than Pete. If you listen to the Deluxe Edition, a version of Getting in Tune is made clear.
- Use of New Sounds – The ARP synthesizer for “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” were way out in front of anything their contemporaries were doing at the time. New sounds. I love how the album opens with this weird, fresh, and utterly musical synthesizer on “Baba..” Then there is Pete’s fantastic guitar solo on “Goin’ Mobile” – through an envelope filter – what a sound!
- Not as Overplayed as Other Classics. Except for “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – which I can’t listen to anymore – most of Who’s Next is not as overplayed as other classic rock and can still be enjoyed.
The Other Four
As for the other four greatest “rock” albums, this is a fool’s errand because the most significant rock acts of all time have several outstanding records with a gnat’s eyebrow of difference between them. All of them are essential.
Let’s face it; any “greatest rock” list must include The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan. But can one choose between “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” and “Abbey Road?” How about “Let it Bleed,” “Sticky Fingers,” and “Exile on Main Street?” Then there is “Led Zeppelin 1 or 2,” “Led Zeppelin (the 4th),” and “Physical Graffiti?” All of these are rock and roll at their finest. Finally, what about “Blood on the Tracks,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” or “Blond on Blond?” Do you want to choose just one of those from any of those artists?
So those bands and records are excluded. The other exclusions are those records that do not rock. Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” and Carole King’s “Tapestry” are great music, no doubt. But rock? Hardly.
Therefore the only addition I can make to Who’s Next would be The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East. The most excellent live album ever! The closest second, ironically, is The Who – Live at Leeds. Both are great, but Fillmore East has stood the test of time in several ways that make it unique.
What Makes Fillmore East Great
- Breakthrough record for ABB – This record put the southern rockers on the map way outselling their two studio albums. It was straight up for them from here with growing sales for “Eat a Peach” and “Brothers and Sisters,” paving the way for a career that spanned over fifty years.
- Duane Allman – Duane Allman died tragically soon after these concerts. He is still a guitar icon. The slide guitar that opens the album sounds like nothing ever heard before or since. These Fillmore songs are some of his most beautiful moments, alongside “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes and “Hey Jude” by Wilson Pickett.
- Richer Improvisions – Long full-album-side improvisations with extended meandering solos were not new (Cream’s “Wheels of Fire” and elsewhere). On Fillmore, the overall musicality elevated to another level on this album. Live at Fillmore East was rock-sounding like jazz but still solidly in the blues tradition. The soloists were as brilliant as Coltrane. Subsequent, more extended versions of the “Fillmore Concerts” reveal these songs were the choicest tracks recorded during a heroic stand at a legendary venue. Sure, there was the Grateful Dead, but they had only one lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia. Dicky Betts complimented Duane in a way the Dead never touched.
- The Sound – Tom Dowd is arguably one of the finest record producers ever. He was a genius who worked on the Manhattan Project. Never has an audience been so deftly integrated into a performance in the way this record did. A live album never sounded so good. “Play all night!”