Monday, February 13, 2012

Perfect Records

There are some records that are simply perfect...those that combine a great song, an amazing performance, outstanding musicianship, and superb, complementary production techniques. Of course, someone might be able to digitally enhance one of these records to bring their sound up to modern standards, but otherwise, a perfect record can stand on its own through repeated listenings.

So, as I got to thinking about it, I came up with a list of what I consider to be perfect records. It has taken me months to finish, so I hope you enjoy it. Some are more "classic" and/or well-known than others, and some were originally recommended to me by Alex. Because they are "perfect" and cannot be ranked, I will list them alphabetically:
  • All For You: Written and performed by Sister Hazel from the album "...Somewhere More Familiar." Produced by Paul Ebersold, 1994.
    Although not purely a one-hit wonder, Sister Hazel has never duplicated the artistic or commercial success it had with this album or this song. However, from the first acoustic guitar strums to the final note, this is an eminently listenable and singable record. Combining toe-tapping music with excellent vocal harmony, it represents the best of pop music.

  • At Last: Performed by Etta James from the album "At Last!" Written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren and produced by Phil and Leonard Chess, 1960.
    Although the song has since been performed at countless weddings, what made this record so outstanding is the pain and irony expressed by Etta James, who died recently and whose life was marked by tragedy and drug addiction. The record begins with sad, haunting violins from which James's voice slides into her signature phrase. But indeed, her loneliness was not over, and her life was like a very sad song. What makes this record so appealing is the dichotomy between the happy lyrics and the sadness with which they are sung.

  • At Seventeen: Written and performed by Janis Ian from the album "Between the Lines." Produced by Brooks Arthur, 1975.
    Wow! If you are not affected by this song, you must have been a real jerk in high school. No lyrics have ever better conveyed the pain and angst of teenage unpopularity, and Ian's understated performance demonstrated the resolution which so often underlies these feelings. "To those of us who knew the pain of valentines that never came and those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball," I offer this masterpiece.

  • Avenging Annie: Written and performed by Andy Pratt from the album "Andy Pratt." Produced by John Nagy, 1973.
    A native of Cambridge, MA, Pratt has been recording since 1969, but this was the only record that could even slightly be considered a hit. He sung the song in falsetto as a female, Western outlaw, but what makes this record so outstanding is that it is one of the best piano-rock songs ever, and one that builds from a quiet beginning to a raucous conclusion.

  • Baba O'Reilly: Performed by The Who from the album "Who's Next." Written by Pete Townshend and produced by The Who and Glyn Johns, 1971.
    From Townshend's synthesized opening to the drum/violin ending, this record is often mistakenly called "Teenage Wasteland," because of the importance of that phrase in the song. Originally devised for a rock opera that was to follow "Tommy," this record combines everything that made The Who such a great band, including flawless production and Roger Daltrey's soaring vocals.

  • Bat Out of Hell: Performed by Meat Loaf from the album "Bat Out of Hell." Written by Jim Steinman and produced by Todd Rundgren, 1977.
    The opening song to one of the most inventive and ground-breaking albums ever, this record starts with an instrumental assault that features Roy Bittan on keyboards and Todd Rundgren on guitar, and continues for almost two minutes until Meat Loaf chimes in with "The sirens are screaming and the fires are howling way down in the valley tonight." While "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" is played more often, this is a more musically complex and involving record, and it highlights the amazing collaboration of Steinman, Rundgren, and Meat Loaf.

  • Bridge Over Troubled Water: Performed by Simon and Garfunkel from the album "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Written by Paul Simon, and produced by Roy Halee, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel, 1970.
    Although Paul Simon was the creative genius, this song featured the amazing vocals of Art Garfunkel and, to this day, is the best thing he's ever done. The lyrics are a perfect ode to friendship, and I still get shivers every time I hear Garfunkel sing the final, "Like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind." Also, the decision to use a full orchestra instead of their usual acoustic guitars added a certain haunting tension to the song that foreshadowed the duo's impending breakup.

  • Bring Me To Life: Performed by Evanescence from the album "Fallen." Written by Amy Lee, Ben Moody, and David Hodges and produced by Dave Fortman, 2003.
    Already a modern rock standard by a group that's experienced its share of turmoil, this record starts with a tender piano solo followed by Amy Lee's beautiful voice, a bass undertone, and a driving beat before eventually erupting into a full-blown goth-rock opus. If you were to separate Lee's singing track from the instrumentation, it would almost sound like a ballad, but when laid over heavy metal guitars and death-metal backing vocals, it creates a richness rarely matched in hard rock recordings.

  • Carey: Written, performed, and produced by Joni Mitchell from the album "Blue," 1971.
    There are very few better or more influential albums than Joni Mitchell's "Blue," and this song, about a chef she met in Crete, simultaneously shows off her playful and serious sides. From the opening strums of an Appalachian dulcimer and featuring Mitchell's fluttery singing style, this record includes backing performances by Stephen Stills and Russ Kunkel, Throughout the song, Mitchell's descriptive lyrics make you feel like you're right there, wandering through the streets of Matala with her.

  • Celluloid Heroes: Performed by The Kinks from the album "Everybody's in Show-Biz." Written and produced by Ray Davies, 1972.
    Very few records take their time, gently creating their magic as well as the 6½-minute classic, "Celluloid Heroes." Starting with a fade-in acoustic guitar solo followed by Ray Davies's melodic voice, it tells the tale of walking along Hollywood Boulevard and stepping over various stars, each with his or her own story--"people who lived and suffered and struggled for fame." As the record progresses and builds in both volume and tempo, we learn about Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino, Bela Lugosi, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, George Sanders, and Mickey Rooney. Then it slows to a lovely ending, reminding us that "celluloid heroes never really die." Being a fan of both music and movies, I love this record.

  • Chimes of Freedom: Written and performed by Bob Dylan from the album, "Another Side of Bob Dylan." Produced by Tom Wilson, 1964.
    Long before Dylan discovered electric guitars or The Band, there was a brilliant, folk songsmith with a solo acoustic guitar and a harmonica. That's the Bob Dylan showcased in this record, which combines the yearning vocals of a lonely troubadour with timeless, important lyrics. "Tolling for the deaf and blind, tolling for the mute, for the mistreated mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute, or the misdemeanored outlaw chained and cheated by pursuit, and we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing."

  • The Christians And The Pagans: Written and performed by Dar Williams from the album "Mortal City." Produced by Steven Miller, 1996.
    This song tells the story of two people who celebrate Solstice and are visiting with Christian relatives who don't understand their Pagan beliefs. Such a topic might create a very stressful situation, but Dar Williams tweaks out the playfulness that rightfully comes when family bonds trump any religious differences, and the characters end up "finding peace and common ground the best that they are able." The underlying acoustic guitar does not interfere with the story or the message, which comprise the beauty of this record.

  • Copernicus: Performed by Basia from the album "London Warsaw New York." Written and produced by Basia Trzetrzelewska and Danny White, 1989.
    In the late 80s, Polish singer Basia had two albums that combined jazz and pop in a way that most of us had rarely heard. But "Copernicus" was unlike anything she (or most others) had ever done. With an extremely uptempo beat that made the lyrics sound condensed, she and her recording partner, Danny White, used a variety of instruments to create a completely enveloping record that gets better with subsequent listenings.

  • Crazy: Performed by Seal from the album "Seal." Written by Seal and Guy Sigsworth and produced by Trevor Horn, 1990.
    Long before Seal was a household name and before his much-publicized marriage to and breakup from Heidi Klum, he was an unknown British singer of Nigerian and Brazilian background who released this record featuring synthesized drumbeats and swirls to simulate flying, thus supporting the lyric, "In a world full of people, only some want to fly...isn't that crazy?" One of the things I love about this song is its relentless builds and falls that enhance the lyrical images.

  • Crying: Performed by Roy Orbison and originally released as a single. Written by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson with no production credit, 1961.
    Although the sound on this record is noticeably low-fi, it builds from a solemn beginning to Roy Orbison's amazing, multi-octave ending. Throughout the song, you can hear Orbison almost wailing into the microphone as he tells the story of a painful breakup that left him "standing all alone and crying." In the history of musical recordings, there have been very few more effective and affecting vocal performances.

  • A Day In The Life: Performed by The Beatles from the album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and produced by George Martin, 1967.
    This is one of the few records that owes as much to its producer as it does to the artists who recorded it. Different parts of the song were written by Lennon and McCartney, but it was George Martin who weaved them together into the sonic masterpiece we all know and love. Starting with an acoustic guitar and piano before the famous Lennon lyric, "I read the news today, oh boy," and concluding with the seemingly endless chord, we are treated to what may have been the pinnacle of The Beatles' career--the final song from their best album.

  • Galileo: Performed by Indigo Girls from the album "Rites of Passage." Written by Emily Saliers and produced by Peter Collins, 1992.
    Many have considered the Indigio Girls as the modern, female Simon and Garfunkel because of their incisive lyrics and outstanding vocal harmonies. After 14 studio albums, they have certainly established themselves among the best folk-rock acts. But "Galileo" is something special, starting with its distinctive bongo riff and the lyrics, "Galileo's head was on the block; the crime was looking up the truth." From there, the song turns into an examination of reincarnation, with the plaintive question, "how long 'til my soul gets it right?"

  • God Only Knows: Performed by The Beach Boys from the album "Pet Sounds." Written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher and produced by Brian Wilson, 1966.
    "Pet Sounds" was The Beach Boys album that changed recorded music, and was the impetus for The Beatles recording "Sgt. Pepper," as well as hundreds of other artist recording thousands of other albums. Brian Wilson's harmonies and production techniques forever changed how songwriters and producers viewed their albums, and at the heart of it was a perfect recording of one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Anyone who's ever experienced true, long-term love can identify with the lyrics, "God only knows what I'd be without you"--a phrase that is repeated and overlayed as this spectacular record concludes.

  • The Grand Illusion: Performed by Styx from the album "The Grand Illusion." Written by Dennis DeYoung and produced by Styx, 1977.
    While "Come Sail Away" is the song from this album that is most-often played, this title song is the more complex and musically interesting record, combining hooks, changes, builds, guitar solos, and insightful lyrics. "But don't be fooled by the radio, the TV or the magazines that show you photographs of how your life should be, but that's just someone else's fantasies."

  • Hallelujah: Performed by Jeff Buckley from the album "Grace." Written by Leonard Cohen and produced by Jeff Buckley and Andy Wallace, 1994.
    In 1984, Leonard Cohen wrote and released a beautiful song that began with the memorable lyrics, "I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the lord, but you don't really care for music, do ya?" Nobody much noticed the song, even after John Cale also recorded it, so it sat around until 1994 when Tim Buckley's son, Jeff recorded an amazing album appropriately called, "Grace," featuring a hauntingly beautiful rendition of "Hallelujah." Since that time, hundreds of artists have issued their versions, but this cover is still the gold standard. Unfortunately, three years after recording it, Jeff Buckley drowned in a freak swimming accident. His work lives on.

  • Holding Out For A Hero: Written and performed by Joss Stone from the album "Mind Body & Soul." Produced by Mike Mangini, Steve Greenberg, and Betty Wright, 2004.
    Not to be confused with the popular song from "Footloose," this is an intensely personal song that Joss Stone wrote about her brother. Performed alone by Stone at the piano, it is one of the most moving and heartfelt records I've ever heard, by one of the best young singers alive.

  • Hotel California: Performed by The Eagles from the album, "Hotel California." Written by Don Felder, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley, and produced by Bill Szymczyk, 1977.
    The Eagles were always a good band, but the addition of premier guitarist Joe Walsh made them a really good band, and this record will always be remembered as their rock anthem. The production is very effective, and the lyrics are interesting, but what will always be revered about this record is the electric guitar interplay between Joe Walsh and Don Felder.

  • I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever): Written, performed, and produced by Stevie Wonder from the album "Talking Book." Co-writing credits go to Yvonne Wright, 1972.
    There has never been a better combination of writer, producer, and performer than Stevie Wonder. A generation of artists have grown up in his shadow, trying to emulate one or more of his talents. From that perspective, it is safe to say he's the most influential recording artist of all time. This is the record that best exemplifies the combined talents that have made Stevie Wonder such an icon. From a writing perspective, it lyrically and melodically conveyed a beautiful story of how love can bring us out of darkness and despair. From a performance perspective, it demonstrated the height of Stevie's vocal and musical prowess. From a production standard, it made us believe that eight tracks can sound like a chorus. As with most Stevie tunes, it is best heard with the lights out, so we're not distracted by our vision.

  • I Don't Like Mondays: Performed by the Boomtown Rats from the album "The Fine Art of Surfacing." Written by Bob Geldof and produced by Phil Wainman, 1979.
    Bob Geldof may have been knighted for his work with famine relief, but musically, this was his masterpiece. It tells the true story of Brenda Ann Spencer, a 16-year-old who fired a rifle at a school playground in San Diego, killing two people; when asked why, she replied, "I don't like Mondays." The record starts with several piano runs leading to a strong base chord, and the first lyrics are "The silicon chip inside her head gets switched to overload." In many ways, this record helped usher in the era of terrorism and random violence, and it remains one of the eeriest rock songs ever recorded.

  • I Will Always Love You: Performed by Whitney Houston from the album, "The Bodyguard." Written by Dolly Parton and produced by David Foster, 1992.
    This song was first written and recorded in a country vein by Dolly Parton. It was later performed by Whitney Houston in the film, "The Bodyguard," in which Houston starred with Kevin Costner, and released on the movie's soundtrack album. It starts with Houston singing a capella with an echo-chamber effect, pronouncing each syllable as if it were her last. What follows is one of the best vocal performances ever recorded, with every note perfect and held in flawless timing, until the final segment, which jumps a half-octave and concludes with the word "you" being spread over three distinct notes. It clearly established Whitney Houston as her generation's best vocalist, and it is the record by which she'll always be remembered.

  • Jesus of Suburbia: Written, performed, and produced by Green Day from the album “American Idiot.” Additional production credits go to Rob Cavallo, 2005.
    A nine-minute song with five movements, this is among the most complete rock songs ever recorded. It combines a complex musical structure, excellent musicianship, committed vocals, and compelling lyrics like, "Dearly beloved are you listening? I can't remember a word that you were saying. Are we demented or am I disturbed? The space that's in between insane and insecure."

  • Like a Rolling Stone: Written and performed by Bob Dylan from the album "Highway 61 Revisited." Produced by Tom Wilson, 1965.
    In 1965, Bob Dylan went electric, with the release of "Highway 61 Revisited," an exceptional album that featured this record that combines complex musicianship and chord structure with stunningly vitriolic lyrics, culminating in the phrase, "How does it feel?" It starts with Al Kooper's organ riff, which forms the backbone of the record, and combines Dylan's singing, harmonica, and electric guitar to make a record that everyone hopes is not about them.

  • Memory: Performed by Betty Buckley & Cynthia Onrubia from the Original Broaway Cast album of "Cats." Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn. Additional writing credits go to Tim Rice and Don Black. Produced by Trevor Nunn, 1982.
    "Memory" is probably the most covered song in the history of show tunes. The original Broadway cast recording benefits from a soaringly elegant performance by Betty Buckley, who first performed the role of Grizabella on Broadway. It starts with almost a whisper and a quiet piano and culminates in the goosebump-inspiring crescendo when Buckley sings "Touch me. It's so easy to leave me all alone with the memory of my days in the sun."

  • On the Radio: Performed by Donna Summer from the soundtrack album of the movie, "Foxes." Written by Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder, and produced by Giorgio Moroder, 1979.
    For my money, this is the best disco record ever made. It starts slowly with a gentle piano, quiet percussion, and Donna Summer's luscious voice singing, "Someone found a letter you wrote me, on the radio, and they told the world just how you felt." What follows is a song about a breakup and reconciliation to a disco beat, featuring Summer's stylings and Giorgio Moroder's outstanding production.

  • One: Performed by U2 from the album "Achtung Baby." Written by Bono and U2 and produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, 1992.
    Among the best albums of the 90s, "Achtung Baby" established U2 as one of the world's most critically and commercially successful bands. It also featured this amazing record, the lyrics of which describe an unhealthy relationship in which "We're one but we're not the same. We hurt each other, then we do it again." The production by Lanois and Eno is revolutionary, and Bono's voice has never been better, as he sings, "We've got to carry each other."

  • Only in Dreams: Performed by Weezer from the album "Weezer." Written by Rivers Cuomo and produced by Ric Ocasek, 1994.
    Weezer is one of America's best bands, but this record far exceeds anything else they've done. Maybe it's the outstanding production of former Cars leader Ric Ocasek, or maybe it's Rivers Cuomo's singing of his beautiful lyrics, or maybe it's the transformational instrumental interludes, but this record takes you on a passionate, eight-minute journey about a perfect relationship that occurs only in dreams.

  • Ordinary People: Performed by John Legend from the album "Get Lifted." Written and produced by John Legend and, 2004.
    In 2004, a young, relatively unknown singer sat down at the piano and recorded this masterpiece. With that, John Roger Stephens started to live up to his stage name, John Legend. The song describes the early stages of a relationship and the ups and downs it encounters. It hits home so effectively because we've all been through it, "Because we're ordinary people, maybe we should take it slow."

  • Owner Of A Lonely Heart: Performed by Yes from the album "90125." Written by Trevor Rabin and produced by Trevor Horn, 1983.
    There are better songs performed by the progressive rock band Yes, but no better records. What I mean by that is the way that this record takes a good song, combines it with great performance, and then runs it through a production technique that draws on sound collages and digital sampler technology to produce an entire piece that's greater than the sum of its parts. At about two and a half minutes in, the song does a remarkable turn, swinging into a 30-second jazz-influenced riff before returning to its basic melody. It was among the first records to use production techniques that are common today, and it's still one of the best.

  • Paranoid Android: Performed by Radiohead from the album "OK Computer." Written by Thom Yorke and produced by Nigel Goodrich, 1997.
    Alex introduced me to this song, and it took me a while to warm up to it, because it is so different from most rock songs, but that's its beauty. It contains four distinct sections, and the vaguely anti-yuppie lyrics are secondary to the record's elegant construction. It is meant to be played loud and rewards the listener for his or her focus. As usual, Radiohead's musicianship is outstanding, and this record demands repeated listenings.

  • Perfect Day: Written and performed by Lou Reed from the album "Transformer." Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, 1972.
    One of the best albums to come out when I was in college was "Transformer," Lou Reed's second album after the demise of the Velvet Underground. It featured songs like "Vicious," "Walk on the Wild Side," and "Satellite of Love," but of all of them, the song I keep coming back to was this sad story about spending a wonderful day with someone you adore who may not feel so strongly about you. Reed's voice has never been more eerily expressive as he sings, "You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else, someone good." The record leaves you wondering what its lead character will do next, as it fades out to the repeated line, "You're going to reap just what you sow."

  • Rainbow In Your Eyes: Performed by Leon and Mary Russell from the album "Wedding Album. Written by Leon Russell and produced by Leon and Mary Russell and Bobby Womack, 1976.
    What a shame to tell the story of the "Wedding Album." It celebrated the marriage of Leon and Mary Russell with such beautiful songs as "Like a Dream Come True," "Satisfy You," "Lavender Blue," and this record, the opening track. The songs were among the best that Russell has written in his illustrious career. Unfortunately, the marriage didn't last very long and ended with so much financial acrimony that the album was unavailable for purchase or air play for nearly 20 years, leaving an entire generation of listeners unaware of this perfect celebration of love. It starts with a choir of chants before breaking into a joyous romp and a chorus that begins, "And we climbed the highest mountain and sailed the seven seas, and nobody was with us at the top of the world, in love and running free."

  • Rolling In the Deep: Performed by Adele from the album "21." Written by Adele and Paul Epworth and produced by Paul Epworth, 2011.
    There may be some listeners who feel there are better songs on this remarkable album by the British songstress who has become a worldwide phenomenon, but this Grammy winner is the best record. It takes a brilliant song, adds Adele's signature vocals and backs it up with a rhythmic guitar strum, pounding drums, and gospel-style backup singers to make a complete, sonic gem.

  • Scenes From An Italian Restaurant: Written and performed by Billy Joel from the album "The Stranger." Produced by Phil Ramone, 1977.
    It's funny that Billy Joel is so often identified with "Piano Man," which he considers among his weakest songs, instead of this 7½ minute gem, which is about two friends meeting in a restaurant, sharing news and recounting stories of old acquaintances, specifically a couple named Brenda and Eddie. Musically, it is among Joel's most complex pieces, and lyrically, it is just plain fun.

  • Seems So Long: Written, performed, and produced by Stevie Wonder from the album "Music of My Mind, 1972.
    In 1972, a 21-year-old Stevie Wonder was already one of R&B's best-selling artists, but he had not yet released an album that bore his signature from start to least not until "Music of My Mind," for which he wrote or co-wrote and produced or co-produced every song. It was a breathtaking piece of work, recorded with synthesizers that enhanced the very personal and occasionally eerie feel of the album. One song was completely Stevie--no co-writers, co-producers, or other singers or musicians--"Seems So Long." It told the story of a love that was lost and why it may be OK to start loving someone again. It captured Stevie's outstanding musicianship and his pure, perfect vocals.

  • Short Skirt/Long Jacket: Performed by Cake from the album "Comfort Eagle." Written by John McCrea and produced by Cake, 2001.
    Even if you haven't heard of Cake (and if you haven't, you should have), you doubtless have heard the background track to this record on TV shows or is that memorable. It is also that good, especially when combined with lyrics like, "I want a girl who gets up early. I want a girl who stays up late. I want a girl with uninterrupted prosperity, who uses a machete to cut through red tape. With fingernails that shine like justice and a voice that is dark like tinted glass, she is fast and thorough, and sharp as a tack. She is touring the facilities and picking up slack." What also sets Cake apart is the use of trumpets and percussion to create a delightful display of alternative rock.

  • Smooth: Performed by Santana and Rob Thomas from the album "Supernatural." Written by Rob Thomas and Itaal Shur and produced by Matt Serletic, 1999.
    From the opening drumbeat through Carlos Santana's magical solos and Rob Thomas's effective singing, this is one of the most contageously envigorating records ever produced. Everything about it jells to produce a rock masterpiece and the only #1 hit of Santana's illustrious career.

  • A Song For You: Performed by Ray Charles from the album "My World." Written by Leon Russell and produced by Richard Perry, 1993.
    You might ask why, out of the hundreds of songs Ray Charles recorded, I picked this cover of a Leon Russell classic to be on this list, and my response would be that at 63, Ray Charles did a perfect job of interpreting Leon Russell's perfect love song. It opens with a lengthy and memorable piano riff that slows down just before Charles sings, "Ive been so many places in my life and time. I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes. I've acted out my life in stages, with 10,000 people watching, but we're along and I'm just singing a song for you." Those lyrics weren't written for Ray Charles, but they fit him perfectly, and his pacing and stylings are what made this record so outstanding.

  • Theme From New York, New York: Performed by Frank Sinatra from the album "Trilogy: Past Present and Future." Written by Fred Ebb and John Kander and produced by Sonny Burke, 1980.
    In 1980, Sinatra released his last, great album, which included revised arrangements of classic hits and new songs. One of the records on that album was a remake of the song that Kander & Ebb had written for Liza Minelli to perform in Martin Scorsese's film, "New York, New York." While Minelli's version is very good, Sinatra's version is amazing, especially for the 65-year-old singer whose velvetty voice had hoarsened with age. In addition, Don Costa's bombastic arrangement only heightened the effect of Sinatra belting out, "These little town blues are melting away, I'm gonna make a brand new start of it in old New York." If you're not singing along by the end of this record, well...that's your problem.

  • Thunder Road: Written and performed by Bruce Springsteen from the album "Born to Run." Produced by Bruce Springsteen and Jon Landau, 1975.
    I was already a huge Springsteen fan when I bought Born to Run and put it on my turntable to hear the album open with Bruce's harmonica, Roy Bittan's piano, and the poetic lyrics, "The screen door slams; Mary's dress waves. Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays, Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. Hey, that's me, and I want you only. Don't turn me home again; I just can't face myself alone again." Wow! I immediately used my new cassette recorder to tape it, popped it in my BMW 2002, and blasted it as I rode down the highway. After all, few rock records have ever told a story better or provided a more effective road song than this one. Thunder Road is a true rock poem, perfomed exquisitely.

  • Time Is Running Out: Written and performed by Muse from the album "Absolution." Produced by Rich Costey and Muse, 2003.
    In the 1960s, Phil Spector introduced the "Wall of Sound" approach to producing records in a way that completely envelops the listener within the music. That technique has been used by many bands since, but none more effectively than the British band, Muse. On this record, they combine their signature rock-fusion sound with insightfully disturbing lyrics like, "I wanted freedom. Bound and restricted, I tried to give you up, but I'm addicted. Now that you know I'm trapped, sense of elation. You'd never dream of breaking this fixaton." It's everything a rock record should be, and much more.

  • Toxicity: Written and performed by System of a Down from the album "Toxicity." Produced by Rick Rubin, Daron Malakian, and Serj Tankian, 2001.
    Combine the heavy metal guitar and drums of this outstanding band with the amazing vocal prowess of lead singer Serj Tankian and the work of legendary producer Rick Rubin, and what you get is an instant rock classic. There are a great many metal bands around, but none other has a lead singer with as much depth and range as Tankian possesses. When he erupts into "No, what do you own the world? How do you own disorder?" it almost blows you out of your seat.

  • Under Pressure: Written, performed, and produced by Queen and David Bowie from the album "Hot Space," 1981.
    When it was first announced that Queen and David Bowie were collaborating on a record, the music world wondered how it would turn out, but beginning with John Beacon's now famous bass line and the snapping fingers that repeat throughout the song, any doubt was put to rest. These were two heavyweight artists operating at the top of their craft to produce an instant rock classic about living in today's pressurized world. It's hard to go wrong with Freddie Mercury and David Bowie singing lyrics like, "It's the terror of knowing what this world is about. Watching some good friends screaming 'let me out.' Pray tomorrow gets me higher--pressure on people; people on streets."

  • Welcome To The Black Parade: Written and performed by My Chemical Romance from the album "The Black Parade." Produced by Rob Cavallo and My Chemical Romance, 2006.
    "The Black Parade," a concept album about uncomfortable topics like cancer and death, is a real contender for the best album of the last decade, and this is the signature song from that album. It features Gerard Way's sharp tenor voice, a driving rock rhythm, and outstanding lyrics like, "A world that sends you reeling from decimated dreams, your misery and hate will kill us all. So paint it black and take it back, lets shout it loud and clear. Defiant to the end, we hear the call, to carry on. We'll carry on. And though you're dead and gone believe me, your memory will carry on."

  • When Doves Cry: Written, performed, and produced by Prince from the album "Purple Rain," 1984.
    This is Prince's best work, and it's all Prince. He wrote the song, produced it, and played all of the instruments on it. Rather than using a bass line, he backed the record with a pounding, synthesized drumbeat. The lyrics tell the tale of an unconventional romance (would Prince have any other kind?) and the production conveys a kind of hollowness that match perfectly with the lyrics.

  • Wish You Were Here: Performed and produced by Pink Floyd from the album "Wish You Were Here." Written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters, 1975.
    Why is it that so many great songs are about alientation and loss, as is this Pink Floyd classic? It begins with the sounds of someone tuning a radio to several stations before settling on a distant sounding guitar which eventually cedes to a more up-front acoustic guitar before the opening line, "So you think you can tell heaven from hell, blue skies from pain. Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?" The alienation in the song springs from Roger Waters general sense of despair that he later explored to greater depths in "The Wall." The loss relates to former band member Syd Barrett and his battles with mental illness. The record explores both with a clarity and elegance that is rare in rock music.

  • You And I Both: Written and performed by Jason Mraz from the album "Waiting for My Rocket to Come." Produced by John Alagia, 2004.
    Pop music sometimes gets a bad rap, and Jason Mraz has been the rare pop musician who combines incisightful, inventive lyrics with hummable pop tunes. Indeed, Mraz plays with lyrics more than any other current performer, as is evidenced by lines like, "See I'm all about them words; over numbers, unencumbered numbered words; Hundreds of pages, pages, pages, forewords; More words then I had ever heard and I feel so alive." When combined with his soaring tenor voice and catchy hooks, this is a consistently listenable record.

  • You Can Call Me Al: Written, performed, and produced by Paul Simon from the album "Graceland," 1986.
    In Paul Simon's long and illustrious career with Art Garfunkel and afterward, his best album was Graceland, which combined African instruments and beats with Simon's famously perceptive lyrics. "You Can Call Me Al" did all of that to perfection, complete with a now-famous horn riff and lyrics like, "A man walks down the street; it's a street in a strange world. Maybe it's the Third World; maybe it's his first time around. He doesn't speak the language; he holds no currency. He is a foreign man; he is surrounded by the sound--the sound. Cattle in the marketplace; scatterlings and orphanages. He looks around, around; he sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity. He says Amen! and Hallelujah!" I say Amen! and Hallelujah! when I hear this record.


  1. I enjoyed reading your choices. My favorite song may not fit your criteria but its from a Neil Young & Crazy Horse album of the same name: Time Fades Away. This album of Neil's is a holy grail to collectors because it has never been rereleased on CD. Versions of the song are available on YouTube however.

  2. Great list and details Reid – I can only nominate for your level of scrutiny. Basic criteria here - i like them a ton and they move me, emotionally and sometimes physically! i am always looking for songs to learn on my guitar (Prayer in Open D by Emmy Lou Harris is the current effort) so your list is AWESOME!

    Al along the watchtower Hendrix version
    America Paul simon
    Somewhere over the rainbow catherine McPhee's cd version
    We gotta get out of this place animals
    You really got me goin kinks
    Hey there Delilah plain white tees
    Green onions roy Buchanan
    New York state of mind billy joel
    Stand by me ben e lee
    Almost over you liz Longley
    American tune simon
    Tears go by stones version
    Complicated avril lavigne
    Mustang sally
    Barretts privateers schooner fare
    Big joe and phantom 309 tom waits
    Birches bill morrisey
    Boulder to Birmingham emmy lou harris
    Koln concert keith Jarrett
    Cabaret sound track 
    i dreamed a dream from Les Mis
    Pilgrim steve earle
    All good things Jackson browne
    River joanie Mitchell

    the list goes on, but i only had time to get through the beginning of the alphabet! more later.

  3. Okay, now you need to move on to full albums, e.g., Blood on the Tracks, Girlfriend, Blue, Giant Steps....

    Bob O.

  4. Hey Reid,

    Your list is great and your wide knowledge of music is incomparable.There are seem to be so many "perfect" songs that I could never compile an exhaustive list, for each one reminds me of another...."Hotel California" brings to mind "Desperado",- sung also by Venice and Jackson Browne together in a live YouTube vid."Phantom 309" stirs up thoughts of "Better off without a wife","Nighthawks at the Diner","Looking for the heart of Saturday Night" and "Tom Traub's blues" from Tom Waits -Which in turn evokes The Pogues'"Waltzing Mathilda".Dylan's " Like a Rollin' Stone" puts me in mind of "Ballad of a Thin Man","Where have you been my Blue Eyed Son" ,"Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" and "All along the Watchtower"- not by Dylan but in "perfect" original 16 track by Jimi Hendrix ,so that leads to "Little Wing","Pali Gap" and 50 others. "Wish you were here" is incomparable but then one veers off to "Home" , "Dark side of the Moon" ("And if the band yer in starts playing different tunes-I'll see you on the.....") "Fat Old Sun" , "Atom Heart Mother" etc.Graceland makes me think of Johnny Clegg's "Scatterlings of Africa" ,"Impe" etc So many "perfect" records in our lifetimes and before."Celluloid Heroes" vs. "Waterloo Sunset" Who can compare? "At Last" vs. Roberta Flack- "The first time ever I saw your face" My mind reels.The Beatles- So many classics:"Girl","Blackbird","Long and winding road" Arrghhh! Where do you even stop???? "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" vs. Athlete's "House at the end of the Road".Buddy Guy "Born under a bad sign" ,Cream's version and then :"White Room", "Tales of Brave Ulysses".Gary Moore " Still got the Blues".....Blind Faith "I'm lost and I can't find my way home" We are a lucky lot ,born during a most inspired time........Thanks Reid for all the musical gems over the years that you have passed along that I had never come across.I could never pick "the one" however......Fraser

  5. Ha Ha! That should have been "Wasted and I can't find my way home......." Fraser