47 thoughts on “Notes on Rolling Stone’s All-Time Greatest Albums

  1. I’ve been listening to albums #100-96–#100 Music from the Big Pink (1968)–The Band; #99 Red (2012) Taylor Swift; #98 Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) Lucinda Williams; #97 Master of Puppets (1986) Metallica; #96 Automatic for the People (1992) R.E.M.–and while doing this, I thought of a framework for evaluating the albums. This framework relies on something I heard in the past about the biggest innovative rock musicians, specifically around the 60s and early 70s. I’m thinking of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and James Brown. In a way, we can see the music of every subsequent rock/pop musicians as falling into one or more of these categories these musicians represent. Here the (very broad) categories I have in mind, with a brief description of each:

    • Melodic (The Beatles): Here I’m thinking of the songs, particularly songs with a catchy melody.
    • Poetic (Bob Dylan): I’m mostly thinking of the lyrics, particularly those with a strong connection to the folk music, and the way Bob Dylan took that to another level.
    • Primal (Hendrix): This is that aggressive sound–the sound and feeling of destruction; the sound of the Id. Songs that really rock have this quality
    • Rhythmic (JB): I’m not crazy about the label, but I’m essentially thinking of music that grooves–that makes you want to dance. This could fun under the category of fun as well.

    I would reiterate that rock/pop music wouldn’t necessarily fall into only one of these categories. However, generally, my sense is that an album would lean more towards one of these categories. For example, Music from the Big Pink leans more towards poetic category, and I think it seen as party of the folk tradition. Something like Master of Puppets shouldn’t be evaluated in the same way. This isn’t to say the lyrics for the Metallica album aren’t important, or impactful. But I would argue it’s not as central to the music as the lyrics for The Band’s album…Not central in the way that lyrics seem to be central to folk and folk-based music….Or maybe I’m saying The Band’s music more closely related to the Folk tradition.

    1. This is an interesting framework worth considering. I would say your thoughts on Master of Puppets are valid, but I also think people who follow this form of music would disagree about the lyrics. The lyrics are one of the big reasons you see Metallica on these lists (particularly this album, which is their best) and not other bands who play similar music. And if influence is a consideration, the lyrics are a large part of the wide- and long-reaching influence of this album. I would point specifically to the title track.

      Red is my favorite Taylor Swift album by a mile, although in a few years I think her two recent albums will surpass it. How do you look at Red with this framework in mind?

  2. I knew you would have a problem with my post–even if I qualified it with, “This isn’t to say the lyrics for the Metallica album aren’t important, or impactful.” I’m sure there are people who think the lyrics on Master of Puppets is the most important thing on that album. In no way am I trying to diminish that…If we’re talking about personal, subjective reaction, throw my framework out the window. Some people may love the rhythms on Music from the Big Pink far more than lyrics; they may love these rhythms more than something from James Brown. That’s a totally valid reaction–in terms of a personal response.

    I guess what I’m offering is an intersubjective framework for evaluating the music. For example, if someone disliked MoP because of the lyrics, I think the framework I’m suggesting could help such a person. Or let’s take myself. I don’t normally enjoy the music that could be part of the the Dylan/Folk lineage. But this framework provides me a way of evaluating and even appreciating the music, even though it’s not generally the type of music that really grabs me. See what I’m saying?

    How do you look at Red with this framework in mind?

    The melodic/Beatles lineage.

    I think what’s problematic, in my framework, is the distinction between The Beatles and James Brown lineages. The rhythms of the former and the melodies of the latter can be appealing as well. But I think this is a matter of priorities or what aspect of the music is closer to the essence of that lineage. With the James Brown lineage, I think the rhythms or groove. Basically, I think we’re mostly talking about black music–music like in the R&B, soul, and funk category. (Thought: Where would the blues–as in B.B. King–fit? I’m not sure. It seems like it’s a little bit of everyone of those categories, although maybe more The Beatles?)

    But pop versions of R&B/soul/funk basically are children of The Beatles and James Brown. To be clear, there aren’t really clear demarcations.

    By the way, if you asked me if there is one artist that comes closest to consistently blending all four–and does so in a highly skilled and artistic way–one musician/group comes immediately to mind (which implies I don’t think they are the only one). Do you know who I have in mind? Or is it obvious?

    Edit

    Here’s another interesting question: Where does Rap/Hip-hop fit into all this?

    Off the top of my head, I think Rap/Hip-hop is the child of Dylan and James Brown. In a way, I think of it as Black Folk music. The lyrics seem slightly more important that the music/rhythms. There are artists who focus on politics and social commentary, similar to 60’s Folk musicians. Instead of acoustic guitars, you have R&B/funk samples. With Folk and Rap/Hip-hop, if you one says, “I think it’s bad because the music is uninteresting,” I feel like they’re missing the meat of the music. But if they said the same about the lyrics, well, that would be a more devastating critique (assuming the person has valid criticisms of the lyrics).

  3. I just realized something else about the “Dylan” category. While I said lyrics–a more poetic lyrics–are a defining characteristic, I also think the music can have a connection to older folk melodies and forms, and maybe even instrumentation. For example, on Automatic for the People, some of the songs sound like Irish folk tunes (or at least that’s what comes to mind). It’s not just the lyrics that give that impression but the music and instruments as well.

    Mitchell,

    Are there different types of musical or lyrical forms that are closely associate with American or Irish folk music that I should be mindful of? Also, would you say that telling stories is a prominent part of the folk tradition? Is there a particular style or theme that makes these stories part of the folk tradition? Can we say that rock/pop songs that tell stories basically have their roots in Folk music, even if the connection is slight? (Then again, early Blues music would also have this element, but early Blues songs are a form of folk music, but not necessarily Folk, as in the genre. Does that make sense?)

    By the way, I’m asking this just to be better equip to understand and appreciate the music. Music, in this vein, is generally not something I would choose to listen to, except in the rare occasion when I’m in the mood for it. I think the music on Music from the Big Pink and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (I like that title) is good, if not more than good. But I think I would rarely find myself listening to it. It’s just not the type of music that I really enjoy. And I think it stems from the fact that I don’t derive a lot of pleasure (poetic) lyrics.

    1. Reid asked

      Are there different types of musical or lyrical forms that are closely associate with American or Irish folk music that I should be mindful of?

      Maybe, but that might be a more scholarly approach to the lyrics than I’ve ever attempted. I don’t know a lot about musical forms, and my understanding of lyrical forms is limited to undergrad-level poetry.

      Also, would you say that telling stories is a prominent part of the folk tradition?

      Prominent for sure, but that’s true of most folk musics. Yes, ballads are a big part — such a big part of it that there are qualifiers for ballads. Like murder ballads in the bluegrass tradition. Which I love.

      Is there a particular style or theme that makes these stories part of the folk tradition?

      Maybe? But I’m not versed enough in folk music to know.

      Can we say that rock/pop songs that tell stories basically have their roots in Folk music, even if the connection is slight?

      I’d say you could just erase “folk” from that sentence. Aren’t the earliest songs stories preserving people’s oral traditions? I don’t know — you may be trying to fit too broad a concept into too small a form. Because storytelling in music kind of predates music.

      (Then again, early Blues music would also have this element, but early Blues songs are a form of folk music, but not necessarily Folk, as in the genre. Does that make sense?)

      Yes, and this brings me to the one speed bump I’ve found in your establishing this framework. Naming them after Dylan, Hendrix, Brown, and the Beatles makes it extremely difficult to think about music predating these artists within the framework, since these artists all have common artistic lineages.

      For example, where in this framework do you put Chuck Berry? Or going further back, Bo Diddly? Or (further back) Blind Willie Johnson? Although I guess since we’re talking about pop music, we wouldn’t use it for Blind Willie.

      By the way, I’m asking this just to be better equip to understand and appreciate the music.

      Whatever does it for you. If this opens up the music and helps you understand why people dig it, then great.

      But I think I would rarely find myself listening to it. It’s just not the type of music that I really enjoy. And I think it stems from the fact that I don’t derive a lot of pleasure (poetic) lyrics.

      You may be putting (for a change) too much emphasis on lyrics. Sure, Dylan’s lyrics are great and they are my favorite thing about Dylan’s music, but they kind of suck on their own. One reason he should never have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. They work in the context of the music, sung through the channel of the singer and his voice. Or maybe that’s just me — you liked Moulin Rouge (the movie) and I didn’t. Song lyrics as spoken narrative just don’t work.

      Perhaps a better approach (and I’m not suggesting you should start over from scratch) is just listen to the albums and decide what you like and don’t like. Then read what people (not just the Rolling Stone) have said about the songs and albums. Maybe that will connect you better to the music, or maybe it won’t. That’s all fine.

      Another suggestion, if you’re listening to the albums in any kind of order, is to start with 1 and go down. The songs lower on the list (especially if the list goes to 500) are so far removed, quality-wise, from the songs at the top, if you’re scratching your head wondering what makes them great, you may have great difficulty since you don’t especially dig the genres.

      But if you start with Led Zep IV and then Dark Side of the Moon and then Are You Experienced? in the top 25 (I’m making this up for the sake of illustration) then hit, say, Blow by Blow and 461 Ocean Boulevard at 75 and 80, the appeal of New Jersey and Badmotorfinger at 200 and 250 might make more sense.

      Or maybe not! Another approach might be to just listen to the popular songs on each album, decide what you like, then go back and listen to the entire albums of the ones you like. Because the overwhelming majority of albums on any list are not solid from track 1 to track 9. I can think of only a handful of albums most people (that is, not the serious fans of specific artists) would consider solid from front to back.

      REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity. That’s always my first example.

      Or start with the artists you already kind of like (or liked at one time, like Kiss), then listen to everything on the list by those artists, and then the albums by adjacent artists. Like, if you once liked Kiss, maybe then all the glam and punk bands on the list. Alice Cooper, the Ramones, the New York Dolls, Motley Crue. And go from there.

  4. In the next discussion, we’ll be talking about Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and OutKast’s Aquemini. I’m a bit concerned because most of hte participants are close to their 70s, and they’re primarily fans of classic rock. I’m having trouble understanding some of the lyrics on these films, so I can imagine it might be tough for the participants.

    I’m starting to do a little research on some of lyrics, and that’s helped, but I probably need to do a lot more.

    Any help–insights and analysis of the music and lyrics–would help. Or if you guys know anyone who could help, let me know.

    1. I’m much more inclined to liking Outkast than Jay-Z, but I’ve never given either of these albums a listen. I might, though, for sake of conversation. I just don’t care for Jay-Z’s style.

      In the next discussion, we’ll be talking about Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and OutKast’s Aquemini. I’m a bit concerned because most of hte participants are close to their 70s, and they’re primarily fans of classic rock. I’m having trouble understanding some of the lyrics on these films, so I can imagine it might be tough for the participants.

      Man, you’re going to have to help me out here. Do you mean US when you’re talking about “close to their 70s?” And what’s the connection with film? I know their songs are used in film, but are you trying to talk about a cinematic style or somethings? Or, oh shoot: I suddenly think “films” is just the wrong word.

      Are you tackling these albums in order? I haven’t looked at the list recently.

    2. Initially, Jay-Z’s voice, music and lyrics did almost nothing for me. I found all three bland. As I read the lyrics along with the songs, I started noticing more clever use of language and humor. Some aspects of the riffs are growing on me, but that’s partly because I’ve been listening to multiple times. The music and style is just very different from other hip-hop I’m used to. (I really liked Eminen’s rapping–both his style and his lyrics.)

      I should say that the slang, the backstory behind the songs, and also the who sub-culture Jay-Z comes from makes the music harder to appreciate.

      Or, oh shoot: I suddenly think “films” is just the wrong word.

      Yeah, sorry–I meant “albums.” I’m also moderating a movie discussion and a book discussion, so I think that’s where the mix-up lies.

      Are you tackling these albums in order? I haven’t looked at the list recently.

      Yes, although we’re starting from #50 and working our way down to #1. (Note: This is the 2020 version of the top 500 albums.) By the way here are the first five albums we’ll be discussing this week:

      50: The Blueprint (Jay-Z)
      49: Aquemini (OutKast)
      48: Legend: Bob Marley and the Wailers
      47: Ramones self-titled 1976 album
      46: Graceland (Paul Simon)

  5. I’ve been thinking about two distinct frameworks for evaluating music where the lyrics matter–and, again, I can use the musicians as a shorthand representation of this–specifically, the Beatles and Dylan. The Beatles represents the clever and skillful use of language, but not in a way that one would describe as poetic. The skill could also manifest with the way the lyrics work with the music.

    Here’s an example from chorus of Taylor Swift’s “Red:”

    Like the colors of autumn, so bright just before they lose it all
    Losing him was blue like I’d never known
    Missing him was dark grey all alone
    Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met
    But loving him was red

    Later in the song Swift adds “burning red,” and I liked that variation.

    The other type of lyrics–the one in the Dylan category–are what I think of as more poetic. Specifically, I’m thinking of poems with language that is more abstruse and not so direct, but when done well, effective and maybe more powerful than the former. (The Swift example above also has elements that we can call poetic, too–so maybe “poetic” is not a good way to distinguish the two.) In these songs, the music may not be strong as the music in the Beatles category. Indeed, musically the songs may be quite bland in comparison. But the power comes from the poetry of the lyrics. On the other hand, while the music may be as exceptional, for whatever reason, it can complement the lyrics quite effectively.

    Here’s an example of the second type of lyrics, from the second verse and chorus from “The Boy in the Bubble” from Paul Simon’s Graceland:

    It was a dry wind
    And it swept across the desert
    And it curled into the circle of birth
    And the dead sand
    Falling on the children
    The mothers and the fathers
    And the automatic earth

    (Chorus)
    These are the days of miracles and wonder
    This is the long-distance call
    The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
    The way we look to us all
    The way we look to a distant constellation
    That’s the dying in the corner of the sky
    These are the days of miracle and wonder
    And don’t cry baby don’t cry
    Don’t cry

    I’m now getting a better idea of what the song is about, but I was pretty clueless about the meaning of most of these lyrics. Actually, it’s probably not a great example of effective poetry—although it is an example of abstruse lyrics.

    Also, the example may not be apt, because I think the music is actually quite rich, particularly the accompaniment.

    Maybe “In a Station” from The Band’s Music from the Big Pink is a better example:

    Once I walked through the halls of a station
    Someone called your name
    In the street I heard children laughing
    They all sound the same

    Wonder, could you ever know me
    Know the reason why I live
    Is there nothing you can show me
    Life seems so little to give

    Once I climbed up the face of a mountain
    And ate the wild fruit there
    Fell asleep until the moonlight woke me
    And I could taste your hair

    Isn’t everybody dreaming!
    Then the voice I hear is real
    Out of all the idle scheming
    Can’t we have something to feel

    Once upon a time leaves me empty
    Tomorrow never comes
    I could sing the sound of your laughter
    Still I don’t know your name

    Must be some way to repay you
    Out of all the good you gave
    If a rumor should delay you
    Love seems so little to save

    I just realized that there is also another component under the Dylan framework. I’m thinking of the lyrics that have strong ties to traditional folk music. “The Long Black Veil” (which I first heard from Music from the Big Pink) might be a good example of this:

    Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
    There was someone killed ‘neath the town hall light
    There were few at the scene, but they all agreed
    The slayer who ran looked a lot like me

    The judge said, “Son, what is your alibi?
    If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die”
    I spoke not a word, though it meant my life
    For I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife

    She walks these hills in a long black veil
    She visits my grave when the night winds wail
    Nobody knows, nobody sees
    Nobody knows but me

    The scaffold stood high, eternity neared
    She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear
    But sometimes at night when the cold winds moan
    In a long black veil, she cries on my bones

    She walks these hills in a long black veil
    She visits my grave when the night winds wail
    Nobody knows, nobody sees
    Nobody knows but me

    Nobody knows but me

    Lyrically and musically it has a very Folk feeling, almost like a children’s song, too. In this type of lyrics that I’m filing under the Dylan heading, the lyrics tell a story in way that may include poetic elements, but not so abstruse.

    In conclusion, the point of all this is to have a way to evaluate the music on its own terms. A listener may not like the type of folk songs that tell a story, but if they know a song falls in that category, the listener can evaluate the success of telling a story in that style. The same can apply to the music that falls into the different frameworks I’ve discussed.

    (Note: I will reiterate that the frameworks are not impermeable silos–they’re more like broad, permeable bubbles. My descriptions can create the impression that they’re like the former, but that’s because I’m emphasizing the distinguishing qualities of each category. In practice, I’d guess most of this music would be a blending of one or more frameworks.)

    1. Your observation is sound, but your trying to describe it in terms of poetry is a bit misguided, as you seem to realize midway through this. Accessible vs. abstruse might be a better way to look at it. The same lenses can be used for other elements of pop music as well.

      I mostly object because I find the Red lyrics much more poetic than the Boy in the Bubble lyrics. Poetry’s not about being difficult to penetrate, or about meaning that must be explicated. These are some of the things we do to understand poetry, but poetry is about the sound of the language. Sometimes it’s simple, straightforward, and accessible, and sometimes it’s esoteric and dense. As are music, paintings, sculptures, and dance.

      The greatest rock and roll song of all time, Stairway to Heaven, is so mysterious nobody knows what it’s about, but it’s not more poetic than the songs of Rush, which are actual poems set to music.

    2. Poetry’s not about being difficult to penetrate, or about meaning that must be explicated. These are some of the things we do to understand poetry, but poetry is about the sound of the language. Sometimes it’s simple, straightforward, and accessible, and sometimes it’s esoteric and dense.

      I agree, and you’re right–my use of “poetry” to distinguish the different types of lyrics is probably a bad word choice. On the other hand, I don’t know if simply calling it abstruse or esoteric is sufficient, either. Maybe lyrics with poetic language, whose meaning is clear versus lyrics with poetic language, whose meaning is more abstruse and esoteric are better ways of distinguishing the two type s of lyrics I have in mind.

      On a side note, I strongly associate poetry with language and content that is abstruse. Maybe it’s because this is the type of poems that attract me or that I tend to remember more. Also, I think more of the poems that I read are difficult to understand.

      1. Maybe. Or maybe this is the way poetry is taught in literature classes our whole lives until we get to the upper division in undergrad English courses. I rebelled against this when I taught it to high schoolers. Stopped asking “What does it mean?” and asked “What sticks out?”

        1. Also, it’s taken me this long to realize “I’m leading a discussion on…” referred to a discussion elsewhere. Ha. I thought you were simply announcing a new discussion in this space, which is what every post sort of is.

    3. Or maybe this is the way poetry is taught in literature classes our whole lives until we get to the upper division in undergrad English courses.

      For me, I think I just read a lot of poems that are not straightforward. Even poems where I understand the gist, several lines may be unclear and difficult to understand.

      1. Yes, but is this not true also of music, literature, and other arts? Poetry isn’t special this way. But it’s taught as if there’s (seemingly by definition) something esoteric and deep about it.

    4. Yes, but is this not true also of music, literature, and other arts?

      Off the top of my head, I’d say no, but I guess it depends on what type of music, literature, etc. we’re talking about. Most novels are pretty straight-forward. Generally, the same is true for music, although I guess it depends what we mean by “straightforward.” For something like paintings, it can depend. More realistic paintings are straightforward, whereas abstract paintings are not.

      I suspect we’re not on the same wavelength. With poetry, the issue isn’t that it’s deep; the issue is that the language is abstruse, the meaning opaque…or at least the meanings aren’t easily understood. Nowadays, I enjoy poetry more for the sound of the language versus the meaning of the poem. The former is something that I can appreciate fairly quickly.

  6. I’ve been listening to the Ramones self-titled 1976 album. What I’m hearing so far is a really good distillation of rock n’ roll–specifically, the part that involves aggression and rebellion. The music and lyrics are simple and primitive–primitive not just in terms of the music and song-writing, but also the content as well. “Beat on the Brat” is a good example:

    Beat on the brat
    Beat on the brat
    Beat on the brat with a baseball bat
    Oh yeah, oh yeah, uh-oh

    What can you do?
    What can you do?
    With a brat like that always on your back
    What can you do? (lose?)

    But the primitiveness works well together in my view. The album is not something I would listen to a lot, but I like what it’s going for, and I think it largely succeeds in what it’s going for.

    By the way, I see a connection between the Ramones and the Japanese noise-rock group, Mainliner. The latter just takes it a step (steps?) further.

    1. I’m interested in seeing this film.

      What exactly do you mean here:

      In the production of a movie, I don’t know how music and film rights work, but I suspect they’re tricky, and they are the details punching this movie right into you.

      I assume you’re talking about legal battles over the rights to use certain music and film footage in a movie, but are you saying the details of this battle give the film emotional heft? ?

      1. I’m not talking about legal battles, just securing permission to use music and footage. It’s not always a battle, but sometimes it’s expensive or impossible. I’m saying the producers’ getting the rights to the music and footage provide the details that make the times, places, and people real.

    2. I’m saying the producers’ getting the rights to the music and footage provide the details that make the times, places, and people real.

      You mean, because the producers were able to secure certain music and footage that lead to providing those details? (I promise I’m not trying to be difficult.)

      1. I’m saying the music and footage are impressive and they provide specific details that really make this film effective. This is a little indie doc that took the producer 10 years to put together (people she interviewed for it, including Ray Manzarek, have died since she interviewed them), and I don’t imagine she had a ton of money. But whatever the cost or difficulty, it was worth it because it makes the film much better. They don’t necessarily provide specific details, as in “Fong-Torres wrote about a Grateful Dead show on January 12, 1969 and here’s footage from it,” but as in “Fong-Torres wrote about Grateful Dead shows and here’s some footage of him at a Grateful Dead show.”

  7. Mitchell (and Don),

    I’m interested in hearing the way you listen to an appreciate lyrics. Do you usually enjoy and appreciate lyrics (assuming the lyrics are good) simply by listening to them, as opposed to listening to the music while reading the lyrics? And easy is appreciating the lyrics? To what extent does this involve gaining some meaning from the lyrics? For example, you might not fully understand the lyrics, but you enjoy the words, images, and maybe feelings that the lyrics conjure up.

    Context: I’m been analyzing the lyrics for several albums, and I’m pretty burnt out. It’s not really an enjoyable way to listen to music for me. The experience of immersing myself in instrumental music (that I like) is far more pleasurable than immersing myself in musical lyrics (that I like).

    I’m wondering if the issue is that I just don’t have the lyrics memorized. If I did, maybe the process would be way more enjoyable. Or maybe I just don’t enjoy lyrics as much as some other people.

    1. Reid said

      Do you usually enjoy and appreciate lyrics (assuming the lyrics are good) simply by listening to them, as opposed to listening to the music while reading the lyrics?

      It depends on who the artist is, honestly. I usually spin a new album just listening to it, because music is an aural medium. I know one musician who is very much against lyrics sheets, because if the lyrics are important enough for the listener to know exactly, they’ll be clear enough in the audio. She makes a strong point. Vocals on a Cocteau Twins album sound the way they sound for artistic reasons; if the group meant for you to know the lyrics for sure, they wouldn’t produce the music this way.

      If it’s an artist whose lyrics are very important to me, after a few spins I’ll sit down with the lyrics sheet in front of me and I’ll listen in my headphones, as opposed to on a speaker or with earbuds, and I’ll listen to everything straight through with no going backward, although if I’m taking track-by-track notes, I’ll pause between songs to jot down my thoughts.

      The most recent two albums I’ve done this with were Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You (2020) and Taylor Swift’s Evermore (2020). One of my favorite bands, The Choir, released an album this year and I still haven’t spun it because I’ve been waiting for a good time to give it the track-by-track treatment. Kind of annoying because I backed it on Kickstarter and got an advance copy before the release, and now it’s been more than half a year. Ugh.

      Otherwise, I’ll just pick up the lyrics from repeated listens. It’s one reason I won’t write an album review until I’ve heard an album five times through from beginning to end.

      And easy is appreciating the lyrics?

      If you’re looking for a blanket answer, I don’t think you’ll get one. Too many considerations varying from artist to artist, from album to album.

      To what extent does this involve gaining some meaning from the lyrics? For example, you might not fully understand the lyrics, but you enjoy the words, images, and maybe feelings that the lyrics conjure up.

      To a great extent, but those aren’t the only considerations. I’m listening right this moment to the new Kina Grannis album (an unannounced new album drop this morning!), an artist I’ve followed since she put out her first indie album after turning down a record label deal she won in a national contest (they aired part of her video during the Super Bowl — that was the other part of the prize and it’s how I discovered her). Kina’s writing is so personal and intimate, the appreciation comes from phrasing and imagery, but also from knowing the artist’s personal story. In this case, she’s having a baby any day now after going through infertility, IVF, and a miscarriage. Knowing all this lends more appreciation to the lyrics and probably doesn’t fall into the descriptors you list.

      There are some meta considerations too. I know when Bruce Springsteen quotes himself in his lyrics (also in his music), and this adds to my appreciation.

      And I know we’ve discussed this before, but cleverness and creativity in phrasing are huge, as in

      Any escape might help to smooth
      The unattractive truth
      But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
      The restless dreams of youth

      Brilliant rhyming, phrasing, and imagery.

      Context: I’m been analyzing the lyrics for several albums, and I’m pretty burnt out. It’s not really an enjoyable way to listen to music for me. The experience of immersing myself in instrumental music (that I like) is far more pleasurable than immersing myself in musical lyrics (that I like).

      Yeah it sounds exhausting. But it doesn’t sound like you’re listening for the pleasure. From your descriptions, you’re studying the songs academically. Which is fine, but it’s not always enjoyable, especially if it’s an art form you don’t care for.

      I’m wondering if the issue is that I just don’t have the lyrics memorized. If I did, maybe the process would be way more enjoyable. Or maybe I just don’t enjoy lyrics as much as some other people.

      Well I think we’ve already established the latter. And yeah, for the former, familiarity does go a long way toward enjoyment. I love “Thunder Road” more now that I can sing along with it than I did when I just listened to it.

    2. I don’t have time to respond to your post, but I want to ask a question before I forget it. If the lyrics are good, but the music (e.g., melody, rhythms, vocal timbres, singing quality, etc.) does little for you or even worse, to what degree will you like the music?

      I think that might the main stumbling block for me. This might be the reason I’ve been getting burnt out. Certainly, with the Outkast and Jay-Z albums the music did very little for me. (Some of Jay-Z’s tunes are growing on me, but that’s largely because I’m becoming more familiar with them.) With The Band or Lucinda Williams, the musical elements may have been slightly more appealing, but still not enough to really grab me.

      With music like Dylan’s, I assumed lyrics were the main reason fans loved his music, while they could take or leave the musical elements…Well, maybe that last part is too strong. (For what it’s worth, I could take or leave the lyrics of groups like Steely Dan and EWF.) Anyway, now I’m wondering if fans also really like the musical elements, whereas the musical elements of his music leaves me cold.

      1. Reid said

        If the lyrics are good, but the music (e.g., melody, rhythms, vocal timbres, singing quality, etc.) does little for you or even worse, to what degree will you like the music?

        Can’t give a blanket statement here, but usually not much. I mean, take all the music out entirely so it’s just the spoken word version of the lyrics and I probably won’t listen, even if it’s Bob Dylan.

        Which is not to say I won’t listen to a spoken word album. That’s just a different thing.

        With music like Dylan’s, I assumed lyrics were the main reason fans loved his music, while they could take or leave the musical elements…Well, maybe that last part is too strong.

        Too strong and way off. The lyrics are the first thing people point to because they are so much better than most songwriters’ lyrics, but we love the music. And really, a song with lyrics is music AND lyrics. It’s not music with lyrics or lyrics with music. “Tangled up in Blue” is a melody, some instrumentation, lyrics, a voice, rhythm, meter, and sound; it’s not any one of these things minus the others, or any handful of things minus the rest.

        (For what it’s worth, I could take or leave the lyrics of groups like Steely Dan and EWF.) Anyway, now I’m wondering if fans also really like the musical elements, whereas the musical elements of his music leaves me cold.

        So in “Kid Charlemagne,” if the lyrics, instead of “get along, get along Kid Charlemagne” were something like “ride a bike, the sky is blue Alexander Payne” you’d like the song just as much? What about the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” or the national anthem? Do you like these songs without evaluation of the lyrics? Trying to get a handle on the degree to which song lyrics have little resonance with you.

        Tangent: I don’t know why, but it still surprises me that Dylan’s “Hurricane” leaves you flat. Thought you’d like that one, but maybe you dislike Dylan’s voice? Or maybe the sneering presentation?

    3. Too strong and way off. The lyrics are the first thing people point to because they are so much better than most songwriters’ lyrics, but we love the music.

      OK, that makes sense.

      And really, a song with lyrics is music AND lyrics. It’s not music with lyrics or lyrics with music. “Tangled up in Blue” is a melody, some instrumentation, lyrics, a voice, rhythm, meter, and sound; it’s not any one of these things minus the others, or any handful of things minus the rest.

      Right, but just to let you know where I’m coming from–Dylan’s music, generally speaking, is less interesting than, say, a lot of jazz that I like. In other words, my reaction is relative to the music I tend to like.

      So in “Kid Charlemagne,” if the lyrics, instead of “get along, get along Kid Charlemagne” were something like “ride a bike, the sky is blue Alexander Payne” you’d like the song just as much?

      I guess if I could clearly understand the lyrics, that might put a damper on the song. Then again, maybe not–I like a lot of songs where I can’t make out the words of the lyrics.

      What about the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” or the national anthem?

      No, the lyrics matter in those songs. And in every worship song, the lyrics matter a lot.

      Tangent: I don’t know why, but it still surprises me that Dylan’s “Hurricane” leaves you flat.

      No, I like that one. And to be clear, I didn’t mean to imply that all of Dylan’s music leaves me cold. I was speaking more generally.

      What about the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” or the national anthem? Do you like these songs without evaluation of the lyrics? Trying to get a handle on the degree to which song lyrics have little resonance with you.

    4. It depends on who the artist is, honestly

      Ultimately, though, it sounds like you either need to read the lyrics, or listen multiple times to really appreciate the lyrics. Or, is it not uncommon to really enjoy the good lyrics after only hearing a song one or two times.

      (Actually, there are lyrics I can enjoy after only one or two hearings, but these lyrics are generally clear and easy to understand.)

      I know one musician who is very much against lyrics sheets, because if the lyrics are important enough for the listener to know exactly, they’ll be clear enough in the audio. She makes a strong point.

      I don’t think you can make a broad claim like this. Older recordings may not have good technology to capture the music properly. Also, some musicians just don’t enunciate their words clearly. Should we conclude that the words aren’t important enough to the musician? (This would apply to some of Dylan’s songs.) I’m skeptical of this position.

      In this case, she’s having a baby any day now after going through infertility, IVF, and a miscarriage. Knowing all this lends more appreciation to the lyrics and probably doesn’t fall into the descriptors you list.

      There are some meta considerations too. I know when Bruce Springsteen quotes himself in his lyrics (also in his music), and this adds to my appreciation.

      OK, that makes sense. I would assume, though, in these two examples, the meaning of the lyrics are fairly clear.

      Yeah it sounds exhausting. But it doesn’t sound like you’re listening for the pleasure. From your descriptions, you’re studying the songs academically. Which is fine, but it’s not always enjoyable, especially if it’s an art form you don’t care for.

      The thing is, if I did the same thing for instrumental music, or let’s say a film I had a hard time understanding, if the music or film is really good, I generally gain a greater appreciation and find the process rewarding. I don’t feel that way at all–although I think in this specific case, I didn’t really gain significantly greater level of appreciation.

  8. Brief comments on…

    #44 Illmatic (1994) Nas

    This is more like it. Here, not only do the rhythm tracks groove, but the rapping grooves as well–at least for me. I was bobbing my head for a lot of the songs. That wasn’t the case for The Blueprint or Aquemini

    With regard to those albums, my impression is that both take a significant leap away from rap/hip-hop (not to imply they were the first). I feel like they’re both shifting more focus on the lyrics and making the cadences and rhymes more complex. In turn the rhythmic backdrops are less complex or they’re not as toe-tapping. Actually the raps also don’t groove as well.

    Or, I’m just not used to the music and rapping. I would guess that for a lot of fans, the rhythms are effective–effective in the sense of getting in their bodies and making them want to move. I wonder if I would feel that way if I listened more to the music.

  9. #42 OK Computer (1997) Radiohead

    I like the rocking quality of this, and even though I didn’t listen to them a lot during the 90s (or a lot of music like this), it kinda sounds like the music for Gen-Xers in their 20s, especially those “slacking” and trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

    1. I recently listened to this while reading the lyrics. Here are some random notes I jotted down:

      “Mood: rainy, grey place like Seattle or maybe London”
      “Disaffected young man–>highly disturbed, mentally ill”
      “arty, nerd rock version of punk, e.g., The Ramones”
      “Yorke’s singing–almost impossible to understand the lyrics; wailing in pain”

      Except for the aspects that make the person behind the lyrics seem mentally ill/unstable, I view the other comments in a positive light. Indeed, I like this album, and I think this might be my favorite of theirs, at least among the ones I’ve heard (which might only be three).

      Oh, here’s an example of lyrics that made me think the person behind the lyrics was mentally unwell (“Paranoid Android”)

      Please could you stop the noise I’m tryin to get some rest
      From all the unborn chicken voices in my head
      What’s that?
      What’s that?

      When I am king you will be first against the wall
      With your opinions which are of no consequence at all
      What’s that?
      What’s that?

      Ambition makes you look pretty ugly
      Kicking screaming gucci little piggy

      You don’t remember, you don’t remember
      Why don’t you remember my name?
      Off with his head man, off with his head!

      Why won’t he remember my name?

      I guess he does

      Raindown raindown come and raindown on me
      From a great height, from a great haaaeeeeeiii. haaaaeeeeeiiii
      Raindown rain down come and rain down on me
      From a great height, from a great aaaaaeeeeee

      [(previous verse continues into this)]

      That’s it sir you’re leaving
      The crackle of pig skin
      The dust and the screaming
      The yuppies networking
      The panic
      The vomit
      The panic
      The vomit

      God loves his children
      God loves his children, yeah

      Overall, I think this might be my favorite of theirs because of the raw sounding, noise guitars and computers (?).

  10. #45 Sign o’ the Times (1986) Prince

    I think this is my favorite album by Prince. It’s either this or 1999. I like the music, but I think there are examples of kind of bad lyrics, at least in relation to the type of music that would fall into the Dylan category. For example, here are the lyrics for “Hot Thing:”

    Hot thing!
    Hot thing, barely 21
    Hot thing, looking 4 big fun
    Hot thing, what’s your fantasy?
    Do U wanna play with me?

    Hot thing, baby U dance so good
    Hot thing, baby I knew U would
    Hot thing, tell me what U see
    Hot thing, When U smile, when U smile, when U smile
    Are your smiles, are your smiles 4 me?

    The lyrics pretty much go on like that for the rest of the song. In a way, the lyrics and the song remind me a little of James Brown’s lyrics, although the song isn’t as funky. Prince also carves some space for instrumental section, which is OK. I think the song works best in the overall context of the album’s music.

    The larger point I’d like to make is that pop/lyrics often often not that critical to me, and I often if they were not about weighty matters or performed in an earnest way. Fun usually works best with pop and rock that is pop-like. (As I write this “U Got the Look” comes on. The content of the song is superficial, but it’s fun. So is the music. Good!)

  11. #43 The Low End Theory (1991) A Tribe Called Quest

    Of the four rap albums I’ve listened to so far, I might like this one the most, at least in terms of the groove. On the other hand, I think it terms of the lyrics, I think this might be the weakest of the four. A big part of this is that the rhymes stick to the standard rap rhyming structure far too often. From what I remember, most rap songs around this time, or earlier, did this. Nas’s Illmatic, and definitely the Outkast and Jay-Z albums moved away from this and added more variety to the rhyming structure(?).

    But I still don’t really care for the grooves and overall music of Outkast and Jay-Z albums.

    By the way, I wonder if the more complex and diverse rhyming structures interfere with toe-tapping quality of the music. (I’m a little skeptical of this, to be honest. I’m probably just not used the the styles of Jay-Z and Outkast.)

  12. #39 Remain in the Light (1980) The Talking Heads

    Wow. Of the albums I’ve listened to so far, this one surprised me the most–in a good way; I really like it, especially the playing of the rhythm section. I generally don’t care for singers with Byrne’s sound, but I’m surprisingly OK with it.

    On a sidenote, on one of the songs (the second on the album I think), I liked the buzzsaw like guitar. I couldn’t confirm who played that part, but when I looked at the personnel of the album, I’m pretty sure I know who it is. He’s the guy that whose singing I dislike, but whose guitar playing I really like.

    More later.

    1. Remain in Light.

      Are you saying the other guitarist I couldn’t think of is Jerry Harrison? Man, I never would have gotten that. I didn’t even know he sang.

      Did you also like the rhythm section in Tom Tom Club?

    2. (Will correct the error. Thanks.)

      No, I’m not saying the guitarist is Jerry Harrison. I’m assuming the person is a guest artist.

      As for the Tom Tom Club, I’m only familiar with “Genius of Love,” and I like the groove on that. (I think that’s the name of the song.)

      1. Did you mean Brian Eno?

        Yes, Genius of Love. You probably also know Wordy Rappinghood and their cover of Under the Boardwalk. A good band.

    3. No, I didn’t mean Brian Eno. Do you want me to reveal the guitarist?

      Oh yeah, I think I know “Wordy Rappinghood,” and their cover of “Under the Board Walk.”

      1. No, but just clarify whether or not when you said, “I couldn’t confirm who played that part, but when I looked at the personnel of the album, I’m pretty sure I know who it is. He’s the guy that whose singing I dislike, but whose guitar playing I really like” you were talking about that second guy whose identity I haven’t figured out yet.

  13. #37 The Chronic (1992) Dr. Dre

    Around the time of this album came out, Wynton Marsalis and the jazz critic, Stanley Crouch, harshly criticized rap, particularly the vulgar language and content. I thought of those remarks while listening to this album, and strangely I didn’t think of it while listening to four the previous rap/hip-hop albums (although most were vulgar as well). For some reason, this one took it to another level.

    I actually feel a bit disappointed in this because I really like Snoopy Dogg. I think he has a great voice, and I really like his style. On both counts, he would be among my favorite rappers. (By the way, that the album is credited to Dr. Dre seems a bit misleading to me, as Snoop is featured on most of the songs, and to me, he steals the show. For what it’s worth, Dre’s sound and rapping is just OK to me.

    I would also add that I like the rhythm tracks on this, similar to the other two rap albums made in the early 90s, Illmatic and The Low End Theory. Musically, I might like The Chronic, the best.

    The sad thing is that I may never listen to this album again because of the lyrics.

    1. It’s a valid concern, and I once felt the same way about N.W.A. But I’ve seen Boyz n the Hood more than once and Taxi Driver more than once, and thinking about this changed the way I looked at this form of hip hop, not to mention a lot of reading the interviews with Ice-T, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre.

      They’re playing characters. From somewhere I can’t relate to but can try to understand. It doesn’t necessarily make me like The Chronic any better, but it did turn me into an admirer of the first two N.W.A. albums.

    2. Taxi Driver and Boyz in the Hood seem different to me. I don’t think I would describe either film as “vulgar” although there are scenes and aspects of it where that adjective might be appropriate. I wouldn’t use the word “crass,” either–and I think that word is apt when it comes to The Chronic. And it seems more egregiously crass and vulgar than the Jay-Z, OutKast, Nas albums.

      If you can share any other thoughts that helped you appreciate music like this, I’d be interested in hearing them.

  14. #40 The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) David Bowie

    Besides songs that made onto top 40 radio, I’m not really familiar with Bowie’s music. While his popular tunes were enjoyable, his voice and his persona was off-putting to me. He just seemed a bit weird for my tastes. That’s my attitude when I listened to this recording.

    Here are some thoughts off the top of my head:

    Bowie may still have a strange sound–not classically beautiful–but he’s a good singer with some range and also the ability to rock.

    I would classify most of the tunes a rock n’ roll or a bit edgier rock at times–with a connection to earlier rock. There is some diversity within this style, though. For example, some of the guitar riffs and melodies push the music into a hard rock territory. Other songs have a very Elton John rock sound, with the pounding piano chords and back up singers (“La la la la”–like in “Crocodile Rock”).

    The lyrics are confusing, aburdist at times. This is partly what makes the music a different type of rock n’ roll.

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