To My Ear: First 50 Albums

I’ve now listened to fifty of the greatest albums of all time, devoting a full week to each. I revisited albums I’ve loved for years, spent time getting to know I only knew a little, and became acquainted with some that I’d never heard before. What did I think personally and what did I learn over all?

As a songwriter, I learned that there the basic standards of songwriting provide the basis for crafting good songs. Still, there are no hard-fast rules. As long as there’s something the listener can hang unto, rules and standards can be broken, ignored, or turned upside down.

Those basics of pop songwriting include the blocks of Verse, Chorus, Bridge and the common arrangements of those blocks (Intro-Verse-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Coda). There’s no shame in using this tried-and-true song structure or typical variations thereof.  It’s not too unlike the structures of plays, movies, novels, or even lectures; You can better engage the listener if the story you tell is built on a structure they know how to follow.

In this way, the structure becomes invisible to most listeners and deviations become visible. In this way, use of an uncommon song structure becomes a part of the narrative, and therefore should support the story in a meaningful way. It doesn’t have to, but it helps.

On chord progressions, I learned something similar.  The most common  progressions possess a lot of strength. That’s why they are so frequently used. They generally provide a good sense of movement and emotion or drive. Again, there’s no shame in using these. Some of the greatest songs from the greatest albums use some sort of I-IV-V chord progression with the exact song structure described above.

Still, I learned that using 7th chords can add tension or emotion to a song. In addition, some very good songs use some strange chord progressions. Borrowed chords particularly give an emotional change to a song without necessary using a full key-change. The further songs get from typical cadences (like V-I or IV-I), the more they can seem to drift along aimless. This can be used effectively as well.

Regarding lyrics, there are two main things I learned. Of course, these are not all I learned, but I think these are the most important for me at this point. First, I confirmed that narrative songwriting best captures my interest. It doesn’t necessarily have to a full tale, it could just be a vignette of somebody making a sandwich. But through these little stories, some sort of emotional conflict can be expressed. Also, the story need not be even coherent or concrete; rather, ambiguity can add a little mystery as well as more room for the listener to move in. I think this narrative element also relates to the concept of “show-don’t-tell” that was taught in writing classes. Don’t say “she is sad,” but rather show how she moves around slowly with her head down. Don’t tell the audience how to feel, let them empathize with the character.

Secondly, I learned to not be afraid of rhyme, but rather to expand my rhyming vocabulary. Bob Dylan in particular is a master of crafting rhymes. Sometimes he’ll use a typical rhyme, but more often his inventiveness allows the story to be told without drawing attention to the rhyme.

In addition to rhyming vocabulary, it’s good to study poetry and old ballads. As a songwriter, I’m writing words I write are meant to be sung with the accompaniment of music. While it is true that lyrics and poetry are not the same thing, there’s a strong relationship between them. And I think that many of these albums prove that a songwriter wielding the tools of the poet can craft better lyrics. This is not writing to sound poetic, but rather, getting a grasp of how poets use meter, rhyme schemes, line structure, stanzas, refrains, etc. And beyond those physical materials of poetry, how do they use things like narrative, visuals, symbolism, metaphors, and allusions.

First 50 Albums Ranked

So, having listened to fifty albums from a composite ranked list inevitably gives one the desire to give their own personal rankings. So, I did it. I point out that my intention was to mostly rank them based on how much I enjoyed and appreciated them. So, this is a very subjective list. That’s always true, but I’m consciously ignoring how great an album was beyond my own tastes. This is very difficult to do, and I don’t necessarily think it’s that important. Still.. if I ranked these same albums again in a month, the order would be a little different here and there.

  1. Beach Boys: Pet Sounds
  2. Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks
  3. Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.
  4. Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde
  5. Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet
  6. Beatles: Abbey Road
  7. Beatles: The Beatles (White Album)
  8. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run
  9. Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed
  10. Beatles: Rubber Soul
  11. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
  12. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited
  13. Patti Smith: Horses
  14. Prince and Revolution: Purple Rain
  15. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
  16. Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland
  17. Smiths: The Queen is Dead
  18. Television: Marquee Moon
  19. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You
  20. Doors: The Doors
  21. Radiohead: OK Computer
  22. Beatles: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
  23. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions
  24. Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen
  25. Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon
  26. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
  27. Clash: London Calling
  28. David Bowie: Hunky Dory
  29. Sex Pistols: Nevermind the Bollocks
  30. Who: Who’s Next
  31. Johnny Cash: Live at Folsom Prison
  32. Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground & Nico
  33. Pixies: Doolittle
  34. Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced
  35. David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
  36. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV
  37. Joni Mitchell: Blue
  38. Beatles: Revolver
  39. Paul Simon: Graceland
  40. Michael Jackson: Thriller
  41. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
  42. Ramones: Ramones
  43. Nirvana: Nevermind
  44. Prince: Sign O The Times
  45. Carole King: Tapestry
  46. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back
  47. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless
  48. Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On
  49. Massive Attack: Blue Lines
  50. Radiohead: Kid A

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