Monday, October 13, 2008

Doubling Down on Double LPs

by Joe Schwab

Nothing beats a great double album. You can live inside a great double for weeks, months or even years before it’s completely absorbed. 20-25 minutes a side was the perfect length to take in an artist’s concept with sequencing used to build up or to compliment the previous track. When a new record came out, we could take in a side of a record in a few days, but a good double album can stretch the imagination of the artist as well as create a freedom to say things that normally would never be conceived on a single disc (Revolution #9 anyone?), much to the chagrin of the record companies.

So, here it is, I submit to you Joe's all-time favorite, grade A, cream of the crop Top 10 favorite double records, listed chronologically not in order of preference. Sorry, no live albums or best of comps allowed.

1- The Beatles - The White Album - Duh, I mean of course The White Album is on the list. This is the granddaddy of 'em all; it's where it all started. Much like Sgt. Pepper ushered in the long play era, The White Album was the first great double. I think this record took me at least 10 years to take in. Diverse, full of everything that made the Beatles great, and much of what ultimately killed the Fab‘s run. For every "Dear Prudence" we get "Wild Honey Pie", but it's "warts and all" and that's the beauty of it. As McCartney said in the Anthology series, "it's the bloody White Album, shut up!". Check out issues 178 and 179 of Mojo, complete with interviews with McCartney, articles on each song and some very nice cover versions of each tune on the bonus CD‘s.

2 - The Who - Tommy - The first double concept record and credited as the first Rock Opera (whatever that means). It’s a story (a loose one at that) and a handy way for Pete Townsend to tie his songs together into what might be the most fully realized double record of all time. The “warts and all” concept of the White Album is hardly the case with Tommy, it’s nearly flawless. It’s diverse, yet the reccurring themes (also prevalent in Quadrophenia) tie the record into a neat package which I suppose is why it’s been deemed an opera. The other unbelievable fact is that Tommy followed on the heels the equally brilliant Who Sell Out LP. Indeed, a very fertile time for Mr. Townsend.

3 - Miles Davis - Bitches Brew - What can you say about an album that changed jazz recordings forever. The radical shift from acoustic to electric instruments confounded the older Miles fans, brought aboard younger listeners and opened up the next generation of jazz musicians to new dimension of sound and space. It’s easy to say that Miles was the architect of this new electric sound and rightly so, but these recordings as well as the subsequent 70’s releases were made up of spontaneous jams, craftily edited in a concise form by the great Teo Macero. Also, this was not Miles’ first foray into the electric realm, that distinction belonged to In a Silent Way. But this was a package, two records of hypnotic device with a cool cover depicting an Africa-American psychedelic revolution, unheard of at the time. Jazz-Rock to be sure.

4- The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street - A wonderful conglomeration of raw energetic strutting and sleepy heroin-induced stuttering. But this is a perfect final document of the Stones at the peak of their power. After some failed attempts at making a truly great record, the Stones were on a role starting with Beggars Banquet, leading to Let It Bleed and finally Sticky Fingers. I don’t think it’s a real coincidence that this happened with the death of Brian Jones and the arrival of Mick Taylor. Taylor’s blues playing was deeper and far more rooted in Elmore James, than Keith’s Chuck Berry obsession. This made for a wonderful symmetry later lost when Keith’s stylistically like-minded mate Ronnie Wood joined the band. Exile is the perfect example of the rough and tumble world of glam, drugs, love, beauty and jealousy’s rolled into two records of “fuck you if you don’t like it” rock and roll.

5 - Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life – Was this the beginning of the end of Stevie Wonder’s brilliant run of perfection? Starting with Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fullingness’ First Finale, Stevie could do no wrong. At that time, he could take a dump and write a million seller. Yes, that is prolific! Songs in the Key of Life was the ghetto lullaby that still stands the test of time. It depicts a period of post-revolution urban America set with the sounds of great funk and gorgeous melody. This is nearly a perfect record, no “warts and all”, nearly every song is a winner and nearly every tune could have been a hit on the radio. Stevie was never better, which is a shame for all of us, because his music did get progressively worse and in a big hurry.

6 - The Clash - London Calling - The next step after their debut and Give ‘em Enough Rope. This is as slicked down as the Clash could get without ruining their reputation as political zealot Punk Rock Revolutionaries. Maybe the horns pissed off the punks, but it gained a new legion of fans that were working there way out of the Pink Floyd arena shows and looking for something accessible, but in a rebellious “take no prisoners “ kind of way. The Clash were the best band for the job. This album captured the spirit as well as turning kids on to everything from reggae music to Montgomery Clift. A brilliant record that converted the mainstream audience to the most important band of its time.

7- Bruce Springsteen – The River – After the tediously recorded 1975 masterpiece Born to Run came the triumphant Darkness On the Edge of Town. Darkness spawned some of Bruce’s finest songs, but they seemed to lack that spontaneity so prevalent in The Boss’ concerts. Enter The River, not the greatest Springsteen album ever, but filled with tons of great songs played in a looser more spontaneous fashion than the previous two. The record showcases the E Street Band as they are in concert, a tight unit but with an element of looseness that more typifies rock and roll and the Springsteen sound. I suppose Bruce was looking at a larger sound with Born and Darkness, but this stripped down LP captures the essence of what makes him the greatest rock and roller of his time.

8 - Prince - Sign O the Times - Prince has never been anything BUT prolific. This wasn’t his first double record, that was 1999, but this one featured concise R&B/pop tunes, somewhere between funk, disco and rock. The record was a joint venture spilt between Prince and his alter ego female entity, Camille. Prince was so prolific at this time that he followed up his underrated psychedelic funk masterpiece Around the World in a Day record with thefunk-driven Parade and yet he had another set of new songs. This time he took the vocals, sped them up and voila, Prince had an alter-ego in Camille. The remainder of the songs was from the abandoned Crystal Ball sessions. Only Prince at his peak of his powers could take two rejected incomplete odds and sods and put them together into what very well could be considered his masterpiece. It’s good to be Prince.

9 - Wilco - Being There – Somehow Jeff Tweedy shook off the shock of the breakup of Uncle Tupelo and headed into the studio with the remaining members to record the first Wilco record A.M. What came about was a record reminiscent of Tupelo but without the added dimension and vocal prowess of Jay Farrar. Enter Jay Bennett, longtime Illinois rocker-songwriter and hereby the newest running partner of Jeff’s. Jay brought in an arsenal of new instruments and fresh ideas and basically developing what (at least at the time) could be considered the Wilco sound. Somewhat abrasive and often beautiful, there was no doubt, Jeff had found his post Uncle Tupelo voice and audiences ate it up. Even though this record is not necessarily a double in length, it is presented in a double format and fulfills all the requirements of what makes the double great, wonderful diversity and nice sequencing making it better and better with each listening.

10 - Future Clouds and Radar- Future Clouds and Radar – A modern day classic, if not widely heard, yet. Robert Harrison was primarily known from the Austin based Cotton Mather. During its run in the 90’s, they had a series of three fine records of catchy, although complicated, smart pop songs. A band break up, a car accident and four years of lying in bed with a broken back created a glut of shimmering songs detailing a life that was at best stagnant. Once he “got his boots on” the songs came pouring out. Robert and his new band Future Clouds and Radar pulled out the kitchen sink, with unforgettable songs that are both shimmering and murky and often at the same time. The record never gets old, it just more interesting as a good double should do. All this makes the debut of Future Clouds the early pick for album of the decade.

Lest I forget:

Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde
Jimi Hendrix - Electric Ladyland
Captain Beef heart - Trout Mask Replica
Todd Rundgren - Something/Anything
Minutemen - Double Nickles on a Dime
Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation
The Who - Quadrophenia
Mothers of Invention - Freak Out!
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti
Derek and the Dominoes - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
Husker Du - Zen Arcade
Marvin Gaye - Here My Dear

Sorry, not a fan:

Pink Floyd - The Wall
Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Smashing Pumpkins- Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

It’s a triple, fool!:

The Clash- Sandinista
George Harrison - All Things Must Pass

Your comments please? What are your favorites? What did I forget?


Jim said...

Dude, I love Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

android said...

Fleetwood Mac - Tusk

Anonymous said...

Great list!

I'd throw in Stephen Still's, "Manassas".


Jen said...

Nice to see that two of the defining albums of my generation made your list. I miss the days when the Clash and Prince lived side by side on college radio.

Having said that...let's hear it for the ladies: Joni Mitchell's "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" is perennially underrated in her cannon. Perhaps people will consider "Court and Spark" the masterwork, and then reach for "Blue" or "Hejira," but I always considered "Don Juan" her deepest and most ambitious work. Plus, Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius--what a band!

Tony Renner said...

is there a worse band name than future clouds and radar...?

-- tony

esceezeroten said...

Nice Old School piece, Joe.
Here's a follow-up question:
How many of these double-albums would now be single-CD's?
Throw the analogy in reverse and I'd have to put the second Tindersticks CD on the list of what could technically be "double albums".

steve scariano said...

You forgot Prisonshake's Dirty Moons. :)