I hate “the best.” It rankles me when people say it – always has. Superlatives (and even extreme comparatives – like “genius”) always make me pause. Only genuine experts in a subject should be able to reach that level of judgment, and even then it will be skewed by the data available, or their upbringing, or their path of study. And then the Dunning Kruger effect suggests that the more of an expert you are in a field, the more you realize that your answer is not absolute. Now we find ourselves in an era where bloviating about the “best wall” and the “best steaks” has empowered a racist administration who are rapidly turning the clock back to 1789.
Nonetheless, it is a feature of our contemporary existence to seek expert, or at least interested, opinion to help guide our way. None of us likely to peruse “a few documentaries on Netflix that you’ll only have to fast forward a few times,” but I will certainly take extensive notes on The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women right or wrong, whether I agree or not, ad infinitum.
These are albums that you may have heard, but likely have not heard all of, and that I think sound amazing.
6 Great Albums You May Not Have Listened To (But Probably Should)
Miles Davis In A Silent Way (1969)
This album is the usual winner in the “what should I listen to” sweepstakes every time I find myself driving through beautiful expansive scenery, particularly during twilight. If you’re making a play for Balmorhea or anything trans-Pecos, give it a shot.
This is a transitional record for Miles, who is adopting an increasingly loose song format and taking advantage of a number of his later 60s quintet (Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock(keys), and Tony Williams(drums)), as well as a few newer faces – Chick Corea(keys) and Dave Holland (bass) were both on Miles’ previous album, Filles de Kilimanjaro. New players Joe Zawinul (keys) and John McLaughlin (guitar) rounded out the personnel. Most of these players would go on complete the jazz rock fusion genesis on Miles’ next record Bitches Brew.
As great as Bitches Brew is, I prefer the simplicity of In a Silent Way. It is expansive and sublime. After running tape on these sessions, producer Ted Macero was allowed to splice the moments together as he saw fit, and the result is magnificent.
And, of course, this marks the beginning of John McLaughlin’s association with Miles. McLaughlin’s playing on In A Silent Way is more lyrical than the blind fury we see with Mahavishnu and Shakti. As I recall he is playing a Gibson with a pickup in the soundhole (confirmed), so I always imagine him as the Lightnin Hopkins of fusion on this record, before he goes full electric.
Albert Marcouer Albert Marcouer (1974)
I remember the first time I heard this record. It was the first time Chablis practiced, which was already a very confusing and profound experience, and we were over at Bearded Lady – a local printer’s shop where JD had a rehearsal space. I had seen and played with JD’s band Oh! Beast and heard some of his other band Zulu as Kono, so I was already kind of in awe of him as well as the other 7 or 8 personal idols that made up Chablis. Anyways after practice, he said “hey y’all, check out this,” and played this Albert Marcouer record. I was utterly gobsmacked. This record could’ve been made in 2011 it sounded so fresh and amazing, but it was made in 1974, the debut album of a Frenchman I’d never heard of at all.
Although there’s more US awareness of Marcouer now (I had a lot of trouble getting his music, but now it’s streaming and on youtube and stuff), I still don’t know too much about him. He’s a woodwind specialist, had been a sideman for a while, and, according to Wikipedia, in France, he has been called ‘the French Frank Zappa’. Do yourself a favor and give this a listen.
Talk Talk Spirit of Eden 1988
I didn’t want to believe it, either. My memory of Talk Talk was the relatively limp synth-pop of “Talk Talk” and “It’s My Life,” which, if I had not been writing this I would not have remembered at all.
However, my buddy and bandmate Matt Kelly, whose musical opinion is generally above reproach (I am his favorite guitar player) grew very animated one evening about Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden. Naturally, I spent the rest of the night making fun of him. But being a liberal, I am trained to consider the other side. And in this matter I was wrong.
Talk Talk managed to turn their moderate success into a reasonable budget and autonomy for recording their fourth record, and it is a spectacular album that gave birth to Post-Rock like Slint, Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Tortoise, and so forth. Crank the headphones up and just let this wash on over you.
Emmylou Harris Wrecking Ball
My friend Larkin and I saw this documentary on PBS by Bob Lanois detailing the recording of Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball in New Orleans with Daniel Lanois and were so stricken with gorgeous the music sounded that we went to the record store the next day the moment they opened to get the record. (apparently, the doc is on a dvd now, so I’ll find it eventually.)
There is something magical about this whole record. Lanois’ production doesn’t inherently lend itself to roots rock as quickly as, say, T-Bone Burnet’s – Lanois’ next album working with Willie Nelson is merely entertaining. But on this record, the atmosphere and mood and Emmylou’s range and exquisite curation of songs – from Neil Young and Gillian Welch and Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams and Jimi Hendrix (!) lead to a perfect storm of beauty and grandeur, pathos and release from perdition.
Motorpsycho The Death Defying Unicorn 2012
The fifteenth album by a Norwegian band I had only glancingly heard of before my buddy and bandmate David Hobizal sent me a link. I haven’t listened to all of their other albums yet, but I am getting close.
Motorpsycho started in 1989, and have been a three-piece (most of the time) throughout their career. They are usually classified as progressive or psychedelic rock. They did an In The Fishtank with Jaga Jazzist Horns that was pretty cool.
The Death Defying Unicorn is a double album and collaboration with Ståle Storløkken, a Norwegian composer. It has so much to offer I am at a loss for where to start – amazing musicianship, incredible arrangements, a clear and compelling story arc, extended guitar solos that incorporate composed elements in the middle of chaos – it’s just great. If you play guitar or drums or bass you should listen to the first 5 or 6 tracks and reconsider what you should be doing with your songwriting. And if you are a listener this album will transport you across space and time in a way we haven’t seen since Meddle.
Xenia Rubinos Magic Trix 2013
I saw my friend Terry at the grocery store the other day, and he asked me “have you heard of this band, Battles?” We chatted briefly about Stanier and then moved along. Later that day I thought “I should’ve hipped him to Xenia,” and that’s what led me to make this list.
Xenia Rubinos and her partner Marco Buccelli are churning out music that I can only describe as Battles plus. The rhythms and sounds that they create are firmly rooted in the Latin community of Brooklyn, yet broken in delightful and modern ways. And on top of that rooted, contemporary pastiche we have Xenia Rubinos’ superstar vocals talking directly to you about things that matter.
Here’s a live Xenia track from KEXP.