Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Greatest Acoustic Rock Albums of All Time, Part 2 - A Dark Elf File 1st Anniversary Special

One year ago yesterday (July 11, 2010), I unleashed the Dark Elf File on the unsuspecting wired world of the Internet. In that year, I have managed to piss off any number of dim-witted disco bloggers, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sycophants and brown-nosers, and even an overzealous prog-rock aficionado with a failing memory. I hope to do more of the same in the years to come; it is what we old-school curmudgeons do - in a most unapologetic and offensive, but highly literate manner, I might add.

In regards to the creation of this list, the specific caveats and qualifiers for the acoustic rock albums I chose can be found here: The Greatest Acoustic Rock Albums of All Time, Part 1 - A Dark Elf File 1st Anniversary Special, as there was definitely a method to my obsessive madness.

And so, without further ado, here is the second half of The Greatest Acoustic Rock Albums of All Time. Below, please find an additional 30 albums for you perusal which, with the 20 recordings that were reviewed in the first part of this article, make a full 50 albums in all for your aural edification:

Court and Spark - Joni Mitchell
Not as groundbreaking as Mitchell's confessional Blue album, perhaps, but two albums removed from that landmark release, Court and Spark offers more accessible songs and the album itself was her biggest seller. And for good reason. Buoyed by the hit single Help Me, Mitchell's jazzy and brilliant dialogues and monologues are enhanced by stellar backing musicians: Free Man in Paris (David Crosby and Graham Nash), "Raised on Robbery" (Robbie Robertson), and even Cheech & Chong on Twisted. Interior miniatures like Car on the Hill and Down to You make Court and Spark a fascinating album, and certainly my favorite from her folk-rock period.

John Wesley Harding - Bob Dylan
Dylan dragged the folk establishment kicking and screaming into the 20th century with his use of electric guitar on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and just when everyone got settled in with the amplified status quo, what does Dylan do for an encore in 1967? He goes back to Woody Guthrie-style acoustics on John Wesley Harding. This took a lot of balls for Dylan at a time when Are You Experienced, Sgt Pepper, Strange Days and After Bathing at Baxter's revelled in the electric psychedelia of the era. Dylan would go into a funk after this album, and not produce any further masterpieces until 1975's Blood on the Tracks. Here are the few songs I could cull from YouTube from this album (I am sure they'll be deleted soon): All Along the Watchtower, I Dreamed I saw St. Augustine and I Pity The Poor Immigrant.

Déjà Vu - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
The addition of "Y" to "CSN" not only added a sometime vowel to a series of consonants, but a different voice and compositional style to an already immensely talented group. Of course, along with immense talent comes immense egos, and the fistfights backstage at CSN&Y concerts were legendary (at least according to Frank Zappa), but that didn't stop them from recording the great Déjà Vu before they ended up killing each other. Each artist made wonderful acoustic contributions to the album: Déjà Vu (Crosby), 4+20 (Stills), Teach Your Children and Our House (Nash), and Helpless and Country Girl (Young).

Teaser and the Firecat - Cat Stevens
How did Cat Stevens follow-up his masterpiece Tea for the Tillerman? By releasing another masterpiece, of course. Teaser and the Firecat offers memorable hits like Peace Train, Moonshadow, and Morning Has Broken, but it's the other songs on the album that leave an indelible mark: The Wind, Tuesday's Dead, Changes IV, and the infinitely sad How Can I Tell You. The height of the singer/songwriter movement in the 1970s, and an amazing artifact of a time when one could write beautifully sensitive songs of social import and inner meaning and still have a mega-hit.

Moondance - Van Morrison
Like Cat Stevens, Van Morrison followed-up a masterpiece with another and even bigger hit. After Morrison released the critically acclaimed Astral Weeks, his next album in 1970, Moondance (the title song, mystifyingly, was not released as a single until 1977), continued Morrison's unique compositional style, albeit with a more pastoral flair. The rustic appeal of And It Stoned Me, the rousing Caravan, and the timeless Into the Mystic all reflect a gypsy-like return to the land. Other notable tracks are Crazy Love and These Dreams of You.

Songs from the Wood - Jethro Tull
The last truly superb Tull album, Songs from the Wood is the cumulative apex of electrified British folk-rock pioneered by Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. The acoustic compositions are outstanding, particularly the thinly-veiled sexual escapades of Velvet Green and the rousing The Whistler. There is also the sentimental Fire at Midnight, the pastoral paean to the English Pan Jack-in-the-Green, and a stunning baroque acoustic instrumental passage in the long metallic composition Pibroch (Cap in Hand). The next two albums Heavy Horses and Stormwatch would complete a folk-rock trilogy that marked the end of Tull's brilliantly eccentric classic period.

The Master and the Musician - Phil Keaggy
Phil Keaggy is criminally overlooked and undervalued due to his Christian beliefs. Had he decided to take a secular road during his career, he would be hailed as one of the greatest guitarists ever; but since the media absolutely abhors anyone even mentioning their faith, they pigeon-hole the artist, or worse, ignore them altogether. The Master and the Musician is strictly instrumental (so as not to offend any one's avowed separation of church and Strat), and is one of the most beautiful and contemplative acoustic albums ever recorded. Listen to Pilgrim's Flight, Medley: Evensong/Twighlight/Forever Joy, The High and Exalted One, The Castle's Call, or Wedding in the Country Manor, and you will find that words are not necessary when Keaggy's compositions speak for his soul.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo - The Byrds
A landmark country rock album that influenced every band in the genre from the Eagles to Wilco. The addition of the great Gram Parsons to the Byrds line-up was so pronounced an effect, that the band completely deviated from the psychedelia and Dylan covers that marked their earlier albums for a completely countrified release that few actual "country" artists could ever come close to performing. Y'all just sit yer be-hinds on that there front porch and give a listen to Pretty Boy Floyd (with cinematic embellishments), I Am A Pilgrim, You Don't Miss Your Water, Life in Prison, and Hickory Wind. Y'all come back now, here?

Rust Never Sleeps - Neil Young
A decade that began with the death of the Beatles ended with Neil's brilliant reinvention of himself. Rust Never Sleeps walks the knife's edge between electric guitar-driven savagery and beautifully rendered acoustic imagery, and the dualistic paean to Johnny Rotten My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)/"Hey, Hey, My My (Into the Black)" mirrors the schizophrenic song selection to a tee. But as a subtext to Rotten's meteoric rise and fall, there is an autobiographical allusion to Young's career, with the lush lyrical imagery of such songs like Thrasher, "Ride My Llama" (a personal favorite not available on YouTube), Sail Away, and Pocahontas at odds with the albums more brutal pyrotechnics.

Unhalfbricking - Fairport Convention
This Fairport album marks the transition point from the bands earlier albums influenced primarily by the American folk movement to a decidely more British take on folk rock, eventually culminating in the masterpiece of electrified British folk Liege and Lief. Unlike Liege and Lief, Unhalfbricking is primarily acoustic in delivery. The album is notable for the incredible Sandy Denny composition Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Richard Thompson's Genesis Hall, and some remarkable takes on Dylan: Percy's Song and Si Tu Dois Partir. The first inkling of a Liege and Lief-style turn towards British folklore is on the epic A Sailor's Life.

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme - Simon & Garfunkel
Simon & Garfunkel could rattle off stunningly beautiful compositions with netherworldy regularity, and nowhere is this more discernible than on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme: the great war protest/medieval love song Scarborough Fair/Canticle rises skyward like a prayer, while Homeward Bound is grounded along the long, dreary road; The Dangling Conversation records the emptiness of a dying relationship, yet For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her exults in the first blush of love; The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy) is a bright bit of 60s pop, but 7 O'Clock News/Silent Night juxtaposes a beautiful and calm Christmas Carol with grim reminders of the turbulent world as it truly is.

Cruel Sister - Pentangle
Overshadowed by Fairport Convention's electrified British folk masterpiece Liege and Lief (1969), guitarist extraordinaire Bert Jansch and Pentangle released Cruel Sister - and it was a huge flop (I'm not sure if even Jansch's mum bought the album). But flops in one generation can be a masterpiece in another, and this is certainly the case for Cruel Sister, with the sublime vocals of Jacqui McShee and the medieval lilt that pervades the album. Lord Franklin details a disastrous expedition to find the Northwest Passage, Jack Orion features Jansch's beautiful picking, and When I Was In My Prime is a beautiful a cappella highlight by McShee.

Fisherman's Blues - The Waterboys
Many folks consider This is the Sea to be the Waterboys' best album. I would cordially disagree. Fisherman's Blues represents a watershed moment in 1980's Rock, much like the Pogue's If I Should Fall From Grace With God (save without the overt whiskey and heroin abuse). Fisherman's Blues is a heady concoction of Irish folk, American country and roots rock, that is diverse in influences (Beatles, Van Morrison, Hank Williams Sr., and even William Butler Yeats), but cohesive in its delivery. Of particular note are And a Bang on the Ear (one of the best reminiscences of different lovers ever written), Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?, Sweet Thing and The Stolen Child (a beautiful reworking of W.B. Yeats' poem, and the best use of the spoken word in a rock album since the 1960s heyday of the Moody Blues).

Led Zeppelin III
"Unledded" Zeppelin. Both Plant and Page shake their heads to this day over the critical attacks on this album. It seems the critics expected "Whole Lotta Love, Part II" and when they got an acoustic album instead, they attacked Zeppelin as "imitating the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young". So much for creativity and eschewing formulaic hit-making. In any case, there is a wide range of great acoustic material here: Gallow's Pole, Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, Friends, That's the Way, Tangerine, and Hats Off to Roy Harper. The infuriating thing is that the great Hey What Can I Do, which was recorded during the same sessions, only appears as a single and not on the album itself.

The Hazards of Love - The Decemberists
A folk-rock opera that is as dark, daring and in the end, deathly, as Bizet's Carmen or Mozart's Don Giovanni, but Colin Meloy injects a bit of poignancy and sardonic wit into the grand and grave album to lighten the proceedings a bit. Of special note are the two female vocalists, Shara Worden (the malignantly jealous Fairy Queen) and Becky Starks (the innocent heroine, Margaret), who sing their parts brilliantly. The gallows humor pervades The Rake's Song (the evil antagonist who kills his children, played by Meloy with wicked zeal). Worden is revelatory in The Wanting Comes in Waves (an eerie reincarnation of 60s-era Grace Slick), and Starks is beautiful in Isn't It a Lovely Night. The best acoustic passages are Annan Water and The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned). One of the best albums of the last ten years.

Henry the Human Fly - Richard Thompson
Thompson has always been a bit of an anomoly. After radically altering the British folk rock landscape with the landmarks Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief, he set out on an inconoclastic solo career that never quite fit comfortably in any specific genre. His first solo effort, Henry the Human Fly is a blueprint for any number of albums he recorded with then wife Linda Thompson, a hybrid recording integrating British folk, rock and bits of American roots music. There is the Poor Ditching Boy, the savagely witty attack on British government The New St. George, and several other songs that showcase his brand of acoustic picking and sly lyricism, such as The Old Changing Way, The Angels Took My Racehorse Away, and Nobody's Wedding (live radio version).

Illinois - Sufjan Stevens
Being from Detroit, I have an emotional attachment to Sufjan's ethereal and reverent album Michigan, but I have to admit he did a superior job on Illinois (the bastard!). Sufjan's second state-themed album (god, I hope the next one isn't Ohio), Illinois is a sprawling and epic release that is both weird and wonderful. Songs like John Wayne Gacy Jr. (a beautifully warped song about the clown mass-murderer) and Casimir Pulaski Day (about a girlfriend who died of bone cancer) are not the usual faire for a baroque pop album (or indie folk or folk rock or whatever the proper tag is). The titles are hilarious and as outrageous as the lyrics: The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us! and Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!, but this is one magnificent album.

In Search of the Lost Chord - The Moody Blues
I preface this by saying that I am reviewing the 2006 In Search of the Lost Chord (Deluxe Edition) with bonus tracks. What was one of the truly superlative and unforgettable psychedelic albums of the 1960s, with such great acoustic songs as Visions of Paradise, The Actor, The Word/Om and Legend of a Mind, becomes a revelation with beautiful additional tracks like What Am I Doing Here?, King and Queen, and A Simple Game (which isn't an acoustic song, but I thought you'd enjoy it if you've never heard it). Extraordinary.

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash - The Pogues
The title comes from a Churchill quote: "Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash." The album picks up where the quote left off, starting with epic drinking ballad The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn (Then they'll take you to Cloughprior and shove you in the ground/But you'll stick your head back out and shout "we'll have another round"). There's a bit of everything for your various drinking moods, from the somber semi-hit Dirty Old Town, to the unintelligible Billy Bones, to a bit of Southern hospitality on Jesse James, to a traditional Irish piss Sally MacLennane, and a breathless, boozy turn by Cait O'Riordan on the traditional I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day. As Brendan Brehan would say, "Guinness makes you drunk." So do The Pogues.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea - Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane over the Sea is a wonderfully warped bit of 1960s psychedelic folk transplanted into the jaded and cynical 1990s. Throw together some Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Syd Barrett, shake well, and drop a hit of acid. Or not. It is an intriguing album nonetheless. There is a growing bit of insanity and tension on Oh, Comely that is genuinely disturbing. The lyrics are to-the-point yet surreal in their depiction of dysfunctional American home life in King of Carrot Flowers (Parts 1-3). Love the distortion juxtaposed against the acoustics on Ghost, and where would a self-respecting psych-folk album be without a ballad about a two-headed boy? Well, thank god that Neutral Milk Hotel (Jeff Magnum, really) includes one: Two-Headed Boy (Pt 2).

Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison - Harmonium
Progressive Quebecois elevator muzak? Au contraire, mon frère! This progressive folk release is a pastoral water color of seasonal changes. Mellifluous and enchanting, "If We Needed a Fifth Season" (a translation of the title) has some beautiful acoustic music, such as Histoire sans paroles (Part I), Vert, and En Pleine Face. If you enjoyed this album, then definitely peruse L'Heptade, the double album follow-up, which expands on the sound of this release.

Mermaid Avenue - Billy Bragg & Wilco
Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora allowed Billy Bragg and Wilco the unprecedented use of Guthrie's unscored lyrics (literally thousands of poems without any music, stretching from Pre-WWII to the time of his death in 1967), and the resultant contemporary adaptation, Mermaid Avenue, is a brilliant homage to Guthrie without merely mimicking the great folk artist's style. California Stars, Walt Whitman's Niece, At My Window, Sad and Lonely, and the hilarious Christ for President are relevant to when Mermaid Avenue was released in 1998, even though the lyrics go back nearly 70 years. They are also a testament to the sly and immensely talented Woody Guthrie.

Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws - Bruce Cockburn
Poor, ignored Bruce Cockburn. The underappreciated Canadian songwriter has toiled in anonymity for decades and never achieved stardom. Some performers are just too damn good for their own good. Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws is, in my estimation, Cockburn's best album, and a reflection of Cockburn's Christian mysticism, with allusions to another Christian mystic, the British fantasist Charles William, noted Inkling and companion of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Cockburn's greatest "hit" was Wondering Where the Lions Are, but other songs like "Northern Lights", After the Rain ( great live version - there is a dearth of his songs on YouTube), Incandescent Blue, and No Footprints reflect Cockburn's spirit and rich acoustic stylings.

Songs of Leonard Cohen
Confessional singing was a novel idea in the folk rock movement for 1967, but along came this Canadian poet and writer Leonard Cohen gifted with a "golden voice" (a jest Cohen made himself on a later tune "Tower of Song"), with a handful of melancholy compositions that were highly literate, decidely not psychedelic, and lacking in social import (not a protest song in the bunch). Cohen was never a hitmaker, but his influence among songwriters is tremendous, as is his poetic powers of perception: Winter Lady, Suzanne, So Long, Marianne, Sisters of Mercy, and Master Song

The Secret Language Of Birds - Ian Anderson
Definitely not a Tull Album (much quieter and introspective). It was a toss-up, really, between this Anderson solo album and the superb follow-up Rupi's Dance, but I think The Secret Language of Birds offers a better introduction into Anderson's intricate acoustic stylings (his guitar playing is grossly underappreciated). The compositions are tempered at times with Middle-eastern influences like on The Water Carrier, at others suffused with classical strings Sanctuary, a bit of jazzy Gaelic Stormont Shuffle, or spicy themes from South of the border, such as Habanero Reel and Panama Freighter.

All Things Must Pass - George Harrison
George Harrison released what could possibly be the best post-Beatle solo album of them all (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band would be the other contender). And All Things Must Pass is chockfull of great acoustic compositions, such as My Sweet Lord (the hit lifted from the Chiffon's He's So Fine), Apple Scruffs (a personal favorite), Isn't It a Pity, Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp and Dylan's If Not For You. The "Quiet Beatle" exploded from the immense shadow of the "Fab Four" with a glorious recording.

The Voyage of the Acolyte - Steve Hackett
Ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett's first and best solo album. The album is a rich tapestry of progressive and classical themes (with a bit of hard rock thrown in). The pastoral Hands Of The Priestess, Part 1 & 2, the netherwordly quaver of The Hermit, the ethereal Shadows of the Hierophant, the spectral The Star of Sirius, and the haunting The Lovers have caused me to run out of apt synonyms for this album. Where is that cursed Roget when one needs the fellow?

Our Endless Numbered Days - Iron & Wine
One of those tranquil albums made for drinking coffee out on the patio on an early summer Sunday morning. The songs are reminiscent of several different aritsts: Sunset Soon Forgotten (Nick Drake), Each Coming Night (Simon & Garfunkel), and Sodom, South Georgia (Nick Drake accompanied by Neil Young on guitar). But some songs bear more of a direct inspiration: Teeth in the Grass and Free Until They Cut Me Down. Stress relief, thy name is Iron & Wine.

First Utterance - Comus
A progressive-folk cult classic and certainly an album for acquired tastes (like eating monkey brains or Rocky Mountain oysters). The lyrics are as violent and disturbing as the contorted album cover illustration. But for all the weirdness (and the utterly psychedelic and in places downright irritating vocals), the underlying medieval/Baroque acoustic compositions are remarkable. For instance, deduct the satanic chipmunks on LSD singing from Song to Comus and you have a compelling song. Dark Age rapine, ritual murder and Luciferian apostasy runs through the album like malignant shit from an evil goose: The Herald (the album's best song, featuring the ethereal Bobbie Watson), The Prisoner (about the travails of shock therapy), Drip, Drip, and Diana are all songs to play loudly to annoy your neighbors...or your in-laws if they happen to be visiting.

Living in the Past - Jethro Tull
A most curious relic of progressive-folk paleontology. It's not a greatest hits package, not a live album (except for three songs), not wholly a rock album, and not even a career compilation. Imagine being able to release a record of cast-offs, B-sides, and EP tracks this magnificent, but only having been a band for merely four studio albums up to that point (1968-72). Amazing. And although it's not an all-acoustic album either, there is an album-worth of great acoustic tracks: The Witches Promise, Life is a Long Song, Nursie, Up the Pool, Christmas Song, Just Trying to Be, Dr. Bogenbroom, and Wondr'ing Again. There is nothing else like it.


I wish to give a heartfelt thanks to all the kind folks who commented, collaborated and offered timely suggestions during the first year of this blog. Hell, I'll even thank the dolts with rude or disparaging editorial comments (and decidedly poor taste in music, obviously) who enlivened the site with their inane bits of buffoonery. It takes all kinds, and a passion for music, which I will readily agree is highly subjective, oft leads us all astray. Besides, I'll argue with just about anyone.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Greatest Acoustic Rock Albums of All Time, Part 1 - A Dark Elf File 1st Anniversary Special

Welcome to the 1st Anniversary Edition of the Dark Elf File. One year ago (July 11, 2010 to be exact), I finally got around to haunting the blogosphere. And so, in honor of such an august occasion (august, even if it's July), I decided to blow my wad on one mega-article in two parts devoted to a single theme. Based on in-depth statistical analysis (I clicked over to the Blogger stats page and looked at the most viewed articles), it was obvious that acoustic songs were a favorite music subject among the bleary-eyed audiophilic zealots who follow my rambling rants on this idiosyncratic but grammatically impeccable site. And since I hit the century mark in regards to individual acoustic songs (Fifty Great Acoustic Rock Songs and Great Acoustic Rock Songs -- The Next Fifty), the logical progression would be to discuss which, in my estimation, would be the greatest acoustic rock albums of all time.

So, you may well ask, what exactly makes an acoustic rock album a rock album that is acoustic, kind sir? Well, my dears, I reply in kind, it is basically an album that may contain all the elements of rock music (drums, electric guitars, keyboards and electronic gadgetry), but there must also be a particular emphasis on acoustic guitar that is not found in your run-of-the-mill rock offering. I am not talking about a hard rock or metal album that has one or even two acoustic ballads merely to get the girls moist at concerts, as that is pretty standard fair (every band from Pink Floyd to Bon Jovi has a few acoustic songs to throw at you).

On the contrary, an acoustic rock album, if not employing acoustic instruments entirely (as many of the albums I have chosen are so composed), then the album must have at least half of the compositions comprised of acoustic arrangements to meet my stringent (if wholly subjective) requirements. I have decided to eliminate all live recordings (such as "Unplugged" events - which is cheating) and greatest hits packages or compilation sets, opting strictly for original studio albums. Although I offer, here and there, an album of strictly instrumental music (Kottke, Hedges and Keaggy), I am more interested in the compositional aspects of acoustic songs: the lyrics, melody lines and various treatments of the material.

In addition, the artists herein listed must be known primarily as rock performers to fit the bill. Therefore, important acoustic blues albums from Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt or Leadbelly aren't on this list, neither are superb acoustic jazz albums like Djangology by Django Reinhardt or Friday Night in San Francisco (featuring Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucía), nor will you find great country/bluegrass performers such as Merle Travis and Doc Watson, or fine folk artists like John Fahey, John Prine, Martin Carthy or Bert Jansch (although Jansch appears as part of Pentangle and one pre-electric Bob Dylan album is noted here as well - I'll save folk albums for another time). Such an all-encompassing acoustic endeavor would require more research and time than my lazy ass is willing to expend and, besides, such a list could go on for a hundred or more albums, becoming simply too convoluted, out of context and unwieldy to manage.

In any case, I wouldn't do justice to all the great acoustic albums ever recorded, so I'll just stick to acoustic rock. And so, without further digression (and if you've followed this blog at all, you'll know that I am a progressively aggressive digressor), here are the first 20 greatest acoustic rock albums of all time:

Tea for the Tillerman - Cat Stevens
Say what you will about Cat Stevens' adoption of the Islamic faith (he's now known as Yusuf Islam), Tea for the Tillerman is one of the greatest acoustic albums ever recorded, as well as being part of one of the best film soundtracks ever made (4 songs from the album can be heard in the touching black comedy Harold and Maude, along with several other Stevens songs). Cat Stevens' recording history can be seen as a spiritual journey in search of the Truth (which led him eventually to becoming a Muslim), and nowhere is this more plain than on Tea for the Tillerman. Songs such as Wild World, On the Road to Find Out, Father and Son and Miles From Nowhere all speak to a yearning for internal peace and harmony. Add in the achingly beautiful Sad Lisa and the social conscience of Where Do the Children Play?, and Tea for the Tillerman is one of the best acoustic rock albums in both instrumental artistry and sublime melodies, with a lyrical depth and meaning for the lost generation after the Vietnam War who, like Cat Stevens, were searching for themselves. A truly remarkable achievement.

Astral Weeks - Van Morrison
Imagine, if you will, James Joyce or T.S. Eliot writing an acoustic rock album. Astral Weeks is just as earth-shattering, groundbreaking and rule-bending as any accomplishment by the aforementioned literary masters, except you can hum along to it (which is something you certainly cannot do with Finnegan's Wake or The Wasteland). Released in 1968, there was nothing comparable to this superb concoction of rock, jazz, blues and folk (with an occasional classic string arrangement). Van Morrison's stream-of-consciousness scatting is revelatory on Astral Weeks, Cypress Avenue (a reverie of Belfast in Morrison's youth), the sentimental Madame George, the jazzy and jumping The Way Young Lovers Do, and the incomparable Sweet Thing. For a young composer of 23 short years, it seems impossible for Van Morrison to have arrived at such a point without a muse, the Irish Leannan Sidhe, the faery mistress who trades inspiration for a love that borders on madness, and eventually drives the artist to an early death. Well, Van did nearly drink himself to death. Just saying.

Blood on the Tracks - Bob Dylan
One of Dylan's finest albums, and my personal favorite. Blood on the Tracks was a comeback album of sorts for Dylan, and the personal nature of the songs offers a gratifying glimpse into Dylan's sometimes obscurant psyche. The best love songs Dylan ever wrote are on this one, each tinged with sorrow and regret, and the sparse accompaniments add to the solitude and inner reflection Dylan espouses in his lyrics. Of course, Dylan and his recording label are quite ruthless in disallowing studio versions of his songs on YouTube (and the live takes are, as a rule, either vocally annoying or outright excruciating), but buy the album anyway, because "Tangled Up In Blue", "Shelter From The Storm", "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts", "Idiot Wind" and "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome" are masterpieces of the songwriter's craft.

Blue - Joni Mitchell
Perhaps the greatest recording by a female singer/songwriter ever (right up there with Carole King's Tapestry), Blue was a landmark recording for both lyrical innovation (a stream of internal monologues, dialogues of lovers and autobiographical revelations), as well as the use of jazz-inflected vocal intonations in a folk rock format, and the title song Blue itself highlights the characteristics of the album. Song composition like that found in A Case of You or The Last Time I Saw Richard was unheard of when Blue was released in 1971: confessional lyrics and sparse instrumentation highlighting the main instrument on this album, Joni Mitchell's four octave voice. With limited accompaniment, multi-instrumentalist Mitchell breezes through her songs using an acoustic guitar, piano or Appalachian dulcimer. Other songs of note are Little Green and River, about a miserable break-up just before Christmas (ho-ho-no!).

After the Gold Rush - Neil Young
Critics rarely rise above their own stupidity; they merely cover their tracks and act like they were right all along. For instance, Rolling Stone Magazine attacked After the Gold Rush when it was first released in 1970 saying, "none of the songs here rise above the uniformly dull surface." Of course, the hypocritical rag eventually did a complete about-face, suddenly proclaiming the album a "masterpiece" (about 5 years after the rest of the world). Whatever. Assholes. The acoustic balladry of After the Gold Rush is timeless and a perfect take on Neil Young's eccentric genius. From the apocalyptic and spare After the Gold Rush to the poppy Only Love Can Break Your Heart, to the haunting Don't Let It Bring You Down (live version), to a sad interpretation of the Don Gibson/Chet Atkins standard Oh Lonesome Me, to the upbeat Cripple Creek Ferry, the album is a milestone in rock history and blueprint for Neil Young albums to follow.

Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon & Garfunkel
On their fifth and final album as a duo, Simon & Garfunkel could have rested on their laurels with the stunning Bridge Over Troubled Water, one of the greatest songs ever recorded in any genre. But there is more to this album than a single song. For instance, The Boxer is an epic that outdoes even Dylan in the folk-rock department. The Only Living Boy in New York and Song for the Asking are both exquisite personal miniatures, and Cecilia and El Condor Pasa (If I Could) reflect Simon's burgeoning interest in world music, which he would explore in greater detail during his solo career, while Bye Bye Love looks back on The Everley Brothers, a group Simon & Garfunkel patterned themselves after very early in their career.

Aqualung - Jethro Tull
Although variously listed as everything from "hard rock" to a "concept album", Aqualung offers one of the first and greatest examples of a rock band using acoustic passages to seamlessly move from one aspect or theme of an album to the next. And the acoustic artistry of both the principal composer Ian Anderson and lead guitarist Martin Barre is readily apparent on short reveries such as Cheap Day Return, Wondr'ing Aloud and Slipstream, as well as on the more expansive and fully realized compositions Mother Goose and Up to Me. Additionally, the hard rock epic Aqualung has a memorable extended acoustic passage, and My God has one of the most exquisitely dark acoustic intros ever composed in rock.

Aerial Boundaries - Michael Hedges
If you care anything at all about the contemporary acoustic guitar idiom, but you've never heard of Michael Hedges, then you are missing a great part of your education. Hedges does not just play acoustic guitar, he transforms the instrument. You listen, and then you ask yourself: 'just how many musicians are playing on this piece?' And then the stunning realization: 'that's just Hedges playing? WTF!' Eccentric and visionary, Hedges' Aerial Boundaries actually has no bounds. As far as the annoying "New Age" tag often associated with Hedges' music, this is not Enya singing "Orinoco Flow", this is a revolutionary reinterpretation of guitar and finger-style playing. Other notable songs are Bensusan, Ragamuffin, Spare Change, and Rickover's Dream.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Dylan's second album was literally a radical departure from the first. In both polemic lyrics and composition, Dylan struck a chord with millions of disaffected youths across the world and gave a movement its voice. Within three years, Dylan would strap on an electric guitar and drag the movement, kicking and screaming, into a counterculture rock revolution. "Blowin' in the Wind", "Masters of War", "Oxford Town" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" reflect growing discontent and outrage against war and racism, while "Girl from the North Country" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" are about love in the cold and a love grown cold. Other Dylan albums may have greater critical acclaim, but this is the wellspring where Dylan found himself, and in the process a generation found a prophet.

The White Album - The Beatles
Wait a moment...The White Album is a choice for a great acoustic album? You're damn right it is. Within the two records there is a an entire album of absolutely superb acoustic tunes: Julia, Cry Baby Cry, Rocky Racoon, I Will, Mother Nature's Son, Piggies, Blackbird, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, Dear Prudence, and Revolution 1. Throw in the haunting acoustic outtake of While My Guitar Gently Weeps (recently edited and remastered for the Love album), and there you have it: one of the greatest acoustic albums ever recorded.

6- & 12- String Guitar - Leo Kottke
Leo Kottke's 6- & 12- String Guitar may be classified as a "folk album", but you'll never hear a guy soloing on an acoustic guitar rock so hard. One listen to Vaseline Machine Gun and you'll see what I mean. If you are still somehow undecided, then give a listen to Coolidge Rising. Of course, there is mellower fare here, like The Brain Of The Purple Mountain and even a fine version of Bach's Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring. But what the hell, you know you want more jamming -- so here: Jack Fig. And here: Busted Bicycle. Okay, I'll stop now.

Crosby, Stills and Nash
My favorite counterculture hippies. CSN's debut is a marvellous ramble through various moods and melodies with exuberant harmonies and bright acoustic strumming, including the crazy "Bruce Palmer Modal Tuning" (which is EEEEBE) that can be found on Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (written for singer Judy Collins, Stephen Stills ex-girlfriend with the striking azure orbs) "and 4+20" (from the Déjà Vu album). There are some absolutely beautiful songs on this album: Guinnevere (from Crosby), Lady of the Island (from Nash) and Helplessly Hoping (from Stills). One of the few bands tagged as a "Supergroup" that actually delivered on the title.

If I should Fall From Grace With God - The Pogues
This is what happens you when you mix whiskey, heroin, punk rock and traditional Irish music. The Pogues' masterpiece, If I should Fall From Grace With God was a primary influence for the Gaelic-rock renaissance in the 90s, featuring such bands as The Dropkick Murphys, The Young Dubliners, Flogging Molly and Ashley MacIsaac. Thank god Shane McGowan had better songwriting skills than dental hygiene! And McGowan's skill's are nowhere more apparent than on this album. Some highlights are Turkish Song of the Damned, the fun drunken sing-along Bottle of Smoke (count how many times Shane drops the F-bomb), the instrumental Metropolis, the rousing South Australia and The Lullaby of London. Oh, and perhaps the greatest Christmas song ever written Fairytale of New York. And 'nary a one o' them damn electric guitars in the lot!

Sweet Baby James - James Taylor
James Taylor is another tightfisted artist who, along with his nearsighted record company, refuses to allow studio versions of his songs on YouTube (based on the mistaken assumption that showcasing songs on such a venue would reduce their record sales). Whatever. So, having seen Mr. Taylor on several occasions (and thoroughly enjoying the show each time), you might as well listen to live versions of the songs from this album, as they are just as good: Sweet Baby James, Country Road, Steamroller, and the great Fire and Rain, which is based on the suicide of a friend and the resultant depression over her death, his drug addiction and the dismal failure of his first band "Flying Machines", which caused him to stay at a mental institution for a while. "Fire" refers to shock therapy, and "Rain" references the cold shower afterwards.

Tracy Chapman
A stunning acoustic rock debut and one of the best albums of the 80s, winning two Grammys and going multi-platinum in sales. Not bad for a recent graduate of Tufts University (she earned a B.A. in Anthropology) who began busking around Harvard to make ends meet. Fast Car is the biggest hit from the album, but I prefer Talkin' Bout a Revolution, Across the Lines, For My Lover and Mountains O' Things. Then there is the thoroughly chilling a cappella song Behind the Wall, one of the most moving protests against domestic violence I have ever heard. Entertaining, thoughtful and provocative, Chapman's first album helped begin a renaissance of female composers in the late 80s and early 90s.

Nebraska - Bruce Springsteen
As American as politicians with broken promises and bad hair, driving a block to buy cigarettes at the party store, and buffalo shit on the great plains, Springsteen's Nebraska reeks of the heartland and a bygone era of folk music from the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Surprisingly, it succeeds on several levels and is perhaps one of Bruce's best 2 or 3 albums. Like Bob Dylan and James Taylor, two other musicians who obviously haven't made enough money in their careers, Bruce's studio albums are unavailable on YouTube, so here's some noteworthy live versions: Johnny 99 (Bruce plays harmonica like Dylan, meaning sloppily), My Father's House, Nebraska (about Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, and their murder spree across Nebraska in 1958), and Mansion on the Hill.

Stormcock - Roy Harper
Roy Harper? Isn't he the Brit whose claim to fame was being named in a Led Zeppelin song title ("Hats off to Roy Harper"), and as vocalist on "Have a Cigar" from Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here? Yes, he is that but much more. Stormcock is as spare as they come, and contains only four songs (ranging from seven to thirteen minutes long), but despite the sparsity of material and lack of musicians (there's only Harper, with appearances by Jimmy Page appearing incognito as "S. Flavius Mercurius", and David Bedford on organ, with occasional orchestral arrangements) this is an expansive listening experience. The Same Old Rock, One Man Rock and Roll Band, Me and My Woman, Part 1 and Hors D'oeuvres are each a precious bit of progressive acoustic balladry.

Forever Changes - Love
How does one explain this eccentric album to someone who's never heard it? Well, after a long pause, you mumble something about the Moody Blues led by Syd Barrett singing Herb Alpert and Burt Bacharach songs while on acid. A lot of acid. I mean fistfuls of acid. Forever Changes is really different than any other album from 1967. The acoustic guitar flourishes are timeless and the strings are achingly beautiful. Albert Lee's lyrics are familiar but off-kilter, like the mind's ability to recgnze wrds wth mssng lttrs. The boy aint all there, but he sings so nicely you overlook his obvious dementia. And the psilocybinic titles exemplify the songs themselves: A House is not a Motel, Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale, The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This and Andmoreagain.

Harvest - Neil Young
One more Neil Young album savaged by critics when it was first released, but later hailed as a masterpiece. Make up your damn minds or, better yet, shut the hell up! Harvest is and always was an acoustic gem. Two of my Young favorites, the poignant Old Man and the haunting Needle and the Damage Done, are on this album, as is the fan favorite Harvest, and the international hit Heart of Gold. There is also the beautiful but decidedly warped A Man Needs a Maid featuring the London Symphony Orchestra. What Neil Young was doing hanging out with the LSO, I have no idea - an odd mismatch that somehow worked.

Five Leaves Left - Nick Drake
Many Drake zealots have huge erections for the album Pink Moon, Drake's final studio recording before he died of an overdose of antidepressants; however, Five Leaves Left, with top notch backing by band members of Fairport Convention and Pentangle and the lush strings of Robert Kirby is, in my estimation, a more consistent album than Pink Moon (which is a completely solo endeavor). The winsome Time Has Told Me (with Richard Thompson on lead guitar), the strident picking on Cello Song, the ethereal and ghostly Three Hours, the jazzy and whimsical Man in a Shed, and the elegiac Fruit Tree all point to a wonderful performer shrouded in depression, insomnia and melancholy, a sadness that consumed him before he truly met his postential.


P.P.S. Oh yeah, I am over a year late in posting this, but here's the second installment: The Greatest Acoustic Rock Albums of All Time, Part 2