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.S. STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO, COMING SOON TO YOUR LOCAL GROCER'S SHELVES.

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

3 comments:

Randy said...

As usual, many old favorites and some new. Of the lot, my favorite would have to be the plaintive (and funny) A Man Needs a Maid by Neil Young. But all those Neil Young albums are bringing back memories for me.

mandolin picks said...

These are all wonderful albums! These are timeless greats that would be loved by anyone in any generation. My personal favorite in the list would be Simon and Garfunkel as well as The Pogues. I think what you did here is outstanding! With all the different music out there today it is nice to just reminisce and listen to these songs, which I think is one of the real purposes of music. To make you remember and appreciate life! Thank you for this!

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