Monday, January 2, 2017

Two Dozen Great Albums from Rock & Roll’s First 8 Years


Rock & Roll was not born for long playing. It was for blasting out of pop-shop jukeboxes, for blasting on hip radio stations, for purchasing for the couple of cents in the average teen’s blue jeans pocket. Rock & Roll first spun at 45 rpms, and it would be at least eight-years old before it started to matter at 33too.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t great albums in these early years of Rock & Roll, though it’s likely most artists didn’t consciously set out to make great albums the way Hendrix, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and the rest would when the genre matured in the mid-sixties. At this time, the Rock LP was little more than an extravagant souvenir, a special X-mas or birthday gift, and more often than not, a couple of singles and a whole lotta filler. Some of them held more than a couple of great singles, and these are the discs that tended to be the greatest in these years of rocking infancy. A lot of the best early Rock & Roll albums were basically greatest hits packages, though I made the admittedly arbitrary distinction of not including anything explicitly called Greatest Hits or The Best of… on the list that follows.

Quite a few of these albums weren’t really greatest hits at all. They were just made by artists so good that they transcended the limitations of their era. So whether these two-dozen records are essentially compilations or proper albums, each one is early evidence that the Rock & Roll LP could be more than an extravagance or filler-loaded indulgence. From the very beginning, it had the potential to be a genuine work of art.

Note: Normally, I arrange the albums in The Great Albums series according to my very personal opinions regarding which are the best of the year. Since this post covers so many years, I’m arranging them chronologically instead, though I did place an asterisk next to my personal choices for best LP of each year.

1. Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets (December 1955)*

This may not be the very, very beginning of Rock & Roll—lots of people hang that honor around the necks of Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats back in 1951—but there’s no question that “Rock Around the Clock” was the record that made Rock & Roll a household name when the 1954 disc became a hit after it was used over the opening credits of The Blackboard Jungle the following year and became the baby genre’s flagship smash. Bill Haley and the Comets’ record was not just a document of historical significance or a lazy signifier of “the fifties” to be spun over the credits of Happy Days or in episodes of Quantum Leap. It’s a fucking crazy-making piece of Rock & Roll. Don’t hold the naff spit curl or the fact that he looked more like a traveling salesman than an instigator of rebellion and delinquency against him; Bill Haley led his band through a hot piece of wax. Danny Cedrone melted it down completely with his gibbering guitar solo. The rest of the band’s third LP is pretty smoking too with hard-working tracks like “Razzle, Dazzle”, “Two Hound Dogs”, “Dim, Dim The Lights”, and “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie” that serve as transitional bridges between Rock & Roll and its swing jazz roots. Only “ABC Boogie” is strictly cornball city, but it indicates that the rockers were still trying to work out how young, exactly, their audience was.

2. Elvis Presley by Elvis Presley (March 1956)*


“Rock Around the Clock” was Rock & Roll’s first signature record. Elvis Presley was its signature artist for all eras, and though a collection of his earliest work would constitute his greatest record when RCA released the Sun Sessions compilation in 1976, there’s enough of those raw and haunting early sides on Elvis’s proper debut to make it a killer collection too. Indeed, Sun sessions provide some of the greatest material here—“Just Because”, “I Love You Because”, “Trying to Get to You”, “I’ll Never Let You Go”, and the eternally spooky “Blue Moon”— but there are other greats as well, such as Elvis’s really unhinged takes on Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman”, and The Drifters’ “Money Honey”. While Elvis Presley couldn’t be confused with Elvis’s Greatest Hits, it certainly isn’t what we’d consider a “proper” album with its tracks cut at various studios for various labels over various years. Nevertheless, that was the Elvis LP formula for his first several releases, and it must have had some sort of chemical magic, because these are his best.

3. Johnny Burnette & The Rock ‘N Roll Trio by Johnny Burnette & The Rock ‘N Roll (December 1956)

If Bill Haley brought the swinging spirit and pro-theatrics of Rock & Roll, and Elvis supplied the voice, then Johnny Burnette & The Rock ‘N Roll Trio continued to build the genre by introducing its ratty, fuzzy, straight-from-the-garage noise. Kids surely swung to Haley, but few of them likely heard what Danny Cedrone was doing and thought to themselves, “Hell, I could do that!” Girls and boys alike fainted when Elvis so much as shifted his hips, but few probably thought, “Hell, I could be that sexy!” I wonder how many heard Johnny Burnette and said, “Shit, I could scream and grind and make a funky noise like that!” Because a lot of them probably could, and the unpolished accessibility of Rock & Roll has always been one of its most appealing and exciting factors. That wildness is evident in every track of Johnny Burnette & The Rock ‘N Roll Trio. Plenty of bands (including Led Zeppelin!) cut their teeth on “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” and it is still one of the most propulsive, hypnotic, and hysterical slabs of Rock & Roll in the history of Rock & Roll, but tracks such as “Honey Hush” and “Sweet Love on My Mind” also introduced a scary rush of dementia to the sonic insanity. The unapologetic misogyny may make these songs hard to hear today, but there is something impressive about 70-year old records still packing so much danger. Joyous nonsense like “Rock Billy Boogie” can be enjoyed without any such complications, and uncomplicated enjoyment is really the essence of Rock & Roll.

4. This Is Fats by Fats Domino (1957)

A bunch of pieces of the Rock & Roll puzzle fell into place when Fats bounded onto the stage. With his New Orleans Rhythm & Blues and barrelhouse background, he brought a traditional soul that linked Rock & Roll with one of its main roots as effectively as Haley and his Comets had. With Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, he also helped establish the piano as every bit a key Rock & Roll conveyance as the guitar, though his style surely wasn’t as out-of-control as Richard or Lewis’s. So perhaps Fats Domino also brought true sweetness to Rock & Roll without the cloying flavor of the more teen-pandering pretenders. There is sweetness in his mouth-full-of-candy voice and his rolling 88-key rhythms. He could kick up the tempo on “What’s the Reason (I’m Not Pleasing You)”, but that sweet flavor is still present (though some atypically dissonant guitar work keeps “Trust in Me” from doing the same). Fats was most at home in a slow stroll, and the perennials here take their time. “Blueberry Hill” and “Blue Monday” drag the tempo right down, achieving an intense yearning that makes them as sexy as they are sweet.

5. Dance Album by Carl Perkins (1957)

Country & Western was as important an element in Rock & Roll as Rhythm & Blues, and while Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were mixing the two styles in nearly equal proportions, Carl Perkins stripped out as much R&B as he could without giving in to pure C&W completely. Even on the quintessential rocker anthem, “Blue Suede Shoes”, his guitar is extra twangy and there’s more than a little hick in his hiccup. Yet the dance in this Dance Album is no square one. Kids could kick up some serious hay to the big hit, “Movie Magg”, “Gone Gone Gone” (a close cousin to Johnny Burnette’s patented style), “Honey Don’t” (on which he throws in some exotic guitar work unheard of in trad C&W), and the nutty “Wrong Yo Yo”. On tracks such as “Sure to Fall” and “Tennessee”, Perkins gets more explicit about his origins, adding some extra authenticity and variety to an album that still would not have been generic R&R without them.

6. Here’s Little Richard by Little Richard (March 1957)

He had the swing of Haley, the sex appeal of Presley, the cold-sweat mania of Burnette, and the southern soul and piano pouncing of Fats, but Little Richard could only really be compared to a 6.9-magnitude earthquake. Parents who were terrified of Rock & Roll would have been grossly overreacting if it were not for this man. Little Richard justified the fear whether or not his shrieks of “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom” ever actually inspired sixteen-year olds to engage in wanton acts of carnality and arson. “Long Tall Sally”, “Ready Teddy”, “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Rip It Up”, “She’s Got It”, and “Jenny Jenny” can still clear out the body cavities. Yet Little Richard is no one-shriek-pony on Here’s Little Richard. Bringing down the tempo but not the hysteria level on “True, Fine Mama” and “Miss Ann”, he co-invents a new form of gut-busting soul with James Brown that would send seismic waves through the sixties, setting the careers of Wilson Picket and Otis Redding on track. Even on the relatively restrained “Oh Why?”, on which Little Richard reveals what a good straight-singer he is, he can’t hold back a couple of wild whoops. At its best, Rock & Roll is unbridled excitement. Here’s Little Richard is unbridled Rock & Roll at its best.

7. Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps (March 1957)

Little Richard made a career of losing his cool. Gene Vincent made one of being just barely able to restrain it. He wasn’t exactly an unfettered screamer or whooper, but he always sounded just on the precipice of wailing, weeping, or swallowing his tongue. Gene Vincent pants and pleads and sweats through his ducktail across 28-heart-halting minutes of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. His Blue Caps have no restraint at all, lurching forward like a locomotive or shrieking in cacophony behind their leader on this solid set of rockabilly mania. Even when they bring it down on the slow-crawling “Blues Stay Away from Me”, there is the underlying sensation that everyone’s about to lose it. Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps has the extra-novel hook of not including a single single. So in a sense, one could make a solid argument that the album era actually begins here.

8. After School Session by Chuck Berry (May 1957)

All of the artists on this list so far own condos in the architecture that Chuck Berry built. Don’t bother me with research. I won’t consult any textbooks to check on release dates to back up that opening statement. Maybe Elvis released discs before Chuck. Maybe Little Richard did. I don’t know, and I don’t care. If there ever was a man who is Rock & Roll, that man is Chuck Berry. With him lies the essential Rock & Roll tropes, whether they be the ascending lick that opens “Johnny B. Goode” or the power-chord riff that chugs throughout it or the lyrical and witty explorations of teenage travails and joys. And with After School Session, Chuck Berry also made a great album that did all of the things all future great albums would do. It does not overly lean on singles. It is full of diversity, which is especially impressive for an artist who often seemed to be recycling the same two songs over and over. There is Santo & Johnny-style mood music (“Deep Feeling”), loose-lipped rapping (“Too Much Monkey Business”), pure blues (“Wee Wee Hours”, “No Money Down”), Latin flavors (“Berry Pickin’”), traditional balladry (“Together We Will Always Be”, “Drifting Heart”), calypso (the heavenly “Havana Moon”), and spooky proto-horror rock (“Down Bound Train”). Naturally, there is also plenty of that patented Chuck Berry speed and sparkle on the utter classics “School Day” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”. After School Session may have come out a good five or six years before the Great Album era, but it would rate as one of the great albums in any era.

9. LaVern Baker by LaVern Baker (1957)

There’s been one vital thing has been missing from this list thus far: women. The sad fact of Rock & Roll’s first—yikes—35-or-so years is that women were shunted to the sidelines completely, and even when there were a lot more women with guitars in the nineties, they were often categorized according to their gender making it the “women in rock” age. If you knew where to look, there were naturally great women rockers a long time before Exile in Guyville and Dry, and one of the very greatest was LaVern Baker. Although she would shift more into gospel territory in a few years, Baker was a straight belter without any of gospel’s melisma on her early Rock & Roll hits. The tone of her biggest hits was a sort of wide-eyed, bluebirds on her shoulder, smiling-sunshine joy. “Jim Dandy”, “Tra La La”, “Tweedlee Dee”, and “That’s All I Need” are some of the happiest songs you’ll ever hear. On the second side of LaVern Baker, darkness starts to creep in with the slow and emotionally wrecked “Play It Fair” and it hits a disturbing final note with the violent and deeply sad “How Can You Leave a Man Like This”, which slips into the traditional blues formula of matching tragic lyrics with joyful music. Complexity might not be what one was expecting from the singer of “Tweedlee Dee”, but it will sucker punch you on this record.

10. Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar by Johnny Cash (October 1957)

Johnny Cash’s first recordings for Sun Records weren’t too different from Elvis Presley’s. They were basically acoustic pieces of county music with a bit of twangy, tangy electric guitar and Rock & Roll rhythm, but while Elvis already sounded like he was pitching his star power across the theater, Johnny sounded like he was perched next to a creek serenading the carp. Both made great Sun records, but there is a special allure to Johnny Cash’s lonesome country boy aura that the pretty boy usually couldn’t match no matter how spooky Elvis’s “Blue Moon” is. Even the dude who wrote the liner notes to Cash’s debut album, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!, was tuned in to this quality, noting Cash’s “big, hollow voice” and—with no shortage of p.r. hyperbole—suggesting that one might think Cash “invented the word” “loneliness.” However, we shouldn’t cry, cry, cry for Johnny Cash, as he exudes solitary strength across a debut album that surely ranks among the best. He was already composing seasoned classics like “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues”, while also arguably cutting the definitive version of the immortal and much covered “Rock Island Line”. Not bad for a first go.

11. Little Richard by Little Richard (October 1957)*

In a sense, Little Richard is just more of what was on Here’s Little Richard. It’s another clutch of bone-shaking singles. Of course, that’s a real good thing, and the singles on Little’s second proper long player are some of his wildest. With the skull-demolishing “Keep A-Knockin’” (my personal pick for the single greatest song of the 1950s), the crazed “Good Golly Miss Molly”, the breathless bugs-under-the-skin shimmy of “Heeby-Jeebies”, the squealing glee of “Ooh! My Soul”, the atypically sweet “Send My Some Lovin’”, and the grandly produced slide of “The Girl Can’t Help It”—which earns extra points by conjuring images from the first great Rock & Roll movie—one can make a valid case that this record is even better than its predecessor. I know I have no problem making that case, nor do I have a problem making the case that it’s also the best LP of the year packed with the most great albums on this list.

12. The “Chirping” Crickets by Buddy Holly (November 1957)

If Elvis was the captain of Rock & Roll’s high school football team, Buddy Holly was its valedictorian, and we all know which one of those guys is better primed for long-term success. When the smoke clears, Elvis may have his face plastered on more T-shirts, commemorative plates, and toilet seat lids, but Buddy is the finer artist by a mile. He did for early Rock & Roll melody what Chuck Berry did for early Rock & Roll lyrics, and it’s hard to imagine the major Mersey Beat and folk rock innovations of the sixties without the boy from Lubbock. Unlike a lot of the great music on this list’s albums, songs such as “Not Fade Away”, “Maybe Baby”, “Tell Me How”, “That’ll Be the Day”, and “I’m Looking for Someone to Love” would have sounded just as fresh, contemporary, and relevant had they been released amidst the British Invasion as they surely must have sounded in 1957. The fact that there was so much production progression between this and his next album suggests Buddy Holly could have already been in Sgt. Pepper’s territory by 1964 if he had not died at such a tragically young age.

13. Bo Diddley by Bo Diddley (1958)*

As we’ve been seeing, the great Rock & Roll pioneers had their specialties: Elvis had the image, Fats had the soul, Chuck had the lyrics, Little Richard had the mania, Buddy had the melody. Bo Diddley brought pure rhythm to the table. Perhaps no other pop artist is so associated with a particular rhythm: the shave-and-a-haircut Afro-Cuban funk instantly recognizable as “the Bo Diddley Beat.” That beat was the man’s claim to well-deserved fame, but like all of our other essential pioneers, he wouldn’t be so essential if he could be reduced so easily. Ellas McDaniel was equally adept at hard Chicago blues (“I’m a Man”, “Diddy Wah Diddy”), John Lee Hooker-style tick-tock blues (the intensely magnetic “Bring It to Jerome”), slinky country blues (“Before You Accuse Me”), Latin jangle (“Dearest Darling”), and strolling doo-wop (“Say! [Boss Man]”). It’s still the classic Diddley beat that will keep you vibrating long after the needle pulls off of Bo Diddley, and “Who Do You Love?”, “Pretty Thing”, “Bo Diddley”, and “Hush Your Mouth” are the best examples of that signature shuffle you’ll ever hear.

14. Buddy Holly by Buddy Holly (February 1958)

Buddy Holly’s innovations are all over his second long player. Dig how the echo keeps clipping on and off Jerry Allison’s tom-toms on “Peggy Sue”. Listen to those dreamy double-tracked Buddies on “Listen to Me” and “Words of Love”. Listen to that totally un-Rock & Roll yet totally perfect use of celesta on the genre-creating “Everyday” (the genre? Twee). Listen to him invent punk-pop on “Rave On”. Some tracks aren’t especially innovative; they’re just great: “I’m Gonna Love You Too”, “Look at Me”, “Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues”, a surprisingly convincing take on “Ready Teddy”. Buddy Holly only got to release one more proper album during his lifetime, but the innovations he continued to make on things such as “Raining in My Heart” and “True Love Ways” let us know that pop was terribly, terribly deprived of an amazing future path on February 3, 1959.

15. Mr. Blue by The Fleetwoods (1959)

OK, so all of the albums on this list so far have been obvious choices. Here we may clear the room a bit, because if “cool” defined fifties Rock & Roll, The Fleetwoods were anything but. They were two identically-groomed, soda-sipping prom queens and a crew-cut square in a Navy cap. Their voices were as placid as Little Richard’s was out-of-fucking-control. They may not have worn leathers or screamed about girls who can’t help it, but they do click another essential Rock & Roll element into place: it can be intensely, crushingly lush and beautiful. The hits “Come Softly to Me”, “Confidential”, and “Mr. Blue” are soft as down and aglow as an October moon. I can hear swirls of The Kinks in their music, streaks of The Beach Boys, grace notes of Donovan, even if all of those essential sixties artists thought The Fleetwoods were stuffed-shirt bullshit. Mr. Blue backs up the hits with a consistent crop of genuinely odd yet equally enchanting tracks: the whooping “Three Caballeros”, the gently unspooling “Raindrops, Teardrops”, an eerie near a capella take on “Unchained Melody”. Shimmy off that cool and snuggle down under that warm Fleetwoods quilt, Daddy-O.

16. For LP Fans Only by Elvis Presley (February 1959)

17. A Date with Elvis by Elvis Presley (July 1959)

 
Despite whatever a title like For LP Fans Only implies, the grab-bag formula of Elvis Presley continued with Elvis’s next two LPs. For LP Fans Only and A Date with Elvis were hodgepodges of vital Sun sessions such as “Mystery Train”, “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”, “You’re a Heartbreaker”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, and “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” and more recent recordings in his smoother, tamer, less-vital style, such as “Playing for Keeps”, “I Was the One”, “Young & Beautiful”, “You’re So Square”, “I Want to Be Free”, and “Is It So Strange”. That style is what made Elvis the crossover rocker he became, but placing those mild cuts alongside the early recordings is a bit like sticking a cocker spaniel in the same cage as a Rottweiler. The fact that these two albums are so skimpy – each disc coming in at just ten tracks and under 24 minutes– also gave them the slight stink of rip off. Still, For LP Fans Only and A Date with Elvis remain extremely important because of their high count of Sun recordings, which remain as raw, rough, and ready to rumble as any early Rock & Roll. In 1959, grabbing these two discs was the handiest way to amass those essential recordings.

18. Chuck Berry Is on Top by Chuck Berry (July 1959)*

Now, if you wanted to amass Chuck Berry’s biggest smashes in 1959, there was no way to go but up on top. “Almost Grown”, “Carol”, “Maybellene”, “Sweet Little Rock & Roller”, “Roll over Beethoven”, “Johnny B. Goode”, “Little Queenie”, and “Around and Around” are poured onto a piece of wax that would be a greatest hits in everything but name if it weren’t for the oddities that fill it out. Some of these showcase Chuck’s unfortunate proclivity toward ethnic stereotypes, and the fact that the pseudo-Italian mugging of “Anthony Boy” and the Speedy Gonzalez drawling of “Hey Pedro” are also pretty corny pieces of music cost an album that should be wall-to-wall Rock & Roll-grandeur quite a few points. “Blues for Hawaiians”, a straight-up retread of “Deep Feeling” from After School Session, is disposable for other reasons. Still, the humor, energy, vivid characterizations, and joyful musicianship of the greatest hits on Chuck Berry Is on Top inspired generations of musicians to pick up their Gibsons, Fenders, and pens for the first time. Those tracks are as fundamental to a musical education as the ABC’s and 123’s are to an academic one.

19. It’s Everly Time by The Everly Brothers (May 1960)

And yet another essential element soared onto the pop periodic table when Phil and Don Everly blended their voices into the most perfect harmonies of early Rock & Roll. Whether they were going for the tear ducts on “So Sad” and “Sleepless Nights” or the heart on “Memories are Made of This” and “That’s What You Do to Me” or even the crotch on “Just in Case”, those voices always seemed to be rising from the same throat. John and Paul, who allegedly considered going by the name of “The Foreverly Brothers” early in their career, were absolutely listening. But The Everly Brothers weren’t just integral to the sweetest side of pop; Pete Townshend cottoned to both their tight harmonies and Don Everly’s distinctively aggressive acoustic guitar rhythms. Perhaps all of those great British LP makers were also paying attention to how seriously The Everly Brothers took their LP making. It’s Everly Time is no Elvis-style hodgepodge or Chuck-style greatest hits. It was recorded as a unified work over two consecutive weeks in March 1960, and like most classic mid-sixties albums, it only leans on one hit single yet not one piece of filler.   

20. Rockin’ Wanda by Wanda Jackson (May 1960)*

Finally, another dose of undiluted estrogen, and a distinctively different dose from LaVern Baker’s bold and joyful soul. Wanda Jackson positioned herself to push back at the rebel rockers like Gene Vincent and Johnny Burnette, and annihilated the latter’s misogyny with some of the most explicitly violent lyrics of the time. Johnny probably hid under his leathers when Wanda started raging, “Well you can talk about me, say that I'm mean/I'll blow your head off baby with nitroglycerine.” She could play nice too on the tame-Elvis-like “Did You Miss Me”, but Rockin’ with Wanda lives right up to its name for the vast majority of its run time. “Rock Your Baby”, “Honey Bop”, “Cool Love”, “Mean, Mean Man”, and of course, the incendiary “Fujiyama Mama” are just plain mean. She also mixes up the rockabilly with the Latin-style “Don’a Wan’a”, which may repeat Chuck Berry’s dopey Latin minstrel show but at least skates on some very tasty music, and “I Gotta Know”, a track that does something no other track on any of the albums on this list does: it mixes up tempos and styles, bouncing between lazy C&W and hot-rod R&R from bar to bar. The future of Rock & Roll is once again in the grooves.

21. A Date with The Everly Brothers by The Everly Brothers (October 1960)

The Everly Brothers’ second LP of the sixties wasn’t as pure of an affair as their first one. It was not recorded in a tight time-span. It dug up a relatively old hit, “Cathy’s Clown”, to hook it. A cover of “Lucille” was fated to harmonious failure when measured against Little Richard’s cacophonous original. Yet that hit is one of the Everlys’ most infectious and buoyant, and if nothing else, that cover shows how radically the guys could reinvent Rock & Roll essentials. They also debuted one of their essential future hits on A Date with The Everly Brothers with the heart-rending “Love Hurts”. The rest of the album does not live up to the hits, or many of the LP exclusives on It’s Everly Time, but the rumbling “Made to Love”, the characteristically dreamy “That’s Just Too Much”, the legitimately bluesy “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?”, and the chugging “So How Come (No One Loves Me)” are all ace cuts.

22. Dance ’Til a Quarter to Three with U.S. Bonds by Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds (1961)*

Now here’s one of Rock’s most unexpected innovations decades ahead of schedule. Seventies punk, and especially, nineties indie rock, spearheaded the lo-fi movement: records deliberately made to sound noisy and poorly recorded. Sorry, Bob Pollard. Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds did it first. And just as it would on Bee Thousand, that crackly tape murk made Bonds’s music indescribably magical. It creates the sensation of failing to make it through the velvet rope, being locked outside the hot rocking club, left to press your ear up against the wall to get a muffled impression of the music. It’s safe to say that kind of listening experience is an acquired taste, but it does make the Louisiana jive of the classics “Quarter to Three”, “New Orleans”, and “School Is Out”, as well as excellent LP-mates such as “Cecilia”, “That’s All Right”, “Minnie the Moocher”, “Not Me”, and “One Million Tears”, atmospheric and exciting.

23. Crying by Roy Orbison (1962)

Artists before him embraced sadness and over-the-top drama to appeal to maudlin teenagers, but Roy Orbison brought something else to the glummer side of pop. His music is not the music of a fifteen-year old flopping onto his bed to cry tears of unrequited love into his pillow. There is experience in that voice. There is adultness in the arrangements. Really, no other artist on this list suggested that pop music had the potential to grow up better than Roy Orbison did. There is nothing adolescent in “Crying”, “Love Hurts”, or the intensely paranoid “Running Scared”. Crying provides ample evidence that pop artists could hit more mature notes— perhaps even that they could outlast the faddishness critics insisted devalued Rock & Roll. It is telling that Roy Orbison is just one of a mere two artists on this list that would appear on subsequent installments of Psychobabble’s Great Albums series and his career would live beyond his essential years, his later work achieving popularity comparable to his earliest hits. Only Johnny Cash and the next artist on this list could claim to have achieved that too.

24. Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan (March 1962)*

Bob Dylan belongs with The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix in that very small and select group of artists that truly shaped the sounds and ideas of the sixties. His first album is primitive, but wouldn’t all of the finest music of his future be kind of primitive too? Isn’t the stomp and thrash of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or the repetitive chords of “Desolation Row” or the wheezing Salvation Army band of “Rainy Day Women” primitive? There are no signature compositions here to entice longtime fans. The only two originals are the somewhat generic “Talkin’ New York” and the more distinctive yet naïve “Song to Woody”. However, once new discoverers hear Dylan’s versions of “In My Time of Dying”, “House of the Risin’ Sun”, “Pretty Peggy-O”, “Fixin’ to Die”, and “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”, they will wonder how they haven’t been spinning those songs alongside “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Like a Rolling Stone” for years. Dylan’s voice is a revelation on his debut, and anyone who was shocked to hear him go Rock & Roll in 1965 clearly wasn’t listening to his nasty grunts and growls on Bob Dylan. Its unique enough to make one wish he hadn’t abandoned that style after making this record; its invigorating enough to clue you in that you are listening to an artist who can surprise and originate even when singing folk and blues covers in the stripped-down voice/guitar/harmonica format. Even as it fails to show his greatest strength—his songwriting—Bob Dylan is still an electrifying way to begin a career and a new musical era. The sixties start here.

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