First of all, let me say that limiting myself to 10 records was extremely difficult. And I know the minute I hit "Send," or I'm about to drift off to sleep tonight, I will kick myself over some obvious oversight. Be that as it may, a word about my criteria: I tried to think of records that 1) hit me on a purely emotional level that either predates or transcends any knowledge I may have acquired since becoming a musician - in other words, records I loved as a small child before developing preconceptions and would still love regardless of what I did for living; and 2) that are so extraordinary they STILL blow me away no matter how much technical and artistic understanding I've cultivated through making records for well over half my life. This list is as much about the sound as the song. Writing, production, and performance had to come together in such a magical way as to defy (or set fire to) my imagination. With that, here are ten monumental recordings that, in spite of how many years I've been doing this, make me ask, "How did they DO that?"
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'God Only Knows' (1966)
Simply one of the greatest melodies ever written, coupled with a beautiful lyric, and wrapped in a wonderfully imaginative orchestration. All the more astounding when one considers that Brian Wilson was all of 23 years old when he produced this. Before recording sessions, he would often lead the other Beach Boys in prayer, asking God to help them make beautiful music that would heal people's souls. Seems God was listening.
The greatest recording of this much-covered Hoagy Carmichael standard. Another unbelievably gorgeous melody and lyric fleshed out with a perfect string arrangement. An absolutely flawless vocal by Nat. It will bring you to tears in a public place.
'Jumpin' Jack Flash' (1957)
Swagger personified. Good lyric, too. "I was baaawn in a crossfire hurricaaayne." Ripping. This record is over 40 years old and still crushes everything. I just heard it today in a bar at JFK airport and it made me want to turn the dump over and leave with the waitress.
'You Really Got Me' (1964)
This is the line in the sand where "Rock-n-Roll" becomes Rock. It's so raucous and grotesque and violent. And sexy. And fun. Ray Davies manages to sound cool, demented, detached, and euphoric all at the same time over the raunchiest two-chord riff ever. This is proto-metal and punk a full decade before either. Guitarist Dave Davies reportedly slit the speakers in his amp with a razor blade to get his tone. I remember being about six years old and seeing a TV commercial for one of those K- Tel Greatest Hits compilation albums. They played a snippet of this and I immediately loved it without even understanding why. That guitar sound, the crack of the snare, the swing of that huge backbeat, and that tossed off, almost mumbled vocal. It had a visceral impact on me. It sounded so badass, like those guys knew things I desperately needed to find out. I wanted to meet that girl they were singing about.
'Hound Dog' (1956)
I read that Elvis apparently did something like 57 takes of this to get it exactly right, persevering long after producer Chet Atkins and RCA A&R man Steve Sholes thought he had it. This is back when everything was recorded live in the studio - band and singer in one room running it down simultaneously. It was about catching lightning in a bottle. Elvis obviously knew something his handlers didn't. And we are all the better for it. This record literally leaps out of the speakers. The singing is totally on fire. And the opening blast of Scotty Moore's second guitar solo is still one of the most unhinged things I've ever heard.
'You Can't Catch Me' (1956)
This is Rock-n-Roll. Chuck is flying down the highway, being chased by the cops, radio up full blast, not giving a f--k. And, if you know anything about Mr. Berry's biography, the man is a true outlaw who knows whereof he speaks. But you needn't be aware of that to thoroughly enjoy this rollicking good time. The voice, the guitar playing, the insightful, yet conversational lyrics, the impeccable phrasing, and that swingin' band... it's all here. This record is just one of many reasons that Chuck Berry is THE definitive singer/songwriter/guitarist of rock-n-roll and one of the pillars of American music.
'What's Goin' On' (1971)
One of the most dominant records of my childhood. I had an uncle that played this entire album on endless repeat for at least three years. Hard to blame him, the whole album is tremendous. But the title song is rightfully so because it not only sums up the album but also the mood of the time, particularly among black people. There had been so much upheaval in America in just a few years - the civil rights and black power movements, riots in every major city, the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and many others - and the Vietnam War was still raging with black soldiers making up the bulk of the front lines and questioning why (and for whom) they were fighting when they still couldn't get a fair break in their own country. Marvin Gaye's own brother was one of those veterans and provided a lot of the inspiration for this landmark recording. Everything about the production invites you into a very specific world - the barbershop, the liquor store, the street corner, all the places brothers would get together to rap about what's goin' on. And the musical arrangement is just masterful. As far as I'm concerned, the Motown session musicians were the best house band that has ever been. I could write a book about James Jamerson's bassline on this song alone. And Marvin's vocal...
'I Am The Walrus' (1967)
Sheer lunacy from beginning to end. And to think this level of ambition and creativity was coming from the biggest band in the world. Can we imagine any of today's biggest pop stars doing anything this insane? John Lennon once said something to the effect that there's enough in this record to keep you listening for a hundred years. He was exactly right. And they did this on a FOUR TRACK. Seriously, just quit now.
'Ooh Baby Baby' (1965)
Another record I heard as a little kid that made me feel things I didn't yet fully understand. I just knew I loved it. I had it on a Motown hits compilation -- on 8-track tape(!!) -- and I played this song over and over. It still stops me dead in my tracks every time I hear it. Smokey has so many devastating records to his name as a writer and producer, he really deserves his own Top 10. Some of those other songs may have more inventive lyrics -- "Tracks Of My Tears" or The Temptations classic "My Girl," for instance. But "Ooh Baby Baby" is the sound of pure romantic longing put to wax, maybe the greatest "begging" record ever made. Fellas, if you're in the doghouse with your woman and this doesn't get you back where you wanna be, nothing else will.
'I Only Have Eyes For You' (1959)
This gets the Number One spot because it's the first record that ever made me stop and say, "This just might be the most perfect record ever made." 'I Only Have Eyes For You' is another Tin Pan Alley standard that's been recorded many times by many artists. But this doo-wop version by The Flamingos is far and away the best. It is SO jaw-droppingly lovely. It sounds like music being transmitted from another dimension. It doesn't even sound like something human beings should be capable of doing. I've tried many times to pull it apart and decipher all of its individual elements, hoping to unlock the secrets of its mystical power over me. Of course, this is completely foolish and futile, like trying to understand love. The Flamingos and their studio cohorts were simply blessed that day. They achieved something so much greater than the sum of its parts, a rare and elusive greatness. This record floats on air. It walks on water. It is sublime.