As we lurch towards the finale, it’s time to slow down. There are 25 acts left and we are getting to the point where each of them warrants a few hundred words. I want to take some time over them, giving each grouping of five some time to let people explore them before moving on. So in this entry, we’re going to run from 25 to 21. If you haven’t done so, be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
The List – Part 4: 25-21
25. Nick Drake
Genre: Chamber Folk
Five to start you off: “Day is Done”, “One of These Things First”, “Northern Sky”, “Strange Meeting II”, “Pink Moon”
Comment: The sound is warm and yet at the same time sad and melancholy, the lyrics are intimate yet at the same time somehow distant, no one else has ever captured what Nick Drake achieved on the only three albums he recorded before committing suicide at the age of 26: Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Later (1971) and Pink Moon (1972). The odds-and-ends collection Time of No Reply (1987) is also essential. These albums capture a tortured artist, and one who is palpably in his early 20s – I don’t think an older man would write something like this:
Deep down in the depths of forgotten dreams
So far away so long ago it seems
The memory comes of a distant beach
Pale sand stretching far from reach
It was then I found my princess of the sand.
It’s melancholic, but it also belies his youth, and in a way a naïveté and sense of optimism. An older man, one perhaps a little more stung by the experience of loss, is not likely to be so starry-eyed. As a rule Drake strips his sound down as he progresses, so the first two albums are more orchestral than the mostly acoustic Pink Moon. What he left was a near-perfect time capsule of himself, but I’ve always thought it would have been interesting to see how he would have developed further.
24. Blind Willie McTell
Genre: Piedmont Blues
Five to start you off: “Statesboro Blues”, “Boll Weevil”, “Broke Down Engine Blues”, “Little Delia”, “Talkin to You Mama”
Comment: Bob Dylan said it best: “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”. He was born blind in one eye, and lost vision in the other eye by the time he was school age. He played a 12-string guitar and specialised in rag-time rhythms. His voice is distinctively Georgia, more gentle than the booming hollering of delta blues guys; it’s a warm tenor. Very unusual among his peers, even though he didn’t make much money from recording, unlike – for example, Skip James or Son House – he continued to record into the 1940s and even 1950s, right up until his death. For this reason, he has a lot more committed to vinyl than many other bluesmen.
I’d recommend the four-disc The Classic Years 1927–1940 (2003), which gives you pretty much everything you’d ever want from the early years, then his three stone-cold classic late recordings: Atlanta Twelve String (1949), Pig ‘n’ Whistle Red (1950), and, recorded in 1956, Last Session (1960). I think in some ways, McTell gets even better when he’s older, you can hear the experience in his voice. The cynical street-smarts of something like “Dying Crapshooters Blues” seems to sound more convincing coming from a guy in his 50s. From the early material there are towering classic cuts though: “Statesboro Blues”, “Broke Down Engine Blues”, the 1940 cut of “Boll Weevil” might be the best vocal performance McTell ever recorded.
There’s a bit of urban Atlanta swagger to McTell; let’s take a look at one of my favorite tracks of his, “Talkin’ to Your Mamma”, in which he seems to suggest that since any woman is going to cheat on you, you might as well cheat on them. It veers between cruel and resigned cynicism and almost hip-hop style bragging. He’s at once cheated on, and cheating. It’s a brilliant song.
I wonder why the rooster, crows early in the morning ‘fore day
Let the hustling man know that the working man is on his way
She’ll get up in the morning, about an hour and a half ‘fore day
Say she’ll give you your breakfast, then rush you away
She’ll say come in sweet papa, come o’er work-ox done gone
But I swear she can’t tell when work-ox coming back home
Here, McTell’s narrator is clearly sympathizing with the poor ‘work-ox’, but there’s a sting: maybe she can’t tell when work-ox is coming back because he’s playing away too. So then:
That one thing about women, I ain’t never learned to understand
Cook corn bread for the husband, biscuit for the doggone man
I’ve got two women, swear ya can’t tell ‘em apart
I got one in my bosom, the other one in my heart
Oh now the one in my bosom, somewhere in Tennessee
But the one in my heart, don’t give a darn for me
Reading between the lines, he loves his wife, but she’s shagging the “doggone man” while he’s at work, so instead he’s turned to playing away with a woman in Tennessee. The situation is endemic as the women start to multiply:
Now I got three women, that’s a yella, brown and black
Take the governor of the U.S to judge the one I like
One of (them) Tennessee yella, one’s an Alabama brown
One of ‘em a Florida black, yeah, she’ll turn ya damper down
Well you can’t watch your wife, watch your kid-gal, too
But you’re watching that kid-gal, I’m telling what that wife might do
If you get the joke, Tennessee yella is cheating on him as well now, so he’s forced to cheat on her with Florida black.
Now the rooster he’s outdoors, just praying to the hen upstairs
You can (get) another man, but I’m a get me another girl
I want all you men, strictly understand
Every front-door woman have a doggone back-door man
I used to say a married woman, was the sweetest woman ever was born
Then would break your heart, the boogie got to go back home
Now love ain’t nothing, single women loving married men
Well it’ll do for a while, but it’ll jam you at the end
I wanna tell you, hot mama, exactly who I am
When I walk out of my front door, hear my back door slam
Lord, lord, lord, lord lord
So even through the bravado and swagger, it’s getting him down. And this is one of the things I really love about McTell’s lyrics: he brings an added sense of complexity to the blues. He’s a street storyteller spinning yarns about gamblers, molls, whisky barflies, hoodlums, and snake-oil merchants: fallen people in a fallen world. His mode is not always that he’s down in the dumps, or straight-forwardly lamenting his lot in life, it’s more a wry turn as if to say “oh god, fuck my life”. He’s a true great.
23. Joanna Newsom
Genre: Chamber Folk
Five to start you off: “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie”, “Monkey and Bear”, “Good Intentions Paving Co.”, “In California”, “Soft As Chalk”
Comment: The voice is certainly an acquired taste, resembling as it does at times, a pre-pubescent cat being strangled with a cheese wire. Some have unkindly compared her to Lisa Simpon. No doubt, it is a hurdle that some might not be able to overcome – but once you do get over it, and learn to live in its world, there’s so much to reward you. I’ve always been into artists with interesting, non-conventional and expressive voices. Newsom plays a harp, and her orchestrations veer between stripped-down and the baroque. But she’s never less than interesting. She is also, for my money, one of the best lyricists of the past two decades, and probably the best of the current generation: the intricacy of her wordplay and rhyme schemes, at times, approach Bob Dylan levels. But it’s not just the words themselves on the page, but how they come alive in performance, in the dramatic structures of her sometimes epic songs. Just four albums so far, and each one of them – in the view of this humble author – truly excellent, worthy of many, many listens which uncover hidden depths.
On The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), she’s young, a bit all-over-the-place, indisciplined in terms of her genre-bending, and her voice is at its most caterwauling. She’s still finding her feet as a true artist of her time. On Ys (2006) she finds those feet. Keen-eyed readers of this list so far will have noticed that I have basically zero patience with long-meandering tracks that do not justify their length, but here – just six songs, none of them shorter than 7 minutes – every single one is a journey, a kind of epic poem set to a mini-suite music. Each song goes through so many dramatic turns and moments, changes of pace that it keeps you captivated. I’ve probably listened to Ys over a hundred times through. If I had to pinpoint a highlight, it would be on “Monkey and Bear”, the music slows down as the bear starts to reply to the monkey:
So, my bride
Here is my hand, where is your paw?
Try and understand my plan, Ursula.
My heart is a furnace;
Full of love that’s just and earnest.
Now you know that we must unlearn this
Allegiance to a life of service,
And no longer answer to that heartless
Hay-monger, nor be his accomplice
(That charlatan, with artless hustling!),
But Ursula, we’ve got to eat something
And earn our keep, while still within
The borders of the land that man has girded
(All double-bolted and tightfisted!)
Until we reach the open country
A-steeped in milk and honey
It’s not just what is happening linguistically here, but the shifts in the music. The phrasing of “Ursula” is so dramatic, the melody flips at least twice, it speeds up, it slows down again, the melody flips again, and on and on it goes beyond this passage into valleys and caverns you’d never expect. Ys features a really unique mode of song-writing, daring and vital.
Have One on Me (2010), meanwhile, has probably become my favourite Newsom album. Here, she’s returned to mostly shorter songs, but records them over six sides, making it a Triple LP. She’s growing now, in a way that Nick Drake didn’t have the chance to: the lyrics become less allegorical, less fantastical, more grounded in the stuff of everyday life, and her own experience. There is more of the confessional mode. Every single song on the first disc – “Easy”, “Have One on Me”, “81”, “Good Intentions Paving Co.”, “No Provenance”, “Baby Birch” – is a stone-cold classic. If she’d just released that, it would have been a five-star effort and an easy early contender for “album of the decade” (that decade being the 2010s), but it doesn’t stop. Disc 2 isn’t quite as knock out but still has some truly amazing songs; I’d cite “In California”, one of the strongest songs on the whole album, the moment towards the end where the music flips to a bar-barrel waltz and she sings “I have choked my roots / on the earth, as rich as roe” is a towering highlight. “Jack Rabbits”, and “Occident” ain’t half bad either. But it doesn’t stop there. Disc 3 has arguably the crown jewel of the collection, “Soft as Chalk”.
I sleep like a soldier — without rest
But there is no treason where there is only lawlessness
The way she sings “Lawlessness” reaches a pitch of drama before we tumbled into a rollicking bar-room piano solo from nowhere. One of the best songs of the young twenty-first century. Have One On Me is my sleeper pick to be ending up in “top 10 of the century” lists eighty-four years from now.
Next to such a towering record, we might assume that Divers (2015) would be less ambitious and more modest a statement, but this is Newsom, so it’s neither of those things. “Sapokanikan” manages to use the word “Ozymandian” on a pop record. “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” seems to use about four or five different keyboards and possibly an electric harpsichord in there too. One more album on the level of her first four, and Newsom would be making the top 15 at a minimum. Two more and she’d be top 10.
22. The Rolling Stones
Genre: Pop, Rock, Blues Rock, Psychedelic Rock
Five to start you off: “You Can’t Catch Me”, “Get Off of My Cloud”, “Under My Thumb”, “Monkey Man”, “Sweet Black Angel”
Comment: No, this isn’t going to be a cop out extremely short entry from me, a la my efforts for Led Zep or Pink Floyd, but despite this pretty high ranking, I’ve never really been a Stones guy. However, they just have too much good stuff for me not to have them somewhere around here, and, well, you already know that I’m a blues guy and, as I’ve noted, I partly have Keith Richards to thank for that. And, of course, his absolutely kick ass riffs are at least half of the reason why anyone would like this band. I should say at the outset that I’m in the camp that cuts them off at Some Girls (1978), I simply can’t do Stones after that, not even Tattoo You (1981), they just fall into that category of being so hyper-main stream that they seem to exist only as product, sapped of any and all possible vitality or relevance they might have had (see also U2, Coldplay, and other such stadium fillers, although I don’t think either Mick or Keith ever got as achingly uncool or as thoroughly hateable as Bono or Chris Martin). Oh and Robert Christgau’s “A” for Dirty Work (1986) must surely be seen as a great embarrassment, what was he thinking? Woeful album. When he reviewed A Bigger Bang (2005), he didn’t take it back, and promptly gave that an “A-”. What was he thinking? Okay, that one wasn’t that bad, but A-? Anyway, I want to talk about what is good and why, not run the Stones down, so let’s get on …
I’m going to be running with US album chronology for this, it makes life easier for two reasons: first, it is bigger, there are 24 US Stones studio album releases versus 22 British ones – if you are wondering, the “extra” US ones are 12×5 (1964) and December’s Children (And Everybody’s) (1965), not exactly rubbish ones; second, they are more inclusive, shoe-horning in various key singles wherever humanly possible, so they give a fuller look. Whichever way I look at it, the US chronology is just better, which figures since they were usually shrewd marketing calls. Some fans see the US chronology as being in some way “bastardized”, artistic vision compromised by commercial interests, but I generally say phooey to that. The US compilation Flowers (1967) does a good job of hoovering up any lingering mess anyway.
So with that said, the first twelve Rolling Stones albums from England’s Newest Hitmakers (1964) to Exile on Main Street (1972) is an uninterrupted run of very-good-to-greatness. Early on, they were a very tight R&B band, and for my money the early albums are probably more vital than the early Beatles albums. I’d take their first four albums (England’s Newest Hitmakers (1964), 12×5 (1964), The Rolling Stones, Now (1964), and Out of Our Heads (1965)) over, for example, something like With the Beatles (1963). Their sound was always earthier, somehow dirtier, grimier. They understood the sleaze in garage rock, and teased out the blues and R&B underpinnings of early rock ‘n’ roll in their cover versions. There’s more murk, fuzz and swampiness in their sound. They can stomp-rock as hard as The Troggs when they want to.
Aftermath (1966) triggers their “middle” period. The US copy shoe-horns in the pivotal single “Paint It Black”, and we get darker themes. I’ve always been vaguely troubled by the implications of “Under My Thumb”. With Between the Buttons (1967) and At Their Satanic Majesty’s Request (1967) they seem far too palpably to be looking over their shoulders at The Beatles, who make their implicit presence felt almost everywhere. I don’t believe “Ruby Tuesday” would exist if there wasn’t some competition between the bands.
With Beggars Banquet (1968), the Stones enter their “classic” phase, and embrace their true identity as rootsy blues nerds more fully. “Sympathy for the Devil”, no matter how many times it is played, is an all-time song. Let It Bleed (1969) achieves a supreme sense of coolness. The opening minute or so of “Gimme Shelter” finds a band who are completely at ease with who they are and what they are doing. It’s another all-timer. Sticky Fingers (1971) somehow makes the sound palette feel more expansive, it seems like there is a lot “open space” outside the music. And then, of course, their masterpiece Exile on Main St. (1972), which would come to define their artistic vision. It one of the records I have to thank for my enduring interest in the history of the blues. Keith’s love of the riff also kept the Stones straight for the main part, there are very few of the excesses that plague Eric Clapton records, few wanky guitar solos, just pure unadulterated Southern rhythm-driven blues rock played by a bunch of lads from … Dartford, Kent. If there is such a thing as authentic inauthenticity, this is it.
As I’ve indicated, my interest in this band beyond 1972 is limited. They fell foul of every rock cliché in the book, approaching self-parody on numerous occasions. However, Some Girls (1978) is worth the time. While I don’t really listen to The Rolling Stones much these days, they are sort of here as a band who were quite instrumental in helping me form my tastes.
21. Lead Belly
Genre: Blues, Folk, Work Songs, Spirituals, Songster
Five to start you off: “Black Betty”, “The Midnight Special”, “Laura”, “”Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, “Grey Goose”
Comment: Lead Belly is a towering figure in twentieth-century music. Embodied in one man we have: the spiritual and actual link between the nineteenth-century American folk traditions and the modern pop song; the single most important figure for the 60s folk revival (even though he died before it started); alongside Woody Guthrie, his generation’s most important voice of civil and political protest; the most exhaustive chronicler of American folk sub-genres; and arguably one of the most talented pre-1960s songwriters. Plus, he grew up picking cotton, and spent two different spells in prison, including time on the Harrison Country chain-gang: every bit the real deal.
Lead Belly recorded a lot and getting into him can be daunting, and the discography is messy with compilations all over the place. If you’re going to start anywhere, I think it has to be with the 3-disc boxset American Folk & Blues Anthology (2013), which, for my money represents the most remarkable remastering job on Lead Belly available. At 75 tracks, it manages to capture the real essence of what this amazing artist was about in the best possible audio quality, and for the tiny price it is currently available for on iTunes, you cannot go wrong. But if you’re seriousl about Lead Belly, you can’t stop there. Next steps would be the Smithsonian Folkways Collection (2015), which boasts at least equally good remastering and comes with some superb documentation and information; it has completely superseded Important Recordings 1934 – 1949 (2006). From there, you can get almost everything else in the seven-volume Complete Recorded Works (1994) released by Document Records, and for true completists the five-volume Remaining Library of Congress Recordings (1997).
Many traditional songs would be completely lost to history if it were not for Lead Belly. He wasn’t a bluesmen, per se, but more of a “songster”, someone who had a song for every occasion and from every genre in a vast arsenal: everything from chain-gang and work songs, prison songs, protest songs, blues songs, rag-time, spirituals, you name it, ol’ Lead Belly’s got it somewhere in his locker. But my god, what an amazing performer he was on top of it all. A rich, deep voice married to raw punkish guitar. He has a warmth and richness of experience that brings virtually anything he touches alive. His “The Gallis Pole” (from the Negro Sinful Songs (1939) sessions), beats the screaming snot out of Led Zeppelin’s, make sure you get the version on the Smithsonian Folkways Collection for highest possible audio quality, cos it just kicks ass. His “Black Betty” just kicks the shit out of Odetta’s, especially if you can track down the medley “Black Betty / Old Man / On A Monday” recorded in 1947, which is found on volume 6 of the Complete Works, I mean holy shit it’s mesmerizing, the man was possessed. And while I will give some props to Nirvana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, you really do believe that Lead Belly is going to hunt down that woman and fucking kill her, it’s an ominous and dark recording, with a menace that a 90s stoner could never capture. His version of the traditional murder ballad, “John Hardy” stands out from the pack because of his decision to be accompanied by accordion. His version of “John Henry” has a great harmonica line. The rhythm he somehow manages to back into “Jean Harlow” without a drummer is uncanny. “Laura”, another one with accordion, is also an incredible, frantic up-tempo recording.
Where Lead Belly really comes into his own, however, is isn’t in the single take, it’s in the stretch of recording sessions, which frustratingly never seem to be released sequentially in all these compilation albums, so I’ve taken to re-creating using my own playlists. This is a harder task than it seems and a list of sessions is available here. If you want to do the same Negro Sinful Songs (1939) is a must. Here with best sources:
Negro Sinful Songs (April 1, 1939 session)
- Frankie and Albert (First Half) – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1
- Looky, Looky, Yonder / Black Betty / Yallow Women’s Door Bells – American Folk and Blues Anthology
- Frankie and Albert (Completion) – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1
- Ain’t Goin’ Down To The Well No Mo’ / Go Down Old Hannah – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1
- Poor Howard / Green Corn – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1
- Fannin Street – American Folk and Blues Anthology
- The Boll Weevil – American Folk and Blues Anthology
- De Kalb Blues – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1
- The Gallis Pole – Smithsonian Collection
- The Bourgeois Blues – American Folk and Blues Anthology
His two recording sessions with the Golden Gate Quartet from June 15 and 17, 1940 are just sensational. Six songs of the songs were released in 1941 as “The Midnight Special” and Other Southern Prison Songs; part of me wishes he’d done more with them backing him because those sessions are magical. You can put them all together for a 13-track album of incredible call-and-response quality. Here:
Lead Belly and the Golden Gate Quartet (1940 sessions)
- Pick a Bail of Cotton
- Yellow Gal
- Whao Back, Buck
- The Midnight Special
- Alabama Bound
- Rock Island Line*
- Grey Goose
- Didn’t Ol John Cross the Water
- Take this Hammer
- Can’t You Line ‘Em
- Julianne Johnson
- Ham an’ Eggs (all tracks: American Folk & Blues Anthology, except * = Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1)
Trust me, if you make that it’ll be one of the best albums you’ll ever own. If you don’t think so, I’m not your friend. Another spell-binding session is the one for Work Songs of the USA (1942), found on the first half of vol. 2 of the Complete Recorded Works, on which Lead Belly is backed by some unnamed group singing work songs; stunning.
Work Songs of the USA (January 1942 sessions)
- Take This Hammer – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2
- Haul Me Away, Joe – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2
- Rock Island Line – American Folk & Blues Anthology
- Ol’ Riley – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2
- Corn Bread Rough – American Folk & Blues Anthology
- Old Man – Smithsonian Collection
Last one, then, from May and July 1944, on which Lead Belly records a bunch of topical, political songs.
The War Album (May-July 1944 sessions)
- There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names – Smithsonian Collection
- Red Bird – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4
- Line ‘Em – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4
- T. B. Blues – Smithsonian Collection
- The Bourgeois Blues – Smithsonian Collection
- Army Life – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4
- Mr. Hitler – Smithsonian Collection
- Juliana Johnson – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4
- Pig Meat – American Folk & Blues Anthology
- Jean Harlow – Smithsonian Collection
- Corn Bread Rough – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4
- National Defense Blues – American Folk & Blues Anthology
- Children’s Blues – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4
- The Blood Done Signed My Name – Smithsonian Collection
- Cow Cow Yicky Yicky Yea – Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 4
Here, blood, death, disease, and racism are everywhere, and yet Lead Belly seems to turn up the humour and is in paradoxically high spirits. As if the only response to true horror is laughter.
All of this, and I’ve not even mentioned some of his most famous songs (“Good Morning Blues”, “C.C. Rider”, “Alberta”, “Goodnight Irene”). On reflection, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have put him higher. A colossal figure in music, and one whose recordings I love dearly.
Next time: which acts make up the first five of the top 20? You know what to do.