Paris 1919 – John Cale (1973)

Paris 1919 - John Cale (1973)

This is basically a concept album, but not in the same way as, say, Tommy. It’s a portrait of a specific point in time and space, specifically Paris 1919. Not all of the lyrics are based on that, but it is a fitting soundtrack for that era. It’s layered, intensely personal, and absolutely beautiful, with A Child’s Christmas in Wales perfecting symphonic art rock and the title track expanding on the Velvet Underground’s later sound. Plus Cale’s voice, ragged and touching throughout, is an asset – it makes me wish he’d sang more with the Velvets, but I’ll always have his solo work.

Choice Cut: A Child’s Christmas in Wales

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Low – David Bowie (1977)

Low - David Bowie (1977)

“I’m gonna review Heroes. …Dammit, Ian! Okay… I’m gonna review Station to Station… Dammit, Ian!” T4B problems. The struggle is real.

This is a powerful testament to how much we like Bowie. He was always doing weird experimental stuff, switching up his style, and trying new things. We’re all about that. Low is essentially an album in two parts: the more “traditional” opening seven and the instrumental closing four. The opening seven are a mix of sounds appropriate for an arcade, 50s piano, rock riffs, and Bowie vocals. The instrumental tracks opened a rabbit hole to be discovered further later.

Choice Cut: What in the World

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OK Computer – Radiohead (1997)

OK Computer - Radiohead (1997)

It’s the classic “best album of the ’90s” pick, which means that any backlash it gets is pretty much inevitable. Sure, there are other ’90s albums that are as creative (Ágætis byrjun), as emotionally resonant (Automatic for the People), as influential (Loveless), or as melodic (Grace) as this one. But what makes OK Computer the greatest album of its generation is the the way all of those elements come together in one place – most notably on the crushing, sweeping Paranoid Android. Listen to how perfectly it moves from the unnerving first part to the second part’s explosive rock (complete with an incredible guitar solo), to the chilling Gothic finale. Better songs have been written, but there aren’t many. Among them is Let Down, my favorite. The riff rules, but the real high point is the climax, with an army of overdubbed Thom Yorkes doing their thing.

Choice Cut: Let Down

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“Heroes” – David Bowie (1977)

Heroes - David Bowie (1977)

The crown of the Bowie/Eno Berlin trilogy and the most accessible entry point to Bowie’s work from his arty experimental rock period. The ambient sound collage that defined the second half of Low is a lot stronger and more fully realized here. Then there’s the album’s title track, which is unquestionably David’s greatest song, where he does something he hasn’t done since Life on Mars? way back on Hunky Dory – he takes every single one of his Bowie masks off and proves that he does have a real human heart in there somewhere. Not to mention, this album has excellent playing from Robert Fripp all over it.

Choice Cut: Heroes

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The Dreaming – Kate Bush (1982)

The Dreaming - Kate Bush (1982)

An amazing example of artistic growth in action. This was Kate’s first album that she produced entirely on her own, which gave her room to fully explore her own subconscious and create one of the most mesmerizing, complex-sounding albums I’ve ever heard. This is gripping, dramatic, experimental music, full of great narratives (There Goes a Tenner), bizarre arrangements (Sat in Your Lap), and the occasional bit of Irish folk (Night of the Swallow). While casual listeners may be deterred by this album, this is essential for the masses already under Kate’s spell.

Following this release, Bush built her own studios and would return to the charts three years later with her most acclaimed album…

Choice Cut: Night of the Swallow
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The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground (1969)

The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground (1969)

Each of these ten songs represent everything I want a rock song to be. There’s slow, pretty ones of all kinds, fast, fun rockers, (What Goes On, Beginning to See the Light – featuring one of the greatest endings ever, where everyone gets together and sings “How does it feel… to be loved”), and interestingly weird ones, (The Murder Mystery, I’m Set Free – which inverts Heroin, turning it from a bleak, nihilistic tale into something gorgeous and uplifting). These blissful, beautiful tunes show Lou Reed was one of the greatest songwriters ever. I hope you didn’t need proof of that, but if you did, it’s right here.

Choice Cut: Pale Blue Eyes
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White Light/White Heat – The Velvet Underground (1968)

White Light/White Heat - The Velvet Underground (1968)

Each Velvet Underground album is a classic in its own right. This is the “noisy” one, the others being the “arty” one, the “quiet” one, and the “pop” one. This is VU’s definitive statement as an avant-garde band and is a dirty, sleazy, loud mess of an album, which might make you uncomfortable if experimental madness is not your thing. Clocking in at over 17 minutes long is Sister Ray, the all-time greatest song about drugs and having oral sex with a transsexual. It’s absolutely captivating and not boring for a single second. Even better than their near-faultless debut.

Choice Cut: Sister Ray
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