Like probably many of you, I'm obsessed with lists, especially the Best Albums/Films/TV Shows of the Year/Decade/All-Time variety. A year ago, Rolling Stone published a poll presenting their Top 500 Albums of All-Time. Dreadfully predictable and skewed towards the same tired classics that tend to pop up on such endeavors, it inspired me to create my own list of 100 favorite albums (I'd be really scraping to get to 500).

I sort of attempted an embryonic version of this in 2001. With an excess of free time at the job I had then, I began writing brief, Robert Christgau-like paragraphs about fifty of my favorite albums. I did this randomly, not placing the entries in any particular order. If you're curious to see it, forget it--I lost the file some time back. Fortunately, blogging gave me the opportunity to execute and complete a proper list. The title comes from a song called "One Thousand Words" by Northern State. My original goal was to write at least a one hundred words about each album, thus a total of at least ten thousand words (as I got closer to number one, the entries got longer, and the final word count is somewhere around 15,000).

As for the rankings, well, isn't it difficult to say exactly what makes one album ever-so-slightly better than another? When I started this project, I culled together 100 albums that I loved with a general idea of which ones I valued significantly more than others. Early on, I changed the order here and there and made a few substitutions. I've acquired some great stuff in the interim, and if I had started the project today, it would definitely include The Shins' Chutes Too Narrow, Massive Attack's Mezzanine and possibly Ted Leo and the Pharmacist's Hearts of Oak. Kings of Convenience's 2004 album, Riot On an Empty Street, would certainly take the place of Quiet Is The New Loud, and Bjork's Medulla might be there instead of Selmasongs.

But, such speculation is irrelevant going forward. You'll notice that the recent, higher ranked entries seem a little more personal than the earlier ones. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I had difficulty writing about some of these albums without placing them in a context that expressed how much of an impact they had on my life, and exactly how (or when or where) they made that impact. What follows is a sort of musical autobiography in bite-sized pieces...
1. R.E.M., Automatic For The People (Warner Bros., 1992)

Upon its release, when pressed to describe this beautifully cryptic, somber record, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills simply noted that its songs were "weird". While far from the weirdest album to ever just miss topping the charts (Garth Brooks kept it from entering at number one), Automatic For The People was more idiosyncratic and unabashedly out of time than, well, Out of Time, the band's previous record--just scan the oblique cover photo, the in-joke of a title (supposedly a greeting belted out by a diner owner to his customers) and the puzzling song titles ("Star Me Kitten", "Nightswimming"). How did a slow, strange song cycle revolving around mortality and loss (with few obvious hit singles) strike a chord with so many people?

Before Automatic, I admired the band at a distance, enjoying hits like "Stand" and "Losing My Religion", but I wasn't in a mad rush to obtain the album--that was, until I heard the first single "Drive" on the radio. Something about that minor-key guitar arpeggio and the song's fluid, dynamic swings from acoustic splendor to charged electricity and back again really pulled me in. Admittedly, the rest of the album took more time to register. I didn't know who Montgomery Clift or Andy Kaufman were, so in terms of narrative, neither "Monty Got a Raw Deal" or "Man on the Moon" made much sense to me.

I can remember lying on my bed one Friday evening a few weeks later, listening to "Man on the Moon" on headphones, and suddenly feeling the music's pull--particularly its outgoing melody, cathedral-like expansiveness, and tremendous warmth. Soon, other songs similarly began to resonate: "Sweetness Follows" soothing all the pain away with its gently sawing cellos, "Nightswimming" capturing the melancholy, autumnal glow of a faint but significant reminiscence, "Try Not to Breathe" brightening the darkness with its sway and verve.

"Everybody Hurts" is something else altogether, and probably what drew so many people towards this album. A few fans of R.E.M.'s earlier work have criticized Michael Stipe for making his vocals, once enigmatic and garbled beyond belief, all too intelligible at this point (and thus, not as distinctive), but his clarity is vital to this song's impact. Over an arrangement as expansive as an arena power ballad (only smarter) and a melody as classic and engaging as "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "Hey Jude", Stipe talks a friend out of committing suicide. It's melodramatic and over-the-top because it simply has to be, and it's emblematic of the whole album's urgency, humaneness and willingness to go out on a limb and open yourself up to the world. One of R.E.M.'s earliest hits was called "Talk about the Passion" and Automatic does just that more fluently than any other album I've heard.


2. Joni Mitchell, Blue (Reprise, 1971)

It took many spins to fully embrace this album. Despite my repeated efforts, Blue didn't scan well as background music when I worked as a desk receptionist for student housing at Marquette. The songs all ran together and I couldn't discern any immediate hooks. When I moved to Boston a year later, I arrived with a minimal assortment of cassette tapes to tide me over until the rest of my belongings arrived. One of these was my dubbed copy of Blue. Much like another album, I listened to it constantly on headphones, in and out of my apartment, and eventually, I understood what made it so exemplary and rare. The key to Blue is its intimacy, openness and fragility--more than half of its tracks are skeletal, nothing but a voice and a lone guitar or piano. Although Mitchell may have not necessarily written these ten songs about herself, her confessional delivery and keen lyricism is so raw, naked and felt that you wonder how they could possibly be about anyone else. Each one is like a personal, poetic travelogue--listen to the way she makes the most of a fleeting moment in "Carey" or how she sums up the side effects of fame on her generation in the title track. Still, it's the melancholy final three songs ("River", "A Case of You", and “The Last Time I Saw Richard") that leave the most lasting, unsettling impression. Like the final shot of Annie Hall, they summarize the narrator’s pain and desires (without any self-pity) while leaving a few things open and unresolved.


3. Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister (Jeepster/Matador, 1996)

On a wintry New Year's Day a few years back, as mounds of snow piled up outside her family's suburban split-level, a good friend and I listened to this album for the first time and we both instantly fell in love with the opening song, "The Stars of Track and Field". Like Stuart Murdoch's best work ("The State I Am In", "Lazy Line Painter Jane"), it begins quietly, gently, barely audible even, then it gradually builds, adding on piano, trumpet and strings until the chorus swells and roars with Murdoch's fey warble exuding a force you never knew it had. “Seeing Other People” follows with a sharp lilt that mixes the Smiths with Vince Guaraldi; the remainder, as I once described to another friend, could be the love child of Paul Simon and Ray Davies (with the Beatles presiding over the birth, of course). If You're Feeling Sinister wasn't this Scots collective's debut album, but it was the first one most people heard. To discover it is to come across an anomaly in pop music, an alternate universe that has absolutely nothing to do with rock star celebrity or artistic pretension. Even more so than the work of another man with the same initials, these bittersweet, literate songs bring to mind people playing together in a room because the music and each other's company is what they live for.


4. Everything But The Girl, Amplified Heart (Atlantic, 1994)

Despite the title, this is Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt's most organic and acoustic record next to, well, Acoustic, the covers collection that preceded it. On first listen, it comes perilously close to easy listening or elevator music--every note seems smooth, sophisticated, carefully chosen and executed, like aural wallpaper suitable for subdued cocktail parties and pleasant enough to play for your parents. Additional spins, however, reveal lots of raw tension subsisting beneath the glassy veneer. I recently heard someone call this one of the best ever albums about a failed relationship; it's an apt description, although I never thought of it that way, for it wasn't this duo's last album (they're currently no longer together). On the contrary, backing away from the tinny overproduction of EBTG’s past few releases, it felt like a rebirth. Watt had also just survived a rare intestinal disease that almost killed him. One of the two songs he sings, "25th December", seems unbearably poignant with this in mind, but it’s only a crescendo on an album suffused with eloquent longing, regret, melancholy and resolve. And although I initially thought the hit Todd Terry remix of “Missing” was a sellout, it really fleshes out the original (both are included here) and adds something crucial even as it trims it down into a minimalist electronic soundscape.


5. Ivy, Apartment Life (Atlantic, 1997)

I already wrote nearly one thousand words about this one for Splendid earlier in the year. To that, let me add that it continues to grow on me (it's surpassed this record, for chrissakes). More so than any other album I own, I can imagine playing it anytime, anyplace. I want every future boyfriend of mine to hear it so I can use it as a litmus test for whether he's worth hanging on to. I'll buy this trio's next album when it comes out in March 2005 even though it'll probably be an inevitable letdown. Apartment Life is still the best purchase I've ever made from a used CD store on a whim. Check back with me in five years to see whether it will be my all-time favorite album.


6. The Beatles, Abbey Road (Capitol, 1969)

Everybody has an album that "changed their life" and this is mine. Up until my senior year of high school, top 40 radio and MTV molded my taste in music. One afternoon, I heard "Come Together" playing in a friend’s car. Although I knew the song, it seemed much cooler than before--the snarky wordplay, the unorthodox percussion, the bluesy electric piano. A few months later, I borrowed this CD from the library just to hear that one song again. However, I felt my world shifting left of center as I took in the entire album. I was delighted to find another old favorite, "Here Comes the Sun", but was just floored by the multi-song suite that concludes the disc (and the band's career). I had never heard anything so ambitious, clever, intricate and effortlessly executed. It encouraged me to listen to classic rock, which in turn led to college radio, checking every available music publication, spending hours rummaging through used record stores, etc; In short, Abbey Road was like the first, primary domino, and undeniably responsible for what I listen to today. For that, it’s obviously still my favorite Beatles album and an exceptionally cohesive piece of art--pretty miraculous when you consider how close the band was to disintegrating when they birthed it.


7. The Avalanches, Since I Left You (Elektra, 2001)

On one end of the sampling spectrum, you have P. Diddy and "Ice Ice Baby"; on the other, you have this Australian collective. Since I Left You takes the kitsch-en sink approach DJ Shadow introduced on Endtroducing... about ten steps further, constructing a Frankenstein monster out of a disparate array of existing sounds. Yet, such a monster never moved about so gracefully. Suffused with layers and echoes and recurring motifs, this is an orchestrated work. It doesn't register as background noise all too well--you need to hear it on headphones to entirely feel and appreciate its depth and impact. The album opens with an androgynous vocalist repeatedly intoning "Since I left you / I've never felt so blue" and concludes an hour later as another finally responds "Girl I just can't get you / Since the day I left you". Between those two bookends, we hear a glittering assortment of funk, trip-hop, and disco, but it seems wrong to use those simple, recognizable terms. How exactly does one categorize a track like “Frontier Psychiatrist”, which creates a supple, silly, exuberant narrative out of a symphony of random snippets? Does it matter when it makes for a riveting dance party skewed more towards the mind than the feet?


8. Saint Etienne, Good Humor (Sub Pop, 1998)

After taking a breather in the mid-90's, this trio came back into the fold with something different, an album that had no instrumentals, no obscure sound bites from classic British films, no barmy experimental detours--just eleven winsome, melancholy pop songs with vocals. Assisted by Cardigans producer Tore Johansson, Good Humor gazes back to the heyday of '60s/'70s AM radio, largely supplementing Saint Etienne’s proclivity towards electronics/programming with a crack live band. The results are admittedly less challenging and dynamic, and some fans still regard this as their worst album. I’ll argue that it's their best. Chanteuse/secret weapon Sarah Cracknell spent the layoff learning how to make the most out of her limited range (see her solo album) and the deeper, more versatile tone she displays here flawlessly complements the simplicity, sincerity and puppy dog warmth these songs emanate. Everything sparkles, but "Sylvie" is Saint Etienne's finest moment: a lengthy piano intro gives way to an irresistible samba/disco pulse with an astute lyric about a teenaged girl whose boyfriend has just been snatched away by her younger sister. It’s the sort of heavenly pop song that breaks your heart and makes you feel glad to be alive so you can listen to it again.


9. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions (Motown, 1973)

Some deemed him a genius when he was 12, but Stevie Wonder really didn't earn that title until a decade later. Like Marvin Gaye, he rebelled against the Motown assembly production line and took control of his art, but he went much further. In addition to playing nearly every damn instrument himself, he made blisteringly personal music that was innovative (and a tad idiosyncratic) but always approachable. More so than the rightly praised if overstuffed Songs in the Key of Life, this is Wonder's sharpest, riskiest set. Although still chiefly an R&B album, you can tell he was soaking up everything from folk-rock and Abbey Road to post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis and Broadway. Yet, these influences come back filtered entirely through Wonder's innate sensibilities, veering between social activism ("Living For The City", “Higher Ground”) and individual contemplation ("All In Love Is Fair") until they blur and seem inseparable. He's thoughtful and abstract on the acoustic-guitar driven "Visions" and startingly direct on "Too High" (he frankly disses a girl because "she wasn't very nice"), but the Latin-jazz "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" really displays what made him a prodigy: compassion, melodic virtuosity to spare and a wonderfully weird sense of humor.


10. Tori Amos, Scarlet's Walk (Epic, 2002)

This icon spent at least half a decade bewildering fans of Little Earthquakes with a slew of unusual, challenging, and often obtuse offerings that left little doubt she really did wanna be the next Kate Bush, only weirder. After the torturous covers record Strange Little Girls, few expected to hear anything accessible (or remotely likable) from her ever again--which is what partially makes this album an absolute stunner. Certainly a return to form but not exactly a retreat, Scarlet's Walk takes the original template of Amos’ early '90s work and applies to it all of the musical dexterity she's acquired in the interim. Inspired by her tour across America in the weeks following 9/11, this 18-track, 75-minute set is as sprawling and ambitious as Boys For Pele. But where that one felt insular, loose and occasionally schizophrenic, this one's inviting, disciplined and unswerving. While I have difficulty tracing the album's lyrical trajectory across the zigzagging map of the United States included in the CD booklet, I do get a keen sense of how these songs coalesce into an arresting, stream-of-consciousness travelogue. I also sense that, for the first time, Amos seems wholly aware of a world beyond herself and the faeries.


11. The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge, 1999)

Any music geek obsessive enough to alphabetize his 500+ CD collection needs to hear this extraordinary act of chutzpah from Stephin Merritt: a sprawling three-disc set that catapulted him into modern-day Cole Porter territory. Working with five vocalists (including his ever-distinct low register bellow), at least twenty-five genres, and lots of stuff sung by one gender but written for the other, the sheer bulk of it all is obviously impressive. Not everything's as funny as "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off" or as lyrically brilliant as "Crazy For You (But Not That Crazy)" or as catchy as "I'm Sorry I Love You" or as moving as "All My Little Words"--if that were the case, 69 Love Songs would be number one on this list. Still, fewer clunkers (or even subpar tracks) surface than you'd expect. I originally fell madly in love with this collection because I thought it was so endearing and sincere to hear these people making music in a tiny little bedroom cramped with piles of second-hand recording equipment (or so I'd like to imagine). Of course, sincerity isn't exactly correct for an auteur so fond of irony and pastiche, but the dedication and talent put into this project is such that you almost believe every last word.


12. XTC, Skylarking (Geffen, 1986)

Neither XTC nor producer Todd Rundgren had much of a reputation for putting out consistent, tight albums until this shimmering song cycle appeared (seemingly from out of nowhere) and re-established both of their then-moribund careers. Although band leader Partridge notoriously butted heads with Rundgren during the recording sessions, the results sound seamless, harmonic and far-reaching. Maybe great art is born out of conflict (the similarly genius Apple Venus came out right before guitarist Dave Gregory quit the band). This wasn't the first (or last) time XTC indulged in a little late '60s lush, psychedelic pop, but it remains their strongest, least-dated effort. Thematically, Skylarking passes through the four seasons while likening them to the human life cycle (or vice-versa, if you prefer). Hardly an original framework, but it proves an ideal setting for miniaturist observations like "Grass", "Earn Enough For Us" and "Big Day" (only "Dear God", a former B-side added on after it became a big hit, grapples with weightier issues). Alternately swooning and tartly cynical, languorous and lucid, dreamlike and down-to-earth, Skylarking is high on a teeny tiny list of the very best Beatles-esque albums.


13. Stew, The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs (Smile, 2002)

Music geek that I am, I usually try to keep a close eye on new CD releases. However, a week before this album was officially available in stores, I came across a promotional copy of it in a used record bin without any knowledge of its impending existence. I couldn't have asked for a more delightful surprise--Stew's second solo album is a ramshackle but substantial masterpiece, and the finest introduction to this quirky, obscure, droll songwriter. Falling somewhere between a live document (complete with 'tween song banter) a lushly-produced studio set, and an original cast recording, it defies easy categorization. The Naked Dutch Painter... blends all the man's obsessions into a thick, heady... um, stew, making room for jaunty piano cabaret about "girls who carry switchblades and are very well read", Marvin Gaye-by-way-of-The Beatles balladry ("Reeling") and an astounding three-part "Drug Suite" that waxes rhapsodic about intoxication and abstinence with wit and precise detail. Plus, the climactic title track is as sharp and intuitive as a short story by Raymond Carver or Dorothy Parker, only better because Stew can enhance his narrative prowess with a terrific melody.


14. Concrete Blonde, Bloodletting (I.R.S., 1990)

Some albums take you back to a particular time and place. This one inevitably conjures up memories of college, of taking the Badger Bus back and forth between Milwaukee and Madison and strolling through the student ghettos of each city. I first heard this in 1994, and it only took a few spins for me to realize how solid it was--you know, one of those rare records where messing with the sequence would seem sacrilegious because it's perfect as is. Johnette Napolitano remains one of the world's most underrated female rock vocalists. She makes up for her lack of technique tenfold with how well her beguiling wail simply fills up a space, be it your bedroom or a concert hall. Although the title track forever established this band as a favorite in Goth circles, the album’s bulk is less theatrical and brooding. Supposedly, Napolitano wrote these songs in a rush after deciding not to break up their band, and their urgency comes through in undulating details: Peter Buck's shimmering mandolin in "Darkening of the Light"; the "Be My Baby" drumbeat that kicks off the band's lone hit "Joey"; the hushed, nearly eerie calm permeating the defiant "I Don't Need A Hero".


15. Ani DiFranco, Dilate (Righteous Babe, 1996)

When I moved to Boston in ’97, if I didn’t have homework to do or a rented video to watch, I strove to just get away from my cramped, run-down apartment. On many walks, I listened to this album repeatedly on a crudely-dubbed cassette tape (with no song titles written on its homemade notebook paper sleeve). As with other fans, this was my first Ani album, the first to nationally chart and the one that catapulted her beyond cult phenomenon. It remains her most focused and complete work, and that’s saying a lot for someone with such a sprawling, uneven catalogue. Maybe sticking to an overall theme (the dissolution and aftermath of a love affair) helped, but the sequencing’s also strong without feeling heavy-handed or lapsing into concept-album obviousness. Dilate begins with a venomous but calm “Fuck you” and ends with quiet resignation and possible enlightenment. In between, she screams, wails, laughs, confesses, falls into devastation and despair, and gradually puts herself back together again--and she secures your attention every step of the way.


16. Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965)

Peanuts has always had an curiously significant presence in my life. As a kid, I didn’t care about collecting Transformers or obtaining tickets to Wrestlemania; I was more content with tracking down every last available Peanuts reprint book and taping all the television specials. As an adult, I’m collecting the strips all over again (via Fantagraphic’s stellar reissue series). As for the specials, the first and best, A Charlie Brown Christmas continues to resonate with me more as an adult, and I think that’s partially due to Vince Guaraldi’s score. In 1965, the last music you’d expect to hear in a television cartoon was a jazz piano trio, yet the results nailed (if “nailed” isn’t too gauche a word) the thoughtful, understated tone of Charles Schulz’s clean, modernist style. To this day, Guaraldi’s gentle, wistful interpretations of chestnuts like “O Tannenbaum”, “What Child Is This” and “The Christmas Song” stand in sharp contrast to the bulk of plastic, cheery, loud holiday music. Along with “Linus and Lucy” (alone surely a case for Guaraldi's genius) and other originals, they provide a warmer, more melancholy and far more realistic soundtrack to the season.


17. Portishead, Dummy (Polygram, 1994)

Suggested alternate title: Spooky. A decade on, this quintessential trip-hop album holds up far more sturdily than you'd expect. For all of its noir-drenched gloom, Dummy remains accessible and oddly inviting because instrumentalist Geoff Barrows and strange chanteuse Beth Gibbons (perhaps the '90s equivalent of Nico?) paid as much mind to song structure and melody as they did to tension, mood, texture and cannily-employed samples. When they tried again with Portishead three years later, they somehow screwed up that synergy--the songs just didn't blossom as they do so fluently here. Supposedly, they also made a short film called To Kill a Dead Man to accompany this album, and it's a wonder why Barrows didn't do more scoring--you don't even have to rent When The Cat's Away to imagine how flawlessly the steadily shattering album closer "Glory Box" lends itself to a film's credits roll.


18. Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 (Superego, 2000)

This was the first album I'd ever purchased from an artist's website because you could do so weeks before you could buy it in stores. After two frankly amazing albums (plus the career-reviving Magnolia soundtrack, which slyly previewed a few gems from this one), I dearly hoped that Mann could pull off a triple play, and this solid, sterling set more than did the job. It’s as cunning and cutting as ever: "How Am I Different" and "Nothing Is Good Enough" continue and perfect that failed relationship = faltering career vibe omnipresent in her work, while "Ghost World" almost captures the ennui of Daniel Clowes' comic as well as Terry Zwigoff's great film would a year later. But Bachelor also suggests that Mann’s now listening to Bacharach (she even name-checks him on “It Takes All Kinds”) as much as the Beatles. Songs like “Satellite”, “Red Vines” and “You Do” come across as the perfect blend of those two primary influences, but Mann retains such a singular, witty voice that the results remain distinctly hers.


19. Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever Amen (Sony 550, 1997)

Imagine trying to explain Ben Folds to future generations: "Yeah, this piano man could've stayed in Chapel Hill and earned his graduate degree in musical theory. Instead, he had the gall to unapologetically sound like early '70s Elton John and Billy Joel when everyone was listening to Stone Temple Pilots and Bush!" (Inevitable response: "You mean that Bush was a rock star before he became president?"). Often accused of being insincere or too clever for his own good, Folds had the talent and tunes to answer his detractors. His second album also showed he had enough depth and finesse to pull off those lofty comparisons. True, attention-grabbers like "Song For The Dumped" could be crude (if riotous and adequately cathartic), but more thoughtful, pensive numbers like "Selfless, Cold and Composed" and "Evaporated" and the somber, poignant "Brick" (a surprise hit ballad) still reveal the honest, vulnerable soul behind the smart-ass.


20. Morcheeba, Who Can You Trust? (Discovery, 1996)

Yes, that's a pot plant on the cover (as if the silly band name didn't already tip you off). Actually, it never occurred to me to listen to this album while intoxicated--the grooves and flow are already there, no matter what you bring to it. The title could've come from some altered-state paranoia, but not the music. As trip-hop collectives went, these guys were almost the anti-Massive Attack--as moody as the rest of their peers, but far hazier and mellower. Apart from the beatless, orchestral interlude "Col", everything pretty much sounds the same and, in this case, that's an advantage. This is a chill-out album with hooks (languorous and sneaky as they may be), plus Skye Edwards' smoky, sultry vocals are vital signs rather than chilly detachments. Every album Morcheeba has put out since is a shade more upbeat and varied, thus less consistent, but who cares when they have one in your catalogue as complete and unerring as this?


21. Saint Etienne, Tiger Bay (Heavenly, 1996)

Until recently, I underrated this band's third album because I only knew the original US version, which replicated the UK edition's first two thirds but replaced the rest with superfluous remixes and a charming-but-slight Christmas song. This version, released somewhere in Europe a few years later but currently available at an uncommonly low import price, radically re-imagines the UK version--the first and last tracks are in the same position, but everything else is rearranged with four additional songs (including the irresistible "He's On The Phone", a hit single from '95). Initially, the sequencing seems a little jarring, but after a few spins, it solidifies well enough. Certainly the most cinematic (and diverse) of all their albums, Tiger Bay could easily accompany the painterly long takes of a Terence Davies film. It's also a stunning travelogue: just reference the titles of expansive soundscapes like "Urban Clearway", "Like a Motorway", "Pale Movie" or "Tankerville". Most striking, however, is the hymn-like "Former Lover" and the gentle, orchestral centerpiece "Marble Lions"--both take risks that would've seemed inconceivable back when the band was doing dance-pop covers of Neil Young.


22. Dionne Warwick, The Dionne Warwick Collection: Her All-Time Greatest Hits (Rhino, 1989)

I'm skeptical of calling an album a "guilty pleasure", but if anything qualifies for me, this is it. I have a friend who adores Barry Manilow because her parents played a lot of "Copacabana" when she was very young. Oddly enough, my parents didn't own a single Dionne Warwick record (my Dad opted for Burt Bacharach (dreadfully) singing his own material). Still, it seemed like she was everywhere during my formative years--in the car, in restaurants, at the barber's. Yes, it was almost muzak, but throughout the '60s, Bacharach's matchless arrangements (somewhere between immaculate, intricate and ingenuous), Hal David's lyrics and Dionne's yearning, elegant vocals coalesced into classy, emotionally complex pop of the highest order. "Walk On By", "Do You Know The Way to San Jose", "I Say A Little Prayer" and all the rest remain influential (if not exactly hip) today, even if very few can fully replicate what these three talents accomplished together.


23. k.d. lang, Ingenue (Sire, 1992)

Everyone's favorite Canadian, Patsy Cline-worshipping lesbian diva doesn't entirely leave the country-western stylings of her previous work behind here. Since she never really conformed to many genre strictures anyway, this shift towards torchy, adult-contemporary pop didn't seem so sudden at the time. A dozen years on, however, Ingenue radiates bravery and smarts in an environment where far too many artists allow themselves to be advertised and consumed in neat, little identifiable packages. Its music creates a special, singular, hard-to-classify space that provides a perfect backdrop for Lang's nuanced, drama-drenched voice. This is also as much of a coming-out album as Very: its deserved breakthrough single, "Constant Craving", warmly surveys the pain and eventual liberation of a repressed desire surfacing after many frozen, contained years.


24. Ani DiFranco, Living In Clip (Righteous Babe, 1997)

Most critics argue that Ani's studio recordings don't even remotely capture the energy and presence of her live shows. So, go to this double-disc tour document, recorded, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, in support of her best studio album. Although most of the crowd noise and applause was edited out of the final mix, reactions like the *gasp* of surprise when she changes a significant song lyric in "Shameless" remind us that the very best performers know how to communicate with an audience. That rapport also allows Ani to open up her compositions to a degree that it seems like what was once in black and white in the studio now breathes with vivid, living color. With ample, fluid support from bassist Sara Lee and drummer Andy Stochansky (and, on two tracks, the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra with Doc Severinsen (!)), this captures the spontaneous, often-mesmeric vibe of being there like few other live albums in my collection.


25. The Smiths, Vol. 1 - Best of The Smiths (Sire, 1992)

The 18-track Singles (which superseded this) and The Queen Is Dead (1986) are probably more essential purchases, but the former doesn't include "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" and "Half A Person" (among the band's ten best tracks, but never released as singles) and only "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" overlaps with the latter. This brief compilation was my introduction to the man, the myth, the Moz. Easily the most original popular band of its era (in the UK, anyway), just note how fluid the non-chronological sequencing seems here--no jarring contrasts between tracks and the quality never falters. Plus, Johnny Marr's innovative, crisp 12-string riffage makes a perfect yang to Morrissey's melodramatic yin. How did gawky, shy, confused misfit teens ever cope without "Panic", "Girlfriend in a Coma", the superlative "How Soon Is Now" and other tuneful, sympathetic, darkly comic salvos seemingly written especially for them?
26. Soul Coughing, Ruby Vroom (Slash/Warner Brothers, 1994)

I saw this quartet open for They Might Be Giants in support of this debut album, and I believed I was witnessing my generation's equivalent to the Talking Heads. Alas, they disbanded after two more albums, both nice tries that rarely approached the gleeful sonic heights of this one. A decade on, this hasn't dated at all and still sounds unclassifiable and daringly weird: "vocalist" (for lack of a better handle) M. Doughty talks/scats/halfway sings over stand-up bass and drums, his own crude guitar snarls, and a playful, symphonic array of samples (anticipating The Avalanches by more than five years). More beat-poetry than hip-hop (with the Tex Avery-ready "Bus To Beelzebub" a neat blend of the two), you could almost deem them a postmodern Tom Waits (just imagine if they had worked together). Forget Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots, or Smashing Pumpkins--this was alternative rock.


27. Steve Wynn, Kerosene Man (Rhino, 1990)

Often, the first album you hear by a musician remains your favorite of theirs, even in the unlikely event that something else surpasses it. Take this ex-Dream Syndicate leader--his double album from 2001 is arguably his masterpiece; years later, I continue to find new things that I adore about it. But I have a soft spot for his solo debut, which a friend first lent me a decade ago. I can't think of better introduction to this criminally underrated, largely unknown songwriter than this record's first three tracks: "Tears Won't Help" (a college radio hit), "Carolyn" (jangle-pop with strings that surpasses R.E.M.'s Out of Time), and "The Blue Drifter" (contains a neat sax solo that makes up for all the hackneyed ones you've ever heard). While slicker than subsequent efforts, the rest coheres well enough, finding room for country-rock twang, noir-tango, guitar grunge, and a gorgeous duet with Johnette Napolitano that makes you wish they'd do an entire album together.


28. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground (Verve, 1969)

The first album was a slap in the face, the second a full frontal assault, and the fourth full of sweet resignation without caving in. So where does that leave the quiet but difficult third album in this influential band's concise canon? Maybe "difficult" doesn't exactly fit--apart from "The Murder Mystery", you could imagine most of this ideally fitting in on AM radio at the time (like you should be hearing Stew and The Magnetic Fields on American Top 40 today). Supposedly acoustic because most of the band's instruments were stolen, "complex" is a better all-encompassing word to describe it. Equally vulnerable and cathartic, "Beginning To See The Light", "Pale Blue Eyes" and "I'm Set Free" offer brief, illuminating glimpses of Lou Reed behind the mask more than a decade before he removed it entirely on The Blue Mask. With the Moe Tucker-sung "Afterhours" signing off, this is a soulful song cycle for insomniacs and free thinkers, a vital, enduring document of how a generation really felt, much more so than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

29. Erasure, Pop! The First 20 Hits (Sire, 1992)

Given synthesist Vince Clarke's inclination to leave bands after an album or two (The Assembly, his collaboration with Undertones leader Feargal Sharkey dissolved after one single), it's impressive that he's worked as a duo with vocalist Andy Bell for nearly two decades now. This collection strongly argues for such tenacity. While Erasure's albums were never as consistent as Yazoo's (although the melancholy, mortality-obsessed I Say, I Say, I Say (1994) comes close), their singles deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Pet Shop Boys'. If early Tennant/Lowe was cerebral/cynical/ironic, Clarke/Bell were always unabashedly impulsive, romantic and direct. I suspect the Pets will ultimately prove the more "important" band , but chestnuts like "Oh L'Amour", "Sometimes", "A Little Respect", "Stop!" and "Blue Savannah" nail that euphoric rush born out of lip-synching to your favorite song on headphones or catching an encouraging glance from the hottest guy/girl in the room. It's all liberation and emotional release, much like the best ABBA--not for nothing does this astonishing time capsule conclude with a bouncy cover of "Take A Chance On Me".


30. Saint Etienne, So Tough (Warner Brothers, 1993)

I've never set foot in London (or the UK, for that matter), but this album makes me feel like I've spent many moons there. I admit most of the local references within the lyrics of opener "Mario's Cafe" don't register with me. Fortunately, the music certainly does with its wide-eyed innocence, gliding synthesized strings and Sarah Cracknell's adorably pure, untrained vocal. So Tough adds significant focus to the postmodern cut-and-paste aesthetic of this trio’s uneven debut, and it’s a music-geek’s joyride through decades of AM and FM radio. One minute, they're contracting Van Dyke Parks to compose an impossibly lovely orchestral arrangement for "Hobart Paving"; the next, they're liberally sampling the swirling guitars of Rush's "The Spirit of Radio" for their own "Conchita Martinez". "Avenue", however, is the centerpiece--a soaring, sighing impressionist epic that never loses a grip on its audience, even as it cracks abruptly like thunder or threatens to be forever whisked away by the wind.


31. Kirsty MacColl, Galore (I.R.S., 1995)

The most criminally unsung vocalist of her era? Despite glowing testimonals from the likes of Bono and Billy Bragg imbedded in this set's liner notes, the general public barely remembers this eclectic, earthy yet angelic-voiced woman who tragically passed away in 2000. It doesn't help that this sterling 16-year, 18-track overview is currently out of print in the US, either. Galore gathers snapshots from her entire career (apart from her final album, the latin-inflected Tropical Brainstorm); nearly every one is worth a thousand words, whether the panorama is girl-group pop ("They Don't Know", later a hit for Tracey Ullman), sassy nu-rockabilly (the fabulously titled "There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis"), a sweeping Christmas song that should be more popular than "Jingle Bells" ("Fairytale of New York", a duet with The Pogues) or even hip-hop ("Walking Down Madison"). Discovering each of these is like gaining access into a secret, better world you never knew existed.


32. Aimee Mann, I'm With Stupid (Geffen, 1995)

The first line of the first song is "You fucked it up". Given her infamous record-label woes, you could argue she had every right to be pissed off. Still, rarely has any artist channeled her misery into something so tart, carthartic, caring and pitiless. Ms. Mann's second solo outing wipes away some of its predecessor's gloss, turning up the fuzz-toned guitars and tightening up the melodies until they gleam like late-period Beatles updated for the alt-rock age. In addition to "That's Just What You Are" (her only chart hit which I believed peaked at, oh, #90) and two gorgeous, Juliana Hatfield-assisted waltz-ballads, the simple, giddy "Superball" remains definitive. I once described it as a really rockin' Josie and The Pussycats. Eight years later, it's more akin to a world where Josie quit the band and ditched the kittysuit, but never abandoned her love of the almighty, bouncy hook.


33. Pet Shop Boys, Very (Capitol, 1993)

Normally, a singles compilation inevitably signals a steady decline to follow; fortunately, Very, the record that followed this compilation, defies that rule. Ostensibly vocalist Neil Tennant's larger-than-life coming out party (though never as banal as that sounds), this album is a decisive, intriguing turning point. While still carefully cloaked in multiple layers of irony and metaphor (see "Dreaming of the Queen"), these songs take real risks to further expose the emotional, vulnerable core that always pulsated beneath the surface of "West End Girls", "Opportunities", et al. Of course, Neil and Chris still encourage you to dissect and ponder just exactly who and what they're addressing. But this unprecedented synergy, combined with an ongoing sense of renewal and a constant surge of ecstatic joy is what makes this album their best. Could anyone else reveal the poignancy and yearning lurking within the glorious camp overtones of the The Village People's "Go West"?


34. Blur, Parklife (Food/SBK, 1994)

Apart from the "woo-hoo!" extreme sports anthem "Song 2", Blur never crossed over in the USA, not because they were too inherently British but because they were just too clever. Brainy pop, from XTC to the New Pornographers rarely moves the masses here. Unlike the rest of this combo's more homogeneous efforts, Parklife's all over the place stylistically, shrewdly chewing up, spitting out, and recontextualizing brilliant Brit bands of yore (The Kinks, The Jam, and Madness, much more so than The Beatles) without ever sounding uninspired or derivative like their silly one-time rivals Oasis. Yet, it dexterously holds together, indulging in cheeky wordplay (such as the Pet Shop Boys-worthy chorus on "Girls and Boys") over a mutation of genres (glam, punk, synth-pop, music hall, new wave). Fortunately, they also balance a healthy dose of skepticism with a little affection for their suburban middle class roots.


35. Original Cast Recording, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Atlantic, 1999)

Has there ever been a more passionate, inventive, gender-bending creation than Hedwig? John Cameron Mitchell's cabaret act steadily evolved from an off-Broadway phenomenon to an improbable but innovative film musical, and each incarnation was wondrous. Although many know these songs from the slightly beefed-up soundtrack recorded for the film (which somehow messed up the order and added a few ephemeral selections), this earlier cast recording is definitive. A glam rock song cycle brimming with sassy humor ("Sugar Daddy"), sighing toe-tappers ("Wig In A Box") and showstoppers that manage to be both old-fashioned and revelatory ("Midnight Radio"), it rocks more convincingly than any big old Andrew Lloyd Webber debacle. And "Wicked Little Town" is already a jewel-like standard to place right along side "Day By Day" and "All Apologies".


36. The Beatles, Revolver (EMI, 1966)

This makes the list solely on the strength of its final one-two punch: Paul's Motown-inspired jaunt "Got To Get You Into My Life" followed by John's tape loop and tabla-filled "Tomorrow Never Knows". No other band could've ever pulled off such a fluid, yin/yang transition of light into darkness. But even without that closing combo, this album looks more like the band's most consistent, least-dated set every day. Paul's "Eleanor Rigby" and "For No One" infused chamber pop with depth and soul, while the complex structures of "Here There and Everywhere" and "Good Day Sunshine" were in the same spirit as, but also light years beyond the band's earlier merseybeat. Apart from "Here Comes The Sun", George arguably never wrote better songs than "Taxman" or "I Want To Tell You". Even lesser tracks like 'Love You To" and "Doctor Robert" are pretty durable. Nothing drags, nothing falters (not even Ringo's best moment, "Yellow Submarine")--Revolver packs a lot of ideas in its slender frame and doesn't waste any of them.


37. ABBA, Gold: Greatest Hits (Polygram, 1993)

In the decade following their dissolution, no self-respecting American hipster ever dared admitted listening to (much less liking) these Swedes. Then, as '70s nostalgia set in, the Uncoolest Band in the History of the World resurfaced, albeit initially as an ironic guilty pleasure, a monument to bad taste and Euro-spectacle. However, this compilation proves what the rest of the world always knew--ABBA wrote great pop songs, most of them as uplifting as they were heartwrenching. Benny and Bjorn clearly wanted to be the Fab Four of their time. Arguably, in Europe and Australia they were, and in terms of quality, their high-grade fluff matches everything on the Beatles 1's--transcends it, even, because there is no room for irony in "Mama Mia", "Waterloo", or "Take a Chance on Me", only two ice princesses singing their hearts out over immaculate, intricate, innovative arrangements that could make you believe in anything.


38. Kate Bush, The Dreaming (EMI, 1982)

In a perverse way, enjoying Kate Bush's self-declared "mad" fourth album is like tuning in to The Jerry Springer Show. Both are so over-the-top extreme to the point where you almost can't believe what you're watching/hearing. The crucial difference, of course, is that while Springer openly treats his three ring circus as a freak show, with an emphasis on show, you never question the wide-eyed sincerity/mysticism with which Bush crafts her dazzling, phantasmagoric entities. Even as she gleefully tries on one extravagant mask after another, you never, ever sense any irony or pageantry. I love the more mature, seamless The Hounds of Love (1985) as much as any rock critic, but as a fan, I fervently adore this one's layers, invention, cruel wit, breathtaking segues, and overall inspired weirdness--not to mention that definitive moment in "Get Out Of My House" when Bush's operatic howl perfectly morphs into a braying ass.


39. Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes (Atlantic, 1992)
I fondly remember one summer night, a few years after this album's release. Rather out of nowhere, some friends and I headed down to a secluded, rocky stretch of Lake Michigan's shore. We basked in the moonlight for about an hour and at one point, sang a few Tori Amos songs, all of them from this record. We all didn't know each other that well, but we all knew and loved Little Earthquakes. It was a damn fine and important record, best exemplified by "Silent All These Years", a very particular, private anthem that, nonetheless, spoke to so many people. Certainly the '90s equivalent of Joni Mitchell's Blue, this album's girl-and-a-piano musings endure because their warm settings make the intensely personable so approachable. If Amos' subsequent efforts felt more adventurous and pushed boundaries not within this one's grasp, they didn't solidify or resonate like this one--at least not until Scarlet's Walk a decade later.


40. XTC, Oranges and Lemons (Geffen, 1989)

XTC flirted most closely with fame on this kaleidoscopic slice of post-Beatles psych-pop, which contained their lone US chart hit, "The Mayor of Simpleton". Like the rest of this record, it's a big, bold sun-kissed production with chiming guitars over an unfathomably complex, melodic bass line. It's hard to say why it outshines hundreds of other pop songs with lots of chiming guitars and great bass lines, because Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding make it all sound effortless. While this overlong set lacks the cohesiveness of Skylarking, it gets the nod over Drums and Wires (1979) and English Settlement (1982)--if only for the purely sentimental reason that it was the album that introduced me to what, for a few years, was my favorite band. Laugh with (or at) the double meaning of "Pink Thing" all you want, but "Chalkhills and Children" and "Across This Antheap" redeem the cleverest of souls with their audacity and sheer, unadorned beauty.


41. Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Rocky Horror Picture Show (Ode, 1975)

Stop laughing--one reason why this ridiculous, sublime film became an unprecedented Midnight phenomenon was its music. More so than his oft-dubious peers, Richard "Riff-Raff" O'Brien expertly blended '50s doo-wop nostalgia, Broadway show-stoppers and '70s rock opera and ran it all through a campy/fabulous sci-fi sheen. Plus, unlike a VHS or DVD copy of the film, it holds up well without the whole interactive theater experience. Highlights include a very young Susan "Janet" Sarandon cooing "Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me" like a liberated, sex-crazed Olivia Newton-John and Meat Loaf (at his least bloated and most palatable) howling "Whatever Happened To Saturday Night", but the show unquestionably belongs to Tim Curry. "The Time Warp", "I'm Going Home" and the should've-been-covered-by-Bowie "Sweet Transvestite" made his career--everything he subsequently recorded (including the minor novelty "I Do The Rock") inevitably exuded a whiff of Dr. Frank-N-Furter.


42. Sam Phillips, Martinis and Bikinis (Virgin, 1994)

The closest this backslider came to ever attracting more than a cultish audience was with this tart, sly album-length Beatles homage. “I Need Love” melts through all political and dogmatic pretension to get to the core of why Sam stopped performing Contemporary Christian music six years before. If she’s not as direct as you’d like, she sure as hell sounds it—enough for the song to live on a decade later in film trailers and cosmetic ads. From “When I Fall” to “Baby I Can’t Please You” she never recorded music this accessible or comfortably retro again. Thus, the album’s various left turns, like the clanging, tribal “Black Sky” or the submerged, ominous cover of Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” that she goes out on seem all the more startling.


43. Sleater-Kinney, One Beat (Kill Rock Stars, 2002)

This album arrived when I desperately needed it. I had lost hope, my heart blistered, my trust betrayed, my soul wrung through an endurance test I never thought I’d have to face. The rest of the world was in a funk, too, barely a year after 9/11. Although only two songs here directly reference the event (a few others subtly allude to it), this bold album seethes with defiance and strength (and an ever-growing musical vocabulary). Even when celebrating a quirky news story in “Light Rail Coyote” or professing ballsy out-and-out lust in “Oh!”, the passion these gals display is both infectious and absolutely vital, because it’s what we all live for. When Corin Tucker asks/commands “Why don’t you shake a tail for peace and love?” on the landmark punk/Motown hybrid “Step Aside”, how can any reasonable person resist her?


44. The Beatles, Rubber Soul (EMI, 1965)

Are we finally getting sick of the Fab Four? There's a growing backlash among Gen X-ers: we're tired of all the boomer-nostalgia hype, the endless repackaging, Sgt. Pepper's topping Rolling Stone's latest greatest albums list again. Yep, The Beatles inexorably changed music and pop culture and how could you not love them, etc; Personally, they did change the way I perceived music with an album that opened up worlds for me (it'll appear much later on this countdown). Since one of the remaining Beatles turns 64 this year, it's easy to obscure their impact. This one makes the cut because it's an astounding leap in maturity and articulation. Possibly the best-titled LP ever, it was also the band's most complete to date, confronting folk-rock, Eastern instrumentation, and Tin Pan Alley balladry at experimental but masterful levels. And I'll argue until my death that "In My Life" alone makes the case for John Lennon's genius.


45. Rufus Wainwright, Want One (Dreamworks, 2003)

Decades from now, people will look back on Wainwright's early output and marvel at how a major label could put out such opulent, strange, uncompromising music. In retrospect, his cabaret-heavy debut and scattered, searching follow-up were just preludes to this daring blend of pop, jazz, Broadway and confessional singer/songwriter modes. Working off larger-than-life backdrops from Moulin Rouge producer Marius DeVries, this is a sonically rich trip to "gay hell" and back, layered with references to Bolero and bad sitcoms, but also anger, lust, sorrow, and promise of rebirth. Magnificent tracks like "Oh What a World", "Beautiful Child" and "Go or Go Ahead" are admittedly over-the-top, but in his excesses, Wainwright reveals a wise, wounded soul that's emotionally charged and eloquently expressed--a significant voice for his generation.


46. Mary Lou Lord, Got No Shadow (Work, 1998)

Her full-length debut probably disappointed fans used to hearing this Boston subway busker in person performing with just an acoustic guitar and her sweet, thin voice. Whatever--that sort of shtick doesn't always translate well to record, and this one succeeds precisely because of the lush, polished, power-pop arrangements, courtesy of Lord's chief collaborator Nick Salomon of The Bevis Frond. Like peanut butter and chocolate, they complement each other splendidly: he cancels out her vocal limitations with his rich, hooky songcraft and she transcends his quirk and inaccessibility with her charm and naivete. From "His Latest Flame" and "Lights are Changing" to the self-referencing "Subway" (and a definitive cover of Freedy Johnston's "The Lucky One" in between), this is a well-sequenced set of songs that nails her amiable personality almost as well as her on-the-street performances.
47. Fiona Apple, When The Pawn... (Clean Slate/Epic, 1999)

A little crazy, a little pretentious (I'll refrain from listing the entire 90+ word title), a little genius. She recorded her fantastic debut, Tidal, when she was just 19; this follow-up, released three years later, is a quantum leap in every imaginable way except for one thing: while accessible, the songs don't immediately grab you. It takes more than a few listens for their complexities to sink in, like the stop-and-start compulsiveness of "Fast as You Can" or the whisper-to-a-scream dynamics of "Limp". When they do, of course, they're unshakable. Consequently, this produced no hits (not even "Paper Bag", Beatles-esque in every best way) but it stands as a frightening, exhilarating puzzle--not least because Apple wears her neuroses on her sleeves but doesn't shy away from trying to make sense of them.


48. Liz Phair, Exile In Guyville (Matador, 1993)

Anyone expecting Phair to top this uncommonly self-assured debut should (as Robert Christgau once said of Mick Jagger in response to Prince's Dirty Mind) "fold up their penis and go home." This brash, clever, bratty song cycle could never be replicated by Phair at any other age. Expanding on her infamous "Girlysound" tapes, this is a blow-jobs-and-all account of being a twentysomething woman in a man's man's man's world, as delivered by a woman sounding as naturally untrained in 1993 as Carole King did in 1971. Far more significant than Jagged Little Pill, this encapsulated the alt-rock, pre Lilith Fair era as well. Most hipsters who loved this album absolutely hate her recent, mainstream-courting work, but I think she has another masterpiece in her--it'll just be entirely different. Maybe once she hits middle age...


49. Talking Heads, Remain In Light (Sire, 1980)

The album cover turns The Beatles' Let It Be on its head, and that barely describes the energy and reinvention crackling within. This band's third collaboration with Brian Eno was light years ahead of its time--somehow, it confronted futuristic, Devo-esque concerns with a positively archaeological polyrhythmic foundation, resulting in a fusion both cerebral as ever, but also just as kinetic. More than anything, this is a groove album, its hooks embedded in vamps and beats rather than melodies. What makes it so singularly fascinating is how David Byrne's uptight spaziness often clashes with (and occasionally complements) what surrounds him, especially on the definitive "Once In a Lifetime" (which holds up surprisingly well, even without its iconic video).


50. Aimee Mann, Whatever (Imago, 1993)

Those who barely remembered this gal as that white-haired punky chick with the distinctive, dangling braid from Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry" video were blown away by her unexpectedly witty and mature first solo album. However, the few who heard her band's later, deeper, more nuanced work probably weren't surprised at all. The first of three rewarding collaborations with producer Jon Brion, Whatever is the most slick, simplest and brightest, and largely devoid of the record label woes that would lyrically drive subsequent efforts. "I Should've Known" should've been huge; "Stupid Thing" is a lovely antidote to Diane Warren power balladry, and it features a devastatingly eloquent guitar solo; "I've Had It" is the definitive autobiographical account of being in a band and how it profoundly changes you--yet it does so much more than that on a purely emotional level.


51. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy, 1959)

Simply put, if you buy one jazz album, this should be it. Greying genre historians go on and on about how this record introduced the concept of modal jazz (where the overall key instead of chord changes determines the solos), and the line-up (featuring John Coltrane and "Cannonball" Adderly) is a killer. Unquestionably the pinnacle of cool jazz, but what's really significant is how it does so much with so little. The average track lasts nine minutes and consists of a minimalist vamp that repeats, makes room for a solo or three and occasionally moves up or down a note on the scale. But I've always been struck by the mood this album creates. Not really blue per se--more bluish-greenish-violet, caught in a venerable, hypnotic buzz that's calm, not tense. I respect how Coltrane pushed the polytonal sound barrier on his later recordings, but I really admire and love this record for how quiet it is.


52. Pet Shop Boys, Discography: The Complete Singles Collection (EMI America, 1991)

Of course Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe made good albums; a few of 'em were brilliant, actually (including ...Actually).  However, like all musicians fascinated with/critical of this whole popstar business, they put extraordinary care into their singles and this chronological roll-call is a piece of history.  When your greatest hit (in this case, "West End Girls") comes at the very beginning, you're continually challenged to keep up the pace, and that's just what this synth-pop duo did.  It's hard to single out highlights, so let's just say they evolved by dueting with Dusty Springfield, cheekly covering "Always on My Mind", daring to extrapolate U2 with Frankie Valli, writing poignant AIDS and Gulf War elegies, and taking detours into Miami latin-disco and orchestral house.  But they summed up the decade they'll forever be linked to with this only half-ironic declaration from "Opportunities": "You've got the brawn, I've got the brains / Let's make lots of money."

53.  Jellyfish, Bellybutton (Chrysalis, 1990)

VH-1 Classic now has an "alternative" show--mostly late '80s/early 90s stuff that once graced the airwaves via MTV's 120 Minutes.  Apart from the occasional artful clip like The Cranberries' "Linger" (never knew it was a homage to Godard's Alphaville), so much of it's laughably dated.  They haven't shown a video by this band yet, but vague memories tell me things don't look promising for this admittedly silly-looking, smiley-faced day-glo outfit.  However, don't judge the music too quickly.  Daring to sound like Squeeze and early Cheap Trick when it was the least coolest time to do so, Andy Sturmer made gushingly irresistible, melodic psych-pop.  Encompassing Brill Building songcraft, bubblegum, The Beatles and even a little bossa-nova, these ten tracks are more durable that you'd ever expect.  Anyone looking for a '90s power-pop primer should start right here.


54. Ani DiFranco, Out of Range (Righteous Babe, 1994)

It takes real dedication to make your way through this folk-slinger's back catalogue.  Like a diary, it documents an emotionally messy life without any pages ripped out.  As with spiritual godmother Joni Mitchell, her earliest efforts now seem embryonic and her more recent ones feel a little suffocated and isolated.  Thus, her most essential work came in the middle, with her confidence, intuitiveness and accessibility gaining speed as her audience swelled.  This key record fleshes out her humble girl-and-guitar beginnings with horns, accordion and electricity, but what you really notice are the fully fleshed-out songs.  "Hell Yeah", "Overlap", "Letter To a John" and "Falling Is Like This" crackle with newfound complexity, sophistication and warmth.  On "You Had Time", a sparse, intimate peek at a faltering relationship, it takes three minutes of her lone piano noodling to work out and eventually find the song's melody.  But when she finally does, it practically blinds you, resonating so strongly that it almost hurts.


55. Stew, Guest Host (The Telegraph Company, 2000) 

I first heard of this album when Entertainment Weekly's Tom Sinclair deemed it his favorite of the year (over the usual Radiohead, OutKast, etc;).  What really clinched it for me, however, was the track "Re-Hab".  Indicative of the album's acoustic-slanted, singer/songwriterly muse, it tells a cautionary tale of an L.A. artist perpetually falling on and off the wagon, with children chiming in on the "very, very, very, optimisitic" chorus.  It's sick, twisted, wickedly funny and cruel but honest, too.  Also included: a sweet ode to consensual heterosexual sodomy (with manly Stew on the receiving end), an aural equivalent of a Guy Maddin film, a lovingly Bacharachian opener, and lots of crisp power pop with just a hint of the cabaret that would suffuse his next (and best) album.

56. Dusty Springfield, Dusty In Memphis (Atlantic, 1969)

Try listening to this record on a gloomy, rainy Tuesday morning at work, when the week seems neverending.  Perhaps the only British white woman ever fetishized by both the Pet Shop Boys and Quentin Tarantino, she was the bomb, a voice that could make you do absolutely anything it wanted you to.  This album's synergy is the result of an outtasite vocalist working with musicians her equal, even though they arguably came from vastly different worlds.  The production's like heaven: the succinct, sexy brass on "Son of a Preacher Man", the whirling, cinematic strings on "Windmills of Your Mind", the plush, velveteen pillow that is "Breakfast In Bed".  But it's Dusty you remember, and while she did other sublime things, nothing else ever touched this set.


57. Steve Wynn, Here Come The Miracles (Blue Rose, 2001)  
After nearly a decade of one good-but-not-great album after another, Wynn went for broke and came out of nowhere with this self-proclaimed masterpiece of a double album.  People forget how ballsy Wynn can be (when he led the "Paisley Underground" '80s band The Dream Syndicate, he ironically denied any Lou Reed influences) but here he's got the tunes to back up such arrogance.  Arguably the loosest and livliest stuff of his career, it effectively expresses nineteen sides of Wynn's personality without being pretentious about it.  My favorites include the perfect power-pop "Shades of Blue" and the soulful, raggedy closer "There Will Come A Day", but none of these selections are weak or second rate.  Here's to getting everything recorded in ten days, and making some of the best music of your career long after you were supposed to have peaked.  
58. Sleater-Kinney, All Hands On the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars, 2000)  
This exciting, near-revolutionary female trio from Washington state is the rare band that's more confident (and kicks more ass) with each album.  Their fifth isn't a radical departure from the first four, but rather a successful amalgamation of everything that was great about those albums, especially Corin Tucker's and Carrie Brownstein's unprecedented, intricate but hookier-than-fuck twin guitar lines and vocal parts.  This is a band that gets off on energy and fun, from the opening swagger of "The Ballad of a Ladyman" and the title track's surf drumming to Corin's incomparable caterwauling on "Milkshake N' Honey".  When she can't hold back and practically yells out the title of the Who-tastic "You're No Rock N' Roll Fun" at its conclusion, you know S-K have successfully conquered the world and your heart, if not necessarily the charts.


59. Alison Moyet, Hometime (404 Music, 2002)

I extensively wrote about this one last year. It was a pleasure to hear anything from this underrated vocalist after a nearly decade-long layoff, but for it to be her best yet was delightfully unexpected. Some divas just get better with age, I guess, or maybe Moyet didn't place such a weighted emphasis on crafting a radio-ready hit for this one. Funny thing that fellow MIA ice queen Annie Lennox put out the similiarly themed Bare a year later. Whereas her break-up album exuded a little too much self-pity, Moyet's communicated strength and self-actualization with a minimum of navel-gazing. She can take another eight years off if it ensures her next album will be as good as this one.


60. Badly Drawn Boy, About A Boy (EMI, 2002)

Sometimes a soundtrack can make a movie worth seeing. As much as I enjoyed Hugh Grant's performance in this adaptation of Nick Hornby's second novel, the scenes that resonated with me the most usually featured music from this eccentric DIY-er, who's at his most focused and complete here. It's made up of instrumental cues, charming little throwaways, and the occasional full-bodied gem of a pop song like "Something To Talk About" or "A Minor Incident". Cohering as well as that Cat Stevens soundtrack for Harold and Maude that never materialized on disc, it peaks when the sweeping "I Love N.Y.E." segues into the sublime, aptly-titled "Silent Sigh".

61. Sam Phillips, Cruel Inventions (Virgin, 1991)

"If I told myself I believed in love, and that's enough / I'd be lying" is a key phrase from this former Contemporary Christian singer's second secular album. Following the juiced-up girl group pop of The Indescribable Wow (1988), this is a shade more introspective and acidic. Internal, ever-shifting puzzles like "Tripping Over Gravity" and the title track stimulate with their intricate, simmering set-ups, but their hooks, while embedded, are never obtuse or obscure. And when Phillips' distinct, near-androgynous, half twanging/half lilting voice is backed up by Van Dyke Parks' gorgeous string arrangement on "Where The Colors Don't Go", her playful, knowing sense of wonder is impossible to ignore.


62. The Clash, London Calling (Epic, 1979)

Months from now, I'll probably kick myself for not placing this epochal work higher. It admittedly meant much more to me when I first heard it my Freshman year of college. Back then, I initially thought, "Huh, punk isn't supposed to sound this open and varied and tuneful!" This sprawling but incredibly consistent double album redefined what punk could be, and drove home that it was more of an attitude than a sound. But where the Sex Pistols merely said "Fuck You!" to the world, The Clash acknowledged the darkness but saw (and helped create) flickers of hope within it. Here, they sounded like they were ready to take on the world, and rarely has any band seemed so anthemic, assured and likable since.

63. Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (Warner Brothers, 1968)

Lester Bangs already wrote the definitive essay on this album (available on the essential Bangs anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung). All I can add is that it's so perfect that it leaves me with no desire to check out any of the other 30+ albums Morrison's released since. Even if he didn't record "Brown Eyed Girl" or Moondance, his legend would be complete with this impassioned, tortured song cycle. Its eight songs breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out the sort of despair and occasional enlightenment only conceivable at 3:00 AM. The music's somewhere between folk, rock, and jazz, but it's Morrison's feverish, otherworldly vocals that have absolutely no precedent.


64. Everything But The Girl, Idlewild (Sire, 1988)

After forays into twangy, jangly rock (Love Not Money) and grandiose orchestral flourishes (Baby The Stars Shine Bright), Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt went back to basics for their fourth album. Like prime Carole King or Laura Nyro, the songs here revolve around ordinary but intimate themes: from childhood memories ("Oxford Street") and the shifting nature of enduring friendships ("Blue Moon Rose") to longing to raise a child ("Apron Strings") and hesitating to do so in a violent world ("The Night I Heard Caruso Sing"). Apart from a little unfortunate late '80s studio polish, it remains their second best album (the best one will be in my top ten), and perhaps their loveliest--it exudes beauty in its melancholia, perfectly summed up in one song's title: "Lonesome For a Place I Know".


65. Pizzicato Five, The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five (Matador, 1995)

Here's a concept you'll either love or despise: Japanese studiomeisters pillage a selective assortment of decidedly American sounds (Motown, bubblegum, Bacharach and chamber pop, for starters) and rev it up and push it way past the postmodern mark until it mutates into something that often resembles a TV game show theme song. And it's all mostly sung in Japanese by elusive diva Maki Nomiya. Sounds obnoxious, huh? Actually, it's pretty canny the way P5 occasionally spins gold out of so much sugar. This American compilation glosses on the best bits of their early-mid '90s homeland releases. Songs like "Good!", "Airplane" and "Sophisticated Catchy" sound strangely familiar as they almost defy categorization, favoring texture and mood over literate meaning. Thankfully, all the do, do, do's aren't lost in translation.


66. Jeff Buckley, Grace (Columbia, 1994)

He could be pretentious, melodramatic, and just a little full of himself. His death from drowning three years later all but ensured the mythical, legendary status of this, his only real album. Still, you can't deny that he was unique, talented, and at times, beguiling. His nearly seven minute take on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is definitive--just his elastic, ethereal vocal and a reverb-heavy guitar expanding and stretching out Cohen's hymn until it achieves enlightenment. Other covers ("Lilac Wine", Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol") are also standouts, and after a few listens, some of his originals start to stand out, too: the tender, tortured "Lover, You Should've Come Over", the desperate, desire-drenched "So Real" and the closing "Dream Brother", an epitaph for both his famous, tragic father, and sadly, also himself.

67. Sheryl Crow, The Globe Sessions (A&M, 1998)

Now she seems content to conform to VH-1 rather than transcend it, lazily getting a hit out of a boring, soulless cover of what was once a crisp, cutting Cat Stevens song. When Clinton was in office, however, she was one of the most interesting, innovative Top 40 stars of the age. If her self-titled '96 album was an encouraging attempt to toughen and art up her image, this follow-up attempts a trickier balancing act: its radio-friendly rock exudes the wit and personality of Joni Mitchell at her most open and confessional. The upbeat yet honest "My Favorite Mistake" was the deserved hit, and the yearning, defiant "Anything But Down" should've been just as big. But apart from the calculated "There Goes The Neighborhood", everything coalesces like the classic rock albums Crow obviously loves. Bypass the later editions that added on her pointless cover of "Sweet Child of Mine" and search out those that conclude with a biting, lovably slapdash untitled bonus track about the then-timely presidential sex scandal.


68. Sarah Cracknell, Lipslide (Instinct, 2000)

Originally released in Europe in 1997 during a four-year Saint Etienne sabbatical, this is an important transitional album for that band's chanteuese. Simply put, this is where she learned how to sing. Not that she couldn't before--on earlier recordings, her voice was admittedly thin, although it had a singular, defining presence that added a lot to its surroundings. But here, you can really hear her voice developing and deepening as she tries out orchestral blue-eyed soul, winsome mid-tempo dance pop and shamelessly retro disco, all with unexpectedly strong returns. This belated US release swaps four tracks for four better ones, including the sparse, delicate bossa nova, "Oh Boy, The Feeling When You Held my Hand".
69. Serge Gainsbourg, Comic Strip (Polydor, 1997)

Proof that you don't have to look good to sound sexy (although being French helps). Already a dirty old man when he was in his early 40's, Gainsbourg spent the late sixties crafting a sort of inimitable nudge-nudge, wink-wink, totally groovy smut pop with a little help from Brigitte Bardot (dueting with him on the immortal "Bonnie and Clyde") and a lot of assistance from Jane Birkin (especially on the infamous "Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus"). This is all the Serge you'll ever need, full of nonsense jive ("Shu Ba Du Ba Loo Ba", "Comic Strip"), happy-go-lucky suicide attempts ("Chatterton"), single entendres ("Les Sucettes"), and ironic detachment up the wazoo. If only he could've scored his own The Umbrellas of Cherbourg...


70. Kate Bush, The Whole Story (EMI, 1986)

Not quite the whole story any longer--fans have been crying out for a double disc anthology or at least a career-spanning hits collection (let alone a new album), but these twelve songs still serve as a magnificent primer to the high priestess of post-punk weird. There's no rhyme or reason to the nonchronlogical sequencing: it opens understandably with her first (and in the UK) biggest hit, "Wuthering Heights", a phantasmagorical distillation of Bronte in five minutes that still has no parallel. From there, we get ecstatic crushes ("Hounds of Love"), slow-forming, enveloping lust ("Running Up That Hill"), freakouts ("Sat in Your Lap"), post-apocalyptic hysteria ("Breathing"), mystical wide-eyed wonderment ("The Man With The Child in His Eyes") and so much more. To think that all these songs could be and were hits is like fighting the urge to take your shoes off and throw them in the lake.


71. The White Stripes, Elephant (V2, 2003)

Yes, but it's a really great scam. The backlash against Jack and Meg White and their top ten album was inevitable; no one ever expected them to glean AOR airplay, but "Seven Nation Army" and its follow-ups are no calculated sellout efforts. Instead, somehow, the mainstream came to them, and although their impact hasn't reached Nirvana-like levels, they're the closest equivalent I can think of in this decade. Album # 4 gets the nod over prior efforts in terms of diversity, confidence, scope and sheer invention. To follow the gentle, acoustic "You've Got Her In Your Pocket" with the gutteral, raucous, seven-minute "Ball and Biscuit" and make the transition seem totally natural is genius. Kids, this is how an album is supposed to cohere, all the way up to the priceless, self-referential, signing-off duet (with Holly Golightly... not that one).
72. Dukes of Stratosphear, Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (Geffen, 1988)

This compilation of late '60s psychedelic pastiches from the band more formally known as XTC was meant to be a goof, a throwaway. So, why is it more pleasurable than most of their "proper" albums? It's the songs, stupid. They may rewrite The Move's "Blackberry Way" as "Kaleidoscope" or keep re-molding The Beatles' "I'm Only Sleeping" until it turns into "Shiny Cage", but their imitations are so absolutely heartfelt and solid that they sound nothing less than sincere. This also finds Partridge and Moulding at their least fussiest and most fun. "Vanishing Girl" could've easily fit on Skylarking, "Brainiac's Daughter" should've been on Oranges and Lemons, and I wouldn't be surprised if the very Beach Boys-esque closer "Pale and Precious" was better than the bulk of Smile.


73. Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre, 2004)

Not even halfway into the year, and I've already found a record that resonates with me enough for it to deserve a place on this list. Possibly the best album I've received to review for Splendid, Seven Swans is a gorgeous, shy, deceptively simple-sounding set of songs about love and faith, although not necessarily in that order. The religious content might put off some, but this delicate-voiced, nearly unclassifiable singer/songwriter explores and exults more than he preaches. Hushed, lovely songs like "To Be Alone With You" emerge as fascinating puzzles, revealing layers of lyrical contradictions. Others merely feature musical layers, one placed on top of another until they coalesce and swell like a full-blown choir minus the bombast. It's not enough to make me a believer (not even Al Green could do that for me at this point), but I don't think anyone could deny these strong melodies or Stevens' childlike awe (or even his banjo playing).
74. They Might Be Giants, Flood (Elektra, 1990)

Gigantic, the fairly groovy if a bit overlong feature-length documentary on this venerable duo, features an astonishing clip of them performing this album's centerpiece, "Birdhouse In Your Soul", with Doc Servinsen on The Tonight Show! Now, you can't imagine Branford Marsalis or Kevin Eubanks jamming with the Johns, can you? (Maybe Paul Shaffer). I resisted these accordion-and-tape-loop lovin' guys all through high school, dismissing them as geek-rock until I heard this album when I was 18 and finally succumbed to my inner geek. Some fans balked at the fuller, slicker production on this "brand new record for 1990", but it's still their most satisfying set. "Instanbul (Not Constantinople)" and the naggingly insistent "Particle Man" you may remember, but there's at least a half dozen other effortless miniature triumphs ripe for rediscovery, including a self-titled theme song that fits them to, well, a T.


75. Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia, 1968)

A good friend once described "Sisters of Mercy" as a song about "an androgynous, low-voiced guy singing about how these nuns are coming to his aid". She obviously hadn't seen Robert Altman's McCabe and Ms. Miller, which marvelously (and repeatedly) incorporates that song, "Stranger Song", and "Winter Lady". There was never a soundtrack because all three are available here, along with other chestnuts like "Suzanne", "So Long, Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye". They're all the work of a madman, probably the closest English-speaking equivalent to Serge Gainsbourg. Cohen may never have recorded a borderline-profane duet with Jane Birkin (nor told Whitney Houston he wanted to fuck her on live television), but he's way more subversive than Gainsbourg. His later, weathered recordings drive this point home further, but this is immediate enough.


76. Stevie Wonder, Talking Book (Motown, 1972)

Whenever I hear people ridiculously waxing rhapsodic about Justin Timberlake as if he were the second coming, I just want to play them what Stevie Wonder did when he was Justin's age. Granted, it does kick off with borderline-sappy "You Are The Sunshine of My Life", but it's immediately followed by "Maybe Your Baby", a wonderfully weird six minute funk workout that looks forwards and back again (listen for his gleeful, electronically-altered "I'm a little boy!" towards the end). "Superstition" makes any Wonder album essential, but the three thematically sequenced lesser-known songs are arguably better. "Blame It On the Sun" seethes with heartbreak and resignation, "Looking For Another Pure Love" lazily gets him back on his feet, but "I Believe (When I Fall In Love Forever)" is the prize--as unabashedly devotional and euphoric a love song you're ever likely to hear.


77. Bjork, Selmasongs (Elektra, 2000)

We had to go three years without a Bjork album because she was working on the film Dancer In The Dark. We got a mesmerizing performance and a gutsy swan dress out of it, along with this brief, seven-song soundtrack. Many will favor Post, Homogenic or Vespertine over this, but for me, Selmasongs is where Bjork perfects her electronic/orchestral meld, creating bold, accesible soundscapes that sound absolutely new (and still do four years later.) "Cvalda" magically morphs from industrial machine clatter to Busby Berkeley dream; "I've Seen It All" pulls off an unlikely duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, and "New World" resonates and reverberates in a state where the heart's stopped beating but the soul lives on.

78. The Negro Problem, Joys and Concerns (Aerial Flipout, 1999)

True, twisted successors to early '90s psych-pop gods Jellyfish, this collective is primarily an outlet for Stew, a portly, fairly brilliant African-American singer/songwriter whose solo work will be popping up much later on this countdown. At this point, like Parliament-Funkadelic, there's little distinction between TNP and the man's solo work, only that TNP albums tend to be a little more scattershot. This one hops genres and temperaments as much as the others, making room for a slightly sinister, banjo-led ode to the daily grind, a freakout about a network news anchor worthy of Was (Not Was) or Sly and the Family Stone, and even a song about a gay Ken doll. And lots of happy, peppy, baroque pop and a ballad ("Come Down Now") that should've been the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" of its time. Don't let the name distract you (or falsely encourage you, for that matter.) This is heady, lovely stuff.


79. The Go-Betweens, Bellavista Terrace: Best of The Go-Betweens (Beggars Banquet, 1999)

I know, another Greatest Hits as opposed to a "real" album. And these displaced Aussies made great albums. And the long out-of-print 1978-1990 is more complete, but unless you come across it in a used bin like me, you'll never find it. So buy Talullah (1987) for the exuberant "Right Here" but get this for fourteen equally strong arguments for the most criminally overlooked band of the '80s. It's just literate jangle pop, maybe too literate and complex for the masses. But it flows and sighs with the sort of euphoric, articulate, romantic desire that only Kate Bush can match, and it's more accessible to boot. Go on, check out a "critic's band" and never look back.
80. Teenage Fanclub, 4766 Seconds: A Shortcut To (Jetset, 2003)

This spot was originally meant for John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, an album any jazz fan should hear. As with most jazz, I feel more admiration than love and while I'm in awe of Trane's spiritual masterpiece, these raggedy, semiobscure Scottish Big Star fans really move me. They were never interested in crafting masterpieces; just great, humworthy pop songs. This long overdue compilation collects 21 of 'em from their first six albums, and the quality never wavers. They're ridiculous enough to repeat the closing two bars of "Hang On" sixteen times and smart enough to ensure that the three new songs included here are among their very best. Next time you hear the warm, crunching opening chords of Sheryl Crow's "If It Makes You Happy", you'll know exactly where she swiped them from.


81. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (Slash, 1983)

Just like all other native Milwaukeeans, I have spot soft for these influential post-punks. They were our Replacements, our Smashing Pumpkins, our Guided By Voices. Even if none of their subsequent albums had half their debut’s spark, wit, and drive, they will never be forgotten, even outside of Milwaukee. Another generation of AV geeks, band nerds, drama club members and frat boys will inevitably discover these rowdy, vengeful expressions of arrested development. This is an embarrassment of pimply riches: “Kiss Off”, “Gone Daddy Gone”, “Prove My Love”, and masturbation ode “Blister In The Sun” among them. And then there’s “Add It Up”, possibly the most fervent, cathartic, off-the-rails ode to sexual frustration ever devised by what was initially an acoustic street corner trio.

82. PJ Harvey, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (Island, 2000)

Admirers of this trailblazer’s rawer, more confrontational earlier work probably viewed this as a sellout, but most critics loved it anyway, and you should too. I’m hesitant to make Patti Smith comparisons; put the two side by side in a room and generations aside, you’ll have no trouble telling the difference. But this has the scope and drive of Smith’s more mature, tempered work. As part of Harvey’s impressive catalog, this is where she’s at her most polished, content, and direct. What makes this her best album to date? She’s as passionate as ever, whether thinking about “A Place Called Home” or making a statement as simple as “I just want to sit here and watch you undress” (from the visceral “This Is Love”) sound so vital and profound.

83. Towa Tei, Future Listening! (Elektra, 1995)

He defected from Deee-lite when they were recording their train wreck of a third (and final) album, and good for him. The song “Technova” epitomizes what this first solo jaunt is all about, colliding electrobeats with Antonio Carlos Jobim. The cameos are impeccable and read like a who’s who of ‘90s bossa nova acolytes: Pizzicato Five’s Maki Nomiya, Arto Lindsay dueting with Bebel Gilberto herself (years before she made her own tech-nova album, Tanto Tempo). But the ringer is club diva Joi Cardwell and her delicate yet agile tone on the effervescent, eight minute “Luv Connection”, a lost mid-tempo gem that should’ve been another “Groove Is In The Heart”.


84. Seal, Seal (ZTT/Sire 1994)

Say what you want about this album’s dinner-party ubiquity, it’s so-called “safe” sound and “Kiss From A Rose”, a ballad that only became a hit once it was pushed as part of the Batman Forever soundtrack (wretched movie, the best songs don’t even appear onscreen); Seal is most-deserving of his pop-star success, and on this second album, everything flows gracefully and assuredly. Rare guest star Joni Mitchell effortlessly blends in like a soul sister with all the lush, beatific soundscapes and even seems a little less fussy than she did on her own records from this period. Still, no one can overshadow the man that gives this record its title, especially when he exultantly explodes on the final chorus of “Newborn Friend”.


85. Mekons, The Mekons Rock ‘N’ Roll (A&M, 1989)

“Destroy your safe and happy lives, before it is too late!” So begins the best album by the greatest band you’ve probably never heard. So great that they could make such a bold declaration sound so gleeful, so impassioned, so sensible. This was the band’s only major label effort, and yes, it does rock, but it's no commercial sell-out or creative death knell. On the contrary, the band seems vital, tighter and more confident than ever before. For all their rambling on about “Cocaine Lil’” or certain hypocritical rock celebs who don’t know when to shut up, this is a blindingly optimistic record. Even when inimitable, sinuous chanteuse Sally Timms sings “I Am Crazy”, it’s more of a battle cry than a heartbreaking lament, a joyful noise raging with one thousand different emotions, all of them begging to be heard and relatable to you and me.