Singing Songs of Joy and Peace

Some of my friends and I share music with one another while we work. We’re supposed to review/rate what gets shared with us, and share those reviews with the group, but that doesn’t always happen.

This week, I did something we’ve done before in this little game: I shared an album I’ve never heard before from Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

We’ve had discussions on the pros and cons of lists like that, and not everyone agrees. Different people have different musical tastes, which can be great – and that’s part of the whole idea behind this music game. Before we get to what I picked, here’s what my friends shared:

Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (1965) – Number 4

Spencer went along with my re-visiting of this theme and shared what I picked when we first did this – although he wasn’t playing the game at that point and so had no way of knowing.

Two years later, I’m willing to try this album again and see if anything has changed for me.

I’ve never been a huge fan of his voice. His Christmas album is one of the worst albums I’ve ever heard and a huge part of it was his voice. But this album is one of the better examples of his singing (which really says something).

I remember liking Tombstone Blues last time more than I do this time. This time, it just seems busy, unrefined and like they couldn’t afford to take the time to clean it up. Mid-’60s folk rock was probably going for unrefined and they probably didn’t have a ton of money, but it doesn’t really age well. There was some good licks in there though. That’s actually a constant throughout the album. The vocals and playing are meh, but there are some little instrumental moments that shine.

My real complaint against this album (and Bob in general) is: what on earth is he singing about? I’ve read the lyrics and for the most part they don’t seem to really mean anything. It’s not as bad as some ’90s alt rockers who can’t even form sentences, but I still don’t get any story from Bob and I can’t tell that he’s trying to make a point.

I think one of the stronger tunes was Ballad of a Thin Man. This album isn’t un-enjoyable, but chances are I’m not coming back to it unless it gets recommended to me again by someone who has specific good things to say about it. 2.7/5

Here’s what my friends had to say:

“I actually listened to this one about 2 months ago for the first time, and thought it was amazing. A second listen to months later has convinced me of the greatness of this album. The music is so perfect for the lyrics, and the poetry involved is just outstanding. I wonder if there are many poets or lyricists that can compete with Bob Dylan’s genius here.” 5/5 – Tim

“I was approaching this is a lot of reluctance. I really hate Dylans voice. Its hard for me to get over that. The opening track, Like a Rolling Stone is the epitome of what I think of his singing: nasally bendy sluring between notes in a drunken tirade (which I understand is usually how he did his albums).

Interestingly though, once I got through that hated opening track, the other tunes didn’t exemplify all the things I hate about his voice nearly as much. In fact, I think a large part of why I’ve hated listening to Bob is really just because I don’t like this one of his most popular songs. I really enjoyed the rest of the album much more. At the lyric “the sun isn’t yellow, its chicken” he had me. I still hate listening to the opener, but the rest of the album gets a solid 4.0/5 actually.

So I’m glad we played this game. Now I see much better why John Lennon was a huge fan of Dylan’s.” – Spencer

Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2007) – Number 451

Tim, having previously listened to the top 100, decided to start from the bottom. Here’s Amy Winehouse’s second and final album.

I really liked the overall grooves (which you’d expect from me on the reggae inspired Just Friends, but the whole album had some great motown goodness). The horns were great, especially on You Know I’m No Good and He can Only Hold Her.

And I liked her voice, but there were times (and I know it’s the style she was going for) that she never quite lands on the note. She just dances around it. It worked really well on Me and Mr. Jones (which was super retro) or Tears Dry on Their Own (because it was totally a tribute to Ain’t No Mountain High Enough). But I would have liked more “strait” vocals on other songs that were more modern. That being said, I can’t really tell that she’s British. She sounds like she learned how to sing in Detroit or the Deep South.

I really liked it, but I felt like the last third petered out a bit. 3.3/5

There were also a ton of bonus tracks, but I only listened to the three Wikipedia listed that I could find on Spotify. The Rumble Strips remix of the title track had some good horns.

From my friends:

“I was surprised by how much I liked this album. I felt the lyrics were very contemporary, but have a certain timelessness to them too. The sound was definitely in the Motown vein, but still felt fresh and new.

In a rarity for me, after listening to the whole album, I went back and listened to Rehab again, and found myself really enjoying it. Yes, the album as a whole changed my perception on a song I kind of hated.” 4/5 – Tim

“I don’t turn on R&B very often. Next time I do though, it might well be this. I’ve listened to this before, but I like it more each time I go through it. Man this is SOLID groove. Just like the old time R&B/Motown from the detroit hit-machine that started to work into mainstream over a half century ago.” 4.0/5 – Spencer

Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971) – Number 30

This is one of those albums I have heard a lot about, but have never bothered to listen to. And it’s too bad, because this is pretty darn good. There’s something to be said for the simplicity of just her guitar and her voice. She reminds me of a mix between Tracy Chapman and a local artist I might share later. The fuller tunes (featuring dudes like Stephen Stills and James Taylor) are great too. One tune makes you appreciate another, and it’s nice to see that just because they could add more to the song, if it didn’t need it, they didn’t add more musicians to it.

She has some really good melodies, even though like Bob I’m not always sure what she’s singing about. What I do pick up sound like she’s singing about what she did a couple of weeks ago, or whatever’s going on outside her window.

River might be my fourth favorite Christmas song I’ve heard so far this season (I know – it’s already started and it’s not even Thanksgiving), and it’s likely to stay high on the list.

The weak link of the album for me was the album closer. Most of the album was really good, but The Last Time I Saw Richard is the only one I’ll skip on subsequent listens. 3.5/5

From my friends:

“This was another great album this week. It had so much depth and soul to each song, while staying simple in melody, that I found myself really drawn into the world she was weaving with the album. I can see why this is such a respected album, but to my shame, I didn’t know who she was before this share…so thank you Chris!

I think my drive to Arizona next week is going to have a lot of 70’s singer/songwriter music playing.” 4/5 – Tim

“I see Joni as the penultimate hippy. Her music is like gypsy music to me, its pretty deep, far from mainstream. Its fairly chill so I don’t turn it on that often, but its good to listen to. I really like the tracks Carey and Californa. Most of the more upbeat ones. I could definitely come back to this. Also is river supposed to be a quote of Jingle Bells?” 4.0/5 – Spencer

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (1968) – Number 19

Here’s what I shared. It’s the highest album on the list I haven’t heard that’s also from an artist we haven’t shared in the last couple of years playing this game. The closest we’ve come to Van Morrison is a cover of Brown Eyed Girl from the first month or so.

This is his second album, and is essentially two EPs. The first four tracks are In the Beginning and the last four are Afterwards. Instead of the poppier stuff from the first album (like Brown Eyed Girl), this is more folky and jazzy. Except for the flute player, nobody had played together before they started recording – no rehearsals. And only Morrison had played any of these songs before. We’ll see how this goes.

And it was okay. It wasn’t until Sweet Thing that I started to be impressed. Even then, there were some songs that it was obvious some of these jazz musicians (as good as they were) had never played any of these songs before and wouldn’t have minded some more rehearsal. The Way Young Lovers Do sounded like they were still figuring out what they wanted to play when the tapes started rolling, but it was still pretty good. Madame George grew on me (it had plenty of time to do so), but it still felt a little dis-jointed. Sweet Thing and Ballerina probably felt the most put together to me.

I don’t think there are any tunes I’d skip, and there a few I’d enjoy hearing again, but it’s probably not an album I’d revisit very often as a whole. There’s a fine line between “capturing real human musicians” and just sounding “raw and unrefined.” Not to say that I want it as “produced” as a ’90s boy band album, but somewhere in the middle. It’s a tough place to try and negotiate. 3.5/5

Here’s what my friends had to say:

“I really like Van Morrison, but this wasn’t my favorite album of his. I felt like it didn’t really hold together cohesively. But as always, I loved his vocals. I can catch a glimpse of how this would have been big and influential to folk music of the era, but I feel like it was a right time, right album situation.” 3/5 – Tim

“This one was ok. I’ve given it a few listens before and still it just doesn’t really sing to me. Part of it I only just realized this time is that Van’s voice, while being a pretty great voice, is fairly one dimensional. I feel like he’s always kinda yelling, which is kind of cool that he keeps that edge, but after a couple songs looses effect. Some cool stuff in there with the extra musicians, The Way Young Lovers Do was a highlight for me.” 3.5/5 – Spencer

Like I said, we’ve discussed the validity of lists like this in the past. Joni and Van were both really good. But how can I compare them to Amy Winehouse? A pretty different style and from a way different time period. Who’s to say which one is greater than another? All I can do is tell you I prefer Joni to Amy, or Van to Bob.

If you have any thoughts about any of these albums, Rolling Stone‘s list in general, or even the album highest on the list that you’ve never heard before, share what you have to say down in the comments.


5 thoughts on “Singing Songs of Joy and Peace

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