The other day I was asked to provide a primer for someone who wanted to learn about the joys of heavy metal. Dutifully, I provided a decent overview of the genre. However, that exercise got me to thinking about “great albums” in general, and perfect albums in particular.
A Perfect Album is a disc that has few, if any, flaws. They are best listened to whole and each track can often serve as a solid single in its own right. These albums are quite often the magnum opus for the artists that produce them. Equally, they often define (or redefine) musical genres and, in some cases, all of the music that comes after them.
Here is a handful of albums that I consider perfect. It is in no way an exhaustive list.
You should listen to each one of them at least once in your life.
XTC, Skylarking, 1986
Released to little fanfare in the mid-80s, Skylarking was an attempt by Andy Partridge to find his mojo again after his wife threw out his Vicodin. The artists clashed heavily with the album’s producer, Todd Rundren, but the end result is a sublime experience.
Listening to Skylarking is like drinking a memory. A beautiful day spent in the park with someone you love, watching clouds and simply being in each other’s presence. A day where you really and truly learn the mind of your parter, sharing joys and grief and speaking of philosophy.
The track most people know, Dear God, was originally intended as a B-Side but its popularity thrust it into the limelight. It’s a pity, actually: it’s one of the weaker tracks.
If Skylarking is a pleasant memory of a beautiful day, F♯ A♯ ∞ is its dark opposite. Primarily instrumental, it smells of the icy memories of mourning, a brutal nostalgia. This album is the soundtrack to the apocalypse.
It opens with a voice over:
“The car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel. And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides. And a dark wind blows.”
The album’s funereal tones inspired Danny Boyle’s vision for 28 Days Later. There were rumors that he wanted to use this as the film’s soundtrack, but Godspeed refused to allow commercial exploitation.
It is only three tracks long but the shortest clocks in at a mere seventeen minutes.
Slayer, Reign in Blood, 1986
There exists no more pure an album in all of Heavy Metal than Reign in Blood. There quite simply isn’t room for discussion on the matter. At just under twenty-nine minutes, each of its tracks are tight toned, expertly executed, and sinfully succinct. Despite the band’s reputation for “speed metal,” the songs are actually rather slow by later standards but the energy of the music drives an impression of brutality with more power than the largest of diesel engines.
For many years the band would perform the album in its entirety during concerts.
It is my belief that modern music as we know it would not exist without Reign in Blood. You see, the album’s producer was a man named Rick Rubin and this band helped him to launch The Beastie Boys into the stratosphere. It was Kerry King, guitarist for Slayer, who laid down the licks on Licensed to Ill, helping to give birth to Rubin’s trademark metal/rap fusion and cementing him as the “go to” producer.
Seriously, look up Rubin’s discography. See how many of your favorite albums he produced after this.
I first owned this album on cassette tape. Since it was so short, we would listen to its entirety and then simply flip the tape over and listen to it again.
I’m a man with a fair number of sins and bad ideas and I regret none of them: they make me who I am today. Those events were part of a journey – a journey that began with smoking my first joint, which happened while listening to Appetite for Destruction.
Often unacknowledged for its place in music history, Appetite served as an intervention for rock n’ roll. Music at the time was becoming over glammed and less aggressive. Appetite, released in the same time period, helped to reverse this trend and usher in a new age of garage-driven music.
Nothing’s Shocking seems to perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the late 1980s, a kaliedescope of the good and the bad. It is a dream of Los Angeles, possibly a version that never existed.
The album’s follow-up (Ritual de lo Habitual) arguably had more impact on the alternative scene but is not as solid of a record. While Ritual blew the door off its hinges, Shocking weakened the walls.
The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds, 1966
He spent the next two months and came up with an album that is arguably one of the greatest albums of all time. Pet Sounds is a masterwork through all tracks, weaving a vision of joy and love for simply living within the moment. It introduced instruments and composition techniques that have dominated popular music ever since.
The Beatles, Abbey Road, 1969
If Brian Wilson was blown away by Rubber Soul, the Beatles were equally blown away by Pet Sounds – so much that they cited it as the driving force behind the experimentation they employed on Sgt. Pepper. However, while Sgt. Pepper is a masterwork, it is eclipsed by the perfection that is Abbey Road.
The second half of the album is meant to be taken as a single medley. Voices and songs blend together, a final, unified hurrah for a band that had been fractured and broken apart by the stresses of fame, family, and drug abuse.
While Let it Be was the final Beatles album to be released, Abbey Road was the last one recorded. Taken in that context, “The End” serves as the ultimate capstone to the band’s musical career, including the only drum solo by Ringo and a combined, three-part guitar solo by Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison. The album’s final coda – “Her Majesty” – was a happy accident and typical of the joy that the band was capable of generating.
AC/DC, Back in Black, 1980
AC/DC’s singer, Bon Scott, died in February of 1980. Rather than disband, they found a new singer, Brian Johnson, and worked through their grief to produce and release Back in Black just six months later – an album which would become the second-best selling album of all time.
Bon Scott died of alcohol poisoning after being left alone in a car in South London. According to legend, the last sound he heard was the chiming of Big Ben. Accordingly, and in tribute, Back in Black opens with the chiming of bells and renewed energy: the band is not finished with us yet.
When taken in that context, the entire album is a furious attack upon the idea of grief. It becomes an anthem for life.
The sophomore effort from the Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream is exactly what it claims to be: an ethereal experience, a shared moment, a whispered conversation between yourself and the secret, silent twin that you keep inside your heart.
A siamese dream.
Billy Corgan’s multi-layered, heavily-fuzzed guitar work combines with half-mumbled lyrics to produce a half-remembered sound. It flows from ear to ear, singing about secrets, a lullaby listened to as we lay our childhoods to rest.
Michael Jackson, Thriller, 1982
Despite the success of Off the Wall, Michael Jackson could very easily have slipped into obscurity as a has-been child star were it not for the efforts of one man: Quincy Jones. In the same manner as Rick Rubin, Quincy applied the magic of sound production to Michael’s vocal work in such a way that the whole of the album was greater than sum of its parts. Thriller is a perfect pop-record, releasing seven(!) singles out of its nine tracks.
Say what you will about MJ’s off-album antics, the man could sing. His charisma drips through the grooves of the record leaving the listener in need of a towel. The tracks themselves betray a breadth of musical talent that Michael was never able to recapture and redefined the largest genre of music in existence.
1) Yes, “Wild Side” is pretty goddamned hard. But the rest of the album fits the pattern.