There are some musical acts I absolutely adore. There are some songs that are more important to me than food. And there are some albums that I really, really like. But once in a great while, there emerges the Perfect Album.
They aren’t perfect, really. “Perfection” is a superlative that cannot apply to an art form like music. Instead, the Perfect Album is an album that stands alone. This doesn’t mean every song is a winner; the Perfect Album can have foibles. But the Perfect Album always refers to itself consistently as one truly great artistic work.
Some albums are listed as groundbreaking, trendsetting works that pundits cite as indispensable. The web is full of these lists. They usually feature Pet Sounds, Highway 61 Revisited, Nevermind, London Calling, Who’s Next, Never Mind the Bollocks, The Joshua Tree, etc etc. These are all seminal albums worthy of praise. But they aren’t my Top 10 Perfect Albums. They all fail.
Today, I give you Citizen Ted’s 10 Perfect Albums. They are not in order of greatness because they are all Perfect.
10. Acetone “Cindy” 1993
I heard a cut from this album on the local college radio station and immediately ran to the store to buy the CD. That was in 1994. It’s still in hot rotation on my MP3 player.
This album lowers you through a stucco ceiling and delivers you onto a comfy sofa where guitarist Mark Lightcap carries you away on walls of sweet tube-driven Fender Twin luxury. Sad singer Richie Lee tells you stories of broken hearts and broken minds, lulling you into his viewpoint effortlessly. Before you get too sleepy, though, Acetone will gleefully tear away at the wallpaper with shrieking punk noise – just to make sure you’re paying attention. “Pinch” is one of those songs that really gets your hair flyin’ and your teeth gnashing.
With a masterful sense of tone (hence the name), Acetone’s “Cindy” is, quite simply, perfect. The band followed up with a few more records. One of them, “If Only You Knew”, was very nearly another Perfect Album, but “Cindy” still gets the win. In 2001, singer/bassist Richie Lee killed himself. The world is a dimmer, emptier place in his absence.
9. Zero 7 “The Garden” 2006
It’s worth noting that the art of great songwriting is not dead. Don’t let Billboard fool you. There are still people out there crafting soul-wrenching, beautiful music with brilliant arrangement and careful attention to detail. Sometimes, they even make an entire album of such songs. This is one of them.
Zero 7 pulls from a wide staff of artists. A revolving cadre of singers and contributors build a single moment in music, delivered brilliantly on this record. The melodies are instantly familiar and timeless and endearing, yet they ride on an unusual conveyor belt of electronic and acoustic tools. The compositions are spare, avoiding the pitfalls of adding a zillion tracks to make it “bigger”. Zero 7 knows how to build up a crescendo without going overboard.
They went wide off the mark with the latest album “Yeah Ghost”, but all is forgiven, because “The Garden” is a Perfect Album.
8. Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” 1973
Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking: every rock reviewer on Earth has this in their Top 10 and we’re all sick of this album and may it die a slow death on Classic Rock FM radio.
I admit I rarely listen to this album and when I hear it on the radio I want someone to turn it off. Not because I hate the music – I love it. I’m just goddamn sick of it. Nonetheless, this is a Perfect Album.
Sure, “Money” is a stupid song that jars the flow. But you must absorb DSOTM in context. This means turning the lights down low, sparking up a bowl and playing this album in its entirety over a nice sound system at almost-too-loud volume. Do so, and you will re-discover (as I have) that this record is far more than a collection of tunes.
It’s also more than a just a space-doper concept album. It’s an exploration of sonic discovery crafted with care and delivered with precision. And the vocal scat on “Great Gig in the Sky” is very possibly the greatest vocal piece ever recorded. Ever.
There are plenty of moody noodlers who make “atmospheric” music. But none of them have the impact of this record. None of them. This album is Perfect.
7. Love Jones “Here’s to the Losers” 1993
In the stable of retro lounge acts of the 1990′s, one album towers above them all. Love Jones have crafted an album of such unbelievably tight musicianship, of such fun and irreverent lyrics, of such pith and verve, that one must be dead inside not to adore it.
“Here’s to the Losers” has its lulls, its weak spots. But the Perfect Album seems to pull you along the bumps with promise of good times ahead. I have played this album to death, but sometimes I just gotta go back to it, like a junkie to the darkest corner of the local Needle Park.
The retro lounge movement may be dusty now, but “Here’s to the Losers” remains steadfastly alive. Any album that doesn’t take itself seriously yet rings with the contemplative genius of truly talented musicians is an album worth treasuring. From the wastrel silliness of “Custom Van” to the nostalgic earnestness of “Ohio River” to the crazed pathos of “Paid for Loving”, this album is an end-to-end victory of great harmonies and carefree joy. It’s Perfect.
6. Goldfrapp “Felt Mountain” 2000
Not many folks enjoy somber, moody music but I do and this is my list, so suck it. This album is a purposeful salute to the 1920′s Berlin cabaret scene, a timeless form of sensual music updated for the digital age in this priceless, Perfect album.
Alison Goldfrapp’s breathy presence comes forth like a live singer crooning over your shoulder as you grasp a G&T in your sweaty palm. She lets a finger linger on your arm, then shimmers back to the stage, where her voice cries out of love and betrayal like fallen angel awash in the spotlight.
The album is spartan; very often you’re held aloft only by the slightest tendrils of sound, but you are nonetheless captivated by it.
Sadly, Goldfrapp quickly left Perfect Album territory to create a string of execrable electro-dance-pop records, but this achievement will always be theirs.
5. The Posies “Frosting on the Beater” 1993
Another album from 1993. What can I say? It was a good year. And this Perfect Album is an unusual pick for me because I’m not a big power pop fan. But a Perfect Album is a Perfect Album, so who am I to quibble?
No need to describe the music in depth. Here’s all you need to know: Beatlesesque harmonies, raw jangly guitars, big kick beats, and catchy melodies. It’s not rocket science, but I know it’s damn hard to write one iconic rock song. And this album is riddled with them. From “Dream All Day” to “Solar Sister” to “Flavor of the Month” to “Definite Door” to “Burn and Shine”. Any one of these songs would be a world-crushing smash hit for any band, and the Posies have them all on one record.
More importantly, the entire album reflects everything that’s infectious and pleasant about power-pop rock. And it’s delivered without syrupy kids’ stuff. Why this album didn’t make The Posies a household name is beyond me.
4. Big Audio Dynamite “This Is Big Audio Dynamite” 1985
I don’t like reggae. At all. And I kinda liked The Clash, but I never bought their records. So how can this album be Perfect?
Because Mick Jones is a lyrical genius, and because he knows how to fuse together popular sonic forms and weave them into something wholly unique. Not only did he tinker about for a long while to make this record, but he was very careful to make the entire album one seamless expression. Not a concept album, not two 25-minutes opuses. Instead, he created an entirely new musical attitude: a statement in the literal, lyrical sense and in the musical, aural sense. And one is hard-pressed to find a single cut that betrays his efforts.
You may not like this music, that’s fine. But I recommend you read the lyrics and see for yourself how popular culture can be described and lampooned by someone with a deft hand at the quill.
3. Nick Drake “Five Leaves Left” 1969
All three of Nick Drake’s albums are amazing bits of songcraft, but his first record contains the largest quantity of gems. Despite a few thoughtlessly arranged bits by an overzealous producer (all flute flourishes must be killed on sight!), this album shines Perfect regardless.
If you play guitar, listen carefully to this album. Once you get over Drake’s masterful finger-picking, pay attention to how his voice enters and leaves. Somehow, this guy is able to jump in and out of the melody as he sees fit, all the while performing some rather intricate guitar work.
And the music itself? Melancholy, introspective acoustic diamonds all. Drake died in 1974 from an OD of antidepressants. Just like his song “Fruit Tree”, he didn’t really know any international fame until long after his death. It’s really sad, because he probably never knew he made a Perfect Album.
2. Mike Oldfield “Ommadawn” 1975
Oldfield fans may curse my name, but this album is his Perfect Album. Not Tubular Bells. Not Hergest Ridge. Ommadawn.
If you don’t already know, Mike Oldfield is a composer and multi-instrumentalist of great renown. You probably know the opening of his “Tubular Bells” album – it’s the theme to The Exorcist. His first few albums were all long instrumental compositions, each side an entire piece. He wove together traditional English country music, symphonic bombast, electric synthesizer rock and wonderful instrument solos.
In Ommadawn, he takes us on a journey through his beloved English countryside. We ride along a medieval road on horseback, past a menacing castle at night, through a pub-side minstrel show and into a bizarre yet beautiful Celtic incantation. The entire journey is musical – even the lyrics, sung by his sister Sally in a made-up language.
Even when he lets his melodies repeat a few bars too long, you are simply too lost in it to care. Fucking Perfect. The MP3 does this music no justice. Play the CD on a good sound system. Loud.
1. Portishead “Portishead” 1997
This is the second album from the Bristol three. In 16 years, they’ve only released three albums because making Perfect Albums is really hard work.
With vocalist Beth Gibbons hissing into the microphone, Portishead takes us to a dark, strange place – a dream. But there is no malevolence here, only a strangely intoxicating representation of the real world. You have been invited, but you don’t seem to know anyone here. Gibbons calls you to the stage and you are enraptured.
This is the only “song-based” Perfect Album that unravels like a remarkable screenplay. It is a whole, an experience. The music is spartan and crafted to the finest detail, and its echoes haunt as well as bemuse. A piano plays next to you, when suddenly a DJ scratches a record and whips you into an entirely different place. This is the work of genius. A Perfect Album.
That’s it. Ten Perfect Albums.
Feel free to send me your Perfect Album choices. I love to hear what other people like! Here’s the rules: I bared my soul about music I like. You can pick away at my choices and even call me a stupid little douchebag. But in return, you are required to tell me exactly which records you utterly adore. OK? Good.