Best of Rock/ Pop/ Soul

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


In mid-1999, I had approached Gentleman with an idea for a Music Special Issue. The idea came from the dismay of observing some of the finest albums in international contemporary music being left alone in music stores, simply because a lot of people (especially the young) were not aware of the riches available amidst them.

We decided to do a Western Music Special issue and keep Indian music for a separate issue. I became the guest editor for the project. We divided our scope into four sections - Rock/pop/soul, Blues, Jazz and Western Classical. David Timothy did the section on Blues, Louis Banks on Jazz, Anjan Ray on Western Classical and I handled the Rock/pop/soul section. The last section was the biggest, so I brought in Sagar Chowdhury to ensure a more well-rounded selection.

The idea was for each contributor to write an essay on why that genre appealed to him so much, maybe give some kind of history or perspective to it and then recommend the best titles money could buy in that genre.

Unfortunately, today, I just have my contribution with me, which I am putting up here. Hopefully, the other pieces will feature here too, at some point.

Please keep in mind that all this was written and compiled in 1999. Some of it may be slightly dated but not much.

An exercise like this has to be objectively put together to have any value whatsoever and for that the contributors need to have perspective about the music and together they need to have a well-rounded point-of-view.

I remember, in June 2000, the eminent British music magazine Q brought out an issue of their 100 greatest albums. Almost 85% of the titles featured on that list had been on this one. That was quite satisfying!

Jaideep Varma
August 2005
Since the whole point of this exercise was to nudge people towards buying the best albums available, it seems right to build in links here too, to Amazon, where most of these titles are readily available. Have also added a mandatory link to their home page (below).
For those in India, you should know (if you don’t already) that current customs laws allow you DVDs or CDs below Rs 10,000 without any duty. So, to have a completely trouble-free purchase experience, keep your purchases ideally below $200, at a time.
If you exceed this amount, you can treat yourself to a visit to the Customs office and deal with slimy, oily people, none of whom want to give you the right information in case you figure out how to avoid them the next time. Also, the information above is valid for only the US. The permissable duty-free amount from the UK is considerably lesser, which is why Amazon US is a better option.

The Great Leveler

Not very long ago, pop music in India was divided in 2 categories - "fast" and "slow". The latter was not deemed to be any better than our own film music, while the former - with the novelty effect of extreme exuberance, justified its existence thus. Clearly, myopia ruled. In any case, anything called "pop" was always pretty unlikely to be taken seriously. No wonder the music is vastly underrated even today. (Originally meant to be a short form of popular music, today "pop" implies a genre less vital than rock. For the sake of convenience, unless otherwise stated, let's assume "pop" means popular music - rock, pop, soul, country, folk… all included.)

In fact, since the mid-sixties, the intelligence and passion that characterise the best films and writing of our times, have been constantly finding an outlet in pop music. The singer-songwriters, starting with The Beatles in Britain and Bob Dylan in America, made pop music a brand-new art-form, pushing the envelope, opening the mind, flooding the realm of possibility. In its short life of 40-odd years, pop has become the most potent and influential art form of this century (along with cinema, perhaps). The best pop songs have moved people by expressing the mood of its times, and yet have a timeless quality that keeps them fresh and vital for listeners who're initiated to it years after they were first conceived. Above all, they've cut across economic, social and even religious divides more comprehensibly than anything else this century.

A great pop song is like a beautiful short story, with its own peculiar means of expression. In anything between 2 and 5 minutes (usually), it makes you live through a distinct emotion. It may lift your spirits, or validate your pain. It may bring out an alien feeling in you, or it may accentuate a familiar sentiment. It may hit your gut squarely, or make you think tangentially. It may make you care for a cause you'd ordinarily oversee, or it may simply show you the world through someone else's eyes.

The best pop songs look life squarely in the eye, and life blinks first. Honesty is the hallmark in pop's greatest work. Honesty as in emotional expression, not lyrical content. In fact, contrary to popular assumption, the best songs are not about the best lyrics. Sure, some have a distinct literary quality, as is conventionally understood. But with many great songs, the lyrics can seem ordinary on paper, but when performed in tune, they have a power that is indescribable. (Dr. Jonathan Miller once said that it affects the nervous system positively, but its not been proven, or explained, scientifically.) In any case, emotional connections invariably come from passion, not intellectual appraisals of lyrics. Very often, you may find that you do not know the lyrics of a song that has moved you. And we all know how an infectious chorus can render the most innocuous words memorable.

The best pop songs have a soul, they're somehow more real than most things around us. They have an immediacy, often a spontaneity that is alluring. Sentimentality, melodrama, bombast and pretentiousness do not have a place in them. Interestingly, both artlessness and sophistication do, as long the feelings are true, not postured. And there's no subject under the sun that's not had a pop song written on. Nothing has been taboo, nothing sacred. The biting sarcasm of Randy Newman, the urban grittiness of Lou Reed, the mystical poetry of Leonard Cohen, the clear-eyed calm of Paul Simon, the passionate implosions of Bruce Springsteen, the desperate angst of Kurt Cobain, the anarchic rantings of Johny Rotten, the darkness of Nick Cave, the exuberance (and later, introspection) of Lennon-McCartney, the idealistic longings of Pete Seeger, the emotional directness of Joni Mitchell, the ironic wit of Richard Thompson… they're among the hundreds who gave pop music its cutting-edge, its well-rounded scope, its integrity. An integrity that is always less likely (not wholly improbable, though) to be achieved by an interpretive artist (like, say, in Hindi film music). Which is why the musicians who wrote their own songs, the singer-songwriters, are the ones who really vitalised this genre and produced its most meaningful work.

Of course, you cannot underestimate great musicianship. A searing electric guitar can speak most eloquently about the pain that emanates from deep inside. A lively rhythm can lift the spirits unambiguously. A soaring voice can give form and substance to a catharsis. There have been many great musicians who gave pop a musical respectability among practitioners of other genres of music. Guitar-players like Hendrix, Clapton and Page, pianists like Bruce Hornsby and Elton John, voices like Aretha Franklin's and Otis Redding's, melodists like Cole Porter and Paul McCartney, drummers like Keith Moon and John Bonham…the list could go on and on…

Slickness, cliches, affectations - they're found in popular music too, just like in any other art-form/idiom/genre. Unfortunately, this shallow brand of pop is what plays around us everywhere - on television music channels, FM radio, restaurants, the works. It is this mindless, market-driven music that gives pop music its identity today. As usual, we take in the worst the west has to offer, leaving out the more meaningful. Yet, the great works of popular music are available in India. Many path-breaking albums, both old and new, continue getting released.

Here are 5 albums that illustrate the points above. These are personal choices, therefore subjective, with its attendant biases. It is indisputable, though, that they all represent their times, and wonderfully demonstrate the heights great songwriting can touch.

Revolver (Parlophone, 1966) by The Beatles: A certain energy is palpable when something brilliant is beginning to happen. The 14 songs here showcase the start of that unbelievable inventiveness with which The Beatles soared over all their peers. Witty, touching, even weird in turns, this was a mind-expanding album that also stunningly captured the drugs and spiritual "movements" of the mid-60's. Yet, it sounds unbelievably fresh to this day - 33 years later!

Blood On The Tracks (Columbia, 1974) by Bob Dylan: "Acoustic Soul" is how one critic described this great album. The soul was Bob Dylan's , the pain was of lost love. The songs really cut deep. He sang about his breaking marriage with pain, remorse, anger, wonder and hope …honestly, unsentimentally, involuntarily. He HAD to do these songs, they HAD to come out of him. Strangely uplifting for an album of these concerns, this is the greatest songwriter of all time at his very best.

Graceland (Warner Bros, 1986) by Paul Simon: The album that brought "world music" centerstage. Using black South African rhythms and sounds as his tools, Simon created one of those rare entities - a huge commercial AND critical success. There were some who accused him of "musical tourism" - they mistook the means for the end. Exuberant, innovative and thoughtful - these were quintessential Paul Simon songs, enhanced by sounds from a different culture. Possibly the finest "fusion" album ever.

Avalon Sunset (Mercury, 1988) by Van Morrison: A 43-year-old masterful musician's musings on religion and spirituality. Though the album begins with a catchy, unsubtle duet (a huge hit) with well-known evangelist Cliff Richard, it graduates to more personal, more reflective expressions. Despite its otherworldly feel, it's a very accessible, very universal, collection of songs. The power of his singing, the passion and sense of wonder, make this a stunning album, despite a couple of throwaways.

Up (Warner Bros, 1998) by R.E.M.: A hugely underrated album by the finest band of the nineties. R.E.M.'s drummer had retired unexpectedly and just like a newly blinded man suddenly finds his hearing power enhanced, the band seemed to discover facets to their music they hadn't consciously deliberated on before. Lyrically, the album's 14 songs are basically introspective moments of 14 characters, each expressing a personal crisis. Sonically, the songs pay tribute to many musicians who influenced R.E.M., like The Beach Boys, Leonard Cohen, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, even Radiohead…without the band ever losing their individuality. Overall, Up is probably an album for older listeners, the over-30s set … a fitting example of the strides popular music has taken.

Jaideep Varma

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

The lists...
by Jaideep Varma and Sagar Chowdhury.

Objectively selected, subjectively elaborated upon.
The idea was to make a list of albums available in the market that gave a large perspective about the artist's work. Thus compilation albums also qualified.


Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1966)
The album cover is out-of-focus and diffused. The music inside exactly the opposite. This is rock's greatest practitioner at his absolute peak. The sheer number of masterpieces on it (a double album) is staggering. The mood varies, the tempo changes, the imagination overflows… this is the album with which Dylan felt he achieved his "sound" - "that thin, that wild mercury sound… metallic and bright gold". You haven't heard rock music if you haven't heard this album.

Who's Next by The Who (Polydor, 1971)
This was originally conceived as a concept album on the theme of "Lifehouse" - a science fiction story set in a future where rock 'n roll is banned. The concept was abandoned after 6 months… but the songs survived and became the best album The Who ever did. Angry, moody, urgent, compassionate, sad, nostalgic…this is innovative and heartfelt rock 'n roll.

The Beatles (white album) by The Beatles (Parlophone, 1968)
Most of the songs on this album were written in Rishikesh, India, when The Beatles came to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's meditation centre for 3 months. Being LSD-free, their mindset changed and their muses were activated. They went back disillusioned with the Maharishi though, and their way of dealing with that was to inject sarcasm and humour into the songs. A sprawling, immensely varied, utterly brilliant double album - it seems as if 4 individuals have pooled their material together, bound together by a strange force - the determination of being the greatest band in the world.

Runes/Zoso/IV (untitled) by Led Zeppelin (Atlantic, 1971)
Of all the albums in heavy rock music, this is the template, the bench-mark by which all will be measured. From the most recognized ballad in history to the most danceable metal songs recorded, this album has it all. The cryptic title is really four symbols, each one representing a member of the band. Fitting, really, since each member stands out in every song on this masterpiece. (SC)

Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd (Capitol, 1973)
“Progressive rock” never had a brighter moment in the spotlight than this dark and haunting masterpiece. Its stark, ambient nuances have left an indelible mark on every generation since its release. The album represents an integrated mix—songs of isolation, madness and death. Not exactly sunny-day music, but it doesn’t matter. (SC)

Blue by Joni Mitchell (Reprise, 1971)
Relationship songs, without sentimentality or self-pity. Clear-eyed, mature musings on love - its pleasures and sorrows. Very sparsely arranged - just guitar or piano against Mitchell's soaring vocal. Breathtaking songwriting, powerful expressions. Very moving, even if you don't pay attention to the lyrics. Doesn't get better than this.

Astral Weeks by Van Morrison (Warner Bros, 1968)
Perhaps the most enigmatic album in popular music. A rock album in which jazz sessions musicians played; the songs flowed like mantras and 23-year-old Van Morrison sung with a heartfelt passion and intensity about god-knows-what. Most of the lyrics are too obtuse, but that doesn't matter. You can feel the author's pain for something indescribable. Some say this album's a great loneliness-assuager, others insist it plays best at dusk. Find out for yourself, if you can find the album.

Exile On Main Street by The Rolling Stones (Rolling Stones, 1972)
Nothing captured this band's spirit better than this awesome double album. Created in Keith Richard's basement under trying conditions, this rough-edged album serves up blues, country, soul and glorious rock 'n roll almost casually. The songwriting is strong, the concerns varied. And for a double album on a single CD - it's a real bargain.

What's Going On by Marvin Gaye (Motown, 1971)
If any soul album ever captured the pulse of the African-American perspective during the Vietnam Era, this is the one. Laid-back and aggressive, full of anger and full of love, all at the same time. Armed with Gaye's passionate voice, smooth rhythms and lush orchestrations, this suite of songs transcended the candy-coated pop of Motown and attacked the political ills of the world with one message to spread: universal love. (SC)

Automatic For The People by R.E.M. (Warner Bros, 1992)
Arguably the finest album of the nineties by doubtlessly the finest band of the decade. The soulful, ethereal tunes are tastefully arranged and compassionately sung. One of those rare albums that touches people of any musical taste.

The Joshua Tree by U2 (Island, 1987)
This album is a testament to the musical and lyrical integrity of a band that worked hard to push their music through to the masses. And, did it get through. The Joshua Tree's mix of sorrow and optimism permeated into ever song on the record, regardless of personal or political nature. This album sums up every sound the band had previously attempted and blended them into a perfect album which took the world by storm. (SC)

Innervisions by Stevie Wonder (Motown, 1973)
Of the many outstanding albums Wonder released in the seventies, Innervisions is his masterpiece. Its urban, pulsating rhythms beautifully complement his staggering sense of melody. And unlike other albums from the same period, his constant use of synthesizers doesn't date the gritty, yet highly-refined album of pop-soul. This is Wonder at his best. (SC)

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen (Columbia, 1975)
A perfect example to demonstrate why a studio album can sometimes be better than the same artist's greatest hits compilation. Springsteen created its songs around a feeling, giving the entire album a very consistent mood. The music seems to emanate from a man trapped in a difficult situation, with a great will to break out. The near-mono sound adds a peculiar poignancy to the idea as the vocal comes searing out of the chaos of the E-Street Band's robust, focussed playing.

American Beauty by The Grateful Dead (Warner Bros, 1970)
A collection of mellow, calm tracks with thoughtful arrangements and masterful playing. Frontman Jerry Garcia's mother died just before the album was recorded, which explains the strange sad quality to the quiet, even joyful songs. And the great pathos in Garcia's vocals. Country and rock traditions never had a better marriage than in this album.

Rumours by Fleetwood Mac (Warner Bros, 1977)
It's no secret that this album, chock-full of songs about ex-lovers, is autobiographical. During the recording sessions, the marriage between John and Christine McVie had broken down, as did the long-term relationship of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, fueling this album with so many emotions that it's hard to fully recognize the genius songwriting behind them. (SC)

461 Ocean Boulevard by Eric Clapton (RSO/Polydor, 1974)
The "guitar god" showed his ample songwriting talents with this stunning album. Pop, rock and blues meshed effortlessly, stylistically. His voice never sounded more expressive, the cover versions had his identity stamped upon them and he left some room to showcase his awe-inspiring guitar work. What else is there?

Purple Rain by Prince (Warner Bros, 1984)
This was the commercial high point for The Artist We Still Refer To As Prince. Loaded with hits, the album ranged from rock-injected funk to contemporary R&B. But all of the songs were laced with a modern pop sensibility that has withstood the test of time, unlike the movie of the same name. (SC)

Thriller by Michael Jackson (Columbia, 1983)
A few cheesy moments aside, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that Thriller had some great music. Reaching deep into his Motown past, Jackson gloriously showcased his R&B inflections, soulful grooves and rock guitar solos. Whatever you think of Michael now, remember this: Thriller didn’t take over the world on marketing alone. Still considered the finest dance album ever by many. (SC)

Synchronicity by The Police (A&M, 1983)
Few albums go beyond classifications as Synchronicity does. After years of playing reggae-rock, The Police came into their own to record their final and best album. With complex, furious stylings and sparse, evocative moments of tranquility, this album appeals to the heart and mind alike. Brilliant. (SC)

Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits (Warner Bros, 1985)
It’s refreshing to hear an album filled with humble and elegant songs every now and then, and this is one of the best. Brothers in Arms captivates the listener with its various musical styles and songs of life, love and death. This album can make you dance with joy or drown in tears. Heartfelt and poignant, this is a high-watermark for music in the '80s. (SC)

“The way I see it, rock and roll is folk music. Street music.
It isn’t taught in school. It has to be picked up.”

- Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)


The Sun Sessions by Elvis Presley (RCA, rec.1954-55 rel. 1976)
Record producer Sam C. Philips used to say in the early fifties, "If I can find a young white singer who can sound and feel like a negro, I'll make a million dollars". In 1953, he came across Elvis Presley, recorded him and sold the contract for $35,000. This album contains those very songs - the earliest ones he recorded, which transformed popular music and indeed, the world. Passionate, emotional and breathtaking - this is the definitive rock 'n roll album.

Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1965)
Bob Dylan went "electric" with a vengeance and produced the intense, scathingly sarcastic songs that made up this mind-expanding album. It opened with the best song Dylan ever wrote - "Like A Rolling Stone" and showed the world what creative heights rock 'n roll could touch. It ended with the 11-minute sparsely arranged "Desolation Row" that demonstrated the depths it could reach. The world was stunned then, and new listeners still are, 34 years later!

Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys (Capitol, 1966)
Before The Beatles did Sgt.Pepper, Paul McCartney considered this the finest pop album of all time. Truly, the album set new standards for songwriting, thanks to Brian Wilson. Despite the overall upbeat feel, there is a sense of melancholy in the songs that gives them their colour. Though hugely enjoyable, like its mono recording, it does seem a bit dated today. Interestingly, a McCartney fan invariably loves this album.

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (Parlophone, 1967)
Originally a concept album where the Fab Four set out to submerge their identity for an imaginary band. Though the idea was abandoned half-way and stand-alone songs done thereafter, producer George Martin gave all the tracks a holistic treatment to make it part of the same soundscape. The album was over-rated, yet brilliant. Not all the songs were as masterful as touted, but their treatment was truly innovative and pathbreaking. "A Day In The Life" and "She's Leaving Home" are indisputable masterpieces in an album that has perhaps aged a bit.

The Velvet Underground and Nico by The Velvet Underground (Verve, 1967)
They were the first band that didn't swing. Not on this debut album anyway. While the world sung about peace and love, this New York band reached for the underpass instead of the sun. Lou Reed's urban, gritty lyrics and the band's meshing of avant-garde and rock produced a very adult, very "real" album. The songs can make you almost hear and smell the weird New York City streets. Rock was never the same after this album.

Are You Experienced by Jimi Hendrix (Polydor, 1967)
The Electric Guitar came of age with Hendrix's debut album. What was possible in rock was re-defined -definitively. Feedback artistry and technical innovation was showcased with a savage, exploding, frenetic feel. The result of Hendrix's raw passion and breathtaking virtuosity. (SC)

Led Zeppelin 1 by Led Zeppelin (Atlantic, 1969)
There is a bridge between the British blues of the late 60’s and heavy rock for the rest of time. That bridge is called Led Zeppelin. Virtually all of their albums could be considered Greatest Hits of Rock packages, but this album is The Firstborn, the debut, the birth of a new form of music. And so it shall be . . . (SC)

Horses by Patti Smith (Arista, 1975)
What happens when a rock critic, previously a published poet, decides to show the world how it should be done? Fact is proved stranger than fiction when she releases a pathbreaking collection of rock songs and retains a cult status even 24 years later. Sneering yet poetic, angry yet idiosyncratic, ambitious yet unpretentious - her attitude itself contributed towards ushering in the punk revolution. And this, her first album, would remain her most significant effort.

Saturday Night Fever - OST (RSO, 1977)
This film and its music define the 1970s like nothing else. Legendary Bee Gees tunes like "Stayin' Alive", "Jive Talking" and "How Deep Is Your Love" gave the soundtrack its character - very competently communicating the film's spirit too. Disco attained a certain respectibility after this album. Still eminently danceable.

Never Mind The Bollocks by The Sex Pistols (Virgin, 1977)
Punk Rock exploded on the unsuspecting British public with this totally uninhibited album. Full of in-your-face attitude, the songs brim with jerky energy and sneering defiance. Travelling through this album is an exhilarating but exhausting experience. The magic is still intact after all these years.

Murmur by R.E.M. (A&M, 1983)
R.E.M.'s debut album showcased a "jangle 'n' mumble" that would be their trademark in the eighties. Gloriously tuneful despite its weirdness, it made a huge impact artistically, in a world still recovering from punk. Strangely upbeat and melancholic at the same time, it heralded the beginning of "alternative rock".

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy (Def Jam, 1988)
An absolutely uncompromising record, this album brings politics to the forefront like few albums before it. With its frenzied grooves and audacious raps, this record was history in the making. Not only is it probably the most confrontational record you’ll ever hear, but it also set the stage for the Rap Invasion. Brutally phenomenal. (SC)

Nevermind by Nirvana (DGC, 1991)
The careers of a million eighties bands came to a screeching halt when this zeitgeist classic was released in 1991--hailing the arrival of all things Seattle and Grunge. Embracing an attitude and sound reminiscent of punk, the raucous Nevermind set the tone for the first half of the decade. In fact, no album influenced the music of the nineties more than this one. (SC)

Ten by Pearl Jam (Epic, 1991)
This debut found Pearl Jam to be the co-bearers of the Seattle/grunge torch alongside Nirvana. More streamlined and polished than Nevermind, Ten is as close to stadium-rock as grunge gets. And a sterling example of quality rock music that is untainted by trends, that doesn’t fade away. Ten quickly and rightfully promoted Pearl Jam among the ranks of the rock elite. (SC)

OK Computer by Radiohead (Capitol, 1997)
Atmospheric. Spacy. Complex. OK Computer is a chilling work of sonic art that actually pulls you inside yourself. A concept album with the theme of a world run by computers, it has a strange surreal feel. Frontman Thom Yorke's pensive singing, the avante-garde songwriting and the album's darkness seemed to influence many of Radiohead's peers almost immediately. (SC)

“It's not easy to be in a group.
It's like marriage without sex. The only lubricant we have is our music.”

- Sting (The Police)


Chronicle - the best of Credence Clearwater Revival (CCR) (Fantasy, 1976)
Crisp, rough-edged, basic, upbeat and gloriously melodic - this is what rock & roll was meant to be, and what CCR was. Frontman John Fogerty's hoarse, soulful voice, his no-bullshit songwriting and the band's conviction in their playing made their sound unique and hard to replicate even 3 decades later. A perfect reminder of how simple hooks can be more affecting than polished affects and studio wizardry.

To Kingdom Come: The best of The Band (Capitol, 1990)
Well-known as Bob Dylan's back-up band in the late sixties, it was their incredible instrumental prowess that made them one of the most important bands ever. Lead guitarist Robbie Robertson's subsequent flowering as an exceptional songwriter propelled them towards greatness. American folklore and history along with introspective concerns fuelled the wonderful narrative power of their songs, many of which rank as all-time classics.

20,000 Watts RSL Collection - The best of Midnight Oil (Columbia, 1997)
An under-rated Australian rock band who've produced some classic songs in the genre. With a rough-edged, pub-hardened sound, dynamic arrangements and a passionate demeanour, the band gave their politically conscious concerns a powerful medium through their music. This fine compilation comprises a lot of their best work.

The best of Santana (Columbia, 1998)
Blazing guitar meeting frenetic percussion, bluesy rock fusing with Hispanic dance-forms, Latin rock merging with Western jazz - Santana has been one of the most fluid and legendary bands ever. Spurred on by lead guitarist Carlos Santana, the band's ever-changing line-up didn't alter its distinctive flavour. This riveting collection features their best work between 1969 and 1987.

The history of Fairport Convention (Island, 1972)
Marrying traditional English folk music with immaculate electric rock, Fairport Convention is one of the most important British bands of all time. Their mid-late Sixties/early Seventies work represents their peak and a lot of it features in this outstanding collection.

Greatest Hits by The Police (PolyGram, 1986)
If you like to sing along to the song, dance wildly in a crowded room, or sit on a chair and brood, this album is for you. Covering the most popular Police songs of their six-year tenure, Greatest Hits chronologically brings to light the brilliance of Sting’s songwriting, even though some of their best material isn’t even on it. If your collection is without any albums by The Police, this buoyant compilation is a great place to begin.

Sand in the Vaseline by Talking Heads (Sire, 1992)
Surprisingly few bands have straddled more musical barriers than Talking Heads. In relation to the rest of the music world, they are the weird-but-endearing cousin, the black sheep, the inspired artist who constantly astounds you. Vibrant, intelligent and very, very witty, Talking Heads songs move to many different beats and they encompass a massive musical landscape. If you don’t know Talking Heads, this 2 CD set is a terrific intro.

The Singles: The Pretenders (WEA, 1987)
Their fantastic songs have withstood the test of time and yet, it seems The Pretenders have never really received their due acclaim. Simply put, without Chrissie Hynde there wouldn’t be nearly as many successful female artists as there are today. The Pretenders have always been a great band with even greater songs, and this sonic snapshot captures them wonderfully.

Living In The Past - Jethro Tull (Chrysalis, 1972)
A compilation that covers this "art-rock" band's early work (1969 - 72). They would become self-conscious and overly theatrical later, but here, Ian Anderson's flute and Martin Barre's heavy guitaring work very nicely, thank you.

Recurring Dream - the best of Crowded House (Capitol, 1996)
Another fine Australian band, propped up by the songwriting talent of Neil Finn. This is melodic pop at its best, recalling The Beatles, performed cleanly and with a sure-footed lightness-of-touch. This compilation has their best songs and it’s a great buy.


Greatest Hits by Queen (EMI, 1991)
Always one of the most innovative, bombastic and awe-inspiring bands, Queen became the kings of the world by writing songs that reflected influences in classical, rockabilly, opera, disco and straight-ahead rock. Compelling, despite the excesses. (SC)

A Decade Of Steely Dan (MCA, 1984)
Slick, literate rock & roll that's complex but tunefully accessible. Studio magicians Donald Fagen and Walter Becker wrote some of the most textured, grooviest music around. Rock's never gotten cooler.

Abba Gold - Abba (PolyGram, 1992)
The current over-30s generation of urban India will always have a soft spot for this hugely successful Swedish group. And why not? Their tremendous sense of melody set standards in '70s and '80s popcraft that have yet to be surpassed.

The Best Of OMD (Virgin, 1988)
British synth pop at its melodic best. Inventive, intelligent and well, smooth.

Carry On Up The Charts: the best of Beautiful South (PolyGram, 1994)
An inconsistent band overall, Beautiful South's compilation album works superbly. Showcasing their thoughtful songwriting and tuneful arrangements, this became the biggest selling British pop album recently.

“Music is the most powerful medium because it expresses for other people feelings they can't express, but that need to be expressed.”

- Sinead O'Connor


Decade - Neil Young (Reprise, 1976)
Neil Young is among the top 4-5 songwriters of all time. This double album puts together his best work between 1966-76. Right from his early Buffalo Springfield songs to CSN&Y to his classic seventies solo work - these tracks exemplify Young's awesome talent. Straddling folk, country and rock - this is an absolutely essential album.

Shaking the Tree-the best of Peter Gabriel (Geffen, 1990)
The real grandeur of Peter Gabriel’s songwriting needs to be heard on his individual albums, where you can hear it in context and each song can flow into the next. But Shaking the Tree does a very good job of creating a musical tapestry comprising 12 years of his career (1977-89). Always breaking new musical and sonic ground, Gabriel has a sensitive ear for foreign music, and he weaves his songs with a worldly touch. Shaking the Tree is a good place to start for the unfamiliar listener, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. (SC)

Negotiations and Love Songs (1971 - 1986) - Paul Simon (Warner Bros, 1988)
What did Paul Simon do between splitting up his act with Garfunkel and embarking on the classic Graceland project? This album has the answer, and a surprising, delightful one at that. His solo work in the seventies was funkier and more interesting than the lush work he did with Garfunkel. New musical styles - reggae, gospel, jazz, latin made their way into his music. Yet, his trademark calm sense of balance gave the ultimate character to the tunes.

Legend - the best of Bob Marley & The Wailers (Island, 1984)
No single reggae artist has even come close to making an impact on the world as Marley did, and no one ever will. Why? Because Marley’s music represents the spirit and essence of reggae. Marley is the innovator, the rest are just imitators. Each song on this collection is a bonafide classic. (SC)

Greatest Hits by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Warner Bros, 1994)
What can you say about someone who has tangled with disco, funk, punk, gansta rap, indie and grunge and has always come out on top? This collection offers 18 reasons why Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers have become a musical institution. They’ve always changed with the times, but never at the expense of the songs. Despite their tendency to flirt with various styles of music, the heart of a Petty song pumps pure rock-and-roll. Listening to their songs, you hear The Byrds, Dylan, Springsteen, the Beatles and surf rock, all saturated into one unique voice. An outstanding collection. (SC)

The Singles Collection - David Bowie (EMI, 1993)
Pop’s most inventive mastermind has never been better represented than on this compilation. When you listen to each succeeding song, you can hear the times change right along with them, and Bowie is always a few steps ahead. The consummate artist, Bowie never rests on his laurels, and he continues to strive for new sounds, new songs. But if you want to rest on his laurels, give this album a try.

The * Collection - Buddy Holly (MCA, 1991)
Rock & Roll's first truly great singer-songwriter may have died young, but what a legacy he left behind. Assimilating country & western, rockabilly and R&B influences, Holly developed his own distinctive style and created his own standards. Both continue to influence popular music even today.

Beautiful Maladies: the best of Tom Waits (Island, 1998)
This outstanding collection of songs chronicles the best of the Island Records output of music’s most eclectic and individual bard. His raspy voice, booze-drenched persona and ironic wit have made Tom Waits the songwriter’s songwriter, the cool barfly you wish you could be but cannot. Jazzman, bluesman, social critic, poet, artist-Waits personifies them all.

Best Of Leonard Cohen (Columbia, 1976)
A veritable and venerated cult figure, poet/novelist Leonard Cohen's moody musings on love, death betrayal and mysticism tend to get beneath the skin. Largely atmospheric, the songs get their character from his world-weary delivery. This compilation and The Songs of Leonard Cohen comprise his best work.

Anthology - Ray Charles (Rhino, 1989)
The grandaddy of all the others featured in this section, Ray Charles is a true pioneer. In his 40-odd years of recording, he's made forays into everything - R&B, rock, country, jazz, pop, swing, soul… the works. Despite the breadth and a fair amount of indifferent music, he's done a lot of astonishing and timeless work, the best of which features in this compilation.


Greatest Hits Vol.1 & 2 - Billy Joel (Columbia, 1985)
Greatest Hits - Elton John (MCA, 1977)
Piano-men both, across the Atlantic, their hallmark has been a lightness-of-touch that has been effortless and refreshing in their best songs

Way To Blue - Nick Drake (Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1993)
The sound of fragile hypersensitivity, shorn of self-pity and sentimentality. Quiet, brooding and haunting, all 3 albums that Drake recorded before his death at 26 (officially drug overdose; suspected suicide) were brilliant. This collects the pick of his existentialist, elegant, unspoiled gems.

“Sensitivity isn't being wimpy.
It's about being so painfully aware that a flea landing on a dog is like a sonic boom.”

- Jeff Buckley


Yellow Moon by Neville Brothers (A&M, 1989)
This family band from New Orleans has been among America's greatest. Their soulful singing, clean harmonies and a fantastic rhythm section was treated differently by producer Daniel Lanois resulting in this masterful album. Very atmospheric and haunting, the three Dylan covers in the album convinced even Dylan that he should work with Lanois.

Grace by Jeff Buckley (Columbia, 1994)
Debut albums usually don’t make statements as bold as this. Delicate but powerful, the music on Grace teems with beauty, intimacy and emotion. The release of this album sharply pointed to Buckley as one of the premiere young songwriters, with his dreamlike chordal ascensions and lyrical depth. But what really stuns one is his penetrating voice - smooth, piercing and highly charged. And with a strange sadness - as if he somehow knew he would drown at 30, leaving back just this as his only finished studio album.

Songs From The Rain by Hothouse Flowers (PolyGram, 1993)
A wonderful collection of songs from a superb Irish rock band. Echoing U2 in a less raucous way, the music is subtle, tasteful and stunningly performed. Liam O Manalai's singing is truly memorable, as is the band's commitment and the imaginative arrangements. A very classy album - not something you associate rock with.

The Gilded Palace Of Sin/Burrito Deluxe by The Flying Burrito Bros (A&M, 1969-70)
This was the world's first country - rock band. The vitality they generated when they first fused the two forms influenced some of the finest musicians of our time. This is a terrific bargain of 2 albums in one- the first an indisputable masterpiece, the second no slouch either. Grab it, this is essential stuff.

All Things Must Pass by George Harrison (Apple, 1971)
Long under the shadow of Lennon and McCartney, Harrison reached his peak around the time The Beatles split-up. Likewise, the best work he ever did comprised the 2 tracks he contributed to the last Beatles album-Abbey Road, and this marvelous triple album - his first solo effort. He outdid himself here, and for a while looked like embarking on a more glittering sob career than both Lennon and McCartney! Bob Dylan looms large over this album - they co-wrote a couple of songs here; Harrison even wrote a song about him. Overall, Harrison's characteristic quasi-mystical chords of longing found a terrific expression on this album - easily his finest.

“Music is the way that our memories
sing to us across time.”

- Lance Morrow (writer)


Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield (Virgin, 1973)
A 20-year-old musician spent one whole year in the studio playing 21 instruments himself, painstakingly creating layers of sounds. The result was this "pop symphony" - 49 minutes of non-stop instrumental flourishes, in two parts. Though moody and meandering - it was an amazingly huge commercial hit (maybe it captured the spirit of its times). Besides setting the tone for New Age music, it was also very significant for the sophisticated production values it brought into popular music.

Night Song by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook (Real World, 1996)
Time magazine rated this as one of the 10 best albums of 1996. Ambient guitarist Michael Brook merged his sensibility with that of the world's most renowned Sufi qawaal and produced this unique, brilliant set of tracks. Nusrat sings in Punjabi and Urdu and showcases his awesome voice (with several semi-classical flourishes) while Brook builds interesting arrangements around it. Fascinating, entertaining listening.

The best of The Chieftains (Columbia/Legacy, 1992)
Since 1963, The Chieftains have played a hugely influential role in giving traditional Irish music a worldwide audience. Though this compilation draws mostly from their late seventies work, it is perhaps the best introduction you can get to this delightfully distinctive music.

Another Green World by Brian Eno (EG Records, 1975)
Eno’s third solo album since leaving the legendary Roxy Music, this is an understated triumph. Mainly a collection of instrumental pieces, this album squeezes every last drop out of technology and fashions his sounds into experimental—but surprisingly accessible—nuggets of greatness. (SC)

Joe’s Garage, Acts I, II & III by Frank Zappa (Rykodisc, 1987)
One of the most versatile, eclectic and prolific artists of the last century, Frank Zappa recorded more than fifty albums of schizophrenic, provocative and satirical music. His legacy as a social critic lives on in Joe’s Garage, an outrageous ‘concept’ album of unparalleled quality. (SC)

“There are things to confess that enrich the soul,
and things that need not be said.”

- Joni Mitchell


Pearl by Janis Joplin (Columbia, 1971)
The greatest white female blues singers' most successful album featured elements from country and rock as well. With an astounding raw power, her singing exorcised the ghosts of an unhappy past and fed on an angst-ridden view of the world around her. She died of drug overdose at 27, and this album-bearing her nickname, was released posthumously.

Tapestry by Carole King (Ode, 1971)
A historic album - the best-selling pop album ever at that point. A melodic and very intimate collection of songs, simply arranged and expressively sung. Proof that simplicity endures.

Court And Spark by Joni Mitchell (Asylum, 1974)
Mitchell's last pre-jazz album showcased immaculate, imaginative musicianship in a variety of styles. She even used the rock idiom masterfully but overall the looseness in the album suggested her jazz leanings. The distinct pictorial quality in some of the songs reflected her painting instincts. Still considered a true masterpiece.

Tracy Chapman by Tracy Chapman (Elektra, 1988)
One of the great debut albums. The no-nonsense, compassionate style of Tracy Chapman found instant acceptability in the mainstream music world. These songs have a depth and dignity that only seasoned artists attain. Recalling Springsteen's best empathetic songwriting and Joni Mitchell's emotional directness, she delved into the world inside and around her and produced a sparse, affecting album she hasn't topped till date.

A Few Small Repairs by Shawn Colvin (Columbia, 1996)
A quiet, thoughtful album by a gifted singer-songwriter in her late thirties. The songs are ostensibly about a woman (a musician) of the same age who sets out to put her life in order with dignity and conviction - perhaps an autobiographical slant somewhere. Though for the older set, there are enough catchy tunes to appeal to a younger audience. Quite superb.

Car Wheels On A Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams (PolyGram, 1998)
With a languid Texan drawl and an assured songwriting talent, this under-rated country-rocker came up with her finest album recently, at the age of 47. Likewise, it’s a mature, thoughtful collection of songs assimilating myriad influences, yet emerging with her own distinctive style. And the songs don't lack substance either. Definitely an album that grows on you.

Fumbling Towards Ecstacy by Sarah McLachlan (Phantom, 1994)
Startlingly effective, this record of lustrous pop songs is a milestone in recent songwriting. McLachlan’s powerful voice sounds as though it were touched by a higher power. At times dark and pondering, this is an album to hear with the moon riding high and the candles brightly lit. (SC)

Post by Bjork (Elektra, 1995)
An experimental exploration of vocal theatrics, orchestral arrangements and techno excesses. As always, Bjork is a little over-the-top here, but once you enter her world, you won’t want to come back. (SC)

Like A Prayer by Madonna (Sire, 1989)
Madonna’s finest achievement as a songwriter. Brimming with her usual confidence, Madonna takes on Catholicism, Hollywood, eroticism and self-respect. This album alone could stand as a virtual Greatest Hits collection, but the real magic lies in some of the songs that never made it to radio or TV. (SC)

Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morrisette (Maverick, 1995)
A gaspy delivery, an exhibitionistic gut-wrenching "honesty" and an unblinking demeanour - Morissette set new standards for "confessional songwriting" in the nineties. Curiously bordering on affectation, there is however an undeniable power in some of her songs. One of the cult albums of this decade that was also strangely popular.

“Rock and roll is only rock and roll
if it’s not safe.”

- Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones)


Marquee Moon by Television (Elektra, 1977)
Exquisitely crafted, masterful rock. Lead guitarist - songwriter Tom Verlaine fronted this pioneering seventies band, giving an audible outlet to his urban energy. Lyrics inspired by French poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, an extraordinary interplay between the two guitars and the rhythm section, lengthy jamming that earned them the sobriquet of "the Grateful Dead of punk", a passionate but piercing sound overall - this is mature, controlled, innovative, even intellectual rock.

Dixie Chicken by Little Feat (Warner Bros, 1973)
A truly great seventies rock & roll band. Funky, groovy and graceful, this was their best album. Inspired slide-guitaring and assured vocals gave character to many of the songs. Lowell George's focussed songwriting further made this one of most enduring rock & roll albums ever.

Morrison Hotel by The Doors (Elektra, 1970)
This album, widely hailed as a ‘comeback’ for The Doors, was a trip back to the band’s roots. Full of crude blues and raunchy rock, Morrison Hotel came without the orchestrations of old. It indicated every direction the band had in the taken in the past, and hinted at their moves in the future. (SC)

London Calling by The Clash (Epic, 1979)
Punk was perfected musically by The Clash. This sensational double album represents their peak. With an urgent, basic sound punctuated by clanging guitar riffs and a breathless, spontaneous vocal style - The Clash embodied the "do-it-yourself" swagger that would soon swamp rock. This is quintessential Brit rock that set the agenda for the eighties. The vibrations can still be felt.

Appetite For Destruction by Guns 'N' Roses (Geffen, 1987)
Guns 'N' Roses took the best fragments of rock-and-roll’s past—the excess, the riffs, the hooks, the catchy melodies and of course, sex, booze and drugs—and dove in with this furiously stellar album. 12 years after its release, Appetite for Destruction still sounds like a serious troublemaker. (SC)

Metallica/The Black Album by Metallica (Elektra, 1991)
This eponymous album pushed Metallica towards superstardom , with good reason. While all of the aggression from their previous albums is there, Metallica’s newfound sense of classy production and singable choruses made this record a watershed moment for the band. (SC)

Hysteria by Def Leppard (Bludgeon Riffola, 1988)
Think what you like about the glossy production, but know this: Hysteria is a masterful collection of commercial hard rock classics. Hook-laden, melodic and taut - hard rock doesn't get much better. (SC)

1984 by Van Halen (Warner Bros, 1983)
Anchored by glossy synthesizers, monstrous rock guitar mega-riffs, unforgettable choruses and the throat of David Lee Roth, this is the end-of-the-line definition of party rock. (SC)

Achtung Baby by U2 (Island, 1991)
This is U2’s Sgt. Pepper, their Exile On Main Street, in short, their left-turn from a highly successful sound to better music. Arguably their best album, U2 retain their songwriting talents of old, but amplify it to eleven. Without breaking the vocal/guitar/drum format, U2 took their sound to new heights by stylistically using technology. And actually adding to their already considerable bite. (SC)

Machine Head by Deep Purple (Warner Bros, 1972)
If Deep Purple had disbanded after releasing Machine Head, it wouldn’t have mattered much—Machine Head had everything a rock album should have and then some. With thundering R&B and big-guitar rock, this album was a defining early-'70s rock album. (SC)

“Within the song, the lyric is protected
- the music, melody and rhythm
all take the burden off of it.”

- David Byrne (Talking Heads)


Shoot Out The Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson (Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1982)
Probably the most under-rated singer-songwriter ever, and one of the truly great guitarists in the world today, Richard Thompson ( founder of Fairport Convention) is a living legend. His stormy marriage to singer Linda yielded several superb albums. This, the last one, was the most brilliant. Amazingly, it was actually a musical documentation of their disintegrating relationship while it was happening. Linda's pure, fragile voice and Richard's menacing, edgy tone (vocals and guitar) resulted in stirringly emotional and impassioned songs. Sadly, they broke up after this album, but what a way to say goodbye.

In My Tribe by 10,000 Maniacs (Elektra, 1987)
A superb album by an eighties folk-rock band with a rather ironical name. Natalie Merchant's lovely, thoughtful songwriting and moody vocals along with guitarist Peter Buck's inventive simplicity are the highlights. Thematically diverse, lyrically thought-provoking and wonderfully melodic, even catchy - this is a very accessible and enjoyable album.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon (Apple/Capitol, 1970)
Lennon's first post-Beatles solo album, during a time when he was undergoing primal therapy. The cathartic treatment spilt into his music and the result was this astonishingly sparse confessional album where he exorcised all kinds of ghosts, starting with the traumatic death of his mother. It took great guts to attempt songs as personal like these, but then that's something Lennon had never lacked.

Band On The Run by Wings (Capitol, 1973)
Paul McCartney's finest post-Beatles triumph (unfortunately, among the very few). Besides writing and singing all the songs (save one), McCartney even played most of the instruments. So much for being in a group. Wonderful songs though, showcasing McCartney's immaculate melodic gifts

Good Old Boys by Randy Newman (Reprise, 1974)
Popular music's most sarcastic songwriter, Randy Newman has rarely written about himself. Instead, he usually tells little stories about ordinary people in small-town America. His main instruments are the piano and his expressive, idiosyncratic voice. Here, in his masterpiece, Newman tackles the American South with first-person sketches of hypocrisy, racism, alcoholism and even the devastation caused by a massive flood. Goose-pimple stuff.

Armed Forces by Elvis Costello & The Attractions (Columbia, 1979)
An all-time great songwriter, in some ways Costello is far more talented than his more illustrious namesake. Here, he creates song after song, many on the theme of the army - all lyrically dexterous and musically dynamic. Sophisticated at times, yet invariably catchy. Thought-provoking, yet great fun. Art, yet entertainment.

The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks (PRT, 1969)
The Kinks were one of the most creative rock groups of the sixties. In 1967, their frontman Ray Davies was recovering from a nervous breakdown. This is the first album they recorded after that -15 songs of about 2 minutes each. A quiet, wistful album (sometimes jaunty) - the songs are largely acoustic-based. Embracing a variety of concerns, it is a delightful album to listen to at one stretch.

New York by Lou Reed (Sire, 1989)
Urban angst through one of its greatest mouthpieces. Cynical and unsparing, there are songs directly about Manhattan, AIDS, politics, riots, the environment, evangelists…the works. Hugely engrossing.

Tunnel Of Love by Bruce Springsteen (Columbia, 1987)
Springsteen's last great album - and his most personal. It was mostly about his short-lived first marriage. There's an aura of sadness throughout the album even though many of the songs are genuinely tuneful. Quiet, sparse and thoughtful - there is a strange clarity of vision somehow, an acceptance of things beyond one's grasp.

Odelay by Beck (DGC, 1996)
Sophisticated, weird and intelligent, Odelay is a whimsical assimilation of countless influences, styles and recording technologies by a very gifted songwriter. Despite the eclecticism, Beck achieves a seamless flow - showing another interesting side to rock 'n' roll. (SC)

“In popular music you have your clichés
and you juxtapose them against each other,
and then you build bridges between them.”

- Richard Thompson


20 Greatest Hits by Hank Williams (PolyGram, 1998)
Essentially the founder of what has become country & western music, Williams’ songs also lit the fuse for early rock and roll. His songs had a voice all their own, and they spanned every conceivable emotion from terrible depression to exhilirating joy.

Johnny Cash - Columbia Records (1958-1986) (Columbia, 1987)
When you hear Johnny Cash you hear the voice of God. Or maybe it’s the voice of death. The voice of reason? Of regret? Whatever, it’s the voice of omnipotence. In his songs, you can hear the trials, the despair, the genius. Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, is a living legend with some of the finest songs you’ll ever hear. (SC)

Diamonds by Joan Baez (A&M, 1996)
The first lady of American folk music. Her commitment to several political and social causes throughout her career has sometimes distracted attention from her impressive body of work. With a pure, clear voice and an earnestness to match, Baez did some famous covers including those of Dylan, The Band, Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs and Richard Farina. Some of her originals were excellent too but it is her singing, which has been such a huge influence on popular music, for which she will be remembered. This 2 CD set divides up her studio and live work.

Classics/The Early Years by Neil Diamond (Columbia, 1983)
Neil Diamond has mostly produced clichéd, dross songs throughout his long career. But he has punctuated it with some sparkling one-off' gems off and on, especially in the first part of his career. This collection puts together his best work from his initial phase - creatively his most vital. Some wonderful, catchy songs here. Enjoy.

John Prine by John Prine (Atlantic, 1971)
An all-time classic debut album, Prine populated it with memorable characters of different ages, sexes and concerns. A drug-addicted Vietnam Vet, a pair of loveless lovers, a lonely and neglected old couple… the songs are warm, wise, mostly sad, yet with a curious sing-along quality to them. There is a powerful feeling of compassion throughout the album. The country-tinged pedal-steel guitaring and Prine's unusual piercing voice lend character to some of the finest songwriting ever.

“Getting into the common man's head
is a high ambition.
I want my songs to be there
for his children's children.”

- Smokey Robinson


20 All-Time Greatest Hits by James Brown (Polydor, 1991)
In terms of sheer musical brilliance and originality, James Brown surpassed Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and The Rolling Stones. A one-of-a-kind colossus (without that kind of commercial success, though), with an astonishing array of work, Brown's sixties work invented funk and indeed, modern black music. Releasing emotions, sounds and rhythms so thick you could see them - The Godfather of Soul changed music forever. Understand how.

The Otis Redding Story (Atlantic, 1987)
The quintessential voice of Southern soul, Otis Redding's roots were in gospel and blues. His music was horn-driven and primarily rhythmic (rather than string-laden and melodic, like Motown). He co-wrote many of his best songs but it was his phenomenally urgent, remarkable voice that defined his greatness. Anguished or joyful, the emotion was always powerful. This 3-CD-Set is a thorough collection.

Sam Cooke - The Man and His Music (RCA, 1985)
Dead by 29, Sam Cooke was the man who brought gospel and R&B together to create soul, as we know it. His prolific songwriting and impeccable voice gave shape to some timeless music - a lot of it contained in this, his best compilation.

Greatest Hits: Sly And The Family Stone (Epic, 1970)
Sly and the Family Stone were a band years ahead of their time (the late '60s). With their multiracial, multi-instrumental line-up, the Family Stone brought African-American funk & soul wrapped up in hippie-rock splendour. This is truly one of the classic compilations.

Anthology - Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (Motown, 1986)
"The Tears Of A Clown" was just one of the songs that made someone as reticent as Bob Dylan call Smokey Robinson "America's greatest living poet". This quartet, led by their ultra-talented frontman, defined the quintessential Motown appeal by merging sturdy R&B to breezy pop. A magical compilation, this.

“Sometimes music is healing; sometimes it's just a gig. You have to work from the chaos.”

- Van Morrison


Frank Sinatra
When Francis J. Sinatra passed away a few years ago, the world lost the greatest and most popular singer in recording history. His voice could cut through you like a hot knife through butter. His lyrical phrasing had just the right touch of toughness and nonchalance. He was the undisputed master who didn’t need mafia ties to kill you: his voice could do it for him. The Voice Of America, as it were.
Recommended: My Way-The best of Frank Sinatra (Warner Bros, 1997) (SC)

Aretha Franklin
God, what a voice. A banshee shriek from her would sound melodic. Not surprisingly, whichever genre she's chosen to exercise her vocal chords in, she's excelled in. Gospel, blues, jazz, pop, rock and of course, her calling card -soul. Her passionate, powerful renditions are built on the foundations of an innate sense of control and a gospel spirit. The first woman to be inducted in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, Lady Soul has been one of the most revered and influential singers ever. Interpretive art doesn't get any better.
Recommended: 30 Greatest Hits (Atlantic, 1985)

Roy Orbison
Smooth like silk yet immensely powerful, Roy Orbison's vocal chords are legendary. Many great songwriters wrote songs for him just so they could have this ethereal life breathed into their creations. "Put his voice in there and build the track around it," was the motto of every record producer who worked with him. Loneliness has yet to find a better expression than Orbison's full-bodied, plaintive voice.
Recommended: All Time Greatest Hits (Monument, 1972), Mystery Girl (Virgin, 1989)

Dusty Springfield
Cliff Richard once called her "the white negress" - a great compliment for a blue-eyed soul singer. Dusty Springfield's is the most famous and enduring female voice in British pop for over 35 years. The first woman to make a mark in the male-dominated Britpop world in the early sixties, she displayed excellent taste in selecting songs to lend her voice to. This is the definitive Dusty collection - covering a gamut of moods; ardently passionate, painfully shy, vulnerable, assertive, sad, joyful, reflective… the works. As classic as pop gets.
Recommended: Goin' Back: The very best of Dusty Springfield (Philips, 1994)

Van Morrison
"Give him the phone-book to sing and he'll still move you," is the old comment about this astonishing musician. Being an all-time-great songwriter hasn't been enough for him, he's used his voice as an astonishing explorative instrument as well. Rock & roll, blues, straight jazz, conventional rock, swing, new age… he's sung in all genres, creating magic throughout. There is an acute sense of wonder, a mystical yearning in his best performances - which is probably a genre on its own.
Recommended: St Dominic's Preview, Into The Music (Warner Bros, 1972, 1979), The Best of…vol 1 (Polydor, 1990)


Barbra Streisand
Largely covering Broadway ballads and nightclub standards, Streisand has stayed away from contemporary pop throughout her 35-year-old career (with some exceptions). Her artfully controlled soaring vocals have endowed a timeless resonance to her work.
Recommended: Barbra Streisand's Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1970)

Marvin Gaye
His voice said ‘religious soul’, ‘drop dead cool,’ and ‘sexual smoothness’ with every breath. The biggest superstar, alongside Stevie Wonder, to come from the Motown pop factory, Marvin’s voice augmented his ever-growing talents as a composer.
Recommended: The Best Of Marvin Gaye (Motown, 1994) (SC)

Tina Turner
A voice with a raspy-but-crisp edge that can belt out rock hits and heat up a slow soulful number with equal aplomb. A very distinct voice.
Recommended: Simply The Best (Capitol, 1991) (SC)

“I realise that I can't feel any nobility
for what I write because I know
my life could never be as moral as my songs.”

- Phil Ochs


Platinum: A Life In Music - Elvis Presley (RCA, 1997)
What can you say about the most important individual in popular music as we know it? He's the reason why you're even reading this cover story. His pioneering impetus is captured in the first part of this collection - rock & roll in its glorious infancy. That distinct energy is palpable still. The second part captures his later thoughtful songs. Despite being overly sentimental sometimes, his charisma is hard to ignore. It's that voice of his. Let’s be glad it'll never go silent. This 4 CD set is definitive.

Biograph by Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1985)
The Picasso of Song (as Leonard Cohen calls him) and his greatest exhibition ever, as it were. Dylan is the greatest songwriter in the history of the world and if this 3 CD compilation was all that survived of his after a nuclear war - it would suffice. A collection of his best songs, some interesting out-takes, a few live performances and several breathtaking, previously unreleased songs…there's enough to sustain a music-lover for years. If you can afford it, just don't think twice, grab it. If you can't, well, you know… just don't break the law.

Peel Slowly And See - The Velvet Underground (PolyGram, 1995)
The most influential rock & roll band after The Beatles, the Velvet Underground released just 4 albums in their 5 years of existence - all commercial disasters, all veritable classics. This stunning 5 CD set includes these 4 albums, out-takes, singles and a revelatory demo of their early work. This is classic stuff - from experimental sounds to catchy rock 'n roll, from moody musings to beautiful ballads. Awe-inspiring.

The Byrds (Columbia/Legacy, 1995)
The Beatles married Bob Dylan and The Byrds were born. Many today don't realise (or remember) how significant they were. Dammit, Dylan went electric because of them. He was stunned by their amazing version of his own "Mr. Tambourine Man" where they literally merged The Beatles' harmony pop with Dylan's lyrical magic. Besides the many marvellous Dylan covers, they came up with path-breaking originals like "The Bells of Rhymey" and "5D". And mind-blowing treatments/arrangements for established standards like Pete Seegar's "Turn! Turn! Turn!". Roger McGuinn and his 12-string-guitar deservedly attainted cult status. The Byrds continued doing excellent work even after their glory years and most of it is contained in this stunning 4 CD set.

Crossroads - Eric Clapton (Polydor, 1988)
4 CDs. 73 tracks. 25 years of Clapton's brilliance. The Yardbirds, Cream, Bluesbreakers, Blind Faith, Derek & The Dominos and Eric Clapton solo…the legendary guitar-work, expressive vocals and top-match songwriting still radiate vitality. Definitely definitive.

The Complete Capitol Singles - Frank Sinatra (Capitol, 1996)
His work was classy, oozed vitality and almost always cool. With the swagger of a born superstar, the innate improvisational skills of a jazz musician and an inventive sense of phrasing, Sinatra was the other great colossus of popular music (besides Elvis). He produced his most breathtaking, and influential, work with Capitol (pre-1962). This exquisite 4 CD set comprehensively captures him at his absolute peak. (SC)

Farewells And Fantasies by Phil Ochs (Elektra, 1997)
One of America's most conscientious folk singers, Ochs committed suicide in 1976 at the age of 35. Ironic for a man who spent most of his life writing hopeful songs. This 3 CD set covers his entire career - the bulk of which coincided with the most tumultuous decade in his country's history. The social scars that resulted from the Vietnam war and the struggle for black civil rights were just two concerns Ochs wrote affecting songs about. Most of his songs had an uncomplicated, sparse, folk purist style (just acoustic guitar and vocals). When it comes to capturing the spirit of America's sixties upheaval, only Bob Dylan is comparable to him.

The London Years: the singles - The Rolling Stones (Abkco, 1989)
Being more singles-driven than album-oriented, Rolling Stones compilations are always likely to click. And this 3 CD set works the best. It has all the great, classic songs and then some. Spectacular reminders of immaculate rock music that never compromised the band's original spirit.

Atlantic Rhythm And Blues (1947-1974) (Atlantic, 1985)
Strictly not a Box Set as the 8 CDs that make up this compilation can all be purchased piecemeal. No-one would though, for every CD is full of classic black music that is absolutely indispensable. Ray Charles, the Coasters, Chuck Willis, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dane, King Curtis are just some of the greats laid out in all their glory.

Collected Works - Simon & Garfunkel (Columbia, 1990)
Art Garfunkel's angelic voice (harmonised with Simon's functional vocals) and Paul Simon's brilliant songwriting made them America's most loved duo in the late sixties/early seventies. Using folk traditions to create stunningly accessible pop melodies, they wound up their act after their timeless masterpiece Bridge Over Troubled Water. This collection includes all their recordings till then.

October 1999

Saturday, August 20, 2005


The virtues of age
Why Paul Simon’s new album is so important

Many music fans, especially the younger ones, snort when they see a sixties or seventies icon release a new album. The assumption invariably is – why aren’t they adhering to their “sell-by” date? What could he possibly have to say now, and in any case, how is it relevent to us?

Now, while it is true that a lot of those artists do cash in on the nostalgia among the older lot (like CS&N, for example), more than a handful of them are doing something for popular music that other artists are simply not equipped to do. The few great singer-songwriter icons are mining unchartered territory in rock – the concerns of ageing and the worldview it brings. Rock is the only significant art form in the world today that does not have a body of work that spans the cradle to the grave, as it were. Why? Because rock and roll is barely into its sixth decade; it’s quite simply not had enough time yet. But we’ve entered that zone now and it’s getting better all the time.

Unfashionable as it may sound, the music scene today is actually more vibrant and meaningful than it has ever been. Yes, more than the sixties and seventies even. It’s just that the trash has become mainstream today, which was not the case in the sixties. The best music is happening (oops, wrong word) away from the commercial gaze, away from the inanities FM and music videos perpetuate (particularly in India). And a lot of that music is emanating from the assured hands. It’s not very different from great literature or films in that respect – the world always awaits the next Bellow or Marquez title, doesn’t it, or the next Scorcese or Spielberg movie? But that’s where the similarities end between the music and fiction/film businesses. It’s not inconceivable to have a 50-year-old debut novelist or film director, but there are no such parallels in music. Hence, the only people we have to guide us through these aesthetic periods musically, are the great songwriters of our times. It’s not a coincidence that practically all of them are singer-songwriters. And Paul Simon is among the cream.

Now, in his 60th year, after over a decade of taking inspiration from the music of other continents (resulting in two classic albums), Paul Simon has gone back to the simplicity of his first two post-Garfunkel albums in the seventies (both of which are classics too) with his new album – You’re The One. Perhaps a return to the basics, yet the enrichment of his musical forays is still evident. The simple guitar-bass-percussion arrangements are beautifully garnished, even defined at times, by the other instruments around it and the rhythms that emerge subtly. The quiet, even unassuming, tunes belie their strength. Simon’s trademark calm sense of balance and his unsentimental but very marked compassion have never found better expression than on the 11 songs of this album. Added to this is something else that has never been as palpable – a terrific, wry sense of humour lacing many of the songs. It’s as if he’s become conscious of not taking himself too seriously as he grows older.

The album begins with the beautiful “That’s Where I Belong” (which, in turn, begins with a very Indian-sounding bamboo flute) where Simon establishes what is important in his life. “Darling Lorraine” movingly (and with humour) traces a marriage from courtship to discord to death, “Old” jauntily celebrates the inevitable, the title track is wryly accusatory yet philosophical, “Pigs, Sheep And Wolves” has a grandfatherly playfulness yet is allegorical, songs like “Love”, “Look At That”, “Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears” and “Hurricane Eye” brim with gentle wisdom and humour. The hymn-like “Quiet” is about death, where for him “it’s a time of solitude/ of peace without illusions/ when the perfect circle/ marries all beginnings and conclusions”. Ultimately, the album itself seems to have that cycle – beginning with living fully to an acceptable end, and all that the human condition throws up in between, faced with dignity, love and humour.

Lyrically, this is easily Paul Simon’s finest album. Musically, though the songs take a while to grow and enforce their hold, though sometimes you can hear echos of his earlier songs, this album is as good as his best work, as valid as anything he’s ever done. And that’s really as good as it gets.

April 2001