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My top 25 albums: Let the arguing begin!

Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsberg. Photo (cc) 1975 by Elsa Dorfman.

A little over a year ago I began compiling a list of my favorite 25 albums. I finally finished last week. It was a fun exercise that forced me to think about the music that has meant the most to me over the years. My only self-imposed rule was to limit myself to one album per artist. Otherwise I’d probably have seven or eight Dylan albums here.

And how wonderful was it to find a photo by my late friend Elsa Dorfman that I could run with this.

If I did this again, I’m sure it would come out differently — but probably not too differently. Here, then, is the complete list, with links to what I wrote about each of them. Let the arguments begin!

  1. Bob Dylan, “Blood on the Tracks”
  2. Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”
  3. Miles Davis, “Big Fun”
  4. The Rolling Stones, “Exile on Main Street”
  5. McCoy Tyner, “Enlightenment”
  6. Derek and the Dominos, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”
  7. Carla Bley and the Jazz Composers Orchestra, “Escalator over the Hill”
  8. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
  9. Al Green, “Greatest Hits”
  10. “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band”
  11. John Prine, “The Missing Years”
  12. Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks”
  13. Tom Waits, “Franks Wild Years”
  14. Charlie Parker, “Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes)”
  15. “The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983”
  16. Paul Simon, “Graceland”
  17. Various artists, “The Harder They Come”
  18. Neil Young, “Decade”
  19. Muddy Waters Day at Paul’s Mall
  20. “The Essential George Jones”
  21. “The Beatles” (the White Album)
  22. Aretha Franklin, “Amazing Grace”
  23. Lucinda Williams, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
  24. Christopher Parkening, “Parkening Plays Bach”
  25. Mavis Staples, “We’ll Get By”

Album #1: Bob Dylan, ‘Blood on the Tracks’

When I began compiling my list of top 25 albums a year ago, I already knew who it would end with: Bob Dylan, the master, one of the 20th century’s leading songwriters, Nobel Prize-winning poet, still going strong after turning 80 this past Monday.

But what album would I choose? Something from his early acoustic folkie years? Well, no. I prefer Dylan the rocker. His middle period, just after he’d gone electric but before the motorcycle crash that would end the white-hot-genius phase of his career? His mid-’1970s comeback? What about his entirely unexpected return to relevance, when he released three albums from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s that were just a half-notch below his greatest work?

My choice came down to two albums: “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), the greatest rock-and-roll record ever made, and “Blood on the Tracks” (1975), his most personal album, a suite of songs about heartbreak and loss that is brilliant in its conception and execution. His singing, always wildly expressive, is at its best on both. So — how to choose?

For me, it has to be “Blood on the Tracks.” You might call this album my gateway drug into the larger world of Dylan’s music. It was released just as I was ready to listen. It’s accessible in a way that few of his albums are, devoid of the obscurantism that characterizes even some of his best work, including “Highway 61.” (That said, I’ve listened to “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” one of the anchors on “Blood,” maybe a few hundred times over the years and I still can’t tell you exactly what’s going on, even though it seems fairly straightforward on the surface. I think it’s because it’s all foreground with virtually no background.)

My favorite song on the album, and a contender for my favorite Dylan song ever, is “Idiot Wind,” nearly eight minutes of vitriol dedicated, I guess you’d say, to his then-wife, Sara, from whom he was in the process of divorcing. The story he tells ain’t pretty, and I’m sure Mrs. Zimmerman didn’t deserve it. But it is great art. Dylan knows exactly how it’s going to land, so he eases into it with a hilarious shaggy-dog story and ends with a few unconvincing lines in which he attempts to cast himself as co-malefactor. But the middle — oh, my God. If I’m listening in my car, here’s the part makes me nearly drive off the road:

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look into mine
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the
springtime turned
Slowly into Autumn

The way Dylan stretches out and twists “slowly” kills me every time I hear it.

Every song on “Blood on the Tracks” is a revelation. It kicks off with “Tangled Up in Blue,” a strange song that mashes several different narratives together, centuries apart, and that serves as a commentary, I suppose, on the ’60s and what he was leaving behind. It would become one of his signature songs, along with “Blowing in the Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” depict Dylan at his most vulnerable. (Dylan has said “Blood on the Tracks” is not about him. But Dylan himself is a character played by Robert Zimmerman.)

Even the seeming trifles, which close what used to be sides one and two (they made these things out of vinyl, and you’d play them with a needle, and — well, never mind), serve their purpose. “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go” anticipates his lover’s eventual departure even in the midst of their relationship. “Buckets of Rain,” which follows “Shelter from the Storm,” itself a kinder meditation on love, gives us a chance to just relax and come down a bit as we begin to process what we’ve just heard.

And then there’s a song that didn’t even make it onto the album — “Up to Me,” which popped up on the “Biograph” compilation in 1985. It sounds a lot like “Shelter from the Storm,” and it would have been a career highlight for almost any other artist.

If you love “Blood on the Tracks,” I’d recommend a book about its making called “A Simple Twist of Fate,” by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard. It tells the story of Dylan’s early attempts to record the songs with studio musicians in New York and his decision to re-record most of it in Minneapolis with local musicians and the help of his brother, David Zimmerman. It was not a great band, despite what Gill and Odegard argue, but they bring a sense of urgency to the proceedings that was missing from the New York sessions.

If you’ve never quite gotten around to Dylan, I recommend you start with “Blood on the Tracks.” It might turn out to be where you end up, too.

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Album #2: Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born to Run’

This was a difficult choice. Last spring, when I took the Facebook challenge, I chose Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” (1973) as my number one.

But that was supposed to reflect music that had influenced you the most, and yes, it sure did. “The E Street Shuffle” changed the way I thought about rock and roll. It changed what I was looking for in music.

“The E Street Shuffle,” though, wasn’t Springsteen’s best album. That would be “Born to Run,” the 1975 album that landed him on the cover of Time and Newsweek, establishing him as a star who remains productive and relevant to this day. Springsteen famously got bogged down in the studio, and I remember waiting for “Born to Run” with anxious anticipation. It turned out to be a considerable departure from “E Street” — the multiracial ensemble approach had given way to the Great White Rock Star, a move I resisted at first.

But “Born to Run” includes perhaps the best song he ever wrote (“Thunder Road”), his best recording (the shimmering “Backstreets”) and his anthem (the title track). Combine it with the glorious excesses of “Jungleland” and a few lesser but still terrific songs, and it adds up to Springsteen’s masterpiece.

Springsteen once said that he wanted “Born to Run” to sound like Bob Dylan had written it, Phil Spector had produced it and Roy Orbison had sung it. Well, he came close. After “Born to Run,” he moved into more conventional hard rock.

Now, a word about Springsteen’s career. After a so-so debut album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” (1973), he tore off five consecutive albums that are as great as any achievement in popular music during the past half-century. His growth as a lyricist from album to album is astonishing.

Take, for instance, “Racing in the Street,” from 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” It’s a fine song about coming to terms with the reality that love doesn’t conquer all. But it depends on assertion rather than storytelling. He revisits the same theme in the title track from “The River” (1980) — only this time he approaches it with more maturity, specificity and emotional investment. I’m still blown away when he sings,

Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry

Springsteen finishes this five-album run with “Nebraska” (1982), stark, creepy, dangerous and beautiful. He’s never quite attained those heights since then — “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984) turned him into a megastar, and megastars rarely make great music. But he’s kept at it and maintained both his integrity and his dignity. He’s still a top-notch live performer, and his last two albums (“Western Stars,” 2019, and “Letter to You,” 2020) are better than most of his post-“U.S.A.” output.

It was “Born to Run,” though, that made Springsteen who he is. “It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win” remains one of the towering statements of purpose in rock and roll — even if he spent most of the rest of his career telling us that you really can’t leave it all behind.

By the way, I see this is the first time I’ve added to the list since late October. One more to go — and I’m still trying to decide between two albums.

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Album #3: Miles Davis, ‘Big Fun’

At some point toward the end of my senior year of high school, I acquired a bootleg of the Beatles’ 1965 concert at Shea Stadium. I was not happy with my purchase — it was unlistenable, with screaming fans all but drowning out the music.

Fortunately my friend Jim was a Beatles collector, and he suggested a trade. He’d give me his new copy of Miles Davis’ “Big Fun” in return for the Shea Stadium album. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I agreed. I had heard of Miles, but I didn’t know anything about him except that he played trumpet. “Big Fun,” released in 1974, proved to be life-changing.

Before I get to the music, let me try to describe how cool the packaging was. The front cover featured a nude woman in front of a horn. The inside gateway was given over to a massive photo of Miles, looking down slightly, wearing a serious expression, wraparound sunglasses, a sparkly top of some sort and a polka-dot kerchief. He was holding his trumpet, to which was attached a pickup and a cord. All of this made a huge impression on 17-year-old me.

And the music lived up to the packaging. “Big Fun,” as I now know, was a hodgepodge, pieced together from several sessions over the previous few years. But what a hodgepodge. The original album comprised four tracks, one on each side (the Spotify version features extra tracks). Two are absolutely brilliant.

“Great Expectations” is a riff on “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” It is repetitive and trance-like, with a huge band anchored by Harvey Brooks on bass guitar and Billy Cobham on drums. There’s not a lot of improvising as Miles tries out different sonic approaches to the same theme. That segues to an entirely different passage as things slow down, Ron Carter takes over on bass (in fact, the track is a spliced-together pastiche) and Miles plays a melody that’s been altered so that it almost sounds like two trumpets, one slightly behind the other. The percussion in the background sounds like someone crying. Although the liner notes don’t say so, this is actually a different piece, Joe Zawinul’s “Orange Lady,” also recorded by Zawinul’s band Weather Report. Trust me: Miles’ version is much better, deeper and more keenly felt.

The other highlight is “Go Ahead John,” featuring guitarist John McLaughlin. In some ways this is a real period piece: Jack DeJohnette’s drums and McLaughlin’s broken-speaker solo are both processed through what you might call extreme stereo, with the audio switching back and forth between speakers. But the piece is so great that it transcends such touches. What’s more, the entire middle part consists of Miles playing a gorgeous two-track solo. This is astonishing music.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: “Big Fun” isn’t Miles’ best album — although I do think it’s better than “Bitches Brew,” his 1970 album that gave birth to the jazz-rock genre. I still love “Big Fun” and listen to it after all these years. And even though I later came to appreciate just about everything Miles ever recorded, “Big Fun” remains an underrated classic from a career that extended from the 1940s to his death in 1991.

Although it’s hard to choose, I think my other favorite Miles album is “’Round About Midnight,” released in 1957 with his classic quintet of John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Two years later a slightly different lineup of musicians would release “Kind of Blue,” still the best-selling jazz album of all time. But “Midnight” has more variety to it — and the title track, by Thelonious Monk, is simply the best version of that song ever recorded.

I had the privilege of seeing Miles twice — at Paul’s Mall in 1974 with the aforementioned Jim (we got to shake his hand!) and then at Kix Disco with my wife, the first show of a 1983 comeback tour. Miles didn’t play much at Paul’s Mall, even leaving the stage when he wasn’t soloing. But he was Mr. Entertainment at Kix.

He was a great artist, one of the towering geniuses of 20th-century music. You can listen to Miles endlessly and never get to the bottom, always surprised and delighted by new discoveries. Lately I’ve found myself thinking there’s a decent chance that the trumpet solo on “It Never Entered My Mind” is actually the voice of God. I’ll let you know if I find out.

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Album #4: The Rolling Stones, ‘Exile on Main St.’

If this isn’t the greatest rock-and-roll album ever recorded, it’s pretty damn close. Disdained at the time of its 1972 release, “Exile on Main St.” today is regarded as the Rolling Stones’ best work — a chaotic double-record set comprising a few classic songs and a jumble of bits and pieces. There’s a lot of filler on “Exile” — but it’s great filler.

Now for a controversial assertion: “Exile” is not only the Stones’ best album, but it’s so much better than anything else they’ve done that you’re left gaping in wonder. I’ve said that about two other albums on the list — Derek and the Dominos’ (i.e., Eric Clapton’s) “Layla” (No. 6) and Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (No. 12). But I think most people would agree with me in those cases. Making that same argument about any album by the Rolling Stones, though, flies in the face of classics like “Beggars Banquet” (1968), “Let It Bleed” (1969) and “Sticky Fingers” (1971) — not to mention the live “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” (1970), my second-favorite Stones album, largely on the strength of Keith Richards’ amped-up guitar.

Well, I’ll stick with it. Mick Jagger has a reputation for being a control freak, and the other albums, for all their raw power, are just a little too perfect. “Exile,” largely recorded while the band members were literally tax exiles holed up in France, is right on the verge of veering out of control, more Keith than Mick. Not to glorify drug use, but Richards had a raging heroin habit at the time, and that led to some weird lineups, such as guitarist Mick Taylor playing bass on “Tumbling Dice” instead of Bill Wyman.

Let me linger on “Tumbling Dice” for a moment, because I think it’s the Stones’ single greatest song — which is saying a lot. It opens with a classic Richards riff and features a gospel choir, supposedly inspired by Jagger’s attending the concert at which Aretha Franklin performed the songs that became her album “Amazing Grace” (No. 22). There are little touches that kill me every time I hear them. Charlie Watts marking time during the outro, only to come crashing back in. Keith’s now-you-hear-him-now-you-don’t harmonies. Mick’s wail seguing perfectly into a slide guitar. Something magical and desperate was captured that night. I’ve only seen the Stones once, but I’ve listened to “Tumbling Dice” on several live albums, and it’s flat and uninspiring by comparison. That’s really saying something for a band whose songs usually sound better live than in the studio.

Beyond that, it’s hard to pick favorites. “Rocks Off” for the great line “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.” “Happy,” maybe Keith’s best vocal performance. “Hip Shake,” “Casino Boogie,” “Torn & Frayed,” “Turd on the Run,” “Ventilator Blues,” “Just Want to See His Face” — what we used to call deep album cuts, with a ragged, not-quite-finished quality. “Black Angel,” “Loving Cup,” “Let It Loose” and “All Down the Line” are all melodic and beautiful while still rocking hard.

The Stones recorded some fine albums after “Exile,” most notably “Black and Blue” (1976) and “Some Girls” (1978). And they’ve remained an excellent live band, not to mention a vibrant cultural force well into their 70s. From “Satisfaction” to their COVID song, “Living in a Ghost Town,” they have been a welcome presence in our lives for more than 50 years.

On “Exile,” though, they achieved something higher: transcendence.

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Album #5: McCoy Tyner, ‘Enlightenment’

I knew right away what I wanted to play Sunday morning as I thought about the life and death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. McCoy Tyner’s “Enlightenment” is one of three spiritually intense albums on this list, and it’s the one that speaks most directly to me. Recorded live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1973, it consists of four great musicians addressing the Almighty in as direct a way as you are likely to hear in this plane of existence.

Tyner, who died earlier this year, was one of the leading pianists of the 20th century. He was, among other things, a key player in John Coltrane’s classic quartet — the one that recorded “A Love Supreme” in 1964. I imagine Tyner saw “Enlightenment” as his own answer to “A Love Supreme” — and, truth be told, he doesn’t quite manage to equal Trane’s towering accomplishment. Who has? But I’m going with Tyner because I was introduced to “Enlightenment” when I was a teenager, and thus it resonates with me in a way that goes beyond “A Love Supreme.”

How to describe “Enlightenment”? It’s impossible, really. The bare-bones rundown is that the album comprises the three-part “Enlightenment Suite” plus three additional tracks — “Presence,” “Nebula” and “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” Tyner is all intensity and dense chords. The other musicians, saxophonist Azar Lawrence, bassist Joony Booth and drummer Alphonse Mouzon, are collaborators rather than accompanists — full participants in a common purpose.

Booth’s solo between “Nebula” and “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” is astonishing. At the beginning, he sounds like he’s groping for something that’s eluding him. But then he finds it, and what he plays is the closest to singing that you’ll ever hear on an upright bass. Much of the concert is available on YouTube; here are parts one and two. They are well worth watching to get an idea of the level of concentration and sheer physical effort that the band brought to bear.

(By the way, the other spiritually focused albums on the list are Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” No. 12, and Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace,” No. 22.)

I had the good fortune of seeing Tyner perform twice in the 1970s, at Paul’s Mall and the Paradise. He was a great soul whom we’ll all miss, but he left a legacy that will endure. I know that Justice Ginsburg’s tastes tended toward opera. But I’m sure she would recognize the brilliance and the connection to the infinite that Tyner, Lawrence, Booth and Mouzon made in Switzerland one day 47 years ago.

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Album #6: Derek and the Dominos, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’

There are three albums on my list that are what you might call black-swan events — they are so much better than anything else the performer recorded that all you can do is gape in awe. One of them is Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (No. 12). Another is yet to come.

Today’s entry is Eric Clapton’s greatest moment as a recording artist. “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” is better than what he did with Cream and, sadly, far better than anything from his long, mostly disappointing solo career. Released in 1970, “Layla” is perhaps the ultimate guitar album. Clapton has never sounded better, pushed to unequaled heights by guest guitarist Duane Allman, who contributes stinging slide guitar. Solos are double- and triple-tracked; it can be hard to tell who’s playing what.

Clapton has always been obsessed with the blues, and he is at his best on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Key to the Highway” and especially “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” — all of which are grounded in an authenticity that’s utterly lacking from his derivative 1994 all-blues album, “From the Cradle.”

The title song, with its famous piano coda by drummer Jim Gordon (or perhaps, as I learned in researching this post, Rita Coolidge), is considered by most observers to be the best on the album. But it’s suffered from overexposure during the past 50 years, and I actually prefer some of the rave-ups co-written by Clapton and organist Bobby Whitlock. Songs like “Anyday,” “Keep on Growing,” “Tell the Truth” and “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” are so drenched in guitar heroics by Clapton and Allman that you feel spent just listening to them.

The vocals, by Clapton and Whitlock, are on one level some of the worst ever committed to tape; on another level, though, they add to the feeling of over-the-top chaos that pervades the entire album and makes it so exciting to listen to. Unfortunately, though the original vinyl struck me as bright and well-produced (by Tom Dowd), the CD I later bought and now the Spotify version sound muddy, even though it’s supposedly been remastered. The crystalline sound I remember from my teen years doesn’t quite come through.

“Layla” ranks a little lower here than it did on my Facebook list because the idea on Facebook was to list the albums that most influenced your music tastes. Here I am simply ranking my favorites — and as outstanding as “Layla” is, I’ve got five I like more.

Derek and Dominos only recorded one album and came to a bad end. Whitlock, like Clapton, is still with us and continues to work. But Allman died in a motorcycle accident. Bassist Carl Radle died from alcohol and drug abuse. Gordon, a terrific drummer, murdered his mother during a psychotic episode and was sentenced to life in prison.

For one brief moment, though, they made magic together.

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Album #7: Carla Bley and the Jazz Composers Orchestra, ‘Escalator over the Hill’

There are three albums on my list that I discovered because of great music writing. The first, Charlie Parker’s “Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes),” comes in at No. 14. Another will come later.

Today’s entry is “Escalator over the Hill,” a two-hour 1971 release written by Carla Bley and performed by her, the Jazz Composers Orchestra (which she co-founded) and a cast of stars. I discovered this remarkable album because of a review by Stephen Davis that appeared in either The Phoenix or Boston After Dark; I suspect it was the former, though I didn’t make a note of it on the clip that I kept. (For you alt-weekly trivia buffs, Boston After Dark became The Boston Phoenix, and The Phoenix became The Real Paper. It’s complicated.)

Davis describes “Escalator” as “a phantasmagoria of sound, imagination, and virtuousity,” and Bley’s writing as “a mingling of the immediacy of rock with the harmonic and thematic intelligence of jazz.” What music-obsessed 15-year-old could resist? Especially since you could order the three-record set, with notes, pictures and “a handsome gilt-letter box,” for just $12, not a lot of money even then.

“Escalator” was No. 5 in my Facebook list earlier this year. I’ve moved it down a bit. Great as it is, it’s just not the sort of thing I find myself listening to very often. It’s too big, too ambitious. The music comes at you relentlessly, in waves. How to describe it? A jazz-rock opera? (Or, rather, a jazz and rock opera; there is no jazz-rock on “Escalator,” thank you very much.) A “chronotransduction,” as Bley calls it?

I listened to “Escalator” in full this week for the first time in a few years. It doesn’t merely hold up. It sounds as fresh as it did when it was first released. The 13-minute “Hotel Overture” is as stunning a piece of music as I’ve heard, a gonzo big-band performance that ranges from a rather traditional opening to free jazz, anchored by Gato Barbieri’s screeching tenor sax.

And there’s so much more. Much of it is indescribable, but I should note that, among some of the finest jazz musicians of their era, we also get to hear Linda Ronstadt, nearly unknown at the time; Jack Bruce, a couple of years past Cream; and Viva, part of Andy Warhol’s entourage, who provides occasional narration with an utter emotional flatness will make you laugh.

A word about Bruce: He’s all over the album, and his singing and bass playing are among the highlights. Davis called “Escalator” “the zenith of Jack Bruce’s long and amazingly checkered career.” You could also say that Cream was not the best power trio Bruce ever played in; rather, it’s Jack’s Traveling Band on “Escalator,” in which he’s joined by Mahavishnu John McLaughlin on guitar and Paul Motian on drums (and Bley on organ). “Businessmen,” in particular, rocks so hard that there’s really no place else to go.

I could go on. But let me express my one reservation: Paul Haines’ maddeningly obtuse lyrics. Depending on my mood, I find them either hilariously inventive or hopelessly pompous and esoteric. The story is supposed to be about the weird characters who inhabit Cecil Clark’s hotel, set in Rawalpindi. But it really isn’t. Bruce and Ronstadt supposedly play the lead characters, David and Ginger — but that idea is haphazardly executed at best. Here’s a taste of Haines from “Detective Writer Daughter”:

Detective writer of English
She was once the queen of Sweden.
His father’s horse was something like a house
Dad was a German where they lived.

But never mind the lyrics, although you might love them. This is incredible music that stands up to repeated listenings — oom-pah music, Indian music, ominous noise, trumpeter Don Cherry’s atonal soloing, chanting.

I started with Stephen Davis. I’ll close with Marcello Carlin, who began a 2003 essay about “Escalator” with this: “So here I am, faced with the task of explaining and justifying to you the piece of music which I regard as the greatest ever made, the gold standard against which I qualitatively measure all other music, the definitive record which, 30 years after its original appearance, may still render all other records redundant.”

The greatest record ever. How can you resist? Oh, and did I mention that, for all its strangeness, “Escalator” is also surprisingly accessible? Set aside some time and give “Escalator over the Hill” a chance. Everything else is melancholy and industrial.

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Album #8: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’

During a long reporting trip to Washington and Baltimore in 2002, I began listening to WAMU, which at that time played a lot of bluegrass — not the sort of thing I normally liked (or so I thought). But as I was driving around from interview to interview, I started to enjoy what I was listening to. After I got back home, I started listening to the WAMU internet stream on occasion.

That led me to check out  the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a 38-song compilation starring some of the great bluegrass and old-time country stars of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. As this Wikipedia article explains, many of these folks’ careers were on the decline, supplanted by the slick Nashville sound that eventually morphed into (God help us) contemporary country music. By contrast, there is a real sense of authenticity to “Circle,” an album of traditional music about God, death and heartbreak, with a backdrop of virtuoso playing by guitarist Doc Watson, banjo player Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements. Many of the songs are instrumentals, and the musicianship is so stunning that it sounds like bebop from an alternate universe.

The album cover is a real period piece, depicting the American and Confederate flags and a picture of an unnamed military officer. Obviously that would never fly today. But in the ’70s, there was still quite a bit of Confederate nostalgia infecting the culture, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — a country-rock band from Southern California — was not immune. Around the same time, the Band was recording “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” an ode to the Confederacy that was an enormous hit for Joan Baez, just to give you an idea of how pervasive it was.

Of all the guest stars on “Circle,” my two favorites are Mother Maybelle Carter, from the original Carter Family, and Roy Acuff, who leads on two of the strangest, most intense songs on the album. “The Precious Jewel,” which Acuff wrote, is a weeper about a young love who’s gone on to her reward in heaven. “Wreck on the Highway,” written by Dorsey Dixon, and first recorded by Acuff in 1942, is even wilder. Here’s a taste:

There was whiskey and blood all together
Mixed with glass where they lay
Death played her hand in destruction
But I didn’t hear nobody pray

Acuff’s singing is a revelation — a ragged, full-throated yowl that stands in contrast to the polite vocalizing on most of the album. Bruce Springsteen was so impressed by “Wreck on the Highway” that he wrote a completely different song by the same name — one of his finest, which captures the bleakness of its predecessor if not its weird mixture of piety and violence.

Maybelle Carter was a member of the first and second iterations of the Carter Family as well as the mother of June Carter Cash. She’s the only woman on the album, and her participation gives the entire project the feel of a last roundup. She takes the lead on “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” “Wildwood Flower” and, of course, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” She also plays autoharp, which isn’t something you hear much of these days.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band itself pretty much disappears on “Circle,” providing little more than some background accompaniment. They released a second volume in 1989 that fails to recapture the magic despite the presence of Johnny Cash and John Prine. A third, released in 2002, is better, and features the likes of Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash and Dwight Yoakam as well as old standbys Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin.

Oh, and you can still listen to Bluegrass Country. I had it tuned in Sunday morning, when they played several hours of gospel music by the Stanley Brothers.

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Album #9: Al Green, ‘Greatest Hits’

For those of us on the younger end of the baby boom, the great male soul singers came along a little too early. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Sam Cooke et al. were integral parts of the 1960s. We’re children of the ’70s. But we had Al Green.

Starting in the early ’70s, Green recorded an extraordinary series of singles. It seemed like he was never off the radio during the first part of that decade. And why would anyone have wanted him to be? Green wasn’t a shouter like some of his predecessors; his voice was more delicate, weaving in and around the song, soaring into the upper register with ease and then back down again. Aretha Franklin may be the greatest singer of the past 75 years, but Green is my favorite. Most of his best moments are on “Greatest Hits,” released in 1975 and repackaged several times since then.

Could anyone hit a snare drum like Al Jackson Jr.? It may seem like a small thing, but there was a particular sound that Jackson got from his drum set, especially the snare, that instantly stamped those songs as Al Green songs. The band was as good as Jackson, and together they created magic.

The list of hits on “Greatest” is overwhelming, starting with “Tired of Being Alone.” President Obama memorably covered “Let’s Stay Together.” Probably my favorite is “L-O-V-E (Love),” which was released in 1975, as Green’s religious side was coming to the fore. Like a lot of Green’s best work, it’s kind of weird. it starts off as a typical love song, and then morphs into something else entirely:

I can’t explain this feeling
Can’t you see that salvation is freeing
I would give my life for the glory
Just to be able to tell the story
About love

You want more weird? Listen closely to his 1973 hit “You Ought to Be with Me,” which includes the line “You oughta be with me until I die.” The key word in the song is “die,” which he stretches out to form its own soaring one-word chorus. Yes, you’ve heard the song a bunch of times, but were you paying attention?

The 1995 CD re-release of “Greatest Hits” expanded the number of tracks from 10 to 15, adding “L-O-V-E (Love)” and “Love and Happiness,” originally part of “Greatest Hits Vol. 2,” and “Belle,” which he released just before he entered the ministry. For some reason, Spotify’s version harks back to the LP, so I’ll have to put together a playlist.

Green could be prickly. In an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” during his ’70s heyday, I remember him getting angry and calling out his band for some perceived offense. Then, in 2012, we had the privilege of seeing him in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was in fine voice and put on a terrific show. But at one point he complained to the audience that the promoter had wanted him to perform for more than an hour. I don’t think any of us thought that was an unreasonable request.

Green can be temperamental, but there are moments that are so perfect that you’re left breathless. If you go to YouTube, you can find two versions of Green singing the Sam Cooke civil-rights classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The first, from the 1995 concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, is, well, OK. He was clearly having a good time.

The second, from the 2001 United We Stand concert after 9/11, is transformative. Dressed in white, Green is completely serious, a picture of concentration and passion, encapsulating his art into five minutes of anguish and release. It is an astonishing performance.

As one of his albums proclaimed, Al Green is love.

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