Hey Gibson, Let’s Talk Guitar Albums: An Alternative Top 10

You may have heard: Gibson (the fine folks who bring us some of our best guitars) has recently announced its selections of what it deems the Top 50 Guitar Albums.

Now, as someone who writes about music, I am acutely aware that one person’s list is another person’s purgatory. Put simply, when it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. When you are talking about the best of the best, it is like boiling the Pacific Ocean to get a handful of salt.

So, it is in the spirit of augmenting and not critiquing (though there are many items on their list I find a bit objectionable) that I offer up an alternative Top 10 with some (very) honorable mentions. To avoid redundancy, my list will not duplicate any of the ones already selected by Gibson. Fortunately, there are more than enough to go ’round, and despite some genuine head-scratchers (there are many items on the company’s list I find offensive, aesthetically speaking), it’s silly to quibble too much with a list that features most (but certainly not all) of the usual suspects.

Let’s review Gibson’s Top 10:

10. AC/DC: Back in Black

9. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland

8. Cream: Disraeli Gears

7. The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East

6. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II

5. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction

4. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

3. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV

2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced

1. Van Halen: Van Halen

Nothing really outrageous there, I reckon. I would say the Who should be in any list before AC/DC and having Eric “God” Clapton in there twice is a bit much (particularly at the expense of Tony Iommi). I’ll just wryly suggest that putting Van Halen (a worthy Top 10 entry for sure) before Hendrix is equal parts laughable and ludicrous. And if you do — and you should — have Hendrix in there, put all three of his albums in there, because a case could be made that they go one-two-three.

There are many predictable (and inappropriate) selections rounding out the other 40 selections, such as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Really? Those guys who could barely play their instruments made one of the 50 best (number 15, in fact) guitar albums of all time? And no Clash on the list? Give me a personal break and slip a safety pin through it. Another AC/DC record (Highway to Hell) but nothing by Rush? Of course. Oasis, but no Living Colour? Oh. Et cetera.

So, I won’t spend more time bitching about the unconscionable omission of albums like (insert anything by Black Sabbath other than their choice of Paranoid, which seems more obligatory than anything else) or (insert anything by Rush circa 1970-something) or Aqualung, The Queen Is Dead, Selling England by the Pound, Morrison Hotel, (insert virtually anything by Frank Zappa), Superfly, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Time’s Up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rubber Factory, Let It Bleed, Animals, The Royal Scam, The Woods, (insert anything by Sonic Youth), and one or two (dozen) others.

Here is my alternate Top 10, with respect to Gibson’s mostly unassailable final selections.

10. Yes: The Yes Album

Let’s start out with Yes since, other than Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Never mind the fact that (like Rush) its musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended middle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled.

9. Kiss: Alive

Before the sex, drugs, alcohol, and the gravity of expectations vs. ability set in, the members of Kiss were lean, hungry, unappreciated, and angry. They also wore make-up. But circa 1975, the hardest touring band in show biz was firing on every conceivable cylinder. Their overproduced, somewhat half-baked studio work did not adequately represent what outstanding musicians they all were (no, seriously), but their genius decision to put out a live album (before they were big) and make it a double album was what put them over. And it still sounds incredible; easily one of the best live albums of the era. The star of these proceedings is Ace Frehley, who was always better than he sounded. He is a rock god on this outing, and he never really sounded better than this. Every single song features a solo that is logical, concise, and utterly original. All those candy-ass hair bands in the ’80s weren’t even trying to emulate this because they knew it was impossible.

8. Bad Brains: I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would — or could — have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, the band’s masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal, and yourself. And it’s all good.

7. Pretenders: Pretenders

Prediction: if James Honeyman-Scott (and his partner in crime, bassist Pete Farndon) had not overdosed, the Pretenders would have owned the ’80s. As it happens, “all” they did was make three perfect albums, one right after the other. While assessing their first two records (back in 2006 when they were reissued), this is what I had to say about the guitar playing:

James Honeyman Scott — whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent — uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-’70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.

6. King Crimson: Red

The progenitors of math rock on its last album of the ’70s. Red is the Rosetta Stone that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshiped here). The title track is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. Robert Fripp has never been boring or unoriginal, and he outdoes himself here. Finally, few songs in rock history have the emotional import and uncanny feeling Fripp conjures in the album’s final song, “Starless”.

5. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard the group’s big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced exotic vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and from the future all at the same time (something the band itself acknowledges, literally, in the title of one of the more indescribable pieces). No serious fan of rock music should be without this album, and that it didn’t make the cut for Gibson’s list is indefensible.

4. The Who: Quadrophenia

Sure, the Gibson crew got Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, but Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, the Who’s best album, one of the five best albums of the ’70s, and an all-time guitar-playing tour de force. This is it. Townshend was never this energized or inspired again, and it all came together in a double LP that is not as immediately accessible or endearing as Tommy, but once you get it, it gets inside you — and it never leaves. From extended instrumental workouts like “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and unplugged version of Tommy’s “Underture”), to slash and burn mini epics like “Bell Boy” to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15” (check out PT’s lacerating but always-in-control frenzy toward the song’s coda).

I wrote at length about the Who last year and here is what I had to say regarding Quadrophenia:

The genius of Quadrophenia(an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream. Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Graffiti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal “5:15”. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, Sea and Sand” and “I’ve Had Enough”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”.

3. Led Zeppelin: Presence

This is not a guitar album; this is guitar. Aside from Hendrix and Iommi, you could fill the rest of the list with Led Zeppelin albums and call it a day. Ridiculous though it may seem to some (many?), beloved and lionized as the Mighty Zep is, the band members actually don’t get enough attention for what unbelievable songwriters and musicians they were. Not too many people would argue — at least with any credibility — that Plant is one of the great rock vocalists and Bonzo is on the short list of rock drummers and John Paul Jones is the unsung hero and jack of all trades for this outfit. But Jimmy Page, aside from unimpeachable Golden God status, seems most known for his “Stairway To Heaven” solo and the work he did between ’69 and ’72. The blues-drenched debut and the next three albums helped define post-Beatles rock music and they need little elaboration. But let’s have some love for the last four albums. Houses of the Holy gets sufficient respect, sort of, but Physical Graffiti(number 48 on Gibson’s list) should be acknowledged as what it is: one of the ten best albums of the ’70s. Some people give it up for the last hurrah, the (very) underrated In Through the Out Door (mostly because of the radio-friendly hits “Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love”, even though Page does some of his finest playing on “In The Evening” and “I’m Gonna Crawl”). But what about the dark horse, the heroin needle in the haystack, Presence??

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation.

One thing most everyone can agree on: Presence is the most obscure, misunderstood, and maligned album, even if it represents the most perfect balance of studio proficiency and unpolished bluster. This is the effort that sees Page’s multi-tracked majesty playing hide and seek with some of the more raw and visceral playing of his career.

It comes crashing out of the gate with what may well be Page’s crowning achievement: ten minutes of electric guitar pyrotechnics and peregrinations called “Achilles Last Stand”. The vision (to imagine all these sounds) and the dexterity (to actually pull it off) is staggering and it features thesolo (visit YouTube and proceed directly to the 3.43 mark).

It concludes with the laconic “Tea For One”, the slowest and saddest blues Page ever pulled off. In between, there is intensity (the anti-cocaine “For Your Life”), depravity (the “borrowed” blues lament “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), playful Elvis parody (“Candy Store Rock”) and a spicy tribute to the Big Easy (“Royal Orleans”). What it adds up to is as intimate a glimpse as we mortals would ever get at Zeppelin at its most vulnerable and naked (emotionally and musically). Page’s playing is, as always, a see-saw of acumen and urgency, but he was never this insistent or soulful before or after.

2. Black Sabbath: Vol. 4

Simply put, this is an electric guitar rock symphony. This is the wall of sound (or for hardcore Sabbath fans, I should say “The Wall of Sleep of Sound”), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us), but it never got any better than this.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Sabbath, so I’ll let anyone interested in reading (or revisiting) go here. The best thing you can do is just listen to the magic, which is very black and very brilliant.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love

Not in Gibson’s Top 10? Okay.

Not in Gibson’s Top 50? Oh.

Look, any of Hendrix’s three “proper” studio releases could fairly be claimed as number one (Are You Experienced because it came first; Electric Ladyland because it was bette — and it was a double album), but one might end up quite contentedly in the middle and claim that Axis: Bold As Love is the guitar album of all guitar albums. The best? Who knows. The most important? Who cares. The most satisfying? Who could argue?

Here is what I said earlier this year, while discussing Hendrix’s legacy:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup.
There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9″. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.