1. Steve Earle – Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left (Guitar Town, 1986)
Although sounding like the Bakersfield sound with a small touch of Elvis Costello, it’s a real Texan singing here. Steve Earle spent his youth following his idol Townes Van Zandt throughout the Lone Star State and seemed to remain dubious about whether to stay there or move to Nashville, Tennessee for the rest of his life. This hesitation was translated into his music as being a mix of pure country and a rather raw Springsteenesk sound (Earle was in fact the working man people thought Springsteen was: having a daytime job and playing music at night). 1986 finally brought Earle his break-through with this debut album, recorded in Nashville and delivering two country hits (title track and this song). Later Earle received a Grammy for his anti-Iraq war album The Revolution Starts Now, with the title track being used for a TV commercial of… General Motors.
2. Sonic Youth – Tuff Gnarl (Sister, 1987)
Same era, same country, totally different planet. Founded in 1981 after Thurston Moore joined his later wife Kim Gordon’s band, quickly accompanied by guitarist Lee Ranaldo. Like often, the position of the drummer would remain unstable for a few years, on the noisy and experimental debut album Confusion Is Sex (1983, moderate success in Europe) as well as the dark and gloomy Bad Moon Rising (1985). Not coincidentally, they are finally recognized in their home country with their third album EVOL (1986), after Steve Shelley had become the unchallenged drummer and Sonic Youth definitely opts for alternative rock with a melodic touch. This fourth album, which I consider not a highlight, was recorded during EVOL’s supporting tour. However, everything (even the introduction of a loose concept) pointed to the fact that the band was working his way towards another peak, which was released the next year.
3. Sufjan Stevens – Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run (Illinois, 2005)
Beta Band, Broken Social Scene? It’s the instrumental closing track of Sufjan Stevens’ most notorious album, in contrast with the works of his mentioned indie-colleagues containing a serious dose of pop and baroque. Illinois is full of affluent pop arrangements, shaping the musical background for lots of places, people and historic events that took place in that state, and all composed with instruments played by the prodigy himself. Already on his debut album (A Sun Came, 2000), he brings together 14 instruments. After giving electronic influences a try on his second album, he starts his so-called ‘Fifty States Project’, an ambitious idea that (just like Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley-plan) quickly goes through the shredder. Instead, after Michigan (2003) and Illinois, Stevens accepts an even greater challenge by trying to appreciate Christmas. Can’t call him a coward.
4. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Our House (Déjà-Vu, 1970)
Third single from the album after ‘Woodstock’ (Mitchell) and ‘Teach Your Children’ (Nash), another super soft song from Nash written when he lived with Joni Mitchell in LA’s Laurel Canyon. Contrary to the other album tracks, which were rerecorded numerous times until the four excellences considered them good enough to release them (this way easily lifting the total studio recording time over 500 hours), this song was written in about an hour according to Nash.
5. Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends Theme (Bookends, 1968)
Another couple of flawless harmonies, in the version that closes side A on this record. The album is often called the most ‘intellectual’ one from the duo, and the sober, nerdy album cover is completely in line with that idea. Paul Simon was struck by a writer’s block after the release of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966), but came back with this half concept-album, depicting the course of life from childhood till old age on side A. It became a musical triumph especially for Simon, who, thanks to outdated contract terms (the label paid for the sessions, assuming that a folk duo will never cost that much) chose to push all limits. Completely in CSNY-style, Simon brought the recordings to perfection, not shying away from spending 50 studio hours on a barely two minutes lasting song. Still, because of the two different sides, the album sounds a little incoherent: why not use both sides for the concept? Did the label want ‘Mrs. Robinson’ to be on it to earn back the high production costs?
6. Led Zeppelin – The Battle of Evermore (Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)
Third song from the excellent fourth album, with a Celtic touch due to the mystical intro (folky Plant with mandolin). It will always remain the only Led Zeppelin song featuring a guest vocalist, Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention, in duet with Robert Plant. Led Zeppelin didn’t end up coincidentally with her, as she was considered an authority in the field of traditional British folk back then. The fact that Led Zep moved from London to a Victorian cottage in East Hampshire for the recordings of this record, will without any doubt have to do something with this revived interest in traditional folk.
7. Bruce Springsteen – Something in the Night (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
Characterizing bells and piano-intro, followed by a howling scream of the master himself: this is the real Springsteen. Just like Led Zeppelin on Headley Grange and Bob Dylan in the basement of Big Pink, Springsteen withdrew to a farm in New Jersey after the success of Born to Run and the lingering conflict with his former manager Mike Appel. That’s why it lasted three years before Springsteen came up with the successor of his big break-through album, which was considerably less bombastic (as reflected by the sober album cover). Most of the material from the sessions by the way didn’t end up on the album, but was lent out to other artists or released on The River (1980). Luckily this third track was not rejected, as it remains one of his unrivalled classics.
8. The Beatles – Rocky Racoon (White Album, 1968)
Of course The Beatles also withdrew to distant places now and then, like in 1968: it was down in Rishikesh, India where most of the material for the White Album was written. Just like Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends, this album meant the beginning of the end for them. The unlimited studio time in London took away all the pressure to play together and the constant discontentedness with each other’s songs led to the point of Ringo leaving the band. In that point of view, it may not be surprising that the four of them are only heard on 16 of the total of 30 tracks. This song is obviously one from McCartney (‘Gideon’s Bible’…), about a triangular relationship that seems to stem directly from the Deadwood script.
9. Nick Drake – Place to Be (Pink Moon, 1972)
A guy that was later imitated by numerous less authentic and less talented songwriters. Also a guy that liked to withdrew himself, as Drake locked himself in his sober house in London after the poor reviews of his previous album, Bryter Layter (1970). This album became as sober as the environment it was written in, without backing band and with only Drake himself on vocals and acoustic guitar. Despite the legends that rose afterwards, Drake would have been very proud of the album, which was nevertheless followed by his suicide two years later, at the age of 26.
10. The Twilight Sad – Cold Days from the Birdhouse (Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters, 2007)
Contagious Scottish vocals from indie rockers The Twilight Sad, consisting of the trio Graham (responsible for the accent), MacFarlane (walls of sound, also producer of the album) and Devine. This is the opening track of their debut album, that was (contrary to some work mentioned above) recorded in only three days. Cheers.