RYM Top Singles, Entry #1

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SINGLE:            Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground / It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine

ARTIST:            Blind Willie Johnson

YEAR:                1928

RYM RANK:     #218

RYM RATING: 4.05/5 (average of 511 ratings)

A-side:

“Dark was the night and cold was the ground
On which the Lord was laid;
The sweat like drops of blood run down;
In agony he prayed”

– “Dark Was the Night”, Thomas Haweis

The opening words of Haweis’ limerick, dated all the way back to 1792, allude to the moment when Jesus Christ lay in the Garden of Gethsemane in solitude and sorrow, pleading to God to pardon him of his inevitable fate; a plea that would go unheard as Jesus would later be arrested by the Romans that very night. The hymn depicts one of the more humanizing moments of the life of Christ, where he dreaded the inevitably of death and begged – as most do – for a prolonged stay on Earth amidst the comfort of his friends and family.

Gospel music, particularly in the context of African-American culture, is stereotypically associated with joyousness and good hope and will towards fellow man. However, as exemplified by Christ’s final prayer in Gethsemane, the Bible is hardly a happy tale; it’s instead a story that reeks of oppression, despair, and – ultimately – death. And certainly, the history of enslavement and persecution that has forever plagued Black America is reflective of this kind of grimness which is partly why Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” – itself an allusion to Haweis’ hymn – rivals “Strange Fruit” as being the most emblematic testament of the worst of the Black American experience.

Blind Willie Johnson was certainly a man whose life was rife with unhappiness. Said to have been violently blinded by his step-mother as a child, Willie had spent the near entirety of his life alone in darkness. Though he was a devout Christian, having written most his songs in the vein of gospel and having spent his later life as the reverend of a small town, “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” was indicative of a great sadness and fear; of the dread of having your life end like Christ’s, where you’re left die without justice and without the full satisfactions of the human experience.

For this subliminal content alone, “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” is perhaps the purest example of blues ever recorded. The song’s pureness of heart is only rivaled in bareness by the fabric of its composition, whereby the recording consists of little more than a lonely wandering guitar riff and Willie’s wordless, soul-crushing humming. The audio quality of this single is aged but that omniscient hiss which clouds over Willie’s playing shrouds the song like heavy rain, only amplifying the melancholy of his soft cry for help.

Indeed, it’s possible that the wrinkles and emptiness of “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” is what embeds the track with its timeless essence. Its cross-generational admiration is strong enough for the song to have titularly inspired the remarkable 2008 compilation, Dark Was the Night, which features a faithful cover of the track as performed by the Kronos Quartet. The compilation was a means for the Red Hot Organization to raise money for AIDS research and while the comp offers plenty of optimism to enjoy, the stench of death pervades throughout its runtime. For a compilation that possesses such an arching sense of gloom, there is no doubt that Willie (himself the fatal victim of a sexually transmitted disease, in his case syphilis) would be the ideal American artist to whom to pay tribute to and although his discography is rich with one brilliant single after another, there is no song of Willie’s catalogue more legendary or haunting than “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground”.

This singles list, I must say, is off to an amazing start.

B-side:

“It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is a stellar follow-up the single’s much better known first track. With this flipside, Willie moves on from the ghostly, nearly formless character of “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” and instead dishes out a toe-tapping, boisterous slice of classic Southern blues. Here, Willie has actual lyrics to sing; he thus unleashes his husky voice in all its fury and boy, what a tremendous voice he has. His deep, wavering growl speaks exudes anger as he belts out some deeply self-defeating and judgmental words that alternative between allusions to subservience to the spirit of his parents and subservience to the spirit of God. His singing is lovely but perhaps most notable is his incredibly guitar-playing; his tempo is erratic but his plucking effortlessly alternatives between the lead and rhythm roles in a fashion that eerily predates Jimi Hendrix’s similar craft by nearly four decades. Willie’s clear influence – whether direct or indirect – on Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf, and just about every other guitar-playing master to come is unmistakable and “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is hard-hitting, entertaining testament to the brilliance of his technique and his songwriting.

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RYM Top Albums, Entry #1

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ALBUM:            Clifford Brown & Max Roach

ARTIST:            Clifford Brown and Max Roach

YEAR:                1954/5

LENGTH:          42:36

RYM RANK:     #786

RYM RATING: 3.94/5 (average of 927 ratings)

 

And so it begins – or rather, so it began.

Let’s flashback to postwar America: the bomb was dropped, the Nazis were defeated (or were they?), and the Greatest Generation were coming back home in celebratory flocks. Those sex-starved soldiers would produce children in record numbers, consequently creating what would become the Baby Boomer generation (arguably the single most influential force modern popular music, as this list will find out). Accommodations for these large families were conveniently plentiful, being that Roosevelt’s expenditures for both the New Deal and the war-effort had created a prosperous middle-class ripe for consumerist habits.

On top of that, the nuclear age saw technology evolve at a tremendously rapid pace and innovations were to be enjoyed in nearly all aspects of life, including commercial music. After nearly a decade worth of development, Columbia Records engineer Peter Carl Goldmark had successfully engineered a new format of playback: a multigrooved, foot-long ‘long-play’ (or LP) that would eventually phase out the more delicate, constrictive 10-inch format popularized before it. Clocking in at approximately 20 minutes per side, listeners could finally enjoy concert-length recordings of music in glorious high fidelity. Men, women, and their countless kids could happily sit by the fireplace of their newly bought homes in their safe, beautiful suburbs and enjoy nearly an hour’s worth of the dandiest music they could possibly dream of.

This was to be known as the supposed Golden Age of America. Life was good…or at least it was for some.

Beyond the picket fences of the White burbs was a country where there were few worst burdens than being Black. State-sponsored segregation was still a horrid reality in the Deep South and even north of the former Confederacy, racism and anti-Semitism were common attitudes that locked many hard-working people out of the luxuries enjoyed by the postwar Caucasian majority. This is a good moment to remark that twenty-four of the albums included on this list are from the 50s and of those releases, nearly four-fifths of them are fronted by African-American musicians. Though their faces were often excluded from even the front covers of their own records, these Black musicians would be belatedly recognized as the premier mavericks who would turn the album-format into a bone fide art form.

Beyond their consistent mastery of the medium, these particular artists also had another thing in common: all of them were jazz – or at least the ones on this list are. Not just any form of jazz though but specifically of the bebop (or ‘bop’) variation, which was a notably auteurist approach to jazz that was predominantly instrumental, frequently fast-moving, and curiously improvisatory. Indeed, if average music fans were pressed to name their favorite jazz artists, the few who could answer would likely mention bop-kings such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, or Thelonius Monk (all of whom have more than their fair share of work included on RYM’s list).

However, two names that may go overlooked are trumpet-player Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach. Though I had never heard of either Brown or Roach before beginning this list, their album Clifford Brown & Max Roach is the first album that I was to listen to while making this list (on account of it being the oldest). It was an unexpected start to my RYM challenge but hardly an inappropriate one because this record marks several important transitions. Firstly, having been initially released in 1954 as a 10” record, Clifford Brown & Max Roach was rereleased the following year on the 12” format with two full songs added – clearly cementing Goldmark’s invention as clear preference among Western musicians. Secondly, the album’s stylings are stuck somewhere between chiller sounds of early bop and the harsher, in-the-making sounds of so-called ‘hard bop’. Hard bop saw an incorporation of Afro-America reintroduced into the music, mainly from gospel and blues, and would remain the dominant subgenre of jazz until the turn of the decade.

Clifford Brown & Max Roach is an interesting beast for those reasons and many others. Its opening number, “Delilah”, is a truly unexpected diddy: a jazzy, horn-driven interpretation of the main orchestral theme from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 epic Samson and Delilah. For those who don’t know, biblical vehicles like Samson were lavish productions whose success was in part due to DeMille’s cunning whitewashing of Biblical tales, planting Anglo-Saxon stars in the place of Jewish, Arabic or Mediterranean characters so as to make such corny, lumbering shitshows more accessible to the racist sensibilities of movie goers. Therefore, it’s a wonderful novelty to hear such a formalist piece of music caustically reinterpreted by Black musicians. And they do so wonderfully, creating an atmospheric and seductive eight-minute mood-piece that demonstrates Brown’s remarkable control of his horn. As is customary on these early jazz albums, this opening track gives every member of the band at least one solo to perform, including Roach terrific drumming and the equally adequate contributions of saxophonist Harold Land, bassist George Morrow and pianist Richie Powell.

For me, however, it’s the second track “Parisian Thoroughfare” that stands out – if only due to its amazingly precocious sound. Roach imbues the intro of the song with an alarmingly fast pace before sending the listener on a trip of unpredictable breaks and tempo changes that would easily be associable with the experimental tendencies of subgenres-to-be like post-bop or avant-garde. Not to say that the track is inaccessible compared to the remainder of the album but its manic and idiosyncratic nature is extremely surprising for a sixty-three-year-old recording. Side A of the album is then happily close with “Blues Walk”, an exuberant trumpet-driven and danceable number that – while indeed being bluesy – showcases the swing- and big band-origins of the bop era, perfectly contrasting with the exoticness of the record’s two preceding bangers.

Then comes Side B of Clifford Brown & Max Roach which, comprised mostly of original compositions penned by Brown, blurs into a satisfying albeit indistinguishable whole. “Daahoud”, aside from its exotic name, is straight-laced bop fare that nonetheless packs some terrific drumming and a pleasingly playful chorus made memorable by Brown and Land’s impeccable synchronicity. The following track, “Joy Spring”, is somewhat of an allusion to the cool jazz scene that was occurring alongside hard bop so the mood of the song is pleasing and the playing more tempered, allowing Powell’s (otherwise poorly mixed) piano playing to shine through in all its greatness. The coolness continues with the catchy though unadventurous “Jordu”, which runs its brisk course before the album ends with the fast-paced “What Am I Here For” which – while being a peculiar choice for an ending track – makes sure that listeners end their experience on a happy note.

And there we have it: the first out of 1000 albums to be completed for this list. Clifford Brown & Max Roach is a strong record but one that is works best as a hint of things to come. Though Brown and Roach were two talents who certainly knew how to open an album, the rest hardly follows a coherent pattern. By comparison, Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool was released only two years later and while it was merely a compilation of early 10-inch records (and therefore disqualified from RYM’s list), Davis had a notably stronger sense of sequencing; he knew when to go fast or to go slow and knew how to close with a soft lullaby like “Darn That Dream” rather than a rollicking yet conspicuously anticlimactic number like “What Am I Here For”. Regardless of its imperfections, Clifford Brown & Max Roach remains one of the best revered artifacts of the hard bop age, much of that recognition due to the expert technical abilities of the quintet. For a modest jazz fan like myself, I’m left with appreciation of Brown and Roach’s legacy but also with a yearning for those who would arrive later into this Golden Age of America.

RYM Top 1000 Albums and Top 1000 Singles: An Introduction

The short story…

On January 30th, 2017, I copy-and-pasted the top 1000 best rated singles from RateYourMusic.com.

On February 3rd, I copy-and-pasted the top 1000 best rated albums from RateYourMusic.com. I’ve now made the commitment of listening to and reviewing all of these releases.

Now the long story…

Once upon a time, I met a good soul named Jonathan Bosco. Now this Bosco, as it turns out, acquired the 2008 list of Universe Publishing’s massive reference-book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. He then came up with the brilliant and slightly outlandish idea of spending as large chunk of his precious young adulthood to truck through 1001 full-length LPs one-by-one. And to him I say “Godspeed”; he will discover many terrific artists and develop music knowledge that most will forever be ignorant towards.

However, the idea did not personally interest me – at least not initially. While the challenge seemed fun and possibly occasionally rewarding, there was little doubt that the majority of the albums on that list would either bore or repulse me. Additionally, the time it would take to uncover the greats would hardly be justifiable, at least not by my hopelessly picky standards for music.

You see, Bosco has an open-mind. I don’t, so I have nothing to gain from browsing through a list not specifically catering to my heteronormative, hipster-wannabe standards.

So what’s a man to do?

The correct answer would be nothing. My best bet would be to focus squarely on my continued education that my wonderful mother and father are so humbly paying for. Why waste time on anything else? Such an activity would have made much more sense when I was a teen; when I had more time on my hands; when my tastes were still formative and open to experimentation; when I didn’t have either post-secondary education and part-time employment to occupy me.

But curiosity’s a bitch.

When Bosco was discussing with me his travails of having to go through the numbing onslaught of middlebrow 50s jazz, it inspired me to compare and contrast the flavours of music featured in 1001 Albums to RYM’s own (albeit constantly fluctuating and completely unprofessional) rankings. RYM, short for “Rate Your Music”, is an online destination for musical circlejerkers to rate, review, list, and defame music of all types. The site then tallies its members’ ratings and arranges them into lists (or “charts”, as they confusingly put it). Two of those lists are their 5000 best-rated albums and their top 5000 best-rated singles. Since I do not have the time or resources to experience all 10,000 of those assorted releases, I’ve instead extracted the first 1000 releases from the respected lists, with the intention of hopefully being capable of listening to all 2000 albums and singles.

RYM’s Top 1000 Albums

Compared to 1001 Albums, this list – while still having a fair amount of variety –caters to a more specific breed of listeners. RYM’s crowd is, for lack of better words, a massive sausage fest: its users are predominantly young and male neckbeards like myself; guys who spend far less time outdoors than the average human and who have picky preferences towards just about anything pop cultural, music especially. Naturally, this ilk of armchair critics are numerous and outspoken enough to provide enough contributions to a site like RYM to give me months-worth of albums to listen to and scrutinize.

With a male crowd like RYM’s, you’ll have some positives and negatives. In terms of positives, a list will have far less poorly aged albums of “historical significance” that would not appeal to modern, spoiled ears like my own. Instead, you have many records that have gained attention almost purely through word-of-mouth, which is hopefully suggestive of the music’s quality. Additionally, anyone eager to explore possibly overlooked records in the fields of classical, metal or prog would have this listing as a surprisingly abundant resource for discovering obscure new artists.

In terms of negatives, the list has…well, quite a lot of classical, metal and prog; so much that I’d be comfortable in saying that there should be more , particularly in the genre of world music (which is something that 1001 Albums covered rather sufficiently). Furthermore, a tally done by men will unfortunately leave out many female-centric releases, even revered classics like Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville (an undoubtedly sexist omission that is inexcusable on so many levels). At some time or another, I’d be glad to make a few entries of music that I’d think should have made RYM’s top 1000 because for the love of god, you’d think that it was curated by Return of Kings.

Anyways, before getting started, there are some things that need to be pointed out…

  • I am not a music critic, a music expert, or even a writer. In all honesty, I’m just a manchild with way too much time on his hands who wants to expand his Spotify library. Do not regard these posts as referenceable or professional because they are neither, and please be patient with me when
  • With the possible exception of a few concert recordings, I am not doing any live albums – only studio albums. For the average Deadhead, this would be an incomprehensible for me to have purposely filtered out what could very well be some of an artist’s best material but there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I plan on covering these albums chronologically and a lot of these live recordings were released in sometimes decades after their inception. While that may not sound like a big problem, one of my goals here is to observe the evolution of modern music; that’d be hard to pull off when you have multiple entries in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg series to interrupt the 2000s. Secondly, the live albums revered by RYM seem to be a gang of usual suspects (Hendrix especially, because record companies found that the best way to milk his dead body for decades would be through his live archives). If I want to have a more diverse plate of artists, covering only studio releases is the way to go. [I could do a list of live albums on the side, if I have the interest and energy]
  • Any composition covered more than once will have its various doubles removed. Like I said, I’m not an expert – especially when it comes to classical music. While I’m sure that it’d be interesting to go through the list’s five renditions of Mozart’s Requiem and observe how nuanced each composer’s take is, I’d have neither the credentials nor the patience to attempt such a challenge.
  • Any “album” that significantly exceeds the two-hour mark will also be removed. While I was initially delighted to see that the great operatic epic Tristan und Isolde included, which I have long yearned to listen to, it was quite a shock to discover that it would be a 5-hour listen. Life is so short and while a lot of these box sets that RYM call “albums” are probably terrific, life must go on. [The one album that will be an exception to this rule is 69 Love Songs, partly because I’ve already heard it and partly because it’s awesome]
  • Being that I have excluded several albums from my list for the two reasons above, I added albums #1001 to #1027 to the list.
  • No way in hell will this list be done anytime soon. This is for fun; I’m not getting paid for jack shit so I have no obligation to listen to approximately forty days of music in one sitting. Please be patient because there’ll be no deadline.

RYM’s Top 1000 Singles

Now this is an interesting list. Believe it or not, there was a time when people would pay money for a vinyl or a CD that contained only between one and two songs (plus maybe a few remixes that nobody would ever listen to). Nowadays, to keep the term relevant, the word “single” has seemingly come to refer to any song that is released either separately from an album or released in advance of an album. That includes, like, a ton of music.

So who’d ever guess that singles would so often go ignored by RYM voters? Honestly, the average number of votes per single is perhaps in the 500-range, and I’m probably overguessing it. And though RYM has certain mechanisms in place to prevent their lists from including releases with too few votes, you’ll still come buy singles that have maybe a few dozen votes. So if RYM’s top 1000 albums is disreputable, this one is a downright joke.

Nonetheless, it may very well be my favorite between the two lists. For starters, the amount of metal and prog is far less hefty; this gives me less guy-rock to force myself through and even more mainstream pop to enjoy. Also, since the single-format far outdates the album-format, I’m gonna cover a much broader timespan; the oldest single on the list is dated 1928 while the newest single is dated 2017 (it literally came out only a few weeks ago). That’s nearly 90 years of music for me to delve into so this singles-list will – more so than RYM’s album list – give me a great understanding of how popular music has evolved for the last century.

There is of course going to be some overlap between the two lists; great singles commonly come from great albums. Additionally, I had to remove some singles from the list that were double; singles ranked #101 to #103 were subsequently added.

And that’s all there needs to be said. Now the adventure begins…