It’s been roughly a year and a half since I began writing music criticism for The New Paltz Oracle, and I’ve probably crushed just as many albums as I’ve praised. Since this will be my final semester at The New Paltz Oracle, I thought it would be fun to share the albums that have inspired and moved me more than any others. Without further ado, here are my 10 favorite albums of all time.
10. Moon Safari by Air (1998)
Though it is Daft Punk’s excellent 1997 debut Homework that emerged as perhaps the most popular electronic record of the ‘90s, nothing was ahead of its time quite like Moon Safari by French electronic duo Air. Whereas Daft Punk wouldn’t develop their more full-bodied sound until the early 2000s, Moon Safari’s lavish production and grandiose use of strings made Homework look skeletal by comparison. Tracks like “Talisman” emulate the epic rising action of composers like Ennio Morricone, while the intoxicatingly lovely “Ce matin là” evokes some of the best melodic tendencies of Electric Light Orchestra. Producers Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel defy genre expectations with nearly every track, cementing Moon Safari as an all-time great piece of downtempo electronic.
9. Superfly by Curtis Mayfield (1972)
Superfly stands as the rare soundtrack album to out-gross its companion film, and though Gordon Parks, Jr.’s Blaxploitation flick of the same name came and went in the annals of history, its soundtrack became one of the defining soul records of the 1970s. It was around this time that soul artists began to really stress the political aspects of their music; Superfly touches on the difficulties of inner city life, from its drug culture (“Pusherman”) to the sense of abandonment felt by its inhabitants (“Little Child Runnin’ Wild”). But even though Mayfield’s smooth falsetto paints a picture of hardship, it’s also immensely hopeful, and the music’s groovy spirit defies the darkness at its core.
8. A Love Supreme by John Coltrane (1965)
Brilliant as John Coltrane is on his own, it’s his chemistry with drummer Elvin Jones that lends A Love Supreme its glorious ferocity. Jones’s wild polyrhythms play with Coltrane’s scattered saxophone like two tap dancers communicating with percussive palpations. McCoy Tyner’s piano is the bow that ties it all together, and Jimmy Garrison’s methodical double bass often acts alone as a calm between storms. On a more personal level, A Love Supreme has been critical in helping dispel my clinical anxiety; with headphones donned, and eyes closed, every single instrument envelops the senses and lightens the soul.
7. Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder (1976)
At any point in his extensive career—which, as a reminder, began with his first album at 12 years old—Stevie Wonder could have rested on his laurels for the following millennium. But prodigies never waver, and despite having won two consecutive Grammys for Album of the Year in the mid-1970s, Stevie Wonder hadn’t actually reached his crowning height until Songs in the Key of Life. Larger-than-life in both sound and length, Wonder’s double-album is uplifting and emotionally potent, with some of Wonder’s most elastic vocal performances to date. Few artists can claim to match Wonder in both voice and depth of talent, and Songs in the Key of Life is a feature-length lesson as to why.
6. Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel (1968)
No musical duo on this planet harmonizes quite like Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did, to such a degree that one could be forgiven for thinking the beautiful melodies of Bookends are the product of a single voice. Combined with Simon’s conceptual songwriting—the story of Bookends is one of innocence and aging—the duo’s soft guitars and delicate harmonies amount to a subtle yet poignant work of folk music that exudes as much amusing quirk as it does quiet solemnity.
5. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)
It’s become something of common exercise in creative writing to imagine a narrative context for Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, the famous oil painting of a corner diner late at night, its patrons few but eye-catchingly interesting. With that image in mind, Miles Davis’s modal jazz masterpiece Kind of Blue sounds like his own interpretation on the American Realist painter’s work. Its rainy-day atmosphere, upheld by Jimmy Cobb’s soft cymbal taps and Bill Evans’s delicate piano melodies (and much of the crisp silence in between), creates a moody noir soundscape. Musically bold without sacrificing accessibility, Kind of Blue is perhaps the best entry point for anyone looking into Davis’s discography, as vast and wide as the man’s talent.
4. The Velvet Underground & Nico by The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
Lou Reed’s nasally monotone, the lo-fi proto-punk production, and the industrial shrieks of John Cale’s electric viola make The Velvet Underground & Nico an unorthodox but utterly captivating listen. If Kind of Blue is an oil painting, then the band’s debut album is a rough sketch: crude, jagged, and messy. But it’s all of these qualities—take the sharp electric blues guitar in “Run Run Run,” for example—that create the detailed, ever-present ‘60s New York setting, and Reed’s lyrics about the city’s subterranean countercultural corners remain relevant in a contemporary world that still can’t seem to shake its taboos.
3. Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and João Gilberto (1964)
Responsible for introducing the bossa nova genre to the United States, Getz/Gilberto brings together the warm tenor saxophone of Stan Getz with João Gilberto’s fingerpicking style of nylon-stringed guitar. It’s an album that sedates the mind and body with its idyllic hybrid of jazz and traditional Brazilian samba music. Credit is also due to António Carlos Jobim, who wrote most of the songs and performed piano, and Astrud Gilberto, whose vocals on “The Girl from Ipanema” are immediately recognizable. Though its roots aren’t akin to those of the typical American jazz album, Getz/Gilberto is my favorite, mostly because it manages to find a beautiful overlap in music from two very different worlds.
2. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (1973)
Volumes have already been written on the celestial progressive rock monument that is The Dark Side of the Moon. It is the Godfather, the Citizen Kane and the Casablanca of albums, an undeniable tour de force against which approximately (read: exactly) zero people can argue. Its empyrean orchestration, layered production and mixing, and slick saxophone flourishes build to grandiose zeniths that fall back down like twinkling meteor showers. The Dark Side of the Moon, paradoxically as smooth as glass and coarse as the sand that makes it, overwhelms the five senses (and perhaps more) for an experience that never diminishes in its sheer excellence.
1. Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (1965)
In his preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman described America as “essentially the greatest poem.” It’s an ethos Bob Dylan has adapted time and time again in his own songwriting, but these principles come together most cohesively and thematically on Highway 61 Revisited, a dissection of nation-spanning social change and its effect on all corners of these United States. It’s also Dylan’s first fully electric album (outside of the closing “Desolation Row”), borrowing the honed electric blues of rock n’ roll’s forefathers and founders. Everything about Highway 61 Revisited seems to reference American tradition, developing a fascinating contrast between the deep American roots of the instrumentation and the social radicality of Dylan’s words. Above all other Dylan albums, above all American albums in general, Highway 61 Revisited validates Dylan’s status as not just America’s greatest songwriter, but one of its greatest poets as well.