Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reflections of Out Magazine's 100 Greatest, Gayest Albums of All Time

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

At a doctor’s office, I looked through their magazine rack and in the corner of my eye, I noticed the following enticement on the cover of the October 2008 issue of Out: “The 100 Greatest, Gayest Albums (of All Time).” As I scanned the list, I notched off the ones I own.

Despite my large collection, there are many on the list I do not own, because I don’t care about the output of musicians like George Michaels, Madonna, Culture Club, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Donna Summers, Pet Shop Boys, Scissor Sisters, and The Smiths/Morrissey. There are also places where I am definitely lacking, with the B-52s, Bikini Kill, Team Dresch, Le Tigre, and Nina Simone. Mind you, in some cases I do have recordings by the artists listed above, but not the ones mentioned on the list (e.g., I have Cher’s first few albums, but not the later and the boringly techno/disco Believe).

Note that this is listed as their Rank, the Artist’s Name, and the Album Title.

009 Cyndi Lauper: She’s So Unusual – While “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was not only played ad nauseum when it came out, I was actually able to get past it and enjoy it now. Still, I don’t think it’s the best song on the release, what with “Time After Time” and some of the other quirky tunes there. As a whole, her previous release by her band Blue Angel was a more solid piece of work, but Unusual has much higher production values. Besides, though it’s not on this album, her live version of the Brains’ “Money Changes Everything” may be the hardest she’s ever rocked post Blue Angel.

012 The Velvet Underground & Nico: The Velvet Underground & Nico – For some reason, I didn’t really get into this until the early ‘90s, over 20 years after its release. That just shows the power of this disk. While cuts like “European Son” still put me off, I actually like the entire first side, and the first half of the second. There is a lot to recommend here, such as “Sunday Morning,” the three Nico cuts, and of course the opus, “Heroin.” And no, it did not make me want to actually try the crap.

037 Blondie: Parallel Lines – This certainly is not Blondie’s strongest release, even if it is one of their most popular. For me, they have never had a collection as strong as their first, eponymous release, on Chrysalis. “X Offender,” “In the Sun,” and “Attack of the Giant Ants” are just some of the great pop songs on this pre-New Wave collection.

038 Dusty Springfield Dusty in Memphis – Absolutely classic Dusty, who could sing the contents of a magazine and make it interesting. She had one of those pure voices that practically had the power to heal (when she wasn’t wearing it out by over-practicing – check out the bio about her, Dancing with Demons: The Authorised Biography of Dusty Springfield by Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham, which is so worth reading). Her version of “Windmills of Your Mind” is the standard-bearer for the tune (that has been covered umpteen times), though “Son of a Preacher Man” was a bigger hit.

049 Patti Smith Group Horses – Patti at her absolute best. There is not a weak cut here. Even the two 9 minutes cuts are riveting through and through, from beginning to end. Tales of suicide, insanity, and free money flow and this just whips by. While I still think her stuff now is strong, this is my favorite collected work. I remember a time when women would flock to clubs dressed in the white shirt and skinny black tie, like a uniform of solidarity.

058 Liz Phair Exile in Guyville – While I bought this album because of its hype, I don’t get it. Yes, I understand it’s a feminist deconstruction and rethinking of Exile on Main Street, but man, the woman cannot sing. You may be surprised that I totally respect Phair for what she does, but I cannot listen to her. I made it through the CD twice, and while I’ll still keep it around for reference, unless called for in some research, it will stay on my shelf and off the player.

064 Patti Smith Group Easter – Honestly, this is not one of my favorite Smith albums. The saving grace for me is “Frederick.” Part of my feeling this way is Jimmy Iovine’s over-production. Patti’s music from this period is still pretty raw, but it gets drowned in studio techic. I would rather hear the rawness of “Ask the Angels” or “Ain’t It Strange” than this version of “Rock and Roll Nigger” or “Space Monkey.”

067 Husker Du Candy Apple Grey – Okay, I know that two thirds of the trio are gay, but I’m not so sure how this is a gay album. Gotta be truthful, of my Husker Du collection, this isn’t one I played all that often. I know, I know, everything they did was gold, Jerry, gold, but I like their earlier, grittier stuff. Mind you, now I sound like someone who complains how Patti Smith’s comeback wasn’t angry anymore, but this was a bit too thrash metal for my tastes.

068 Nirvana Nevermind – The year that punk broke, my ass. This is as punk as is Green Day and Good Charlotte. In other words, it’s not very. However, unlike the output of those other two bands, Nirvana’s stuff was killer good. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was way overplayed on the media, but it still holds up after all these years. I bet at some point, if he had lived, Cobain would have gone the way of label mate Elliott Smith (no, not that, I mean singer-songwriter), as so many of the state’s grungsters did. He would have been great at that, too. As the Beatles created rock with Sgt. Pepper’s, Nirvana created the whole grunge thing, which was not punk, but something else, in the same way that hardcore was not New York-style old school punk, but something new.

075 Carole King Tapestry – For a number of years, this was the largest selling album in the world (replaced by Frampton Live, if I remember correctly, which was then swamped by the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack, then Thriller. Of all of those, Tapestry is the only one to which I would voluntarily still listen. It’s amazing to think of the number of top-of-the-charters came off of this, both for King and the likes of James Taylor and even Aretha Franklin. Her blonde-blue eyed-Jewish soul made the listener feel so far away, needing a friend, and for some, a natural woman. Earlier, King and then-husband Goffin were one part of a trio of duos that wrote the soundtrack of the pre-Beatles ‘60s. Her pop songsmithy lasted well into the ‘70s, and this, her first solo release I believe, proved that she was not just a pretty pen, but had the unique voice to hold it up.

078 Various The Rocky Horror Picture Show Soundtrack – I was working in a (no-longer existing) Baskin-Robbins abutting Sheridan Square when this opened at the Waverly’s midnight show, and I sat there soon after it opened by myself the first time, surrounded by perhaps a dozen male couples making out. I could actually hear the screen. The next time I went, about 6 months later, it was a zoo. I had learned the music from the original British stage soundtrack, which I liked immediately. I thought it was smart that all the male voices were high pitched, except for Frank N. Furter’s, with Tim Curry’s rich basso. Some of the changes that had been made sort of annoyed me, such as that the film cut out a verse from the “Over At the Frankenstein Place” song, the break for “Time Warp” was moved, and Meat Loaf’s great “Hot Patootie, Bless My Soul” number erased the unique word phrasing and spacing; but I thought it was great having Barry Bostwick - the original (re: real) Danny Zucco -playing Brad, and Susan Sarandon playing a surprisingly good Janet. I was especially happy with the replacement of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’s Graham Jarvis with the elegant Charles Gray. But there really is no Rocky Horror without Curry, and he proved why in this film. If you want a laugh, find the Australian stage version, and listen to the whiney, high-pitched FNF, that will have your neighbor’s dog barking. Despite all the changes, this film has certainly become rightfully iconic, building its own synergy, but it’s especially good when you can actually hear it.

088 Husker Du Zen Arcade – This and Double Nickels on the Dime (or, as I like to call it, Going 55 on Highway 10, show why the Du were so highly regarded. The songs are tight yet simple (without being simplistic or formulaic) tunes with biting lyrics, wrapped in just a few brilliant flashes of a catch phrase. They were criticized at the time for going merch mad (i.e., signing to a major label), but with this rich a legacy, it would be hard to not be impressed.

090 Kate Bush The Kick Inside – Honestly, I wasn’t fond of Kate at first. I saw the videos for “Wuthering Heights” and “Rolling the Ball,” and was just not impressed. It wasn’t until I heard “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” that I stood up and noticed. Then I went back and bought the album, and found it grew on me. That being said, I find the whole myth of “sensitive soul who is a recluse” thing kind of silly. Most likely the woman has agoraphobia, which does not make her “sensitive,” it makes her psychotic (which somehow reminds me of a Rita Rudner joke: “You know that saying that neurotics build castles in the sky and psychotics live in them? My mother cleans them”). Bush has had many more hits in the UK, but other than the overrated “Running Up That Hill” she never reached an equal goddess-hood here. Personally, I think it was the disco beat she added that dragged her down (i.e., “riding the wave”), much as with the stunning Lene Lovitch, who I believe sabotaged herself similarly with “New Toy.”

094 Various Hair Original Broadway Cast – I wrote a previous blog about my relationship with this soundtrack (dated September 15, 2008, if you want to check it out). When one buys it now as a CD, it also includes songs left out of the original LP, which had been released to an uncaring audience as Disin-HAIR-ited. While at the time I agreed that it was not as superior, as I’ve listened to the modern joint version, it feels right that it should all be together rather than as separate pieces. Anyway, the original release, which is what is listed here, was not a soundtrack as much as it was a touchstone. So many of the songs have become ingrained into culture and covered by the hip to straight.

100 The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – I’m not sure what makes this a gay recording, actually. Is it the bright colored uniforms? Nah, that’s too cliché, frankly. Even talking about his album in this context seems bizarre, because it fits into nearly any category. This is not just one of the most important albums in a list “Greatest, Gayest Albums,” it is possibly the most important one ever. Given my druthers, there are other Beatle albums I enjoy more (such as For Sale and Help, but there is no denying what this one brought to the genre. It not only effected (and affected) rock and roll, but nearly all genres.

As with all lists, even though this is compiled from “more than 100 actors, comedians, musicians, writers, critics, performance artists, label reps and DJs,” it is still extremely subjective choices for a select group; as any student of mass media, there are always a “bias of communication” (as posited in a famous book by Harold Innis). For instance, where is Wayne/Jayne County and/or the Electric Chairs? There are two on the list by Rufus Wainwright, but none by his more talented sister, Martha? Where’s The Tom Robinson Band/TRB? The Soundtracks to Cabaret and The Wizard of Oz? Lesley Gore? And no “like budda” Barbra? Sacrilege!

I respect this poll, but find it lacking as any other one could be. I seems if they had just gone and asked 100 people on either Christopher Street, and then again on West Street, each version of this list may have been entirely different.

This sounds more critical than I actually mean it to be. I enjoyed going through this list and remembering all the stuff I’ve listened to over the years, and thank the mag for the opportunity to reminisce.

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