The Great 100 Album Challenge

By Dick Irby

"So much music, so little time."

"So many great, underappreciated artists."

Those two thoughts kept going through my mind as I took on the challenge of coming up with a list of my 100 favorite albums.

Beginning New Year's day, WFPK, Radio Louisville, plans to play listeners' top 1000 albums to bring in the "New Millenium." The station has been asking people to send in their top ten lists, but Program Director Dan Reed asked his staff and a few other specially appointed "music geeks" to list their top hundred. Thus, my mission.

It really didn't start out as hard as it sounds. I keep my CDs and albums in alphabetical order, so all I had to do was go through and write down prospects. (I am not anal. An anal person would also have his collection divided into categories.)

That process left me with a list of about 180 albums. One hundred albums sounds like a lot, until you have to start paring down. It led to a lot of angry debates with myself: Last Time Around by the Buffalo Springfield or Traffic's first album? Seven Bridges Road by the great unknown Steve Young or Exit O by Steve Earle?

I got so mad I often quit speaking to myself, but I finally came up with my (unsorted) hundred. That only led to more agony: putting them in order.

A look at the final list tells me a lot about myself.

The first artists I ever paid any attention to are still an important of my life. My Arkansas-born mother introduced me to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Their dedication to strong songwriting and true emotion set the standard for what I still look for in artists today.

As a kid growing up in the 60's, I was swept up in the English Invasion but The Animals wound up being more important to me than The Beatles or The Stones. I loved their rough rhythm and blues and they led me to the real thing: Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Etta James, Percy Mayfield, etc.

Like most teens, my interest was in the latest group with the hottest single, but, as I've grown older, I have come to appreciate most the musicians who have stayed musicians through the short good times and the longer bad ones. Music is what they do, whether they are recording it on a three-track machine in a chicken coop (Link Wray), getting another shot after years of obscurity (Lonnie Mack with Stevie Ray), or finally making the perfect album they know few will hear (Charlie Rich's Pictures and Portraits).

Sorry for the interruption. I had to stop writing momentarily for a list change. Crowded House is out. Willy and the Poor Boys by Creedence Clearwater Revival is in. Now back to your regularly scheduled article.

The List shows me something I never consciously realized. My favorite artists are musical scientists. Musicians who work in the lab to develop new products by perfectly blending old ingredients: The Bodeans first album (Dylan meets the Everly Brothers), The Electric Flag (guitar rock meets horn blues and they drop acid), Sleepy LaBeef (Stand Back! That beaker of hot rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel is fixin' to blow) are prime examples.

The List also shows what any serious music fan knows: the best, most important artists don't have big hits played every fifteen minutes on the radio. They are found in dusty bargain bins and cut-out racks or hardly ever found because the product didn't sell or the artists refused to let their music became "products": Tony Joe White, Ted Hawkins, Steve Ferguson, Uncle Tupelo, Joe South, Michelle Shocked, etc.

Also, the best music rarely takes nine months, five studios and several million dollars to make. As John Hartford's Morning Bugle (#3 all-time) shows, three guys seated in a circle high on music can make priceless stuff for next to nothin' in just a couple of days.

I just realized I've left off John Prine. Am I nuts? Forgive me: Blue Rodeo. You've out and Prine is in.

That's it. I'm done. No more obsessing over a stupid list! (O.K., except you really need to re-evaluate that decision to leave Gatemouth Brown off...)

Some artists are so important, they have to have more than one spot on a serious music fan's Top 100 list. Dylan has four on mine. The Band three and The Byrds, The Beatles, Tony Joe White, John Hartford, and The Everly Brothers two each.

Picking my #1 and and #2 artists was a no-brainer. Had to be Dylan. Had to be The Band. Which albums were the hard part.

Number Two: The Band's The Band sounded timeless when it was released brand new in 1969. It was as it still holds up big time today.

Number One: Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. The scrawny, outcast was already an inspiration to another scrawny, outcast when he went electric. Highway 61 was the ultimate proof that poetry and folk could rock and rock could say something interesting without losing it's wild abandon.

You disagree? You think it's easy? You think you could do better?

Try it.

(Now about that Gatemouth Brown thing...)

It'll make you crazy too.