RS 500 (Pt. II: Fall Albums)

The whole concept of time is kind of weird nowadays, but I have consulted the calendar and it turns out that we are already well into October. In normal times, I’d be enjoying the cooler weather, re-configuring an already spooky party playlist, and deciding what my terrible costume will be. But this year is obviously different, so the whole “spook season” thing seems very secondary. Still, that’s not going to stop me from enjoying some of my favorite fall albums, many of which appear on the RS500 list.

You can follow along on my journey by checking out this snazzy Google Sheet as I drive myself insane listening to the 2020 RS500 list. More to come.

#12: Thriller
Michael Jackson

A phenomenon in every sense of the word, Thriller dominated the music scene for two full years, eventually becoming the second highest selling album of all time in the United States. Michael Jackson was already a household name from his days in the Jackson 5, and for his previous solo album, Off the Wall, but Thriller was different. Jackson was launched into absolute superstardom, appearing everywhere from Pepsi commercials to the White House, and broke barriers with his innovative and groundbreaking music videos. I haven’t even mentioned the music yet. Jackson went into the recording of Thriller wanting “every song to be a killer” – and he and producer Quincy Jones certainly accomplished that. Just take a peek at the track list of this album; the title track “Thriller” is immediately followed by the searing Eddie Van Halen feature on “Beat It,” which is then followed by the iconic “Billie Jean.” These aren’t just great or snappy songs: they’re genre and era defining tracks that will forever stand the test of time. The rest of the album is filled with classics as well, notably the six minute dance fever of opener “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and the funky “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” If there’s anywhere that Thriller falls slightly short, it’s in the ballads, especially the last track “The Lady of My Life,” which is easily the weakest track on an album crammed with hit after hit. Thriller deserves all the praise it has received, since it is easily one of the best albums of all time.

Key Tracks: Thriller, Billie Jean, Beat It, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, P.Y.T.
RS 2020: #12 // RS 2012: #20 (up 8)
My Rating: 5.0 (10/8/20) // 5.0 (11/8/12)

#194: Bad
Michael Jackson

Of course, you can’t talk about Thriller without talking about Bad. Jackson’s long-awaited follow up to the massive Thriller was one of the biggest musical moments of the 80s, and was backed by a huge promotional campaign with a wide commercial reach, including a full length movie, a video game, and a long world tour. Where as Thriller was rooted in the funk and disco of the later half of the 70s, Bad is very much an album influenced by the music of the 80s, giving it a much more dated sound. Heavily featuring dry synthetic drums (that always remind me of banging metal garbage can lids together), hair metal guitars, and alternately raspy and howling vocals, Bad gives off a much harsher and abrasive feel when compared to the relatively lightweight Thriller. Of course, there are the iconic hits: “Bad,” “Smooth Criminal,” and “Man in the Mirror” that anchor the album down, but the rest of the is a scattered mash of world music, power ballads, and vocal “shmones.” Bad was a humongous commercial success, solidifying Jackson as the biggest superstar in the world as the 80s came to a close, but if you look past the artist and just focus on the music, this album is more of a mixed bag with some clear highlights.

Key Tracks: Bad, Smooth Criminal, The Way You Make Me Feel
RS 2020: #194 // RS 2012: #203 (up 9)
My Rating: 3.5 (10/9/20) // 4.0 (3/26/14)

#99: Red
Taylor Swift

The evolution of Taylor Swift is one that I find remarkably interesting, since no pop star in recent memory has changed as often as Swift has. In the past decade, Swift has gone from underdog country superstar to the biggest musician in the world, with the key record in this transition undoubtedly being Red. A crossover record, Red saw Swift removing herself from country and further into the pop world than she had ever been previously. She elegantly and effortlessly broaches numerous genres on this record, jumping from country-tinged rockers, to thought-provoking and gorgeously arranged ballads, to full out pop with dubstep influences. As a twelve track album, Red would have easily been one of the greatest of all time, but like most of Swift’s albums, it runs too long (sixteen tracks, over an hour) and contains a few throw-away tracks, including two unremarkable duets on the back half. But, when the songs work, they work magnificently.

Key Tracks: State of Grace, Holy Ground, The Lucky One, 22, Red, All Too Well
RS 2020: #99 // RS 2012: N/A
My Rating: 4.0 (10/12/20) // 4.0 (10/18/12)

#361: The Black Parade
My Chemical Romance

One of the defining albums of the pop-punk movement of the 2000s, My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade is an absolute monster of an album. Drawing from the over the top presence of David Bowie and Queen, lead singer Gerard Way is nothing short of magnetic throughout this album, propelling it forward over a cacophony of electric guitars and booming drums and bringing the house down on numerous occasions. What this epic pop-punk opera lacks in overarching concept (death, generally) it more than makes up for with a barrage of hooks, guitar solos, melodic sing-along choruses, interesting features and a number of dramatic, genre defining moments. Like other similar albums of the era (e.g. American Idiot), it often borders on completely falling apart, which gives the album an edgier, more dangerous vibe. Coming of age in the mid 2000s, The Black Parade perfectly encapsulated the disillusion and angst of the time, and it personally played a huge part in defining my high school years. Writing about my favorite albums is always difficult, and I’ll probably never have the right words – or enough words – to do this album a fair justice in writing. But, it feels good to see it on the RS list, knowing that I’m not the only one who still absolutely adores this record.

Key Tracks: Teenagers, Welcome to the Black Parade, The Sharpest Lives, Mama, Blood
RS 2020: #361 // RS 2012: N/A
My Rating: 5.0 (10/12/20) // 5.0 (10/18/12)

#384: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society
The Kinks

After releasing a couple of successful singles during the British Invasion of the early to mid 60s, The Kinks disappeared from the public eye for the remainder of the decade. That wasn’t because they had stopped creating, but instead because they had been banned from touring by the American Federation of Musicians, supposedly because of their on stage antics. Over the next few years, songwriter Ray Davies focused his writing on the quirks of British culture, and his obsession was never more apparent on The Village Green Preservation Society. Pastoral, eclectic and unabashedly British, The Village Green was released on the same day as the Beatles’ White Album, and despite critical success, it flopped upon its release. However, since then, the album has gained a cult following, with Davies himself calling it “the most successful ever flop.” Village Green consists of a series of vignettes revolving around British suburban life, which musically range from driving toe-tapping strummers (“Picture Book”) to psychedelic excursions (“Sitting By the Riverside”), and even some proto-metal thrown in for good measure (“Wicked Annabella”). It is by no means as musically diverse, experimental, or as important as the White Album, but unlike its release day counterpart, it is extremely consistent both thematically and conceptually.

Key Tracks: Picture Book, Sitting by the Riverside, Village Green, Wicked Annabella, Days
RS 2020: #384 // RS 2012: #258 (down 126)
My Rating: 5.0 (10/12/20) // 5.0 (11/12/13)


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