Gillian Welch, who played at the Orpheum Theater in June, might have sung it best: “Time’s the revelator.” The passage of the years and how things age often bring a revelation about their strength or brilliance.
With that in mind, I came to realize that 2012 has brought the anniversaries of three albums that rank high on my all-time favorites. While it is duly noted that classic rock records are hitting great milestones (Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut turned 50 this year), the following are three works that came out in my lifetime, and had impact.
This year, Wilco’s groundbreaker Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is 10 years old. R.E.M’s Automatic for the People was released two decades ago this October. And U2’s The Joshua Tree came out a quarter-of-a-century ago as one of the most celebrated albums of 1987—and, really, of the 1980s.
Sometimes, the true genius of a thing only reveals itself under certain kinds of light. And a perfect example of this notion is the 2002 Wilco album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Called “the best rock record of the new millennium” by The Atlantic and the recipient of many other accolades, the fourth studio album by one of the best working bands in America showed the alt-country rockers taking a decidedly different direction with their music.
I purchased the album on the heels of falling in love with the Mermaid Avenue records they recorded with Billy Bragg. Those songs took previously unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics and turned them in to Americana magic.
Then, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came along and sounded nothing like it. At first, it perplexed me as I tried to find footholds and handholds on the record, something to make sense of its deconstructed style and ephemeral and blunt lyrics.
After repeated listens, the whole of the record came into focus. I remember playing it on a sunrise drive while northbound on U.S. 89 out of Flagstaff. And each song fell into place with a click. Then, I returned the album to heavier rotation after hearing some of the songs live in 2005—and it sealed the deal.
“Kamera,” “War on War,” “Jesus, Etc.,” “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and the weird, sonically rich opener “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” still hold as some of Wilco’s greatest songs. That’s saying a lot for an album that’s not even really about its standout tracks.
My R.E.M. fanhood dates back to the day I first heard the infectious pop charmer “Stand.” The song instantly became a favorite of mine that I could not get enough of. I purchased the album Green through one of those “eight albums for a penny” deals through Columbia House.
Of the eight CDs that showed, Green was my favorite. It was joined by R.E.M.’s Document, my second favorite album in the box. From there, I backfilled with the R.E.M. catalogue and followed the band and its work for a decade.
A few years later, the band released their ultimate tonal and visionary masterpiece with 1992’s Automatic for the People. This is came out my freshman year in college, and anyone who was cool in my dormitory Shaw Hall owned this record and talked about its relevance.
While I did tire of over-played ballad “Everybody Hurts,” I found such great sonic richness in Automatic, a record that showed R.E.M. great at two things: conjuring great words and conjuring great sounds. Then, they bring them together in a way that gives the music this undeniable hum.
While I can slip this album on and enjoy it from end to end, I particularly love “Nightswimming,” a song that has the potential of choking me up every time; “Man on the Moon,” which remains one of R.E.M.’s great singles (and a rousing tribute to Andy Kaufman); and “Try Not to Breathe,” a stunning song about mortality that features some of my favorite Michael Stipe lyrical and vocal flourishes.
I cannot think of a singular album that has remained a constant favorite in my life in the way that U2’s The Joshua Tree album has. While I enjoy but don’t always swoon over other U2 records, this one is a constant wonder.
The working title of this 1987 was The Two Americas. While the title was replaced, the album presents that fascinating duality. Lead singer Bono penned lyrics that explored the two sides of the United States: the land of freedom, open spaces and opportunity—and the country with a government carrying sin and dark history.
Interpretations of the album abound, but I love it for the pure beauty of the music. It is, in all facets, a cinematic record. It feels like a road journey that plays out song by song, with so much lyrical imagery that it stirs the mind into contemplating all of their possibilities.
“Where the Streets Have No Name” brings a beautiful sonic swell that then leads into “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The second track mines all manner of intriguing metaphor (“I have spoke with the tongue of angels/I have held the hand of a devil/It was warm in the night/I was cold as a stone).” And these lyrics help power the album.
The Joshua Tree was a longtime favorite. But it took on new and interesting meanings for me when I relocated to the Southwest in 2001. After that, the desert references shadowed the political ones. For me, it then felt like a record about a place more than an idea or feeling. I still love it.
Of these three albums, which do you think is the best? Let us know on our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/flaglive.