Gold Medal: Graceland by Paul Simon
Along with Bridge Over Troubled Water with Art Garfunkel, this is the legendary Paul Simon’s masterpiece. Not only that, part of the album was recorded in South Africa, introducing much of the Western world to African popular music. Graceland was hugely successful after a bit of a slump for Simon, making it the ultimate comeback album. It’s easy to see why, as these are fantastic songs with vibrant, African flavored arrangements behind them. “You Can Call Me Al” is the most famous song on the album but “Graceland” is the song Simon considers his best. The rest is just as stellar and makes for the best album ever released by someone 20 plus years into his career.
Silver Medal: Never Die Young by James Taylor
James Taylor has one of the smoothest voices there has ever been. It’s hard to describe but when he sings, one can’t help but be possessed by its…smoothness. I grew up with the music James Taylor, specifically his greatest hits and this gem of an album. I know just about every word on this record and still enjoy listening to its intricate arrangements of Steely Dan-esque jazz pop. Not a well-known album, Never Die Young is criminally underrated. The ‘80s production sound may remind some of “easy listening,” but after spending time with these songs, it becomes apparent how well crafted each and every one of them is.
Bronze Medal: TIE: Skylarking by XTC and The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths
I can’t decide which album I like more so these two albums are sharing a spot on the podium.
Skylarking is a definitive album of sophisti-pop. Despite it's catchy choruses, the music of XTC is still not immediately accessible in the way of a Michael Jackson record might be. This isn’t to say that MJ wasn’t sophisticated, but somehow XTC comes across as pop music for adults, not unlike the aforementioned Steely Dan. Skylarking is like the Beatles twenty years later, with all the production possibilities newly available. It’s a hook driven, loose concept album encompassing the long tale of a man’s romance with a woman, progressing from “The Meeting Place” to “Big Day” to “Dying” to “Sacrificial Bonfire.” With the brilliant Todd Rundgren producing, this is a high point in intelligent purely pop music.
The Smiths are one of the most important alternative bands ever. The seductive baritone of Morrissey above the guitar chorus of Johnny Marr along with the steady rhythm of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce is an instantly recognizable sound. With their magnum opus, The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths accomplished the cohesive album that will forever be a shrine to alienated youths everywhere. Songs like “Meet Me at the Cemetery Gates” for example, seem to speak a language that resonates so strongly with this demographic, singing about an existentialist trip to a graveyard. “So we go inside and we gravely read the stones/all those people, all those lives/where are they now?/with the loves and hates and passions just like mine.” The Smiths would only release four albums but their mark on music is monumental. "If a ten ton truck kills the both of us/to die by your side/well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine."