The Grateful Dead, American Beauty, Warner Brothers WS-1893, 1970
For the 364th album that I am featuring during this year long exercise, I’ve chosen something by The Grateful Dead. The perennially touring San Francisco based band that made a career out of touring and selling a peaceful laid back vibe for 30 years rarely had a hit record, but this one came close. In classic Deadhead style, American Beauty took four years to achieve Gold status, and 16 years to reach Platinum. The Grateful Dead never worked well with a deadline….
1970 was the year of the twin classic Dead albums. Workingman’s Dead came out in February, while American Beauty was released in November. Both are highly influenced by Country and Bluegrass, along with a healthy dose of hanging out with Crosby, Stills Nash & Young. For a while there the drugs were somewhat under control, and the band decided to really focus on writing and recording, in part to impress their new label, Warner Brothers. When Rolling Stone last updated their Top 500 Albums list, Workingman’s Dead came in at #262 and American Beauty came in at #258. They really are fraternal twins.
Perhaps this record came in a tad higher because of the “hit” single Trucking’. I always loved the fact that The Dead were so popular despite the fact that for years the #64 high chart position of Trucking’ was the biggest single the band ever had. It wasn’t until A Touch Of Grey from In The Dark hit #9 in 1987 that Trucking’ was finally surpassed. Because they have always been in demand, Grateful Dead albums are truly collectible today. Finding this record for $8 is a minor miracle, especially given its condition. Generally I try to play a record once before writing about it, but this clean copy of this amazing piece of Dead memorabilia has been in high rotation on my turntable since I found it.
Cost: $8, $11 Remaining
Van Morrison, Moondance, Warner Brothers WS-1835, 1970
Sometimes a remarkable album comes out by someone you’d least expect from. Yes, Van Morrison had made bit of a name for himself as the lead singer of Them, and with a slightly bubblegum-ish 1967 hit single, Brown Eyed Girl. But who knew he had THIS in him? Brown Eyed Girl was a big enough hit that he got a major label deal with Warner Brothers, and Morrison spent most of 1968 preparing his Warner’s debut, Astral Weeks. It was a very jazzy and abstract record that was a hit with musicians and critics but didn’t really sell.
Moondance was the follow-up, and Morrison spent most of 1969 writing and recording it in Woodstock New York. When a half million hippies rolled into town, Morrison left for the city where he finished the record. Dropping a needle on side one, the record opens with And It Stoned Me, a song that literally jumps out at you. From there, you’re drawn in deeper and deeper until it ends. Crazy Love, Moondance, and Into The Mystic are classics of their-or any other-era. Yes, I love this record.
Oddly, there were no hit singles from Moondance. Come Running and Crazy Love were both released as singles, but neither charted. For some bizarre reason, Moondance was released as a single at the height of the Disco era in 1977, when it climbed all the way to #92. The album only reached #29 on the charts, but despite failing in all of the traditional measures of a hit album, Moondance still sold over three million copies. It has probably never been out of print. Naturally, I held out for an original Warner Brothers copy, with its gatefold cover and extensive liner notes.
Cost: $7, $19 Remaining
Johnny Cash, Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash, Columbia CS-8853, 1963
Johnny Cash was one of a kind. No other artist that I can think of managed to break all the rules while adhering to conventional norms. Take this album for an example: I always wanted to find the original album that featured Cash’s biggest hit Ring Of Fire. I never found it because it doesn’t exist. Cash placed the biggest single yet in Country Music on a greatest hits package. It never was on a “regular” Cash album.
I suppose you can’t argue with results. This record was released in August 1963, and yet when Billboard published its first Country Albums Chart in January 1964, this was the #1 album. Now, Beatles albums sometimes replaced other Beatles albums at #1, and The Monkees first two albums spent months at #1, but I don’t know of any album, Greatest Hits or not, that spent 8 months at #1.
It’s mostly just a collection Cash’s Columbia singles from 1958-1963, so it doesn’t play now as a standard release might have. But that also means that there’s not a dud to be found, and you really hear the progression of Cash’s style during these still early years. It falls below my standard for an essential record, but its really nice to have. I may have overpaid at $10, but it is a flawless original copy.
Cost: $10, $45 Remaining
Joni Mitchell, Blue, Reprise MS-2038, 1971
This is a very highly rated album with both critics and record buyers. It’s #30 in the Rolling Stone Top 500 albums of all time if that appeals to you. Of course, you’ll have to get past Joni Mitchell’s singing voice, which is very much an acquired taste. While I happen to love this album, others would prefer listening to car alarms or animals in pain.
The stand out track is California, which naturally enough was written in France. James Taylor, who was Ms. Mitchell’s love interest at the time, plays guitar on it. Like the rest of the album, it is so direct and honest that it’s almost feels like fiction, but this all really happened in real life. As such, and despite both Carey and California being released as singles, neither was a hit on AM radio.
But for $3, what does it matter? Trust the Best Of lists and listen to this record. Don’t compare the voice to another vocalist you like. Listen to the words and the incomparable songwriting, it will grow on you. And then you’ll get what Blue is all about. As Alan Rickman says to Emma Thompson in Love, Actually “To continue your emotional education”.
Cost: $3, $55 Remaining
Madonna, Like A Virgin, Sire 9-25157-1, 1984
Time was, Madonna records weren’t that hard to find. You’d even see them in Goodwill from time to time. When that happens, I tend to never really getting around to getting a record like this. After all, I grew up with the music, and, with so many of these popping up, I usually went with some other record that I’d never seen before.
Then all at once it happened, Madonna records were no more. As younger record buyers started shopping, these were the “classic” albums they were looking for and they all virtually disappeared. The same happened to Michael Jackson and Prince records, but for the most part it only happened after their deaths. Madonna records are probably gone from the bargain bins because they’re very good records for their era,
To be fair, the mid-80s synth pop music hasn’t held up well. The songs that pushed the boundaries of pop in the Reagan Era now seem cutsey and tame. But the four Top 10 hits still get your feet moving, and this is a really fun album to have. You’ll just have to shell out a little more for it now.
Cost: $15, $92 Remaining
The Jackson 5, ABC, Motown MS-709, 1970
It’s no secret that 1970 was the year of The Jackson 5. Besides The Beatles in 1964, no other artist exploded on the charts with such memorable songs as they did. This was their second album, and it yielded their second and third #1 singles. In a real passing of the torch moment, ABC knocked out The Beatles’ Let It Be from #1, and a few weeks later, The Love You Save replaced The Long And Winding Road.
This is real bubblegum soul music, both insanely catchy and seemingly simple, the songs are actually pretty intricate. Unlike their first album, which featured songs with much more mature material, this album’s tracks are similar lyrically to the title track. Reading the lyrics to ABC, you would think it was nothing more than a poem written by a 3rd grader. It takes real talent write and produce something so light and have it end up as something significant or silly. This album isn’t silly.
Ok, perhaps the inner sleeve is. Original period Motown albums all have printed inner sleeves featuring fan club news or new release ads. Jackson 5 inner sleeves though, took this to an all time high in a kitschy, Tito-Rific way. It remains unclear how many Soul-Mates Jermaine met or how many Marlon posters people paid $0.25 for, but reading one of these today is pretty great. Any Motown record is collectible, and double that for a Jackson 5 record. Because they weren’t usually bought by audiophiles, finding a decent one at a decent price is a challenge. There’s one less out there now!
Cost: $5, $117 Remaining
Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline, Columbia KCS-9825, 1969
Any Bob Dylan record is hard to come by in decent condition and at a decent price. His records usually sold well, but they are all treasured by collectors these days. Finding a decent Dylan record for $7 is a very happy occasion. That it’s also one of his most enjoyable albums makes it even better. While country music and Bob Dylan aren’t usually combined into one sentence, this album was the second of a three record phase from the chameleon like artist. There was also a gospel phase and a standards phase yet to come, so maybe this isn’t really as strange as it might seem.
Supposedly, Johnny Cash had written Bob Dylan a fan letter, which immediately was returned with a fan letter from Dylan to Cash. They both were fighting with the same people at Columbia Records or creative control, they were both fiercely independent, and they became fast friends. Bob Dylan’s only named collaborator of the 1960s was Johnny Cash. They never did finish the duets album they wanted to, but Girl From North Country is a fantastic song from two guys who supposedly couldn’t sing.
Never a fan of labels, Dylan was eager to cease being “the voice of his generation”. This album helped do this, and it’s still a great listen today. It would take a lifetime of looking to find every Dylan record, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try. It’s hard to know now which ones are harder to find, 60s classics that changed the world (but that everyone hangs on to) or 90s flops that barely sold (and almost killed his career). Neither are particularly easy to find at any price, so it’ll be all the more challenging to complete at bargain prices.
Cost: $7, $122 Remaining