I was looking forward to this week. My girlfriend loves Hank Williams, often singing several of these songs around the house. I've meant to give his music a deeper listen for years, and this gives me the perfect opportunity.
As for Prince, I've liked his music from a distance up until now. My biggest devotion to his music was for, don't judge me, the Batman soundtrack in 1989--which I devoured without asking if there was anything better in his oeuvre. I remember when my step-dad brought this CD home--I listened to it once, and simply did not get it. So this would be my opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.
The thing that ties both of these albums together for me--aside from, again, the double-CD nature of both--is the way that both conjure a specific era for me, and yet they somehow remain timeless. You can feel the deeply personal nature of some of the songs, the vulnerability mixed with party songs. Is that what lifts these songs into a space hovering over most music?
Hank Williams - 40 Greatest Hits
I'll have to admit that I don't know if I can completely buy into this being one of the greatest "albums" of all time. It's a collection of hits (the first of several in this list). So, by very definition, it is not an album. I'll let that serve as my one objection here.
This is not the genre of music that I'm naturally drawn to. While this wasn't music that was the soundtrack to my early life, there is something very, very familiar about Hank's music. In fact the last song on this collection, I Saw The Light is definitely a song that was sung at my grandfather's Baptist church as I was growing up--but I think that's the only song I'd every really heard growing up.
I said I had only one objection--let me correct by saying that I do have a second. It's that several of the songs are almost identical to other songs that are in this collection. For instance, Move It On Over is almost exactly the same song musically as Mind Your Own Business. This happens a few more times again with other songs. That both songs end up being hits is beyond interesting. It makes me wonder why a writer would do this. Maybe it was a product of the time--a lack of awareness that these songs would eventually be side-by-side on collections. Or maybe he'd released the first song, and thought it could be improved upon by the second (in this case Mind Your Own Business was a #1 hit, where Move It On Over was not a #1 hit). Or maybe Hank was unaware that he'd plagiarized himself.
That being said, I find all of these songs to be worthy of being held up with the greatest of all time. I learned this week that Hank died before he even turned 30 (having suffered from spina bifida all of his life--his back pain contributed to his use of pain killers and alcohol, which contributed to his early death). It's remarkable the amount of life he was able to cram into just under 3 decades--not to mention the unprecedented body of work).
During my third listen (fitting the whole 1 hour 47 minute collection in one sitting), I found myself happily singing along with his impressive yodel-style vocals. His vocal dexterity is as impressive as his songwriting is. The songs that I love: Move It On Over, Lovesick Blues (not written by Hank), You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave), Lost Highway, Hey, Good Looking, Why Don't You Love Me, Baby We're Really In Love, Jambalaya (On The Bayou), Settin' The Woods On Fire, I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, Kaw-Liga (featured in the film Moonrise Kingdom, that I also adored), and, of course, Your Cheatin' Heart. His word-play is among the best--playful extra syllables, especially.
It should be said that this album doesn't have the advantage that most of the other albums on the list so far have--almost all songs have the same instrumentation. There is no production wizardry at all--you are left to absorb the songs themselves, along with Hanks voice and clever writing. Sometimes, the slide guitar or pedal steel is a beautiful and haunting addition, other times the similar arrangements get in the way of the songs.
Prince - Sign "☮" the Times
Another admission: I don't love most of Prince's hits. As I believe I've said before, I'm one of those people that is drawn to deeper tracks on records. I mean, I like the hits as much as the next person. It's more that once the song is finished, it's gone for me--I rarely feel the need to download that track or seek it out. So while I agree that most of his hits are sexy and fun...that was as far as it went for me.
As I mentioned above, 13-year-old Jesse did love the Batman soundtrack that Prince released in 1989 (released 2 years after Sign). I listened to some of it again yesterday and still love it. Don't judge.
I read the 33 1/3 Series on this album, Sign O' The Times, written by Michaelangelo Matos. The author was 13 years old when he discovered the album. I love this series because it gives context for the album, as well as the behind the scenes stories about the recording process. Some complain about the personal narrative of the author's, especially in this volume, but it made the story more powerful and real for me. One of the more interesting bits I learned from this book is that this album had three multi-disc iterations (Dream Factory, Camille, and Crystal Ball), and track listings before (all rejected by Prince's label, Warner Bros) before he finally landed on this final double-CD. His career was having a bit of trouble just before this record, as Parade (and Under The Cherry Moon before it) were not well-received.
Now, this record. This 1 hour and 17 minute long album also evokes its time period--80's all day long. It is also timeless in its bold musical exploration and ground-breaking production. The other thing I am struck by with this album is the many timbres of Prince's voice. He's got such an urgency and then vulnerability in much of his delivery, covering the whole of the emotional spectrum. His squealing delivery of "hot thang" in the first 9 seconds of Hot Thing shows him at his most searing. In The Cross, he sounds like he's emotionally on the verge the whole time, every blemish exposed--the realness. Then there's his experimentation with sped-up vocals (a character he names Camille)--If I Was Your Girlfriend the prime example. He planned to release an album of Camille-only songs, but instead placed some of them in this album.
The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker is one of the coolest songs I've ever heard. I could imagine it being released now (most likely by Andre 3000). It doesn't hurt anything that he cites Help Me by Joni Mitchell. I may even take a bubble bath with my pants on. I'll let you know how it goes.
I even enjoy U Got The Look, aside from what I say above about hits. "Your face is jammin', your body's hecka-slammin'."
If I Was Your Girlfriend. OK. Funky stuff. The way he sings "Plea-he-he-hease" at 2:20. Woah. That detuned ending with the haunting chorale sample. That then builds, and bursts, rolling over into that funky bass line. Strange Relationship, another song credited to Camille, explores a dysfunctional relationship and the hot and cold feelings contained therein.
I love The Cross because of his vulnerable delivery, and also for its slow build (I mean, come on--that shot-gun snare at 2:28). Those gospel, overdubbed, and thickly stacked background vocals--amazing.
I could do without It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night. Though it is fun. Sure. See, I'm having fun.
Adore is beautiful, if a little dated. He pulls out every aspect of his voice for this one. It's the perfect ending to a wonderful record.
I love many of Hank's songs, and am really glad that I took the time to really listen through a good portion of his greatest hits. I would definitely want to hear more of them, but would probably enjoy them more sprinkled throughout a shuffled mix.
Sign O The Times is looking to be one of my favorite records of all time--another reason that I'm loving this project. I am definitely looking forward to discovering Purple Rain, once it comes up at 76 on the list.