Ten Great Albums for Two in the Morning

When you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, alone with your worries, music can help you make it through. But not just any music. Only a 2:00 a.m. record album will do.

A 2:00 a.m. album keeps you company in the darkness while you wrestle with fear and watch the dull glow of the stereo lights. A 2:00 a.m. album does not necessarily uplift you: a brass band marching through your living room feels wrong in the wee hours, which is why Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cannot be a 2:00 a.m. album. But 2:00 a.m. music does not drag you over the emotional abyss, either; Joy Division’s relentlessly depressing Closer needs to stay on the shelf after midnight. What you need is a friend who keeps you company without overstepping their boundaries. Albums like these:

1. Only the Lonely

Frank Sinatra once said, “I like recording late at night. The later the better. My voice was not made for daytime use.” Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded Only the Lonely in 1958. Today it feels like a time capsule that he left for future generations to discover during the lonely hours. Hearing the interplay between his crooning voice and Nelson Riddle’s orchestral arrangement is like sipping a warm cup of tea. The songs, such as the gentle “What’s New” and “Willow Weep For Me,” comfort your soul. Sinatra called these songs “saloon songs” because they feel perfect when you’re alone in a bar with a blinking beer sign. They work just as well in your home. When he sings “Excuse me, while I disappear” on the song “Angel Eyes,” you want to go where he’s going. And stay there.

2. The Dark Side of the Moon

David Gilmour makes Dark Side a 2:00 a.m. album. There’s the keening wail of his pedal steel guitar. And his low voice, soothing and reassuring, even as he sings Roger Waters’s lyrics that dwell on the pressures of everyday life. I realize that Dark Side might fall into the too-bleak-for-late-night category for many; it works for me because the album absorbs and reflects fear and melancholia like that friend I mentioned who simply keeps you company in the night. And that’s all because of Gilmour. If you want to feel loathing and anger, try Pink Floyd’s Animals. For paranoia, give The Wall a spin. But for 2:00 a.m. anxiety, I’ll see you on The Dark Side of the Moon.

3. Automatic for the People

The quiet reflection of “Night Swimming.” The emotional transcendence of “Everybody Hurts.” The bittersweet longing in Michael Stipe’s voice. The haunting respite that a quivering electric piano and guitar provide in “New Orleans Instrumental № 1.” I pick up something different each time I listen to this brooding masterpiece. And each time, when Michael Stipe sings, “If you feel like you’re alone/No, no, no, you are not alone,” I feel like he’s right there in the room singing to me.

4. Spirit

Listening to Willie Nelson is like eating a heaping plate of comfort food. The album, true to its name, takes you on a spiritual journey. Many of the songs consist of nothing more than Willie and a guitar sounding like he’s hanging out on a country porch with his family gathered around. When he sings “Too Sick to Pray,” he sounds like a Psalm writer having a conversation with God. The moment when he asks, “Remember the family Lord, I know they will remember you,” is as intimate and endearing as anything you’ll ever hear on a record.

5. Strange Days

The Doors have recorded a lot of perfect 2:00 a.m. songs. There’s “Riders on the Storm,” exuding dark dread. The ethereal “Crystal Ship.” But Strange Days is the one Doors work that endures as a 2:00 a.m. album from start to finish. The moment you hear Ray Manzarek’s creepy Moog synth playing on the opening track, you are transported out of your world and into the universal mind of the Doors. Jim Morrison’s voice, like David Gilmour’s on Dark Side, makes the album. He’s powerful without overpowering you on “When the Music’s Over,” and soft as a whisper on “You’re Lost Little Girl.” It’s a dark album. But its surreal undercurrent keeps Strange Days from passing into the realm of the overly foreboding.

6. Hounds of Love

Kate Bush’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery meshes with the lush arrangements to make you feel like you’re floating weightless somewhere in the clouds. In the dead of night, I can dig a sensation like that. On the opening song, ‘Running up That Hill,” a delicate bed of synthesizers and drums pulls you into Kateland before her voice soars and dances across the music. This album rewards the listener with unexpected, breathtaking moments, like the glorious choral section from the Georgian folk song “Zinzkaro” that makes “Hello Earth” a balm. Maybe it’s the way that her voice soars on every song, but Hounds of Love makes me feel hopeful.

7. Substrata

This ambient exploration of mood from Biosphere is unlike anything on this list. Substrata uses samples of running water, creaking wood, blowing wind, human voices, reverb, echo, guitar, and synthesizers to create a strange sonic landscape that is, quiet, provocative, and even menacing. I listened to this album often after I became a father and spent many late nights watching over my newborn.

8. The Trinity Session

The Cowboy Junkies recorded The Trinity Session in one night using a single microphone in Toronto’s Holy Trinity church. The church itself is like another instrument whose acoustics enhance Margo Timmins’ gentle voice. Her a capella reading of “Mining for Gold” creates a kind of loneliness that feels right — not desperate, but melancholy enough to make you feel like she understands your 2:00 a.m. solitude.

9. Kid A

Those descending chords from an electric piano that open Radiohead’s Kid A offer a clue about what comes next: synth, heavy bass, and voice distortion. I’ve never been able to enjoy Kid A in broad daylight. Thom Yorke’s dissonant but affecting vocals, processed by Pro Tools, sounds like your head does when off-kilter thoughts collide in the night.

10. All Things Must Pass

George Harrison understood what being awake at 2:00 a.m. means. On “Beware of Darkness,” the 10th song on All Things Must Pass, he sings, “Watch out now, take care/beware of the thoughts that linger/Winding up inside your head/The hopelessness around you/In the dead of night.” Like Willie Nelson’s SpiritAll Things Must Pass is a meditation on matters of faith. It’s heavy, dark, and reflective. But it’s also hopeful. On the title song, George sings, “Now the darkness only stays the night-time/In the morning it will fade away/Daylight is good at arriving at the right time/It’s not always going to be this grey.” Those words lift the soul at 2:00 a.m., and they can carry you into the day that lies ahead if you let them.

Parts of many other albums work well, too, such as Led Zeppelin III (for the bucolic vibe of Side Two) and Sticky Fingers (“I Got the Blues” is mandatory for a 2:00 a.m. playlist); In addition, Wish You Were Here belongs on a 2:00 a.m. album list, but I wanted to represent artists besides Pink Floyd on my Top 10. What do you listen to at 2:00 a.m., and why?

Vinyl Vibe: Willie Nelson’s “Family Bible”

Don’t let an algorithm define your tastes. Get out there and discover art with reckless abandon.

Last weekend, I visited a vinyl record store, Plaza Records, in Carbondale, Illinois. I had not been there in three years. All record stores are different. Their inventory reflects regional tastes of their buyers and sellers. You have to visit them and explore to really figure them out. Amazon won’t do that for you. At Plaza Records, I discovered a small but well curated country section that included the album Family Bible by Willie Nelson. I almost left the album in the bin. I am glad I didn’t.

Willie has recorded some of the best country albums of all time. But he’s also put out some bad records, too. He is to music what Michael Caine is to acting: always working, and not particularly choosy. Family Bible, released in 1980, certainly did not invite further exploration, with a washed-out album cover suggesting a slipshod effort. But the track listing intrigued me: all gospel songs, with no one but Willie and his sister Bobbie Nelson performing. The album cost $6, and I do not know a whole lot about Willie’s gospel side. Why not? 

Since last weekend, I must have played that album 10 times in five days. Almost immediately, with the multi-tracked harmonies on “By the Rivers of Babylon,” the album’s warmth drew me in. The songs are the kind of old-timey standards that evoke a longing for the comfort of the past. Many are in the public domain. Willie sings them with grace and strength; his phrasing has seldom been better, as evident on songs such as “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings.” When he sings “You who are weary, come home” on “Softly and Tenderly,” I want to answer the call right then and there. In a world full of bombast, he offers a soft, warm invitation to rest your weary spirit. 

Willie Nelson wrote the title track in 1957. The story goes that he was inspired by his grandmother, who would read from her Bible and sing “Rock of Ages” after supper. But, facing financial problems, he sold it to Paul Buskirk, who is credited along with Claude Gray and Walter Breeland as the songwriters. That’s the way the world works sometimes. You sell your work, and then you sing it decades later with the credit going to someone else. But when he sing the words, his voice soaring over the strumming of the guitar he reclaims the song as his own:

There’s a family Bible on the table 

Each page is torn and hard to read 

But the family Bible on the table 

Will ever be my key to memories 

At the end of day when work was over 

And when the evening meal was done 

Dad would read to us from the family Bible 

And we’d count our many blessings one by one 

I can see us sittin’ round the table 

When from the family Bible dad would read 

I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages 

Rock of ages cleft for me 

Now this old world of ours is full of trouble

This old world would also better be 

If we’d find more Bibles on the tables 

And mothers singing rock of ages cleft for me

I can see us sittin’ round the table 

When from the family Bible dad would read 

I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages 

Rock of ages rock of ages cleft for me

He and Bobbie play together with a familiarity and ease that makes you feel like they are in your home, gathered around a piano, filling the evening with song. Bobbie’s rousing piano introduction to “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings” sounds like it came from a dusty Nazarene tent meeting somewhere in the Illinois corn fields. 

I suppose if this album were recorded today, we might think of it as Willie Unplugged. Willie is listed as the producer. And he made the right call by employing a simple sound. These songs are meant to work their way into your heart gently. But you have to find these moments of communion with song. You have to dig through the crates in strip-mall record stores, take a risk on that one more album even though you’re already spending more than you should. And then return home, stop what you’re doing, and listen.

How an Album Cover Helped Unleash an Outlaw

nelson-willie-611-lDuring the golden age of album-oriented rock, when a Led Zeppelin double album could sell a million copies before its ship date, country music was for rednecks who wore manure-crusted boots to bed — or at least, that’s what the recording industry believed. But in 1975, Willie Nelson released an album that helped make country — and outlaw country at that — a national phenomenon. His masterpiece, Red Headed Stranger, tells a striking story of loss, sorrow, and redemption that resonated with the record-buying public. Not only is the music memorable, but the album cover art told a visual story long before anyone had ever heard of visual storytelling — which is why I have featured Red Headed Stranger in my series of posts on memorable album covers.

After years of making other singers famous with his songwriting skills, Willie Nelson was starting to enjoy success as a solo artist when he recorded Red Headed Stranger. Based on the 1953 song “Red Headed Stranger” (written by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz), the album tells the story of a preacher on the run after he kills his unfaithful wife and her lover. The songs, a combination of covers and originals, are violent, beautiful, reflective, and romantic, as they relate different episodes in the preacher’s life as an outlaw. The album applied to country all the devices of album-oriented rock, which was at its apex: a cohesive theme, songs arranged in a thoughtful manner, and album art that complemented the music inside.

willdallas

Photo credit: Philip Gould

Designed by Monica White (with art direction by Howard Fritzson), the album cover art not only molded Nelson in the image of an outlaw but also contributed to the rise of the entire country outlaw movement, which catapulted the careers of Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. For starters, there is the front cover, which consists of a drawn portrait of Nelson. With his piercing eyes, pitiless gaze, long hair, grizzled beard, and cowboy hat, he looks like a Wild West gunfighter who knows how to deal out rough justice. His name and the album title are rendered in an old-time script over a thick red border, as if branded on a fence post.

On the back cover, pencil drawings guide the reader through the album’s songs, akin to a graphic novel. The outlaw’s life is laid bare. One panel depicts a scene from the song “Red Headed Stranger,” in which the preacher shoots his wife and her lover in a bar. The drawing captures the moment when the lover tastes one of the preacher’s bullets. His head jerks back, his hat goes flying, and his hand remains closed on a glass of whiskey even as the drink spills. The preacher’s wife is slumped on the table, her head down. (Apparently, she was the first to go.)

Willie-Nelson-Red-Headed-Stranger-Back

In another panel drawing, the preacher accosts a would-be horse thief: he leans back and casually plants a bullet in the chest of the thief, a woman with blonde locks and a pink dress. But the back cover also contains a larger story arc, depicting the preacher dancing with a newfound love in one scene and relaxing at a riverbank in another. The episodes on the back of the album also contain song lyrics that go along with each scene — a clever approach that tells a story and advertises the songs.

The front and back cover made a statement: Red Headed Stranger was not a typical contemporary country album but rather a journey to another time and place. And the album itself fulfilled the promise. Featuring little more than Nelson’s plaintive voice, a guitar, a mandolin, drums, and a harmonica, the music was a radical departure from the lush arrangements that typified country. The songs themselves consisted of a collection of originals and covers, such as “Red Headed Stranger,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and “Hands on a Wheel,” which spanned a gamut of themes such as loss, remorse, and redemption — everything the album cover advertised, and more. Once you heard those songs in one sitting, you understood the symbolism of Willie Nelson’s face on that album cover: Nelson wasn’t just channeling the Wild West; he had become the red headed stranger of his own songs, a moniker and mythology he would own for the rest of his career.

The album reached Number One on the Billboard country charts, and eventually achieved multiplatinum sales. Nelson’s cover of Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” became Nelson’s first Number One hit. The album also earned critical praise. According to Mother Jones, “Texans have known for 15 years what Red Headed Stranger finally revealed to the world – that Nelson is simply too brilliant a songwriter, interpreter, and singer – just too damn universal – to be defined as merely a country artist.”

And therein lies the appeal of Red Headed Stranger: the songs sounded country enough to please traditional country fans, but Nelson’s singing style and the themes he chose to dwell upon hit a universal chord. The album also made the record industry realize that yes, country artists could unleash massively popular best sellers just as rock stars could. Country enjoyed a commercial breakthrough, with albums such as Wanted! The Outlaws and Waylon & Willie enjoying massive success. For the rest of the 1970s, Nelson would ride a wave of popularity as the de facto leader of country’s outlaw movement until he became a more mainstream pop singer (albeit with country roots). Meanwhile, Red Headed Stranger would go on to be positioned among the Top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone (the album was ranked 184) and Number One in Country Music Television’s 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music. In the August 28, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone, Associate Editor Patrick Doyle, profiling Nelson, would note that the Red Headed Stranger album cover, combined with the music, made it feel like “Nelson was stepping into the boots of a John Ford character.”

Today visual storytelling is so important to image building that entire books are written on the topic. (The Power of Visual Storytelling, by Ekaterina Walter and Jessica Gioglio, is the visual storytelling Bible for brands.) Nearly 40 years ago, Red Headed Stranger set a high standard for visual storytelling — and changed an industry.

Here are other albums I’ve profiled in my series on memorable album covers:

Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Al Green: Greatest Hits

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin: Untitled

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

Also related:

From Goldfrapp to Pink Floyd: How Great Album Covers Tell Visual Stories

Can Wu-Tang Clan Save the Record Album with “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”?

 

How the Grammys Help Fans Create Visual Stories

Benharper

The 56th Annual Grammy Awards sparked laughter, controversy, eye rolling, and a lot of conversation in our living rooms, pressrooms, and social media worlds. Beyoncé’s risqué performance raised eyebrows, and Lorde’s dance moves caused some serious head scratching. Pharrell’s gigantic Smokey the Bear hat generated instant parodies and its own Twitter account. And Kacey Musgraves officially arrived. But what you see onstage is only part of the experience. Thanks to a live stream available on the Grammy website, Grammy viewers can go backstage with the stars and watch them as they exit the stage, prepare for their official Grammy portraits, and glow for the media in the press room. I used my laptop to become a backstage voyeur and content creator by snapping screen shots of the stars and posting my visual stories across my social spaces. This is the new world of entertainment: empowering everyday fans to create content. Here are a few highlights:

Giants

I captured a brief moment when Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Merle Haggard lingered for a pre-show interview. The Grammy Awards show really begins hours before the telecast, when performers and presenters arrive to rehearse. Moreover several entertainers and industry figures receive awards during a separate ceremony before prime time. Nelson, Kristofferson, and Haggard reminded me of three giant figures from Mount Rushmore. I used a black-and-white filter to accentuate that impression.

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Michael Phelps: one toke over the line

“So I went up to the room and the first thing I saw was this big bong pipe.  You know, on this team, you could walk into their meal and get high just breathing.” — Steve Sabol of NFL Films describing the locker room of the San Diego Chargers football team in the early 1970s. Source: Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas.

Poor Michael Phelps.  At age 23, he scrambles to issue a public apology and most certainly has lost endorsement income over indulging in a personal indiscrection that Willie Nelson, well into his 70s, freely celebrates and embraces all the time.

So what’s the difference between the Olympic champion and the country singer?  It all comes down to their personal brands.

For decades, Willie Nelson has carefully cultivated the outlaw image.  He’s the red-headed stranger who has laughed at the music establishment and glorified hell raising and womanizing in his music and persona.  He’s openly lived a nomadic life of debauchery that would make Keith Richards proud.

On a live VH1 Storytellers album Nelson recorded with Johnny Cash in 2002, you can hear him softly chuckling when he and Cash discuss their choice of coffee and water to drink during song breaks.

“What’s going to happen to our image?” Nelson asks Cash in mock horror at the prospect of drinking water over booze or perhaps something even stronger.

But Michael Phelps is not Willie Nelson.  He’s one of the all-time great Olympic champions who stands for grace, power, and performance.  His success has come not through steroids or reckless living but through honest, hard work.  That’s certainly what his agent Peter Carlisle wants you to believe.

Phelps’s sin wasn’t smoking from a marijuana bong pipe.  His public apology is really for violating the promise of his personal brand — a brand that encapsulates the purity of form.  (By contrast, if he were “Wild Man” John Matuszak, we’d expect him to drink bong water for breakfast.)

Tom Peters once wrote, “Big companies understand the importance of brands.  Today, in the Age of the Individual, you have to be your own brand.” And to that I would add: you are your own brand whether you realize it or not.

Wonder if Michael Phelps is starting to figure it out now?

Let us now praise old rock and rollers

On September 16, B.B. King turned 83, just weeks after releasing his latest recording, the well received One Kind Favor, and on the same day, 59-year-old Lindsey Buckingham blessed us with Gift of Screws, thus continuing a run of great music created by rock, country, and blues musicians who could qualify for the senior citizens discount.

Today’s older generation of pop and rock stars — the Bob Dylans, Patti Smiths, and Al Greens — have lived, lost, and flourished. They come from diverse backgrounds, but I believe these traits unite them:

  • Adventure. Robert Plant, now 60, could have rested on his laurels after Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980. Instead, he embarked on a solo career that established him as one of the most inventive musicians in rock history, not “the ex-front man for Led Zeppelin.” His work, especially in the 1990s and beyond, has explored the rhythms of North Africa, rockabilly, folk, and a dash of electronica. He doesn’t need the primal scream of Zeppelin days. On the CD Dreamland, he practically whispers folk covers, and he quietly explores blue grass with Alison Krauss in Raising Sand. Could it be that the established rockers like Plant are in a better position to take these kind of risks because they have nothing left to prove?
  • Perspective. When Paul McCartney was 24, he could only ponder turning 64 some day. In Memory Almost Full, McCartney, his 60s, could speak from experience. On his best recording in decades, he accepts his mortality but revels in the fact that his life has room for whimsy and joy. Perspective, however, also means pain. In the poignant “Mama You Sweet,” Lucinda Willaims, in her 50s, learns to say goodbye to her mother, who died in 2004. In “The Long Goodbye,” Bob Seger, in his early 60s, ruminates on the ravages of Alzheimer’s (which his family has experienced first hand). Lucinda Williams and Bob Seger have experienced the kind of loss that comes with growing older. I want to know how they feel about that.
  • Passion. I don’t particularly care what Kid Rock believes about the war in Iraq. But when Neil Young and John Fogerty vented their anger about Iraq in Living with War and Revival recently, I listened. In particular, Young has seen it all (and protested against it all) from Vietnam to Iraq. He’s earned the right to be a conscientious voice. The older rockers (especially contemporaries of Bob Dylan) came of age at a time when rock and roll meant having a point of view about society and politics. And boy, are they pissed off. John Mellencamp rails against racism in “Jenna,” and the Eagles take on empty consumerism in “Long Road out of Eden.” Whether you agree with them is beside the point. Their passionate social commentary is something sorely lacking today with the exception of rap muscians like Dr. Dre and rock bands like Radiohead.

Rock and roll still means decadence and rebellion. But “hope I die before I get old,” as Pete Townsend once famously wrote, is more myth than reality. The Bob Segers, Lindsey Buckinghams, Lucinda Williamses, and Robert Plants show us that rock also means passion, beauty, loss, adventure, and gowing old. Gracefully.

For further listening, I’ve listed below a partial roll call of excellent music from veterans since 2006:

Continue reading

Let us now praise old rock and rollers

On September 16, B.B. King turned 83, just weeks after releasing his latest recording, the well received One Kind Favor, and on the same day, 59-year-old Lindsey Buckingham blessed us with Gift of Screws, thus continuing a run of great music created by rock, country, and blues musicians who could qualify for the senior citizens discount.

Today’s older generation of pop and rock stars — the Bob Dylans, Patti Smiths, and Al Greens — have lived, lost, and flourished. They come from diverse backgrounds, but I believe these traits unite them:

  • Adventure. Robert Plant, now 60, could have rested on his laurels after Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980. Instead, he embarked on a solo career that established him as one of the most inventive musicians in rock history, not “the ex-front man for Led Zeppelin.” His work, especially in the 1990s and beyond, has explored the rhythms of North Africa, rockabilly, folk, and a dash of electronica. He doesn’t need the primal scream of Zeppelin days. On the CD Dreamland, he practically whispers folk covers, and he quietly explores blue grass with Alison Krauss in Raising Sand. Could it be that the established rockers like Plant are in a better position to take these kind of risks because they have nothing left to prove?
  • Perspective. When Paul McCartney was 24, he could only ponder turning 64 some day. In Memory Almost Full, McCartney, his 60s, could speak from experience. On his best recording in decades, he accepts his mortality but revels in the fact that his life has room for whimsy and joy. Perspective, however, also means pain. In the poignant “Mama You Sweet,” Lucinda Willaims, in her 50s, learns to say goodbye to her mother, who died in 2004. In “The Long Goodbye,” Bob Seger, in his early 60s, ruminates on the ravages of Alzheimer’s (which his family has experienced first hand). Lucinda Williams and Bob Seger have experienced the kind of loss that comes with growing older. I want to know how they feel about that.
  • Passion. I don’t particularly care what Kid Rock believes about the war in Iraq. But when Neil Young and John Fogerty vented their anger about Iraq in Living with War and Revival recently, I listened. In particular, Young has seen it all (and protested against it all) from Vietnam to Iraq. He’s earned the right to be a conscientious voice. The older rockers (especially contemporaries of Bob Dylan) came of age at a time when rock and roll meant having a point of view about society and politics. And boy, are they pissed off. John Mellencamp rails against racism in “Jenna,” and the Eagles take on empty consumerism in “Long Road out of Eden.” Whether you agree with them is beside the point. Their passionate social commentary is something sorely lacking today with the exception of rap muscians like Dr. Dre and rock bands like Radiohead.

Rock and roll still means decadence and rebellion. But “hope I die before I get old,” as Pete Townsend once famously wrote, is more myth than reality. The Bob Segers, Lindsey Buckinghams, Lucinda Williamses, and Robert Plants show us that rock also means passion, beauty, loss, adventure, and gowing old. Gracefully.

For further listening, I’ve listed below a partial roll call of excellent music from veterans since 2006:

Continue reading