My Favorite Artists
Other Than the Pet Shop Boys

Of course, I listen to a lot of music other than the Pet Shop Boys. Excepting them, this page lists my favorites, in alphabetical order, with brief explanations of why I like each as well as my favorite album and songs. (A star symbol star before one of my favorite songs for an artist—which are listed in chronological order—indicates the one that, if I had to choose just one, would be my absolute favorite by that artist. When you see the symbol Footnote 1, you can click on it for "footnotes": popup elaborations and digressions. But if you have a popup blocker it may prevent these notes from appearing.)

I also note any interesting "PSB connections" that I'm aware of with each artist. But in an attempt to keep the burgeoning length of those connections under control, I've adopted several "rules." So I no longer count:

For some artists my lists of PSB connections are still awfully long, so I reserve the right to impose additional rules as the mood hits or the need arises. That is, if I already have a large number of PSB connections for any given artist, it raises the bar for any further additions; a connection I might add if I currently have only two or three might not be added if I already have nine or ten.

Incidentally, just because I don't list an artist here doesn't mean that I don't like them. I sometimes get emails from site visitors who, after viewing this page, ask me, "How come you don't like…?" (New Order and the Smiths are frequent objects of this question.) The fact is that I do "like" many artists not listed here. It's just that they're not among my "favorites"—those whom I like especially. But I have to limit the number that I list here; otherwise the designation "favorite" would be meaningless.

  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee = Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee (yes, my tastes are terribly mainstream)

Abba  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

The purest pop of the seventies, although they did some of their finest work in the early eighties. Benny and Björn wrote better songs in their second language than most songsmiths can compose in their native tongues. And as a group they reportedly turned down an offer of a billion dollars—that's a thousand-million to our British friends—for a one-off reunion tour back in the 1990s. How cool is that?

First album I owned: Greatest Hits (1976)

Favorite album: Super Trouper (1980)

Their next-to-last studio album, but the one that convinced me that Abba was far more than a "singles band." Actually, I think the best is a virtual toss-up between this and their final album, The Visitors, but in a pinch I'll go with Super Trouper. The tie-breaker probably boils down to "The Winner Takes It All." While it's not one of my three personal Abba favorites (see below), it is, from a more objective standpoint, a leading candidate for their finest recording. What's more, the title track contains my single favorite line from any Abba song: "The sight of you will prove to me I'm still alive." Now, if that isn't a damn fine line in a pop song, I don't know what is.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: The Definitive Collection (2002)

PSB connections:

Beach Boys/Brian Wilson   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Despite the fact that he very nearly destroyed himself and never completely fulfilled his promise, who but Brian Wilson has left such a remarkable legacy—so much fantastic music—without having fulfilled his promise? His influence as a songwriter and producer is all over the place in music of the last fifty years. And if there were any educated doubts of his genius, Brian's 2004 re-creation of his legendary aborted Smile album as well as his superb 2008 album of brand-new music, That Lucky Old Sun, offer definitive proof. Oh, yeah, he and his brothers, cousin, and friends could really sing, too. In fact, when in "Add Some Music to Your Day" they harmonize "Music is in my soul!" you can damn well believe them.

First album I owned: Endless Summer (1974)

Favorite album (BB): Sunflower (1970)

I fully and readily acknowledge that Pet Sounds (1966) is a far better album—in fact, one of the greatest rock/pop albums of all time. And I enjoy it immensely. But, for some reason, I enjoy Sunflower even more. Maybe it's because I feel that Pet Sounds is almost like a Brian Wilson solo album with Beach Boys vocals, whereas Sunflower is indisputably a Beach Boys album, with nearly equal contributions from every member. It showed Dennis Wilson at his peak as a singer and songwriter (the man was a lot more than just "the Beach Boys' drummer"), and baby brother Carl did some of his all-time greatest singing while coming into his own as the inheritor of Brian's mantle as a studio-savvy producer. And it's also where the Beach Boys wrote the book on the art of background vocals.

Favorite album (BW): Smile (2004)

What a tragic loss it would have been if Brian had never completed his magnum opus. The music may no longer convey the sense of wonder that surely would have greeted it if he had completed it in 1967, as originally planned, but in its place we can marvel that he managed to complete it at all after everything he's been through. And even now it contains passages that rank among the most imaginative things ever conceived in the rock era.

Favorite songs:

And since Brian the solo artist (if you can truly call anyone with such a large and highly proficient backing band a "solo artist") is enjoying a late-stage career quite distinct from that of the Beach Boys, I'm going to grant him, uniquely among all the artists listed here, a fourth "favorite"—

Recommended DVD (BB): Endless Harmony (2000)
Recommended DVD (BW): Smile (2004)

PSB connections:

The Beatles   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

If for no other reason (but there are many), Lennon-McCartney were the greatest songwriting team in rock music history, and among the three or four greatest of pop music history overall. Footnote 13 What's more, during their "middle period" (1966-67), they reshaped the musical landscape—redefined the very language of popular music—in a way that few artists before and none since have matched.

First album I owned: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Favorite album: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

It's long been fashionable to demote Sgt. Pepper from its even-longer-held status as all-time greatest album. Its predecessor Revolver often turns up in its place at the top rank of Beatles recordings—and not without good reason. I succumbed to the temptation myself for a while. But I've never been a slave to fashion, at least for very long. Sgt. Pepper still does it for me. Yes, it's a truly astounding collection of songs, but you can say that about many (if not most) Beatles albums. Yes, the term "studio wizardry" was probably coined to describe it, but George Martin was Old Faithful in that regard. For me, it's simply the sheer impact it had on the world (if you weren't there at the time, you might have trouble understanding) as well as on me personally. I liked popular music well enough before it. But after Sgt. Pepper, I loved popular music. For that I'll always be grateful.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Anthology (1995)

PSB connections:

Bee Gees   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Talk about great songwriters! How deep was their well of inspiration? And while I'm no huge fan of Barry's singing (he's a little too "breathy" for my taste, and I think he overuses his falsetto), Robin was one of the most distinctive vocalists in rock/pop music history. I'm also impressed by the way that they were repeatedly able to re-emerge, phoenix-like, from setbacks and changes in fashion that would have hurled lesser talents into permanent "Whatever became of…?" status. Though they were underrated (when not outright derided) by rock critics for much of their career, I'm gratified that by the dawn of the 21st century they came to be generally recognized as the giants they truly were.

First album I owned: Best of Bee Gees (1969)

Favorite album: Main Course (1975)

The album that saved the Gibb brothers' career. And it's darn easy to see why. After a string of near-disastrous flops, they were searching for new directions. This album betrays some of the creative dabbling they were engaged in at the time, with healthy doses of pre-disco R&B (its three big hits are not "disco," despite what anyone else might think) and C&W (such as the excellent "Come On Over," later covered in a hit version by Olivia Newton-John). But out of relative desperation came great pop art. There's not a lame song in the batch, and I can't think of another Bee Gees album I can honestly say that about (though they came close with the much later ESP and One).

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: One Night Only (1997)

PSB connections:

David Bowie   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Personally, I'm not very fond of his early "glam phase," though I'll admit that it was revolutionary and produced some true classics. But it's "middle-period" Bowie that I enjoy the most—his recordings from Young Americans through Scary Monsters, especially the brilliant Station to Station.

First album I owned: Changesonebowie (1976)

Favorite album: Station to Station (1976)

Only six songs, but just one, the marvelously cryptic hit "Golden Years" (wop wop wop), is less than six minutes in length. Bowie stretches out musically and stretches inward psychologically as he searches his soul. Speaking of which, this is the transitional album where the "plastic soul" he had been developing on his previous two albums began to take on the scary techno-experimental gloss that would come to fruition on his next two. But it's in that transition that I find Bowie at his most powerful.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Best of Bowie (2002)

PSB connections:

Kate Bush

If I had to declare anyone to be the most original talent on this list, it would have to be Kate Bush. Hounds of Love is quite possibly the best art-rock album ever made. And though it's from a somewhat weaker album, "The Sensual World" never fails to send shivers up and down my spine. Besides, any woman who has the audacity to write a song about her desire to know what a male orgasm feels like ("Running Up That Hill") and to sing a duet with a bird—based on the bird's song, not hers ("Aerial Tal")—is pretty darn impressive in my book.

First album I owned: Hounds of Love (1985)

Favorite album: Hounds of Love (1985)

I reiterate, quite possibly the best art-rock album ever made. The first time I heard it (at the urging of a friend), I simply didn't know what to make of it. I set it aside for a few weeks and didn't listen to it again. But something about it drew me. I knew there was something there that I had to get to know better. So I pulled it out and listened again. And again. And again. By the fourth time around, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. I find most of Kate's other albums considerably weaker (only the next one, The Sensual World, is even in the same league, and I'm afraid critical/fan fave The Dreaming weirds me out), but Hounds of Love is where she tapped into something that I can't help but call "mystical," and that's coming from a man who doesn't much truck with the mystic. The sheer beauty of the record, even amidst its bouts of borderline cacophonous percussion, never fails to amaze me, each and every time.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: None—I'm still waiting for a DVD video collection! (OK, I know there are bootlegs, but I'm not counting them here.)

PSB connections:

Carpenters

Between Karen's exquisite voice (one of "effortless depth and… fathomless despair," as another writer has incisively described it) and Richard's equally exquisite arrangements (along with, in some cases, his excellent songwriting), they were able to transform some of the most doleful songs ever composed into timeless pop classics. With their masterpiece, "Goodbye to Love," they virtually invented the power ballad. Please don't hold that against them. In their prime they were unfairly and sometimes cruelly maligned by the rock mainstream, but it wasn't until after Karen's premature death in 1983 that it was generally acknowledged what an absolute gem we had in her.

First album I owned: The Singles 1969-1973 (1973)

Favorite album: A Song for You (1972)

A lovely record from beginning to end, and practically a greatest-hits collection: no fewer than six of its tracks became hit singles, and a couple others garnered non-single radio airplay. Maybe it wasn't Karen and Richard at their creative peak—that honor goes, in my opinion, to my second-favorite Carpenters album, Horizon—but it certainly marked their own imperial phase (to use the Tennant-coined term): their commercial pinnacle, when they could seem to do no wrong.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Close to You – Remembering the Carpenters (1997)

PSB connections:

Depeche Mode

No one has made utter despair sound so appealing. And even when they're not despairing, as in the magnificent "Enjoy the Silence," they sound as though they are, which is tougher than you might think. I don't much like watching them perform—something about Dave Gahan's stage presence rubs me the wrong way—but I do love listening to them.

First album I owned: Violator (1990)

Favorite album: Violator (1990)

The only DM album I enjoy in its entirety. Besides, any album that could boast "Enjoy the Silence" right there has potential for classic status. "Personal Jesus," with its grungy take on techno—or was it a techie take on grunge?—is nothing to sneeze at, either. The album's overall excellence is underscored by its other two hit singles. The Mode had truly hit their stride. Besides, Neil has said of Violator that he and Chris found themselves "deeply jealous" of it. Who am I to argue with that?

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Videos 86>98+ (2002)

PSB connections:

The Divine Comedy

Neil Hannon—who is The Divine Comedy—has established a place for himself in the post-1990 pop music world as perhaps its single foremost practitioner of the art song. His work is breathtakingly imaginative, and while this native of Northern Ireland sometimes flirts daringly with the rococo and the twee, the fact that he nearly always manages to avoid such pitfalls renders his heavily orchestrated achievements all the more impressive. As he walks his musical tightrope between the comic and the tragic, he has become an Irish/U.K. national treasure. Thank goodness the rest of the world can enjoy the treasure as well.

First album I owned: Victory for the Comic Muse (2006)

Favorite album: Casanova (1996)

An artistic and commercial triumph both for The Divine Comedy and for 'nineties pop in general. You can't listen to this album without marveling at both Hannon's songwriting talent and his skill as an arranger. It's not without a good deal of humor, too—a common (though not ubiquitous) thread in Hannon's work—yet it always has a sad edge to it. That tension proves especially effective on Casanova.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: So far the only full-length DVD is Live at the London Palladium (2004), available from the U.K. in PAL format. I haven't seen it yet, but hope to soon.

PSB connections:

Thomas Dolby

As a former nerd—at least I hope it's "former"—I have to admire anyone who made über-geekiness look and sound so cool. Yes, even more than Devo. No, not as much as Elvis Costello, but, then again, I personally don't much care for most of Costello's music. Besides, anyone who can pull off the techno-Cajun hybrid of "I Love You, Goodbye" has my undying respect.

First album I owned: Astronauts and Heretics (1992)

Favorite album: Astronauts and Heretics (1992)

The album that turned me into a Dolby fan. I thought its predecessors (which I bought in its wake) were pretty good, but this one was great. Oddly enough, it turned out to be his swan-song as a mainstream pop artist.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: The only one I'm aware of is The Sole Inhabitant (2007), but I have yet to see it myself.

PSB connections:

Erasure

Because Andy Bell is so "out" (not to mention a great singer) and because Vince Clarke is the most inventive synth player ever. He's certainly not the instrument's greatest virtuoso—you'd have to look along the lines of Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, or even Wendy Carlos for that—but no other synthesist is as imaginative and emotionally evocative.

First album I owned: Pop! - The First 20 Hits (1992)

Favorite album: I Say I Say I Say (1994)

I think I'm out of step with the bulk of Erasure fandom, for whom I Say I Say I Say rarely tops the list. But I personally like this album so much that I have to admit something you might find shocking: if Vince and Andy could have sustained their work at this level, they might seriously have rivaled my devotion to PSB.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Hits! The Videos (2003)

PSB connections:

Fleetwood Mac (the Buckingham-Nicks edition)   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

With this much songwriting, vocal, and production talent, plus more inner turmoil than Mount Etna, this band might be described as a Beach Boys for the seventies—only the Beach Boys were still around then, if past their prime. Lindsay worshiped at the altar of Brian, and small wonder Christine hooked up with Dennis for a while: they were naturals. Meanwhile, Stevie's witch fixation, once somewhat annoying, has grown quainter with time. I mean, you gotta love such charming oddballism. Besides, anyone who can write a song as deeply anguished as "Silver Springs" can be forgiven almost anything.

First album I owned: Fleetwood Mac (1975)

Favorite album: Tusk (1979)

How do you follow up on one of the biggest-selling albums of all time? Not by doing "Rumours, Part 2," which is pretty much what everyone expected. Rather, you address the burgeoning New Wave head-on by giving full vent to the quirky, sometimes downright bizarre inventiveness that had always been lurking just beneath the surface. Some people at the time actually found it a little shocking. OK, more than a little. Can't help but admire the sprawling thing, even though I suspect judicious editing may have transformed a great double-album into an even greater single disc. But, then again, I'd be awfully hard-pressed to settle on what to cut.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: The Dance (1997)

PSB connections:

Peter Gabriel   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

I debated with myself for a long time about adding the former lead singer of Genesis to my list. I must confess that I actually like only about half of his solo work. But I also have to confess that the songs I like, I really like! When he hits it, he hits it dead on, creating some of the greatest art-rock tracks ever recorded. He's endlessly fascinating, extremely influential, a remarkable showman, and the possessor of a delightfully disturbing sense of humor—OK, he makes the cut.

First album I owned: Peter Gabriel (1977)

Favorite album: So (1986)

This is how you transform yourself from a critically acclaimed cult artist to an even more critically acclaimed big-time mainstream pop star: ratchet the artiness down a half-notch (no more), come up with a killer lead single (which, in my opinion, is one of the weaker tracks on the album), promote it with a terribly innovative music video (not to mention a funny one), back it up with a diverse set of really well-written songs, and actually show your comparatively handsome mug on the cover without the distractions of raining, grimmacing, or melting. Giving it a distinct (if enigmatic) title helps, too. Rarely has the thoroughly arty and thoroughly commercial been so deftly intertwined.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Secret World Live (1994)

PSB connections:

Genesis   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Speak of the devil. Great music, great lyrics, great instrumental prowess—in short, they're great. Unlike many, I like both the "Gabriel era" and the "Collins era" primarily because the chief common denominator, at least as far as I'm concerned, is Tony Banks, the finest songwriter and the most tasteful keyboardist of prog rock.

First album I owned: Foxtrot (1972)

Favorite album: Duke (1980)

Very much a transitional album for the band as they settled more comfortably into being a three-piece and straddled the lines between progressive rock and pop. They originally conceived the awesome "Duke's Suite" (aka "The Story of Albert")—a extended prog work with pop elements—as taking up one full side of the album. But then they decided to split it up and intersperse it with shorter tracks that were, in effect, pop songs with progressive elements. In so doing they achieved the best of both worlds, creating something that might be described as complex thinking man's muso pop. Yes, sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: When in Rome 2007 (2008) - Yes, they still have what it takes. If nothing else, their awe-inspiring medley of "In the Cage," "The Cinema Show," "Duke's Travels," and "Afterglow" makes this essential viewing.

PSB connections:

Joe Jackson

A grossly underrated guy—a terrific songwriter. Some of his best songs (such as "The Other Me") are among his least well known, and while nearly all of his albums are excellent, his ambitious song cycle Blaze of Glory particularly stands out. It's a crime that this sensational album is out of print, at least in the United States.

First album I owned: Night and Day (1982)

Favorite album: Blaze of Glory (1989)

It doesn't include any of his half-dozen or so best songs. Yet, taken as a whole, it's Joe's most consistently satisfying album. Aside from its excellent track lineup, much of its strength comes from its underlying concept: a song-cycle about the lives, attitudes, and expectations of his fellow Baby Boomers from their childhood to the vague transition between young adulthood and middle age in the late 1980s.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Live in Tokyo (1989)

PSB connections:

Billy Joel   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Are you now beginning to grasp how important songwriting skills are to me? Long Island's finest is indeed a great songwriter (with a penchant for unexpected harmonic progressions that rivals Brian Wilson) as well as a damn good singer. He's also something of a musical chameleon, readily able to mimic the songwriting and vocal mannerisms of other artists. Take, for instance, "Uptown Girl," an uncanny channeling of the sound and spirit some other favorites of mine, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

First album I owned: The Stranger (1977)

Favorite album: The Nylon Curtain (1982)

Billy's most cynical, angry record—and, for him, that's saying a lot. He covers ample ground, from the plight of unemployed Rust Belt workers ("Allentown") to Vietnam vets ("Goodnight Saigon") to the stresses he and countless others experience in day-to-day life ("Pressure"). And for a guy who had previously done his share of Paul McCartney knockoffs, he semi-mimics John Lennon superbly in the remarkably bitter "Laura." Good stuff all around.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Live at Shea Stadium (2011) - I don't care if Billy is showing his age. So am I. This is still a terrific concert.

PSB connections:

Elton John   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

OK, so his work since around 1990 has largely been schmaltz. But it's been really good schmaltz. And back in the seventies, when he was in his prime, Elton was a nonstop hit machine—and a composer of terrific songs—who made rock fun again. Though the unlikeliest of pop stars, he fully deserves to be precisely what he is: the fourth most successful artist in rock history (at least based on hit singles in the U.S.), behind only Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Madonna.

First album I owned: Honky Château (1972)

Favorite album: Honky Château (1972)

The double-disc Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (admittedly a great album) would have been the easy pick. I prefer, however, this earlier tour de force from Elton's pre-superstardom days—though, in retrospect, you can feel that superstardom comin' 'round the bend. One terrific song after another, each ably demonstrating the Rocket Man's versatility as a composer, vocalist, and likeable chap. Yeah, likeable. It's honestly one of the few albums that I can listen to and say to myself, you know, I bet he'd be a lot of fun to hang out with. And not just because he's filthy rich, either. Besides, he made this album—and I bought it—before he was filthy rich. By the way, honorable mention goes to his criminally underrated 1975 album Rock of the Westies, which I consider his both rockingest and most fun-filled LP.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Elton 60 - Live at Madison Square Garden (2007)

PSB connections:

Rickie Lee Jones

Quirky, jazzy, wildly inventive music from a woman who gives every impression of having lived the lowdown she writes and sings about. I think her first four albums—Rickie Lee Jones, Pirates, Girl at Her Volcano (actually an EP), and The Magazine—are her best. She seems, however, to have at least partially burned out after that. The enduring curse of the "Best New Artist" Grammy, I suppose. But, oh, what wonderful albums those first ones are!

First album I owned: Pirates (1981)

Favorite album: Rickie Lee Jones (1979)

A fantastic debut album that any other artist would have been proud to claim at any phase of his or her career. The songwriting is so varied and accomplished that I can't help but think she must've been sitting on a lot of those tunes for a very long time. Some of her best tracks were yet to come on subsequent albums (especially the very next one, Pirates), yet arty pretensions would creep in, too. But here, on her debut, there's nothing but gold.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Live at the Wiltern Theatre (1992) is about all that's out there.

PSB connections:

Madonna   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

What can you say about her that hasn't already been said? The woman's as smart as they come: she knows her strengths and, even more importantly, she knows her weaknesses and how to work around them. As amazing as it is that Elton is the fourth most successful artist in rock history, it's even more remarkable that she's #3. But just get a load of the singles catalog on that girl! And anyone who doubts her artistic chops should, if nothing else, remember "Live to Tell," one of the most poignant, emotionally devastating ballads of the 1980s.

First album I owned: Madonna (1983)

Favorite album: Ray of Light (1998)

Anyone who still thought after this one that she was just a "Material Girl" simply wasn't paying attention. Even I, who already liked Madonna (and had since her very first album), was forced to sit back and re-evaluate her. There was indeed a lot more to her than I had previously given her credit for. I learned the error of my ways. As for the music itself, its evocative guitar-meets-techno sound, though hardly original with her, had never before been rendered quite so effectively.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: The Confessions Tour - Live from London (2007)

PSB connections:

Manhattan Transfer

Snicker if you want, but we're all allowed at least one guilty pleasure. Not only were they at their peak the tightest harmony vocal ensemble in the biz, but they could swing their asses off when they wanted to. And while they're all excellent singers, the prize goes to the incredible Janis Siegel, a virtuoso in both the pop and jazz idioms—and there's only a handful of vocalists you can truthfully say that about.

First album I owned: Extensions (1979)

Favorite album: Extensions (1979)

In which the Transfer, with a new member in tow, dropped the most obviously campy aspects of their early nostalgia schtick and moved into uncharted territory, adopting the then-brazen (and still semi-campy) notion that the future is an amazingly lot like the past, only more ostentatiously technological. Nearly every song fiddles with this concept in one way or another, but the archetype is "Birdland"—originally a jazz-fusion instrumental from which the brilliant vocalese pioneer-lyricist Jon Hendricks wove a tale of music past having been so far ahead of its time that it was like living in the space-age future centuries in advance. And in the future, "five thousand light years" distant from the source, humans (and aliens) would still be boppin' to that same music. That, in fact, became the central conceit of the entire album. And dammit if it doesn't work.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Vocalese Live (1986)

PSB connections:

Stephin Merritt

He's an acquired taste, but I've definitely acquired it. The terms "alternative" and "indie" were made for artists like Stephin Merritt, whose hangdog baritone, stark arrangements, and deceptively simple musical structures can make for a challenging aural experience. But once you tap into his aesthetic, you're rewarded with some of the greatest songs of modern pop. A master of mixed emotions, he's by turns forlornly romantic, charmingly lewd, poignantly seductive, jadedly frustrated, and comically caustic. Recording both solo and with collaborators under a bewildering array of identities—the Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, and the Gothic Archies, not to mention his own name—it all boils down to a highly accomplished songwriter carving a unique niche for himself in contemporary music.

First album I owned: 69 Love Songs (1999)

Favorite album: 69 Love Songs (1999)

Working with his best-known, most popular outfit, the Magnetic Fields, Merritt presented a three-CD set that consisted of, yes, 69 songs that examine love from nearly every conceivable angle. (Actually, he's said that it's not an album about love, but rather "about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.") With so many tracks, it's inevitable that some are considerably weaker than others; I can frankly do without more than a few. Merritt must have found that title too salaciously cute to resist. Regardless, there's well over a single-disc's worth of near-genius here. Not only are my three favorite Merritt songs (listed below) in this one collection, but I'd have to say my fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh favorites as well.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: None that I'm aware of.

PSB connections:

George Michael

Are there any artists whom you really don't want to like, but you do? I have several, but George Michael is the biggest and best of the bunch—the one I like the most, despite myself. It's difficult to say why I don't want to like him. Maybe I just can't get those horrible "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "I Want Your Sex" videos out of my head. Or perhaps because the title "I Want Your Sex" itself sounds like a line from a bad paperback sexploitation potboiler of the 1950s. Or maybe even because, in my opinion, Wham!'s "Last Christmas" just might be the second-worst Christmas song ever. Footnote 4 But I know precisely why I do like Mr. Michael: he's a truly great singer and has flashes of undeniable brilliance as a songwriter.

First album I owned: Faith (1987)

Favorite album: Faith (1987)

Who'd have thought a year earlier that he'd have a Grammy "Album of the Year" in him? With his solo debut? After having been half of Wham!? But the greatness of the record couldn't be denied, producing one fantastic single after another. Well, OK, I could do without "I Want Your Sex." You've got to admit, however, it was tough to beat as an attention-grabber. And once he had our attention, he had us.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Live in London (2009) - The concert's terrific—despite the fact that George is clearly uncomfortable enough with his songs' highest notes these days that he almost invariably cedes them to his backup singers and/or the audience—and the stage setup is absolutely fantastic. (It must have cost a fortune!) But I'm especially fond of the accompanying "backstage" documentary, where George comes across as a very ordinary and very likeable guy. In fact, he seems so downright familiar that I found myself thinking, "Gee, I know guys just like that"—except of course none of them is a surpassingly talented multi-millionaire with a British accent.

PSB connections:

Joni Mitchell   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Hands down, the greatest standalone (words and music) female songwriter in rock/pop music history. And sometimes I'm tempted not even to use the qualifier "female" there. Her songs have more layers than the earth's crust, and are about as deep.

First album I owned: Court and Spark (1974)

Favorite album: Court and Spark (1974)

Not as starkly confessional or as effortlessly tuneful as critical fave Blue, nor as evocative and innovative as my own second-favorite Hejira. And it lacks either of those records' unifying "sounds." But therein lies one of Court and Spark's chief strengths: its diversity. Expanding on the occasional jazz-poppy inflections of her previous album, For the Roses, Joni lets loose with an amazing set that transformed her from a cultish singer-songwriter into a major star. No longer would she be pegged a "folk singer," a label that was never accurate to begin with. She also began to reveal a deeper, richer alto voice that supplanted her once mildy grating soprano. All together, it made me a fan, and I've never looked back.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Woman of Heart and Mind - A Life Story (2003)

PSB connections:

Moody Blues

The absolute favorites of my teenage years, just the thing for a sensitive, somewhat brainy little nerd like me. Yeah, the "mystical" stuff sounds like drivel to me now, but much of the rest has stood the test of time—and, regardless, they'll always claim a warm spot in my heart. Whatever else you might say, when Justin Hayward was good, he was very good: such songs as "The Actor," "Lovely to See You," "Question," "It's Up to You," and "The Story in Your Eyes" are superb by any reasonable standards. And it wasn't all Hayward's show, either; the other guys were pretty decent songwriters, too. My pet peeve: they deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it's simply rockist snobbery that they aren't—the same rockist snobbery, not so incidentally, that will probably keep PSB out as well. Then again, I suspect the Pet Shop Boys (who have repeatedly expressed their utter contempt for the very concept of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) have a better chance of making it than the Moody Blues; rock critics tend actually to like the Pet Shop Boys.

First album I owned: A Question of Balance (1970)

Favorite album: A Question of Balance (1970)

It was the Christmas shopping season of 1970. My parents knew that I loved rock/pop music and wanted to buy me a record album, but they didn't know enough about my specific tastes to know what to get. They went to the music section of our favorite department store and asked a clerk for recommendations. He asked them to describe my personality. They did (undoubtedly it would have been the equivalent, as expressed by loving parents, of "a sensitive, somewhat brainy little nerd") and, based on their description, the clerk recommended the Moody Blues' recently released A Question of Balance. They bought it and gave it to me for Christmas, and I loved it—my very first and still my favorite Moody Blues album. It proved to be their leanest and toughest LP, as well as their most—ahem—balanced. Of course, "lean" and "tough" are relative terms, especially considering the Moodies. "Lean" and "tough" for them would be "sumptuous" and "tender" for a great many other artists. But that's why it works so well. I'll never forget when one record reviewer, at the time the album was released, predicted that its opening track, the hit single "Question," would be "the best song the Moody Blues will ever write." I don't agree one whit with that assessment, but I understand exactly what he was saying and why.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: A Night at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (1992)

PSB connections:

Randy Newman   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Quite possibly the most curmudgeonly of all songwriters, with an incredible ear for melody and arrangements as well as a nasty satiric streak that somehow, sometimes manages to be too subtle for his own good. Footnote 6 And when he's not being particularly satirical, as in "Marie" and "Louisiana 1927," he can be as deeply moving as songwriters get. All in all, a man after my own heart.

First album I owned: Sail Away (1972)

Favorite album: Good Old Boys (1974)

To put it in an admittedly oversimplified manner, it's a concept album about Southerners, with whom Randy clearly has a love-hate relationship. If its characterizations sometimes border on the monstrous, he never lets you forget the humanity of his monsters, virtually forcing you to sympathize with thoroughly unsympathetic people. His most melodic set, too.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Live at the Odeon (1993)

PSB connections:

Pink Floyd   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

There's a reason why The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the best-selling albums of all time: it's that damn good. But, as great as it is, there's so much more to Pink Floyd than that one album. Everything from Meddle through The Wall is terrific. Some of the most thoughtful, melodic, haunting, and—especially in the later material before Roger Waters left—downright angry rock ever made. And, no, you don't have to be stoned to enjoy it.

First album I owned: The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

Favorite album: The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

I really don't need to explain it, do I? I'm pleased to say, however, that it was I who turned several of my druggie dorm-mates on to this remarkable album back during our freshman year in college. Yes, I was into it even before they were. But I stopped loaning my albums out when I discovered one of those addled dudes using my copy as an ashtray. I mean, they loved the album, and they still put out their doobies on it. That, perhaps as much as anything else, convinced me that mind-altering chemicals aren't for me. I'm much too fond of records like this.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Pulse (1994)

PSB connections:

Prince   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

The biggest case of career suicide ever Footnote 7 —which I, perverse being that I am, find strangely compelling. Then again, his 2006 single "Black Sweat" mightily affirms the potential for full-fledged resurrection. But none of it would mean a thing if it weren't for the fact that, back in the eighties, before he changed his name to a glyph and morphed into a punchline, he unleashed a string of jaw-droppingly innovative singles (most notably "Little Red Corvette," "Kiss," "U Got the Look," and the greatest jaw-dropper of them all, "When Doves Cry") that forever cemented his place in the pantheon of popular music.

First album I owned: Controversy (1981)

Favorite album: Purple Rain (1984)

The soundtrack to the movie that transformed Prince from a critic's darling into one of the two or three biggest stars of the 1980s. As far as I'm concerned, you didn't even need the movie. I'd been trying for several years—without success—to get an old college buddy to appreciate Prince. But after this album, I didn't even have to try: he was sold. Prince had always been one to blur genres (was he funk? New Wave? disco? pop? soul? rock?), but with Purple Rain he did it with such groundbreaking aplomb that even people who still didn't know what to make of him nevertheless climbed aboard for the ride. We weren't at all sure where he was taking us, but we sure as hell wanted to come along.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Sign 'o' the Times (1987) - Apparently out of print, but well worth finding.

PSB connections:

Procol Harum

Kinda like the Moody Blues, but without the mellotron and with much, much stranger lyrics. In fact, resident wordsmith Keith Reid is responsible for some of the most weirdly poetic stanzas in pop music history (such as the one from the bizarrely erotic "Luskus Delph" that concludes, "Make me split like chicken fat"). Singer-pianist Gary Brooker took his tales of drunkenness, suicide, venereal disease, undead sailors, gluttonous infants, pathologically jealous siblings, hypercritical lovers, and homicidal cowboy hat-wearing felines—all couched in metaphors so thick that nearly every line seems to carry multiple meanings—and set them to stately and/or melodramatic music that makes it easy to forget just how warped some of this stuff really is. And when guitarist and eventual Hendrix emulator Robin Trower occasionally got his hands on those lyrics, all hell could break loose. Frankly, I'm surprised that "Poor Mohammed" hasn't earned them a fatwa.

First album I owned: Grand Hotel (1973)

Favorite album: Broken Barricades (1971)

In my opinion, every Procol album but this has some clunkers. But most Broken Barricades tracks are great, and even the ones that aren't are still pretty good. To be honest, I don't know what half the songs are about, so cryptic are the lyrics. But trying to figure them out is half the fun.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Live at the Union Chapel (2004)

PSB connections:

Queen   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

This one snuck up on me. If anyone had asked me, "Are you a fan of Queen?" I would have said, "Not especially." And yet, as I look at my music collection, I have to admit that Queen is well represented. As with George Michael, I think I like them in spite of myself. In addition to their democratic approach to songwriting (all four were highly capable songwriters), I think what finally won me over was their relentlessly tongue-in-cheek style coupled with an equally relentless devotion to quality. I don't think they ever took themselves seriously—although I'm sure they were very serious about their music.

First album I owned: Greatest Hits (1981)

Favorite album: Greatest Hits I & II (1995)

Here's where I commit heresy. I don't actually like any of Queen's studio albums overall. But they were a killer singles band. So I'm breaking my own prohibition against picking "best of" or "greatest hits" albums. Hey, it's my website, so if anyone can break the rules here, I can. Whatever the case, one can't listen to these two discs without conceding these guys were damn good. At least not without losing one's credibility.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Greatest Video Hits 2 (2003)

PSB connections:

Paul Simon   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

So he's a notorious multi-culti dilettante. I can excuse it when the results have been so consistently satisfying. And he's one of the three or four greatest songwriters of his generation, which is saying quite a bit. A lot of musicians would give their left arm—well, maybe at least one or two of their fingers—to write something as good as "Something So Right."

First album I owned: Paul Simon (1972)

Favorite album: There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973)

Bad album title, bad album cover, but a great album. This, Simon's third solo set (the second post-S&G), convinced me and a great many others that maybe his breakup with Art Garfunkel wasn't such a terrible thing after all.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Graceland - The African Concert (1991)

PSB connections:

Simon and Garfunkel   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Garfunkel's solo voice and/or the blend of the two of them together were the perfect vehicles for Simon's wonderful songs. Their actual recorded output was surprisingly small considering the impact and influence they've had—which serves to underscore the overall quality of their work.

First album I owned: Greatest Hits (1972)

Favorite album: Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)

A breathtaking set that demonstrated, as never before, the sheer depth and breadth of Paul Simon's songwriting ability. Beautifully composed, beautifully produced, beautifully sung. Just plain beautiful. The title track and "The Boxer" are particular standouts, but they're simply the cream of a very, very fine crop. And yet it's not without some sharp edges. Paul and Artie never rocked harder than on "Keep the Customer Satisfied," a song allegedly sung from the perspective of a musician but more likely from that of a drug dealer or male hustler (or both). The album's undercurrent of breakup (it being the last studio album they did together) only adds to its aura, with "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" and "The Only Living Boy in New York" assuming almost tragic proportions. To be perfectly honest, I would have to rank this album among my five or six favorites of all time.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Old Friends, Live on Stage (2004)

PSB connections:

Steely Dan   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Before the perfectionist lethargy set in (you can hear it looming in Aja, but the songs were just too good to be denied) they were the greatest—as well as most intelligent and comically cynical—rock band of the seventies. In my humble opinion, Becker-Fagen are in a three-way race with Tennant-Lowe and John-Taupin for the title of best songwriting duo since Lennon-McCartney. All cynicism aside, anyone who could come up with the line "The spore is on the wind tonight" (from "Rose Darling") as a metaphor for sexual desire is, dare I say, a poet. But you can pretty much forget anything they've recorded after reuniting in the 1990s; it pales by comparison. (Yes, I know that 2000's Two Against Nature won a Grammy for "Album of the Year." It still isn't half as good as any of their albums from the 1970s.)

First album I owned: Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

Favorite album: Katy Lied (1975)

A very difficult choice, this one. You see, all seven Dan albums from their "classic era" are, almost without reservation, brilliant. Only the last, Gaucho, started showing cracks in the shell. But mid-point album Katy Lied (three albums before, three after) is something of an underdog, and I've always liked underdogs. After the breakup of the "Mark 1" band, including the loss of their superb guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, some fans looked askance at what was left over and thought the end was at hand. Not a chance. A transitional album in more ways than one, Katy Lied blends the masterful rock of the early records with the jazzy vibe of the work yet to come. That blend makes it for me. Besides, any album that features such incredible songs as "Black Friday," "Bad Sneakers," "Rose Darling," "Doctor Wu," "Chain Lightning," and "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)"—OK, that's more than half the tracks—is a true contender.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: There are a few DVDs, but so far none that I can recommend.

PSB connections:

Donna Summer   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Here's the formula: I love late seventies disco music in general (I was there, baby!), and Donna Summer, usually in collaboration with producer-composer Giorgio Moroder, consistently made some of the greatest disco music of the late seventies. You do the math. But if you want real evidence, look no further than "I Feel Love," one of the most innovative singles in popular music history.

First album I owned: On the Radio - Greatest Hits (1979)

Favorite album: Bad Girls (1979)

If, at the time, you were an openly gay guy in his twenties (as I was), this was the soundtrack to your summer of '79. I mean, it was playing almost constantly. I'm tempted to call it "the Sgt. Pepper of Disco," but that would be overstated. But it's still perhaps the foremost among albums that put the lie to the widespread belief that disco was merely vacuous, disposable, unmusical fluff. The fact that much of this album ventured into relatively new disco territory with its more-than-flirting acquaintance with good old-fashioned rock turned some heads. Recognized instantly as a classic of its genre, it still holds up today as the single finest album-length example of a much (and most unfairly) maligned style of music for which I personally will always carry a smoldering torch.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: VH1 Presents - Live & More Encore! (1999)

PSB connections:

Talking Heads   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Who'd have thought that a quartet of such preppy white kids could have created music that was simultaneously so arty and funky? If you don't get it, listen to their albums Remain in Light, Speaking in Tongues, and Little Creatures. If you don't get it after that, see their amazing concert film Stop Making Sense. Footnote 9 If you still don't get it, I can't possibly help you.

First album I owned: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)

Favorite album: Little Creatures (1985)

My choice of favorite may be a shock to most Heads-heads. The vast majority would surely rank either Remain in Light or Speaking in Tongues at the top of the heap. But, as great as those albums are, I find Little Creatures more consistently enjoyable. For one thing—and it's a big thing—it relies much more heavily on just plain good songwriting than its predecessors, which owed their strength more to adventuresomeness and danceability. Little Creatures wasn't nearly as adventuresome or danceable, but each song was a winner that could lend itself readily to alternate styles and cover versions. Think about it: how much of Remain in Light could be remade in a drastically different style and still be half as good? With its solid musicianship, strong melodies, and quirky-as-hell lyrics (my favorite being the one about the woman who astral-projects herself into oblivion, though the one about being entertained by Chris and Tina's new baby comes a close second), Little Creatures fully deserves my devotion to it.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Stop Making Sense (1984)

PSB connections:

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

If the Moodies were the faves of my teen years, these guys—the greatest and most enduring of the Italian-American doo-wop groups—were the faves of my pre-teen years. Like their contemporaries the Beach Boys, they quickly transcended their initial genre and produced some of the most vivacious music of the sixties. Frankie's astonishing voice, boasting the most phenomenal falsetto in the history of recorded music, struck a chord in me even then. Bandmate Bob Gaudio wrote some terrific tunes, too. In fact, let's hope the Pet Shop Boys can match the legendary longevity of the Valli-Gaudio musical partnership, which has now lasted more than a half-century. And on a handshake, no less.Footnote 12

First album I owned: Gold Vault of Hits (1965)

In fact, if I remember correctly, this was the first album by anybody that I ever owned, which I bought the same year that it came out. (There I go again, showing my age.)

Favorite album: 25th Anniversary Collection (1987)

Definitely a singles band. Yes, I know that their 1969 album The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette is a cult classic. But that's not the Four Seasons I know and love. Well, actually they are the Seasons I know, but I don't love them being so self-consciously experimental. Nothing but a hit singles collection does them a modicum of justice, and this one is definitive.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: The DVD that accompanies the 2007 boxed set Jersey Beat: The Music of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons

PSB connections:

Rufus Wainwright

I hadn't felt so enthusiastic over "discovering" an artist for myself in more than a decade—in fact, not since I "discovered" the Pet Shop Boys. Rufus Wainwright is one of the most original, moving, and imaginative singer-songwriters I've ever heard, the creator of unexpected melodies, intelligent lyrics, and eclectic arrangements that owe equal debts to classical, Broadway, ragtime, rock, pop, and folk. The breathtaking Want One is an instant classic if there ever was one. And its follow-ups, the even more ambitious Want Two and the deceptively "poppier" but still wonderful Release the Stars, are also spectacular.

First album I owned: Want One (2003)

Favorite album: Release the Stars (2007)

As with the Beach Boys' Sunflower vs. Pet Sounds, this is a case where I have to concede that my favorite album by a certain artist probably isn't actually the best. From a more objective standpoint, Want One is probably a better album than Release the Stars. It's certainly more impressive in terms of its ambition and willingness to take chances—and succeed. You might say the same about his next album, Want Two. But I enjoy Release the Stars even more. What it lacks in ambition it makes up for with sheer tunefulness. And I think it's a little less "work" to listen to. Dammit, I don't always want to have to think quite so much.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Milwaukee at Last!!! (2009)

PSB connections:

The Who   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Maybe it's because Who's Next is, in my opinion, a serious contender for the greatest rock album of all time—that and my (admittedly arguable) beliefs that Keith Moon was rock's greatest drummer and John Entwistle its greatest bassist. And while Pete Townshend is hardly rock's greatest guitarist and songwriter, he's certainly no slouch in either department. As much as I love the Pet Shop Boys, I have to say that the best concert by far that I've ever attended was by the Who back in the mid-seventies on their final North American tour before Moon died. I consider myself blessed.

First album I owned: Tommy (1969)

Favorite album: Who's Next (1971)

As I said, a contender for the title "Greatest Rock Album of All Time." Every song is an absolute classic, and some are absolutely iconic. You can see what I have to say about the opening and closing tracks, "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," just below. Meanwhile, "Bargain" is a stunning profession of devotion—to God, by the way, by Townshend's own admission; "Behind Blue Eyes" is the Who's finest ballad, even if it does morph into a rocker; "Going Mobile" is one of the most joyful things they ever recorded; and "The Song Is Over" is simply beautiful. Even John Entwistle's "My Wife" is a semi-comic standout, perhaps his best Who song as well; it's certainly the one that earned the most album-rock airplay. Put 'em all together and you've got one of the ultimate expressions of rock by one of rock's ultimate bands.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: The Kids Are Alright (1979)

PSB connections:

Stevie Wonder   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

I know I sound like a broken record (remember them?), but he's a remarkable songwriter, in spite of his predilection for contorted syntax. His early embrace of and experimentation with synthesizers pushed the envelope for electronic keyboards. And he could do some unbelievable things with a clavinet, such as when he plays it with a wah-wah pedal on "Higher Ground." He is, quite simply, an incalculable influence on half of everything from the seventies on.

First album I owned: Innervisions (1973)

Favorite album: Innervisions (1973)

Its two immediate predecessors, Music of My Mind and Talking Book, were great and greater, respectively, but Innervisions is the greatest of all. Yes, even greater than Songs in the Key of Life, which—I'm sorry—could have benefited from careful trimming. Many if not most of his fellow musicians had already recognized Stevie's genius beforehand, but Innervisions made it palpably obvious to the rest of the world. Like the aforementioned Who's Next, every song is a classic—so much so that when Motown put out his At the Close of a Century box set in 2000, only one Innervisions song, "Jesus Children of America," failed to make the cut. And I really like that song, too.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Live at Last: A Wonder Summer's Night (2009)

PSB connections:

Yes

Another guilty pleasure. Yes, there was excess. (Tales from Topographic Oceans, anyone?) Yes, Jon Anderson's lyrics often bordered on nonsense. Yes, those asteroids did look a lot like giant floating mushrooms. But these guys were virtuosos who transcended the dross through the sheer weight of their talent. And they can take credit for some of the most transcendently beautiful passages in all of prog rock.

First album I owned: Fragile (1971)

Favorite album: Close to the Edge (1972)

One of the definitive works of "progressive rock." In fact, if I had to pick just one album to exemplify prog at its very best, it would be this. It offers only three tracks (one, the title track, taking up an entire LP side), but each ranks among the band's greatest. Close to the Edge proved such a downright imposing album that Yes apparently felt they could follow it up only with a four-song conceptual double-album, with each side devoted to one song (if you can call such grandiose things "songs"). But the resulting Tales from Topographic Oceans suffers terribly in comparison. Yes has spent the rest of their career trying to rescale the heights they achieved with this album, and though they've often hit high, they've never again come so close—to the edge, of course.

Favorite songs:

Recommended DVD: Keys to Ascension (2001) – As with the Pet Shop Boys' Montage, the video inserts can be annoying, but it's still a superb performance.

PSB connections:


The "Top Ten"

Somebody asked me, "Out of all your favorites, who would be in your 'Top Ten'?" I tried to choose subjectively, but found it extremely difficult. So I decided to use a far more objective method: I would base my Top Ten choices on the number of CDs (including singles and—gasp!—bootlegs) and DVDs that I own by each artist. Therefore, using that "purely scientific" criterion, here are my Top Ten favorite artists in descending order:

  1. Pet Shop Boys
  2. Beach Boys/Brian Wilson
  3. Madonna
  4. Genesis
  5. Manhattan Transfer
  6. Beatles
  7. Erasure
  8. Elton John
  9. Moody Blues
  10. Steely Dan

Incidentally, if I didn't count CD singles, the Beach Boys/Brian Wilson would easily replace PSB in first place.


"Near Misses" (aka "The Second Tier")

Here are some other artists that I'm quite fond of, although in each case there's something that prevents them from ranking up there among my "favorites."

Ambrosia

Art-popsters with a spotty record: a good (not great, but good) debut album, a so-so second, terrific third and fourth albums (Life Beyond L.A. and One Eighty, which account for their inclusion here), and an abysmal fifth and final album—so awful that I wonder whether it was the cause or the effect of their disbanding shortly after its release. Favorite songs: "Holding on to Yesterday," "Life Beyond L.A." "How Much I Feel."

Tori Amos

Sort of like an American variation on Kate Bush, but missing a certain je ne sais quoi (is that too horribly pretentious of me?) that keeps her from among my faves. I think she's excellent in small doses, though too much at a time makes me gaze longingly at the medicine cabinet. Favorite songs: "Caught a Lite Sneeze," "Bliss," "Sleeps with Butterflies."

The Cars

The Steely Dan of New Wave, at least from a lyrical perspective. If nothing else, they deserve respect for putting out one of the greatest debut albums in rock/pop history. Yeah, sometimes they were a little too slick—the simile "like leather tuxedos" comes to mind—but I forgive them. Favorite songs: "Let's Go," "Dangerous Type," "Touch and Go."

Chic

Donna Summer's only real competition as the greatest artist of the Disco Era. For one thing, their brilliant and almost neurotically stylized "Good Times" is one of my all-time favorite singles. "Le Freak," "I Want Your Love," and their writing and production of "We Are Family" for Sister Sledge as well as "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out" for Diana Ross are all nearly its equal in terms of sheer fabulosity. But Chic doesn't make my full-fledged favorite artists list because the number of their songs that I like is relatively small compared to the artists listed above. Favorite songs: "Le Freak," "Good Times," "We Are Family" (the latter sung by Sister Sledge but written and produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, which makes it count for me).

Chicago

Six of their first seven albums, recorded from 1969-1974 (who cranks out albums that quickly anymore?) are stone-cold classics, filled to the brim with great songs. (Why not all seven? Because that interminable fourth counts among the deadest live albums ever made.) Unfortunately, after the seventh I don't have much use for them. Favorite songs: "25 or 6 to 4," "Now That You've Gone," "Wishing You Were Here" (the latter highlighted by great backup vocals by three-fifths of the Beach Boys).

Patsy Cline

A woman with a magical voice who made country music for people who don't like country music. Her "best of" and "greatest hits" collections boast one unforgettable performance after another. Too bad she also recorded more than her share of disposable filler. Favorite songs: "Crazy," "She's Got You," "Sweet Dreams."

Coldplay

About 50% of their stuff is great—especially their more uptempo tracks, where Chris Martin's sometimes cloying wounded-puppydog vocal mannerisms aren't nearly as noticeable as on their slower numbers. Favorite songs: "Trouble," "Clocks," "Viva la Vida."

King Crimson

Fearsome prog rock—sometimes downright scary. I absolutely love their "middle period" trio of albums: Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red. Their first album is quite nice, too. The rest, however, I can pretty much do without. Favorite songs: "The Great Deceiver," "Lament," "Fracture."

Brenda Lee   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

Little Miss Dynamite. What I said about Pasty Cline goes for Brenda as well—only there are even more classics and even more crap. By the way, it's no accident that she and Patsy had the same producer, the brilliant Owen Bradley: a man so important to the history of country music that they erected a bronze statue of him in Nashville. How many producers can you think of who've had statues erected in their honor? Favorite songs: "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Break It to Me Gently," "Johnny One Time."

Nine Inch Nails

Trent Reznor is a man with a vision, even if that vision is enough to make some people want to shove knitting needles into their eye sockets. But underlying the industrial façade, hiding behind the angst-ridden lyrics, are some superb melodies. He's also a lot funnier than most of his fans realize, so busy they are taking him totally at face value. Favorite songs: "Head Like a Hole," "Down in It," "Closer."

The Pretenders   Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee

It's a cliché to point out that Chrissie Hynde comes across as tougher, musically and otherwise, than most men. Maybe I just like strong women who write really good songs. More like their best and they would've been shoo-ins for the top tier. Favorite songs: "Back on the Chain Gang," "Middle of the Road," "Don't Get Me Wrong."

Barbra Streisand

I can't help it—I am gay, you know. Besides, in terms of sheer vocal technique, one can make a solid argument for her as the finest female vocalist of the second half of the twentieth century. There's a caveat, however: give me her excellent discography from 1970 to 1985, but forget anything before (too Broadway) and after (flaccid attempts to recreate past glories). Favorite songs: "Stoney End," "Evergreen," "Memory."

(The) Sweet

I'm serious. I actually like only a few of their songs, but those I love intensely. Too dumb to be smart, but too smart to be merely stupid, these guys formed the nexus where bubblegum, glam, punk, and art rock converged and waged a love-hate war. With better songwriting talent, they might have been real contenders. With much better songwriting talent, they might have been Queen. Favorite songs: "Little Willy," "The Ballroom Blitz," "Love Is Like Oxygen."

Tears for Fears

If everything they've done were as fantastic as their "best of," they'd easily make my list of unreserved favorites. OK, I could say that about a lot of artists. But—I'm not sure why—I regret that it's not true for these guys more than for anyone else. Not so incidentally, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" is another one of my all-time favorite singles. Curiously, hearing it always make me nostalgic for my college years, despite the fact that it came out nearly a decade after I graduated. Figure that one out! Favorite songs: "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)," "Break It Down Again."


My Favorite Albums by Artists
Who Are Not Among My Favorites

In addition, I count a number of other albums among my favorites despite the fact that I wouldn't place those who created them among my favorite artists. (I do like them all—just not enough to count them as "favorites.") Please note that I don't include any "best of" or "greatest hits" albums here; otherwise this list would be damn near interminable. These albums are listed in chronological order, with those released in the same year sorted alphabetically by artist.


Concerts I've Attended

I've never been a big concert attendee. In general, the "live experience" doesn't do a lot for me. That being said, I have immensely enjoyed most of the shows I've attended. Here's a short list of the artists whose concerts I've gone to—at least those that I can recall at this time.

This list doesn't include the fairly large number of classical and choral music performances I've attended. Artists whose shows I've attended more than once are followed by a red plus sign (+).

I attended two shows in the early 1980s by this talented openly gay folk-pop-comedy duo. Stylistically not exactly my thing, but that was back when openly gay artists were still so rare that they nearly all deserved one's active support (re The Flirtations a few paragraphs above).

There were also several "aborted" concerts for which I had tickets but didn't attend for one reason or another: