Early computer animation. Sports bloopers. Pastel sport coats. And “I want my MTV.” On the surface, it’s hard to get more “1980s” than Dire Straits during their “Brothers in Arms” era. But peak MTV era was also quite superficial, and with Dire Straits, there was always more just below the surface. Even with mega radio and music video hits like “Walk of Life” and “Money For Nothing,” 1985’s “Brothers in Arms” is yet another album with frontman and guitar god Mark Knopfler weaving stories about the world’s castaways, about blue collar workers, and war. (In fact, almost all of side 2 is about war.) For those for whom the big “hits” were an entry point to the band were probably surprised at the depth of Dire Straits’ music and lyrics.

You can listen to Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, and Amazon, although it’s probably best on vinyl.

 

Lucinda Williams’ fifth album, released in the summer of 1998, not only cemented the artist as a bonafide songwriting juggernaut, but it solidified her place among America’s best storytellers. “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” would go on to be named The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop (critics) Album of the Year, and to date it is among Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums of all time. And for good reason. Williams bemoans (and even moans) about love and loss in songs like “Right In Time,” Lake Charles” and “Can’t Let Go.” And she brilliantly illustrates pain in the title track and also on tunes like “Drunken Angel,” “Concrete and Barbed Wire” and more. Williams also captures the Deep South about as good anybody before or since. And because of that, this album is truly “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.”

You can listen to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, and Amazon, although it’s probably best on vinyl.

 

How does a young songwriter come back from releasing a mega hit that EVERYBODY knows? For Van Morrison, he followed the success of “Brown Eyed Girl” with two different approaches. First came “Astral Weeks,” an album built on and around Morrison’s jazz upbringing. Next came “Moondance,” which bridged the gap (eventually) between his love of various genres of music with a nod to a more pop-friendly format. It worked. Like “Brown Eyed Girl,” the title track has since become a standard, but the album is so much more than that. “And It Stoned Me” tells the nostalgiac story of a trip when he was younger — in a way that only Van could tell it. “Crazy Love” is a blueprint for how a love song should be written. “Caravan” fused Morrison’s love of blues and soul to create a timeless tune. And “Into the Mystic” is among Rolling Stone’s top 500 songs of all time. And that’s just side 1 of the album. With  “Moondance,” Morrison further established himself as one of his generations’ great troubadours.

 

You can listen to Moondance by Van Morrison on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, and Amazon, although it’s probably best on vinyl.

 

Few artists have enjoyed a resurgence in appreciation over the past decade like Dolly Parton. But in the 1970s, she fought against the perception that she was just a sidekick to Porter Wagoner … or just a pretty face. It also goes without saying that a lot of people think of other things first when thinking about Dolly, instead of thinking about her talents as a songwriter, singer and musician. But Dolly has remained true to her roots and to herself, and in recent years, she has begun to enjoy an elevated level of respect as an icon, a musician and an unbelievable person. But she’s been crushing it for a LONG time. No better example than 1974’s album “Jolene,” which includes the title track and “I Will Always Love You.” Perhaps you’ve heard of them? While the rest of the songs may not reach the level of those two, other tunes are elevated by Dolly’s lilting, east Tennessee voice, her ability to bring emotion to a story, and her songwriting prowess.

 

You can listen to Jolene by Dolly Parton on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, and Amazon, although it’s probably best on vinyl.

 

First, let’s get something out of the way. This is an album podcast. It always will be, first and foremost. Therein lies some limitations around how to talk about some of the early pioneers of rock and roll and pop music. Many of them “released” albums that were nothing more than a collection of disparate singles. Or they loosely put together a collection of songs, threw a cover on it and called in an “album.” Elvis Presley was no different. However, with “From Elvis in Memphis,” The King had an opportunity to present a new version of himself — one buoyed by his recent comeback TV success. And instead of crooning for screaming fans, Elvis instead sang for himself, eschewing soundtracks and going back, in many ways, to his roots. This “Memphis sound” Elvis is full of soul, country, gospel and blues — all the things that made him HIM. The results are a gutsy album of perhaps Elvis at his best. And the last song on the original release was a heartfelt ode to the disenfranchised that was – and still is – perhaps his greatest song: “In the Ghetto.” 

 

You can listen to From Elvis in Memphis on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

There’s more than a 50/50 chance you actually own this album — or did at some point in your life. (Especially if you’re a kid of the 80s/90s and the CD/cassette clubs like BMG or Columbia House.) There’s a very good reason why Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Legend” was in so many disc changers back in the day — and continues to be in regular rotation for many. As far as greatest hits compilations go, this one may be the greatest of them all. It contains 10 of Marley’s UK top 40 hits including and features classics like “No Woman, No Cry,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Redemption Song” and more. But this isn’t just a feelgood summer album (although it is that, too). Never before or since has a Caribbean artist conquered the known world like Marley did. He wrote protest songs that would make Pete Seeger smile, he gave hope to his fellow Jamaicans, and he opened up the minds of people all over the world to the types of lives that were available to those in the poorer sections of paradise. He just happened to do it all to a danceable, reggae sound.

You can listen to Legend by Bob Marley on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

Sometimes the albums we discuss are deemed classic by the masses; sometimes they are deemed classic by a Matt (singular). Sometimes those albums are classic …question mark? In the case of Arrested Development’s debut album, “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of …” (so-called because that was how long it took the group to land a recording contract), the question is not really whether it’s a classic album or not. It’s not. But it is an important album. When it was released in 1992, it was unleashed on a world that was coming to grips with gangsta rap. White America, in particular, wasn’t sure what to make of it all. Arrested Development came along and offered up pro-African and pro-family beats and rhymes that came across as a more positive (if, in the long run, a milquetoast) version of hip-hop that still hit on uncomfortable topics like America’s racist past, homelessness, the hypocrisies of faith, and so much more. They just did it with far fewer curse words. “Tennessee,” “Mr. Wendal” and (the now cringe-worthy) “People Everyday” were some of the biggest hits of their era, landing the group millions in record sales and even a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Rap Group (“Tennessee”). Oddly enough, they are seemingly forgotten these days … unless you are a middle-aged white person.

You can listen to Arrested Development on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

Almost out of nowhere, Alabama Shakes’ 2015 album “Sound & Color” took the music world by storm. Fueled by Brittany Howard’s Janice-meets-Aretha soulful treatise on love, loss and longing, “Sound & Color” brings together blues, rock, soul, R&B, Southern rock — and so much more. And the world was here for it all. Fueled by the gritty and thumping “Don’t Wanna Fight,” the album was loved by music fans and music critics at the same time — a novelty, for sure. It would go on to be nominated for six Grammys, including Album of the Year. “Don’t Wanna Fight” would take home the Grammy for both Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song. But like the rest of the album, it’s SO much more than “rock.”

You can listen to Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

“We all wanna be Bob Dylan.”  In the midst of grunge and new punk, Adam Duritz and Co. were a throwback, not just to folk/pop music, but to the singer-songwriter era. Duritz’s poetic narratives offered a deep look into his soul and psyche, to his desire for belonging and fame. He would get at least the latter thanks to beautiful, pop hits like “Round Here,” “Rain King” and, of course, “Mr. Jones, which remains a radio staple. But the album, “August and Everything After” is a complete piece, often overlooked as a whole due to the momentous success of radio hits. “We all wanna be big stars, yeah, but we got different reasons for that.”

References in this Epipod:

You can buy or stream August and Everything After by Counting Crows online at iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

One of the most unique and also most successful fans to come out of the Research Triangle area of North Carolina in the early- to-mid-1990s was Ben Folds Five. Led by Ben Folds, this three-piece (yes, just three of them) crafted clever, cynical jabs at mainstream society — as well as at themselves. But the songs were beautiful, catchy and well crafted, and were pulled from pop, punk, jazz and even classical music. They would find major success on their next album (and Folds would go on to a stellar critical and commercial solo career) but their debut offers us a glimpse at their wild and free beginning. 

References in this Epipod:

You can buy or stream the debut album by Ben Folds Five online at iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

It was arguably the greatest gathering of musical talent in one place at one time — and still is. And it was INSANE. “We Are The World” brought the biggest American music stars of the 1980s* — and Dan Akroyd! — to one room to record a song shining a light on the plight of starving people in Africa. The song and the video was beamed incessently to the living rooms and kitchens of America. In the end, the song was inescapable at the time (if somewhat forgettable now); it raised some $68 million to help those impacted by drought and food shortages. But it also gave us a treasure trove of quirky, ridiculous stories that can only happen when you pack creative geniuses into one room — and ask them to follow orders.
*But not Prince or Madonna.

References in this Epipod:

You can buy or stream We Are The World by U.S.A. For Africa online at iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

It’s only natural that Matt & Matt kick off Season 4 of Finest Worksongs with a non-charting song of covers by a country artist, right? But Emmylou Harris’ 1995 album “Wrecking Ball” deserves any and all recognition. It was a vast departure for the seasoned country songstress; that’s gonna happen when you partner with Daniel Lanois. “Wrecking Ball” — which includes collaborations with Neil Young,  Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and others, did for Emmylou what Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” did for the Man In Black: it rejuvenated a career and opened a whole new audience to the splendor of one of music’s all-time greats.

References in this Epipod:

You can buy or stream Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris online at iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

It’s the classic “full creative control” story. Artist earns the respect (and the right) to do things as he wants. He goes against the grain to bring his vision to light. But upon hearing the final product, the record executives can’t believe it’s actually final. Sorry, bub. Creative control means creative control. And in this case, Willie Nelson’s 1975 album, “Red-Headed Stranger,” not only proved to be one of the most successful country albums of all time, but also one of the most successful — and celebrated — ALBUMS of all time. It’s a sparsely-produced, under-budget, concept album about a preacher that essentially goes on a killing spree. And it changed country music forever.

References in this Epipod:

You can buy or stream Red-Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson online at iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

When one thinks of the top rock albums of 1991, undoubtedly some classics come to mind. Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” Pearl Jam’s “Ten.” “Achtung Baby” by U2. Metallica’s so-called “Black Album.” Guns’n’Roses even released “Use Your Illusion I & II” that year. But when Spin magazine unveiled its best album of the year, that honor went to Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub for their “Bandwagonesque.” And for good reason. Combining early-90s crunch and distortion with odes to the pop goodness of the likes of Big Star, “Bandwagonesque” is as complete and inspiring as anything else that came out that year. We dare you to listen to it and not be drawn in by the melodic hooks, syrupy harmonies, or the relatable lyrics. Teenage Fanclub may be the most underrated-yet-influential band of the last 30 years. And this album shows why.

References in this Epipod:

You can buy or stream Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub  online at iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

In many ways, Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” – which turns 25 years old this month – was the un-“Full Moon Fever.” When it was released, “Wildflowers” seemed sparse and stripped down, especially compared to his previous offering. But it not only featured Petty’s hit-making skills – the album produced bona fide Petty radio and MTV hits like “You Wreck Me” and “ You Don’t Know How it Feels” – but it gave the world a chance to for Petty to pour out his soul in a way that still haunts today. With Rick Rubin’s get-out-of-the-way production, “Wildflowers” is (sadly) Petty’s autobiographical epitaph — one that he just happened to write two decades before his death.

References in this Epipod:

You can buy or stream Wildflowers by Tom Petty online at iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

When The Beatles returned to Abbey Road to record their sixth album, they were exhausted from constant touring and releasing at a pace of two albums a year. They also had virtually no songs prepared. But when it was completed, their sixth album was Rubber Soul, arguably the first actual album, not just a collection of songs. This was the turning point; it’s the album that bridges the British Invasion Beatles to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. It’s the album that turned the music world on its rear, forcing the band’s rivals and contemporaries like the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones to step up their games.  In essence, with Rubber Soul, the Beatles were just getting started.

References in this Epipod:

You can buy or stream Rubber Soul by the Beatles online at iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon. 

 

It’s the quintessential breakup album, full of heartache and remorse, remembrance and longing. “Blood on the Tracks” is quintessential Bob Dylan at his most poetic — and beautiful.

References in this Epipod:

You can buy or stream Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan online at iTunes,  Spotify, YouTube, and Amazon.