101 Essential Rock Records (review)

101 Essential Rock Records – The Golden Age of Vinyl From the Beatles to the Sex Pistols – Jeff Gold (Gingko Press) book review

While we walk around with thousands of songs on our mobile devices, and millions more streaming at our fingertips, there is a downside to all this convenience – we’ve lost the physical connection with the music we love.  Author and record collector Jeff Gold has just written 101 Essential Rock Records, revisiting a time when we could hold that music in our hands – and the LP was king.

There was something magical about the vinyl record.  The 12 x 12-inch piece of cardboard that acted as the album sleeve didn’t just give clues to the music that was hidden inside, it oftentimes set the overall mood before one note was ever played.  And, the possibilities were endless.  Some LP jackets showcased bold new directions in art.  Others displayed new forms of fashion, giving fans a chance to dress like their heroes.  Many featured easy-to-read lyric sheets, letting the words take center stage, away from the music.  Several albums included large, iconic posters that adorned teenage walls, acting as a portal to another world.  The bottom line was, the album was more than just the music.

This coffee table-sized book is large enough to show off some of these classic album covers – now shrunk to a mere thumbnail on your iPod.  While there have been several books devoted to the front covers of LPs, Gold’s goal is to spotlight the entire package, including front and back cover, inner sleeve, gatefold, and any posters or stickers that were featured in the original release.  He even has a picture of the actual vinyl LP for each album featured.

Gold was profiled by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top five “collectors of high-end music memorabilia,” so he’s certainly got some ultra-rare pieces, including lots of white-label radio-only promotional copies.  If you’re any kind of record collector, there is plenty here to drool over.  He’s quick to point out anything rare that’s been included, such as differences in releases overseas, or mono versus stereo, for example.

For each of the 101 albums, he’s penned a few paragraphs that give a little background into each LP’s significance, usually referencing praise from some other music publication.  Beyond that, he’s also had the opportunity to talk with several musicians about their favorite albums – Graham Nash, Iggy Pop, Peter Buck of REM, Johnny Marr, and several others, all are given separate pages to gush about certain “life-changing” albums, adding a more human element to the book.  And, there’s an excellent introduction by Elektra Records’ founder Jac Holzman, talking about the significance of vinyl over the years.

Another standout of his book is a section called “CENSORED!” where he compares the rare, original covers, with ones that were later sanitized (the nude, pubescent girl on Blind Faith’s debut, the toilet that was airbrushed out of the Mamas & the Papas’ LP, and the fire engulfing the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd on Street Survivors, etc.).  He gives an explanation of what all the hubbub was about for each one.

One of Gold’s most-treasured parts of his own collection is several albums bought from the estate of Jimi Hendrix.  These records were actually played (and well-loved) by the legendary guitarist himself.  Gold shows several examples of these tattered gems, and lists the albums in that set –  it’s interesting to see what Hendrix was digging back then.

As far as the actual list of “essential” records goes – it’s pretty standard fare.  80 percent of the LPs featured here are the ones that have been trumpeted for years by Rolling Stone and their ilk:  Sgt. Pepper, Dylan, Springsteen, Exile on Main Street, Pet Sounds, Velvet Underground – all the critic’s darlings.  The problem is that there are literally thousands of albums deserving of praise, yet the same chosen few continue to be put in the spotlight.  It would’ve been nice to see a little more imagination put into his compilation.

The author also has an affinity for debut albums, which is somewhat puzzling.  The first record listed in his book is Please Please Me from the Beatles – groundbreaking, yes.  Essential, not really – it was full of not-so-great covers.  Same goes for debut’s by the Stones and Jefferson Airplane – there were much better albums to follow from each band.  And, Led Zeppelin’s first album is the only one to make the list.  Again, that band did nothing but get better as the years went by.  He also favors the New York punk scene over anything commercial in the Seventies – so New York Dolls, Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads make the grade, yet, you won’t find any Eagles, Kiss, Frampton, Boston, or just about anything that sold more than a few thousand copies.

But, that’s the real joy in lists like this – debating the merits of one record over another.  You’ll have fun digging through here, seeing if your favorite albums are included.

Being able to see so many legendary albums in their original, rare state, with not just the front cover, but the entire package showcased, makes this book a must-have for any devoted vinyl fan, and anyone interested in how music used to be.  –Tony Peters