Perfect 10: Best Of the Virgin Performers

By J. Freedom du Lac and David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 9, 2008

The third iteration of the Virgin Mobile Festival comes to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for marathon shows today and tomorrow, with a lineup featuring certified legends (Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry), '90s alt-rock hitmakers (Stone Temple Pilots, the Offspring), contemporary rap superstars (Kanye West, Lil Wayne), retro soul singers (Sharon Jones, Duffy), celebrated electronic acts (Underworld, Moby) and the mellowest man in the world (Jack Johnson), along with Japan's best-known Beatles tribute band (Silver Beats).

We scoured the discographies of each act to come up with the 10 albums that belong in every music collection. (And yes, there was a one-album-per-artist limit. That's Dylan's fault.)

Bob Dylan -- "Bringing It All Back Home" (1965)

It's the best Dylan album because it captures all sides of his genius. On Side A, you've got the subversive singles ("Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Maggie's Farm"), the tender folk-rock ballads ("She Belongs to Me," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit") and a trio of hilarious, raucous garage rockers ("Outlaw Blues," "On the Road Again," "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"). Then you flip the record over and are reminded that he can sit there with just an acoustic guitar and blow ("It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)") your ("It's All Over Now, Baby Blue") mind ("Mr. Tambourine Man").

Kanye West -- "Late Registration" (2005)

Hip-hop with clear Top 40 intentions -- okay, Top One intentions -- simply doesn't come much better than this. So what if Kanye has only one rapping cadence? It's a good one, and such singles as "Touch the Sky" and especially "Gold Digger" are going to be rocking the clubs for years to come.

Wilco -- "Summerteeth" (1999)

This is where they shed the alt-country tag and Jeff Tweedy got to show off his diversity of songwriting styles while Jay Bennett did his best Brian Wilson impression with his obsessive attention to detail (remember those scenes in the documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart"?), resulting in an immaculately produced album. It's got the best Wilco pop songs and also some of Tweedy's most foreboding folk tunes, but it maintains a warmth and brightness throughout.

Underworld -- "dubnobasswithmyheadman" (1993)

The rare electronic (or rock, hip-hop, whatever) album to sustain itself for 70-plus minutes. It thumps, it soothes, it pulses, it chills, it rocks, it shimmers.

Foo Fighters -- "Foo Fighters" (1995)

No pressure or anything on Dave Grohl, releasing his debut album just over a year after Kurt Cobain's suicide, with the eyes of the entire alt-rock world on him. Turns out the drummer was a pretty great songwriter himself, reeling off a string of hook-filled post-grunge classics, including "This Is a Call," "I'll Stick Around" and "Alone + Easy Target."

Chuck Berry -- "The Great Twenty-Eight"

Everybody always talks about Berry's guitar work -- and not without reason, as his archetypal double-string licks fill more than a few pages in the rock-and-roll playbook. But he was also the first truly great rock-and-roll songwriter, an eloquent observational poet with a sly sense of humor. His best songs (generally about girls, cars and rock-and-roll itself -- the stuff at the center of the youth-culture soundtrack) still sound potent, especially the classic Chess sides, from "Maybellene" and "Johnny B. Goode" to "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Rock & Roll Music." They're all included on "The Great Twenty-Eight," which isn't the cleanest-sounding Chuck Berry compilation out there, nor the most comprehensive. But it hits all the right notes and makes for a tidy and thrilling primer on the birth of rock-and-roll.

Nine Inch Nails -- "The Downward Spiral" (1994)

Nihilism has never sounded so great. Literally: Trent Reznor crafted a breathtaking soundscape that positioned him as the Dr. Dre of industrial rock -- but the NIN mastermind's worldview was bleaker, more brooding and certainly more depraved than anything coming out of Dre's camp. "Closer" was the album's dark, sneering lead single, but "Hurt" is the superior song, which became obvious when Johnny Cash got hold of it and turned in one of the most powerful performances of the decade.

The Stooges -- "Fun House" (1970)

This remains one of rock-and-roll's most striking albums nearly 40 years after its release. Iggy Pop's howling vocals, Ron Asheton's buzz-saw guitar and Steve MacKay's blasting saxophone are the main ingredients in a swirling mess of primal noise that helped lay the foundations for punk and underground rock. From the churning opener, "Down on the Street," to the chaotic closer, "L.A. Blues," it's a throttling album that never lets up.

Stone Temple Pilots -- "Purple" (1994)

Probably the most inconsistent album on this list, and certainly the one that received the worst reviews when it was released, mostly because STP was so derivative. ("Might as well be an alternative-rock tribute album," Entertainment Weekly wrote. Ouch!) But what the band lacked in originality it made up in songcraft, which peaked on the album's monster arena-rock hits, "Vasoline," "Big Empty" and "Interstate Love Song." Expertly blending heaviness and hooks, they've aged far better than most hits from the era.

Moby -- "Everything Is Wrong" (1995)

In which the restless studio whiz scratches a dizzying array of stylistic itches (gospelly house, scuzzy blues, breakneck jungle, thrashy industrial metal, meditative New Age-y instrumentals) and somehow creates something sweaty and spiritual and primal and intellectual and, yes, wholly cohesive and endlessly listenable.

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