Below is my list of ten essential Urban Dad albums, records that every grown man of culture should have come across at some point in his life.
It’s admittedly NYC-skewed and since it’s also dad-oriented, hipness and overall greatness have been jettisoned for a certain maturity and adult-centered mindset. So Lower East Side classics like The Velvet Underground & Nico and modern-day standards like The Strokes’ debut are not included. They’re just too damn cool and youthful.
And like it or not, we fathers must be honest with ourselves if we wish to remain vital: Don’t kid yourself, buddy. Being a dad just ain’t hip.
Anarchy, nihilism, debauchery, narcissism and self-destruction… all piss down giant tsunami-waves of cool upon the punier and more wholesome traits of later life, such as selflessness, sacrifice and caring. And please… don’t try and ply me with any of that, “Well I say that raising a family and being a man and blah, blah, blah,” IS cool sh*t cause’ it ain’t gonna fly over here, pal. This is the United States of America and youthful hipness is KING!
So this list ain’t for kiddies nor is it merely about ‘great’ albums. It’s about music that is somehow linked to a certain geographical and generational time and space. Urban, semi-educated parents who grew up in a certain (literal and figurative) place and can relate to the particular story these records tell. It’s also admittedly very much based on my own personal journey, hence very few albums post 1985.
So with little further ado…
SuperDuperDad presents The Top Ten Urban Dad Records of All Time:
1) John Lennon/Yoko Ono- Double Fantasy
The Beatles are beyond ‘urban.’ They’re beyond ‘British, pop, youth, adult’ and any and all categorizing terms one can apply to a band.
John Lennon, however, is a (sort of) different matter.
He was basically an NYC dad for his entire solo career. So although ‘Plastic Ono Band’ is easily his strongest work (and in fact the ONLY truly essential disc by any ex-Beatle) and greatest hits compilation Shaved Fish is a more enjoyable listen, Double Fantasy is the JL disc that best embodies urban parenthood, in all its bland and over polished glory.
From his reflections on love in adulthood (“Woman”) to that common parental feeling of stir-craziness (“Steppin’ Out,” which Joe Jackson would easily best two years later on another TT Urban Dad disc) to his justifications for just plain taking a goddamn break already (“Watching The Wheels”), this record finds one of rock’s greatest songwriters knee deep in boring-ass fatherhood. Interspersed with Yoko tracks, it’s more a quintessential New York City album than a superb listen, a somehow truthful picture of what it’s like to be a 40 year old juggling being a boy and a man, a rocker and a daddy, with irritating wife-interjections included.
2) Paul Simon- Graceland
Any schlemiel can whip off a classic pop track. Men Without Hats, Crash Test Dummies, The Vapors… It happens. But endurance? Relevance? Well, folks, these are the very heart and soul of true artistic greatness. Miles Davis and Bob Dylan are two examples of artists who defied the odds and made captivating music over a decade after game-changing debuts.
But Paul Simon is a different matter altogether. Name one other 60’s icon who, decades after creating some of his most legendary work, flipped the script and arguably one-upped (or at least equalled) his best material of the past with an astonishing new sound and direction.
Aside from the not-quite as great Leonard Cohen, (see below), Neil Young, with his unfairly maligned ‘Landing on Water’ is the closest example I can conjure up and the act of switching out electric guitars for synths, as Ol’ Man Young did doth not a revolution make, my friends. Plus no one but me liked that album.
Paul, on the other hand, basically ended up starting a stateside “world music” craze and his forward-thinking blend of urban cosmopolitan ennui with African-peasant pop continues to inspire post-modern alchemists to this day. And he made a fantastic album in the process. Far from a dry, academic exercise in musical tourism, Graceland is funky, fabulous and affecting fun from start to finish, with songs as strong as the grooves that drive them.
The 9 year old son from his first marriage accompanies him on the pilgrimage to regain innocence and make sense of his life in the title track, and from bombs in a baby carriage to diamond-soled shoes, the album keeps the somehow worldly yet peculiarly New York-imagery coming. Although it does indeed have a “world music” sound, Graceland is infused with the taste and sensibility of the famous Manhattanite who created it, somehow beating out his other work from the 70’s and 80’s in terms of crafting the definitive portrait of the neurotic and alienated Jewish New York Dad.
Although not everyone was thrilled by Simon’s musical pillaging (esteemed Village Voice critic Robert Christgau was famously disgusted by Paul’s talk of a ‘cinematographer’s party’ over beats taken from the poorest villages of South Africa), time has sanded away the prickly issues of the past and Graceland rightfully stands as one of the 80’s greatest albums, all the more astonishing an achievement coming from an icon of the 1960’s.
Billy Joel- The Nylon Curtain (When depressed)
Billy Joel- An Innocent Man (When in love or reborn)
Here is an artist who has pried respect from the cold, dead hand of the critical establishment that’s smacked him in the face repeatedly, year after year, from the 70s to the 80’s and beyond, time and time again.
Yet despite the decades of critical sneering, BJ has emerged at the other end not only respected but one of the most commercially successful artists of all time.
Yeah, yeah… Big whoop, Bon Jovi sold plenty of albums too and Hitler was fairly successful at achieving his goals for a while there as well but of course numbers don’t equal greatness.
Ah but Billy showed the longevity we discussed several albums back, and well over a decade after “Piano Man” hijacked 70’s AM radio he continued to churn out chart-topping pop classics, each with that uncanny quality of inevitability, the sense that these songs existed someplace and sometime already and were just waiting to be plucked out of the air and dumped into our public mass-consciousness to reside there forever, inescapable and unforgettable, however slight and facile they may sometimes be.
And if these ruminations of an average Long Island lad growing up on the prowl for beer and girls ain’t exactly Chopin, well… then that’s part of their success: Billy speaks to the average Joe in all of us and his tireless sense of melodic genius and invention keep it compelling.
1982’s Nylon Curtain held particular relevance to me. Like Billy, my dad was going through an unhappy divorce and the sub-urban malaise that permeates the album was real and palpable for many parents struggling through this period of uncertainty and change. The concept of the Modern Dad we know and love today, with a particular blend of sensitivity and stoic strength, was rising painfully from the ashes of the old 60’s and 70’s archetype. And like many men from his generation, my dad was suddenly realizing that something was wrong, that maybe the things he worked so hard for decade after decade weren’t quite what he’d wanted at all. Accidentally coming upon one of his journals in the relatively new Upper East Side bachelor pad he took after abandoning us would leave me shaken, with my first ever realization that parents were people too, with feelings of helplessness and despondency just like everyone else.
Billy fought on with the rest of his restless charge, and the hints of suburban dystopia on 1980’s ‘Glass Houses’ get tweaked and intensified on the relatively dark and moody ‘Nylon Curtain.’ Although tracks like “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon” dealt with more topical issues, many songs somehow oozed the scent of too many nights changing the channel aimlessly in a room illuminated only by the lonely blue light of the T.V while cab horns honked relentlessly, twenty stories below. And every single dad who dated in New York knew a crazy “Laura” type who would call in the middle of the night with drama aplenty.
Despite selling over 2 million copies it was a substantial drop in sales from the previous album as well as what would follow. Flush with the ecstasy of falling madly in love with Christie Brinkley, Billy released the commercial smash ‘An Innocent Man’ in 1983. Packed with joyful odes to love and rebirth, it was an instant blockbuster. Songs like “Leave A Tender Moment Alone”, “Keeping the Faith,” and the title track defined love from an adult standpoint while still reveling in it’s youthful high. In “The Longest Time” Joel re-fashions the doo-wop he loved throughout his childhood into a modern classic of his own.
In combination, the two albums tell the story of a dad’s journey through the heartbreaking pain and disillusionment of adulthood that so many of us must face. ‘An Innocent Man’ swept that uncertainty away with it’s enthralling sense of love and optimism, leaving the protagonist renewed and reborn and yet like several other NYC dads in this essay, with a newfound definition of love that was more complex and more layered than what had come before.
After a well-deserved break, 1986’s ‘The Bridge’ would conceptually blend the two previous discs without quite hitting the same peaks or dark chasms, while still delivering some great pop gems. It remains, at the time of this writing, the last great album of his career.
4) Elvis Costello- Imperial Bedroom
Not terribly urban nor fatherly and damn near disqualified for being so bloody British, Declan McManus’s labyrinthine and literate look at love, marriage and home-making still deserves a place on the SuperDuperDad Urban Top Ten.
Possibly the greatest lyricist EVER, with only Dylan and maybe A-game Lou Reed or Paul Simon for competition, Elvis weaves what would be better described as sound-pictures than mere songs. His first 4 albums are some of pop’s greatest ever but are too full of youthfully bracing brilliance and bold feats of lyrical daring for this list.
‘Imperial Bedroom’, on the other hand, with it’s tales of lonely wives and unemployment fits in just fine. Although 1986’s ‘King Of America’ is the album that finally ushers in the true, dreaded ‘maturity’ demon that every artist must slay, (which Elvis does with characteristic greatness on that folk and country-tinged gem), ‘Imperial Bedroom’ emits a new sophistication that many an urban parent can relate to.
5) Bob Dylan- Blood on the Tracks
Like Imperial Bedroom, BOTT is neither urban nor fatherly but somehow takes it’s place in the SDD Urban Dad annals. This famous NYC inhabitant’s take on heartbreak, with the depth and weight that only someone over thirty can know, must surely hold the mantle for one of the greatest breakup albums of all time. And what parent can’t relate to that?
Touching on subjects like regret, time and fate, it’s a dark and sorrowful masterwork of mature pain, lacking the swaggering cool and jarring invention that discounts Dylan’s iconic 60s’ masterpieces from this list.
6) Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band- Born in the U.S.A
As one of NJ’s most famous residents, the Boss sneaks into the urban Dad-album stew by delineating that all-important space to us New Yorkers: the Suburbs. The ‘Burbs are key to the NYC mythology because its where many of us came from and where many end up. And thus its story is our story, one that’s a part of so many city dwellers’ psyches’. The alienation felt by the Vietnam vet in the title track serves as a metaphor for anyone who wakes up to find themselves lost in the middle of their lives, unsure how they got there and without a goddamn clue where they’re going. “Bobby Jean” shares the all-too identifiable pain of watching someone you knew grow into someone you don’t anymore and of course the trenchant but funny “Glory Days” laughs and cries simultaneously about growing older. An adult album through and through, ‘Born in the U.S.A’ shows’s Bruce knocking the aforementioned and dreaded ‘artistic maturity’ phase-album out the park.
7) Joe Jackson- Night And Day
Inspired by the recently divorced and expatriated limey’s move to NYC, ‘Night and Day’ is yet another full-grown take on livin’ in the city, complete with ruminations on mortality, sexuality and that good ol’ staple of growing older, the passage of time. Joe’s focus on ivory-tickling sophisto-pop gives the proceedings a jazzy,cosmopolitan feel as he delivers some of the best songs of his career.
From the restrained euphoria of MTV smash-hit “Steppin’ Out” to the sexual ambiguity of “Real Men,” it’s definitely an album for grown ups. “Always something breaking us in two,” he sings in hurt wonderment on a track that conclusively ends a relationship with a blend of childlike simplicity and adult pain that stands as a good metaphor for the albums’ struggles in general. With themes that constantly draw a parallel between the rebirth and disorientation that one feels in a new and foreign environment and the rebirth and rejuvenation of leaving youth behind, Night and Day weaves a classic ‘coming-into-adulthood’ narrative for the urban dad.
8- Leonard Cohen- I’m Your Man
– Yet another reinvention, almost as startling as the above-mentioned Paul Simon’s, “I’m Your Man” is also Leonard’s most compelling collection of songs. The artificial, funky synth tracks are a perfect counterpoint to his mournful, sorrowful drone, somehow equally hilarious and epic: the perfect blend of old-world European histrionics and the slick, soulless future that we’re constantly inching towards. The icy, heartless Euro-pop of “Everybody Knows” remains a perfect vessel for Lenny to chant, as only he can, that the sweet, warm promise of childhood is an empty dream with no relation to the reality we encounter as grown-ups.
9) Talking Heads- Little Creatures
The album in which some of New York’s favorite boho eggheads ponder raising a family in the way that only an arty NYC egghead can. David Byrne’s perenially weird and wonderful worldview espoused with some of the strongest songwriting of his generation. The superb hooks and warmth of the instrumentation helps take away the edges that made the early Heads’ albums such wonders of twitchy, youthful originality, while retaining the super-strong songwriting.
10) Traveling Wilburys- Volume One
Like Leonard Cohen’s above opus, the Wilbury’s score points just for motive alone. These albums are dealing with growing older, trying to make sense of it with varying degrees of grace and humor. Few LP’s on the subject come more start-studded, which makes the amount of humor and humility here all the more (pleasantly) surprising.
Dylan’s racey -for an ol’ dude anyway- “Dirty World” gets all the right guffaws for it’s auto-themed sexual innuendo while “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” manages to mock his own 60’s work and Springsteen’s early tracks simultaneously and with great aplomb. But it’s the moments where they make fun of themselves and their elder statesman statuses that yield the most affecting chuckles. “Been overexposed, commercialized,” sings George Harrison in the joyful “Handle With Care,” and you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry for him.
“The End of The Line,” prepares for the End with more life-affirming empathy and humor, and has Tom Petty declaring, “I don’t have to be ashamed of the car I drive… I’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive.” The elder Wilbury, Roy Orbison, would pass on soon after the album’s release, safe in the knowledge he’d participated in one more classic piece of art that helped to reaffirm what a glorious, heart-warming mess this life can be.
And there you have it. The Top Ten Urban Dad albums of all time.
Or are they? You disagree, huh?
Add YOUR ten in the comments below, then, why don’t ya, punk?