The Kinks Albums From Worst To Best
In some ways, the story of the Kinks feels familiar: In 1962, four working-class London teenagers besotted with American R&B and country music unite. Their initial creative exertions hold a thrilling mirror back to their inspirations overseas, supercharging the sounds of Little Richard, Hank Williams, and the Ventures with the riveted anxiety of a post-war youth culture on the brink of full-blown combustion. Then there is the indelible, Old Testament-worthy tale of the Brothers Davies — Ray and Dave — two extraordinary talents whose nearly diametrically opposed personalities frequently brought them to blows or worse. These are the origin stories, the mythic ones, which condense real truths into easily accessible shorthand. However, as with everything pertaining to the Kinks, the actual truth is far weirder and more fascinating. It is a thirty-year story of personal and creative highs and lows worthy of the Dickens characters they often dressed as. It is replete with astonishing displays of depravation, cruelty, love, compassion, and need. Most of all, it is the strange, ever-contradictory tale of a band with a legitimate claim to being rock and roll’s all-time best, but who are rarely included in that conversation. In the fifty years since their inception, there is essentially no rock and roll-adjacent genre or subgenre over which the Kinks do not possess a legitimate claim as crucial progenitors: punk, heavy metal, American indie, Britpop, alt-country, glam, pub rock, you name it. Every last one owes a massive debt of gratitude to the boys from Muswell Hill.
Even during their seemingly out-of-nowhere flirtation with the American charts in the 1980s, the Kinks never approached the Stateside level of popularity achieved by the British Invasion Big Three of the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who. And yet, it is difficult to imagine any of those groups reaching their respective creative heights minus the inspiration provided by Ray Davies and company. The brash, stripped-down desperation of the Kinks’ classic early singles raised the bar for primal aggression in rock and roll, giving a green light to the Stones’ most lurid impulses. Meanwhile, Ray Davies’ fascination with the fading mores of Britain’s declining empire and sharp satirical pen pre-dated the Lennon-McCartney fancy for English picaresque. Pete Townshend is often credited (if that is the right word) with marrying rock music to long-form narrative, but in reality the Kinks got there first, and often more effectively, on their series of plot- and concept-driven records beginning with Village Green Preservation Society released months before the Who’s rock opera Tommy. Townshend himself, not a man lacking in self-regard, commented to Uncut magazine in 2004, “People in America talk about ‘the Beatles, the Stones, the Who.’ For me it’s ‘the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks.'”
But for moptop-crazed America during the middle ’60s, the version of Cool Britannia presented by the Kinks was a bridge too far — a confusing mélange of roughnecked working-class rage and foppish, pansexual dandy-ism that was as unkempt as the group’s thrillingly rambunctious live shows. Following a disastrous 1965 tour, the Kinks were functionally banned from the US for the better part of a decade, robbing them of the untold spoils of their contemporaries and perhaps further inculcating the deep, proud provincialism that would come to define the best of Ray Davies’ writing.
National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. once famously described the function of political conservatism as standing “athwart history, yelling stop!” While Ray Davies would certainly feel little in common with Buckley’s blue-blooded economic values, there is perhaps not a greater description available for the overarching themes of his songwriting. As the ’60s progressed and Swinging London became an ever more fertile playground for balls-out hedonism of every sort, Ray famously remained a sideline observer: the gently mocking scold of “Dandy” or the hand-wringing Cassandra of “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” Nearly every musical figure associated with the free-love and Utopian antics of the mid to late ’60s eventually turned their attentions away, disillusioned and embarrassed. Ray Davies was a different sort, circumspect from the start, nostalgic and traditional by his nature.
By the time San Francisco’s acid rock scene had become the full-fledged vogue of the day, Ray had lost interest completely, instead moving purposefully backwards in his brilliant Victorian evocations of Village Green and the poignant tales of familial dislocations of Arthur. In many ways, his retreat mirrored Bob Dylan’s similarly disaffected reaction to psychedelia — Ray’s music hall-era musings echoing Dylan’s return to American folk and C&W on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. Whatever its source, Ray’s extraordinary penchant for evoking wrenching, complicated sentiments from sepia-toned days of yore is a linchpin for understanding this most complex of performers. That specific gift is perhaps best exemplified on his perfect song “Waterloo Sunset,” 3:16 of poignant reverie that gradually takes on novelistic weight, touching on fear, loneliness, love, nature and London’s decaying beauty, all with the subtle touch of an unreconstructed master. It is all too Kinks-ian to consider that while “Waterloo Sunset” has become a kind of second national anthem for the British — something like “This Land Is Your Land” — it remains largely unacknowledged in America to this day.
Upon his inevitable emergence as an avatar of the ’90s Britpop movement, Ray Davies was dutifully unimpressed, commenting to author Nick Hasted in his fine overview of the group The Story Of The Kinks: You Really Got Me that Blur, Oasis, and their cohort had succeeded in creating only “a Legoland version of the ’60s.” But to the extent that he had a point, Davies had only himself to blame. Much as is the case with Merle Haggard and his powerful, largely fictional recollections of a pre-Kennedy America filled with hard working men and scarlet temptresses, the post-War England of Ray’s imagination was so compelling as to displace reality with the fantasy he had so forcefully furnished. No wonder that Damon Albarn — Ray’s most obvious successor as Britain’s pop laureate — sometimes appeared reluctant to embrace the new. He was too busy trying to get back to the Village Green.
Despite the emphasis on tradition, something in the Kinks remained so determinedly modern that when both the Jam and Van Halen covered Ray’s songs to great effect in 1978, neither felt remotely out of place. Even as the group crested into highly unforeseen levels of popularity in the early 1980s, they remained largely untamable, a clear cousin to the American indie rock scene that birthed the Replacements, Royal Trux, and similarly unrepentant hellraisers. The Kinks, even ostensibly buttoned up, remained something like a genuine mess. That underdog spirit has made them less well known across a wide spectrum, but better loved by their truest fans than maybe any group in history. As decorated journalist and obsessive Kinksman Geoff Edgers, star of the indispensable fan’s journey Do It Again, puts it: “Loving the Kinks is about loving the imperfect and the self-destructive, about longing for a return to a world that may not have ever existed, and never, ever getting your teeth fixed.”
2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Kinks, and to celebrate, two impressive compilations will be released over the next two months: In October, Legacy will give us the two-disc The Essential Kinks, featuring liner notes by David Bowie, and in November, BMG/InGrooves will release the five-CD The Anthology 1964-1971, which contains more than 100 songs. More exciting still, rumors abound that next year, the Kinks will actually reunite. So this seems an especially apt time to revisit the band’s monstrous, massively influential catalog. Shall we?
UK Jive (1989)
The accumulated talent of the Davies brothers all but guarantees that any release branded as the Kinks will be worthy of a listen, and 1989's UK Jive is no exception, with tracks like the hard-driving "Aggravation" and the riff-rocking "Entertainment" highlighting a collection of songs that seethe at the encroachment of technology and the ever more crass iterations of modern media. While the lyrics largely retain the band's patented blend of cunning vituperation and homeward-looking humanity, the tunes are often regrettably perfunctory, and the production a problematic compromise between trademark Kinks spontaneity and ostensibly modern touches. Despite it all, this is still the Kinks, and well worth a spin or two: There is charm to spare on the title track as well as Dave's druggy contemplation of existential anxiety "Loony Balloon."
Like its other late-period compatriots, 1993's Phobia is a mixed bag that neither discredits the group's greatest achievements nor contributes in a significant way to their overall legacy. On the plus side, the winsome, country-ish "Scattered" is an obvious winner, cheerfully death obsessed as ever with its vintage chorus complementing some great Dave guitar. On the other end of the ledger, co-write "Drift Away" wastes a pretty decent tune on the sort of remarkably artless, kitchen-sink production that too frequently is a befuddling feature of the band in its last stages. The bulk of Phobia is admirably tough and combative for a group always known for their pugnaciousness, but largely lacking in the subtle humor and nuance of their best work. No one could have imagined they'd last as long as they did, but on Phobia the end of of the road feels in sight.
The Kinks Present A Soap Opera (1975)
Say what you will about Ray Davies, he was not contented to let the grass grow under his feet in the '70s. This is best evidenced by exertions like A Soap Opera, one of the two concept albums released by the Kinks in 1975. The story here is not entirely unlike the ambush-makeover-self-improvement-style reality shows of current vintage -- the cocksure rockstar "Starmaker" a self-described "creator, inventor, innovator, magic maker and interior decorator" declares he can take the most ordinary man in the world and turn him into a celebrity. Said ordinary man is "Norman," who lives a boring life with his wife "Andrea." Starmaker declares that he will take Norman's place for a few days, tells Andrea to just be cool and act like everything's business as usual, and by the end of this, Norman will be a huge star. Things proceed from here and not everything goes as planned. As plots go, it's not exactly airtight, but one could overlook the sheer ridiculousness of it all if the songs were a little better. Unfortunately, that's not the case.
Preservation Act 2 (1974)
Preservation Act was Ray's excessively lengthy effort at writing a politically themed rock opera that was loosely based on the good people of Village Green. During the conception, writing, and recording of the two-album monolith, Ray's personal life was unraveling and he was at one of his most psychologically unhinged points. Perhaps this partially explains why he felt compelled to delve back into the fictional lives and characters of the Village Green and do a little bit of Raysplaining about institutional evil and corruption in the modern age. The records tell the story of a battle between Mr. Flash, a spendy, good-time capitalist with a flair for conspicuous consumption, and Mr. Black, an ascetic socialist dictator type looking to crush individualism. Somewhere in the middle of this is the Tramp, a more or less apolitical narrator/outside voice of reason. It's all very confusing. Preservation Act 2, the second installment of the release, is a difficult and bloated affair. It's mainly Ray doing a bunch of characters in a handful of theatrical voices, which is kind of fun and impressive, but the songs just aren't there.
The Kinks Present Schoolboys In Disgrace (1975)
Schoolboys In Disgrace was the second concept album released by the Kinks in 1975, written and produced by Ray on the heels of A Soap Opera. The liner notes suggest that Schoolboys is an effort to give some backstory to Preservation’s Mr. Flash, but the album mostly conveys a strange combination of hazy nostalgia for their schooldays and some exploration of Dave's expulsion after getting his girlfriend pregnant. Relying heavily on musical themes and styles from '50s rock and R&B, the tracks are uniformly good, but not great. Overall, the record feels like a jukebox collection of Ray's influences, and one gets the overwhelming sense that at this point his mind was entirely digressive and obsessed with his world of fictionalized characters. Listening to the record absent of any context makes for an even stranger, not entirely unsatisfying experience.
Low Budget (1979)
Taking as its jumping-off point the profound economic woes of Jimmy Carter's waning days in office, 1979's Low Budget is not exactly a concept record, but finds Ray again toying with an overarching premise that unites the songs. It seems like promising enough subject matter, but most of the record has not aged particularly well, either in terms of its sound or its reference points. The pretty good title track weaves together some wry commentary over Dave's gritty guitar, with Ray making good-natured allusion to his own reputation as a notorious tightwad, while "Gallon Of Gas" is a straightforward twelve-bar workout which plays to the band's strengths and recalls Neil Young's similarly themed "Vampire Blues." "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" sounds more or less like Foreigner with clever lyrics, which is not exactly an insult, but nevertheless unsettling. After years of plotting a career course as counterintuitive as possible, this is the sound of Ray Davies ready for his closeup and playing ball with the industry he so often derides. The band's ensuing success would be richly deserved, but the weirdly mercenary Low Budget makes for an awkward vehicle to arrive at it.
Think Visual (1986)
By 1986 the Davies brothers were into their 40s and faced with the vexing conundrum of how to grow old gracefully within a genre premised on voraciously eating its young. Effectively splitting the difference between strong writing and "contemporary sounds," Think Visual touches on many of the Kinks' longstanding themes -- especially working-class angst, runaway corporate greed, and crass modernity. "Video Shop" is a pleasant confection decrying the displacement of the communal cinema experience, at once clever and illustrative of the limits of Ray's anti-technology worldview (children of today might well wonder what in the bejesus the Video Shop was in the first place). More effective is the excellent, synth-driven "Killing Time," a top-shelf Ray contemplation on wealth disparity and the monotony of workaday life that, dressed in different clothes, wouldn't sound out of place on Muswell Hillbillies. In terms of both songs and sonics, Think Visual has aged with surprising grace.
Word Of Mouth (1984)
Riding a commercial high after the unexpected runaway success of "Come Dancing," the Kinks attempted to follow that triumph with a similarly modern-sounding collection of rough and ready tunes on 1984's Word Of Mouth. Opening track and lead single "Do It Again" failed to reach the commercial heights of "Come Dancing," but it's nearly as wonderful in its way, a re-statement of Sisyphean purpose in which Ray both laments and celebrates the up and down consequences of his workaholic personality. Dave's "Living On A Thin Line" sharply updates the Davies' rendering of post-war Britain in all of its social and moral decay, while Ray's curious but fascinating "Going Solo" alludes to both his broken relationship with The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde and his darkest fears and fantasies about breaking up with the band. Word Of Mouth is no Kink's masterpiece, but it is a rich and fascinating listen well worth the price of admission.
Following the sometimes exhausting crush of ever more ambitious, ever less commercially viable large-scale productions from Ray, the Kinks settled back into the business of making straightforward rock and roll on 1977's Sleepwalker, and in doing so set into motion a late-career charge that would bring them the Stateside popularity they had so long coveted. Sleepwalker isn't top-notch Kinks, but it's fun to hear the group loosening up and flexing its muscle on tracks like the shuffling opener "Life On The Road" and the charging rock and roll verite of "Juke Box Music." If Ray doesn't sound exactly convincing as the degenerate menace of the title track, at least it sounds like he's having some fun. Sleepwalker is transitional and often inessential, but it represents an important break from the hyper self-conscious predilections that had threatened to turn the Kinks from a great band into a deeply weird one-man revue.
Preservation Act 1 (1973)
While the initial concept of Preservation Act appears to have the hints of a grand social narrative, it hangs together only tenuously over the course its component three LPs. Preservation Act 1 is more successful than Act 2 -- it's shorter, it's less ham-fisted and didactic, and the songs are a lot stronger. "One Of The Survivors" is a fun rocker that answers the question of what happened to Village Green's own Johnny Thunder (answer: He got fat but is still rocking), while the majestic, orchestral "Daylight" gives a spirited overview of the Village and its sundry denizens. One of the strongest and loveliest tracks on the record is "Sweet Lady Genevieve," a pining lament written to Ray Davies' estranged wife, which exposes the artist's tortured soul -- a beautiful and raw moment on an album that is mostly broad theatrics and cartoon characters.
State Of Confusion (1983)
The notion of the band reinventing themselves for New Wave audiences was seemingly a strange and unlikely one, but no other major artist from the '60s and '70s besides David Bowie was able to manage the feat as ably as the Kinks, creating music both in step with its era and commensurate with the band's established standard of excellence. 1983's State Of Confusion finds the Davies Brothers unwilling to recede quietly into that good night, at least without a quality punchup first. Channeling Roxy Music, Madness, and others influenced by their work, the Kinks created a sharp, moving, and thick-skinned album, reminiscent of their old mates the Stones' we're-still-here masterpiece Some Girls.
One For The Road (1980)
Never one for half measures, the maniacal bombast of 1980's hit double live set finds The Kinks operating utterly without subtlety, but still retaining a good deal of their inimitable charm. Following endless, quasi-ironic flirtations with stadium rock the band is all-in here, pumping up material both recent and vintage to borderline ludicrous heights of arena pomp. That's not to say One For The Road isn't a success -- the band sounds great, the audience delirious, and the overall environment one of conquering heroes enjoying a long-deserved Stateside triumph. Old standards like "Victoria" are assaulted with the same verve as newer highlights like "The Hard Way," with the net effect falling somewhere between crass and timeless. Arguably the most compelling shorthand for all of the things the band got both right and wrong in their late-'70s return to commercial prominence, One For The Road is a crucial historical document, and a pretty great failsafe to go to if you find yourself in the mood for an old-fashioned populist singalong.
After a few wilderness years of toiling away with Ray's ever more confounding large-scale projects, the Kinks began to pivot back toward a more commercial approach in the late 1970s. After setting the table with the palate-cleansing Sleepwalker, the band delivered a batch of purposeful, concise, and frequently brilliant tracks on 1978's Misfits. The strange but wonderful "Rock And Roll Fantasy" is one of Ray's most moving bone-deep confessionals, while the title track recalls the kind of great soul ballads that once made the Faces so incandescent. Dave chips in with the poignant spiritual contemplation "Trust Your Heart," which underscores the record's striking melancholy and seems to provide an answer of sorts to his brother's wounded soul searching.
Designed to capitalize on the success of the epochal "You Really Got Me" single and padded out with covers of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and others, the Kinks first full-length album is an agreeably slapdash affair that only hints at the latent greatness that would shortly emerge. By and large, there isn't too terribly much here to distinguish the nascent Kinks from the legions of British bands doing similar takes on American R&B in 1964, but when Ray unobtrusively slips in the classic original "Stop Your Sobbing" on the second side, the sound of slow gestating genius is unmistakable.
Give The People What They Want (1981)
1981's agreeably rambunctious Give The People What They Want sees the Kinks working to reclaim the commercial ground they had ceded to power-pop followers like Cheap Trick and Van Halen, and largely achieving the task. Ray's tongue is firmly in cheek on the title track, a kind of meta-commentary on the album's modest artistic ambitions, which doubtless sailed over the heads of the arena audiences for which it was contrived. "Destroyer" goes even one further, consciously recycling the riff from "All Day, And All Of The Night" and transforming it into both a massive commercial hit and a potent demonstration of self-loathing. All of this is good, toxic fun of the sort only the Kinks can deliver, but the best moment is still when Ray briefly shelves his poison pen on "Better Things," a gorgeous, plaintive song of weary encouragement that ranks with the greatest he has ever written.
Kinda Kinks (1965)
1965's bravura collection of rough-hewn garage and blues-based rock Kinda Kinks would constitute a spectacular achievement for just about any artist, and suffers only in comparison with this band's later bursts of astonishing inspiration. Taken on its own terms, this assemblage of spot-on covers and riveting originals (including Ray's timeless "Tired Of Waiting For You") sits agreeably alongside Beatles For Sale and Out Of Our Heads as a testament to a great band mastering the tools of its trade, before reinventing that trade entirely.
Everybody's In Show Biz (1972)
Frequently understood as a minor achievement and companion piece to the masterful Muswell Hillbilies, 1972's studio-/live-album hybrid Everybody's In Show Biz has aged extraordinarily well and stands as an invaluable document of a masterful band at its loosest and most offhand. Filled with wry meditations on life on the road with a special emphasis on snacks, this oddball but inarguably great collection of tunes recalls the mirthful anything-goes mayhem of Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes, three years before those 1967 sessions would be officially released to the public. "Here Comes Another Day" and "Sitting In My Hotel Room" are classic tales of travel-sick tedium while "Celluloid Heroes" casts Ray's lifelong love affair with cinema into bold relief, albeit with characteristic ambivalence. Antic live takes on Hillbillies tracks "Alcohol" and "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoid Blues" find the band in top form, pitched somewhere between a barrelhouse roots band and a Victorian vaudeville act. By turns cheerfully half-baked and sneakily poignant, Everybody's In Show Biz is filled with shaggy, funny, ribald music of the sort which would soon be in too short supply on subsequent Kinks records over the next several years.
The Kink Kontroversy (1965)
Featuring some of the greatest tunes in the formidable Davies catalogue, The Kink Kontroversy is a brittle, bitter-hearted British counterpart to the expansive comingling of folk and electric blues that was concurrently being rendered by Bob Dylan on Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Ray's growing impatience with Swinging London excesses is fully on display with the cheerfully bratty takedowns of "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion" and "Where Have All The Good Times Gone?," while the giddy barrelhouse bounce of "It's Too Late" suggests the New Orleans influence which will soon become a crucial part of the band's evolving sound. Still Kontroversy is often Dave's show, giving wide berth to arguably the era's best and most innovative guitarist on tracks like the definitive, menacing cover of Sleepy John Estes' "Milk Cow Blues" and the instant all-time classic "To The End Of The Day." Beginning with Kontroversy it would be the better part of a decade before the Kinks made a record that was anything less than utter genius.
Face To Face (1966)
Coming amidst the extraordinary outpouring of great British music in the year 1966, which included the Beatles' Revolver, the Who's A Quick One and the Stones' Aftermath, Ray and the Kinks more than held court with the extraordinary Face To Face, a non-stop blast of garage-pop gems replete with the Davies' typically acid social commentary. Opener "Party Line" is a brilliantly funny take on Ray's ever encroaching paranoia while the sardonic get-away-gone-wrong snarl of "Holiday In Waikiki" anticipates the Clash's "Safe European Home" by more than a decade. Elsewhere, the band's preoccupation with the perils of conspicuous consumption gets its first real airing on "A House In The Country" and "Most Exclusive Residence For Sale." Though less well-remembered than the work of their more celebrated contemporaries, Face To Face finds the Kinks writing and innovating at a pace equivalent to even the Lennon-McCartney juggernaut. And they were just getting started.
Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneyground, Part One (1970)
On their third full-fledged concept record in three years, Ray and the band bring out the long knives for the music industry that had so long exploited them, resulting in one of the emotionally toughest, hardest-rocking, and most successful records of the Kinks' long career. Beginning with the proto pub-rock freak out "The Contenders," and culminating with the resigned personal mission statement "Gotta Be Free," Lola is one of the first records to deeply explore the bizzarro world compromises and contradictions of life as a rock star, and arguably still the best. While the wry, brilliant title track gave the Kinks their biggest hit in years, the real heart of this wonderful, curious record lies in Dave's "Strangers," a high-lonesome acoustic lament equal parts Ernest Tubbs and Alex Chilton. Ray's acid, piss-taking "Top Of The Pops" veritably seethes with disdain for his chosen profession, while the wounded bravado of "This Time Tomorrow" considers the predicament of the "beloved entertainer" who knows it's too late to stop now. The last of the Kinks great narrative records, Lola is an enormous achievement, full of wonder, regret, and a nearly excruciating degree of self-conscious insight.
Muswell Hillbillies (1971)
By 1971, the Kinks unsurpassed talent and wandering muse had led them to alchemize a sound so unique and exhilarating that it seemed to exist outside the time/space continuum. The utterly idiosyncratic and ingenious mélange of proto-punk looseness and strict traditionalism that populates the brilliant character sketches of Muswell Hillbillies is without ready analogue. Equal parts Bolen and Bechet, it is the unclaimed bastard child of the American and British music love affair, demonstrating at every turn traits of both parents, never revealing whom the real father might be. From the cheerfully menacing opener "20th Century Man" to the morbid burlesque of "Alcohol" to the bringing-it-all-back-home rave up of the title track, this sublime achievement never hits a false note. A classic underdog's soundtrack, Muswell Hillbillies seems to acknowledge that the masses will always have their Beatles and Stones to get off on. For the underdogs amongst us, well, maybe we're just all Muswell hillbilly boys.
The Kinks Are Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
Village Green represents the crucial pivot point of the Kinks' remarkable trajectory, as well as the initial indication of the enormity of Ray Davies ambitions as a chronicler of modern English life. In full retreat from the cultural progressivism of the late '60s, Ray's attempts to stuff the genie of pre-War English values back into a draught glass are alternately moving, hilarious, and vitriolic. The opening title track and "Do You Remember Walter?" are bitter pills disguised as pop confections, veritably bursting with anger over the keep-calm-and-carry-on jauntiness of their execution. Elsewhere the Lightnin' Hopkins quoting "Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains" is an elegy for the obsolete, and "Animal Farm" suggests that maybe the world would be altogether better off without any humans at all. Largely ignored upon its release, Village Green has been justifiably rehabilitated into its current status as an enduring and deeply influential pop classic. The Kinks may have made better records, but none so highly specific and fully realized. With its weird and endlessly compelling mixture of comic insouciance and impotent rage, Village Green is as wholly original as rock and roll gets, and marks the line of demarcation between the band as a reliably brilliant hit factory and Ray Davies as a panoramically gifted genius auteur.
Something Else By The Kinks (1967)
The title Something Else accurately depicts the Kinks' prolific capacity as well as their powerful songwriting capability in 1967 -- on the one hand, they were churning out records nearly twice a year and so this was just yet another LP to throw on the pile; on the other, this is a fantastic, superlative listen. Every song works, from the propulsive opener "David Watts" to the transcendent ending track, "Waterloo Sunset," by acclimation the best Kinks song and arguably one of the greatest songs ever written. Dave proves his songwriting talent as well on the rootsy, proto alt-country "Death Of A Clown," a highlight on an album of great tracks. Ray's knack for in-depth explorations of economic class in a highly bifurcated Britain shines through with fully formed character studies -- be it the people of "Harry Rag" who just want the tax man to spare them enough of their hard-earned coin to buy cigarettes, or the lost and yearning cricket-playing aristocrat who has no place to go "now that labour's in" as his girlfriend whiles away her days on a yacht in Greece. For a band that was originally considered to be just another in a long line of factory assembled blues-based single machines, Something Else represents Ray taking the two-and-a-half-minute song form to new heights of ingenuity. Unwilling to be consigned to being just another moptop mod in an English hunting jacket, here he announces himself as a major literary force.
Arthur (Or A Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) (1969)
Ray's penchant for outsized, overly ambitious rock and roll narratives has occasionally subsumed and undermined the best aspects of his songwriting genius, but when he gets the balance between ambition and execution correct, the results can be astounding. Such is the case on Arthur, a song cycle tackling no less a topic than the psychological effects of Britain's post-war erosion as a world power and the relationship of the nation toward its remaining colonies. Yes, it sounds more like a policy paper than a rock and roll record, but against all odds the end results are nothing less than thrilling. From the ragged, good-humored strut of the classic opener "Victoria," to the stunning, cold-blooded consideration of war's hellish consequences "Some Mother's Son," to the lovely, resigned climax of "Shangri-La," this is the sound of a great band operating at the peak of its powers. Doubling down on the homeward-looking meditations of Village Green Preservation Society, Ray establishes himself here as nothing less than a crucial historian of the British experience, suggesting something like William Manchester as backed by the Faces. Others may have produced ponderous "rock operas," but as a piece of living history, there is nothing else in the canon of rock and roll quite like the singular brilliance of Arthur.