Since its inception in 2010, Replacement Level has been exclusively a baseball blog. I’ve used baseball to talk about football, track, and music, but everything has come back to baseball. I recently wrapped up a music project several years in the making- a very thorough top 250 albums of all time for which I listened to well over 1,000 albums multiple times each. I don’t have a good forum in which to share my output other than this one, but I wanted to be true to the primary subject of this blog.
So I got a little creative.
In five parts over the next several days (or weeks, maybe- I’m not sure how this will play out), I will count down my 250 favorite albums since 1950 while comparing each one to one of the 250 greatest player seasons over the same span.
How it works
The albums will be presented in order of rank; the baseball seasons won’t. Rather, each season will be tied to an album based on some criteria they share, whether it’s a time period, a style, a similarity between a player’s persona and a band or album name, or the simple fact that the artist and the player had the same number of albums/seasons on the list. For example, #248, Deceit’s 1981 record This Heat will line up with a season in which Randy Johnson stuck out 372 hitters with his legendary heater (I suppose T-Rex’s The Slider could have matched up with the Big Unit as well). Meanwhile, three Bruce Springsteen albums will match up with three Cal Ripken seasons because both were dependable, admirable superstars whose careers overlapped.
How the lists were made
There’s a wide chasm between the amount of effort I put into making these two lists. Then again, one list is more objective, and much of the work has been done for me. I’ve collected music for decades, and have always found comparison the easiest form of music criticism. This is not my first ranked albums list. But in the 2000s, music got away from me. I didn’t buy as much new music, especially in the second half of the decade, as I had in the past, and the volume of new releases worthy of a listen grew as indie labels seemed to spring up weekly.
When 2009 came, I decided to give in to technology (I’d always been a CD guy), and collected hundreds of new albums in iTunes by sharing with friends (special shout-outs here to Ryan and Pat). I scoured critics’ lists of the best albums of each year, bought some new music to share, and spent the better part of a year listening to the decade’s best music (and some bad stuff as well), taking notes as to which albums were certainly top 100 fodder, which might make the cut, and which should get cut after two listens. By the end of the year, I had my top 100, bookended by OutKast’s Stankonia at the top and Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance at #100.
Over the next few years, I started using Spotify and Grooveshark to listen to new music, gradually accepting that I didn’t have to own an album to listen to it repeatedly. At the end of 2011, I decided my next project would be to fill in my ’90s collection by listening to much of the acclaimed music I never picked up when it came out. When I finished, I counted down the albums on Facebook, as I had with my 2000s list, and moved right on to the ’80s. I’d never been much of a fan of ’80s music beyond REM and Sonic Youth, so I leaned heavily on Spotify this time around, exploring the decade’s best, from Madonna and Michael Jackson to the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. The ’70s and ’60s were easier, as I’ve been a classic rock fan since high school and I already owned at least 80% of what I would ultimately listen to.
After five decades’ worth of top 100 lists, I dug way back into the ’50s by listening to a few of the jazz records I’ve collected throughout the years and checking out a handful of rock classics, settling on a top ten list, rather than a top 100, since the volume of legendary output from the ’50s doesn’t stack up against subsequent decades. I stopped here because the long player, invented in the late ’40s, didn’t really come into fashion until the mid-’50s, so it’s hard to compare earlier music to that of the last 60 years.
I made another top ten list of my favorite albums since 2010, not wanting to leave out recent music, giving me 520 albums from which to choose my favorite 250. Before compiling the decades into a master list, I ran through my top 100 albums of the 2000s again, since it had been three years since I first did this, making some changes to my order along the way.
In ranking my overall top 250, I decided to stay true to the order in which I had ranked the albums in each decade, even if I changed my mind about a record in the interim, because I had spent enough time listening to this music to form reasonable opinions and didn’t want the final product colored by knee-jerk reactions. I tentatively ranked my top 260, listened to them all in order, and tweaked as necessary. There were a few cases in which I regretted my original rankings (a few albums I ranked between #50 and #60 in the 1970s were certainly better than a handful of albums ahead of them), but I made the list work, finalizing my rankings just after Christmas 2012.
I chose 250 for a few reasons. First, having listened to so much music for this project, there were albums outside my top 200 that I couldn’t bear to cut. Then, as I worked baseball in, I decided to focus on the years 1950-2012, so that the music and baseball were contemporary. That’s 63 years, which means roughly one hitter and one pitcher in each league in each season would make the list. I didn’t pay much attention to actual award winners, but the top 250 player seasons since 1950 should all be MVP- or Cy Young-worthy or close to it.
At this point, it was time to select the baseball seasons. I started by pulling every player season worth at least 8 WAR per baseball-reference. I picked through that list and eliminated seasons in which fluky defensive numbers put a player with an otherwise-spotty defensive resume over the top and a few 8.0 or 8.1-win seasons for players like Willie Mays, for whom 8 wins were not a rarity. Then I looked at all the 8-win pitcher seasons according to fangraphs, which uses fielding-independent outcomes to measure WAR and therefore returned some very different seasons from b-r’s list. Then I took some record-breaking seasons that didn’t crack the 8-win barrier, some great seasons by catchers and relief pitchers, who tend to accrue fewer WAR due to playing time issues, and some memorable offensive seasons marred by negative dWAR.
When I had a final product, I set out comparing the two lists, identifying the players and bands with the most entries, finding the top handful of player seasons (but not ranking the rest, as WAR is not precise enough to draw such conclusions and I can’t imagine a subjective system better than WAR), and otherwise digging for connections. It was a fun exercise, as I took several days to match them up and my mind tended to gravitate toward different methods of comparison each day.
My intention now is to release 50 album/season combinations at a time, counting down from 250 to 1. I’ll also count down on Twitter (follow @replevel), probably starting from 100. In case you’re wondering, album #251 was The Band’s Music From Big Pink and the season I regret excluding most was probably Buster Posey’s 2012.
250. Ten, Pearl Jam , 1991 = Sammy Sosa , 1998
The same way Pearl Jam captured our hearts in the early ’90s, Slammin’ Sammy won us all over with 66 dingers in ’98.
249. The Sidewinder, Lee Morgan , 1964 = Dennis Eckersley , 1990
The best sidearm pitcher ever meets the silky smooth jazz sidewinder.
248. This Heat, Deceit , 1981 = Randy Johnson , 2001
This one explains itself, right?
247. In Utero, Nirvana , 1993 = Joe Torre , 1971
One of the most successful managers in baseball history was gestating as a leader while raking in St. Louis in ’71.
246. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, Sinead O’Connor , 1990 = Rod Carew , 1977
Carew was born on a racially-segregated train in the Panama Canal Zone and grew up poor. He seems like the type who didn’t want more than he had.
245. New Adventures in Hi-Fi, REM , 1996 = Robinson Cano , 2012
The days of Yankee teams loaded with huge contracts may not be gone, but Yankee teams loaded with offensive superstars are at least dormant, as Cano has been asked to carry the load in recent years. He responded in 2012, his 8.2 WAR leading the team through a new adventure.
244. Dookie, Green Day , 1994 = Duke Snider , 1955
243. A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles , 1964 = Willie Mays , 1954
Mays shows up eight times on this list, while the Beatles show up seven times. This is the earliest entry for both of them, an already-mature glimpse of more greatness to come.
242. Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy , 1990 = Jackie Robinson, 1952
In PE’s case and in Robinson’s, this was a follow-up to a revolution and further proof that both left indelible marks on their respective disciplines.
241. Axis: Bold as Love, Jimi Hendrix Experience , 1967 = Barry Bonds , 2004
Hendrix changed the language of rock the way Bonds changed managerial strategy. Bonds walked 232 times in 2004, which exceeds any National Leaguer’s hit total.
240. Bringing it All Back Home, Bob Dylan , 1965 = Greg Maddux , 1994
Dylan shows up so many times on this list that I had to tie him to both Maddux and one of the great hitters of the last half century. Maddux’s 1994 and Dylan’s Bringing it All Back Home both portended unprecedented greatness to come.
239. In a Silent Way, Miles Davis , 1969 = Albert Pujols , 2006
Soft-spoken but intimidating, Pujols and Davis each show up five times on this list. This was a championship season for Albert’s Cards and an undeniable triumph for the greatest trumpeter of all time.
238. Aenima, Tool , 1996 = Alex Rodriguez , 1998
Likening him to Tool is one of several shots I’ll take at ARod on this list, but his 46-homer, 42-steal 1998 was as shocking as Tool’s magnum opus.
237. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill , 1998 = Barry Bonds , 1993
Bonds shows up seven times, so I had to stretch to match him up with seven different albums. Lauryn Hill was, at times, a similarly controversial figure.
236. Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen , 1982 = Cal Ripken , 1984
Ripken and Springsteen are a natural match- two dependable, admirable superstars. Here’s a perhaps-overlooked entry from each of their solid catalogues.
235. Slanted and Enchanted, Pavement , 1992 = Hank Aaron , 1959
Pavement was not the flashy Willie Mays or the intimidating Bob Gibson, but like Hammerin’ Hank, they put out such consistently excellent material that their legacy will only grow in retirement.
234. Bossanova, Pixies , 1990 = Mike Schmidt , 1980
Best player of the ’80s, meet best band of the ’80s. Schmidt hit 48 homers in 1980 and added two in the World Series. The Pixies made their last great album too soon after their first.
233. Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan , 1975 = Greg Maddux , 1995
Maddux’s 19-2 record and 1.65 ERA in 1995 defined the dominance of his prime years, while Dylan reinvented himself for a second prime in 1975.
232. On the Corner, Miles Davis , 1972 = Albert Pujols , 2009
By 2009, offense was finally starting to taper off, but Pujols was immune, hitting .327/.443/.658. By 1972, jazz was gone from the mainstream, but Miles was chartering new territory with the rugged On the Corner.
231. Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, Lynyrd Skynyrd , 1973 = Ron Guidry , 1978
A Louisiana boy meets a Florida band. Neither had an all-time-great career, but in ’78, Guidry went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA and in ’73, Skynyrd put “Free Bird”, “Simple Man”, and “Tuesday’s Gone” on their debut record.
230. You Are Free, Cat Power , 2003 = Robin Roberts , 1954
Free, like a bird. Get it, Robin? Sorry, I didn’t know what to do with all this guy’s great years.
229. Third, Portishead , 2008 = Joe Mauer , 2009
Mauer wins his third batting title, and what perhaps should have been his third MVP Award. Portishead finally releases a third studio album.
228. Pink, Boris , 2005 = Ichiro Suzuki , 2004
The only Asian player on my list meets the only all-Asian band. 262 hits and a hurricane of unyielding heavy metal.
227. New Day Rising, Husker Du , 1985 = Robin Roberts , 1952
Yup, another flying Robin joke. Roberts threw 30 complete games in ’52, while Husker Du made perhaps the definitive post-punk album.
226. Pearl, Janis Joplin , 1971 = Darin Erstad , 2000
Erstad’s 240-hit campaign in 2000 was a pearl in his otherwise pedestrian career.
225. Nothing’s Shocking, Jane’s Addiction , 1988 = Eddie Mathews , 1959
The second best season and the second best album from one of the most underrated players and bands ever.
224. Spirit of Eden, Talk Talk , 1988 = Scott Rolen , 2004
You probably didn’t realize Rolen and Talk Talk were this good. Scott had a .409 OBP and 3.3 dWAR in 2004, while Talk Talk issued a slow, powerful album that sounded like nothing else in their catalogue.
223. #1 Record, Big Star , 1972 = Reggie Jackson , 1969
Reggie thought he was #1. Big Star probably intended a little irony in naming this record, which got little airplay in 1972, but has proven to be a seminal power pop album today.
222. There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Sly & the Family Stone , 1971 = Hank Aaron , 1967
Aaron’s pursuit of the Babe’s career home run record kept the riot police on hand throughout many of his games in ’74.
221. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie , 1972 = Alex Rodriguez , 2000
Rodriguez and Bowie were connected by a flair for the dramatic, a tendency to be misunderstood, and a talent unmatched by any of their peers.
220. Histoire de Melody Nelson, Serge Gainsbourg , 1971 = Jason Giambi , 2001
On Melody, Gainsbourg sounds like he might jump out of your speakers, seduce your girlfriend, and steal your cheese. I always had the same fear about Giambi on TV. Well, at least the cheese part.
219. Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z , 1996 = Derek Jeter , 1999
Jeter’s suspect defense has kept him from ever accumulating 8 wins in a season, and Jay-Z has probably never released the best album in a given year, but Jeter in ’99 and Jay in ’96 ascended to a throne they’ve held ever since.
218. Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen , 1975 = Cal Ripken , 1983
Here’s Ripken winning his only championship and the Boss releasing the album that cemented his legacy as a legend. Both would do better work once.
217. Imperial Bedroom, Elvis Costello , 1982 = Justin Verlander , 2011
There’s something imperial about Verlander on the mound. He’s pitched at a similarly high level for the past four seasons, but his 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts in 2011 stand out even on his resume.
216. Future Days, Can , 1973 = Camilo Pascual , 1959
An album by a German band with a Japanese lead singer for a Cuban pitcher? Well, a Latino reaching the major leagues in the ’50s certainly portended baseball’s future.
215. White Blood Cells, White Stripes , 2001 = Juan Marichal , 1966
Both Marichal and the Stripes were in the conversation for Best in the World during their prime years, like ’66, when Marichal pitched 307 1/3 innings with a 2.23 ERA.
214. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, OutKast , 2003 = Sandy Koufax , 1965
You may not see the similarities between Koufax and OutKast, but both towered over their peers for most of a decade. 382 strikeouts and an Album of the Year Grammy and these hardly compare to their best work.
213. Mass Romantic, New Pornographers , 2000 = David Wright , 2007
Neko Case’s voice = David Wright’s smile. And a 30/30 superstar in New York must have had something of a “mass romantic” vibe going on.
212. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Neil Young & Crazy Horse , 1969 = Fergie Jenkins , 1970
Baseball’s greatest Canadian pitcher and rock’s greatest Canadian artist each strike gold early in their careers, and both would get even better.
211. Idlewild South, Allman Brothers Band , 1970 = George Brett , 1985
Bit of a stretch here, but Brett had a baseball-playing brother. He also had ten hits in the 1985 World Series for the victorious Royals.
210. Something Else by the Kinks, Kinks , 1967 = Dontrelle Willis , 2005
It would be trite to describe Willis as “something else”, but I think the Kinks are appropriate in light of the gyrating windup that propelled Willis to five shutouts in his age-23 season.
209. Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane , 1967 = Lonnie Smith , 1989
Um… airplanes are fast and Smith stole 25 bases? This isn’t as easy as it looks.
208. Power, Corruption, & Lies, New Order , 1983 = Roger Clemens , 1990
I hope this one explains itself.
207. You & Me, Walkmen , 2008 = Chase Utley , 2008
“You and me” is a reference to Utley, who was worth 8.8 rWAR for the 2008 WS champion Phillies, and Ryan Howard, who was worth 1.5, but finished 2nd in MVP voting, while Utley finished 14th. It’s also an awesome Walkmen album.
206. In It For the Money, Supergrass , 1997 = Alex Rodriguez , 2001
One of the defining albums of my high school years and one of the incredible seasons of my college years. Yeah, that’s the connection.
205. The Suburbs, Arcade Fire , 2010 = Miguel Cabrera , 2012
The third Arcade Fire album won an Album of the Year Grammy, but despite its brilliance, is a far cry from Funeral, while the third best player in the AL in 2012 won the Triple Crown, but was a far cry from Mike Trout’s excellence.
204. Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney , 1997 = Jeff Bagwell , 1994
Dig Me Out goes to perhaps the best defensive first baseman on the list, though Bagwell’s ’94 should probably be matched up with a top 25 player, given his 1.201 OPS in 110 games.
203. Amrchair Apocrypha, Andrew Bird , 2007 = George Foster , 1977
Tales of a 52-homer season in 1977 may have seemed apocryphal to someone from a prior era. This was Foster’s only huge season, though, while several of Bird’s albums could have made this list.
202. Fresh Cream, Cream , 1966 = Barry Bonds , 2003
Was there ever a band called The Clear?
201. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd , 1967 = Johnny Bench , 1970
Johnny Bench kind of looked like David Gilmour, and both defined their disciplines in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s.