This isn't the "all-time" top five (I can't think that hard this early!)...
I'm in a very Jon Brion mood (as usual!)
1) Jellyfish "Spilt Milk" -- Jellyfish gets accused of ripping off Queen on this album, but whoever thinks that just hasn't gotten past track 3. This record is intense in every respect -- it just had the bad fortune to come around when Nirvana was, in the words of Tom Petty, cutting down the old guard "like wheat before the scythe." The only problem is -- Jellyfish wasn't the old guard...talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater! Jack Joseph Puig mix(?)...the man! Also, Jon Brion's musicianship is all over this record. As for the mixing, if you've seen the foldout inside cover pic...they use every instrument known to man on this record, and yet it all WORKS! Brilliant!
2) The Grays "Ro Sham Bo" -- This one is out of print. I spent $20 at Amoeba Hollywood for it, and it was worth every penny. J.J. Puig, again (prod. & mix) -- key members are Jon Brion and Jason Falkner, both singing (usually alternating songs -- J.B.'s "Lennon" to J.F.'s "McCartney"). I burned it so I wouldn't f&*k up the original, then made a copy (sorry!) for a producer/studio owner friend I work with a lot. Two weeks later, it was STILL all we were listening to! (the album's from 1994). With those two playing all over it, all you have to do to mix is let the musicianship shine -- there are many spots with hard pan left/right guitars (J.B. one side, J.F. on the other) dry as f&^k! BTW: seems like J.J. Puig likes those hard pans & de-esses a little more than most -- am I the only one who's noticed?
3) Rufus Wainwright (self-titled) -- Here is Jon's instrumental credit, if that gives you any idea of the scope of the record:
Jon Brion (vibes, marimba, chamberlin, accordion, bass, baritone guitar, optigan, S-6, baritone acoustic guitar, background vocals, percussion, timpani, crotales, celeste, temple blocks, assorted bells, tuned toms, mandolin, drums, tack piano, guitar, pick bass)
On top of that, Rufus Wainwright's got a tendency toward the quirky & operatic -- think Queen meets Todd Rundgren in one body! And the string arrangements are great as well. Bob Clearmountain mixed this. A much overlooked, very ambitious work. Had the divine providence to be released (by Dreamworks) in the wake of Biggie & 'Pac, when Puff Daddy, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit and Eminem ruled the airwaves, during Clear Channel's big growth phase. Oops. (BTW: I love all of these artists, esp. Eminem. In that era, though, they brought new meaning to the term "sucking all of the oxygen out of the room" in regards to music industry exposure & promotion. That's all.).
4) "Magnolia" soundtrack -- Particularly the Oscar-nominated "Save Me." The Aimee Mann songs are absolutely stunning works of craft & artistry, and Jon Brion's all over this record (as usual -- he's been working with Aimee Mann since joining a later incarnation of 'Til Tuesday in 1987(?)). The arrangements are often sparse and yet harmonically rich -- Jon Brion's refined sense of how to use extended ("jazz") harmony tastefully in popular music is in evidence here. Bob Clearmountain, once again, ladies and gentlemen. This album is a study in using "small" sounds to make a big impression.
5) Jon Brion "Meaningless" -- What does a top producer/multi-instrumentalist do in his spare time? Get together his friends and make the best f^&king record ever! J.J. Puig mix, Matt Chamberlain drums (I think...), Jon Brion -- basically everything else. Think "Magnolia" times ten. And the ethereal seven minute-or-so cover of Cheap Trick's "Voices" at the end...Again, a lot of extended harmony here but extremely listenable, yet quirky at times -- it's a kaleidoscope of musical feelings and expression, immaculately recorded and mixed (dry as f&^k with hard pans, J.J. Puig-style!). It was self-released with no promo -- I picked it up at Amoeba Hollywood. See below for an article quote:
Brion signed a record deal with Lava, an Atlantic Records subsidiary, in 1997. Over the next two years he recorded not one, not two, but three versions of his album Meaningless, all of which were rejected. The label finally gave him his walking papers, and his record back, last fall.
Brion tried to get the album out on the Internet, through the ArtistDirect Web site, but it turns out that an overenthusiastic fan in the Midwest had registered all the obvious Web domain names for Jon Brion - a situation that is still unresolved.
"I called and told him he'd created a beautiful piece of work. I said it was a work of art," says Jason Flom, president of Lava/Atlantic Records, who has enjoyed successes with Sugar Ray, Matchbox 20, and Kid Rock. "But I wasn't sure a major label could do this particular record justice." In other words, the label couldn't figure out how to market Brion's music in any of the handful of stylistic niches that define mainstream, major-label commerce.
"It's a weird one for me," says Flom, "because I'm a fan. I mean, Jon Brion couldn't make a bad record. If he decides that what he craves is mainstream acceptance, he'll make an album that could be tremendously successful. He could come up with a fantastic album that wouldn't sacrifice his credibility. It's just that he does whatever he wants to, whenever he wants. I'm not sure he isn't happiest doing what he's doing now: Largo, and producing [other artists], and writing movie scores.
Thank you, music industry!
HONORABLE MENTION: Fiona Apple "Criminal." Danceable, organic, harmonically rich (check out the piano & strings rideout at the end) -- if you've forgotten how great this one is, give it another listen.