Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Artist: 13th Floor Elevators
Album: Psychedelic Sounds Of 13th Floor Elevators
Label: United Artists
One of the finest, earliest psychedelic masterpieces is the first 13th Floor Elevators album. Bands in the mid-1960s were dabbling in psychedelia, and you can hear it in Dylan's music, as well as The Beatles. But even next to really "out there" bands like The Godz, nobody took on psychedelia as early or fully as this group. Led by lead songwriter/eventual crazyman/eventual recovery story Roky Erickson, this album, as the band is aided by the band's drug dealer Tommy Hall on JUG, is 11 songs full of out there glory.
The hit opens the album. "You're Gonna Miss Me" is featured prominently in the film High Fidelity and even landed the group some minor chart success. You can tell the song is even mixed a little more for the radio, with the "jug" sound not as loud in the mix, but Roky's yelps can't be contained...and the rest of the album takes the template that the first song lays down, and brings it really far out.
"Rollercoaster" is a psychedelic album encouraging you to trip, with lyrics like "You gotta open up your mind and let everything come through." "Fire Engine" and "Tried To Hide," similarly bring the listener to a point in the song with a big climax, and then let it all slide away. Again, on songs like these Roky's yelps with jangly guitars allow for a wonderful listen. On other songs like "Reverberation" the bass and drums are actually at the forefront of what's going on, and tribal-rhythms take over the mood. But the reason the album still stands the test of time is the diversity, and the more subdued numbers are just as strong as the psychedelic freak-outs.
"Don't Fall Down" and "Splash 1 (Now I'm Home)" feature beautiful guitar melodies. "You Don't Know" and "Kingdom of Heaven" do the same, and really showcase the unique production of the album. There is so much space on the album, it's almost borderline hollow, with each instrument seemingly being recorded on a different continent. But it still works, and the space allows for all of the psychedelic textures to come out.
This album had an extraordinary influence on the psychedelic world, and bands like Spacemen 3 would obviously be heavily influenced by it, as would Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead in the near future. Roky's become the stuff of a legend in recent years, becoming the only 60s burnout to recover and begin releasing new music in a very heartwarming way. His life was very tough, and its story certainly chronicles the dangers of heavy psychedelic drug use, but the music he helped to create is magnificent, and the band's debut is still one of the finest of its time.
13th Floor Elevators-Psychedelic Sounds Of 13th Floor Elevators
Artist: Stevie Wonder
Album: Talking Book
Talking Book is neither Stevie Wonder's first great album overall or his first serious record released upon taking artistic control of his career. But Talking Book remains one his finest for just how goddamn good it is. It's also one of his most diverse, as it precedes the political Innervisions, but still spends a good deal of time with more romantically-influenced topics in his songs. Throughout the entire record, song after song is glorious.
It starts with one his most beloved songs, "You Are The Sunshine of My Love," and Stevie celebrates his artistic muse. The closing track "I Believe (When I Fall In Love With You It'll Be Forever)" is equally gorgeous, and one of my favorite songs of his. The feeling you get when a relationship represents everything you love in life is given off beautifully. And then of course there's "Superstition," one of his best known and loved songs. I wonder if it is at all aimed at his home life/growing up, and a metaphor for how people evade living their lives? Whatever the inspiration, it's amazing lead lines and perfect chorus still resonate today. But beyond the hits, there are some amazing songs on this record.
"Maybe Your Baby" follows the opening track with seven minutes of unadulterated, pure funk groove. "Big Brother" and "Tuesday Heartbreak" are could-be pop gems, had they been released as singles, as they are short and to the point. Really every song on the album, again, is awesome, and the diversity of songwriting really stands out throughout everything.
Of course, Stevie was just getting started with Talking Book. The next album Innervisions would be his best, and he'd continue a string of albums that includes Songs In The Key of Life and Fulfillingness' First Finale before ...the 80s. Stevie could be the finest artist of the mid-1970s, and Talking Book is a strong piece of evidence for that argument.
Monday, December 20, 2010
Artist: Johnny Cash
Album: At Folsom Prison
Please excuse the lack of updates from last week, I had been finishing up final exams and papers. Anyway, we start this week with one of the most famous live albums of all time: Johnny Cash's live performance at Folsom Prison. While Cash's own bad-boy reputation were played up by him and those around him, and it was really the likes of Merle Haggard who did hard time in the country scene, the songs and atmosphere on this album are truly magnificent.
Recorded live in front of a room full of prisoners at the famous penitentiary, Cash explores every angle of his own greatness. His own songs that are performed here are in their definitive editions. Carl Perkins's lead guitar on "Folsom Prison Blues" puts a fire in the song that had never existed before. His playing as well as the rest of the backing band is sensational throughout, but out of a stuffy studio and with the live setting, it's Cash's persona that lifts these songs. "I Still Miss Someone" caps off an excellent early run of acoustic numbers, while "Cocaine Blues" and "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" pull the listener in with gripping narratives that never let up until a conclusion and final part of their story is told.
The atmosphere is also strengthened by everything going on. June Carter comes up for the definitive edition of the duet "Jackson" which is played exceptionally. The last song on the album, "Greystone Chapel," is written by one of the inmates. And throughout the album, there is superb crowd interaction and PA announcements for the prisoners that lets you feel like you are there. It's still one of the most unique albums of all time, and when you have one of the greatest performers of the 20th century doing what turn out to be definitive versions of some of his tunes, it's no wonder you come out with such a remarkable album.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Artist: The Pretty Things
Album: S. F. Sorrow
Bonus album! Not on 100-favorite album list.
The Pretty Things are one of the most confounding rock and roll groups of the late 60s. The quality of their work ranged from brilliant to just lame. Their decline wasn't gradual, but sudden, as you never knew if the next LP would be great or weak. Indeed, on one of their weaker records from the era, 1967's Emotions, against the band's will, strings were added to make for a more psychedelic feel. And then their next album was this one, a psychedelic masterpiece! I don't know exactly why I didn't include this album on my list. Whereas a lot of albums I give more credit than they are due when I go a long time without listening to them, this one I've always seemed to put to the side. But song-wise, it's truly excellent from start to finish.
S. F. Sorrow was recorded in the summer of 1967 at Abbey Road Studios (same time and location as Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Sgt. Pepper.
It's also written as a rock opera, and has been cited as an influence by Pete Townsend on Tommy. But at the end of the day, it's a wonderful, 13-song album which the band would never come close to bettering.
The tale is similar to The Kinks' Arthur, as allmusic points out. It follows a man named Sorrow from pretty much birth to death. But instead of one larger plot it follows, it seems more about just minor incidents throughout his life. There's songs about the women he loves, his time in the military, as well as just dealing with life. But none of that is as important as just how great the songs are.
So many albums from the late-60s feature similar aesthetics in terms of guitar tone, speaker panning, and other instrumentation, and the ones that remain great and not generic are the ones with the best songs. The bridge on "Private Sorrow," with marching drum beat and a flute is absolutely gorgeous and one of the finest moments on the record. As is the opening to "Trust" with perfectly played and toned piano. And the band doesn't lose their hard edge that made their earliest singles stand out---the electric guitars on "Balloon Burning" and "She Says Good Morning" are still absolutely ferocious, and while not in a Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley context anymore, the guitars still slay.
Two things that really cement the greatness of the album are the acoustic guitars and vocals. The acoustic guitars are often in the forefront and strummed really heavily, giving them a percussive quality. I can think of few psychedelic records that use the instrument in the same way, and it really gives a significant amount of texture to songs like "Old Man Going." And then there are the perfect harmonies which litter every track. Going back to their earliest singles and self-titled album, you hear very little of that from The Pretty Things. But along with all the musical arrangements being stellar, the vocals are perfectly placed and beautifully sung in a way I would never have imagined the band was capable of.
Today, The Pretty Things are almost a footnote on late-60s rock, overshadowed by many of their peers. While some of their even most celebrated work is a bit weak, S. F. Sorrow is a sensational record that anyone who digs on Swingin' London needs to hear.
Artist: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Album: Willy And The Poor Boys
The third of three albums released by CCR in 1969 is not only their finest, but one of the best of the era. Have you noticed just how great albums that stray from psychedelic excess in the late-60s (The Kinks, The Band) seem to be?
Bayou Country and then Green River were huge steps forward for the Southern-California band. But Willy and the Poor Boys is their best because...and I know this seems bizarre, but it feels like their simplest. The band was already very minimal in its approach, already down-home and never succumbed to excess, but...JEEZ "Poorboy Shuffle" is just harmonica and acoustic guitar.
Of course the band is known for their ability to churn out hits. "Fortunate Son" which opens side two is their best song ever, and "Down on The Corner," the album opener, remains one of their most popular for good reason. "Don't Look Now" And "It Came Out Of The Sky" weren't hits on their own, but certainly had that quality about them. In addition, we are treated to two Leadbelly covers with "The Midnight Special" and "Cotton Fields" which again, play on this album's theme of being extremely subdued.
If Creedence ever had a shortcoming, it could be on the longer numbers, which makes sense. A band so damn good at crafting perfect pop songs might have trouble with the longer cuts, and on other albums, that can occasionally be the case. But not here: side closers "Feelin' Blue" and "Effigy" are two of the strongest songs on the album. John Fogerty's lyrics are some of their best. "Feelin' Blue" sets in on a groove where the title of the song is repeated in the chorus, and just read this verse on "Effigy": Last night/saw the fire spreadin' to the palace door/silent majority/weren't keepin' quiet/anymore." Fogerty's mentioned in interviews about the influence of Nixon on "Fortunate Son," but it's even darker and more apparent on the closing track.
Every track on Willy is a winner, and how many other bands can say they released three such stellar albums in one calendar year? Within two years the band's greatness would be behind them, but Willy and the Poor Boys is still a timeless masterpiece from the best band of the late-1960s.
Monday, December 6, 2010
Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: Bringing It All Back Home
If The Beatles set the world ablaze in early 1964, Bob Dylan did it one year later. In a lot of ways, Bringing It All Back Home isn't that different than its predecessor, Another Side of Bob Dylan. The lyrics (of course, always debatable), were noticeably less political, and Bob began singing about relations with a strong focus on poetry. Of course, there was the matter of electric guitars and drums. Bringing It All Back Home was released in March, but the backlash wasn't felt until he performed the electric set live at the Newport Folk Festival in July. Time has obviously been kind to Bob, and Bringing It All Back Home is where Bob Dylan defined, basically, what would be rock and roll.
The album is broken up into two parts: the rock and roll, electric Dylan on side A and folk material on side B. The boogie of that first side is unforgettable. "Subtarranean Homesick Blues" remains one of his most celebrated songs: a portrait of a rag-tag lifestyle at a blistering pace. What's most striking is how Dylan's vocals have changed. It's as if he's ignoring the fact that there is a microphone in front of his face, and singing like he needs to be heard over the new electric band. Every lyric on the song is a gem, and the side keeps up well. "Maggie's Farm" is one of his most fun stories, and after a gotcha intro, "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," ends up being one of his funniest songs. Songs like "Outlaw Blues" and "On The Road Again" draw on his blues and Chuck Berry influence heavily, and while it may be hard to appreciate now (or even then, considering what his next two albums sounded like), it clearly lays the framework for his greatest work.
On the other side of the record are four of his most beautiful songs. "Mr. Tambourine Man," with gorgeous electric guitar underneath, was never done better. And "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" is one of his most scathing songs, and the first real time Dylan truly waxes philosophical. "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" gives some of his best imagery, and again, his anger is audible. Whatever Dylan was fed up with (remember, this is before Newport), is clearly tossed off for good in his lyrics.
Today, the album, while not sounding dated, is a bit...out of date. His next two albums would be not just his, but pretty much anybody's best. Still, Bringing It All Back Home has some of his best songs. The playing isn't as loud as it would be with his next group of session musicians, and the laid-back feel is a treat. He had to learn to crawl before he could walk, and Bringing It All Back Home not only sets the stage for some of the greatest rock and roll in history, but gives one of the best overviews of all of the sides of Dylan (political, romantic, beauty, anger, and more) in one neat place.
Album: Future Days
Future Days is the final CAN album with their famous frontman Damo Suzuki. After this album he would leave to become a monk, but he left the group at their highest point. There is a cohesion to the record that had been absent since Monster Movie and the band recover it here. For the legendary Krautrock group, this is their finest achievement.
Damo's strongest contribution to the album is really his lack of contribution. For the rest of the band, again, there's a cohesiveness that had been lacking on the previous two records. On Future Days, the band channels some bizarre mix of Herbie Hancock's early-70s output with peers such as Ashra. The feel of the album is a breezy one, playing smooth and with ease instead of aggression for really the first time. And it would predict the direction they would be heading in for years to come. Anything that resembled typical song-structure was gone at this point, and instead of their being one or two songs on an album that were "jams" with the rest of them following a more traditional (relatively speaking) structure, the whole album is loose, with the playing clearly more important than song structure.
While it's easy to see how CAN were never this good again, it's important to note just how much better this album is than its predecessors. As great as Monster Movie is, it suffers from in your face vocals and playing that doesn't showcase the band's strengths. Tago Mago is exceptional, but extremely long. Future Days, however, gets to the point, lures its listener in, and doesn't trick it with any bizarre surprises. The playing, the mood, and the atmosphere are the key to the record, and they remain consistently brilliant throughout the whole thing.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Artist: Spacemen 3
Album: The Perfect Prescription
"It's 1987, all I wanna do is get stoned." Spacemen 3's second album is one of the final great psychedelic albums from one of the final great psychedelic outfits. Spacemen 3 understood that psychedelic, drug music, was not about throwing as much kitschy bullshit into your songs to make them seem wild and out there. Instead, the songs are about pacing, and setting a mood which they would then drill into their listener's heads. This album demonstrated that the band would be one of the best in the world for a few years, and the songs are evidence.
Now, these songs were not new to their catalog or to their fans. With the exception of "Call the Doctor", "Take Me To the Other Side", and "Ode To Street Hassle", they'd all appeared on at least one other release before. Some as early as their 3-piece, stripped-down demos, and some on the Taking Drugs demo. But the definitive versions of every song was recorded during these sessions.
"Take me to the Other Side" is the perfect opening track: drums build up, the between-verse instrumental parts drag on, the hypnotic, repetitive rhythm guitar of Sonic Boom is right at the forefront. It gives way to "Walking With Jesus," which in previous incarnations had been over the top, aggressive, and stomping with a Bo Diddley back-beat. Not here, though. Jason's acoustic guitar and Sonic's organ are rounded out by beautiful bass playing. The electric guitar fills that litter the end of the song are just as beautiful, as well.
The greatness of the album is found with Spacemen 3 perfecting their craft. "Feel So Good" had been released before in some excellent editions, but the addition of horns to the version here is absolutely sensational. The interplay of guitars and singing between Sonic and Jason here is better than they ever were or would ever be again. "Things'll Never Be The Same" becomes one of their heaviest songs, and has taken on new life so far removed from its initial incarnation at this point. What the band is able to do with so little is remarkable, and it almost sounds like there are dozens of guitar tracks. But as the Forged Prescription release shows, the final product was one that was stripped down to its essence as far as an album could be stripped down.
The Perfect Prescription represented the end of an era for Spacemen 3 in so many ways. Playing With Fire, their next album, would feature much more radical song structure, away from the psych-blues standard-ness of a lot of the songs here. Jason and Sonic would develop a rift which to this day has never been fixed, writing songs apart from each other. Sonic's foray, as well, into electronic music, would become a huge part of their music, with Jason even eventually gravitating towards much of Sonic's nuances. But The Perfect Prescription still features their best songs done better than they'd ever be done. It pays homage to their roots and retains originality in a way few bands ever achieve, and still kicks ass today, over 20 years later.
Spacemen 3-The Perfect Prescription
Thursday, December 2, 2010
There's a wide world of difference between greatness and not-sucking. Nas devotees talk about the merits of all of his albums, and how Illmatic isn't his only great album. But they are wrong. While his arch nemesis Jay-Z became the best rapper of his time, Nas put out boring album after boring album. And it doesn't matter what Jay-Z ripped off or anything, because if Nas's music had just been better, nothing would have mattered. But with that all said, Illmatic is perfect in so many ways, it's no wonder that Nas could never achieve something so great again.
Illmatic is the basis of the argument that Nas is the rightful heir to Rakim's throne of greatest MC. For a brief period, it was certainly true. Rakim was the first to find exceptionally creative ways to show his dominance in style over other rappers, and with lines like "Nas's rap should be locked in a cell," it's clear Nas has a grasp on that ability as well. There are dozens (if not more) lines akin to that one that illustrate Nas's poetic ability, but what sets Nas apart from so many great MCs that came before him is the visuals in his songs, and the ways he paints a portrait of what his background is like.
Nas was far from the first great post-Rakim MC, but the greatness of the album's lyrics comes from being about more than just his own greatness. "N.Y. State of Mind" sets the tone for the album, but it even alludes to more serious subject matter: "It's like the game ain't the same/got-younger niggas pulling the trigga bringing fame to they name." Elsewhere, on songs like "One Love" (a personal letter to a friend in prison) and "Memory Lane (Sittin' In Da Park)" even has some religious undertones: "Judges hanging niggas, uncorrect bails, for direct sales/My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails." I could go on and on about the lyrics (as you'd expect from a great hip hop record), but there are two more important things that make this album great.
BREVITY. The biggest rap fans in the world can't defend 75 minutes of music per album. Illmatic is 10 songs in 40 minutes. Every moment is great, and there isn't a single song worth skipping over. From the screeching train tracks to the keyboards in "It Ain't Hard To Tell," there isn't a wasted moment on the record. I've read that there was dozens of tracks left off the album, and it's clear that the cuts that made it had the attention they all deserved, which made them so good.
And of course, production-wise, this album is hard to beat. Pete Rock helps make "The World Is Yours" one of the best hip hop songs ever. Q-Tip and Premier are two more incredibly important names that pop up in production credits.
When recorded, after 36 Chambers was released and after Tribe were at their peak, as well as solo-Wu albums and Jay-Z and Biggie blowing up still a year or two away, this album had the most talent on it of any hip hop record around. Too many cooks in the kitchen is a cliche reserved for the negative, but here it works perfectly, and it's hard to think of an album that could top it.
Artist: Aretha Franklin
Album: Young, Gifted, and Black
I believe it's fair to say that it's rare for an artist to desire greater artistic control and personal freedom over their music than they had previously enjoyed in their career, and then become a better artist. In fact, short of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, it's really hard to think of one...but Aretha needs to be included in the conversation, and that's not when comparing her soul work to her gospel work (a transition that certainly didn't occur due to Aretha's artistic needs as much as her commercial failure as a gospel artist). Young, Gifted, and Black is Aretha's finest album, and while it may not have the same sort of mega-hits she enjoyed in the 1960s, the music is better and more diverse than ever before.
Four is the number of songs Aretha receives at least partial songwriting credit on for the record, which is the same number as it was on 1967's breakout album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You and 68's Lady Soul. Her next few albums showed a gradual moving away from classic blues numbers, and towards modern pop, as evidenced by frequent Beatles covers, for example. And while one of those does appear on this album ("The Long and Winding Road"), the album still represents Aretha fully assuming control over her career, most clearly through mixing the modern pop with her gospel roots.
The soul on this record is better than she's been in years. Opener "Oh Me, Oh My" and "Day Dreaming" dabble in both pop and light jazz, and Aretha's piano-playing is on display. The psychedelic guitars and singing on songs like "April Fools" also are a perfect mixture of modern R&B and pop standards.
There is no doubt that Aretha kills it on every pop song, but it's the R&B where she shines. "Rock Steady" is one of her best singles and funkier than anything she ever did. The Otis Redding cover is stellar, and then there's the gospel. Her next album would be a live double album (Amazing Grace is even the title), but the seeds of it are planted here. "Border Song (Holy Moses)" and "All The King's Horses" foreshadow her religious turn. And then there's the jazz she turns to. Calling everyone out on "First Snow in Kokomo" and the perfect, life-affirming cover of "Young, Gifted, and Black," which is her best song. When people get down on the likes of Elvis and others for not authoring their music, they forget that a performance can be brilliant, and Aretha does that on this record.
Her next LP would be her last great one (what did I say about last great albums and 1972?). But Young, Gifted, and Black is her best, and what a great album it is.
Aretha Franklin-Young, Gifted, and Black
Artist: Sun City Girls
Album: Torch Of The Mystics
Technically their fourth LP, Torch of the Mystics was over the twentieth release by the band when it came out in 1990 (lots and lots of cassettes). Sun City Girls are known for a lot of things: they've made what feels like hundreds of releases, almost all of which received just one press, their exotic influences and approach to music (drawing on everything from 70s soul to punk rock to Tibetan tribal music), they are one of the most interesting bands of all time. Torch is certainly a release that continues to stick out in the band's discography, for it gets right to the point, has no filler, and has absolutely killer songs.
Sun City Girls are somewhat notorious for their...uh...lack of editing. It seems like Guided By Voices, there was no idea worth throwing away...and I'm sure those who have had the strength to sit through their full catalog find it to be a trying task at times. But that is not an issue on this 11 song, under-40 minute record.
The first side sets the tone for what this really is, and that's lead guitarist Richard Bishop's album. That is in that, the electric guitar playing over the first four songs is class rock-epic. The melodies and playing are absolutely gorgeous, and as resident guitar-guru, R. Bishop deserves a lot of the credit for the side's awesomeness.
That isn't to say that side B doesn't have some excellent guitar playing. "The Vinegar Stroke," features some incredible guitar playing that certainly stands as a precursor to Richard's solo stuff. The tone of the second-side is more diverse...somehow a mixture of Middle Eastern and Exotica music that is really sensational (for the clearest example, dig on "Radar", which also, interestingly, has a total pop-song structure...yet is instrumental).
And another great thing about the album: except for "The Flower" there seems to be no real words on the album. If the band is ever actually singing another language, I'm not sure, but for a band that has so much great music that can be categorized under the "crazed-leftist" lyric pool, that they let the music really do the talking on this album sets up how great the music they would release all decade long would be in terms of breadth and depth. Whether it's nonsense words or intricate guitar harmonies, there is nothing out of the grasp of Sun City Girls.
Their catalog is enormous and even intimidating in many ways. But Torch Of The Mystics is one of those rare indisputable starting points that can get people into the band.
Sun City Girls-Torch Of The Mystics
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Artist: Young Marble Giants
Album: Colossal Youth
Label: Rough Trade
Colossal Youth, the only album ever released by Young Marble Giants, and 30 years later, remains one of the most unique sounding albums ever. The lyrics and music make it clear that this band had a disdain for being pigeon-holed, and it is that uniqueness which makes the album so great.
There are fewer albums which are as indescribable sound-wise as this. Hushed female vocals, an organ, light percussion (woodblock and shakers), and light bass and guitar litter the record. It creates a haunting tone. So much great music is made around the idea that with very little, walls of sound and symphonic sounds can be created (This Heat and Galaxie 500 certainly come to mind). Few bands embrace the stripped down possibilities that Young Marble Giants do on their album.
With so little going on, the melodies are ridiculously simple and come through with beautiful ease. The organ in "The Man Amplifier" that hangs on after the lyrics are sung has always resonated with me. "Constantly Changing", like other pop songs, starts with a long-intro whose main melody switches when the vocals kick in, but it's done with little fanfare-no large volume swells or cymbal crashes, but the feel of the song is noticeably different, which makes the way it transforms so unique.
And today, what sticks out the most to me is the lyrics: a cry for genuinity and a refutation of all things fake and shallow in the world. "The Man Amplifier" sarcastically attacks what makes a man a man. "Constantly Changing" and "Music For Evenings" take a swipe at a man who can't be comfortable as himself, with the frustration mixed messages can provide and anger at shallowness. "Credit In The Straight World" takes to task the hollow, modern society we must live in.
The album is brilliant, I'll say it again, for its simplicity. It speaks volumes and really does so with very little. I don't care that they re-formed and did the album in full at ATP: it's still shrouded in mystery and beauty in ways that seem impossible to dissect.
Young Marble Giants-Colossal Youth
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Artist: Galaxie 500
Album: On Fire
Label: Rough Trade
Oh man what a record. Galaxie 500 have managed to avoid becoming cool again and have avoided all of the respect they deserve by influencing so much 1990s indie with slow songs and reverb-drenched sounds. While simple songs and feedback were a staple of the 90s indie rock movement, few bands have ever matched Galaxie 500 for consistent quality, and nowhere is that more evident that on their sophomore album.
Besides the simplicity and tempo of the record, what really sticks out is the laid-back psychedelic vibe. Many in the Shoegaze movement used heavy abrasion to get the message across, and Spacemen 3 and Jesus And Mary Chain played extremely loud, guitar heavy/guitar-focused rock as psychedelic leaders of the 1980s. But Galaxie 500's music, as well as being much less abrasive, is also full of space, and not packed with dense noise at every square inch like the other bands. No instrument is secondary to another one on this record, and the beautiful guitars are complimented by lush bass, reverb-heavy drums, and soaring falsetto/high-pitched vocals.
Of course, the songs on this album are elegant, and the style they forged on their debut, the previous year's Today, is fully realized here. "Blue Thunder" and "Tell Me" are perfect album openers, with psychedelic guitars and lush harmonies. Also of note, as this band is as slow as they are, it takes a while between verses and choruses...the buildup to the chorus is like a part of the song itself. The band is big on climaxes, and the way "Blue Thunder" ends, with everyone singing: "I drive so far away" is just beautiful.
The darker pop songs are the best on the record. "Snowstorm" CRAWLS, and the lyrics, like many of the others on the album, focus on the most minute details, but they are painted beautifully. The sound of just one person and one point of view for one moment are able to stretch out for minutes with these songs, as if repeating the points over and over with different wording are the best way to let the listener feel what the singer is saying---and it might just be.
The closing moment on the album is a superb rendition of George Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity," and the band were certainly masters of cover versions (see Today's "Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste" or the cover of "Victory Garden" included on the CD here as a bonus track). Stripped of George's guitar tracks and Phil Spector-production, the song still holds up beautifully with Galaxie 500's rendition.
Galaxie 500 never made a bad record, and burnt out way too quickly after their third and final album would be released the following years. They never released anything bad, really, and this is certainly the place to start if you're gonna check them out.
Galaxie 500-On Fire
Artist: The Flatlanders
Album: More A Legend Than A Band
I'd say this is the one "un"official album on the list, but of course, it's story is what makes it so great. The Flatlanders' only recordings during their first tenure as a band were released on a small-run of 8-tracks, and after the band dissolved, members Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore became country stars in their own right. This Round release takes the original 8-track, takes off two of the lamer covers, and adds 4 previously unreleased tracks from the sessions. The resulting release is one of the best country albums EVER.
The songs themselves are gorgeous. "Dallas" was the should've been hit, with lyrics full of regret and heartache associated with the town. Every song features similar lyrical themes, full of longing and regret: "Down in My Hometown" about a town that has lost its fortune, "One Day at A Time" where the lyrics follow "Yesterday's dead, and tomorrow is blind," it's beautiful pop music really through country music.
Of course, what really makes the album stellar is all of the non-traditional aspects of it, or rather, how out of place it was. Recorded in the mid-1970s as big haired Dolly Parton and mega-stadium country music was all the rage, a group of rag-tag traditional country musicians owing more to Roy Acuff than Dollywood were doomed commercially from the start. And of course, with songs like "Bhagavan Decreed," Eastern religion and drug-use are espoused to---huge no-nos in the country music community. (for a good read: the 33 1/3rd book on The Gilded Palace of Sin as Roy Acuff demands The Byrds get thrown off the stage at the Grand Ole Opry for having long hair!)
The Flatlanders More A Legend Than A Band is a short album with 13 amazing songs. The cover of "Jole Blon" is brilliant, and the instrumentation is great in its simplicity. Fans of country should already be down. Non-country fans need to get down.
The Flatlanders-More A Legend Than A Band
Monday, November 29, 2010
Artist: The Kinks
Album: Face To Face
Face To Face is the first truly magnificent Kinks album, and their second in a string of great albums that would run through 1972's Muswell Hillbillies (what is it with that year and last hurrah's?). While I'd say that they would eventually release better albums (one of which will appear later on this list), this is their final album with the early, Shel Talmy-sound. (Talmy would produce other albums, but this I'd say is the last one where that Mod sound that he perfected with groups like The Who and The Creation. The combination of a rough-sounding LP that reflects their early work and the new subject matter and songwriting focus Ray Davies has is what makes the album so special.
The Kinks' lack of hits in the last part of the 60s, along with not being able to tour America and record label mishaps, was often attributed to the lighter sound they went for. Their peers went freak-out psychedelic, but the Kinks talked about "Waterloo Sunset"s. So while they were short on hits, it certainly wasn't because of lack of song quality. And on Face to Face they still rocked out: "Party Line" slays with a hilarious take on what I can only guess is a pre-internet dating dating service...or something. "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home," is gorgeous, with awesome keyboards, and the guitar getting too-loud in the mix during the bridge is an awesome touch from the non-perfectionists.
Really, every song on the album is a kilelr. "Sunny Afternoon," and "Holiday In Waikiki" are featured on the compilation The Kink Kronikles and the former was even a minor hit, as was "Dandy" which has gained a reputation as one of their more well-known songs, it seems.
The best thing about the album, however, must be how it paved the way for Davies' sarcastic view of his home life and youth. "Session Man" criticizes people of the profession with lyrics like "He's not paid to think/just play", and "House in the Country" takes a sarcastic look at people who flee from trouble and like to look down on the common man (I think---it's my interpretation). And then there's "Fancy," which no other Kinks song sounds like. Almost psychedelic, it's a plaintive ode to a girl who has Ray's eyes.
Again, every song is great, and it's really the last time the band would rock so hard and so recklessly. Arthur and Lola would eventually bring them back from such a calm mood, but it's worlds apart from what they were producing here. This is where the band started to hit their stride, and the next two albums would be probably their two best, but Face To Face is still fun as hell and raucous as the day it was released.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Artist: The Soft Boys
Album: Underwater Moonlight
Label: Yep Roc
Big Star, with good reason, are cited as the key influence of such bands such as REM and The Replacements, who really introduced a new method of jangly guitar rock that inspired so much of today's current indie music. But there is never enough attention given to Robyn Hitchcock and The Soft Boys for their contribution to that sound. Their second and final album (save a reunion record from the early-2000s), Underwater Moonlight is fully of jangly guitars and warped, demented songs that live on nearly 30 years later.
The album is a wonderful mix of straight guitar-pop rock that fits on classic rock radio, with some darker, more bizarre songs. When you hear the epic pop of "I Wanna Destroy You," the anti-war cry "Positive Vibrations" (another nod to the 60s: the sitar in the song!) and the beautiful title track, it seems that the off-the-wall subject matter was the only thing keeping this album from being a hit!
But what really makes the album stand out are the dark, other songs. "Insanely Jealous" builds up for four minutes and perfectly gives off an air of insane jealousy from the point-of-view of the narrator. "I Got The Hots" is almost comical in the way it is delivered, and "Old Pervert," possibly the best song on the record, features a wild rhythm and even crazier lyrics. Coming from a man who really was his generation's Syd Barrett and a band whose first album featured a song called "Sandra's Having Her Brain Out," none of the eccentricities of this album should really be a surprise.
The songwriting is absolutely beautiful and the harmonies and melodies make the album a constant delight. If Big Star got credit for their gorgeous guitar interplay at a time when it was unpopular, then this album, coming at the beginning of a decade filled with synths and MTV, should get that credit 10-fold. Underwater Moonlight is one of the best albums of the 80s, and really sounds like nothing else that came out during the decade. Not a record to be passed up!
Album: Mclusky Do Dallas
Label: Too Pure
I used to be crazy, and thought no music this hard existed anymore. I then got into hardcore punk and felt very sheepish. BUT! Mclusky Do Dallas is still my favorite album of the new century, and truly an epic piece of rock and roll. Fourteen absolutely killer songs that never let up, with splendid engineering by Sir Steve Albini and hilarious lyrics...this album kills.
The band's first album was an enjoyable record. Some great songs, some decent ones, with very...odd production. I could point out multiple tracks, but I'll just focus on one: "Whiteliberalonwhiteliberalaction", the best song on the album, has hilariously loud bass that almost ruins the song. Nonetheless, any shortcoming the band had was quickly overcome for this, their sophomore album.
The record opens with "Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues," a song as heavy as its title suggests, and perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the record. "I'm fearful of flying! And flying is fearful of me!" Many of the other songs, such as "Collagen Rock" and "Whoyouknow" take ferocious swipes at faux-indie-rock stars (a la The Strokes) and people aiming to see and be seen. When you're working (on good terms) with Steve Albini, it's not surprising that these thoughts represent your politics.
The band showed strong diversity in songwriting, as well. "Fuck This Band" is subdued and an enjoyable track before hit single "To Hell With Good Intentions" (My love is bigger than your love song), and "Alan is a Cowboy Killer," a 4-minute, two-chord track, is the standout. I'd also be remiss not to point out just how great bassist Jon Chapple's songs are: "Chases" and "What We've Learned" are certainly two of the best songs on the record.
The magic would not last long. The band stuck around long enough for one more LP, and while it's decent, the loss of original drummer Matthew Harding is noticeable on the record. No other band has been so missed upon their breakup with so many fans finally realizing their greatness after their breakup as Mclusky, but this album will live on far longer than the work of so many of their peers, and with good reason.
Mclusky Do Dallas
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Artist: Etta James
Album: Tell Mama
Etta James, much like Otis Redding, seemed to always be overshadowed by others in their time. Hindsight has done wonders for their careers, but while at the height of their powers, they were overshadowed. Etta always seemed to be in contention with Aretha, and the thing that always seemed to hold her back was the far-too-wide of a variety of ways her voice was handled. She'd done orchestral pieces, gritty R&B, and even straight-up blues, but in 1968, after Aretha recorded at FAME: Muscle Shoals, Leonard Chess sent Etta to follow suit, and it turned out southern soul was the backbone Etta had been missing all along.
Tell Mama was not Etta's first great album. That honor belongs to 1961's At Last!, which apart from its legendary title track, features killer renditions of "Tough Mary" and "All I Could Do Was Cry," among other great tracks. And it's not the first record that really showcases her gritty side. She was recording for Kent Records as early as the mid-1950s, and Etta Rocks The House, a live album from 1964, is one of her best. But Tell Mama, with amazing playing and production all-around, is her most ferocious studio album.
Her first hit was a response to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie," and for the title track, Etta reverses the roles of a man's song and makes it her own (a rendition of "Tell Papa"). Covers of Otis Redding's "Security" and Don Covay songs as well litter the album. The horns, the Telecaster guitar, and Etta's voice really make this album erupt with energy. The feel is unbelievable, and the songs are amazing.
The CD issue features all sorts of excellent bonus tracks from the sessions that highlight that Etta had ample material to draw from for the album's release. It's really a stellar record in every way, without a bum note on it. A triumphant record for a woman that finally got her due.
Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions
Album: Maggot Brain
Maggot Brain is one of those "bridging" records that finds a band in a transitional point in time, bridging their roots and where they were headed in the future. I've always felt that the idea that Funkadelic were some rock-centric (over funk) band to be a bit misguided and embellished because in reality, the last album where they show their rock side is this one--and it was only their third. Even though this is their last rocking album, though, it's still among their best and most cohesive.
Perhaps the reason Maggot Brain works is the diversity. The band still employ drawn-out jams to open and close the record, but instead of dense psychedelic freak-outs like on their first two albums, the instruments and playing are given a lot of space to breathe--most notably with the legendary guitar work on the title track. "Wars of Armageddon" which closes the album is groovy and far-out, but again, not as in your face as this type of song was on the first few albums.
Another strength is that some of the band's best songs ever are here. "Can You Get to That" I've noticed has become a de-facto favorite of many to introduce people to the band, and with good reason. The other songs that make up the middle of the record are catchy, to the point, and diverse.
One of the best parts about the record is the soulfulness as well. It really does a great job at being an R&B record, not necessarily all funk or all 60s soul. This is most evident with some doo-wop sounds that make up the last few songs on the record. The band had begun as a doo-wop group in the mid-1950s, but this is the first time in years that the unit had pulled this out.
Maggot Brain is a tremendous record lastly, because I feel it's their last really great record. While their funk period that followed has its moments, and many would say One Nation Under a Groove is a great record, the best stuff the unit put out after Maggot Brain was through their Parliament moniker. But from the iconic artwork to the wild set of songs, Maggot Brain is an essential album to the P-Funk collective.
Album: Trans-Europe Express
Trans-Europe Express was not the first great album by Kraftwerk, nor even their first masterpiece. That title belongs to 1973's Autobahn. Nevertheless, more than 30 years after its release, T-E-E remains the group's most celebrated album, and for good reason. Cohesive themes and amazing melodies make this album today as enjoyable as it's ever been.
Autobahn's title track was a hit that nobody predicted, but 1975's Radio-Activity didn't really capitalize on the group's success, and in a lot of ways, was a step back for the group. Their early (read: first 3) more experimental records were good, but what made Autobahn so great was its full sound and beauty. The 1975 album was almost jerky at times, and not as easy to listen to. But Trans-Europe Express helped not only to permanently establish Kraftwerk as all-time greats, but stands on its own, independent from the band's reputation, as a land-mark album.
The album is full of paranoia and ease--like a Kinks record in a way, it sarcastically celebrates "how far we've come," and the tone of the album is really one of despair. Side A kicks off with "Europe Endless," almost a sort of "tour" of the post-WWII environment. "The Hall of Mirrors" questions modern identity, with lyrics like "He made up the person he wanted to be/and changed into a new personality." The side ends with "Showroom Dummies," which musically points to the direction that their next few albums would take, but the paranoid themes fit with this album perfectly.
Side B is almost a "Trans-Europe Express" suite, with the title track, and then instrumental tracks that build off of its themes. Made more famous in Afrika Bambatta's "The Planet Rock", the title track in its original context is still where the music is at its most brilliant. It's truly a tour-de-force that lulls you in to a haunting drive through Europe.
Kraftwerk made many great records, but none better than this. The paranoia and confusion are brilliant and the themes were never so dark. The album is absolutely phenomenal.
Artist: Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben
Album: Gil e Jorge
Allmusic.com laments that there "isn't another album in Gil's catalog like this." While that's true, it makes the other works of each musician that much greater. Jorge Ben was one of the most understated members of the MPB family, and Gilberto Gil, though possibly seen in Caetano Veloso's shadow, released many superb albums (especially in the 1970s) full of lush arrangements and beautiful pop. Here though, the two came together in one of the finest collaborations in pop history for a brilliant record.
Djalma Corrèa accompanies the other two on the album on percussion, and while there is very little rehearsal, the songs are beautiful. Re-records of some songs the musicians had done on earlier albums, it nevertheless sounds effortless and unrehearsed but in a freeing way. I once read from an online friend that one of the two arrived late and the other one was so pissed, he just went to his guitar and started playing, and the recording was full of tension. While I can't verify it, it certainly is one of the loosest collaborations in a genre that was no stranger to it. Milton Nascimento recorded with Lo Borges and Som Imaginario. Caetano wrote for Gal Costa and plenty others, and throughout the years, members of the MPB family always seemed to come together.
This wasn't even Gil's only album of the year, and the next year Ben would release arguably his solo masterpiece: Africa Brasil. Nevertheless, this record remains one of the most celebrated in Brazilian history, and with beautiful interplay that is really stripped down to its melodic essence, it remains a classic.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
So I'm almost a fifth of the way through this and that's very exciting. I'm going to start posting links to the album for you to hear.
Also, as I imagined, some of the rankings I'm kinda already unhappy with. As I look at the top of the list, there's definitely some stuff that should be higher/some lower. But c'est la vie!
Also, as I imagined, some of the rankings I'm kinda already unhappy with. As I look at the top of the list, there's definitely some stuff that should be higher/some lower. But c'est la vie!
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Artist: The Replacements
Album: Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash
The Replacements are the definitive every-man band. It might've been the Minutemen who always stuck to working-man's ideals, and other bands might've tried to give off the atmosphere that you can do it, too! but no band did it like the 'Mats. Throughout their career, the songs remained universal, and no album speaks to disenfranchised youth like their first one.
This album is just so goddam snotty. Lyrics include: "Irresponsibility's my closest friend." "I hate music, it's got too many notes." "I ain't got no idols, I ain't got much taste." Paul Westerberg's lyrics have this magical ability to touch on the disenfranchised of every age group.
A lot is made about the "filler" in Replacements records, and while I won't argue about how necessary and actually great those songs often are, they are hard to define here. Is the ridiculous rant "I Hate Music" filler? But it's often credited as one of the best songs on the record. How about the slightly slower "I'm In Trouble"? "I Bought A Headache?" Every song on the album belongs, and that helps it stand out as a 'Mats record.
But why am I talking about what people bitch about? "Shiftless When Idle" might be their best song ever. The first 4 songs on the record are bursts of lightning and some of the best. "Raised In The City" is sensational. Every song just rules, and with 18 songs in 36 minutes, it's somehow one of their longest LPs. But the first Replacements record is still a treat to listen to at any age, and never gets boring.
Artist: Eric Dolphy
Album: Out To Lunch
Label: Blue Note
And the award for most under-mentioned musical figure who died before his time goes to...But can you blame people? He was never a pop musician, or even a truly famous jazz figure in his time...he didn't have the chance. Dolphy's first recordings came out in 1959, and by 1965, he had passed away. Some of his earliest material was collaborations with the likes of Booker Little and Ken McIntyre, but on his own is where she truly shined, and never brighter than on this, his second to last studio session, from 1964.
The album opens with a Thelonious Monk tribute, where the time signature varies frequently, seeming to spend a lot of time in 5/4 (if I'm counting right) and featuring just extraordinary sax playing and vibraphone. The melody that opens up "Gazzelloni" is beautiful, and the song is really triumphant. The ending adds a clearer trumpet to the opening, and like much of Dolphy's music, is warped but in a wonderful way. The title track, as well, could be mistaken for a more typical Blue Note song of it's time, but is played in such a way where there is really no parallel from its time. A seemingly simple melody is just off enough to not fit in...anywhere really. Even final cut "Straight Up And Down", with it's groovy drum lines, could have been more generic if this cast wasn't so in touch with whatever it is they were trying to do.
Of course the other players deserve large amounts of credit. Bobby Hutcherson's vibraphone playing is sensational, Freddie Hubbard's trumpet playing is perhaps as interesting as it would be for the entire decade (before his 1970s CTI Records), and Tony Williams and Richard Davis hold down a great rhythm section.
But it's, of course, Dolphy who steals the show. Who knows what could have been had such an interesting and innovative figure been around in the end of the decade, as fusion and funk and new forms began to open up in the Jazz world. We'll never know, but even without it, this record is years ahead of its time and still a treat.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Artist: Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield's 1972 album, his final masterpiece in a string that began his solo career, is the soundtrack to the film of the same name. While many other Blaxploitation soundtracks have their own strengths and feature many instrumental tracks (Shaft and Trouble Man) this album stands out in that it's much more song-structured. While it isn't the only soundtrack to focus more on pop songs than instrumentals, it remains in a class of its own for the unbelievable songs all over the album.
Unlike a lot of the music/culture/films of blaxploitation, Superfly paints the scenarios in a negative light. Curtis always has been a moralist, but always makes sure not to preach. Think about his earlier career with "Don't Worry, If there's A Hell Below" and "People Get Ready," he's always talking about the everyman.
"Pusherman" has one of the funkiest intros ever, as does the title track, which was sampled by Beastie Boys for Paul's Boutique.
Another strength of the album is it's even more subdued in tone than Roots. Whereas his first album was all bright and shiny horns and upbeat sounds, Roots and Superfly are much more toned down, making sparing use of horns and high-end, really allowing the bass and percussion to drive everything.
I'd also like to say that "No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song)" might be one of my all-time favorite tracks. After a minute-or-so-long spoken word intro, the song really gets groovy, with an amazing trumpet sound throughout.
Curtis Mayfield is one of the greatest musical figures of pop history, and this album is frequently seen as his masterpiece. While I don't fully agree with that (he'll make another appearance on this list), Superfly is an amazing record.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Album: Lazer Guided Melodies
Oh god what a record. After several astounding 12" singles with Spiritualized in the first few years of the 90s, Jason Pierce released this, their debut album, in 1993. After the soaring highs of Spacemen 3 and the greatness surrounding those 12"s, the fact that this album blows so much of his earlier output out of the water is still astounding.
Originally released as 4 tracks--with several compositions per track, the album truly has a flow to it. The muted "You Know It's True" gives way to the mammoth "If I Were With Her Now" full of lush arrangements and a beautiful organ sound. Whereas on later Spiritualized albums, the instrumentals sometimes go on for too long, it doesn't happen here, and they act as beautiful segues before the next space pop gem.
One of the strengths of the album is still how calmly it moves. They weren't yet making giant, space rock opuses with orchestras and choirs, the band was still in many ways functioning without grandiose means. Yet it still feels like the kind of thing the band could create with hundreds of players at their disposal.
And of course, there are the songs. Whereas the diverse stylings of other Spiritualized releases often come off as disparate, (especially on Let It Come Down) all of the songs work together beautifully, whether the brief and subdued "Smiles" or the brilliant, career defining "Shine A Light."
Spiritualized remain one of my favorite bands ever, and they have another album that will be on this list that is perfect. Yet most days, I find myself reaching for Lazer Guided Melodies before any of their other albums, and maybe it shows J. Spaceman doesn't have to try...as hard as he does...and he could still release something sublime.
Artist: Liz Phair
Album: Exile In Guyville
Liz Phair's debut is an album that just needs to be enjoyed on its own. Don't worry about the back-story, about how it's a song-by-song reaction to Exile on Main Street cus it doesn't make any sense or add to the album at all. Don't worry about how Liz is some riot grrl making strides for women's lib in punk rock, because she doesn't hold a candle to the progress Sleater-Kinney or Bikini Kill made. Exile In Guyville is still one of the best records of the 1990s, and it's just because of awesome songwriting and great sequencing.
The diversity of songs on the album is still stunning, and the way Liz shifts between moods and styles with equal quality remains a strong point. There are the "hits" like "6'1", "Fuck and Run", and "Divorce Song" as well as dark piano songs like "Shatter" and "Canary." On top of that, folk-ier, stripped down songs as well as some really dark, almost tripped out psychedelic (in their own way) shit really build an incredible record.
The earnestness and songwriting are also remarkable. Listen to how the story unfolds in "Divorce Song": "And when I asked/for a second room/it was late at night, and we'd been driving since noon. But if I had known/how that would sound to you/I would've taken it back/for the rest of my life/just to prove I was right." Those little, mundane, and insignificant events in a relationship always end up meaning more than we realize, and Liz's storytelling reveals that. And it gets general and universal as well, as she later sings, "You put in my hand a loaded gun and then told me not to fire it. When you did the things you said were up to me and then accused me of trying to fuck it up." Really, we've all been there.
With sub-par follow-up records and awful records the last few years, Liz Phair's legend has diminished. While many of her late-80s/early-90s indie rock peers are cashing in on a resurgence of fame, her Exile shows were disasters by most accounts, and the DVD on the CD reissue is...embarrassing and boring to say the least. But none of it takes away from the quality of the 18 songs that make up Exile in Guyville.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Artist: Mission of Burma
Label: Ace Of Hearts
The final Mission of Burma studio release during their first tenure as a band (wow that's a lot of qualifiers) remains one of the best post-punk records, and one surprisingly overlooked by the punks. But though not as cool or often name-dropped as many SST or Touch and Go records of the same time, Vs. is one of the best 80s punk records.
"Secrets" really sets the stage, by building up awesome tension for over its first full minute, without a single lyric sung. By the time the lyrics and the song fully kick in, it sounds like ...well...the band say it best..."It's the pulling of the undertoe/when you can't control the wheel." It's a common theme throughout the album, musically, that it feels like the band is losing control.
The songs are constantly challenging and the songwriting goes in many different directions. The highlight is still "Mica" to me. But every song has it's own charm. And where as their previous releases were really well-constructed post-punk, here it feels like they just hit record and let shit FLY. Vs. remains a stellar album all these years later, and hasn't aged a bit, even when compared to some of that new stuff they put out.
Monday, November 1, 2010
Artist: Bill Withers
Album: Still Bill
Bill Withers was not the only songwriter-based funk artist in the early 1970s, but his story remains unique. He was never a creative genius like Stevie Wonder, never got into substances like Bobby Womack, and he never sought out the fame that those two and many others had. Instead, his whole career was subtle, from the music to the man, and his 1972 sophomore effort Still Bill still sums him up perfectly.
It's a departure from his debut a year earlier in a couple of ways. First off: while he wrote 10 of the 12 songs on Just As I Am (the cover of "Everybody's Talkin'" is exceptional), the arrangements were often subdued. A few string arrangements here and there only bring out just how minimalist a lot of the album is. Also, while I wouldn't consider it a happy album, per se, the themes of many songs seem to be positive, whether about a beautiful girl or his grandma.
Still Bill, on the other hand, is mostly a mean album. Except for the brilliant and timeless "Lean On Me," about neighbors being neighborly in a small town, Withers has a bit of a mean streak. "Who is He (And What Is He To You," and "Take It All In And Check it All Out" are directed at a women in anger, and the songs that do talk about a love existing, "Use Me" and "Kissing My Love," the message is less we're in love as it is we're both getting ours without regard for each other, so fuck it!. The rest of the songs, by and large, focus on distrust and disillusionment in some way or another.
Going back to the point about its predecessor being more stripped down, Still Bill is a damn muscular album. Leaving behind Sussex and Booker T. on production, this Columbia Records release is fuller, and while it's still held down by Withers and an acoustic guitar, the fullness of the sound brings out every instrument and gives it a punch. The album sounds just so thick and full, in ways that might've even hurt Just As I Am.
Though some of the songs on his first two albums ("Use Me", "Ain't No Sunshine", and "Lean On Me", namely) are classics, Withers is not an international superstar by any means. He had a few more hits in his career, but always laid low. Not because he was some genius recluse trying to get away from the spotlight, but just because...he...stopped playing. But Still Bill is one of his landmark records, and one of the most unique and exciting records of its time.
Foolish represented a turning point for indie rock pioneers Superchunk in a lot of ways. First off, though the band had founded Merge Records, this is the first album of Superchunk's that label released (Matador was responsible for the first three). More importantly, however, the band was at a personal crossroads, as Mac and Laura (lead singer and bassist, respectively) had split up romantically, and the effects are not only felt in Laura's damning cover art, but Mac's lyrics as well.
Foolish is quite possibly the early-adulthood breakup record. There are many "breakup" records, and there will be more on this list. But regardless of the actual age of the bands making those (Van Morrison was under 25 at the time of Astral Weeks for example) most great breakup records have an unbelievable sense of maturity for the artist recording them. Foolish however, is a rare instance of early-20 somethings singing about the early-20 something blues, and not sounding like jackasses.
There are songs that deal with reminiscing the good times ("Driveway to Driveway"), the moment you realized it all went wrong ("Like A Fool"), one of those many, many fights ("Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything") and of course, the breakup itself ("Keeping Track"). We've all been there, and in true Superchunk fashion, Mac sings about it in ways we can all relate to. In the course of such great songs, the music kicks ass, too, with some of the hardest rocking and anthemic songs the band ever did.
So with such high praise for the record, why do I have it down at 97? Sequencing. Songs 1-9 are absolutely stellar and done brilliantly, and then there are songs 10-12, which are amazing, don't get me wrong...but why not close with the gut-wrenching "Keeping Track"? Why end it on such a muted note as "In A Stage Whisper"? I don't know. Every song kills, but this continues to irk me. Foolish remains one of the best guitar records of the 90s though, and is a perfect companion for those recently-single blues.
Friday, October 29, 2010
Artist: Donny Hathaway
Album: Everything Is Everything
Donny Hathaway's first solo album remains a true soul masterpiece today, 40 (!) years after its release, as it's a great example of briding the gap between 60s soul and 70s funk. At the time of it's release, he was already known by many and had contributed to the works of The Impressions and Roberta Flack among others.
The A-side of this record is R&B-pop hit after hit. The title track, "Je Vous Aime (I Love You)", and "Misty" are all excellent songs. More than half of the tracks on the album are at least co-authored by Hathaway, and many of the songs also feature composition credits by the musicians backing him. Every crescendo, every instrumental fill that works so well on the A-side probably owes something to the closeness felt between the lead singer and his backing band. Yet it's the B-Side that really makes this album a masterpiece.
"Thank You Master" and "The Ghetto" are brilliant early-70s funk songs. The former takes up a political standpoint, with lyrics referencing slavery, and lush orchestration that would pave the way for bands like The O'Jays. The latter, however, is a repetitive stone-groove, more in line with the stylings of Ohio Players, where playing and feel, with a clear homage to jazz routes, are the centerpiece. The album ends with a cover of "Young, Gifted, And Black" a Nina Simone song that Aretha Franklin would adopt for an album two years later. This pointed towards Hathaway's future which revolved around covers and heavy orchestration.
Hathaway's career took several directions after this album and before his abandonment of show business in the mid-1970s, before his early death in 1979. But his first album remains a great example of an ordinary man making extraordinary art.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Artist: Silver Apples
Album: Silver Apples
I seem to go long periods of time without listening to this album, and by the time I get to it, I figure I'll probably have grown tired of it. But that never seems to be the case. Silver Apples first album remains one of the best, most unique poppy psychedelic albums of the late 1960s. The duo consisted of a drummer and singer who played a series of oscillators. Yet the nine songs on this debut are warm and vibrant with a sound that can fill a room.
The album's strength lies in its subtly. Being that half of the band is just a rhythm section, it makes sense that it would be hard to really make complex melodies with only one player on a melodic instrument. But sure enough, it's the buried-deep chord progression of the chorus of "Program" and the stop-start of "Whirly-Bird"...the subtleties, are what make each melody truly unique.
Of course, along with the unique melodies are the absolutely groundbreaking tone of the record. Even The United States of America, who also experimented with oscillators, don't come close to creating such a unique sound. And the album's influence was far reaching, and clearly Suicide and Spacemen 3, among others, owe something to it. Extremely simple melodies done in an absolutely unique manner...really a great record.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Artist: The Blues Project
Label: Verve Forecast
I fucking love Al Kooper. Later on in this list you'll see him mentioned in several other albums, certainly, but I couldn't resist putting The Blues Project on this list.
It's not for the fact that they are an essential band of all-time. And it's not just because I always have a soft spot for exceptional garage rock. But their second album, released in November 1966, still is fresh and exciting. For a band whose origins were blues-folky in nature, with roots in the New York Bowery, being able to release this tour de force is magnificent.
Kooper's strength as bandleader here, as usual, is his ability to make ordinary pop songs exceptional. With the exceptional playing of the rest of his band, simple songs like "Cheryl's Goin' Home" and "Steve's Song" are transformed with great leads, perfect drumming, and great hooks.
Of course, for a blues-based band, the covers are essential. The long, drawn-out "Two Trains Running" and "Caress Me Baby" is the best of the band's material of that ilk. Kooper's "Wake Me, Shake Me," aside from the minor-hit "No Time Like the Right Time" is still the band's best song, and the Chuck Berry cover is performed exceptionally.
The album concludes beautifully, as well, and "Fly Away" points to the pop music Kooper would eventually create with Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Again, beautiful arrangements and wonderful yet simple playing are the song's strength.
This album isn't earth-shattering and I don't know of any greater impact it's had on the history of music. But simple things done well deserve credit, and with all of the above, in addition to smart production by Tom Wilson (see Bob Dylan) that retains a gritty feel and gives it no sheen, the album still is awesome with more could've been hits than most of its garage rock peers.
Monday, October 25, 2010
So I haven't updated this thing in 5 months, and from time to time I get that feeling that I need to share my feelings about an album. This urge, combined with my time spent in classes jotting down an updated list of my 100 favorite albums of all-time has given me the reason to re-start writing here.
So the next 100 posts will be in order from 100-1 of my favorite albums. If I've already reviewed the album, I'll post the old post and any new feelings I have on the thing. The list I've come up with does combine personal preference with historical importance occasionally, which I often take into account when I'm thinking of what albums I love.
If I don't write about an album on the list, also, perhaps I'll write about a near-miss!
So thanks for reading. Tomorrow I will write about album #100: The Blues Project-Projections
So the next 100 posts will be in order from 100-1 of my favorite albums. If I've already reviewed the album, I'll post the old post and any new feelings I have on the thing. The list I've come up with does combine personal preference with historical importance occasionally, which I often take into account when I'm thinking of what albums I love.
If I don't write about an album on the list, also, perhaps I'll write about a near-miss!
So thanks for reading. Tomorrow I will write about album #100: The Blues Project-Projections
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Album: Sticky Fingers
I never cared about Sticky Fingers. Nothing about it ever grabbed me. "Brown Sugar" was never one of their better singles, and while yes, "Wild Horses" was absolutely beautiful, the songs were really lukewarm at best. That some people considered this the band's greatest album blew my mind.
A few weeks ago for reasons I don't remember, I decided to give the album a truly fair chance, and I didn't think really any differently of it. The first four songs were still solid, then the middle of the album and start of side two did nothing for me. And then the final track "Moonlight Mile" came on, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The song is unspeakably beautiful. It stuck out to me in a way few songs ever have. It wasn't just head and shoulders above the rest of the album...it put the band's entire output historically in shame. So I had to give this album another chance. And what was once mundane really began to click.
"Brown Sugar" IS one of their best singles. This album really belongs to Charlie Watts and that is evident at the point in the song he brings out the Maracas. It's such a simple song, but maybe just because I'd never been into it before, it's starting to appear like one of their best. "Wild Horses" is still superb and sublime. "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," again, at one point Watts adds a bit of accent to it which really makes it killer. The first side ends with a good cover of "You Gotta Move" which...is nothing REMARKABLE but still quite good.
The second side is more difficult. After "Bitch", "I Got The Blues" and "Sister Morphine" are very slow songs which take a while to get into. The country influence is more evident than ever for the band, and that would expand in Exile and Goat's Head Soup. "Dead Flowers" is one of their best upbeat songs, and then the perfect "Moonlight Mile" ends the album.
So now that I've done an unnecessary song-by-song assessment, here's what I think. Like Let It Bleed the album suffers from uneven-ness. "Mile" and "Wild Horses" are towering BEHEMOTHS of songs, while others are only good after repeated listens. And some of these songs have great PARTS while not being that interesting cover to cover (ends of "Sister Morphine" and "I Got The Blues"...not unlike "Live With Me" and "Monkey Man").
This album, is, however, their druggiest album. Are there any songs here NOT about heroin? It seems like it's the first time they have really tackled drugs which were obviously a huge part of their lives, and for that I give them credit. Don't get me wrong, Sticky Fingers is a great fucking record with some of their best songs, but it's nowhere near as even as Banquet or Exile and for that it suffers.
Album: Marquee Moon
This one really hurts. I go through weird phases with music where I am either spending a week listening to old favorites to see how I currently feel about them and then other weeks I just try to absorb nothing but new music. As I drove up to Canada to visit my friend Tanya this past weekend, I made it a point to listen to some old albums I haven't listened to in years...all of which are certainly far away from my original opinion of them. With that in mind, some of the reviews around this week will have that as a focus. I played Marquee Moon as I drove up, for probably the first time all year...an album which used to be one of my favorites ever...but I honestly struggle now to see what I loved about it.
I really liken it to an ex-girlfriend. The kind that you know you had a genuine love for, but just feel differently about now. But I'll return to that in a moment.
See nearly every song is excellent. Blistering hot guitar solos from Tom Verlaine illuminate opener "See No Evil" and the 10-minute epic title track. The guitar tone is also superb on tracks like "Venus" and the harrowing ballad "Guiding Light."
The songs are played excellently, with sparse drumming that works just right and accents at just the right time. The bass lines are also excellent and add their own melody. Richard Lloyd's guitar playing is also magnificent, and the dual guitar work between him and Verlaine is excellent.
Furthermore, there is a wide variety of style here. "Elevation" is dark and menacing, whereas "Guiding Light" (my favorite song on the album) is a ballad. The band has a specific sound but they still create a remarkably diverse record.
So why don't I give a shit about it anymore? I used to listen to it and get that FEELING. That feeling when a perfect part of a song just hits you. During the "Darling, darling...do we part like the seas?" part of "Guiding Light" I always had the shiver in my chest which excited me. But not anymore. I just don't love it anymore.
And you know how when you are done with a relationship...you realize there were things that mattered more than you realized? You used to be more forgiving, right? "Prove It" is that sign that maybe the album wasn't as exceptional as I once imagined. That song is really just not that interesting, and kind of boring, and certainly the weakest lyrically.
Maybe I can re-visit Marquee Moon one day and love it again. I have with other albums (gone in and out of favor), but right now...I just don't know what I loved about it.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Album: Slanted And Enchanted
I want to qualify everything I'm about to say with two things. The first is that I don't think this record is perfect, and it falls short in the same way Murmur does, where the last bit of the record just doesn't match up to the rest of it. Also, this is my favorite Pavement record...as I just don't see what the big deal about the rest of their stuff is.
Slanted is the indie record of the decade, for sure. Slacker, cool, relaxed, sloppy, beautiful pop. There isn't much indie music from the 90s that doesn't owe something to this record. Lo-fi as fuck as well, this album is a great template. And it starts off so well. "Summer Babe" and "Trigger Cut" are a superb one-two punch of pop bliss and get me in such a good mood whenever I hear them.
Even when they turn it up a notch, such as on the third track "No Life Singed Her" they still rock out hard and do well. In fact, most of side one plays on the band's strengths of oddball pop songs played sloppy as fuck but with catchy as hell hooks. Even the Fall rip-off "Conduit For Sale" is memorable (though it's lifted from "New Face In Hell" in both music and lyrical delivery). It ends with the weirdo "Chesley's Little Wrists" and you're feeling great. Seriously, side one is great.
"Loretta's Scars" pick up side two with brilliance. The best song of the album, easily, it is the band's best song! And the next few songs on side two are great follow-ups to the stuff that is done on side one (though "Two States" is a bit stupid..."Perfume-V" makes up for it!)
However, the album gets to the point here where it loses steam. "Fame Throwa" and "Jackals, False Grails" are good, but not exceptional, and with songwriting and song feel, they've already been done. "Our Singer" is a nice enough song, but would've fit in better with side one and one of those superior slower songs could've been later on.
Pavement are a massively overrated with a damn great first record. And you've just read how I feel about it.
Artist: Jesus Lizard
Label: Touch & Go
I don't know how I forgot how brilliant this album is. For those who don't know, Jesus Lizard formed out of the ashes of such awesome bands as Scratch Acid and Rapeman. After their debut EP Pure, the band ditched their drum machine and really came into their own.
Goat is the band's second album, but with the pedigree of their background...the idea of a sophomore slump or the band "coming into their own" wouldn't be fair. The band clearly knows what they are doing, and with this album, perfect their style. It is easily the best album any member of the band was ever a part of. And right from the get-go, that's evident. As great as their first album Head is, "Then Comes Dudley" on its own puts this record a mile ahead of its predecessor.
Every song is crystal clear...and where so much music overdoes volume these days, and there is massive compression is a shining example of analog recording done well...where if you want to hear it be louder, turn it the fuck up! The band is also hilarious throughout the record. Lead singer David Yow declares "I can't swim!" in "Seasick" and "Nub" features hilariously sung Spanish. The guitar lines are menacing, the bass is a PERFECT TONE. It's not too distorted, but it certainly isn't smooth at all. And the drumming is amazingly precise and jeez does this album show you how important getting the drums to sound just right is.
There is a precision to the menace on this record. Every note is right on time, not a crash that lands early, not a note mis-played. While the music inside the record is crazy, the band is in total control.
"Lady Shoes" is the best song on the record. Yow's vocals are so distorted and vicious...and every drum beat is PERFECT. The guitar line is amazing...and so fucking brilliant...I can't describe. I just can't.
The album is over in a cool 30 minutes. Some prefer the follow-up Liar, but for my money, it doesn't get better than Goat. Easily one of the best records of the 90s and an essential record for anyone who loves great punk rock.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Artist: Djeli Moussa Diawara
Flamenkora is a superb album by Afro-Pop artist Diawara, and primarily features his playing of the kora...an instrument that some say has existed for over a thousand years. While some of his work prior to this was built around electronics, Flamenkora is a pretty subdued record which emphasizes primarily traditional instruments.
I won't claim to know enough about African music to write much more. Djeli's voice is absolutely beautiful and a lot of music that has come out of the Ivory Coast in the last few years that I've noticed (Andy Palacio and other stuff on that label) clearly owes a lot to this kind of pop music. Superb vocals abound, and every song is a treat.
Monday, April 26, 2010
Murmur, coming in on nearly THIRTY years after it was first released, still remains the defining (and first truly great) college radio record. The record is nothing truly original or earth-shattering, and neither was the band...but their legacy lives on for what the music...which first appeared on this record (1982's Chronic Town EP did not have nearly the same impact).
DIY American punk was making a huge impact on college radio stations across the country at this point...and even the ones that only had an impact in hindsight...by majority subscribed to the loud and fast punk rock. Minutemen, Husker Du, and Black Flag had to earn their keep just as REM did, but REM focused on melody and guitar interplay, ripping off then-obscure groups like The Soft Boys and Big Star.
The songs that make up Murmur are, by and large, beautiful. They are at other times, though, aggressive and dark. REM did a superb job of mixing a variety of feels on this record and still make it one complete unit. "Radio Free Europe" and "Catapult" soar with beautiful harmonizing..."Sitting Still" is a slacker anthem, and "Talk About The Passion" and "Perfect Circle" are exceptionally beautiful.
I will say, however, that the album isn't perfect...and I find it receives more lauding than it deserves (as many classic indie rock records do.) I still can't shake the feeling that the last third of the record PALES in comparison to the first eight songs, and re-treads most of what has already been done on the album at that point. "West of the Fields" is dark but not that great..."We Walk" is too sweet for my liking and just doesn't hold up well.
Murmur is a good album with some EXCEPTIONAL songs...which I guess kinda sums up my feelings about REM as a whole.
Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Album: There's A Riot Goin' On
As I slowly trudge through my library to do this...and it's obviously going to be a never-ending project, the exciting thing is what albums have gotten better to my ears and which have left me disappointed. Today I'll attempt to review a bunch of albums that I was primarily into in years past (not exclusively, though). When I got into this album, I thought it was brilliant, and as I listen to it now, especially with the crisp sound of the reissues from a few years ago, the brilliance of this record still shines through.
This might be one of the first records I've reviewed here that I would absolutely consider one of the 10 or 20 greatest albums ever, and I don't know how anyone couldn't be moved by this. After the unreal highs the band brought with 1969's Stand! and the two subsequent singles "Hot Fun In the Summertime" and "Thank You Falettinme Bemiceelf Again" (spelling?) it seemed like the good times would never end. But the 1960s did, and Sly is high on everything there is, and if the Stones' Let It Bleed signaled the end of the 60s, There's A Riot is a perfect illustration of the fallout...the after effect.
Sly's voice is no longer bright and jubilant...instead he slurs his words with desolate reverb and an effect (don't know if it's just the way he sang or something done with technology) that screams disillusion. And the lyrics also signify that disillusion as well, as "Family Affair" shows inter-family strife and "Spaced Cowboy," as far as I'm concerned, takes a big swipe at traditional American values and entitlement.
The music is also sparse and dark. Funk bass drives the songs...there is sparse drumming. And the organ and keyboards are off-putting. Back to the lyrics, though...they are sarcastic and offensive. Sly is not pleased...and it's as if he's disgusted in his own past optimism.
Every song on this album is superb in every sense of the word. You are fucking up if you haven't heard this album.