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