Welcome to the latest installment counting down my 500 favorite albums of the last 40 years, in celebration of my 40th birthday. Here’s Part I if you missed it, 500-401.
Bowie here was not the same Bowie as on Ziggy Stardust or Let’s Dance. Fueled by coke and amphetamines he’s halfway between the ersatz soul of his previous record and halfway towards the sonic ingenuity of his Berlin years. In fact the title track and “TVC-15″ feel very much indebted to what German bands like Kraftwerk and Can were up to.
A deeply twisted yet compassionate foray into the all-too recent American south. Newman imagines himself as his characters and his utter lack of detachment when in character as a racist for instance led to much confusion as well as Newman’s outspoken defense of Eminem. A corrective to those who know him only from family-friendly soundtracks and the (very funny) Family Guy parody.
Dan Bejar’s music making moniker has given him cover to explore a wide range of sounds, as well as to play the enigmatic member of a supergroup that already includes fascinating chanteuse Neko Case (New Pornograpers). Whike his voice may be a bit too reedy for some tastes and can veer into preciousness hen unchecked, here the songs and sounds are varied and energized enough to put every song over.
The Roots straddled many traditions, from old school hip-hop to R & B and beyond. Because they are a band and use live instrumentation, they have been more reliant on great songwriting to get ideas across and this album captures them at their most fertile and sprawling – literlly on “The Seed 2.0″ which recounts a sort of creation myth for rock and roll.
One of britpops most unappreciated lights, these guys cranked out album after album of insanely tuneful songs. This is their most relaxed sounding record which isn’t to see that it doesn’t kick ass. The songs just have a great flowing sense of hooks being woven together into a pretty fucking cool sweater. Influences like Bowie, Small faces, even Supertramp are there to be spotted but never swamp the sound of three lads having fun.
Before Robyn Hitchcock was a quirky solo artist he was in this quirky post-punk band with a guy named Kimberley Rew. The main difference is the aggression which adds a welcome edge to the whimsy especially charging out of the gate on the brilliant “I Wanna Destroy You” which includes the great couplet “A pox upon the media and everything you read…”
Yo la Tengo stretch the fuck out on the album that cemented their status as indie darlings. They manage to cover the spectrum between Bob Dylan and Sonic Youth (on one song, “From a Motel 6″) handily while heralding the post-modern emergence in the 90s of critic’s rock. As much as it’s fun to play spot the references though, the band has it’s own way of mixing their references, ingredients and past references into something new and delightful.
393. Lambchop – Nixon (2000)
Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner makes much of their Nashville hometown but there’s very little country in their sound, unless you count the lush crossover weirdness of countrypoltan outliers like Lee Hazlewood or prime 70s Glen Campbell. This is a big band with a full sound yet the songs never pound – in fact they are hushed. Wagner sings like a fat guy, think Lowell Goerge, even though he looks like Anthony Edwards. So, a band of contradictions adding up to a uniquely stately sound.
The Police come on with punk aggression on this, their debut but they were poseurs at heart. Sting and Stewart Copeland were prog rockers who delved deep into jazz fusion that would make Glen Matlock puke and guitarist Andy Summers was a vet of the late 60s swinging London scene. Nevertheless they bought the songs to match the zeitgeist, fast clever and with more than a nod to reggae (something punks like The Clash and Stiff Little Fingers were doing as well). So these guys may have been phonies, but they sure weren’t faking it.
Even Jay-Z, who has an ongoing beef with Nas, disses him by saying he had one good album. This is that album. It’s great.
Urge were the careerists of the Chicago indie scene, always more melodic and classic rock than their abrasive Touch and Go labelmates despite using Steve Albini to record their early albums. Their matching suits and painstaking iconography were ironic but had enough truth in them to cause grumbling. Sure enough they signed to Nirvana’s label and released their ultimate Cheap Trick mash note, a big chewy slice of pop rock with songs about soap stars, stalkers, spies, and a few lyrics like “Bottle of Fur” that defy interpretation. Drug problems derailed the road to superstardom and this proved their high water crossover mark but it was a hell of a shot.
Maybe the most influential of all the bands to emerge in a burst of creativity from Germany in the late 60s and early 70s and commonly lumped under the Krautrock moniker despite very different sounds and approaches. Kraftwerk discovered electronic soundscapes and by 1974 were creating whole albums of pulsing, burbling synth sounds that would influence the likes of Giorgio Moroder and disco, post-punk synth pop like Depeche Mode and New Order, and elctro-rap like Afrika Bambaataa. This is their most accessible work, with all their hallmarks undiluted but spiked with hooks and melody.
Yes this would have been more impressive in 1968, though everyone would have wondered why a guy from The Move and a teenager from Gainesville Florida were jamming with legends like Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison. Typically this kind of thing doesn’t come off but it’s utterly charming with some of Dylan’s best work since his 70s revival.
Howard Devoto was a co-founder of The Buzzcocks but took off when that band started to veer into their standard (and wonderful) short sharp pop punk, ie before their first album. He founded Magazine and though they recorded a few castoffs from the Buzzcocks era (the brilliants “Shot By Both Sides” for one) they began laying the post-punk foundation of heavier more melodic bass and increasingly prominent keyboards. Of course this is more than just a transitional moment caught on record, it’s a great album that pointed the way forward post-1977.
386. Wipers – Over The Edge (1983)
Portland’s Greg Sage didn’t care about fame or stardom, he just wanted to toy around with recording and playing. He didn’t much care for touring either. Yet the guy had a gift and over three records (of which this was the last) he created incredibly driving, emotional punk that prefigured everything from Nirvana to Weezer while barely making a dent on the charts or the overt landscape of the music world.
Like Magazine and Public Image Ltd, Magazine couldn’t wait for the first blush of punk to end so they could usher in a more nuanced sound. The official rap on punk was that it was eradicating black music’s influence on rock, particularly the beat. This was a bit overstated but the next wave of bands looked to r & b and disco in ways that planted the seeds for future new wave/disco concoctions like Duran Duran. Japan was at the forefront, marrying punks driving spiky guitars with a rhythm section that could throb with the best of them.
In the wake of the breakup of the Pixies, Frank Black (nee Black Francis) was nothing if not prolific even as his commercial prospects ebbed away and the scene his band helped birth moved on. The skill and love of music never abandoned him as he explored more traditional rock idioms before wending back to some of the his more archetypal songwriting on this record, his best with the band The Catholics. While still very different from his seminal work, his concentration on craft is spiked with a return to offbeat arrangements and a terrific set of songs from the extra-long rave-up opener of “Blast-Off” to the wending story-song of “St. Francis Dam Disaster” and the rousing “Hermaphroditos.”
Eels frontman E can be insufferable but also incredibly creative. The consensus is that Electro-Shock Blues is his best work on the Eels moniker, a set of songs heavily influenced by the death of several people close to him. I’ll take this over that any day. Here E has grown a full Unabomber beard abetted by the parka and sunglasses et-up on the cover – inside the songs are harsh and squalling, burying his melodic gifts in sometimes ugly sounds and roughing up his prettier songs with nasty lyrics like “World of Shit.” It’s incredibly affecting and feels more emotional honest than a whole host of his other stuff, at least to me.
382. Linton Kwesi Johnson - Forces of Victory (1979)
LKJ was a dub point, a sharply intellectual critic of the rise of the right in British politics. Singing/speaking in heavy Jamaican dialect, Johnson comes on like Britain’s reggaefied answer to Gil Scott-Heron. What puts this over is the amazing work by Dennis Bovell and the Dub Band backing him up with tight playing and inventive songs.
381. Cake – Comfort Eagle (2001)
Every album that Cake does is essentially the same. The same tightly wound rhythm section, retro sounding horns, dash of new school production to spice things up, John McCrea exhorting the band with little asides here and there. Yet, this one rises above the pack on the strength of a hugely consistent set of songs, flawless arrangements, and a dark little undercurrent that lends gravitas that is so often absent from their other work.
380. Radiohead - Amnesiac (2001)
Even Radiohead’s leftovers are better than many artists fussed-over statements. These tracks were recorded at the same time as the groundbreaking Kid A and share a kinship with their electroified rock. There is a bit of grandeur added with the Pink Floyd in Pompeii prog of “Pyramid Song” and a bit of the ol’ songcraft on “Knives Out.” A placeholder but what a place to hold.
379. The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat (2004)
It’s hard to fathom but this actual brother/sister duo got reams of White Stripes comparisons when their debut hit. Those were easily dismissed with this follow-up which struck their best balance to date of accessibility and their ongoing wanderlust-cum-ADD. They do stretch out with a vengeance with several songs topping the 6 minute mark but a sense of song structure and melody pervades the record, not least on nuggets like “Bird Brain.”
One of the married couples lightest and most rollicking albums, and their last one before an abrupt conversion by Richard Thompson to an ascetic form of Sufism which makes the religious tweaking of “Mole in a Hole” even curiouser. A little ribald (see the title track) and even raunchy (R. Thompson’s guitar playing, natch).
Here’s where these indie stars go all Talking Heads, marrying their experimental urges with a broader palette of beatsand sounds and a more expansive worldview. The sound is clear, the songs direct, and the combination makes for one of the band’s most powerful albums to date.
Tom Waits completely blew up his life and career between 1980 and the release of this album, transforming from a wry piano balladeer to an avant-garde Kurt Weill on steroids. In some ways it was a sound and substance that harked back to primal Americana of the 20s – 50s, but roughed up and pulled to the very edges of the spectrum. Even his voice had undergone a major change, from smoky crooner to gravelly intonations. One of the great 180 degree turns in music.
PJ Harvey appeared to have settled down into a career where fans would be shed but few new ones gained. Having sloughed off her rough and ready early work she had lately ventured into Kate Bush territory – never a good sign. Then this came out and suddenly she was a vital artist again with something to say and the songs to say it with. A song cycle about the horrors British soldiers faced during the first world war, Harvey sprinkles in plenty of signposts to todays conflicts and moods. The sound is revelatory, not as abrasive as her early work, there are clever borrowings and allusions throughout to songs such as “Summertime Blues” and even a sample of Niney’s reggae classic “Blood and Fire”. Stunning.
Kind of a West Coast take on the Zulu Nation sound that De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest popularized, this was a last shot at positivity before gangsta thoroughly took over hip-hop.
373. The Specials - The Specials (1979)
Coventry, England’s finest musical export were an unlikely interracial band that revived the songs and sounds of pre-reggae Jamaican Ska. Their spirit and tempo were derived straight from punk though with a British sneer. Though their sexual politics sometimes left something to be desired their very existence was a slap in the face to the revived National Front in British politics of the time.
Arguably just on the right side of twee, these gentle popsters were nearly ruined by their exposure in the Zach Braff sensitive-a-palooza-thon that was Garden State. Princess Amidala is right though, these are great songs even if they fall short of full on life-changing.
Schooly D was at the forefront of gangsta rap, and was one of its very best practitioners. His view is a pitch dark noir streetwise lens. Naturally civic leaders were up in arms over his frank and salty raps. This isn’t a record that’s likely to be endorsed by NOW anytime soon but it’s grit is sold on his effortless rhymes and spare beats. Schooly would rather be feared than loved.
370. Yo La Tengo – Electr-O-Pura (1995)
Yo La Tengo got back to eclecticism with this follow-up to Painful. They also serve up one of their most indelible songs with the chiming grind of “Tom Courtenay” which is set off by the horns and noise jams elsewhere.
369. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007)
Seemingly a return to straight-ahead song forms after the willful experimentation of their previous two records, this is actually subtle stuff that sneaks its left turns into the classic rock structures. The guitar work is phenomenal and the arrangements are never less than top notch making this sound like a lost classic from the early 70s.
These guys were blissfully indifferent to typical rules of songwriting and arranging. The upside of this are incredible soundscapes that are just anchored enough in melody and structure to feel utterly transcendent.
Before Blondie were huge stars they were the novelty band of New York’s CBGBs scene. More than their peers, they were open to some of the poppier sounds of the 60s from girl group pastiches to Beatles-like arrangements and melodies. While their first record played the goofy throwback piece up this sophomore release found them emphasizing their range in advance of their blockbuster third album from the punked-up surf of “Youth Nabbed as Sniper” to the proggy “Cautious Lip.”
Though it was viewed at the time as a too-late collection of songs following their 1977 set of incendiary singles, this record has aged incredibly well – cementing Poly Styrene as one of UK punk’s leading artists. The long lag time between the early singles also featured here and the rest of the album tracks helps create a varied sound unified by Styrene’s railing against consumerism and the plastic nature of modern life.
365. The Unicorns – Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Dead? (2003)
These guys were aptly named given their short lifespan as a group and their uniquely skewed approach. This is indie that flirts with lo-fi, twee, punk, and drone but never fully embraces anything but their own worldview. From child stars to sea chanties the subject matter is encyclopedic yet somehow feels almost painfully personal and shot through with humor.
So yeah, this is cheating a little as technically this is a compilation and not a stand-alone album but it’s my damn list and this is essential listening. Steinski is a hero to any fat Jewish guy working at an ad agency (ie me) with a bent towards creativity. In 1983 he entered a contest sponsored by Tommy Boy records to remix one of their singles and won handily by making a smorgasbord of beats and samples from songs, TV shows and movies that was ass-shaking and hilarious. Only the “sampling” one could do back in 1983 wasn’t with a computer, it was with a razor and reel-to-real tape. The fact that it was a pudgy white dude on the cusp of his 30s was a shock to them. He became an underground sensation with his cut-up collages, none of which could be released on a wide basis because of the many unauthorized lifts. Albums like De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Beck’s Odelay are impossible to imagine without him, as is the work of folks like Prince Paul, The Dust Brothers, RJD2, DJ Shadow, Girl Talk, and scores of others.
Slick and even sunny, this is not the anguished grunge queen that graced the classic Live Through This, which in turn led many to dismiss this record as candyfloss. It’s not that exactly. It’s a classic California record as created by Love and abetted by Billy Corgan who co-wrote a chunk of this and it shows.
Santigold collaborates with M.I.A.’s producer, a tip of the hat to the artist she’s most often compared to. Here though they cut loose and have some quasi-legal fun, radically remixing and re-imagining some of her songs and covering The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” as “Guns of Brooklyn” and delving into “Iko Iko.” Like a proper DJ mix it all runs together gloriously.
361. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America (2006)
Here’s where these guys move past joke band with a hectoring frontman and sub-Springsteen arrangements status to a real comer of a band. They are still writing about townies and sing-speaking but the songs are real songs now, the anthems have the requisite lift and the sonic palette is finally broad enough to support the band’s aspirations.
360. Cheap Trick – At Budokan (1979)
This is what a live album should be – all the great ones but tighter, faster, more primal. Cheap Trick never fit cleanly in any genre – they’ve been embraced by power-poppers, hair-mettelers, Grungistas and classic rockers. Here they fall into almost a power punk groove. Spurge for the expanded double-disc.
359. Run-D.M.C. – Run-D.M.C. (1984)
Run-D.M.C. transformed hip-hop by stripping the form down to the key elements of beats and rhymes, and sliding it away from it’s orientation towards disco and into a tougher more rock inflected place. They purposely spoke to an audience beyond a neighborhood or even a city or coast and had the raw talent to become the first true stars of the genre. Later rappers may have found it corny but this was the hard stuff at the time, the unrelenting cutting edge.
357. Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure (1973)
Eno’s swansong with Roxy ushers him out with a sleekly honed distillation of his experimental urges and frontman Bryan Ferry’s more formalist leanings. It stomps all over most other bands of the time by simply being more aggressive as well as more aggressively “out there” than the average band.
Even this early into this band’s voluminous discography (which still continues) it’s clear that you either tolerate or even enjoy Mark E. Smith’s distinctive yelp or it’s like nails on a blackboard. Here is where the band’s sound jells into a sort of demented rockabilly augmented by Smith’s stream-of-consciousness laundry lists. I love it but hey, that’s me.
The album title promises more of the same from the band who kicked off the British ska revival and to some extent that’s true. However the band stretches out past the punky attack of the first record with the Morricone-derived centerpiece of “Stereotypes” and the songwriting deepens to become part of that great stream of britpop that’s trenchant with observations on modern life, connecting them to Ray Davies work with The Kinks and forward to Damon Albarn and Blur.
Karen O. and co. take the hard way out by choosing to shake up the sound they depolyed so well on their debut album. This is a more produced and layered record, as well as a great break-up album. Granted some fans were put off by the slower tempos and somewhat glossier textures but the songs are top-notch.
This is the quirky New York duo’s best midpoint between pop smarts and weird novelty, anchored by the brilliant “Ana Ng,” the ultimate in long-distance relationship songs.
352. The Jesus and Mary Chain - Darklands (1987)
The brothers Reid bravely stripped back the squalling feedback of their debut to reveal the songs lurking underneath on their second album. While this made them sound more conventional it also highlighted the stepped-up craft involved and the fact that, yes, there WERE songs beneath the squalling feedback. Damn good ones too.
Few bands could roar back from the death of a beloved frontman with their biggest and best album even but these Aussie lads managed to do just that. Bon Scott’s death would see to have shut the door given how distinctive his gargled-with-glass vocals were. Somehow the band found a ringer, Brian Johnson, with arguably an even better voice. This is the classic rock party album to have, chock full of anthems and crunchy power chords.
350. Rolling Stones – Tattoo You (1981)
The Stones already had spent most of the last decade assembling albums from a new session here, and odds and ends left over from old sessions there. Still this was their first album exclusively stitched together from castoffs on the cutting room floor though cunningly assembled in such a way that most fans had no clue that these were warmed-over leftovers that dated as far back as the sessions for Goat’s Head Soup in 1973. It’s no wonder given that there are a clutch of classics here including “Start Me Up”, “Waiting on a Friend” and Keith’s “Little T & A.”
Atlanta’s hip-hop heroes were on a hot streak even before they dropped this one, but the sheer scope and range of these tracks and the phenomenal rapping of Dre and Big Boi sent this into the stratosphere. “Ms. Jackson” was the big hit and rightfully so but “So Fresh, So Clean” is a great way to describe their boundary pushing beats and electronic sonics, while “B.O.B.” is a straight-out monster of a track.
This French duo are true musical omnivores, reviving electronica by casting a wide net that reels in all kinds of weird and wonderful goodies. Each track feels like a new discovery, and the record never devolves into samey beats-a-thons like many of their contemporaries. Fun AND rewarding.
After leaving Genesis, flamboyant frontman Peter Gabriel delivered a very song-oriented first solo record, though it was his former band that would go on to be the real commercial powerhouse. At this point though one would have been well within their rights to expect Gabriel to be the one with the brightest future based on this canny mix of art-rock and pop with hooks. The key is “Solsbury Hill” a gorgeous ballad universal in it’s theme of self-actualization, and with a tribal drum coda that points the way to Gabriel’s later embrace of world music.
The Cars took some time off but came back with producer Mutt Lange in tow to create a glossy, glassy album that became a huge honking hit. I remember being blown away by “Drive” as a 13 year old, amazed that the entire song was programmed with keyboard sounds. In it’s way, hugely influential on all the dance-punks that view those 80s sounds as touchstones. I also remember a summer utterly dominated by “Magic.”
Son of legendary R & B bluesman Johnny Otis, Shuggie was a guitar whiz and introspectively gifted songwriter whose biggest hit came via The Brothers Johnson’s brilliant rearranged cover of his “Strawberry Letter 23.” On is own his funky soul was too idiosyncratic to connect to a mainstream audience and he was only re-appraised in the 00s on a consistent basis as a hugely undersung 70s talent.
Lighter in spirit and looser than their first few albums, the married duo behind Quasi had also honed some pretty serious chops – in particular drummer Janet Weiss who kicks like a mule. This makes for a hugely enjoyable record that’s much more varied than a two person lineup might suggest.
At the same time that Nirvana was bringing grunge to the mainstream, Massive Attack’s debut was inventing a new genre in England that would take on the moniker “trip-hop.” As the name implies this was hip-hop inspired by woozy and trippy, related to some of the neo-soul that Soul II Soul had laid down a few years before and the so-called acid jazz scene. This ended up influencing everyone from Portishead to Amy Winehouse’s collaborations with Mark Ronson.
After dissolving Pixies, Black Francis flipped his alias around and became Frank Black and recorded his first solo album which aply staked out ground he’d plow for the rest of his career. Pixies noise and chaos is represented along with his sci-fi fixation but are augmented by some more traditional rock and poppier hooks. There are also more keyboards than he would use before or since, perhaps due to the influence of producer and Pere Ubu keysman Eric Drew Feldman.
James Murphy announced the retirement of his LCD Soundsystem moniker shortly after this album came out, and if it was pro forma (he is the band after all) it still closed the chapter on a handful of great albums. This is critics music you can shake your ass too with Murphy as the pin-up for aging hipsters the world over who want to stay relevant but also know that they must play on the idea of staying relevant. Murphy goes back to the rosetta stone of shape-shifting musicians, Bowie, as much of this is informed by the sound of his late 70s work through Scary Monsters – no bad thing.
Built to Spill celebrated their ascension to Warner Bros. by releasing a impossible to promote record full of lengthy digressive songs. Stick it to the man! Predictably it stiffed but the songs are an excellent new direction for the formerly pithy (even twee) band. They had never hinted at a love for Crazy Horse at it’s sprawling best, and they carry it off with Doug Martsch leading the fellows into tricky step-ups and spiraling tunes that somehow still have hooks all over the place.
Stuart Murdoch and his shifting gang are resolutely not music for everybody, despite being enamored of tunefulness and gifted melodically. Precious is the word to use here, and they tend towards it even if they would toughen up their sound somewhat later on.This was most peoples intro to the band and it caused a bit of a sensation upon release, a slap in the face to grunge (which was tottering over into the glop of nu-metal anyhow) with it’s gentle pastoral sound and nods to folk and 70s singer songwriters. The songs have the goods though, often knowingly wry and sometimes even poignant.
338. The National – Boxer (2007)
The National conjure a detailed, lush sonic bed for this record, auguring a shift away from the straight-ahead indie rock they started with into sonic territory more akin to Wilco or Radiohead at their most tuneful. Strings and brass add weight to an album that lays bear urban ennui and life in the 00s.
Reed seemed a bit lost in the late 70s, eclipsed by his student Bowie and the punk scene he had inspired. This seems to have pressed him to strip back the artifice and get down to basics with guitarist Robert Quine in tow. The songwriting is more direct which puts this album over with a vitality that is still palpable.
336. The Police – Synchronicity (1983)
This was the big one – the album that launched the bleached blonde trio into the stratosphere. That’s only fitting since the (count ‘em) five hit singles rank as some of the best work the band ever did – and the brilliant “Every Breath You Take” is one of the best rock songs ever. Sadly the tension in the band was exacerbated by the long tour for the record and the band went their separate waysrather than consolidating their success.
With the help of the amazing production of Willie Mitchell, Al Green pulled gutbucket southern soul into the smooth seventies. His stunning voice and finely calibrated delivery was certainly a huge part of this, as was a canny ear for how to arrange both originals and covers (his take on Hank Williams here is unbelievable). The drums snap, the strings seduce, the horns wink, and Al just lays it down.
334.Iggy Pop – New Values (1979)
This was the last in the trio of albums that re-introduced Iggy to a world that had finally caught up with him, and it shows him taking some small steps into synthesized textures on songs like “Endless Sea” that actually work quite well. Never fear though, “5 Foot 1″ and it’s ilk still had the old crunch.
Americans know these guys for one song and one song only and it ain’t here. Brits however recognized a good thing when they heard it, abunch of snot-nosed young bastards slagging off new wave and punk as garbage and proposing that the real sound of England’s disenfranchised youth should be…soul? Here they are though, coming on like Van Morison’s kids with a hot as shit band and Kevin Rowland singing more like Joe Strummer than Otis Redding. Which is half the charm, along with the very clever song titles. No wonder Belle and Sebastiannicked their sleeve design from these lads.
Jack and Meg dig deeper int0 blues on this and actually come out sounding more classic rock than ever. Partly this is Jack’s tone and style which distinctly echoes Jimmy Page, and the broader brighter production palette. This may also have been a symptom of his wandering eye, specifically his tenure in the more explicitly rock-oriented Raconteurs. Either way this nwould prove to be their final studio album, and a fitting send-off.
This whole album is on par with the best funk James Brown could dish up, and that’s really saying something. Ben was one of the leading lights in fusing Brazil’s samba with American and African beats and textures creating a wild funky hybrid. Every track here simply burns through the grooves. A must-hear classic.
I’ll admit that most metal music leaves me cold. It might be the stiffness of the rhythm sections in many of the bands or simply my own snobbery. Yet this is a truly undeniable record – especially if you were male and 13 when it came out. The videos alone were pitched at the right level of boobs and booze that set the adolescent brain alight. The timing was perfect for David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen to become megastars driven by MTV and the crossover hit “Jump.” Of course people grow up, lead singers get kicked out (and return and get kicked out…) but 1984 still exists in the notes of these songs.
Impossible to pigeonhole, these guys upped the singalong factor for their major-label coming out but the mix of 50s style rock arrangements and super hot blazing guitar runs along with a permanent horn section and driving chanted vocals made them very hard to promote indeed. It’s a shame as this was ten times more fun than most bands could ever have.
Verlaine was one of the leading lights behind the band Television and was much admired by the likes of David Bowie as a solo artist. His guitar playing is legendary and his reedy vocals would give many a geeky bedroom dreamer courage to sing. Though he never found much commercial success this record is his most consistently winning with “Without a Word” coming closest to the gorgeous glories of his old band.
Guero is the sound of Beck the innovator turning pro and if it’s not as knock-your-socks-off surprising as some of his earlier records it consolidates the advances of each one to make an impressive whole out of what could seem like a zig-zagging aesthetic. It helps that these are some of his best songs and that the Dust Brothers nod to their earlier work with him without trying to replicate it.
The Butler brothers and guitarist John Ashton crafted something special out of some very au courant sounds with this debut – a bit of Roxy Music here (especially their embrace of the sax) , a dash of Bowie, Richard Butler’s sandpaper croon which sounded like Johnny Rotten had taken singing lessons without losing the sneer. It works because the songs and playing are utterly without fat, with Steve Lillywhite providing an alluring atmosphere, and because they put it all over with a sense of humor to leaven what would be pretentious in the wrong hands. Brilliant.
If the Ramones had subsisted on a steady diet of b-movie horror flicks they very well may have ended up as the Misfits. These guys have a lot to answer for (goth for one) but their debut is fast and punky and quite funny.
Steve Albini’s first Big Black album sets the template and the story – pummeling Roland beats, molten guitars, and lyrics that live on the very far side from poltical correctness. In addition “Kerosene” may be their best song and it’s right smack in the middle of the album. Caustic.
After being booted from Dinosaur Jr. by J. Mascis, Lou Barlow licked his wounds by starting his own band and, when he recruited musicians, giving them (perhaps too much) free reign that he had been denied. What makes this my preferred of their albums is that it’s heavy on Lou songs as it should be. Taken from two European EPs and mushed together, this was their most electric foray and the one that most shows Barlow’s emerging skills as a writer and performer. As an interpreter too, with brillaint renditions of Nick Drake and Buffalo Springfield scuzzed up.
George Clinton and his crew hit their stride with their mix of funk, R & B and rock with some of their best songs. “I’ll Stay” is a killer ballad while “Sexy Ways” is like a winking Isley’s outtake, showing the range of the mothership expanding exponentially.
Mark Sandman’s 2-stringed slide bass was one of the unlikeliest lead instruments in rock. Dana Colley’s bluesy sax and Sandman’s smoky voice combine into a late night treat on this, their second album. The material here is head and shoulders above the debut, with new drummer Billy Conway adding both drive and swing. Totally unique and incredibly cool.
Post-Husker Du, Bob Mould spread his wings as a solo artist before forming a new band that built on both the advances of his old one but also on the moves of bands like Pixies. “Helpless” could be right off of Flip Your Wig but “Hoover Dam” shows the sophistication taht Mould was at pains to show on his quieter solo work could be put in service of a band context as well.
Cave and his Bad Seeds began adding lighter elements, more intricate arrangements and varied sounds in the early 90s but it’s here that his old rip-snorting aggression and new found subtlety find their best blend with a terrific set of songs. It’s not a shock that Cave’s love is a violent, twisted, beautiful thing.
If you are going to blow your wad, there are worse ways than filling three discs in a boxed set of brilliants, detailed, funny, varied love songs.
Some fans decried the polish and craft on this record compared to their ramshackle early work but I say they finally sloughed off the Springsteen-isms and became their own band here. The music in jokes are payed off with smart arrangements and even harpsichord is employed on Craig Finn’s epically bleak “One For The Cutters.” “Joke About Jamaica” goes beyond the Led Zep japes to dig deeper, with Finn’s lyrics about scenes living and dying adding even more resonance. A great record.
This is still radically out of step with hip-hop orthodoxy but it was even more so back in 1992. Michael Ivey’s raps are so laid-back he’s practically asleep and the acoustic instrumentation almost veers into G. Love territory but then he pulls a change up on you. The songs are hilarious and sad at the same time, topped by the gutbusting “Outro”.
These guys were doing things like no other band in America – the closest equivalent was the UK’s Swell Maps but Burma had more ealty tos ong structure and form, as well as sheer volume. These songs run the gamut from straight-up punk to the unclassifiable something else, with big slabs of guitar and rolling drums signaling tempo and mood shifts even within the tracks. Eye opening in the best way.
After their widely praised debut these Canadian indie rockers took their time with the follow-up, presenting a bleaker and darker album that still captured some of the magic of the first record but clearly suffused with the ennui that a global war on terror visited on so many. The arrangements rage from hushed to big and bold and the songwriting lassoes everything from George W. Bush to Joe Simpson.
Butter wouldn’t melt in this record’s mouth. For those who hate the Dan, this is exhibit A – music to be an asshole by. Get lost in the shiny sonics and jazzy licks though and you can appreciate Fagan and Becker’s intricate arrangements and how they comment on their own seeming vacuousness.Definitely a peak of sorts.
This duo were another band who were hard to imagine emerging without The White Stripes showing the way. The crucial difference in their evolution is that Jack White embraced classic rock while these guys have over the years let more of a classic soul and R & B influence their sound. This album is the apogee of their exploration into new sounds, with Danger Mouse guiding them into a self-produced combo of snap crackle beats and intricate arrangements worthy of Willie Mitchell. Dan Auerbach’s voice is the clincher, revealing hidden depths as the songwriting skill of he and Patrick Carney keep impressing. A modern classic.
Modest Mouse took a big leap into a thematically linked album for their major label debut, with the quite modest aim of portraying life on earth as a human. What should be unbearably pretentious is smart, savvy and arresting and in it’s ambition is unlike anything else in the band’s catalog.
David Berman comes back after a harrowing 4 year layoff due to crippling drug problems and here lays it all bare along with new band member, his wife Cassie. It’s a high energy affair for the usually laid-back guy and it works remarkably, giving the frankness in his songs just the right desperate edge. “There is a Place” is where he hits bottom and it’s chilling.
FM Cornog occupies a musical perch akin to the film Midnight Cowboy, a celebration of losers, users and the misbegotten. Like Joe Buck, his melodies sure are purty, even recorded as they were at home on a Tascam. The shimmering “Make a Deal With the City” and the liftoff of “Helmet On” are career highlights.
Jim Morrison’s last stand, this is the band digging deep into blues with tracks like “Roadhouse Blues” alongside the brilliant title track.
Exene Cervenka’s sister Mary was killed by a drunk driver while the band began to work on this album and the whole record is suffused with a dark feeling of sorrow, anger and regret. These layers make “Come Back to Me” and “Riding With Mary” indelible and the driving “Blue Spark” burn even brighter. Even without the back story this is a gritty driving album that cemented X as one of America’s best bands.
This is ostensibly Beck’s “personal” album, a confessional lament for his ending relationship and a major shift from an artist more accustomed to roleplaying. The sound harks back to Mutations which shares Nigel Godrich as a producer but the sound is a bit tougher. The songs are tight and masterful, with “Lonesome Tears” building to a rousing string-driven crescendo and “Paper Tiger”‘s rubbery bass adding distinctive accents.
Bigger and bolder than their previous outings, this is twee on steroids. Colin Meloy’s songs roll on like sea chanteys, bold and brassy and confident as hell.
Though Phair played up her debut album’s supposed answer to the Stones Exile on Main Street in reality it was a rebuke to the wayward and shifty men in bands and beds who she encountered living in Chicago. These are 18 great songs all with distinct arrangements and a widely varied approach from bar band to art rock. It’s a brilliance she would never equal.
When Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain killed himself he quoted from Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps” in the suicide note. Not surprisingly this had a haunting effect on Young who recorded this album as a response. It’s incredibly sad, elegiac, even hopeful at times as he looks at a crumbling world through the eyes of a young man who should have everything to live for. Sometimes songs like the lengthy “Change Your Mind” blur the lines between a love song and a lament to a talent that can never be bought back.
It’s all too easy to fall in love with Neko Case, her beauty is matched by a voice of incredible power and charisma. On this, her third album, her songwriting finally comes into it’s own and she begins to stake out her own patch of Americana with a dark noir underpinning. It sounds timeless while not sounding like anything else exactly. Stunning.
I know it’s hard to believe what with the Disney soundtracks but there was a time when Newman was among the most provocative of American songwriters. This one alone features the bawdy ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On” the amazing “Sail Away” which could form a great fucked up slaver trilogy along with The Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and The Mekons “Amnesia.” Whether questioning religion or welcoming World War III this set the template for a legion of smart-asses to come like Elvis Costello and Nellie McKay.