Aluminium: 10 Years of Boxer

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The National – Boxer

Released May 21st, 2007 on Beggars Banquet

RYM:  #345

BestEverAlbums:  #130

Boxer was the breakthrough for one of indie rock’s most cherished bands, and it was also a personal vindication for the band itself.  They had gotten together near the end of the Dot Com era in New York and had started recording with stars in their eyes.  Their first tour, however, found them playing to scant crowds, in some cases just to the staff of the venue.  Six years and three albums later, they were the buzz band du jour in the indie world, selling out shows and receiving a great critical feting.  The albums in that lead-up process were stellar, but Boxer transcends them by simply perfecting what they already do.  The National do a few things and they do them exceedingly well.

In lesser hands these would be mopey bar songs, like a garage band that’s just graduated to doing Cure covers in the local dive.  Instead, the Dessner brothers craft arrangements that step lightly through the wreckage of breaking relationships and fill out the corners without being oppressive about it.  The intro of “Fake Empire” shows off the skills of Aaron Dessner particularly:  he’s figured out how to make playing two different rhythms in two different times on two different hands sound as natural as a simple 4/4 melody.  The rhythm section, anchored on Bryan Devendorf’s quick wrists, gives these songs a serious heft that propel them out of any potential light-rock mix-station hell.  The drums on Boxer are in fact a hidden weapon, striking when you least expect it on first listen and lifting up the dynamics of a song all on their own.  They give “Ada” a hurry-along quality that keeps the riot of strings, pianos, and gorgeously fingerpicked guitar intact and impactful.  Then, of course, there is Matt Berninger’s classic baritone voice, a mournful, wryly sorrowful instrument that emotes even the sometimes obscurely literate lyrics, like Leonard Cohen without the Eighties cheese trap he fell into.  It’s a voice like straight whiskey and mahogany bars, singing about desperate husbands and teetering loves with the air of one with a lifetime of unfortunate experience.

 

 

China: 20 Years of OK Computer

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Radiohead – OK Computer

Released May 21st, 1997 on Parlophone Records

RYM:  #1

BestEverAlbums:  #1

Oh boy.

First of all, I want you to look carefully at that heading section.  Both of the sites I’ve used this year to glean “best of” rankings from – the two largest crowdsourced music ranking sites on the internet – rank OK Computer as literally the greatest album ever recorded.  That uncomfortable feeling that’s washing over you?  That tiny little intense bit of pain that’s set itself up in the centre of your brain, pulsing with madness and threatening to grow into some sort of blood-soaked brain tsunami?  That’s fifty-plus years of music critic bullshit melding with Baby Boomer arrogance to tell you that this can’t possibly be the case.  In fact, if you slap that ol’ Boomer lens on your face and look outward, such an idea is more laughable than anything else.  Surely these people have forgotten about Pink Floyd, that amalgamated Rolling Stone-fueled smug critic machine cries out.  Obviously the Beatles are objectively the greatest band ever and every single album they ever released is in fact the greatest piece of music ever recorded, hallelujah and amen, just as our forefathers and their magically mysterious Beatlemania intended.  The Stones!  Black Sabbath!  Led Zeppelin!  Any of these bands our parents grew up with and forced into our heads as collectively better than anything that came after, from 1980 onward; this, that shrill voice claims, is real music.

Increasingly, though, that condescending gate that Boomer mythology has put up across the history of modern popular music – the one that plants itself in around 1982-1984 and lets very little in if it came afterward – has been bereft of a keeper.  The internet facilitated a lengthy, often nonsensical conversation about popular music, it’s hierarchy, and it’s relative worth across decades.  That, in combination with the fact that the glory days of “alternative rock” are now (somehow) twenty years gone has led to a reevaluation of the music of Generation X and the oldest Millenials with regard to the self-interested myth-making of Boomer publications.  The same has happened in other art forms.  Cinemaphiles convinced that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made probably feel that same maddening itch and pulse in their heads when it turns out that a number of crowdsourced movie rankings place Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind in the #1 slot of the best movies ever made (or, failing that, the second-most popular option, The Shawshank Redemption).  Changing demographics and the slow die-off of the Boomer generation has flipped the switch on their supposed stranglehold on real music, whatever that happens to be.  People don’t read Rolling Stone and Melody Maker and NME like they used to.  The gatekeeping paradigm shifted online around the turn of the century with the rest of print media, and so when it comes to popular music the tastemakers are far more likely to read Pitchfork and The Quietus than they are Rolling Stone.

Generational culture wars aside, though, is OK Computer the “greatest album ever made”?  An examination of that has to begin with some definitions and explanations, for the pedantic and the curious.  When we talk about “the greatest album ever made” we mean “the greatest popular music record released since 1963, when the Beatles crossed the Atlantic and ushered in the modern era of blended pop and art.”  While “Greatest Albums Ever” compilations like those found online or in the pages of Rolling Stone feature a few albums made in the 1950s, they’re mainly heavyweight bop albums that are the exception more than the rule.  The temporal range of the “Best Ever” lists coincides with the development of the album as an art form.  Popular music was, prior to the early 1960s, mainly singles-oriented.  We don’t talk about “great Elvis albums” because they were spiritually just compilations of 45s anyway.  Singles were important after Beatlemania as well (they still are) but from ’63 onward the album, as a singular piece of art, began to dominate the way people consumed pop music.  If this seems Boomer-centric, it is, but it also reflects changes in technology and distribution of physical products that lend themselves well to a Marxist analysis.

In addition to temporal analysis, there is unfortunately a racial filter involved as well.  “The Greatest Album” is always something produced in the Global North.  The Global South is completely left out of the picture, with the notable exceptions of Fela Kuti and Bob Marley.  The music of the West is prioritized; music from eastern or southern Asia is only discussed in Western media when it fits into the pre-approved Western molds.  Even within Western popular music there is a stark racial divide.  Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums Ever extravaganza features precisely one black artist in the top 10, Marvin Gaye.  The crowdsourced efforts do even worse:  BestEverAlbums features no black artists in their top 10 and neither does RYM.  Tellingly, RYM’s chart has the first black artist coming in at #11 (Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue), which seems to say We’ll throw you a bone, but don’t think for one second that you really belong here to black American musicians.  This, despite the fact that all of the key pillars of modern pop music draw their inspiration at least in part from three predominately black musical movements:  the electric blues (from which rock ‘n’ roll sprang, and from which psychedelia gained it’s heft); Motown (soul, R&B, and later funk and hip hop); and jazz.  Further, both RYM and BestEverAlbums prominently feature Led Zeppelin, who made their bones on the wholesale piracy of Willie Dixon’s back catalog.  As such, any discussion of “The Greatest Album Ever” is immediately compromised by the inherent generational, cultural, and racial biases that are brought to the discourse.  This is without even getting into a post-modern understanding of what the “greatest” album even means – to deconstruct the entire process of what determines greatness and near-greatness in an extremely subjective and emotionally-driven form of expression like music would take a lifetime in itself.  To talk about it requires one to assume that there are greater overarching meta-narratives, that music is in fact sacred and driven, and that we can determine rankings of recordings on scales whose criteria make sense if you squint a lot and don’t think too much about it.

So, if we frame the discourse with an admittance that we are talking about a narrow spectrum of available music that carries with it unfortunate biases with regard to race, sex, and culture, is OK Computer the greatest album ever made?  It becomes, at this point, a matter of comparison:  what did the Boomers uphold as the greatest records, and how does OK Computer compare with them.  If we look to the crowd again, there is some definite overlap in the top 10 of both RYM and BestEverAlbums.  The Beatles show up, of course, with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon is there, as befitting an album that spent a legendary 420,000,000 weeks on the Billboard charts.  The Velvet Underground & Nico is there, for reasons I went over several weeks ago.  Led Zeppelin IV is there, because nothing goes better with a bong load than some Stairway, maaaaaaan.  These are the usual suspects when Boomers and Boomer aficionados start listing the best albums ever made.  The Beatles provide fey psychedelic weirdness backed with impeccable melodies and song structures that experimented but didn’t break the mold entirely.  Pink Floyd crafted epic guitar-driven songs that were at once adventures into space and examinations of the dour nature of the English personality.  The Velvet Underground made it okay to be messy and to let a lot of your mental anxiety shine through.  Led Zeppelin glamoured listeners with the irresistible call of pure volume.   Where does Radiohead fit in with this?  Pretty much everywhere.

Right from the beginning, the thick, overdriven strings that open “Airbag” promise something different.  It’s as though Loveless were reborn, cured of the opiated languor that permeates that album.  The guitars take the experimental leads that people like David Gilmour and Robert Fripp imagined and plays with them, smudging and expanding and blurring until the guitar becomes an alien and interesting instrument all over again.  Thom Yorke’s voice hangs haunting and sodden with deep existential dread over the viscous liquid that roils beneath it, summing up the horror and paranoia of modern life in the form of a story about the time an airbag saved his life in a car accident in the mid-1980s.  And that’s just the first song.  “Paranoid Android” ups the ante significantly.  Johnny Greenwood’s guitar figure is unsettling – creepy, even – and Yorke’s vocals only amplify that.  Written in four parts, much like John Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, the song is central to the album’s mixed feelings about human existence and capitalism.  Described by Yorke himself as “about the dullest fucking people on Earth”, the song has its roots in the time Yorke found himself in an L.A. bar surrounded by vapid rich assholes high on cocaine and themselves.  There’s a sense of disgust with that sort – capitalists, and by extension, capitalism – that runs through much of the album.  “Subterranean Homesick Alien” speaks of isolation and the feeling of being alien from one’s own culture; “Let Down” is about the hollowness of corporate-sponsored sentiment and the similarity of pop songs and advertisements.  “Electioneering” summons a Chomsky critique of capitalist society, while “Climbing Up The Walls” turns that critique inward, examining the headspace of paranoia and distress.  “No Surprises” combines the two, finds the soul-sucking job on par with soul-sucking politics, and whispers about the handshake of carbon monoxide in search of an exit.  “Lucky” brings the album back around again, imagining a plane crash to complement the car crash that started the album.  “The Tourist” is like a ghost in the wreckage of this suicide and loss of control, imploring the listener to stop rushing through life and take the time to enjoy or at least acknowledge the experiences around them.

Musically, OK Computer is an impressively dense album.  The strings that herald the arrival of “Airbag” return in differing forms throughout the album, to greatest effect on “Climbing Up The Walls”.  On that track, the theme of internal chaos is mirrored by a backdrop of sixteen violins, each tuned a quarter-note apart from each other and inspired by “Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima”; Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements would, in the 21st Century, be one of the band’s most enduring strengths.  Filtered and fiddled keyboards play a large role in the album as well, especially on “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Let Down”, and the Beatles-referencing “Karma Police”.  Greenwood and Ed O’Brien layer guitar in sinuous, overlapping ways, outdoing David Gilmour on the mournful wail of “Lucky” and drowning out Zeppelin on both “Paranoid Android” and “Electioneering”.  There are even post-modern (for the era) flourishes in the form of drum machine programming, dub approximations, and neo-classical arrangements.  Few bands in history have ever been able to blend the sacred and the profane in a way that transcends both; none of them have made it sound as utterly seamless or integral to the human experience as Radiohead on OK Computer.

Part of that transcendence comes from the album’s influences, of which the band has been quite forthcoming.  The initial inspiration for the sound of OK Computer came from Mile Davis (as seen above) and his 1970 avant-jazz Bitches Brew.  Further inspiration came from Elvis Costello and the Beatles, as well as soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone (he of the indelible popular sound of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns) and Krautrock band Can, who were known to use the recording studio as an experimental lab.  Another part comes from the surroundings it was recorded in.  Like many English rock bands before them, Radiohead chose to record in an old English mansion, St. Catherine’s Court.  The acoustics of the place can be heard especially well on “Exit Music (For A Film)”, which was recorded in a stairwell, and “Lucky”, which was recorded in a ballroom in the witching hour.  Most of the album was recorded live, with the band unwilling to potentially destroy a good thing through retakes and overdubs; Thom Yorke went with a one-take-and-done approach to his vocals, fearing that he would start to doubt everything if he stood around and thought too much about it.

The greatest album ever recorded, though?  I think you can make a strong argument for it – as I’ve laid out above.  It out-Floyds Floyd.  It doesn’t ride the swampy concerns of a minority artist, like Zeppelin.  It paints a more accurate picture of 1997 (and beyond) than the Beatles ever did in 1967.  It flows and carries on, without ever coagulating or getting bogged down in disappearing into the band’s own head.  Thom Yorke, upon being asked about the critical explosion of goodwill that greeted the release of the album, protested that Radiohead didn’t set out to create art, they just wrote pop songs.  The counterpoint to this of course is that the best artists never set out to create Art, with the capital intact and all the pompous weight that is loaded into the word present and accounted for.  They set out to replicate what they’re seeing, reading, or hearing in their head, and if they’re good enough people will find some reflection of themselves or their lives in it, and embrace it accordingly.  In the neo-liberal, corporate-driven, emotionally artificial and distant world of the Washington Consensus, there is a lot of reflection to be found in OK Computer, lyrically, musically, and spiritually.  Many talk about tapping into the zeitgeist.  OK Computer actually does it.

 

 

Ruby: 40 Years of In The City

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The Jam – In The City

Released May 20th, 1977 on Polydor Records

The debut album from The Jam was lumped in with the first wave of punk rock, partly because of the year of it’s release (that fabled year of 1977) and partly because of the crisp speed and attitude that the songs on it are played.  Underneath that Spirit of ’77 shine ‘n’ grime, however, beats the heart of the early British Invasion:  Maximum R&B, just like The Who used to play it, mods over rockers forever and ever.  They played their songs with an eye toward the jaded angst of the under-20 set, but so did The Who; the Sex Pistols and the Clash didn’t have a complete lock on youth revolution.  The band’s penchant for smartly ironic ties, tongue-in-cheek Beatles get-up for a world where phony Beatlemania had bitten the dust.  While the band would go on to produce much stronger albums, In The City is a portrait of a young band who, having grown up on British distillations of American music, set out to reclaim the spirit of the music entirely for a new generation.

 

China: 20 Years of Mag Earwhig!

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Guided By Voices – Mag Earwhig!

Released May 20th, 1997 on Matador Records

Guided By Voices was never supposed to be a full-time thing.  Formed in the late 1980s as a real band, it slowly morphed into a revolving door of Dayton, Ohio musicians – basically anyone who would come over and drink with 4th-grade teacher Robert Pollard.  1992’s Propeller caught Pollard by surprise when it found a listener base in the wake of the Alternative Revolution, a base that expanded exponentially with the one-two punch of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.  Under The Bushes Under The Stars, a 1996 album recorded with Pixies bassist Kim Deal, solidified that base, but by 1997 Pollard was pushing at the boundaries of what was possible with his new found underground rock star status, a status that had finally allowed him to ditch his day job and pursue his high-kicking rock frontman dreams full-time.  To this end, he got rid of the 1992-1996 Guided By Voices lineup and hired Cleveland garage band Cobra Verde to be his backing band; the first record of this lineup was Mag Earwhig!, the last great Guided By Voices album.

Mag Earwhig! is at once much more professional sounding than previous Guided By Voices efforts (except perhaps for the “sterile-sounding” REM-aping 1986 EP Forever Since Breakfast) and as a result it can be jarring for a listener who has been going through the band’s ridiculously lengthy discography.  The joke of this is encapsulated in the sketch-song “I Am Produced”, which finds Pollard musing on all the prepping and packaging that goes along with bigger recording contracts and studio time.  As a “pro-level” GBV record, it’s still messy and filled with a certain willful need to colour outside of the lines; “The Old Grunt”, “Are You Faster?”, “Choking Tara”, “Hollow Cheek”, and the title track are all barely filled-in sketches in the vein of what studded the length of Bee Thousand.  At the same time, there are any number of songs that point the way toward the rock-melody-genius three-minute British Invasion style tracks that would comprise the band’s output up until 2004; “Bulldog Skin”, “Not Behind The Fighter Jet”, “Portable Men’s Society”, “Jane Of The Waking Universe”, and the utterly sublime “The Colossus Crawls West” are among the best of Pollard’s compositions, overall, but it is interesting that the best track on Mag Earwhig!, the high-energy “I Am A Tree”, is actually a composition by Cobra Verde’s Doug Gillard.

After, GBV would release a major label debut, Do The Collapse, that was a crushing bore, with few exceptions.  They would release some solid albums after that, both before the 2004 breakup and after the 2012 reunion, but none would hold a candle to the classic lineup or to Mag Earwhig!.

 

China: 20 Years of The Color And The Shape

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Foo Fighters – The Color And The Shape

Released May 20th, 1997 on Capitol Records

BestEverAlbums:  #241

The Color And The Shape was the moment in which Dave Grohl stepped out of the shadow of Kurt Cobain and assumed the mantle of a rock star in his own right.  The year was 1997.  Cobain had been dead for 3 years, and by and large grunge rock had died along with him.  1996-1997 had been a bad year for bands who had tried to keep the genre going; Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase and Live’s Secret Samadhi both failed to live up to sales expectations, Pearl Jam’s No Code drove off the casual music fans in droves, Layne Staley’s crippling heroin addiction ground Alice In Chains to a halt, and in April of ’97 Soundgarden broke up.  Hip hop, big beat, and ska were the big things for mainstream music, and in the midst of this Nirvana’s drummer came out and laid down a searing slab of what would demarcate the beginning of “post-grunge”, where the genre was deconstructed and reformed as whatever the song demanded.

(Yes this is their goddamn Intimate & Interactive performance.  Old school Much 4 Lyfe)

That Grohl could write songs was only apparent during the Nirvana era to superfans; one song, a cobwebbed B-side called “Marigold”, was attributed to Grohl.  Foo Fighters, Grohl’s 1995 debut, came as something of a pleasant surprise, then, and it spawned several strong singles that rode a wave of goodwill in the wake of Cobain’s suicide.  Goodwill will only take you so far, though, and so The Color And The Shape was a do-or-die moment for Grohl and his new band.  “New” is not a miscategorization, either; Foo Fighters had been recorded and toured on with Pat Smear, who had been Nirvana’s de facto fourth member for the last part of the band’s career, and the rhythm section from second-wave emo heroes Sunny Day Real Estate.  Smear and drummer William Goldsmith left during the recording process of The Color And The Shape, the latter after Grohl re-recorded all the drum tracks himself in order to get the sound in his head down on wax.  Studio time (and therefore expenses) ballooned, and there was some concern on Captiol Record’s part about the band’s ability to deliver quality on time.

The extra time, in the end, was quite obviously worth it.  Led by the barnburner lead single “Monkey Wrench”, the album delivered crunchy, screamy tracks that were nonetheless drenched in melody and delivered with such winsome charisma that the fans couldn’t help but love it, even if the critics were so-so on it at first.  It was Nirvana, without the existential weight of Cobain’s genius, replacing that instead with hard work, emotional turmoil, and craft.  On it’s best moments – “Monkey Wrench”, “Up In Arms”, “Hey, Johnny Park!”, “Everlong”, and “My Poor Brain” – it hit much harder than anyone else in the second wave of grunge had managed.  “Everlong”, especially, has become a musical touchstone for a generation; even those who don’t particularly like the band or even the genre tend to like “Everlong”, because of it’s raw, emotional appeal to a twilight sensibility of love and yearning that feels positively adolescent in it’s urgent energy.  The lyrics on Foo Fighters had been obscure and nonsensical, which Grohl himself admits; the lyrics on The Color And The Shape, meanwhile, were much more in-your-face, dealing with his 1996 divorce from photographer Jennifer Youngblood as well as his feelings on stardom and fame in the wake of his experience with the life and death of Kurt Cobain.  The emotional honesty resonated with listeners and brought the band to much greater heights than any of their contemporaries.

Fans might disagree with me, but The Color And The Shape is the only truly great album in the Foo Fighter’s discography.  Grohl himself would guest on some stellar albums – normally filling in as the drummer – but in terms of his own voice, this record is the peak.  Later Foo albums would rely more on the balladry that Color tracks like “February Stars” and “Walking After You” would point the way to; Wasting Light, from 2011, was a good album, but not necessarily a great one.  Maybe it’s personal bias; the first time I fell in love was to a steady diet of “Up In Arms”, and the song always brings me back to those heady early days.

 

GOLD: 50 Years of Are You Experienced?

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The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?

Released May 12th, 1967 on Track Records

BestEverAlbums: #30

RYM:  #36

There are two eras in the use of the electric guitar: that before Are You Experienced? and that after.  Before, it had a role to play mainly as a solid support – outlining odd chordings in jazz music, and pounding out familiar, well-worn rhythm sections in country, blues, and their bastard hybrid, rock ‘n’ roll.  Blues players had seen the potential in something more for the instrument even during the swampy days of the Mississippi Delta (lord knew Robert Johnson could make it sound like he had four hands) but it wasn’t until the post-war move to the industrial boom of Chicago that the genre began flashing out solo moments for it’s main instrument like searchlights in the night sky.  B.B. King, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and especially Buddy Guy turned the instrument into something flashy, edgy, and utterly sexy.  Early rock ‘n’ roll, however, didn’t cotton much to this, being much more interested in sex than sexy.  Sure, Scotty Moore could bust out a good figure now and again, and the early Stones records had Keith Richards with some okay leads, but by and large these were all reverent tributes rather than attempts to progress the tradition.

In 1957, at the age of 15, a kid named James Marshall Hendrix started playing guitar.  He was a blues head almost from the start, but unlike a lot of his contemporaries in the late-Sixties counterculture he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1961 as a paratrooper.  When he was discharged, he kept playing guitar, now professionally.  Moving to Tennessee, he played in the Isley Brother’s band and then with Little Richard until 1965, when he switched to Curtis Knight and the Squires for a brief period before jetting off to England, where the rock ‘n’ roll world was picking up serious steam.  By then he had a serious manager, Chas Chandler of The Animals.  Shortly after landing he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and from there the whirlwind began.  It is an interesting quirk of history that the initial demos for Are You Experienced were rejected by Decca Records, who also passed on The Beatles back in the early 1960s.

Are You Experienced, the first record from the power trio of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Billy Cox, was a major revelation for rock ‘n’ roll.  By 1966 even the mop-top proto-boy band Beatles were delving into psychedelic substances and sounds; the “Sound of the Sixties” was fully alive in London, and the spark that ignited the entire shebang turned out to be a guy from Seattle steeped in R&B and the blues who played guitar like a supernatural being sent to Earth to teach everyone to trip.  Right from the beginning, “Purple Haze” showcases the absolute liquidity that Hendrix played with; the rhythm under the verses utilizes a jazz chord (C7(#9)) that sounds dissonant on it’s own but played with the strut and stoned sexuality that Hendrix imparts into it becomes something seemingly fundamental and essential to rock ‘n’ roll as a whole.  “Fire” and “Foxey Lady” redefined the urgency of rock music; “Hey Joe” called on the dark and became a standard for garage bands ever after.  “The Wind Cries Mary” features guitar work that slips and slides in an impossibly romantic fashion, and the instrumental melody of “Third Stone From The Sun” reframes that style in a stoned, breezy way.  “Love Or Confusion” and “Are You Experienced?” conjure up lysergic visions that seem to frip and flit in the corners, as though Hendrix were translating an acid trip into a new language through his guitar.

To praise Hendrix’s guitar work is to only tell part of the story of Are You Experienced?  Billy Cox’s work on the drums is top-notch as well, filling in the bottom with a deft but aggressive fusillade of artillery fire that drives the squalling guitar leads before it.  The reason that The Experience’s cover of “Hey Joe” succeeds beyond any other is because Cox’s playing is particularly inspired; at the same time, his busy playing under “Manic Depression” lends the track a hefty relentlessness that befits it’s subject matter.  It’s a very jazz-inspired sound that propelled forward the idea (later reinforced by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, whose title track Hendrix would open his shows with) that rock ‘n’ roll was more than just JD rebellion; it was an American art form building on previous American traditions that was in the right place at the right time to deliver a culture bomb to the world.

Are You Experienced? was the beginning of Hendrix’s ascension.  Three years later he would be dead, but the innovations and playing he brought to the world of rock ‘n’ roll changed it forever.  The sense of speed and abandon that guitar slingers chased in his wake stems directly from his heart and fingers, and the formation of hard rock and metal would be a very different thing without him.

 

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of Favourite Worst Nightmare

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Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

Released April 23rd, 2007 on Domino Records

The Difficult Second Album has always been a problem in rock ‘n’ roll.  After an album that sets the world on fire, relatively speaking, the follow-up is constrained by time, hype, and record label needs.  It’s also constrained by artistic pig-headedness – the curse of “Oh they think we’re just about this sound, well WE’LL SHOW THEM!”

They inevitably don’t light the same fire that the first album did, and both the critics and paying public feel lukewarm and move on, leaving only a small coterie of hardcore fans who stick around, convinced that the band can do no wrong.  This was the Strokes on Room On Fire, The Hives on Tyrannosaurus Hives, Weezer on Pinkerton, Massive Attack on Protection, Alanis Morisette on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Live on Secret Samahdi.  This was, ostensibly, Arctic Monkeys on Favourite Worst Nightmare.

Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the Sheffield band’s first album, was world-shaking, especially in their native England.  When the Strokes first came to the UK it was as though an atom bomb had gone off; within four years bands influenced by the Strokes were clogging up MySpace, hawking their wares and building their fanbase one grimy all-ages show in a small town after another.  Arctic Monkeys were one of those bands, but multiplied by a hundred.  At the height of MySpace as a social media platform, they were one of the two bands that leveraged their fanbase into massive real-world success (the other of course being Fall Out Boy).  Unlike their American counterparts, Arctic Monkeys could actually write good songs; Whatever People Say was chock-full of poetic renditions of liquored-up good times, a paean to English drinking culture, small-time rock scenes, and getting up to shifty business in very dodgy places.

How to follow up such a successful first album, though?  It’s a tightrope walk, as the Strokes themselves knew all too well, and it’s always going to be fraught with heavier criticisms than might otherwise be warranted.  So it went with Favourite Worst Nightmare.  Critics were unconvinced by the songs, claiming the snarky swipes at the scene that had given birth to them were dreadful.  While there is some merit to this particular criticism (especially in dead-ringer slogs like “If You Were There, Beware” and “The Bad Thing”) it obscures the great songs that are embedded in the album.  “Brianstorm” is a barnburner of an opener and a delightful piss-take on the younger set of would-be managers and show promoters.  “Teddy Picker”, “D Is For Dangerous”, and “Balaclava” hearken back to the band’s debut – leave the progress for the next three albums, this was all about doubling down on what worked.  “Fluorescent Adolescent” is a stone classic of a song, the sort of song that transcends whatever album it’s on to be a classic of a band’s canon; it’s first line (“You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your nightdress”) sums up an entire feeling of the kind of heavy nostalgia that can get you into serious trouble later in life in such a way that is honestly rare in youth-oriented rock ‘n’ roll.  Favourite Worst Nightmare is blessed with two of these sorts of classic tracks, the other being “505”.  “505” was, in 2007, the odd one out in the band’s catalog, a smooth number that builds up to a crescendo, rather than the riff-oriented bangers that the band was otherwise known for.  Humbug, their follow-up, would show a band that wanted to focus on this aspect of their songwriting, and it was all the better for it.

(The entire Glastonbury 2007 Arctic Monkeys performance!)

It’s somewhat funny to look back on Favourite Worst Nightmare and remember the disappointment some felt, and the defensiveness that others felt they needed to exude to combat this.  As far as contemporary bands, Arctic Monkeys have surely aged the best; AM, released in 2013, was easily one of the best albums of the year, a feat that bands like Fall Out Boy could only dream of (especially given that every album subsequent to From Under The Cork Tree was complete garbage).  Even the Strokes couldn’t manage that; everything after Is This It? was a mixed bag.  Not bad for four kids from Northern England.

China: 20 Years of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

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Yo La Tengo – I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

Released April 22nd, 1997 on Matador Records

BestEverAlbums:  #432

RYM:  #289

I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, Yo La Tengo’s eighth album, is in a sense a breakthrough album, although in a very real sense it’s meaningless to talk of “breakthrough albums” for a band like Yo La Tengo.  Although the band, formed around the husband and wife duo of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, has been in continuous existence since 1984 (marking 14 albums in 2015), their visible success has been rather limited.  They’ve never been the “Voice of a Generation” even during the height of the Alternative Revolution; they’ve never sold scads of records; it’s only been since the proliferation of indie music on the internet and the age of big lifestyle festivals that they’ve had headlining slots.  Yet when it comes to the conversation of what the best albums ever made were, Yo La Tengo albums often slot in seamlessly, and without fuss.

I’ve read on several occasions that Yo La Tengo aren’t a popular band, they’re a critic’s band.  They’re a band tailor-made to be a sort of shared open secret among people who spend far too much of their time thinking and writing about music.  Part of this lies in the fact that they’re just too subtle to really get a berth in the world of mainstream success.  There’s something like the vibe of Sonic Youth in a lot of their music, but where Kim and Thurston made their point with squalling feedback, laser-beam guitars, and twenty-minute Velvet Underground-esque suites, Yo La Tengo do it in a much more laid-back fashion.  Even a relatively hard-charging song like “Little Honda” holds back and remains somewhat aloof from going all-out.  It’s gentle, dreamy persuasion rather than drugged-out noise-mining – check out “Green Arrow” and the opening track “Return To Hot Chicken” for purely instrumental evidence of this.

While the group had been signed to Matador for four years, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One was the album that made all of those aforementioned critics finally sit up and take notice en masse.  It was a breakthrough for the band’s audience, if not the mainstream at large, and it’s not hard to see why.  There are some serious pop tracks here, as in the bass-heavy “Moby Octopad”, the power-sweetened “Sugarcube” and “Autumn Sweater”, the breezy, twee closer “My Little Corner Of The World”, and the wispy nostalgia rocker “Little Honda”.  “Deeper Into Movies”, “Stockholm Syndrome” and “One PM Again” balance that out with subtle mood-shifters that at a glance seem to just float by, but like a deep, wide river, there’s always much more going on underneath.  The group jump from sound to sound, crossing genres like one would cross a stream, and with every experiment they prove themselves to be shockingly competent at it.

From 1997 on out, every new Yo La Tengo album was greeted with anticipation from the critic’s community; many of them even charted briefly on the U.S. Billboard chart (not enough for them to have an honest mainstream moment, but enough to prove that there were people listening out there in the world).  As far as Yo La Tengo albums go, however, it remains for me the high point of their discography, outlining in bold everything they were ever good at, and then some.

 

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of Ashtray Rock

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Joel Plaskett Emergency – Ashtray Rock

Released April 17th, 2007 on MapleMusic Recordings

A triumph of album-making, the third Emergency album tells the story of the Ashtray Rock, a place in the woods near the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park where the local teenagers gather to get drunk and crank the volume on already-loud rock ‘n’ roll music.  Two guys have a great time hanging out at the late-night parties but they have a falling out over a girl.  One of them gets the girl for a little while, and the other one forms a rock ‘n’ roll band.

As far as ideas for concept albums go, it’s squarely in the Who camp, but Plaskett and Co. pull it off at the height of their powers and it ends up being exhilarating rather than ridiculous.  Part of the success in this is that the concept and lyrics are near and dear to Plaskett’s heart and he has said at times that some of the characters are his old bandmates in Thrush Hermit, and that the music-in-common part of “Penny For Your Thoughts” is tuned to his wife’s tastes.

Regardless of the concept, of course, it’s an amazing lineup of songs that strike a clear tone and build hooks like skyscrapers.  It was shortlisted for the 2007 Polaris Music prize (along with Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible) but eventually lost out to Patrick Watson’s Close To Paradise.  This is too bad, really, since Ashtray Rock is the absolute peak of the Emergency, a rock ‘n’ roll triumph whose nostalgic paeans to youth and young love will ring on long after the last notes.

Ruby: 40 Years of Rattus Norvegicus

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The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus

Released April 15th, 1977 on United Artists Records

The Stranglers came up rough-and-tumble in the English pub rock scene of the mid-1970s, and it shows.  The band formed in 1974 after drummer Brian “Jet Black” Duffy made a ton of money operating a fleet of ice cream trucks.  His business success convinced him to get back into drumming, something he had done semi-professionally through the 1950s and 1960s, and he scoured the region looking for potential bandmates.  What came together was originally called the Guildford Stranglers and played a regular gig at The Jackpot, an offie that Duffy also owned and operated.  After gaining a bit of a following they managed to merge in with the emergent punk rock scene in 1976-1977 to become one of the more memorable First Wave bands.

Rattus Norvegicus, their first album, encapsulates everything that is right and wrong with the external identification of the band with the scene they found themselves in.  First, what is wrong.  The Stranglers, unlike their contemporaries, were not afraid to get crazy with the keyboards; the band’s sound is as much Dave Greenfield’s manic-Doors keyboard playing as it is Jean-Jacques Burnel’s bouncy, fiercely melodic bass playing.  The intro to “Princess Of The Streets” is a gorgeous, haunting arpeggio feature that you would never catch the Clash using, and it’s written in 6/8 time, which is about as un-punk as you can really get.  Their music was as much about the Doors and the Kinks as it was about ripping the pub apart and getting the lager lads going.

Then again there are aspects of their music that fit right in with where everyone else was at in 1977.  For one thing, Rattus Norvegicus is an incredibly violent record.  “Sometimes” is about a knock-down, drag-out physical fight between boyfriend and girlfriend.  “Goodbye Tolouse” is a raucous good tune about Nostradamus’ predicted destruction of the aforementioned French city.  “Ugly” is a clashing, destructive song that lives up to it’s name in spades.  It has great depictions of the “street scene” of the time:  “Hanging Around” and “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)” are both descriptive songs about the life the band was leading during the recording of the album.  There’s also the English punk preoccupation with reggae:  “Peaches” is heavily influenced by contemporary reggae records although the use of Greenfield’s brittle-glass keyboard sound adds a keening, paranoid vibe to the bounce.

The Stranglers would go on to hit greater heights (peaking with 1982’s “Golden Brown”) but Rattus Norvegicus sets them up as a band – propulsive and yet oddly romantic, violent and a little jaded from the streets.  1977 featured some very impressive debuts – and this definitely ranks among them.