Pearl: 30 Years of Electric

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The Cult – Electric

Released April 6th, 1987 on Beggars Banquet

Electric is the sound of a band getting a taste of the high life and looking to sustain that immersion in success for as long as possible.  Originally named The Southern Death Cult (for both American and English reasons), the Ian Astbury-led band made their name with a couple of albums of post-punk that skewed heavily toward gothic rock.  When the single “She Sells Sanctuary” blew up, they started looking for ways to embed themselves further into the mainstream and all of the ridiculous amounts of money that were flowing through it in the 1980s.  As a result they listened to a bunch of old AC/DC records and hired Rick Rubin to oversee the whole thing.  At the time this was sort of a head-scratcher, as Rick Rubin, then as now, was best known for being a hip-hop producer (as well as Slayer, of course).  In hindsight it makes a lot of sense, though.  Rubin, a key driving force behind getting the Beastie Boys recorded, has always skewed more toward the hard rock end of things – his beat on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” was pure hardcore, after all, and he did honestly use a goddamn REO Speedwagon sample on the Marshall Mathers 2 LP.

So, with Rick Rubin at the helm, and some simple classic hard rock riffs under their belt, The Cult turned around and made…a slick, commercial hard rock album.  Sure, tipping your hat to Electric thirty years later feels like saying Jet was actually a pretty decent band, but there’s something about Electric that handles itself surprisingly well.  The only actual misstep here (and it’s a godawful one) is the croaking cover of “Born To Be Wild”, which feels like something a record label makes you tack on so you can at least get play on year-end compilations and movie soundtracks if all else failed.  Thankfully all else didn’t fail; “Love Removal Machine”, released on my fifth birthday, propelled the album to a chart berth that lasted 27 weeks and sold scads.  While it’s follow-up, 1989’s Sonic Temple, was a better all-around album, Electric tends to kick more ass.

Pearl: 30 Years of Sign ‘O’ The Times

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Prince – Sign ‘O’ The Times

Released March 31st, 1987 on Paisley Park and Warner Bros. Records

RYM: #300

BestEverAlbums: #251

Sign ‘O’ The Times was Prince’s first album after the breakup of The Revolution, and came in the middle of a sort of creative free-for-all.  At the time of the Revolution’s demise, Prince had been working on a Revolution album (Dream Factory) as well as a solo album, Camille, which featured sped-up vocals and an androgynous new persona (named after the album’s title).  After a flurry of activity, recording, and the breakup of the Revolution, Prince had the idea to release all of the above in a 3-LP set called Crystal Ball.  Warner Bros. said no, because they have no sense of humour.

 

Instead, Prince culled down his recordings and released a double-LP set, solo, called Sign ‘O’ The Times.  The album drew in large amounts from both cancelled records.  “Housequake”, “Strange Relationship”, “U Got The Look”, and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” come from Camille and all bear the squeaky, sped-up vocals that Prince was experimenting with on those recordings.  “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “Starfish And Coffee” were part of the Dream Factory recordings right from the original demos.  In lesser hands, such a hodgepodge of components would have ended up as a gigantic mess, a hymn to overreaching ambition.  Prince, though, comes across on Sign ‘O’ The Times like he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s going at all times.  Without hyperbole, the album is an encapsulation of everything that went right with pop music in the 1980s.  The drum machine (a Linn LM-1 for the gear nerds among us) is precisely funky, and never comes off as mechanical or stiff.  Prince’s expert sense of in-the-pocket grooves when it comes to bass is on point everywhere, especially on the rather apocalyptic twilight rhythm of the socially conscious title track and the sensual “If I Was Your Girlfriend”.  There’s a decent balance between funk, soul, R&B, and that Eighties brassy pop.  Underneath all of that, however, is evidence (provided on “The Cross” and to an extent on “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”) that Prince played rock ‘n’ roll guitar like a motherfucker.

 

Sign ‘O’ The Times would be the last great Prince album – unless you count The Black Album, which was supposed to be Prince’s followup to Sign ‘O’ The Times until he had a bad trip and became convinced the album was evil.  Instead, he rushed out the half-baked Lovesexy, followed that up with the Batman soundtrack (which was okay as well) and then got into a horrendous, legendary fight with Warner Bros. that saw him change his name into a symbol and churn out a series of rushed albums to get out of his contract with the label (although Love Symbol is honestly pretty decent).  Legend (and Kevin Smith) has it that Prince has a vault of music that could last us all until doomsday, but chances are good that, as far as quality goes, none of it is going to top what Prince was doing on Sign ‘O’ The Times.

 

 

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of From Here We Go Sublime

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The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

Released March 26th, 2007 on Kompakt Records

Axel Willner – The Field – didn’t do anything revolutionary on From Here We Go Sublime.  It didn’t progress his chosen field – although the exact nature of that chosen field can be a little blurry at times on the record?  Is it trance?  Is it a more European techno?  People at the time were enamored with the term “microhouse” and there’s definitely something to that term here.  It’s certainly in a broad sense house music:  the 4/4 beat, the hi-hats on the twos, the looping instrumentation, the arpeggios.  However, it feels like house music that has been compressed and blurred until it fits in a small, compact space; it’s the perfection of a form that existed for a nascent moment in time, the epitome of microhouse and a bangin’ good album.  Every sample Willner uses is piled on top of the last, layers piled on layers until you can no longer see the bottom; shot through all of that is a tight, thumping bass that pushes more air than the next six house records combined.  It’s the very definition of minimalism in EDM, and it’s textured, treated hooks burrow under your skin and stay there for life.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of Trans-Europa Express

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Kraftwerk – Trans-Europa Express

Released March, 1977 on Kling Klang Records

BestEverAlbums: #262

RYM: #172

A few years ago the L.A. Times called Trans-Europa Express the “most important pop album of the last 40 years” and they are absolutely right.  Certainly a large amount of the interest in New Wave and synth pop could be laid directly at the door of the German synthesizer group; it could be generously said that it played a large role in the formation of the European pop identity, although it would be fairer to place it in the same milieu of Krautrock from which it emerged.  The difference between Can and Kraftwerk was that the latter replaced the intricate drumming with the sure, steady hand of a machine, out-German-ing the rest of German prog.

 

In fact, the band straddled the divide between German traditions and the European identity that had emerged from the blasted rubble of the Second World War.  The root of their melodic sensibilities came from the Weimar Republic, the brief German flirtation with democratic rule that Hitler put an end to in 1933.  The folk music that had been popular then was combined with the Teutonic sensibilities of the Bauhaus school to create something that spoke of massive concepts, and the infrastructure that had been rebuilt in their country:  railways, transit stations and, of course, the Autobahn.  That infrastructure also left Germany, and sped into the wider scope of Europe as a whole.  The second side of Trans-Europa Express lives up to it’s name, rushing down the railway tracks of the nascent union of Europe.  “Trans-Europe Express” and “Metal On Metal” speak of the rush of speed in transit; “Franz Schubert” peaks and begins the eventual slowdown, which ends up being a reprisal of “Europe Endless”.

 

The first half of the album takes a different path.  Inspired in part by their time with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were in Berlin charting the course of what would be The Idiot and Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, the songs “The Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are both obsessed with identity, and paranoia.  The former details the flaws revealed in the mirror, and how even the stars are chained to “the looking glass.”  The latter is the most “machine-like” of the album’s tracks, and makes paranoid reference to the way the group danced in concert (nicking the idea from a British paper’s review of one of their shows).  The opening track, “Europe Endless”, is more in tune with the second side, but it’s also a perfect example of how to open an album: layer upon layer upon layer, until singing along with the vocoded vocals seems perfectly natural.

 

While there are some other (mainly German) artists that one can point to, Trans-Europa Express is absolutely the floodgate of modern dance music.  The current festival-playing status of EDM can trace it’s origins here, as can the indie groups who are currently mining the bands that were directly inspired by Kraftwerk in the first place.  Go ahead and say it:  Synth-pop is 40 years old now, and while a lot has changed, Kraftwerk still sounds as vital and compelling as they did in 1977.

 

China: 20 Years of Life After Death

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The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death

Released March 25th, 1997 on Bad Boy Records

Ready To Die was a massive album, the kind of once-in-a-generation record that changes the course of a genre.  Sure, you can point to Pac and the Wu, but Biggie made a gigantic impact on subsequent MCs in terms of flow, beat choice, and lyrical subject matter.  No one was as smooth or as coldly vicious as Biggie at his peak; no one’s beats landed quite like gunshots in a robbery gone wrong.  Life After Death was thematically designed to be the logical sequel to that fabled album, and also to be a sort of “commercial introduction” of the rapper.  While there were some undeniable hits that came off of Ready To Die, a lot of the album was too grim, too dark and real for mainstream radio to really mine it to death.  Life After Death was a response to this; the beats here were pure radio circa 1997, which is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s very much a Bad Boy record, Puff Daddy and all, which means it’s slick and easy to bump in the whip; at the same time, a lot of the beats haven’t aged particularly well, using samples that just don’t create the same excitement in 2017 that they did twenty years prior.  “I Love The Dough” is a good example of this; the electro-funk sample was two years out of date even then, and the hook is too bland to fit Biggie’s dark flow.  Along the same lines, the length of the album is problematic as well; hip hop has always loved to throw as much material as possible onto a record, and the double-CD length of Life After Death makes it drag a bit near the end.  None of the songs are weak, per se, but there is a sort of fatigue that sets in regardless of the quality.

 

Still, it’s Biggie, which means that whenever he appears on a song it immediately makes up for whatever dated samples or cheesy hooks are being used.  Even at his most commercial no one could touch him, then or now, and his flow remains as vital as ever.  The singles are all top-notch:  put “Hypnotize”, “Mo Money Mo Problems”, or “Going Back To Cali” on anywhere and people will get into it.  At it’s thuggiest, it’s equivalent to parts of Ready To Die:  “Kick In The Door” and “What’s Beef” are chilling and violent, in the way that only Biggie could be, and “Ten Crack Commandments” remains a street anthem two decades after it’s release.  He even gets downright filthy on “Fucking You Tonight” and “Nasty Boy”, an aspect of his personality that was largely absent on Ready To Die.

 

The man’s death sixteen days before the release of Life After Death tends to overshadow the actual music, of course.  After presenting an award at the 1997 Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles, Biggie’s car got caught in post-show traffic at Wilshire and South Fairfax.  An Impala pulled up beside his SUV, rolled down the window, and shot him four times.  He died a half an hour later.  The album is thus shrouded in symbolism, from it’s title to it’s album cover to it’s bookending tracks.  It is, in essence, a posthumous bit of self-mythologizing, a meta-narrative that delves into everything that made up Christopher Wallace’s public persona.  There’s brash posturing, there’s loving tenderness, there’s future-ready ambition, there’s chilling fragments of premonition.  “What’s Beef?”, “Somebody’s Gotta Die”, and the goosebump-inducing closer “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” are bleak in retrospect, given the likelihood that Wallace was murdered as revenge for his alleged role in the death of Tupac Shakur six months earlier.  In that sense, the album’s length can be forgiven, and even cherished; these are the last releases that Wallace meant to go public, and despite Bad Boy’s willingness to raid his vault forever thereafter, it is his last real album.  Ready To Die may be the better album, but Life After Death is a fitting memorial to an enormous personality that still stands at an imposing height over an entire genre of music.

 

 

Ruby: 40 Years of Let There Be Rock

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AC/DC – Let There Be Rock

Released March 21st, 1977 on Albert Records

Once I entertained the idea of writing up a discography guide on AC/DC.  Then I thought “Wouldn’t I just be saying the same thing like sixteen times?”  So this is it, this is what can be said in honour of the 40th anniversary of Let There Be Rock.  On AC/DC’s third album, they released another set of songs that detailed the glory of rock ‘n’ roll, warts and all.  It pounds with the force of both heaven and hell combined for forty minutes, ending off with the world-ending power of “Whole Lotta Rosie”.  It’s a gospel of pure rock, telling Tchaikovsky the good news and then spreading it to the whole world.  It has Bon Scott’s howling devil-voice, Angus Young’s knife-in-an-alley guitar solos, Malcom Young’s steady rhythmic hand, and Phil Rudd’s artillery-fire drums.  It also has stripteasing schoolboys, BBW starfuckers, and crabs.  It rocks like nothing else.  What else is there to say?

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of Person Pitch

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Panda Bear – Person Pitch

Released March 20th, 2007 on Paw Tracks

BestEverAlbums: #317

RYM:  #433

When Person Pitch first came out I was of the opinion that it sounded exactly like the Beach Boys, if the Beach Boys had been granted access to high-octane research chemicals during the writing and recording process.  Very little in the ensuing decade has given me any reason to change this opinion.

 

Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox was, in early 2007, on top of the world.  His day job band, psychedelic electronic acid-jammers Animal Collective, were being increasingly recognized as one of the most vital bands in contemporary indie rock (Strawberry Jam was just around the corner to cement this status).  Between Feels, AnCo’s breakthrough album, and Person Pitch Lennox moved to Lisbon, Portugal; the sunny climate and generally carefree atmosphere Lennox found heavily influenced the sound of the album.  The stacked vocals evoke a very beachy, very free-wheeling sense of fun and abandon; the sampled loops and instruments that clatter on beneath everything add to the sense of unreality, as though you’re on an endless vacation in a place where the sand is white and the water is a clear, brilliant blue and you have no return ticket.  “Bros” (jam of a lifetime) and “Good Girl/Carrots” add a bit of gallop to the sound, as though the Grateful Dead (pre-Workingman’s Dead) had access to a modern recording studio and all of the LSD they could ever want.

 

Person Pitch was the height of Noah Lennox as a solo artist.  His next album would largely ditch the samplers in favour of more guitar-focused work, and his follow-up to that would try to rework samplers back in while striving for a more radio-ready sound.  Neither have the sense of hedonistic abandon that characterizes Person Pitch and neither has the reverb-laden choral quality of vocals that marks the album out as something special.

Pearl: 30 Years of Tribute

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Ozzy Osbourne – Tribute

Released March 19th, 1987 on Epic Records

Shorter than average, and rail-thin to the point of emaciation, most of the space that Randy Rhoads took up was due to his massive, lion-like mane of blonde hair.  He was quiet, unassuming, and mostly stone sober, an Odd Couple-esque contrast to the guy he played guitar for, Ozzy Osbourne circa 1980-1981.  That’s actually a very understated thing to say – “played guitar for”.  Randy Rhoads was a barnburner of a guitar player, a shredder that did for guitar in the 1980s what Eddie Van Halen did for guitar in the 1970s.  He sent everyone back to the woodshed, and his influence on the neoclassical movement of shred guitar cannot be overstated.  His playing on Ozzy’s two best albums, the one-two punch of of Blizzard of Ozz and Diary Of A Madman, are what makes those albums so great.  The riffs are crunchy and yet grounded, something a shredder like Yngwie Malmsteen could never quite grasp.  He plays in support of the singer, up until it’s time to let loose and then GAWD DAMN, Randy Rhoads could melt your face off.  Tribute is the perfect, er, tribute to how he managed this:  check out “Flying High Again”, or the inevitable “Crazy Train”.  Those background riffs are solid, nothing fancy – chords and chord-transitions that let Ozzy soar his voice, but when it comes time for the solo Rhoads leaps out and gets downright liquid, slipping through lines and playing faster than any human has a right to play.  He also got deep into the theory behind his playing, encouraging Ozzy and the rest of the band to write songs that fell outside of the usual “A or E” key that heavy metal tracks were written in.

 

He was a force to be reckoned with, a brilliant musician with a fresh take on a well-worn instrument, and so it was inevitable that he would die young, because that’s rock ‘n ‘ roll for some reason, even when you avoid drugs and alcohol in a band full of drugged-out alcoholics.  After a show in Orlando, FL in 1982, the band stopped in Leesburg to fix an air conditioning unit.  Tour bus driver and sometime pilot Andrew Aycock noticed a plane on the property of the place they’d stopped and decided to steal it; he took a couple of people up with him the first time and landed without incident.  The second trip, where Aycock took up Randy Rhoads and band makeup artist Rachel Youngblood, was much grimmer.  Aycock, who had been reportedly up all night binge-snorting cocaine, decided to buzz the tour bus as a lark.  On one of the passes, he clipped the plane’s wing on the bus, went into an uncontrollable spiral, and crashed the plane into a nearby garage.  All three aboard died instantly and were burned to cinders.  Tribute followed several years of grieving and carrying on with new guitarists and new albums; when it came time to put out a live album, the strength of Rhoads’ playing during the 1981 tour especially cried out for an actual release.

China: 20 Years of Whatever And Ever Amen

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Ben Folds Five – Whatever And Ever Amen

Released March 18th, 1997 on 550/Epic Records

In 1997, guys like Todd Rundgren, Billy Joel, and Elton John were the stuff of your parent’s dust-collecting record collection, stuff they’d mostly relegated to buying the “Greatest Hits” compilation of and torturing you with constant replays of “Piano Man” and “Candle In The Wind” (well, not my parents, I grew up under a blues purist).  No one gave Ben Folds the memo, though; his second album, Whatever And Ever Amen, drew a direct line from those hoary old ivory-strokers to the contemporary world of ironic folk dudes, ska bands, and second-generation grunge retreads.  It’s decidedly uncool, although Folds wisely cuts the painful sentimentality of those old Seventies dudes with some Xer-approved Alternative Era Snark, which can get tiresome in its own right but for nearly all of the album manages to get by just fine.  While there are some off moments – the plod of “Selfless, Cold and Composed” and the kitchen-sink clutter of “Steven’s Last Night In Town”, mostly – there are a lot of surprisingly poignant moments, such as the “taking my girlfriend to get an abortion” confessional of “Brick”, the song that launched the rest of Ben Folds’ career.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of The Idiot

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Iggy Pop – The Idiot

Released March 18th, 1977 on RCA Records

The Idiot was Iggy Pop’s first release since the final (epic) Stooges album four years previous.  The intervening years had been, to put it mildly, chaotic; the last Stooges show in 1974 had been highlighted by a brawl between the band and a group of bikers, and Pop had delved into cocaine in a heavy way in the years afterward.  At one point in 1976, unable to keep himself from shoveling drugs up his nose, he checked himself into a mental hospital.  An old friend and collaborator, David Bowie, visited him there often and when he was released Bowie took him out on the Station To Station tour, which probably didn’t do wonders for his inability to stay off drugs.  They got busted together in Rochester, NY (although just for marijuana) and in 1977 decided to decamp to West Berlin to kick their habits.  While there, Bowie started playing with the ambient, electronic textures that would inform his Berlin trilogy, and in many ways The Idiot is the first album of Bowie’s Berlin era.  It is entirely unlike much of the rest of Pop’s discography, and musically it is far more reminiscent of, say, a connection between Station To Station and Low.  It’s a funk-influenced R&B and soul album written and recorded by musicians surrounded by German electronic pioneers (Kraftwerk’s seminal Trans Europa Express also came out in March of 1977).

 

The Idiot may not be the most “Iggy Pop” album, per se, but it is a great album nonetheless.  Bowie’s work in Germany is presaged in most ways by his work here, and he admitted several years later that he used Iggy Pop as a sort of guinea pig for the sound that he wanted to flesh out on his own records.  As such, it features Iggy Pop crooning like the sort of deranged android Lothario that the Thin White Duke himself was at that time.  Bowie himself would in fact nick a couple of the songs a few years later:  the grinding “Sister Midnight” would become “Red Money” on 1979’s Lodger and of course the Bowie version of “China Girl” from 1983 was a much bigger hit.  The Idiot is a perfect summation of where both of them were at when a desire to get the hell out of L.A. hit them in very early 1977:  drugged-out, discoed-out, dragging themselves through the night and generally feeling as though the entire world had been struck down an octave or so in pitch (or, how “Mass Production” sounds).  It would go on to have great influence on a number of up-and-coming goth, post-punk, and eventually industrial groups.  Siouxsie Sioux and Martin Glover (of Killing Joke) both singled the album out as a favourite and it was still spinning on Ian Curtis’ turntable when he hung himself in 1980.  The drum beat from “Nightclubbing” was reworked as “Closer”, the biggest hit Nine Inch Nails ever had; it was also appropriated by both Oasis and the Sneaker Pimps, proving a sort of bizarre cross-genre affection for The Idiot‘s Pop-Gone-Bowie charm.  While the Sunset Strip bands would try to manufacture and sell a flashy, inclusive sort of sleaze, The Idiot was a piss-take of sleaze-rock that skewered all of those bands ten years in advance.