“The Long, Bloody Road To Hell”
This was back during a time when I was dealing with frenetic hand-drumming married to near-chaotic thumb piano lines. Early 2004, I think. A collection of increasingly ominous historical quotes from a variety of figures that ends with Rodney King’s sobbing plea to stop making it horrible for the old folks, and the kids.
Don’t forget to stop by the books page here to check out some fiction which you can use to subsidize my existence.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Exodus
Released June 3rd, 1977 on Island Records
The Wailers were an early ska group, originally, forming in 1963 and featuring Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh. Seven albums later they’d morphed into the premier reggae act in their native Jamaica, but as usual with these sorts of things that just meant major change was around the corner. Wailer and Tosh left in 1974; Marley put together a new version of the Wailers for 1976’s Rastaman Vibration while both Wailer and Tosh released their own solo albums (Blackheart Man and Legalize It, respectively, both reggae classics in their own right). Rastaman Vibration became a major success, scoring a berth in the Billboard charts (hitting #8) and, in “Roots, Rock, Reggae”, Marley’s only American Top 100 hit. Then, in December of 1976, Marley and his wife were shot at in an assault that likely had political motivations, since Marley was scheduled to play a concert that was a de facto rally for Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. Despite his injuries, Marley played the show as scheduled, because he was about as badass a performer as you’re ever likely to find. Following this incident, however, Marley decamped to London, where he would remain in exile for two years.
Exodus was the first result of being holed up in London, and it is thought by many to be his finest album. Certainly his career retrospective, Legend (a staple of every dorm room, head shop, and activist squat since time out of mind) features more songs from Exodus than any of his other albums. There are a huge number of stone classics featured here: “The Heathen”, “Exodus”, “Jamming”, “Turn Your Lights Down Low”, and “One Love/People Get Ready” are all signature tracks. Part of it’s appeal at the time was how different it was from the reggae music coming out of Jamaica in the late 1970s. Exodus was more laid-back, with an increased focus on piano tones and freer, lighter beats. There were elements of rock ‘n’ roll (especially with regard to Marley’s guitar playing – check out those opening licks on “Natural Mystic”) and the then-white-hot funk scene. The only real connection to the reggae scene that Marley had exiled himself from was a nod to the rhythm and the liquid nature of the pulsating bass lines, something that could have been borrowed from funk music if Marley hadn’t already come from the reggae world.
It was this melding of reggae tinges with rock, funk, and blues motifs that drove Exodus, like it’s predecessor, into the Billboard charts and made an international superstar out of Bob Marley. He would be dead within four years, a victim of a malignant cancer that first manifested itself in a tumor under his toenail in the same year that Exodus was released. His final words – “Money can’t buy life” – are a clear statement of truth in a world increasingly bent on driving the capitalist machine into overdrive and then collapse.
Prince – Sign ‘O’ The Times
Released March 31st, 1987 on Paisley Park and Warner Bros. Records
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.
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.
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Released May 13th, 2016
During the wild, chaotic run-up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye West announced that it would be a “gospel album”, inspired by the African-American tradition of blending worship in church with soaring choral music that God himself might hear. Despite the label, the only gospel moments on the album were the admittedly brilliant opener “Ultralight Beam” and “Lowlight”, an intro to the more traditional (and Young Thug guesting) “Highlight”.
Fellow Chicago musician Chance The Rapper was on the former, and it’s Chance The Rapper that is now bringing out what ‘Ye promised: a full-on gospel hip hop record, embracing the worldliness of life in often-violent Chicago, and simultaneously the glory and life guide of his religion. Rather than the lysergic uncertainty of his breakthrough Acid Rap, Coloring Book finds a man confident in his faith and in sorrow for his city and his people. “Blessings (Reprise)” has him saying “They never seen a rapper practice modesty, I never practice, I only perform”, and this serves as a good overarching theme for the record as a whole. It’s an album that stands in direct contrast to the nihilistic, violent drill scene that Chicago is known for; rather than a finger-waving sermon, though, tracks like “Summer Friends” seem to offer a prayer for those caught up in the summertime violence that is endemic to the drug and gang-ridden city streets. The problem with overtly “Christian” artists is that the music often seems to take a backseat to the message; they’re so concerned with connecting with “the kids” that they don’t take the time to actually figure out what makes the secular music so appealing in the first place. Chance succeeds exactly where “Christian rap” or “Christian rock” fails: he lets his faith infuse his music, rather than supersede it. He’s intensely relatable, even when you’re outside of the continuum of his experience.
Even better in this day and age, Chance is staunchly independent. He doesn’t need a label, and he doesn’t need to sell his album just to fulfill label quotas. Coloring Book is free, and as such it’s technically classified as a mixtape. It’s a subject he addresses on “No Problem” with Lil’ Wayne (no stranger to label problems himself) and “Mixtape” (with ultra-prolific fellow mixtaper Young Thug), but it’s also a subject he brought up originally on “Ultralight Beam”: “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3 / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet”. Mixtapes are ineligible for Grammys, and if there’s an album that deserves a Grammy it’s Coloring Book – a fact that perhaps led Chance to release it on DatPiff and then shortly after make it a short-term iTunes exclusive. Nonwithstanding whether having it on a paid streaming service makes it “for sale”, Chance’s Twitter fans ended up tweeting all of the lyrics to Coloring Book. They’re a loyal group and Chance is the sort of artist to reward them for their loyalty with both quality and (between his own work, his guest spots, and his gig fronting Chicago experimental pop group The Social Experiment) quantity.
Chance deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of modern hip hop – your Weezys, Drizzys, Yeezys, K. Dots, et al. He’s got a killer flow, has a Kendrick-like appreciation for intricate wordplay, and has the ability to ride a vibe for all it’s worth better than pretty much anyone else. In a genre dominated by a careful balance between artistry and crass mercenary sales grubbing, Chance takes the left hand path and is all the better for it.
AND THE REST…
Always Strive And Prosper
04/22/2016 on Polo Grounds Music
The perennial also-ran to A$AP Rocky comes into his own with a solid album of hard-hitting verses backed with a staggering amount of high-profile guest spots.
04/22/2016 on Pink Flag Records
Eight songs from 2015’s Wire record were redone for this mini-LP. As it turns out, the pioneers of jittery indie rock fall apart when they try to hold themselves still even for a moment.
04/22/2016 on Carpark Records
Toronto has a reputation for noisy rock ‘n’ roll – emphasis on the noise part. In the grand tradition of METZ, Fucked Up, et al. comes Greys, who pile noisy parts on top of each other until they approximate songs. While their sound has expanded somewhat from their debut, it’s still fairly limited in terms of it’s overall impact. Still, for something to crank up to ten and annoy the neighbours with, you could do worse.
Plants And Animals
Waltzed In From The Rumbling
04/29/2016 on Secret City Records
A pleasant surprise from a band that’s been very hit and miss since their stellar debut, Parc Avenue. Strives less for radio play than it does for campfire grit.
Paging Mr. Proust
The veteran alt-country band has lost quite a bit of oomph over the years, and their ninth album can’t hold a candle to their earlier career. Decent enough stuff, but unexceptional.
The standard-bearers for the modern Riot Grrl movement get a little slicker and a bit more commercial on their third album. It works, but I miss the fireworks and slashing of old. At least the punk rock feminist righteousness is still intact.
Because there aren’t any albums in this list I want to take the time to commit more than 300 words to.
City Sun Eater In The River Of Life
04/08/2016 on Woodsist Records
The veteran Brooklyn lo-fi folk group plays it safe on their latest album – entirely too safe. Everything here sounds like Woods, even when it’s trying hard not to.
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals
Call It What It Is
04/08/2016 on Fantasy Records
Ben Harper’s first album with his Innocent Criminals backing band since the first Obama election is a solid return to form, a slick and professional amalgam of his styles: funk, rock, soul, reggae, and old school R&B.
The Dandy Warhols
04/08/2016 on Dine Alone Records
The poster children for diminishing returns approach the singularity. Why even bother at this point?
04/08/2016 on Dualtone Records
The band doubles down on their folky Americana tracing, with a graver tone than the first time around. The best that can be said is that at least they didn’t just go full-on Coldplay like a certain other indie-folk band of saps.
Royce Da 5’9″
04/15/2016 on Bad Half Entertainment
The veteran Detroit rapper isn’t gunning for radio singles or memorable street bangers here. Instead, he leans on his top-notch lyrical skills to deliver a solid, message-driven album that also happens to feature some great hooks.
04/15/2016 on Because Records
The French psych-garage band combines a variety of European traditions – Italian giallo soundtracks, French ye-ye music, Spanish guitar melodies – with hard-hitting American psychedelic garage rock. Features New Order bassist Peter Hook in an obvious cameo on one track.
04/15/2016 on Suicide Squeeze Records
Like Drew Storen, The Coathangers are a once-reliable outfit that has lost its velocity and therefore it’s meaning by 2016. They try to develop some new tricks but, also like Storen, it remains to be seen whether they can pull that off in the long-run.
04/15/2016 on Dead Oceans Records
The former Woods bassist puts out a lush album of moves cribbed from the Bob Dylan playbook. Not exactly essential, but not a throwaway album either.
04/15/2016 on Secretly Canadian Records
A sort of lazy-eyed post-punk, like if Thom Yorke fronted an underground band. There’s nothing here that reinvents the wheel or even improves upon an aspect of their influences, but it passes the time well enough.
Surgical Meth Machine
Surgical Meth Machine
04/15/2016 on Nuclear Blast Records
After putting Ministry to bed with a trio of albums that all said the same thing (“George W Bush sucks”), Al Jourgenson returns in 2016 with a project that blends industrial oblivion with the blurred effect of speed metal. It doesn’t have the hard-hitting punch of his Ministry days but it’s funnier than anything he’s done in years, and the latter half of the album has more hooks than a bait shop.
Love Letter For Fire
04/15/2016 on Sub Pop Records
The Iron & Wine frontman teams up with Jesca Hoop to put together an album of rich country-tinged folk ballads that I can’t remember a blessed thing about as soon as they’re over.
04/15/2016 on Livity Sound Recordings
When it comes to electronic music meant to get you moving, Utility is competent. That’s not really a compliment but it’s not altogether denigrating either. You could do worse.
04/22/2016 on Susannasonata Records
An effective blend of the baroque majesty of Joanna Newsom and the cutting-edge mystique of St. Vincent. It would be a much better album if it wasn’t so overly long.
Asphalt For Eden
04/22/2016 on Profound Lore Records
Dense, thick, and lo-fi, the hip-hop group’s first album in six years (with new members) hits all of the right notes from their previous, critically acclaimed efforts. Noisy without being willfully so, and brief without being truncated.