China: 20 Years of Dude Ranch

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Blink-182 – Dude Ranch

Released June 17th, 1997 on Cargo Records / MCA Records

Anyone over the age of 16 who claims that Blink-182 is one of their favourite bands is solidly immature – and the older they get, the more you can be assured that they’re existing in a state of suspended adolescence that just gets sadder the closer you get to grey hair.  Anyone under the age of 16 who claims that Blink-182 is one of their favourite bands is probably riding on a crest of Le Wrong Generation smugness, hating on the musical offerings of their generation simply to be contrarian and faux-cool.  I mean, you kids know PUP exists, right?  Pissed Jeans?  There are much better punk bands out now than Blink, you don’t have to suck up to Xinneials for brownie points.

So why are we celebrating the twentieth anniversary of an album that pretty much strikes one note over and over again until you just want to scream “I GET IT DELONGE YOU MANIAC!  YOU GREW UP IN THE SUBURBS AND YOU HAD A TYPICAL SUBURBAN TEEN UPBRINGING!  I’VE SEEN CAN’T HARDLY WAIT I KNOW HOW THIS WORKS!”? Well, for one thing, it’s to say holy shit Dude Ranch is twenty years old and you are soooooo old! For another, it’s to remark that, while Dude Ranch is basically NOFX with the edges sanded off, the personification of suburban skater punk, it’s also the perfection of that form.  “Dammit” is the pop-punk song of the Nineties, and if the rest of the album is basically just fourteen more iterations of “Dammit” it’s okay because that formula works here, and it works exceedingly well.

The rest of the songs also have their charms, of course.  “Dick Lips” is about getting drunk and kicked out of high school; “Apple Shampoo” is about getting your heart broken (and about Elyse Rogers of Dance Hall Crashers); “Emo” is about Jimmy Eat World; “Josie” is about the perfect girlfriend, while “A New Hope” is about the perfect girlfriend, who just happens to be rebelicious Princess Leia Skywalker (RIP Carrie Fisher).  It’s all juvenile, of course, fitting for a band who were still mentally in high school and and for a fanset who largely were still there as well.  It’s girls, drinking, hanging out, and being goofballs – something the band would continue to tackle right up until their 2003 self-titled swan song, which should have been their Rubber Soul but wasn’t.

This is closing in on 500 words now, which begs the question, “who the hell unironically writes 500 words about Blink-182?”  I guess I do, who knew?  I will straight-up admit to unabashedly loving this album as a 16 year old, who was that age right at the time they were doing records like Dude Ranch.  I had a pirated copy, too, burned onto a CD-R that I copied from a friend long before Napster came around to revolutionize that sort of thing.  I might even still have it somewhere; it’s one of those artifacts of youth that have sentimental value, if not precisely musical.  Sometimes nostalgia doesn’t need a sacred reason; sometimes it just about where you were at when you were a kid.  I guess this is growing up.

Pearl: 30 Years of Pleased To Meet Me

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The Replacements – Pleased To Meet Me

Released June 17th, 1987 on Sire Records

By 1987 Minnesota college-rock heroes The Replacements – The ‘Mats to their friends and fans – were in a fatal crisis spot.  Despite their penchant for being loud and ragged, and for having chaotic live shows that were more filled with fragmented, fractured cover songs than they were original material, major labels could smell the blood in the water that was the up-and-coming alternative rock scene.  Let It Be had hooked them; the band’s first major label effort, Tim, remains a classic Eighties Alt album and a highwater mark of the band’s powers.  In the aftermath of Tim, however, the group came apart at the seams.  An addict even in a band full of addicts, founding guitarist Bob Stinson was fired by frontman Paul Westerberg for not being enthused with the divergent direction the band was going in, or for being too drunk and fumble-fingered to actually keep up, depending on who you ask.  Band manager Peter Jesperson – the man who had heard something special in the band’s original 4-track demo and signed them to his label, Twin/Tone – was fired shortly after.  Pleased To Meet Me, then, is The Replacements as a trio, driven mainly by Westerberg’s need to reinvent what he and his band meant in the grand scheme of things.

As such, Pleased To Meet Me is a remarkably uneven album.  To be sure, there are the usual ‘Mats rockers – “I.O.U.” comes out of the gate charging hard, and “Shooting Dirty Pool” is as representative a Replacements song as you might ever find – but there is a lot more on here that wouldn’t have fit even in a chaotic setting like their two pre-major albums, Hootenany and Let It Be.  Sure, “Androgynous” was a ballad, but “Skyway” was a goddamn ballad, acoustic guitar, digital production, and the rest.  “Nightclub Jitters”, a weird night-life jazz number, is easily the oddest thing the band ever recorded.  “The Ledge” seems to take it’s cues from the PacNorWest SST scene, like a scuffed-out early Mudhoney track.  The best parts of the album, though, the ones that will (as a certain old-school ‘Mats fan might say) get scratched into your soul, are the two songs that channel the Seventies pop-rock ghost of Big Star:  “Alex Chilton” (naturally) and the wide-open closer “Can’t Hardly Wait”, whose wryly regretful melodies inspired a weirdly good Nineties teen comedy.

Pleased To Meet Me would be the last creative gasp of an already strained band.  There were two more albums – the overly-slick Don’t Tell A Soul and the hospice-hushed All Shook Down – but for all intents and purposes this was the last release of the band as the legendary force for Minnesota rock ‘n’ roll that they were.

 

China: 20 Years of Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space

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Spiritualized – Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space

Released June 16th, 1997 on Dedicated Records

RYM: #415

BestEverAlbums: #215

Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is likely the broadest shoegazer rock ever got; put another way, it’s the spaciest Britpop ever got.  Born out of the wreckage of Spacemen 3, J. Spaceman (Jason Pierce) created Spiritualized originally to explore how good designer drugs made him feel.  Ladies And Gentlemen is the peak of that exploration; the record may be a lot of things (a confessional, a recounting of lost love, an exploration of American gospel music, the height of space rock in the 1990s) but at it’s root it is an account of Pierce’s epiphany that he could only find redemption in using drugs.  It’s not really much of a wonder, then, that the album cover was made to look like the cover of a pharmaceutical pamphlet; a special edition was created that turned it into a box of legitimate drugs, complete with dosage instructions and a blister package that contained the CD.  Pierce was not being subtle or even caring to hide his love of the pharmacy; it could very well be the most pro-drug record of the 1990s, Snoop Dogg aside.

Musically it’s very loosely structured.  These are songs with tenuous connections to the ground, and it’s only the stitching mechanism of Pierce’s voice that keeps them from casting off into outer space.  The synthesizers, strings, and horns in the background of most of the songs blow everything wide open, reaching for both ends of the sonic spectrum at once; the clear, sustained guitar lines that shoot through this are frisson moments for those caught in the psychedelic blowout.  There are moments of pure blissed-out rock ‘n’ roll (“Electricity” and “Come Together”), serious old school grooves (“I Think I’m In Love”), and the interpolation of some old Elvis slow-gospel magic (the opener/title track).

The pain and the confessional seeking of solace in drugs was very real for Jason Pierce.  “There’s a hole in my arm where all my money goes,” he opened the sprawling closer “Cop Shoot Cop” with, and it’s as gorgeously harrowing an account of descent into addiction as you’re ever likely to find.  The album’s opening line (which doubles as the title) was spoken by Spiritualized keyboardist Kate Radley, whose romantic relationship with Pierce cratered four days before the release of the record; Pierce had been a rebound from her husband, Richard Ashcroft of The Verve, to whom she returned shortly before leaving Spiritualized for good in 1997.  Pierce claims all of the songs were written before their breakup but the visceral jettison of the normal world for the spaced-out world of coping seems very much the product of capturing the free fall of disintegration as it’s happening.  Really, in the end, that’s the integral takeaway of the record:  it’s basically I Do Heroin: The Album.  It’s a love letter, and it’s to an altered state of being rather than a relationship, but it serves as a fitting account of either.

 

China: 20 Years of Wu-Tang Forever

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Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever

Released June 3rd, 1997 on Loud Records & RCA Records

According to legend, Wu producer/abbot RZA struck a deal with the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan in 1992:  if they agreed to give RZA total control without question for five years, he would ensure that they would change hip hop and become the number one group in America.  Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was the beginning of this plan; in 1997, when the sprawling double-CD Wu-Tang Forever was released, they had achieved RZA’s plan and then some.  It’s easy to talk about Dre and NWA changing hip hop, or Biggie, or Pac, but the Wu brought hip hop to a wider audience than anyone else.  The social aspect of the Clan was it’s biggest selling feature; it was never enough to just like the music.  Liking the music lead to wanting to know about each member, and tracking down their solo records, and picking apart their verses in a comparative fashion.  Was Method Man the best rapper?  The GZA, with his esoteric verses?  The balls-out crassness of Ol’ Dirty Bastard?  The cinematic majesty of Ghostface Killah?  Even rural regions erupted in Wu symbols and white boys suddenly interested in rap and gritty NYC rappers.

Wu-Tang Forever is the cap on this era, a blown-out tribute to everyone’s collective skills.  Enter The Wu Tang was very minimalist, when it came to production; the RZA’s style had it’s genesis there, but his work on GZA’s Liquid Swords, Meth’s Tical, and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx expanded his pallet exponentially, and that expansion is keenly felt on Wu-Tang Forever.  In addition to the grimey drum sound that he was famous for at the time, Wu-Tang Forever saw RZA adding in horns, strings, lush samples, and a myriad of other instrumentation to make the album much denser than Enter The Wu Tang had been.  Of special note is his penchant on this record for chopping up old soul songs and speeding up the pieces to use as samples; if this sounds oddly familiar, it’s because Kanye West built his name on doing the exact same thing for Jay-Z’s stable.  To go along with the supreme density of RZA’s production, the group went abstract on their lyrics, piling on wordplay and slang until it became a thick stew of instantly quotable near-nonsense that managed to remain coherent and thrilling despite that.  The peak of this verbal insanity was the single, “Triumph”, which was six minutes, had no chorus, and still managed to be the best single song to come out of 1997 by a wide margin.

There are two major flaws in the record that manage to diminish all of the above, however.  The first is the bizarre Five Percenter religious weirdness that is embedded in the record, especially on the lead-in track “Wu-Revolution”, which manages to deny evolutionary theory out of hand without any, you know, evidence.  The second flaw is the length; at two full CDs even the magic of the Wu wears thin, and while there are a lot of great tracks on the album the second disc starts to bog down halfway through (somewhere around “Dog Shit” or “Duck Seazon”).  It’s a drawback that a lot of contemporary hip hop suffered from, an idea that it was better to jam as much music, filler or not, in order to justify CD prices in the mid-1990s.  Still, the album remains a classic, and certainly the last great album that the Wu recorded as a collective.

Ruby: 40 Years of Exodus

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Bob Marley & The Wailers – Exodus

Released June 3rd, 1977 on Island Records

RYM:  #367

BestEverAlbums:  #240

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.

GOLD: 50 Years of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Released June 2nd, 1967 on Capitol Records (May 26th on Parlophone Records in the UK)

RYM:  #22

BestEverAlbums:  #5

Listen, I’m not as much of a fan of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as you are.

People – critics and fans – have often talked about it as being the best album ever made.  It’s Boomer nonsense.  It’s a good album, to be sure, but it’s not even the best Beatles album.  It’s not even in the top five.  The official Beatles Power Ranking is:  The Beatles, Revolver, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, Let It Be, Please Please Me, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Help!, A Hard Day’s Night, With The Beatles, and finally the rather leaden Beatles For Sale rounding everything out.  So without any further ado, let’s discuss The Beatles’ 8th best album.

Many consider it the first Album – rock as art.  It’s a very early version of a concept album (although I think The Who and A Quick One beats it) and it was the first album to include the lyrics, which got under a lot of people’s skin at the time as it made music purists think that these upstart mop-top boy-banders were trying to be something more than they were.  Even though I’m not a superfan of this record, it’s obvious from historical and technical context that those purists were wrong.  By 1967 The Beatles had long since ceased performing live; their last performance, at Candlestick Park in August of 1966, capped off a hellish final tour that found them chased, prodded, manhandled, and, in the American South, shot at and threatened with death.  Revolver had been released in the midst of that tour, and during it’s recording process the band discovered that the studio was far more fun than getting shot at by American white nationalists.  As a result, they abandoned performing for screaming teenagers in venues where they couldn’t even hear themselves play and fell full-on into making technical magic with “fifth Beatle” producer George Martin.

Technically, for the time, Sgt Pepper’s is a masterpiece.  Recorded using 4-track machines even though 8-tracks were available at the time, Martin and the band forged new ground in creative use of 4-track recording to get the sounds that you hear on the record.  A lot of tracks were mixed down onto a single track and then used to record more tracks, to create a huge array of overdubbed tracks that form the backbone of the dense sounds that can be heard throughout.  Many of the techniques that I and a myriad of other producers, amateur and professional, use today have their birth during the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions:  dynamic range compression, double-tracking, signal limiters, varispeed recording, and of course the term “flanger”, which came out of a joke made by Martin about Lennon’s double-tracked vocals.  In terms of physical recording techniques, the use of close-miking on Ringo Starr’s drums on the title track also became standard practice, and the use of crossfading between tracks instead of the usual hard-stop was pioneered here and became a regular occurrence on popular albums from 1967 onward.

Musically, the album is less of a success.  The title track (and it’s reprise late in the album) is a stellar bit of rock ‘n’ roll songcraft, and “With A Little Help From My Friends” is good fun (although the Joe Cocker cover is much better).  “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” has become a standby anthem for the drug counterculture but it seems in retrospect lightweight, a forced spray of psychedelia that seems more like a copycat gesture than it does a genuine integration into what the band’s contemporaries were doing.  “Getting Better” suffers from the same problem as many McCartney compositions of the era:  it’s too jaunty by half, as though the man were swaying back and forth at his piano, pounding the keys while the rest of the band plays in the background, bored stiff.  It’s also a distressingly bourgeois song:  who has to admit it’s getting better, Paul?  The poor, who were still struggling to provide in the middle of the so-called Summer Of Love?  The young Americans, who were being sent off to die in droves in the jungle?  George Harrison, who was getting ignored by the barreling Lennon-McCartney machine and was thinking of just heading back to India and staying there?  The jury is still out.

“Fixing A Hole” suffers a similar fate, in that it’s a McCartney song that feels a little too knowing; there’s a good song in there, but the decision to play it in a sort of stiff half-time renders it more wooden than it should be.  The production is top-notch, but the structure itself is lacking.  “She’s Leaving Home” manages to right the ship, with a classic Lennon/McCartney combo melody that takes “Eleanor Rigby” to a new level.  Unfortunately, Side One doesn’t end there; it ends instead with Lennon’s second fey kaleidoscope-psychedelia composition, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”, which revels in Edwardian pomp without saying much of anything (see David Bowie’s first album for more like this).  Side Two doesn’t start off much better.  Harrison’s sole contribution, “Within You Without You”, is a faux-raga obsessed with India that substitutes foreign exotica for psychedelic trippiness.  It’s a decent enough attempt at trying to break the mold (especially for a class act songwriter who was growing bored with Beatles-as-usual) but it’s woefully out of place on the record, and it seems like an unnecessary expansion on something they’d already perfected (“Tomorrow Never Knows”).  “When I’m Sixty Four” is the nadir of the album, the worst of McCartney’s Vaudeville-inspired jaunty bullshit; it was reportedly written in McCartney’s teen years, when the band was still pumping out amphetamine-fueled rock ‘n’ roll in Germany, and it probably should have been buried there.  “Lovely Rita” is better, but still has that same goddamn bourgeois bounce that features Paul trying to out-jolly everyone in England with a vengeance.  “Good Morning Good Morning” is the return of the slightly more sober John Lennon, and although it’s a bit hamfisted it’s also a righteous bit of rock ‘n’ roll.  The “Sgt. Pepper’s” reprise is top-notch, and “A Day In The Life” is of course one of the band’s all-time great songs.

In a sense, Sgt. Pepper’s was a rough draft for what the band would go on to do with Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles.  As an alleged concept album it’s mostly a failure.  The “military band” idea that spurred the recordings only shows up twice, and the rest of it bears no resemblance to the concept whatsoever.  Instead, it’s a collection of bold experiments by a band that knew they wouldn’t have to perform these songs live.  It builds on the studio techniques they started playing with on Revolver, but the songs on Revolver are much stronger.  It’s an interesting junction point in the band’s career, but not for the usual Rolling Stone cover-story reasons; it represents the moment that their ambition outstripped their actual abilities, a problem that would be quickly rectified over the following three years.  1968’s The Beatles would be the perfection of what they tried to work out here, although Sgt. Pepper’s would be the key album of the Summer Of Love, such as it was, so in terms of eventual influence they’re equal.  In the end, though, regardless of any of the problems or artistic over-steppings that occurs on the album, “A Day In The Life” is one of the best songs ever written and is worth the price of admission all on it’s own.

GOLD: 50 Years of Absolutely Free

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The Mothers Of Invention – Absolutely Free

Released May 26th, 1967 on Verve Records

Of the first three Mothers Of Invention albums, Absolutely Free tends to be the forgotten middle child, stuck between the white-hot innovations of Freak Out! and the balls-out satire of We’re Only In It For The Money.  It’s a little more free-wheeling than either (if you want to split hairs) and lacks the conceptual focus that either of it’s flanking albums have.  What Absolutely Free does have, however, is internal cohesion.  It’s an album made up of two mini-suites, with call-backs to themes throughout.  Musically it’s an early Frank Zappa album, meaning that it’s continuously balancing on the edge of free-form jazz, skipping from idea to idea with the impetuousness of the creatively uninhibited.  There are references to Stravinsky and Holst; there are callbacks to previous soundtrack work Zappa had done; there is an admonishment to eat one’s vegetables because they’re good for you.  “America Drinks” and “America Drinks and Goes Home”, the bookend tracks of side two, are tongue-in-cheek references to Zappa’s days playing lounge music; “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” paid homage to President Johnson’s fashion faux pas of the day, matching brown shoes to a grey suit.  The most impressive part of the album is the opening, where Zappa goes fifty years forward in time to find a President Of The United States who can only communicate by bleating the main riff to “Louie Louie” in a cracked, off-key voice.  NATO heads of state can probably relate.

Pearl: 30 Years of Scream Bloody Gore

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Death – Scream Bloody Gore

Released May 25th, 1987 on Combat Records

The 1980s saw a grinding evolution of metal, one that splintered so deeply that there is today internecine warfare between various sub-sub-sub-genres that spun out of each of the genre fractures that came about in the decade.  To understand what in the living fuck extreme technical melodic death metal is, you have to first parse out each of the various categories inherent in that genre and understand the paths that led to them.  Thankfully we don’t have to do that here, because Scream Bloody Gore was a – some say the – founding document of the disgusting bloody mess that is death metal.

Metal was covered in rock ‘n’ roll cheese for the most part until Judas Priest finally got good right near the end of the 1970s.  Around the same time two major influences on the metal underground sprang to life:  the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and hardcore punk.  NWBHM included bands like Diamond Head and Iron Maiden; these were tight, riff-heavy metal bands that emphasized modular songwriting.  Hardcore punk brought speed, pounding drums, and amelodic shouting and made them de rigueur for being on the cutting edge of how far music could be pushed.  The two were combined into thrash metal, a by-now familiar genre whose Big Four were Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer.  Of those four, the biggest influence on the ever-heavier underground was Slayer; some might try to add Celtic Frost or Venom into the mix, but the birth of death metal is entirely due to Hell Awaits and especially Reign In Blood.  Death metal itself stems from Death, the band (and not the Detroit proto-punk band), whose early work spawned a whole host of disturbing weirdos first in Florida and later the world who would be inspired by it.

Scream Bloody Gore is basically Reign In Blood with a few major exceptions.  To be sure, it’s built around pounding, speed-obsessed passages drawn directly from “Jesus Saves”, but Chuck Schuldiner’s guitars are tuned down a hell of a lot lower, he uses a lot more palm-muting, the emphasis is more on blastbeats than separable riffs, and the band utilizes breakdowns quite a bit more.  Also, Schuldiner’s vocals are harsher than Tom Araya’s; Araya has a certain scream he uses that hits an interestingly high register, and it’s much easier to pick out what he’s singing about.  Schuldiner’s vocals are more like the howlings of the eternally damned, pitched lower and more of blurred screams than anything resembling what people traditionally think of as “singing”.  The lyrics also feature a notable difference.  Reign In Blood was about evil Nazi death-doctors and the hypocrisy of religion and insanity.  Scream Bloody Gore, meanwhile, is exactly what it says on the tin:  these are about zombies, cannibals, blood, slaughter, and gore.  This, in essence, would be what “death metal” would be about from 1987 onward:  downtuned guitars, blastbeats, low-pitched howls, and gore, gore, gore.

The San Francisco Chronicle referred to Scream Bloody Gore as “the first death metal album” and this is true of everywhere outside of Belo Horizonte.  An entire underground industry was born out of it and the bands that poked their heads out of their dank practice spaces because of it.  The production quality is utterly primitive by modern standards, but there are still bands who chase that sound out of a sense of purity and complete anti-commercialism.  Schuldiner’s death in 2001 put a halt to the band’s activities but they remain among the most influential bands in modern metal – certainly the crazed proliferation of both bands and sub-genres would never have happened without Death or Scream Bloody Gore.

Pearl: 30 Years of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

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The Cure – Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

Released May 25th, 1987 on Fiction Records and Elektra Records

Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me marks the indelible transfer of The Cure from dense gloomsters to buoyant Eighties pop stars.  1982’s Pornography marked the peak of the band as the poster children for goth as both a musical expression and a fashion choice.  The Top and The Head On The Door are bridges, with former being the album where they experimented messily with their form and largely failed, and the latter being the same but a success.  Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me took the expansive vision that Robert Smith had been trying to articulate and blew it up into ridiculous proportions.  The album was long, especially by 1987 standards; it took up two LPs and clocked in at just under 80 minutes.  It was a collection that emphasized the best parts of each of their last three albums; there was Pornography-era chorus-laden guitar grind (as on the opener “The Kiss”, “Tortureor ), experiments with sound, form, and culture (“If Only Tonight We Could Sleep”, “The Snakepit”) and balls-out brassy pop (“Why Can’t I Be You?”, “Hot Hot Hot!”).  “Catch”, “The Perfect Girl”, and “Just Like Heaven” are quirky love songs without parallel.  “Like Cockatoos” and “Icing Sugar” marry their earlier crushing pomp with pop brassiness, a preview of what Kiss Me‘s follow-up, Disintegration would hold (although the ribbon of saxophone on the latter is something that didn’t show up nearly enough in the band’s work afterward).  While a career retrospective shows Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me to be something of a hot mess compared to the best Cure records, the album contains some of their very best compositions and, when it falters, some songs that at least make an attempt at pushing the group’s peculiar sense of artistry over.

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.