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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of Sound Of Silver

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LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver

Released March 12th, 2007 on DFA/Capitol Records

BestEverAlbums: #129

Who sounds like they’re having more fun than James Murphy?  In the middle of the Oughts, people thought dance-punk was something that honestly sounded like a good idea, probably because they heard a couple of old Gang Of Four records and thought they could inject some irony into the proceedings and call it a day (The Rapture).  Along with a number of groups who thought they could get along doing the same thing, James Murphy started putting out a string of singles on his co-owned DFA Records label that were along similar lines to the other stuff that was going on in 2005, with a key difference:  Murphy and LCD Soundsystem weren’t afraid to get funny as well as funky; it was this combination that made their early singles such successes, and their self-titled debut such a critical darling.

 

Sound Of Silver, their sophomore effort, turns that idea on it’s head.  To be sure, it’s still funny as hell:  the self-deprecating party kids of “North American Scum” make for great fun; the chorus of “Sound Of Silver” is good for a rueful grin.  What Sound Of Silver really is, though, is poignant, and it rides that particular aspect far better than LCD Soundsystem rode snarky humour.  “Someone Great” looks back on the lost, both broken relationships and dead people; “All My Friends” contains the immortal line “You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan / and the next five years trying to get with your friends again.”  “Us Vs. Them” feels alienated from the crowd and all the sad drunk boys on their knees; “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is exactly what it says on the tin – a nostalgia for the old septic New York City and an admission that sometimes the modern theme park version of NYC can get a little much.

 

Wrapping all of this feels is a slick, eminently danceable disco-punk that keeps moving without stopping (until the end, of course; “New York” is the perfect comedown for a sweat-filled night out).  The effect is that Sound Of Silver sounds like a night out with your friends, the ones you haven’t seen in forever but for whom it feels as though no time at all has passed.  You want the night to last forever and for a while it feels like it will but eventually you get exhausted and the city seems like a vulture waiting to pick your bones clean and then the sun comes up and there’s one last fleeting bit of glory before you stumble through the dawn streets to find your bed so you can collapse and pass out.  It’s as much fun as it sounds.

Pearl: 30 Years of The Joshua Tree

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U2 – The Joshua Tree

Released March 9th, 1987 on Island Records

BestEverAlbums: #34

Boy made them New Wave stars.  War broke them into a bigger stage and staked their claim as political rockers.  The Unforgettable Fire led Rolling Stone to claim them as “The Band of the 80s…for many, the only rock ‘n’ roll band that matters.”  One more push – The Joshua Tree – and they were bona-fide world-straddling superstars.

 

The Unforgettable Fire had been more in the line of an experimental album, produced as it was by the duo of Brian Eno and his faithful engineer Daniel Lanois.  It’s textures were complicated, it’s songs more impressions than compositions, and it proved to be difficult to translate to a concert setting.  For their follow-up, the band wanted to keep the best lessons they’d learned from Eno and Lanois, but pare down, and make their sound more expansive.  In the write-up on Neon Bible a few days ago I mentioned that the ocean was the overarching metaphor for the album.  In the case of The Joshua Tree, the overarching metaphor is the desert – wide-open, expansive, cinematic in quality.  The foundation of this ideal is The Edge’s guitar work.  He makes good use of delay, and by “good use” I mean “wrestles it into submission and makes the effect his very own.”  Whole reams of music journalism have been written about his playing on tracks like “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (and, more subtly, on “Running To Stand Still.”  On the other side, he uses slide techniques he gleaned from a friendship with Keith Richards to approximate the sound of fighter planes and dive bombers on the hard-as-nails “Bullet The Blue Sky.”  The rest of the band puts in a yeoman’s work – including Bono, whose voice has never fit the music better, before or since – but The Joshua Tree is without a doubt The Edge’s showcase.

 

It’s not just about wide-open desert vistas, of course.  A big theme of the album is the Irish band’s love-hate relationship with America.  Before the recording of the album, Bono visited El Salvador to witness the civil war first-hand.  He returned deeply angry with the Reagan administration and American foreign policy in general – this was the heart of “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Mothers Of The Disappeared”.  Ireland and the UK did not escape his anger, either:  “Where The Streets Have No Name” is about economic segregation in Belfast, “Red Hill Mining Town” is about the aftermath of the 1984 mining strike in the UK, and “Running To Stand Still” is about drug addiction in Dublin.  There’s also a sense of Bono being on a sort of spiritual quest for faith and renewal, with Biblical references, the yearning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and the grief for a lost friend that forms the basis of “One Tree Hill.”

 

In the aftermath, the band would go on to become crossover pop superstars:  millions of albums sold, sold-out world tours, being taken seriously by world leaders.  Achtung Baby would be a good follow-up in it’s own right, but after the things that were charming on The Joshua Tree would become over-exaggerated in the harsh floodlights of global fame.  The Edge’s guitar work would strive to go further and eventually collapse into self-parody, then complacency.  Bono’s anger and spirituality would become tiresome, as he became another jet-setting European elitist making pretty speeches about poverty in the Global South, while conditions continued to deteriorate.  Simply put, U2 would never again be as good as they were on The Joshua Tree.

Ruby: 40 Years of High Class In Borrowed Shoes

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Max Webster – High Class In Borrowed Shoes

Released March 1st, 1977 on Anthem Records

Canadian guitar hero Kim Mitchell, before he found quasi-fame as a solo artist and, much later, the drive time DJ for Toronto’s classic rock powerhouse Q107, was in a little Seventies hard rock band called Max Webster.  While better known songs would come from their third album (including “A Million Vacations”), their second album is more consistent.  This is pure Seventies prog-pop-rock, make no mistake.  If you like Rush but hate all the Ayn Rand fanboying and all the endless concepts, or you like Supertramp but feel like they’re just not cheesy enough, High Class In Borrowed Shoes is the right direction to travel in. The title track, “America’s Veins”, “Rain Child”, and the stoned-in-a-convertible “Oh War” all prove Mitchell’s hard rock guitar chops.  “Diamonds, Diamonds” and “Gravity” both play with the proggy concepts a bit more, and “In Context Of The Moon” actually functions pretty well as a killer hard prog song, including the ill-advised disappearance into a keyboard-laden k-hole.  “Words To Words” probably fueled a few awkward teenage pregnancies, or at least some of that really, really awkward teenage dancing that Mitchell would later sing about on “Patio Lanterns”.  Incidentally, “On The Road” is also just as awful as “Patio Lanterns.”  You were warned.

Also, I don’t know what’s up with the cover.  Did Canadians just not know how to design things in 1977?  Actually, looking back on it, no.  No they did not.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of Rumours

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Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

Released February 4th, 1977 on Warner Bros. Records

BestEverAlbums:  #32

RYM:  #212

Rumours is the sound of a band turning internecine warfare into pure pop gold. It’s also the culmination of one of the more interesting careers in rock ‘n’ roll history.

 

Way back in the mid-1960s, Eric Clapton left  John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, and he was replaced by Peter Green, who was one hell of a blues guitarist.  After some lineup shuffles, the Bluesbreakers would be John Mayall, Peter Green, bassist John McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood.  After Green left the band in mid-1967, he and Fleetwood formed a band with slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and named it after an instrumental the Bluesbreakers had recorded, “Fleetwood Mac”.  Once John McVie joined they recorded an album, Fleetwood Mac, and it achieved quite a bit of success in their native Britain.  By 1969, however, Green was developing symptoms of schizophrenia and he would end up leaving the group; in 1971 Spencer would disappear on tour and turn up living with the infamous California cult Children Of God. John McVie’s wife Christine joined the band as keyboardist and vocalist, and a number of other musicians were tried out in the early 1970s.  Around 1974-75 the group of Fleetwood and the McVies merged with a group calling themselves Buckingham Nicks, consisting of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.  This iteration of Fleetwood Mac was not a blues group; 1975’s Fleetwood Mac was very much a  pop record, a complete 180 from 1968’s Fleetwood Mac.

 

By 1977, though, the group was tearing itself apart.  The McVies broke up, and remained only on speaking terms while in the studio discussing music.  Buckingham and Nicks were in a convulsive on-again-off-again relationship that only ever seemed to mend itself when they were writing songs together.  Mick Fleetwood found out that his wife and his best friend were having an affair behind his back.  To deal with all of this heartache and bitterness and recrimination, the band did an astounding amount of drugs, even by the standards of the late Seventies.  Studio sessions would begin around 7 in the evening and around 2 AM, when the band was finally so coked-out that they could only pick up instruments and play, they would begin to actually record.  Albums recorded in this fashion tend to be somewhat hit and miss.  Station To Station and Hotel California were both recorded in the midst of blizzards, so to speak, but then again so were Vol. 4 and Be Here Now.  Rumours falls squarely in the first category and in a very real sense defines it.  There is no reason that an album recorded through a lens of residual anger and strong stimulants should sound so goddamn breezy, but here we are.  It is the purest expression of Seventies AM pop ever committed to tape, and as such it is little wonder that virtually every single track on the album has ended up enshrined forever on the radio to a greater or lesser degree.

 

Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, when the entire album is scratched into your soul how do you pick out any particular tracks as being superior to the others?  Which is the best?  Is it the finger-popping Cali-country melody of “Second Hand News”?  Is it the moody Nicks compositions, “Dreams”, “I Don’t Want To Know”, or the harrowing “Gold Dust Woman”?  Is it the hopeful freedom of Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop” or “You Make Loving Fun”, or perhaps the sorrowful state of her relationship with her ex-husband, encapsulated on “Oh, Daddy”?  Is it the come-together moment of the entire group on “The Chain”, a song that seems to air all of their grievances at once in a moment of partial exorcism?  Picking is impossible, and the 39 minute runtime seems all too short to have appreciated the entirety; whenever I listen to Rumours, I find myself needing to listen to it twice just to appreciate all the subtleties the group worked into the songs.  Chuck Klosterman might not think there’s any approach to greatness in these songs, but I don’t think that Klosterman has ever listened to them on a fragrant summer night when the wind is in your hair and the girl beside you is holding your hand in just the right fashion.