Aluminium: 10 Years of For Emma, Forever Ago

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Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

Released July 8th, 2007

BestEverAlbums: #92

Before 2007, Justin Vernon was a folky college rocker with an obscure band (DeYarmond Edison) and a girlfriend.  In 2006, after college ended, Vernon and the band moved to North Carolina; the band and the relationship both ended in short order, and Vernon was left with mono and a liver infection, as well as a frustration with songwriting, shitty jobs, and the creeping sense of mediocrity that was building in him at the age of 25.  Rather than get a 9-5 and try to settle into obscurity, Vernon exiled himself to his father’s hunting cabin in remote Wisconsin and lived alone for a while, trying to find himself and a new way to write songs without crushing his spirit.  He lived through three months of Wisconsin winter, hunting for food, chopping firewood, and at one point fending off a bear.  Songwriting came along, developing out of ideas he’d had shortly before a wave of depression drowned everything; they were built out of simpler arrangements, and wordless melodies that were sung in a falsetto.

The eventual result was For Emma, Forever Ago, which Vernon self-released ten years ago today.  Originally he’d emerged from the Great Midwestern Wilderness with nine songs and vague plans of using them as a demo to try to convince some label or another to give him money to record a slicker version of it.  His stint as the touring guitarist with North Carolina band The Rosebuds convinced him that, much like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Vernon’s recordings already were an album.  He released it as such, and he quickly began fielding offers from big indie labels.  Everything that came after – the fame, the Grammy (“Who da fuck is Bonny Bear?”), the job as hook man for Kanye West – stems from this, a musical act of coming to terms with the past and the things you can’t get over.  “Flume” was written just prior to his breaking up with his girlfriend and retreating to the wild – he claims that it’s the song that pushed him into going in the first place.  The subsequent songs dwell in questions of love, of the direction of life, and the sense of being trapped; “Re: Stacks” makes reference to his being trapped in a cycle of online gambling.

I think that this album turning a decade old is the surest sign that I am, in fact, slowly growing old.  When an album like Warehouse: Songs And Stories turns 30, it doesn’t hit me as hard because I was 5 when that album came out, and I came to it much later.  For Emma, Forever Ago came out when I was 25, the same age as it’s creator, and it’s sense of creeping mediocrity spoke loudly to me.  It still does, ten years on, and I hope that I can eventually come to terms with it in as glorious a fashion as Justin Vernon did.

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 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.

 

 

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 Mitch Mitchell, 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?  Mitch Mitchell’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 Mitchell’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.