Aluminium: 10 Years of Favourite Worst Nightmare

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Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

Released April 23rd, 2007 on Domino Records

The Difficult Second Album has always been a problem in rock ‘n’ roll.  After an album that sets the world on fire, relatively speaking, the follow-up is constrained by time, hype, and record label needs.  It’s also constrained by artistic pig-headedness – the curse of “Oh they think we’re just about this sound, well WE’LL SHOW THEM!”

They inevitably don’t light the same fire that the first album did, and both the critics and paying public feel lukewarm and move on, leaving only a small coterie of hardcore fans who stick around, convinced that the band can do no wrong.  This was the Strokes on Room On Fire, The Hives on Tyrannosaurus Hives, Weezer on Pinkerton, Massive Attack on Protection, Alanis Morisette on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Live on Secret Samahdi.  This was, ostensibly, Arctic Monkeys on Favourite Worst Nightmare.

Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the Sheffield band’s first album, was world-shaking, especially in their native England.  When the Strokes first came to the UK it was as though an atom bomb had gone off; within four years bands influenced by the Strokes were clogging up MySpace, hawking their wares and building their fanbase one grimy all-ages show in a small town after another.  Arctic Monkeys were one of those bands, but multiplied by a hundred.  At the height of MySpace as a social media platform, they were one of the two bands that leveraged their fanbase into massive real-world success (the other of course being Fall Out Boy).  Unlike their American counterparts, Arctic Monkeys could actually write good songs; Whatever People Say was chock-full of poetic renditions of liquored-up good times, a paean to English drinking culture, small-time rock scenes, and getting up to shifty business in very dodgy places.

How to follow up such a successful first album, though?  It’s a tightrope walk, as the Strokes themselves knew all too well, and it’s always going to be fraught with heavier criticisms than might otherwise be warranted.  So it went with Favourite Worst Nightmare.  Critics were unconvinced by the songs, claiming the snarky swipes at the scene that had given birth to them were dreadful.  While there is some merit to this particular criticism (especially in dead-ringer slogs like “If You Were There, Beware” and “The Bad Thing”) it obscures the great songs that are embedded in the album.  “Brianstorm” is a barnburner of an opener and a delightful piss-take on the younger set of would-be managers and show promoters.  “Teddy Picker”, “D Is For Dangerous”, and “Balaclava” hearken back to the band’s debut – leave the progress for the next three albums, this was all about doubling down on what worked.  “Fluorescent Adolescent” is a stone classic of a song, the sort of song that transcends whatever album it’s on to be a classic of a band’s canon; it’s first line (“You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your nightdress”) sums up an entire feeling of the kind of heavy nostalgia that can get you into serious trouble later in life in such a way that is honestly rare in youth-oriented rock ‘n’ roll.  Favourite Worst Nightmare is blessed with two of these sorts of classic tracks, the other being “505”.  “505” was, in 2007, the odd one out in the band’s catalog, a smooth number that builds up to a crescendo, rather than the riff-oriented bangers that the band was otherwise known for.  Humbug, their follow-up, would show a band that wanted to focus on this aspect of their songwriting, and it was all the better for it.

(The entire Glastonbury 2007 Arctic Monkeys performance!)

It’s somewhat funny to look back on Favourite Worst Nightmare and remember the disappointment some felt, and the defensiveness that others felt they needed to exude to combat this.  As far as contemporary bands, Arctic Monkeys have surely aged the best; AM, released in 2013, was easily one of the best albums of the year, a feat that bands like Fall Out Boy could only dream of (especially given that every album subsequent to From Under The Cork Tree was complete garbage).  Even the Strokes couldn’t manage that; everything after Is This It? was a mixed bag.  Not bad for four kids from Northern England.

Aluminium: 10 Years of Ashtray Rock

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Joel Plaskett Emergency – Ashtray Rock

Released April 17th, 2007 on MapleMusic Recordings

A triumph of album-making, the third Emergency album tells the story of the Ashtray Rock, a place in the woods near the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park where the local teenagers gather to get drunk and crank the volume on already-loud rock ‘n’ roll music.  Two guys have a great time hanging out at the late-night parties but they have a falling out over a girl.  One of them gets the girl for a little while, and the other one forms a rock ‘n’ roll band.

As far as ideas for concept albums go, it’s squarely in the Who camp, but Plaskett and Co. pull it off at the height of their powers and it ends up being exhilarating rather than ridiculous.  Part of the success in this is that the concept and lyrics are near and dear to Plaskett’s heart and he has said at times that some of the characters are his old bandmates in Thrush Hermit, and that the music-in-common part of “Penny For Your Thoughts” is tuned to his wife’s tastes.

Regardless of the concept, of course, it’s an amazing lineup of songs that strike a clear tone and build hooks like skyscrapers.  It was shortlisted for the 2007 Polaris Music prize (along with Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible) but eventually lost out to Patrick Watson’s Close To Paradise.  This is too bad, really, since Ashtray Rock is the absolute peak of the Emergency, a rock ‘n’ roll triumph whose nostalgic paeans to youth and young love will ring on long after the last notes.

Ruby: 40 Years of Rattus Norvegicus

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The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus

Released April 15th, 1977 on United Artists Records

The Stranglers came up rough-and-tumble in the English pub rock scene of the mid-1970s, and it shows.  The band formed in 1974 after drummer Brian “Jet Black” Duffy made a ton of money operating a fleet of ice cream trucks.  His business success convinced him to get back into drumming, something he had done semi-professionally through the 1950s and 1960s, and he scoured the region looking for potential bandmates.  What came together was originally called the Guildford Stranglers and played a regular gig at The Jackpot, an offie that Duffy also owned and operated.  After gaining a bit of a following they managed to merge in with the emergent punk rock scene in 1976-1977 to become one of the more memorable First Wave bands.

Rattus Norvegicus, their first album, encapsulates everything that is right and wrong with the external identification of the band with the scene they found themselves in.  First, what is wrong.  The Stranglers, unlike their contemporaries, were not afraid to get crazy with the keyboards; the band’s sound is as much Dave Greenfield’s manic-Doors keyboard playing as it is Jean-Jacques Burnel’s bouncy, fiercely melodic bass playing.  The intro to “Princess Of The Streets” is a gorgeous, haunting arpeggio feature that you would never catch the Clash using, and it’s written in 6/8 time, which is about as un-punk as you can really get.  Their music was as much about the Doors and the Kinks as it was about ripping the pub apart and getting the lager lads going.

Then again there are aspects of their music that fit right in with where everyone else was at in 1977.  For one thing, Rattus Norvegicus is an incredibly violent record.  “Sometimes” is about a knock-down, drag-out physical fight between boyfriend and girlfriend.  “Goodbye Tolouse” is a raucous good tune about Nostradamus’ predicted destruction of the aforementioned French city.  “Ugly” is a clashing, destructive song that lives up to it’s name in spades.  It has great depictions of the “street scene” of the time:  “Hanging Around” and “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)” are both descriptive songs about the life the band was leading during the recording of the album.  There’s also the English punk preoccupation with reggae:  “Peaches” is heavily influenced by contemporary reggae records although the use of Greenfield’s brittle-glass keyboard sound adds a keening, paranoid vibe to the bounce.

The Stranglers would go on to hit greater heights (peaking with 1982’s “Golden Brown”) but Rattus Norvegicus sets them up as a band – propulsive and yet oddly romantic, violent and a little jaded from the streets.  1977 featured some very impressive debuts – and this definitely ranks among them.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of The Clash

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The Clash – The Clash

Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records

BestEverAlbums:  #174

RYM:  #224

1977 is widely regarded as “the year punk broke” and there are several reasons for this.  The Ramones released their second album earlier in the year, as we discussed.  The Sex Pistols would release their only real album later in the year.  Between the two, though, is what I feel to be the real heart of punk rock:  The Clash.

That’s maybe a controversial thing to say (although, not really) for a few reasons.  For one, the candy-coated third wave of punk that broke into the mainstream in the mid-1990s (which, unlike “grunge”, actually called itself punk rock) was built on pure waves of the Ramones and the more melodic part of the Buzzcocks.  The only real antidote to that, for kids with access to a radio and little else (weren’t those the days) was Rancid, who were by and large a Clash cover band.  Even still, the band didn’t get the sort of legendary status in the 1990s as other bands from 1977 did.

I once went wandering (mostly drunk) with a few friends through a Laurier Brantford residence called The Post House; it was night and we were friends with the RAs, so this sort of thing was fairly normal.  We got caught up in a conversation with some of the freshmen about music and the subject of punk rock came up.  “Oh yeah!” one of them shouted.  “Punk rock is awesome!  The Sex Pistols rule, they started it all!”  This got me started on a lengthy rant about how the Sex Pistols were the Backstreet Boys of punk, a group of fashionable chatterheads put together by a merchant to sell safety pins to well-heeled slumming Londoners.  The Clash, I said, The Clash were what punk rock was meant to coalesce around, because they were strident, political, in touch with the down-and-out working class, and rocked harder than anything else out there.  This sounds like total /r/thathappened material but I swear to god it’s true, this was before I learned that if I wrote my stupid opinions down they might seem less obnoxious.

Still, at the risk of sounding like a cut monologue from SLC Punk, The Clash weren’t posers like I felt (and to an extent still feel) the Sex Pistols were.  Johnny Rotten and friends were the original edgelords, dressing provocatively and flashing swastikas like it was the coolest thing since the electric guitar.  The Clash didn’t need flashy imagery and hip fashion trends to telegraph their seething rage – that’s what the songs were for.  From the beginning, people derided punk rock as music for people who couldn’t play their instruments or write songs, but The Clash could do both, and well.  They embraced reggae right from the beginning as well, injecting a diversity into the genre that it would have floundered without.  They also weren’t afraid to get back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, a sound that they would later embrace whole-heartedly on London Calling.  The mixture has galvanized bands ever since, and chances are if you see any of those rockabilly folks drinking their hipster beers at places like the Cadillac Lounge, they’re Clash fans deep down.

The only real question, once the brilliance of the album has been established, is which version?  The original British release kicks off with “Janie Jones”, a thundering rocker about an infamous London madame.  The American release starts with “Clash City Rockers”, a dead ringer for the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”.  The American version also has several key songs that the British version lacks:  “Complete Control”, a somewhat toned-down version of “White Riot”, a cover of “I Fought The Law”, the early rocker “Jail Guitar Doors”, and the ultimate Clash reggae tune, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, which sets out a clear anti-violence, pro-racial unity, pro-socialist message, three things that The Clash and their descendants would go on to enshrine as gospel.  The songs these would replace (“Deny”, “Cheat”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours”) are simply not as good as the tracks included on the American version, so…the American version wins.

The band would of course go on to loftier heights (London Calling is often included in discussions of The Greatest Album Ever Made) but The Clash 1977 is the real root of both their later sound and the whole of punk rock.

 

 

 

China: 20 Years of Dig Me Out

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Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out

Released April 8th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

Straight-up:  Carrie Brownstein’s vocals are an acquired taste, but they’re a taste that I acquired a long time ago.  They’re a barrier to entry, for sure.  You either get them or you don’t, but if you get them, then Sleater-Kinney’s work ranks among the very best that rock ‘n’ roll has produced since the Alternative Revolution.

Released at the height of the Riot Grrl movement in the mid-1990s, Dig Me Out characterizes a band that was a fair bit different than the other stuff that was coming out of Seattle and Olympia at the time.  A lot of riot grrl bands favoured style over substance; they were modern art collectives, compilations of patriarchy-smashing posters set to thudding power chords.  Sleater-Kinney took a complete opposite tactic.  Their guitars were knotted and spiked, weaving odd, complicated leads over a bedrock of shifting chords.  Their dynamics were unpredictable, mixing shrieking rage into calm bliss with a deftness that Billy Corgan could only have dreamed of.  They were out to smash the patriarchy – make no mistake – but they were out to do it on their own terms, terms that at once eschewed the contemporary ideal of punk rock and yet were 100% punk as fuck.

Part of the toss-up was the addition of Janet Weiss as drummer; her steady-handed pounding and athletic fills called up the sound of the Stones and the Kinks and thereby lent more soul to the proceedings than had been found previously.  Part of it was Brownstein’s heartfelt emoting; beneath all of that Poly Styrene-esque wailing was someone more intellectual than you typically find in rock ‘n’ roll.  Part of it was the use of Corin Tucker’s voice to leaven it sometimes, of course; check out her undertones on “Words And Guitar” to really get the full effect.

Sleater-Kinney are a rare band that is able to be both stridently political and unabashedly emotional.  That Dig Me Out is just one of the great albums they’ve made that showcases this is a testament to how utterly kick-ass they are as a rock ‘n’ roll group.

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.

 

 

 

Ruby: 40 Years of Let There Be Rock

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AC/DC – Let There Be Rock

Released March 21st, 1977 on Albert Records

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

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of Person Pitch

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Panda Bear – Person Pitch

Released March 20th, 2007 on Paw Tracks

BestEverAlbums: #317

RYM:  #433

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

 

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

 

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

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.