Friday, August 31, 2007

No. 130: Paranoid

Band: Black Sabbath
Album: Paranoid
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Even moreso than Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath is the metal band. The crunching guitar, the hammer-ish drumming, the rolling bass and Ozzie's wail all scream metal more than any other band. The invention of the genre basically came from "Paranoid." In short, Sabbath is the metal Beatles.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This is a record that should be in the top 20, at least.
Best song: It's hard to choose which is best, though "War Pigs" is, lyrically, the standout. The epic protest song is fantastic and features enough time changes to make Geddy Lee's head spin. Or... "Iron Man." The riff in "Iron Man" is known by many as the original ad for "Beavis And Butthead," but like "War Pigs," is has time changes and one of the best guitar riffs ever recorded.
Worst song: There isn't a bad song, but "Planet Caravan" is a little out of place.
Is it awesome?: Yes. Absolutely. One of my favorite albums of all time.

Let's face it, metal as a genre is shit on. Sure, the Zeppelins and Hendrixes of the world are critically praised, but pure metal bands -- those that don't get thrown into other genres -- never really get the praise they deserve. And it seems whenever a band stinks and has some theatrics to them, they become "metal" (see KISS). During the '80s, metal was mostly a joke.

But, there's some great stuff in metal. There's some really smart metal bands -- I'd venture that there is a higher percentage of literate metal than there is of literate rock. Black Sabbath is the lynch pin. Like Zeppelin, Sabbath took the blues scales and some riffs so popular with the Stones and turned it the hell up. Like a lot of bands in the '70s, Sabbath took issue with conformity ("Faeries Wear Boots"), love ("Paranoid"), war ("Iron Man" and "War Pigs") and scary sci fi ("Hand Of Doom"). All on the same, mind-blowing album.


"Paranoid" is metal. There's no way around it. It's hard, it's heavy and it's based on riffs. Big, giant, great, crunching riffs. Like Keith Richards, Tony Iommi understands the need for a band to be centered around something melodic yet powerful. "Paranoid" is melodic and powerful.


That's not to mention Iommi's solos. Like Clapton and Richards, the strength of Iommi's solos are in their simplicity. he wasn't the fastest up the fretboard, but he was fast enough to burn through huge notes. Taking a cue from the blues masters, he circled his solos on certain scales to create a familiarity within the song.

"Paranoid" is the first album I learned on the guitar. Like "Nevermind," the album isn't technically impossible of a guitar player, but the power in the songs is larger than life. Iommi's sound is as signature as they come; You can identify a Black Sabbath riff from the first four notes.


And then, there's Ozzy.

Save for Johnny Rotten or Chris Cornell, there probably isn't a voice more suited to its genre than Ozzy's. Ozzy's half scream/half croon is a metal establishment and says "metal" as much as anything. His wail sounds like a banshee (The end of "Electric Funeral") and the snide, calm dissertation-singing (the beginning "Hand Of Doom") is as iconic.


Sabbath took, like, five tries to get into the rock and roll hall of fame. It's a little strange and something that bothered the hell out of me. The Allmans and Skynyrd got in before Sabbath did, which particularly disturbed me.

Not to take anything away from the Allmans or Skynyrd -- though, I'm not keen on either -- but Sabbath's sound is one of the most influential, ever. Take any band popular during the '90s and you have Sabbath. The most important indie rock label of that decade -- Sub Pop Records -- willfully said that their goal was to bring bands out with a Black Sabbath meets Black Flag sound. Not a Beatles meets Black Flag -- Sabbath.


"Paranoid" is metal's "With The Beatles." It doesn't destroy the genre, it perfects it. Taking the fuzz of The Kinks, the blues riffs of the Stones and the apocalyptic lyrics of art rock, Sabbath created something new: Heavy metal as we know it.

No. 129: 40 Greatest Hits

Band: Hank Williams
Album: 40 Greatest Hits
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: As Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters are to rock and roll, Hank Williams is to country and western music. If you're even remotely knowledgeable about music, you'll recognize too many of those songs to dislike them.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I don't think they have it wrong.
Best song: Certainly, "Move It On Over," "I'm So Lonely I Could Cry," "Lost Highway," "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "Your Cheatin' Heart" are all classics.
Worst song: There aren't a lot of bad songs, per se, though a lot of the songs run together a fair amount.
Is it awesome?: As much as it isn't my thing, it's pretty remarkable that one guy wrote or made all these songs famous. There are too many classics on here to ignore.

I tried pretty hard to go into this record with as clean a slate as I could. I'm not a country guy -- twang just doesn't excite me -- but Hank Williams is so seminal to folk music, too, that I found myself knowing about a third of the songs on this collection.

Williams, like Robert Johnson before him, recorded in an era when the single was king, so "albums" aren't really there for him. So, the greatest hits conundrum doesn't totally work.

So, there are scads of classics here. Rock and rollers George Thorogood and Bill Haley both covered "Move It On Over" to some success. Artists as diverse as The Raveonettes, Cowboy Junkies, Al Green, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash have covered "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Nat King Cole and Norah Jones have done "Cold, Cold Heart." Joni James had a top ten hit with "Your Cheatin' Heart." Hell, Masi Oka sang "Hey, Good Lookin'" in Japanese on an episode of "Scrubs."

And the songs hold up in any arrangement. Hank Williams was among the greatest songwriters, country or not.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

No. 128: Marquee Moon

Band: Television
Album: Marquee Moon
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Combining the off-kilter vocalizations of Tom Verlaine with the angular guitar work of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd makes for some excellent quirky rock and roll. There isn't a lot smooth in the vocal delivery, but the songs are amazing just the same. The staccato dynamic and tinny guitar sounds would create a templated copied by hundreds of indie rock bands, the least of which was Pavement. Basically a Velvets ripoff record, "Marquee Moon" still sounds fresh today.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I don't know that they did. The record's impact wasn't felt for a few years, but it remains great.
Best song: The first track, "See No Evil," is great, but the title track is a wonderful burst of guitar solos, awesome rhythm and disjointed vocals.
Worst song: "Guiding Light" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yeah, it's pretty awesome.

As someone my age, it's hard not to look at "Marquee Moon" and compare it to the garage revival that happened a few years back. With the Strokes, Mooney Suzuki and the like gaining some popularity, I could easily hear "Marquee Moon" as a contemporary to those records.

And, to be honest, that's one of the bigger compliments I can give "Marquee Moon." It really sounds contemporary. Destroyer's last record apes Tom Verlaine's vocal style, Modest Mouse slows down the guitar parts and the longish solos are straight out of Built to Spill's arsenal.

Not quite punk in the way that other CBGB acts (The Ramones, Blondie, etc.) were, Television was more of an art rock outfit dressed in punk clothes. They fit the image but the sound was more. For one, the guitar work on the title track is much different than the punk rock of the day, as most punk eschewed long solos in favor of short, sweet bursts.

Lyrically, Verlaine was introspective, but strange enough to be artsy. He spoke in almost hippie-ish poetic bursts ("I wanna fly, fly a fountain, I wanna jump jump jump a, jump a mountain" in "See No Evil"), but sang in a way that was quite off-kilter.

It's a landmark record that is called the first post-punk album (ironic, being that it came out at the height of punk's popularity in 1977). Taking the genre and twisting it in such a way is amazing and influenced most of the great indie rock of the past fifteen years.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

No. 127: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears

Band: The Mamas And The Papas
Album: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Along with Peter, Paul And Mary, The Mamas And The Papas were the best of the best in the folky pop genre of co-ed singers. They were on the forefront of the "California sound" (whatever that is), as evidenced by the classic song "California Dreamin'."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This is not my thing. There's just no way to get around it. I can't hear this without thinking of some dreadlocked idiot in the park playing a beaten guitar. Screw that guy.
Best song: "Monday, Monday" is a pretty classic song, on some level. Certainly, the harmonies in "California Dreamin'" are iconic.
Worst song: No song is worst. They're all just different levels of great.
Is it awesome?: I. Just. Don't. Know.

Because I don't really know anything to say about this record, I'm going to give a little apology on the nature of this project and why I probably shouldn't be writing about this sort of record...

I studied journalism in college and I still consider myself a journalist (even though my job title is "Online Content Producer" and I'm not doing conventional journalist stuff). I'm about to study journalism in graduate school.

While doing this project, I'm continually questioning the nature of criticism in regards to journalism. How hard is it to keep an open mind on a record with which I'm not familiar? It's very hard. How much of a pass do I give artists whose popular work I enjoy (Sly & The Family Stone, for example)? Probably more than I should. How much white guilt is built into some of the black artists? Probably more than I'd like to admit.

And by that nature, it's hard to critique these records from a purely unbiased place. Most journalism ethicists agree that a truly unbiased journalism is impossible (were I a reporter, it would be harder for me to be critical of Illinois/Chicago politicians than to be critical of politicians from, say, Texas), but the nature of criticism is to have strong opinions.

(Quick aside: One of my favorite lines I've written was a very strong music opinion. While reviewing albums for one of my college papers, I wrote "If you think Belle & Sebastian is better pop music than Britney Spears, you're an asshole." It was changed by my editor to "You're wrong," but I still love the strength in the original line.)

The problem is that I have to hedge my opinions on records I just don't enjoy. For example, I'm not a country music fan. When we get to the Hank Williams record later this week, it's going to be hard for me to jump whole hog into it, while something like "Remain In Light" is right in my wheelhouse. For Hank, what you'll see is a very large accumulation of sentences that start like "It's not my thing, but..." and "It's hugely influential..."

Almost all the Dylan pieces are like this. I'm not trying to buck conventional wisdom, I just don't like Dylan that much. Same with Springsteen. I've tried to put my head in the Dylan- and Springsteen-worshippers of the world, but that's not my head. Pink Floyd and the Beatles are my bands.

And so go The Mamas And The Papas. I wasn't even a glimmer in my parents' minds in 1966, so I can't even imagine the impact of a record like "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears." Allmusic says it was a really new sound, so I'll take that for what it is. I enjoy their version of "Do You Wanna Dance" more than The Ramones', so that's worth something. I think it's really cool that they got in trouble for having a toilet on the cover. Toilets, to be frank, are cool.

But, overall, this isn't for me. It's from a bygone era. I can't be unbiased about that and for that opinion, I'm sorry.

No. 126: Remain In Light

Band: The Talking Heads
Album: Remain In Light
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: You know how Paul Simon kept trying to get African percussion into his music? This is what he was trying to do. The Talking Heads, always a band on the edge, got their best production out of producer Brian Eno. Swirling keyboards, danceable African beats, great Jerry Harrison (with guest Adrian Belew) guitar work and David Byrne's fantastic disjointed, paranoid vocals all occupy this record as the band hit its peak as a unit. Also, "Once In A Lifetime."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'd have "Remain In Light" higher. I love this album.
Best song: It'd be easy to say "Once In A Lifetime," as it's one of the band's signature songs (and who can forget that video?), but "Crosseyed And Painless" is probably my favorite Heads song.
Worst song: No song is worst. They're all just different levels of great.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

I've mentioned what I consider to be greatest hits bands multiple times on this list and I imagine a lot of people would consider The Talking Heads a greatest hits band. These people are wrong, if only for this album. "Remain In Light" is one of my favorite albums because no album works different beats and rhytymns as seamlessly. Employing tons of new people into the band, including African drummers, the Talking Heads went from quirky New Wave band to amazing artists.

Each song is perfectly manicured with chants, percussion, horns and a full cadre of electronics. Eno's super hands-on production -- he is listed as a co-writer on several of "Remain In Light's" songs -- fits the album perfectly.

Byrne his hit high note as a lyricist, here, as well. His "almost sociopathic opening track, "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" weaves "Psycho Killer" in a more modern concept. The paranoid narrator freaks out as the swirling drums surround him. Eventually, the song evolves into a Parliament/Funkadelic-esque chant-along ("And the heat goes on/Where the hand has been" ), fitting considering one of the Heads' earliest influences was Parliament.

Of course, the classic "Once In A Lifetime" has Eno using a keyboard as a water theme in an instance where I've never heard an instrument make an unnatural sound seem so natural. Tina Weymouth's bass line starts and stops in the classic jerky Heads way that always seems to show that, yes, the Talking Heads are not a normal band. Even with the smooth water-sounding keyboards, this is still the Talking Heads.

Byrne's lyrics on "Once In A Lifetime" are among his best. An attack on suburbia and the American dream that Byrne would later explore in "True Stories," "Once In A Lifetime" decries the greed/conformity of the white picket lifestyle:

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask did I get here?

The water will always flow and Byrne will always attack the status quo. "Once In A Lifetime" attacks that conformity for conformity's sake by simply exposing it: "Same as it ever was."

(Also, the video. That man can dance.)


My favorite Heads song is the second track on "Remain In Light," "Crosseyed And Painless." The breakneck pace of the song is based on a sixteenth notes of slightly overdriven guitar, slap bass, looped cowbell and Chris Frantz' drumming. The start/stop melody is an extension of the Heads' earlier work while incorporating a sweet hook showcasing Byrne's best singing on a Heads record.

Of course, this is all built around an almost rap-ish performance by Byrne throughout the rest of the song. He starts off gruffly, explaining his situation -- a man dealing with demons we couldn't imagine, apparently -- with "Lost my shape-trying to act casual!/Cant stop-i might end up in the hospital/I'm changing my shape-i feel like an accident/They're back!-to explain their experience."

He eventually turns the insanity outward in a Stephen Colbert-esque attack on propaganda, truth and the all-too-nebulous "facts." During one hook, Byrne sings "Facts cut a hole in us" while on the subsequent verse, "facts are useless in emergencies."

All this culminates in Byrne's laundry list of what facts can do, with his subtle explanation of relativism:

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts dont do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of things
Facts don't stain the furniture
Facts go out and slam the door
Facts are written all over your face
Facts continue to change their shape

Again, remember, this is all over a breakneck beat and Afro-Caribbean beats. Never has a philosophical judgment based on paranoia sounded so beautiful, fun and danceable. A wonderfully dark song, "Crosseyed And Painless" sounds anything but.

Not for nothing, but I love "Remain In Light" so much that it made me buy a Phish album. I'd heard that Phish did "Remain In Light" as one of their "musical costumes" and had released it as one of their live records. Because I'm a sucker for cover records, I picked it up. And you know what? It doesn't totally suck. Phish don't wank along too much, but rather jam out on what is a fantastic cover. A record like "Remain In Light" is hard to translate live, I'm sure, as it was heavily produced, but Phish did it well.

But, it's that good. Even a band like Phish realized the greatness and didn't touch it. They played it very faithfully to the original.

It's a must-have. It paved the way for Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel's ventures into African music and they can't hold a candle to "Remain In Light."

No. 125: Raw Power

Band: Iggy & The Stooges
Album: Raw Power
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Filled with, well, raw power, the third Stooges album was produced and mixed by Pop. Despite its tinniness, production-wise, the record oozes with energy. "Search And Destroy" is one of the classic proto-punk songs, filling the ear with Vietnam terminology ("heart full of napalm") and almost-born-again love ("Honey gotta strike me blind/Somebody's gotta save my soul." Even if the rest of the record sucked -- it doesn't -- "Raw Power" needs to be here for "Search And Destroy."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Considering the hardness of the record, the production fails the music.
Best song: Duh. "Search And Destroy."
Worst song: "I Need Somebody" isn't so great.
Is it awesome?: Yeah, it is.

After the Stooges breakup, Iggy Pop had been signed to a deal with David Bowie's management team and Pop wanted to include ex-Stooges on his first record with them. So, he got ex-Stooges Ron Asheton and Scott Asheton. He also wrote most of the songs with the new guy, James Williamson, who played guitar with the fury of a thousand suns.

And "Raw Power" came out. Not often do you get a record named in such a way that fits the album title as well as this one does. Pop's vocals have an urgency mostly unseen in rock before while Williamson's guitar solo speed created a template for punk rock guitar work that is copied until this day.

J. Mascis would pump up his own guitar sound later, by saying "The guitar jumps out so big. It's almost like Raw Power." Kurt Cobain once called "Raw Power" his favorite album.

The album, especially for 1973, is decidedly punk and hard. Like the Detroit landscape that Pop knew, the lyrics to the songs emit motoring. Hell, even the ballads (which the record company insisted the record had) are hard.

Nevertheless, "Search And Destroy" is the one thing you need to take from this record. "Search And Destroy" is one of the ten most important rock and roll songs ever. It references both the silent majority in America (the theme of redemption vis a vis American violence) and the war in Vietnam ("love in the middle of a firefight" and "a heart full of napalm") in a way that influenced punk rock's obsession with automatons/superheroes/robots (The Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" and half of the early Bad Religion catalog reference these themes). Sure, it was a thematic ripoff from T. Rex' "Twentieth Century Boy," but the ripoff is tangential and not something you can easily catch. Musically, the sheer velocity of Williamson's opening solo is 80s hardcore's template while the drumming is solidly steady in the way punk rock would copy until the end of the genre.

And that's without getting into Pop's insane stage act, all sinew and blood. Pitchfork's Jason Josephes puts it this way:

The music? Man, it rules! Not a single disappointing song on the whole album. Now I understand why Axl Rose wanted to be Iggy Pop so badly: because being Axl Rose really isn't all that cool. Axl copped his whole act from "Gimme Danger", one of the two "ballads" on Raw Power.

Yep. That's about right.


Indie, metal, punk, whatever. Anyone who considers themselves anything left of the vanilla nonsense (hello, Paul Simon!) considers "Raw Power" great. And it is. Another must-have.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

No. 124: Younger Than Yesterday

Band: The Birds
Album: Younger Than Yesterday
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of The Byrds' "tension" albums, "Younger Than Yesterday" was one of the American soundtracks to the Summer of Love. The production is filled with wanky backwards tape loops and effects, which is interesting, if nothing else.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: While this was the period when The Byrds were considered Americas answer to The Beatles, there are few great songs here.
Best song: "So You Want to Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star" is delightfully sarcastic.
Worst song: "C.T.A. -102" isn't great. In fact, all of its value lies in the final 45 seconds, mostly because of the strange production.
Is it awesome?: Probably not, but the first two songs are fantastic.

With the band now an official quartet -- Gene Clark had left the group shortly after "Fifth Dimension" was released -- The Byrds went about putting together a less edgy, but more radio-friendly record. "Younger Than Yesterday" is the result.

The Byrds' trademark, the jangly guitar work, is still there. And even more complex and morose songwriting, such as Crosby's "Everybody's Been Burned" also flourish on "Younger Than Yesterday." "My Back Pages," the requisite Dylan cover is fantastic. "Have You Seen Her Face" is the prototypes Byrds song: Simple love song, coupled with jangly guitars and easy rhythms.

"Mind Gardens" is one of the songs that doesn't necessarily stink, but it's value lies mostly in its production. Sparse guitars, whirling tape effects and psychedelic lyrics sound like a recipe for a good song. It's not. It meanders a bit and doesn't really go anywhere. "C.T.A.-102" is similarly produced, but the song is short and the second half appears to just be screwing around with tape effects, so the song remains considerably more interesting.

Overall, "Younger Than Yesterday" isn't bad. They were clearly experimenting a bit, while still trying to satisfy the jangly pop they had become so great at creating. The Byrds are a mostly greatest hits-type band, so "Younger Than Yesterday" isn't a must-have

No. 123: Catch A Fire

(First-pressing cover)

Band: The Wailers
Album: Catch A Fire
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The first major label Wailers record, the record was one of the records (along with the soundtrack to "The Harder They Fall") that brought reggae to the United States.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "Catch A Fire" is considered a Marley record and it's not really one. It's a Wailers record. That doesn't make it bad -- in fact, it's quite great -- but it doesn't make it a Marley record.
Best song: "Stir It Up" is probably the most famous, but the opener, "Concrete Jungle," is protest music at its best.
Worst song: "Baby We've Got A Date" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yes, absolutely.

Like the soundtrack to "The Harder They Come," the first major label Wailers record showed the world what Jamaica's most famous export (OK, second-most famous export) had to offer. In addition to the syncopation and Caribbean percussion, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh (the band's principle songwriters) also showcased the protest music strikingly absent in most American songwriting of the 1970s.

The album begins with a band in "Concrete Jungle," a polemic against the urban ghettos so evident in the Kingston the Wailers were so familiar with. "400 Years"
and "Slave Driver" both lament the African-Jamaican experience, while "No More Trouble" speaks of the same crime that occupies "Concrete Jungle" (and other reggae of the time).

"Stir It Up" is the popular song from "Catch A Fire" and it's a wonderful love song. "Kinky Reggae" and "Baby We've Got A Date (Rock It Baby)" are both the roots reggae that a lot of modern audiences are unfamiliar.

Still, the protest music that makes the record. The Wailers' Rastafarian influences tinge the protest stuff with optimism in "High Tide or Low Tide" and "All Day All Night," both great songs. This is the greatness that Tosh and Marley were known for. This is a must-have.

Monday, August 27, 2007

No. 122: Pearl

Band: Janis Joplin
Album: Pearl
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Janis Joplin had one of the most powerful voices in rock and roll history. Her fourth album, released posthumously, was a tour de force of blues rock.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Eh. I'm not the biggest Janis Joplin fan. I think she symbolizes a lot of things that I don't care for. Still, as a musician, she was great.
Best song: "Cry Baby" probably shows Joplin's pipes as well as any song put to tape.
Worst song: None of the songs are really terrible, though "Trust Me" doesn't float my boat. "Buried Alive In The Blues" doesn't feature any vocals, because the song was not finished. Joplin died.
Is it awesome?: Her voice is awesome. Does that count?

Al Jean, one of the exec producers of "The Simpsons" during their halcyon days, used to tsa that cigarettes and whiskey make for great women's voiceover work. He was talking about Doris Grau ("Lunchlady Doris" on "The Simpsons" and the makeup lady on "The Critic"), but his sentiment could've easily applied to singing and Janis Joplin.

Joplin had the kind of voice that only comes from years of smoking and drinking whiskey, two things Joplin did a whole lot of. The edge in her voice cracked ever so slightly at higher pitches and at louder decibels, giving it a real smoky feeling that spoke of heartache and a lived-in tendency.

"Pearl" had Joplin's third band -- Full Tilt Boogie -- and they were more of a rock band than Big Brother And Holding Company. Fult Tilt Boogie was more of a full-on rock band, so some of the country stuff -- Joplin's roots as a Texan -- fell through the cracks. All that's left is the classic Kris Kristofferson-penned "Me and Bobby McGee."

Also notable is "Mercedes Benz," an a capella number Joplin recorded as a satire f materialism. Oddly enough, Mercedes-Benz used it in two advertisements for the car. Ironic.

Joplin died before the record was released. She took some bad heroin (it was too pure) after getting drunk after her boyfriend stood her up. In my mind, her legacy should only be musical; The hippie lifestyle that was celebrated basically consisted of drinking and getting high, both of which failed to bring any social change. Still, the ability to distort one's voice in the same way a tube amp distorts a guitar sound is amazing and Joplin's voice, if nothing, was amazing.

No. 121: Moby Grape

Band: Moby Grape
Album: Moby Grape
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Skip Spence's troubled genius has influenced a score of musicians (just check out "More Oar," the tribute album) and after playing with Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, he played on Moby Grape's debut album. The hippie jangle pop isn't what the Byrds were, but it fits nonetheless.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This is faceless music, for the most part. It's the type of thing that no one under the age of 35 knows, and if they do, it's only because their stupid boomer parents forced it on them.
Best song: "Hey Grandma" isn't bad and Spence's "Omaha" is pretty cool.
Worst song: "Come in the Morning" is awful hippie nonsense, complete with the spoken word "let me take to a great place of dreams" or whatever.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

"Dated" is a word I'm going to use frequently in regards to a lot of these records from the '60s. I mentioned it in the Zombies reviews and I like "Odessey and Oracle." "Moby Grape" is a poor man's illiterate "Odessey and Oracle." It's not good.

Granted, Skip Spence is a troubled artist and his songs are good. A lot of things he did were great. But, the songs he didn't have a hand in (11 of the 13) are basically junk. They're power pop before power pop adopted the best parts of punk rock. Instead, they're bubble gum with a little jangle and flowery shirts.

That this band is on this list when it should be part of the Nuggets box entry just proves that the people who made this confounded list are drinking the boomer Kool Aid. Someone must've been high when they voted for inclusion of "Moby Grape."

Friday, August 24, 2007

No. 120: Raising Hell

Band: Run-D.M.C.
Album: Raising Hell
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Run-D.M.C. was one of the first rap albums to show that rap had arrived. While it's not "The Message" or "Rapper's Delight," it had the Aerosmith/Run-D.M.C. collaboration that was the first rap song to crack the top five. Imagine life without that?
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Run-D.M.C. are pretty silly, looking back. There's a real back-and-forth in the rapping, which sounds extremely dated.
Best song: "It's Tricky" will always make me smile, if only for the Beavis and Butthead clip wherein Beavis screams "It's hard to rock a rhyme! It's hard to rock a rhyme!"
Worst song: "Dumb Girl" is dumb.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

In the same way that things like The Zombies record sound dated forty years out, it's tough to disagree that "Raising Hell" also hasn't aged well.

While some of the production has come back -- the heavy guitar in Rick Rubin's knob-twiddling, for example -- most of the flow of the record is quite loudly '80s. The back-and-forth of DJ Run (now Reverend Run) and D.M.C. sounds anything but modern. It's such a staccato version of rap music; It's hard to really compare.

of course, "Walk This Way" is what "Raising Hell" will always be known for. The song's normal version -- the one without Run-D.M.C. -- was considered a classic before the rappers ever asked to collaborate with Aerosmith. Still, in Rubin's want to combine his two greatest loves -- metal and rap -- the world now, basically, changed. It wasn't the first time rap had gone mainstream or a rapper had collaborated with a rock act (Blondie's "Rapture" predated it by a few years), but it was the first rap song to hit the top five.

"Raising Hell" isn't just "Walk This Way," though. "My Adidas" is dated in its content, but it's still a lot of fun. "It's Tricky" samples the well-known one-hit-wonder "My Sharona" nearly perfectly and "Peter Piper" makes nursery rhymes sound mildly cool.

Still, it's old-school hip hop. It's the preamble before the greatness that was the 1990s. You hear similar scratching on stuff like Prefuse 73, but much more modernized. You sometimes hear rapping like this on things like Jurassic Five, but that's about it. It's old-school. And old-school is old.

No. 119: The Harder They Come Original Soundtrack

Band: Various Artists
Album: The Harder They Come Original Soundtrack
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: In 1973, Americans hadn't heard of Bob Marley as "Catch A Fire" had yet to catch a fire in the United States. However, Jimmy Cliff's movie, "The Harder They Come," brought reggae into the American audience in a way that nothing had before. Cliff's compilation of reggae stalwarts (The Maytals, himself, Desmond Dekker) and lesser-known acts (Scotty, The Melodians).
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Like jazz, reggae is hard to classify among rock, pop and hip hop. Still, it's fitting to have this on the list and 119 isn't a bad number.
Best song: Cliff's two contributions he title track and "You Can Get It If You Really Want," are both excellent. The whole of the record is pretty excellent, though.
Worst song: "Rivers of Babylon" isn't great, but it's still pretty good.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

Like a lot of non-dreadlocked people (white, black, whatever), a little bit of reggae goes a very long way for me. "The Harder They Come" is the perfect record for that sort of thing. It has the more pop-oriented reggae tracks (Cliff's two contributions), the more reggae chant-types ("Scotty") and the classic reggae presentation ("Pressure Drop"). "Johnny Too Bad" is, basically, an outline of the movie's plot and is fantastic.

The movie's not great, but, kudos to Cliff for starring in the film and compiling the soundtrack. It's easily the most influential non-Marley reggae record ever. The Clash, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Gang War and Rancid have all released cover versions of songs from the record.

(Also, for those who believe Jamaica to be a peaceful, wonderful place because of all the weed they smoke, go and rent "The Harder They Come" the movie. It'll open your eyes. I know it's not a documentary, but it's based on the life of a real Jamaican criminal from the '40s.)

(Also, Desmond Dekker is the man Paul McCartney named his "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" protagonist after. Reggae was popular in England before it was here.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

No. 118: Stand!

Band: Sly & The Family Stone
Album: Stand!
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Stand!" could easily be an early Sly Stone greatest hits album, as mot of the songs you know from them are on this record. "Everyday People," "I Want To Take You Higher" and the title track are all classic.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Easily the best Sly record, this should be higher.
Best song: Pick it. Basically any song on the record is great.
Worst song: "Sex Machine" basically goes on too long. That's about it.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

Where would we be without Sly & The Family Stone? We probably wouldn't have Parliament, which means that West Coast rap -- one of the three or four most important musical movements of the last twenty years -- probably wouldn't have happened. Prince took a great deal from the band, so we'd probably have a considerably different Prince for the 80s.

I don't want to live in that world.


The album alternates between satire and unabashed optimism. "I Want To Take You Higher" has the distinctive guitar riff, the alternating yelps and the organ that everyone knows. The song's message of rising up because of the music is a sweet one, however silly it is. "Sing A Simple Song" is similarly optimistic, building on the same rhythmic style.

"Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" is biting satire at the level of racial discourse present in the late '60s, with basically each side screaming at one another. The message of the song is made all the most powerful by knowing that Sly & The Family Stone was biracial and bigender. "Everyday People" follows the same pattern, albeit in an actual song structure situation. As opposed to having only two lines, "Everyday People" is a full song, with the fantastic verse of "There is a blue one who can't accept the green one for living with a fat one trying to be a skinny one." Stone's admission that "I am no better and neither are you/We are the same whatever we do" is the perfect example of a great "live and let live" ideal for the late 60s.

(Bassist Larry Graham also, basically, invented slap bass on this track. It's the first recorded instance of the technique and is as much a mainstay of 70s and later funk as the genre's complex rhythms.)

"Somebody's Watching You" isn't as optimistic -- it's really just paranoid -- as the other songs on the record. It's a funky romp, but, lyrically, it's a little nutty. Like most songs about fame, the lyrics explain that success comes some level of scrutiny. While it's a tired lyrical subject, the song's arrangement is such that it's still entirely lovely and a lot of fun.

"Stand!" is a wonderful intersection of several musical styles, with gospel and soul vocals, R&B rhythms, rock guitar work and psychedelic, well, everything else. It's brilliant and as important as nearly any record put out in the late '60s.

No. 117: Sweetheart of the Rodeo

Band: The Byrds
Album: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the classic records of country rock, "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" has tons of country ballads, Dylan tracks and standards. David Crosby and Michael Clarke were gone and had been replaced by Kevin Kelley and a very young Gram Parsons.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Country rock -- even by the Byrdsm a pretty great band -- isn't my thing. The gestation of early alt-country is interesting, but the later stuff (Uncle Tupelo) is much better.
Best song: "Hickory Wind" isn't bad. "One Hundred Years From Now" is pretty good. That's Gram Parsons for you, I guess.
Worst song: "I Am A Pilgrim" is a religious type of thing, which I can't support on any level.
Is it awesome?: I'd say no, but it's not my type of music.

Roger McGuinn's Byrds had just come off the rocky recording and promotion for "The Notorious Byrd Brothers," and went in a direction that was a pretty big departure for the band. They went to Nashville -- without David Crosby or Michael Clarke -- to record a country record, essentially.

Save for the stomp of "You Got A Reputation" and "One Hundred Years From Now" (which features a pretty heavy slide guitar part itself), the album is made up almost entirely of the Byrds' folk rock tinged with heavy country influences. In addition to the record having a Merle Haggard song, as well as two Christian traditionals, the Byrds played their standard two Dylan songs.

The Byrds were always a great folk group and country isn't too far from folk, for the most part. So, the record doesn't sound totally out of catalog for the band. The addition of Gram Parsons as both a songwriter and musician fits in quite well, as his sensibilities aren't too far off from the band's. Still, Roger McGuinn was maniacal about making sure Parsons was in the background, even rerecording some vocal takes Parsons had put down.

This particular Byrds lineup didn't last particularly long, as Parsons was fired from the band during the subsequent tour and Kevin Kelley quit soon thereafter. But the mark had been made. The wheels were in motion for alt country's construction.

(Parons, of course, later lead The Flying Burrito Brothers, probably the most celebrated alt country/outlaw country band ever.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

No. 116: At Last!

Band: Etta James
Album: At Last!
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the greatest female blues singers, "At Last!" is James' first proper album. Containing her most recognizable songs (the title track, "A Sunday Kind Of Love") and some classic blues standards ("Spoonful" and "I Just Want To Make Love To You"), she shows what a female blues singer can do while popping up the whole thing.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The songs start to run together, but I'd generally say that this record is ranked correctly.
Best song: "A Sunday Kind Of Love" is fantastic.
Worst song: Nothing is really terrible, it's just kind of boring.
Is it awesome?: It is.

Johnny Otis discovered Etta James in San Francisco and put her on tour before her big break. This eventually led to her first record contract. Though she grew up on the West Coast, Etta James was signed to Chess Records, run out of Chicago.

Like many black singers of the time, James honed her skills in the church choir and brought the soul of singing to God to her secular music. Her holding notes, her repetition of certain phrases and her general bellow all were new to females singing blues and jazz at the time.

And it's hard to argue with the songs. "I Just Want To Make Love To You" is punctuated by horns while "Spoonful" gets the big band arrangement. "Stormy Weather" is a classic by almost anyone, but James' version remains one of the best. The title track is probably James' signature track and the sweeping atmospheric strings make it a standard at weddings.

It's great for what it is. The songs do run together, one some level, but every few tracks, up pops "Spoonful" or "At Last." This one is a classic.

"Tough Mary" has the strange backup singers that sound almost exactly like the ones that sang in Looney Tunes, so that freaks me out a little.

No. 115: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Band: Derek and the Dominos
Album: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Clapton's voice has never sounded better and his best post-Cream riff rocks the title track. His blues guitar finally gets a shot of country to soften it up. Duane Allman helps with guitar duties and the rhythm section is fantastic.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The songs just aren't that good. On paper, this should be a great album. It's not.
Best song: The title track has a great riff and "Bell Bottom Blues" is a wonderful tale of unrequited love.
Worst song: Nothing is really terrible, it's just kind of boring.
Is it awesome?: I don't think so.

Well, we're smack in the middle of the "Eric Clapton" worship portion of the list. Clapton is certainly a nice guitar player, but this side project of his appears to be some strange combination of Clapton's classic blues wail and the country leanings of the band he guested in for a few years (Delaney, Bonnie & Friends).

Let's get something out of the way, this is not a great album. There are great musicians on it (notably Duane Allman on guitar), but the songwriting is mediocre, at best. The way the record is produced (two genius guitar players, excellent production) is among Clapton's best and Clapton's voice is at best here.

"Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs" disproves two axioms. The first is that drugs make creative people better (the relation to "he started to suck when he stopped using"). Clapton was afflicted with a full-fledged heroin addiction at this point in his life and the songs he wrote are mostly tripe, slight Allman Brothers ripoffs ("Keep On Growing" comes to mind).

The best songs are the most famous. The title track suffers from the ridiculous piano coda (three goddamned minutes!), but that guitar lick is undeniable awesome. The story of unrequited love is rampant through the album, but "Layla" has Clapton literally screaming for this woman (who, as it turns out, was his best friend's wife, Pattie Boyd). "Bell Bottom Blues" also tells the same tale, but the chorus is what makes "Bell Bottom Blues" so great. The lilting quality of Clapton's vocals fit the song perfectly as he strums the old blues guitar licks.

Overall, it's not much. The rest of the record is paint-by-numbers blues with excellent guitar work. But, like Steve Vai after him, there isn't much emotion -- probably because he was strung out while making it. The famous tracks are great, the cover of Hendrix' "Little Wing" is fun, but the rest of the album is pretty boring. Blues rock. Fancy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

No. 114: Out Of Our Heads

Band: The Rolling Stones
Album: Out Of Our Heads
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Perhaps no band is as associated with a song as the Stones are with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and the fourth U.S. Stones album has it.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Who the hell cares about every song on "Out Of Our Heads" other than "Play With Fire," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "The Last Time?" Probably no one.
Best song: Come on, you know this.
Worst song: Everything other than the three mentioned songs, though "The Spider And The Fly" isn't terrible.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

Not to cross lists, but Rolling Stone (the magazine) placed "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" as the no. 2 song on its "The RS 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." It's hard to separate the song from the band, as it basically encompasses everything that the Stones were about in the mid '1960s. The anti-establishment bent of striking down what the TV was telling him to wear. This derision turns decidedly aggressive, in Jagger telling the man on the TV that he can't be a man because of his cigarette choice. It's the voice of youthful frustration (something Jagger has said he meant to convey), thus being the attitudinal template for punk rock.

The riff itself is decidedly aggressive and probably the start of really hard rock. It easily moves up the neck of the guitar, setting the stage for, basically, 80% of what Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin did.

Rolling Stone (again, the magazine) explains it as such:

That spark in the night -- the riff that opens and defines "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" -- was the crossroads: the point at which the rickety jump and puppy love of early rock & roll became rock. The primal temper of Richards' creation, played through a Gibson Fuzz Box; the sneering dismissal in Mick Jagger's lyrics and his devouring howl in the chorus; the avenging strut of rhythm guitarist Brian Jones, bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts: They were the sound of a generation impatient to inherit the earth.

The best part of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is the covers. Otis Redding recorded one in which he sang "Satisfashion." Britney Spears (performed and) recorded it for her "Oops!... I Did It Again" album. Bjork and PJ Harvey did a version together for British TV. Devo's done -- probably -- the second most famous version, by making the song sound wonderfully mechanical. Cat Power's version -- my favorite -- has her eschewing the chorus altogether (on the record. Not live).

Is "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" one of the best rock and roll songs? Look at its influence. Punk rock took its attitude, metal took its sound. It became a sock hop song unlike any other.


The rest of "Out Of Our Heads" stinks, save for "The Last Time" and maybe "Play With Fire." "The Last Time" will always hold a place in my heart as it was the first and last song (albeit a cover by The Who) I played as a DJ on my high school and college radio station. "Play With Fire" remains the idiotic blue collar rock that the Stones have done for years, though it is catchy.

Otherwise, it's mostly white boy blues nonsense. I appreciate that they could shine the light on that music style, but trying to ape it is hit and miss. "The Spider And The Fly" is the best of the bunch, but it's mostly forgettable.

No. 113: The Who Sell Out


Band: The Who
Album: The Who Sell Out
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Who's absurdly cynical look at consumer culture is peppered with a few great songs. "I Can See For Miles" has the "8 Miles High" vibe that the Who mostly shunned during the band's early years while "Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand" is a thinly veiled ode to masturbation. The seeds of "Tommy" are here, as Townsend and Enwistle's character sketches like "Silas Stingy" and "Odorno" are also part of the record, as well as sticking the concept together with the interstitial commercial songs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I find it a little stupid that four (!) Who albums are on this list before their first record. I mean, "The Who Sell Out" is a lot of fun and a pretty good record, but, come on.
Worst song: Both "Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand" and "I Can See For Miles."
Is it awesome?: It's close, but it's not awesome. Conceptually, yes. Actually listening to it? Not so much.

It's really stupid that there are four Who albums on this list before they get around to "The Who Sings My Generation." It's my favorite of the Who records.

Nevertheless, the third Who album is a fun little study in thematic constructed. The album is put together as it was a radio broadcast, complete with commercials, station IDs and, of course, songs. The cover is a series of satirical advertisements for products.

(Not surprisingly, the record faced a litany of lawsuits, as the band used brand names and radio IDs without permission.)

What of the record? Of course, the fact that "Rael 1" appears here is another step (after "A Quick One, While He's Away" on the previous record) towards rock opera and narrative songwriting. The thematic approach to the album (the theme being commercialism is bad) is also a step towards "Tommy."

The band's best two psychedelic works dot "The Who Sell Out" in the album opener, "Armenia City in the Sky" (written by John Keen, a friend of the band) and, of course, the top ten hit "I Can See For Miles." Each has a totally different sound from the British Invasion/Mod rock the Who had nearly perfected on their first two records.

"Tattoo" is a cool song later made famous by the version on "Live At Leeds" and "Silas Stingy" is a fun little character study (which Townsend would later perfect on "The Acid Queen"). The ode to self-love that is "Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand" builds off the earlier single "Pictures of Lilly" in fine fashion. Complete with a soft organ and light percussion, it's one of the band's most fully-formed records (all puns intended).

It's not "Tommy" and it's not "My Generation," but, it's good. It's a fun concept, but not an easy listen.

Monday, August 20, 2007

No. 112: Disraeli Gears

Band: Cream
Album: Disraeli Gears
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Disraeli Gears" has the best example of Eric Clapton's signature guitar sound in the classic "Sunshine of Your Love," and several of Cream's best songs. Also, "Tales Of Brave Ulysses," which is based on a book my high school required all students to read.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Cream is nice and all, but the hits are really the only good songs on the record. The rest is mostly acid-induced filler (as opposed to acid-induced hits).
Best song: Well, I like "Tales Of Brave Ulysses" is fantastic, though "Sunshine Of Your Love" is great.
Worst song: "Dance The Night Away" is b-a-d.
Is it awesome?: Not really.

Looking thought Eric Clapton's various recordings, one of the turning points is "Sunshine of Your Love." His guitar tone -- the "Woman Tone" -- was basically only present on the Cream records, but it's wonderful. The tube amp distortion and low brightness on his guitar sound was allegedly gained by turning the volume knob on Clapton's Gibson SG (his preferred guitar during those years) , while playing on the neck pickup almost exclusively. It's perfected on "Sunshine Of Your Love," but it appears on other songs. It's wonderfully warm, yet sharp. The slight distortion is great.


One of the best songs on the record, in my eyes, is "Tales Of Brave Ulysses." I love nearly any rock and roll song that references a classic book and Homer's epic poem is the source for this one. Ulysses (the Latin name of Odysseus, basically)is the star of the song, as the sirens and winter affect him. It's not quite Mastodon's "Leviathan" album (a favorite of mine), but it's always cool to see musicians that have read something other than comic books and Melody Maker.

"Tales Of Brave Ulysses" is one of the first great songs that made use of the wah-wah pedal, an innovation that Clapton and Hendrix came upon around the same time. Clapton's use is less frantic than Hendrix' was, as much of "Disraeli Gears" uses the wah-wah as a tone pedal, left at one position. "Tales Of Brave Ulysses" has a lot of wah-wah work and it's some of Clapton's best.

"Strange Brew" and "SWLABR" are both cool songs, though both are clearly all about drugs (SWLABR stands for "She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow," whatever that means). Clapton's love of old American blues is also well-executed on "Outside Woman Blues," wherein he says he's going to get a bulldog, which always makes me happy.

But, otherwise, there are songs like "Take It Back." The song's lyrics are essentially "Take it back, take it back, take that thing right out of here." Not "thang." Thing. The creative juices clearly weren't flowing on that particular day for Jack Bruce.

Cream is a greatest hits band and I'm OK with that. It's not just a Clapton side project (check back later this week for one of those), but it's also not a great band.

No. 111: Court And Spark

Band: Joni Mitchell
Album: Court And Spark
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Joni Mitchell's introspective songwriting is nice and "Court and Spark" is her best record. Yielding her only top ten hit and some of her most celebrated songs, the album is filled with good songs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Adult comtemporary/'70s FM radio is not my favorite type of music. Mitchell basically works in that realm.
Best song: The title track is really good.
Worst song: The only non-brilliant songs on the album is "Sulk."
Is it awesome?: It's pretty good, but, not great.

Let's talk about Canada for a minute. I think of Canada in a lot of the same ways that I think of Wisconsin. Kathleen Madigan, a pretty funny St. Louis comedian, has a line in her act wherein she called Canada "like America's attic. You forget about it, but when you go up there, you realize there's a lot of cool shit there." People are more polite. They have a lot more wildlife. That sort of thing (In this example, the U.S. is to Chicago as Canada is to Wisconsin).

Joni Mitchell is Canadian, so, that's the only reason to bring up Canada. In fact, she has been ordained an "Order of Canada," whatever that means. That and the fact that she gloriously mispronounces "Champs-Élysées," which is always surprising from Canadians. A lot of them speak French, right?


We've already gone through my general thoughts on Joni Mitchell. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned my feeling on female singers, as well (if not, I prefer female singers to male singers). Still, I find Mitchell's music mostly boring.

As someone who's not necessarily a "lyric guy," I don't find Mitchell as impressive as everyone else does. Still, "Court And Spark" is much more interesting, as the second side of the album takes a great deal from jazz in its soft intricacy. "Just This Train" is based around a nice guitar riff and an easy rhythm section. The time changes are nice change the the folk boring-ness that occupies much of the rest of the record.

"Raised on Robbery" is a strange record in that it's based on an old timey rock and roll song (honky tonk, maybe?), but it's a storytelling lyric about a man at a bar who is approached by a hooker. It's an odd choice, but a decent song and certainly, different.

Lyrically, it is a nice record, but I can't get past her voice. Mitchell has been called the "female Dylan," and she shuns that title, rightfully. "Being female creates a new category in some people's minds. No one would say that Dylan is the 'male Joni Mitchell,'" she has said and she's right.

Overall, it's a fine record, but another filed in the "good, but not great" category.

Friday, August 17, 2007

No. 110: The Bends

Band: Radiohead
Album: The Bends
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "The Bends" has all the seeds of the art-rock opuses Radiohead would pursue on later albums. The hard rock of "Just," the bent production of "Planet Telex" and the soft-spoken balladry of "High and Dry" all portend the strange progressive rock Radiohead would later nearly perfect in the post-Nirvana late '90s. It's a brilliant piece of just-left-of-center music that still sounds great today.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: A lot depends on what's important to the list. If influence and epicness are the most important things to an album' greatness, "OK Computer" is the pick for best Radiohead record. If you're looking at straight-up great songs, "The Bends" is the right choice.
Best song: "Fake Plastic Trees" was the hit and it's a wonderfully somber slow burner. "Bullet Proof... I Wish I Was" is fantastic. "(Nice Dream)" is great, "Bones" features the best non-"Karma Police" Thom Yorke falsetto and "Just" kicks ass. Frankly speaking, "The Bends" is amazing.
Worst song: The only non-brilliant songs on the album is "Sulk."
Is it awesome?: One thousand times yes.

It's pretty amazing to think that the Radiohead we know today -- the one of "Kid A," "Amnesiac" and "OK Computer" -- is the same band that put out "Creep" in 1993. A melancholy ode to self-hate, the single is fun to recount now, but at the time was just another post-grunge piece of nonsense.

"Creep" is not on "The Bends" -- arguably Radiohead's "Rubber Soul" -- but the song's reverberations are felt throughout the band's sophomore effort. Quite simply, everything I've read says "The Bends" is mostly a reaction to the success that "Creep" brought the band. For one, the album title is a reference to decompression sickness -- the feeling of disorientation and possible health effects when air pressure rapidly changes outside the body.

Illness and disorientation fill the album. The frequently remixed, keyboard-heavy track is lyrically filled with heartache as Yorke croons "Everything is broken, everyone is broken."

Illness reappears on one of the two most "Creep"-influenced tracks, "My Iron Lung." The song's lyrics count both physical and mental maladies ("We scratch our eternal itch," "My brain says I'm receiving pain," etc.) and the overt metaphor of the iron lung -- something that both holds someone in place but also sustains him -- is a clear reference to "Creep":

This, this is our new song
Just like the last one
A total waste of time
My iron lung

The song takes a great deal from Nirvana (some have even suggested the riff is ripped off from "Heart-Shaped Box), a comparison the band shunned, mostly because Yorke was anointed successor to Cobain by much of the U.K. music press.

The second "Creep"-influenced song is album's title track. Yorke has confirmed in many interviews that the song is about "knowing who your friends are," a typical quick success complaint. "Creep" was an instant hit and brought Radiohead a great deal of success very quickly, thus brining the sudden increase in pressure (not unlike a diver rising to the surface, thus getting decompression sickness or "the bends"). The fame-hating is clearly evident on the song's climax, as Yorke proclaims "I wanna live, breathe, I wanna be part of the human race."

The song's straight ahead instrumentation is also fantastic. The wall-of-sound guitar work by the band's three player (Jonny Greenwood, Ed O'Brien and Yorke) largely makes the song.


One of the problems with "The Bends" was that it was commonly lumped together with the Britpop genre of mid-90s music that was popular for about ten minutes. "The Bends" is nothing like Blur or Oasis or any other such nonsense. It's not anything like that. Oasis and Blue aren't exactly pushing any envelopes and while "The Bends" isn't "OK Computer," it's relatively avant garde, lyrically. Certainly the production has less sheen than the Oasises or Blurs of the world.


It's really nice to look at an album like "The Bends" again. I -- like most people -- have mostly thought of Radiohead in terms of their last four albums and have mostly forgotten "The Bends." That's foolish.

Also, it's nice to finally listen and write about something I really like. The last couple of weeks have been filled (mostly) by crap I don't like or stuff that just isn't for me. "The Bends" isn't that. "The Bends" is great and it's right in my wheelhouse. It's atmospheric rock in a progressive vein. I don't think it's totally crazy to fancy Radiohead the new Pink Floyd. While "The Bends" isn't close to "Dark Side Of The Moon" -- few albums are -- it's a fantastic record that holds up on repeated listens.

No. 109: Loaded

Band: Velvet Underground
Album: Loaded
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: While not the band's most groundbreaking work or its rawest, "Loaded" is a beautiful coda to one of the most influential bands of the 60s. "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll" were played on radio a great deal, "Who Loves The Sun?" was on the soundtrack to a big-time movie and "I Found A Reason" found a second life as Cat Power's greatest cover.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not sure RS has it wrong. "Loaded" isn't the first album, but the combination of radio-friendliness and the weight of the band puts "Loaded" up there.
Best song: My favorite song on the album is probably "Who Loves The Sun?" if only because it's all about juxtaposition. One of the more twee songs in 1970, the lyrics are delightfully dark.
Worst song: I'm not in love with "Cool It Down."
Is it awesome?: Absolutely. It's the record that non-Velvets fans have to have.

"Loaded" is named as such because the record company reportedly wanted an album "loaded with hits" from the band. Reed, ever the sellout, decided to comply and stacked the album with radio-friendly song after radio-friendly song. It's strange to think that "Loaded" is a sellout album, but that's exactly what it was. Mo Tucker was taking care of her newborn, John Cale was long gone. It was a different group.

And the album teeters a weird line. It's nowhere near the experimentation of the earlier records (no Cale viola, no raucous feedback), but it was still the Velvets, so it didn't sell. At all. Reviewers didn't like it.

Everyone come around since. The Velvets are deified by most critics now -- rightfully so, for the most part -- and listening to the songs, the critics are correct. "Who Loves The Sun?" is Belle & Sebastian before B+S existed, "Rock and Roll" is the kind of jukebox heroism that rock has relied on forever, "Sweet Jane" is classic love-ish song that still resonates and "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" is classic Reed ballad.

The label tinkered with a lot of the production and sequencing, mostly because Reed had left the band towards the end of recording, though the 1997 re-release has fixed most of that. It's fantastic album, with or without Reed's wishes being granted.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

No. 108: Aftermath

Band: The Rolling Stones
Album: Aftermath
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Aftermath" catches the band at the height of their British Invasion-spawned success. The record has some of their best early stuff including (on the U.S. version) the incomparable "Paint it, Black" and (on both versions) the sexist classic "Under My Thumb."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Because it was 1966, it's hard to say that the album is great. There are great songs, but the Stones were a singles band at that point. Moreover, the difference between the U.S. and U.K. versions are stark, so it's hard to even rate it.
Best song: The best song that appears on both versions is either "Lady Jane" or "Under My Thumb." The U.S. version has "Paint It, Black" and that one is among the band's best songs.
Worst song: "Think" stinks.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty good, but I'd still stick with the singles box.

I really wish The Believer -- One of McSweeney's periodicals -- put their stories online, because the music issue had an excellent essay on the Stones, the Beatles and each band's relationship to American counter culture in the late '60s. It has little to do with this album, but I just wanted to point it out. If you can find the 2007 Believer Music Issue, buy it. It's got great stuff in there.


There aren't a million ways to say it: "Aftermath" is a decent album. Like a lot of Stones records, there are a few good songs, but there's also a lot of "white guys covering blues songs and/or writing their own blues riffs" on there. It's trying to have to listen to the whole thing. Undiscovered album tracks are few and far between on Stones records.

"Aftermath" is the exemplification of this. The U.S. version (the one I have) starts "Paint It, Black" and also features "Stupid Girl," "Lady Jane" and "Under My Thumb" as the next three songs. That's it for good songs on the album; "Aftermath" might as well be a four-song EP. The Stones' singles are great, but these non-single album tracks are trying. They're bland blue collar rock.


Not enough, I think, has been made about the chauvinist nature of some of two of the Stones' classic songs on this record. "Stupid Girl" in and of itself is pretty awful, lyrically, as it basically posits that any woman who cares about, well, anything, is a stupid girl. The underlying notion in the song is one that's been prevalent in our culture for a while -- a man who is opinionated is "opinionated," while an opinionated woman is a "bitch."

"Under My Thumb," of course, is probably worse. You can extrapolate the personality traits of "Stupid Girl" and believe it's about a specific woman; "Under My Thumb" takes on feminism at its heart. The want for control is pretty evident in song:

"It's down to me
The difference in the clothes she wears
Down to me, the change has come,
She's under my thumb"

At other points in the song, Jagger calls this woman "a siamese cat," a "squirmin' dog," and "the sweetest pet in the world." Jagger finally praises her for "The way she talks when she's spoken to."


It's too bad, too. The guitar riff to "Under My Thumb" is pretty awesome and Jagger's sneer is as good as it gets on the track. Too bad it's "Stranglehold" ten years earlier.

No. 107: Hunky Dory

Band: David Bowie
Album: Hunky Dory
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Um. Well. Robert Christgau (whom I respect a great deal) loves "Hunky Dory." People like Bowie, right?
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I find Bowie's music to be wholly overrated and "Hunky Dory" is two good songs and a lot of filler.
Best song: The album opener, "Changes," is pretty good. "Life on Mars?" is interesting, if not a great song.
Worst song: "Fill Your Heart" stinks.
Is it awesome?: Nope. Bowie is wholly overrated.

I've written a bit before about how I feel about David Bowie, but let's first put this out there: Ziggy Stardust is Bowie's only important album. Everything else is just OK. A few good singles, but that's about it.

My friends and I had a small argument about the import of Bowie in regards to his not being an MBE while Elton John is. I'm a bigger Elton John fan than I am a David Bowie fan, but I'd say I don't think either is hugely important. Because I'm lazy, I'm going to quote two an e-mail I wrote about the Bowie v. Elton John debate.

All the problems with your "David Bowie for Knight" start with this premise.

Now, let's examine Bowie's import on popular music. Your statement "Bowie changed music forever" is sullied by a lack of definition of "music." First, any popular artist changed music in a "butterfly effect" sort of way. So, if we define "changing music" by "how many people heard their records," Elton John would have Bowie beat. He's sold many more records. But, by that rationale, you'd probably have to make Mick Fleetwood a knight and no one wants to do that.

If we define "changing music," as by how much influence an artist has had on future artists sonically (that's key), I'd again argue with your point. Bowie was on the back end of a lot of trends and his masterpiece, Ziggy Stardust, is hardly groundbreaking as far as "sound" goes. Everything done on Ziggy was done before (old time rock and roll in "Suffragette City," melodramatic balladry in "Rock and Roll Suicide," rockabilly in "Hang On To Yourself," etc.) as far as the music goes. The lyrical content is slightly different, but only in that no one had done a rock opera/concept album about aliens before. There had certainly been a concept album about a deaf, dumb, mute, blind pinball-playing child, though.

If we define "music" as not just the sound, but the image of rock and roll, I can see your point more. Bowie certainly was at the edge of the androgynist/glam rock, but even Bowie has said he borrowed a lot of that from his friend,T. Rex singer Marc Bolan.

(Also, I'd take umbrage at your analogy of "I'll take ziggy stardust over the fucking lion king any day of the week." To compare one artist's best work over another artist's crappy work is foolish. I'd take "Forever Changes" by Love over Floyd's "The Division Bell" any day, also, but that doesn't mean that Floyd isn't the superior band.)


Time Magazine named "Hunky Dory" as one of its top 100 albums of all time. Why, I couldn't tell you. Stylistically, Bowie is all over the map. Thematically, he's similarly sporadic; He goes from the simplicity of "Eight Line Poem" to the ridiculous and slightly proggy "Life on Mars?"

But, a great album? Hardly.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

No. 106: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964

Band: Sam Cooke
Album: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Considering he basically invented what we know as soul music, Sam Cooke is uber-important.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm unfamiliar with most of the songs and I'd be lying if I said they weren't a little dated.
Best song: "A Change Is Gonna Come" is a wonderfully prescient civil rights anthem.
Worst song: "Jesus Gave Me Water" isn't up my alley.
Is it awesome?: Sure.

Without Sam Cooke, we don't have Otis Redding. And for that, his place on this list is incredibly important. Ask any rock and roll historian and s/he'll say that Sam Cooke is hugely important in the development of soul music; He's the James Brown of soul music (in the innovator/creator way, not the funky way).

By taking his gospel roots from his days growing up in Chicago and adding the pop music of the time styling, soul as we knew it (not necessarily as we know it today, but that's a different story) was birthed. The lilting diction, the holding notes on melodies and the "ooohs" used by most soul singers were popularized by Cooke.

The songs have some rock elements in them; Soul music has a lot of rock in it. There are plinky guitar licks in "With Your Love For Me" and a Ringo-esque intro drum fill on "Another Saturday Night."

For those of my age, this is what dusties were when I was growing up (that's since switched to more '70s-era stuff). Oldies for soul music, basically. The kind of thing Dick Biondi would play if he was black.

It's great, but it's dated. And it's important. Very important.

No. 105: Rocket to Russia

Band: The Ramones
Album: Rocket to Russia
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Ramones' third album features their biggest hit in "Rockaway Beach" and a much clearer production style. The band returns to their surf rock roots in covering "Do You Wanna Dance?" and "Surfin' Bird."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Blah blah, the Ramones are important. But, for me, The Ramones are bo-ring. Same song, over and over.
Best song: Well, "Rockaway Beach" charted at 66 as a single and it's a pretty good song.
Worst song: "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" is a little much. Narly three minutes of Ramones is about two minutes too much.
Is it awesome?: Meh. M-E-H.

Have you ever said "Hey, why didn't I think of that stupid concept?" when watching a TV show or a movie? Moreover, have you ever answered yourself by saying "Well, I didn't waste my time because I didn't think anyone would've liked this idea."

That's kind of how I feel with Ramones-copy bands. I see them a lot and think to myself "Hey, I could be in a band like that."


That's not to say the Ramones aren't good. They are. Their songs are pretty good, but it's hard for me to enjoy them. After three or four songs, I get really, really bored. Punk rock was born out of speeding up old rock and roll records and the Ramones did that better than anyone.

But, it gets boring. It just does. It's not close to a top 100 record. It's just not.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

No. 104: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Band: Ray Charles
Album: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Despite the name of the record, "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" doesn't have a lot of what we'd consider county and western music. It's more like showtuney versions of some country songs, complete with a group of women backing Charles right up.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I just can't get into this record. Each song sounds like Charles is holding back or trying to sound restrained. It's just... odd.
Best song: Oddly, the version of "Hey, Good Lookin'" isn't bad.
Worst song: The other Hank Williams song, "You Win Again," isn't great.
Is it awesome?: I'm not totally sure.

I still haven't seen "Ray," so I imagine I don't have a proper feeling for his life or music. For that, I apologize. Take this review with a giant grain of salt.


As I mentioned in the "Fresh Cream" review, there is a certain period of music wherein the artist simply played standards or covers. Ray Charles took this to an odd place in putting his stamp on 12 country and western songs.

It's weird, but this is the period of early rock and roll wherein the easy listening/show tunes of the earlier generation were still a part of the scene, as rock and roll proper took hold (Hell, even the Beatles did a song from the "Music Man" on their third record). So, what you have is a lot of overproduction, backing vocals and showmanship vocals in what was considered rock and roll. That shit doesn't pass anymore.

What Ray Charles is doing doesn't really strike me as country and western music. It's too produced. Maybe it's because c&w is more Johnnie Cash and early Hank Williams than this sort of thing, but I can't get into this record.

This is the type of album I'd hoped to discover and love, but it just doesn't rink my bell.

No. 103: Sweet Baby James

Band: James Taylor
Album: Sweet Baby James
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Um. Well, um. People like James Taylor, right? "Fire and Rain" isn't so terrible, I guess.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I can't stand James Taylor. This album is Taylor playing blues riffs on an acoustic guitar while singing in his normal singing voice. It's strange.
Best song: "Fire and Rain" isn't the worst thing in the world.
Worst song: Boy, everything else sucks. It sucks hard.
Is it awesome?: No.

I'm really a dork for DVD commentaries. In fact, I spent three-plus hours listening to four septa- and octogenarians talk about "Spartacus" on the Criterion Collection DVD. I swear.

Also, like most people my age, I'm a pretty big fan of the Simpsons. This of course, is great, because every episode on the Simpsons DVD sets has a commentary on it (unlike nearly every other TV DVD set). Simpsons seasons five and six (two of the classic years) were run by a man named David Mirkin. The show runner on any given episode is usually part of the commentary track and Mirkin is on nearly episode from seasons five and six. He is annoying. He makes bad jokes and spends the whole time talking himself up and/or talking about other series. He's really annoying. He mentions the series' "flexible reality" about 500 times. I find him exceedingly annoying.

David Mirkin is a close friend of James Taylor. He's directed one of Taylor's videos.

The classic season five Simpsons episode "Deep Space Homer" features James Taylor in a guest role. Mirkin spends a solid five minutes basically kissing Taylor's ass, at different times saying he's funnier than any stand up and the best acoustic guitar player in the world.

Um, no.

James Taylor wrote one good song, "Fire and Rain." It's a nice little self-reflexive song about his short stay in a mental institution and his friend's suicide. It also touches on his dealings with addiction, which he struggled with for years. This is the best song on this album. It is the best song he's ever written.

Otherwise, he created the songwriting weenie archetype that Kenny Loggins was part of later and millions have tried to recreate in every coffee shop ever since.


Outside that song, the record has a ton of ridiculous blues riffs with Taylor singing in his weenie voice. "Sweet Baby James" is a weenie cowboy song. "Steamroller Blues" is a weenie quasi blues song. "Oh! Susanna" is a traditional folk song made into a weenie song by Taylor.

He's a weenie. He makes weenie music. Like CCR, he's someone pumped up solely because he's a boomer. He's not awesome. He's a weenie. Weenie weenie weenie.

Monday, August 13, 2007

No. 102: Giant Steps

Band: John Coltrane
Album: Giant Steps
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: John Coltrane is one of the jazz legends so very important that a lot of rock and roll fans know who he his. He transcends genre. "Giant Steps" is his final bebop record and, boy, is it amazing.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Again, my feelings about jazz records being on this list is well documented.
Best song: The opening solo in "Countdown" is really amazing.
Worst song: I'm not well-versed in jazz. I like all the songs, actually. None are particularly bad.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

I punted the "Bitches Brew" to someone who knows jazz, so I feel a little naked here. But, "Giant Steps" is a seminal bebop record in the same way "Kind of Blue" is the seminal "cool jazz" record.

What amazes me about Coltrane is how different he was. He played in a frantically melodic style. Like Jimi Hendrix (who was hugely influenced by Coltrane), no one played the same way after Coltrane came on the scene.

"Naima" is something of a standard and it doesn't disappoint. The slow melody and augmented chords make for a sweet love song that is tough to achieve in an instrumental song.

The name of the song "Giant Steps" (and the album, consequently) is a reference to the bass work of Paul Chambers. The song "Mr. P.C." is also named for Chambers.

No. 101: Fresh Cream

(Despite my general ambivalence about this record, that album cover is excellent, don't you think?)
Band: Cream
Album: Fresh Cream
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The debut album from what became known as the world's foremost supergroup, "Fresh Cream" took blues-based rock to a new audience. Eric Clapton's guitar brilliance, while still in its relative infancy, works brilliant solos while Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker rhytymn away. Underrated is Jack Bruce's vocals; The man could sing.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The songs just aren't great. The parts are good, the sum of the parts aren't great.
Best song: The album opener, "I Feel Free," is great. Some of the blues classics -- "Spoonful" comes to mind -- are also great.
Worst song: "Dreaming" is pretty mediocre.
Is it awesome?: Meh. Cream hit their peak later, though, there are some gems here.

It's easy to forget, in modern rock and roll, that so many bands of the '60s wrote only half-ish of their songs on any given album. The pre-"Revolver" Beatles, for example, included at least two covers on each album.

The first record from Cream -- the band for which the term "supergroup" was partially invented -- has four blues standards on it. Two of those songs are among the albums best.

That's not to say that Cream:"Spoonful" as The Beatles:"Roll Over Beethoven." In fact, The Beatles were much more straight ahead in their covers. Cream's power trio sound added a lot to Wilie Dixon's classic, making it an even more desperate/powerful love song. It's one of those songs that's been played by everyone (Howlin' Wolf, Etta James, etc.), but arguably, Cream's is the best.

"Fresh Cream" is Eric Clapton's first appearance on the list and it's mostly fitting. It was on "Fresh Cream" that you saw Clapton's soloing style fall into place: He started basically slowing stuff down and working more melodic soloing into his repertoire. While the Blues Breakers were where Clapton was God (as the famous graffiti read), "Fresh Cream" was where he became Eric Clapton.

It's not their best work. "Disraeli Gears" has more interesting songs and "Goodbye" is their tightest. But, "Fresh Cream" has some great tracks that portend some excellent music.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The first 100: A look back

I'm one fifth through the list and it's probably good to take a look back. What is there, exactly, about the first 100 records on this list that makes them special?

The first 100 featured albums by 62 different artists. The Beatles led the list with eight albums, while Dylan has five within the first 100. Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones each have four, while Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder each had three. A bunch of bands had two.

The Beatles have four albums in the top 10 and five in the top 20 (actually, top 15). Dylan has three in the top 20. The newest album in the top 100 is U2's "Achtung Baby" (blegh), released in November 1991. The only other album from the 1990s is Nirvana's "Nevermind," released in September of 1991.

Here is my top ten albums (in no order) in the top 100. It is not my top ten of all time, but simply my top ten of the top 100. I imagine

  • The Beatles, Revolver A hands-down rock masterpiece. Despite it featuring my least favorite Beatles song, the rest of the album more than makes up for it. Macca's best melancholy ("For No One"), one of Harrison's most vitriolic ("Taxman") and Lennon's best foray into psychedelia ("Tomorrow Never Knows") are just three of the brilliant tracks.

  • Pink Floyd, The Dark Side Of The Moon Progressive rock's most palatable piece. "Dark Side" is the soudntrack to a million identity crises, temper tantrums, contemplative moments and, of course, acid trips. Darker (no pun intended) than most idiot hippies fancy it, "Dark Side" is a fantastic look into the minds of humans, set to brilliant song.

  • Curtis Mayfield, Superfly The socially conscious funk transition. With much of the '60s ideology falling into oblvision, Chicago's Curtis Mayfield crafted a beautifully ambivalent look at urban decay and the black community.

  • Nirvana, NevermindA generation gets its voice. As much a pop record as a punk rock classic, "Nevermind" gave voice to the children of boomers. As a people gets cozy with affluence, anxiety remains and the angst that bubble underneath was beautifully sculpted into sardonic wonder.

  • Michael Jackson, ThrillerMusic for, well, everyone. Before he became a creepy zombie, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" became the blueprint for dance music. Only Prince came close (but, really, not that close) to Jackson's sheer poppiness and danceability. Every R&B record since has echoes of "Thriller." Every goddamned one. And none come close.

  • Fleetwood Mac, RumoursThe easiest possible listen for such dark music. Fueled by cocaine and breakups, the California rock pioneers crafted a record of anger and fury, totally cloaked in AM radio saccharine. Also, Stevie Nicks actually sounds reasonable.

  • The Clash, The ClashPunk rock perfected. Socially conscious but energetic, "The Clash" explains British political strife in a way that still resonates. Unlike the Sex Pistols, The Clash appear to have brains in their heads, disorted as their message has been since.

  • Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, Trout Mask ReplicaWeirder than weird. Despite not being conventionally "listenable," "Trout Mask Replica" uses about a million different sounds that all interest a listener. It takes a few times, but eventually, everyone has a "eureka!" moment with "Trout Mask Replica." Just keep listening.

  • Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us BackRap music in the image of a revolution. Before gangsta rap, Public Enemy used Black Panther iconography and militant lyrics to bring the problems of the street to white America. While Flavor Flav brought some much-needed levity, Chuck D was giving it to us straightforward.

  • Led Zeppelin, (untitled)Rock gods at their peak. This will probably surprise anyone who knows me well, as I frequently complain about Robert Plant's voice and mock Zeppelin. Still, the fourth Zep record is so ingraned in metal -- a favorite genre of mine -- that I can't help but love it. Every song is fantastic, even the patently ridiculous "Stairway To Heaven." I listen to it to mock it, but by the end, I'm rocking right along.

No. 101 -- Eric Clapton's first appearance on the list -- comes Monday.

Friday, August 10, 2007

No. 100: In the Wee Small Hours

Band: Frank Sinatra
Album: In the Wee Small Hours
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Sinatra is one of the iconic American singers and he sold out every room he played until his death at the age of 82 in 1998. His self-assured vocal style has been imitated by just about everyone, from lounge singers to rock stars.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I absolutely, positively cannot stand Sinatra's vocal delivery. He sounds like he couldn't give a shit if he was singing the best song ever or the worst song ever. For some artists, this is "cool." For Sinatra, he sounds like he's, well, "bored."
Best song: Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" isn't awful. It's jut really bad.
Worst song: Everything else.
Is it awesome?: No. No. No. A thousand times no.

It's kind of sad that I have to end the first fifth of this list with a review of a record that

  1. I don't know very well, despite listening to it five times in the last two days.

  2. I don't like at all.

  3. Probably doesn't belong on the list, as Sinatra's not a rock, hip hop, soul or jazz singer, by any rationale.

I bitch and moan about the tyranny of the boomers, but Sinatra is not even a boomer icon. He hated hippies and minorities (though was friends with noted black Jew Sammy Davis Jr.) and he exemplified a very strange idea of "cool." Save for the revival of the Rat Pack style and swing music nonsense n the late 1990s, what Sinatra considered "cool" in America hasn't been cool since, well, The Beatles came ashore in 1963.

People love Sinatra. Like Ray Charles, I've never known Sinatra to be a young man, or virile, or a swinging partier. Sinatra, to me, is the caricature Phil Hartman and Joe Piscopo portrayed him as on Saturday Night Live: The crotchety old man who just wanted to put the track down and get home.

Listen to the record. It's all ballads about love, basically, recorded in a melancholy fashion. The arrangements of old standards follow a very spare rhythm section's backing.

I like sad love songs, but Sinatra's delivery sounds like he doesn't care. Recorded after his breakup with Ava Gardner, the reviews I've read seem to make it sound like he's pouring that emotion into his singing. But, to me, it sounds like he just wants to get out of the studio.

I just don't get it. I'm not into just plain vocalists doing standards. They bore me. Sinatra bores me.


Postscript: I understand a lot of Sinatra's deification comes from New Yorker (and Jersey people) and those of Italian heritage. I have one of those things (Italian-American heritage) but I just don't see that as important for my interest or disinterest in his music. Also, I find the New Yorkers who love Sinatra (notice I didn't say all New Yorkers) annoying.

No. 99: There's a Riot Goin' On

Band: Sly & The Family Stone
Album: There's a Riot Goin' On
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: In 1971, America was out of the idealistic '60s and just into the darker '70s. The optimism of Martin Luther King and the Kennedies has turned into Richard Nixon being president. The free love has turned into sexual aggressiveness and the easygoing soft drugs have turned into cocaine and heroin. Sly & The Family Stone put this into song. While not violent or miserable, "There's a Riot Goin' On" is dark. The optimism of the '60s is gone. There's stuff to be done and it's not getting done.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well, I still fancy "Stand!" as the best Sly record.
Best song: "Family Affair" was a no. 1 single, but it's hardly the record's best song. "Thank You For Talkin' to Me Africa" is a great extension/reworking of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)."
Worst song: "(You Caught Me) Smilin'" isn't fantastic.
Is it awesome?: It's amazing.

A year before Curtis Mayfield released "Superfly", Sly & The Family Stone put out the aptly titled "There's A Riot Goin' On." Coming off the heels of the unrest of late sixties, "There's A Riot Going On" focused on a darker sound, largely due to the pessimism brewing, post-civil rights. Martin Luther King's non-violence turned into the Nation of Islam's militancy. Acid, marijuana and freeing one's mind is now heroin and cocaine.

The first tinges of the "what happened?" question that most white boomers refuse to ask appear here. The title track ends the first side, though, it doesn't really exist (Stone told a fan that "There's a Riot Goin' On" has no running time because "I felt there should be no riots.").

The album took nearly three years to make, largely because of Stone's increasing drug use. The line "feel so good/don't wanna move" in the opening song likely is a reference to Stone's recreation at the time. Stone was an optimist in his earlier years, but his lyrics bely something more apathetic this time around. "Time they say is/The answer/But I don't believe it" is a glimpse into the "they've sold me a bill of goods" attitude of the black community at the time.

As Robert Christgau puts it, "The inspiration may be Sly's discovery that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow doesn't mean shit, but what's expressed is the bitterest ghetto pessimism." Fitting and true.

One thing about "There's A Riot Goin' On" is the use of newer percussion. Before Mayfield's breakthrough, Stone used percussion in layered ways, exemplified by the raucous "Family Affair." Different types of drum lines -- most of which were later copied by so many rappers -- dot the song, accenting Stone's muffled vocal style.

"There's A Riot Goin' On" is, like "Superfly," a darker record than Sly's earlier hits. It's funkier, it's muddy and it's less fun. Just like black America in the 1970s.