Friday, September 28, 2007

No. 170: Live At Leeds

Band: The Who
Album: Live At Leeds
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: On the short list, if not the greatest live album of all-time, the Who's wildly popular "Live At Leeds" is a study in sheer power. From the record's lengthy extended version of the band's signature tune to the taut cover of an Eddie Cochrane classic, "Live At Leeds" is great.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: If we're talking live albums, this should be higher on the list. It's the best.
Best song: Pick it. From the fury of "Young Man Blues" to the extended "Magic Bus," this album rocks.
Worst song: There are no bad songs here. At all.
Is it awesome?: No doubt about it.

I believe I've mentioned this, but The Who are like a first girlfriend to me. They were the first band I really loved and the first I dove fully into.

"Live At Leeds" is the reason for that. In rummaging through my parents' records as a junior high-aged lad, I found "Live At Leeds" among the Johnny Mathis, Ahad Jamal and Beatles records. I shoved it on a turntable and was completely transfixed. Filled with punk energy, blues rock riffing and heavy metal rock and roll, the album is a show of the band at its height.

The band had toured worldwide for more than a year in support of "Tommy" and "Live At Leeds" is a result of the band finishing this movement. Filling clubs and university halls, the band learned to perfect their live sound, finally ending up at Leeds University. The hall has since been commemorated with a plaque noting the recording of the record.

Styled to look like a bootlegged album -- down to the brown paper cover and templated stamp lettering -- the original mix of the album is a short list of great songs. With only six tracks (two on the second side), the album is spare and raucous. The guitar in Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues" starts and stops as the band reworks it into a powerful blues-type number. The short, sweet, proto-punk "Substitute" is superior to the original and the Eddie Cochrane cover "Summertime Blues" features John Entwistle's heavy melodic bass. Falling into the old rock standard "Shakin' All Over," the band comes together as a well-oiled machine.

The second side is the point where the band lets loose. "My Generation" becomes a pastiche of themes from the band, including parts of its magnum opus "Tommy" and seven minutes of "Magic Bus" finishes the album.

"Live At Leeds" is, in a lot of ways, a turning point for the band. In touring "Tommy" throughout the world, the band slowly became enraptured in itself. After "Live At Leeds," the band started putting out masturbatory concept albums and long-winded stadium rock. Nevertheless, "Live At Leeds" (especially the double disc reissue) is powerful, raw and beautiful. Best live album, indeed.

No. 169: Exodus

Band: Bob Marley & The Wailers
Album: Exodus
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of Marley's great albums, "Exodus" has some of his best work. In addition to the greatness of "Natural Mystic," "Three Little Birds" and "Guiltiness," Marley also brought three of his signature songs, "Jamming," ""One Love/People Get Ready" and "Waiting In Vain."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'd probably, for sheer greatness of it's being, put this as the first Marley record on the list. It's a remarkable record.
Best song: "One Love/People Get Ready" and "Three Little Birds" close out the album in spectacular fashion.
Worst song: "The Heathen" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yes, absolutely.

Again, one of the hopes for this project is for me to expand my musical tastes a little bit and actually sitting down and listening to Marley has really heightened my appreciation for his music. "Exodus" is a wonderful record in the same vein as "Master Of Puppets." While it's not hugely diverse, it's a near perfection of the genre.

Marley, of course, survived an assassination attempt in 1976 and was recuperating in England while he recorded this record, hence the title "Exodus." England's dub movement plays a big role, as Marley's writing showed a lot of signs of the dub stuff in songs like "Jamming" and "One Love/People Get Ready." The slowed down rhythm hits the songs well, and the dub serves it well.

The sunny-tinged optimism of "Three Little Birds" might be Marley's greatest triumph. Written both about the I Threes -- Marley's three backup singers -- and the birds that would eat Marley's discarded marijuana seeds as he rolled his joints on his back porch in London.

"Exodus" takes the story of Moses and mirrors it with the Rastafarians' movement within their religion. "Jamming" is Marley's best dance track and one of his most famous record. "Waiting In Vain" has the air of a June day, while the lyrics of the song are considerably more melancholy. Still, a fantastic record.

Of course, "One Love" is one of Marley's greatest songs. As he takes from Curtis Mayfield's civil rights revolutionary anthem, "People Get Ready," he takes his religious effects to bring about peace. Always a pacifist, Marley's "lets get together and feel all right" line evokes both a group prayer and the classic sex-as-cure philosophy.

Marley's music doesn't hit ever genre; It's pretty formulaic if you have all his records. still, "Exodus" is a wonderful exercise in reggae greatness.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

No. 168: My Aim Is True

Band: Elvis Costello
Album: My Aim Is True
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Costello's first album is probably his fiercest. The Brit's genre-hopping and lyrical inventiveness are well-pronounced on his debut album, as he took his pub-rock antics to the recording studio.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I think this is about right. It is, in my mind, the best Costello record and that deserves to be somewhere in the 150-ish range.
Best song: The melancholy fuck-you ballad "Alison" has wonderful double-meanings. "Welcome To The Working Week" is an abrasive opener.
Worst song: "I'm Not Angry" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's close.

I've mentioned my general disinterest in Elvis Costello, but I do find "My Aim Is True" to be his best record. Full of genre-bends and smart lyrics, "My Aim Is True" is singable and fun.

"Miracle Man" has Costello running with some biblical references and twisting them, while "Less Than Zero" is a polemic against (literal) fascist British politicians. "Watching The Detectives" is a Clash homage in the form of a sound reggae record. "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" is classic Costello with disjointed lyrics and Costello's classically nasal vocals. "Blame It On Cain" has a similar bent, only with a fantastic guitar line.

Of course, "Alison" is the record's centerpiece. Filled with backhanded compliments and desperate pleas, the song is a plea from a wronged man to his ex-lover. Still angry, the song uses odd phraseology ("my aim is true" and "somebody better put out the big light" both could be references to the protagonist murdering the song's namesake) and wonderful unhappiness ("sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking/ When I hear the silly things that you say") to avenge the breakup. In referencing Alison's wedding and her happiness, his sarcasm can't really be contained.

Also, the reference to masturbation in "Welcome To The Working Week" is one of the best-penned lines in rock and roll history:

Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired

"Rhythmically admired." How great is that?


Overall, "My Aim Is True" is a pretty wonderful record. While the rest of Costello's catalog gets real old, real quick, his debut is excellent.

No. 167: Master Of Puppets

Band: Metallica
Album: Master Of Puppets
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the landmarks of thrash metal, "Master Of Puppets" is a deluge of speed drumming, drug references and razor-sharp guitars. It's at the top of many "best metal album" lists and rightfully so.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's not my favorite Metallica record -- "Ride The Lightning" -- nor the band's most famous record. It's a fantastic record, but largely a one-note symphony. Lyrically, it's all about power and musically, only small diversions in-song can make for any non-thrash sounds.
Best song: The first two tracks are beautifully crafted, full speed metal. "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" builds as well as any song on the album.
Worst song: "The Thing That Should Not Be" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yep.

It's easy to forget, in a post-"Some Kind Of Monster" world, that Metallica was a fantastically badass band. Back when they sounded like a Sabbath LP played at 78 RPM and sang mostly about war, Metallica was a group of innovators.

"Master Of Puppets" is the record when the band, if briefly, perfected their thrash metal sound. "Battery" runs through you like a shock while "Master Of Puppets" has all the starts and stops of "War Pigs." "Leper Messiah" is a pointed attack on Christianity while "Damage, Inc." twists, turns and features James Hetfield's whispering vocals. "Orion" is Cliff Burton's greatest triumph and "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" is a fantastic stare into insanity.

Metallica never had the musical blinders going as they did on "Master Of Puppets." The music isn't fantastically diverse and the band rarely let up on the metal, as they did on later records.

Still, it's a wonderful metal record. The signature guitar, Heftield's snarl and Cliff Burton's finest moments all come through.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

No. 166: Imperial Bedroom

Band: Elvis Costello & the Attractions
Album: Imperial Bedroom
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Lyrically, Costello sits on the edge of smart and pretentious, never really falling into pretentious on "Imperial Bedroom." While there's no real fantastic hit, the record is incredibly clever.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: There's no real fantastic hit because none of the songs are great. Sure, it's clever, but is it interesting? Not really. It's a mostly forgettable record, in my mind.
Best song: "The Long Honeymoon" is a very good song about the boredom of marriage.
Worst song: "Shabby Doll" is kind of annoying.
Is it awesome?: I don't think so.

I know I should love Elvis Costello. I imagine it's because his music is decidedly '80s -- Christ, just look at the cover of this album -- or maybe because Costello's lyrics are nuanced and I might not be smart enough to get it all.

Still, a record like "Imperial Bedroom" just doesn't do it for me. I understand I should like it; I just don't. "The Long Honeymoon" is slow and pretty, but it never really gains a crescendo that would sound satisfying. On the other hand, it's a song about married life and monotony, so maybe that's the purpose?

"Man Out Of Time" has a grandiose production to it (longtime Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick produced this record), but the song just isn't anything spectacular. "The Loved Ones" has the air of a Beatles-type pop record, but it never really goes anywhere interesting. "Little Savage" brings Costello back to his New Wave roots in its intro, but falls into boringness 15 seconds in.

It's pleasant but it's background music to me. I imagine it's going over my head or something.

On comments

I wanted to thank those of you who have commented on any of my posts and encourage readers to do so. I've gotten a couple of corrections that I've made and some nice opinions from readers.

One of the great things about the Internet is the ability to have a discussion about something like this. I've laid out where I'm coming from, but certainly I'm not someone who can't hear the other side and I'd certainly like to hear the other side.

So, please, if you have an opinion, post it in the comments. Also, if you want to address me directly and don't want it posted on the site, my e-mail address is in the right column. I will respond to you as quickly as possible.

No. 165: Let's Get It On

Band: Marvin Gaye
Album: Let's Get It On
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The template for all slow jams and sex records, "Let's Get It On" gets Marvin Gaye at his sensuous best.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: If there ever was a one-note themed album in existence, "Let's Get It On" is it. There's not a lot happening here other than pure, unadulterated sex grooves.
Best song: What can I say about the title track that hasn't already been said?
Worst song: I can't get the Kanye West song out of my mind when I hear "Distant Lover."
Is it awesome?: Sure. Why not?

The irony in "Let's Get It On" is that some of the material was originally written as spiritual songs, including the title track. The story goes that Ed Townsend -- one of Gaye's closest friends -- convinced him to charge the album with more sexuality and rework some unfinished songs ("Come Get To This," "Distant Love" and "Just To Keep You Satisfied") into more sexual music.

And "Let's Get It On" is the result. Like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding basically created soul music, Gaye created the slow jam on this record. The beats specifically emphasize a certain, ahem, rhythm. It's probably not unfamiliar to anyone reading this. This is intentional and would continue.

It's not hard to see the influence. Gaye's moaning performance (remember, this was released in 1973!) on "Distant Lover" has been aped by Prince millions of times. The bawdy lyrical content certainly influenced later artists like Rick James ("Let's Get It On" and "Give It To Me, Baby" are, in essence, the same plea).

And, let's be honest here, R. Kelly just wishes he was Marvin Gaye.

(Lest we forget Gaye's sartorial influence. His prep-school shirts, beard and kufi are a look that influenced some [Kanye West, The Roots] and is actually copied by others [Common]).

"Let's Get It On" gets to the point and doesn't mess around. It's the best of its kind.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

No. 164: Heart Like A Wheel

Band: Linda Ronstadt
Album: Heart Like A Wheel
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: On her last album with Capitol Records, the label employed famed producer Peter Asher to man the controls. The outcome was a fine mix of soulful country and rock love songs filled with Ronstadt's decidedly strong -- yet equally feminine -- vocals.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Ronstadt didn't write any of the songs, if that sort of thing matters to you. There's a certain AAA quality to these songs; She doesn't break any new ground.
Best song: "You're No Good" is a classic.
Worst song: "You Can Close Your Eyes" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's great. Ronstadt's voice is amazing.

"Heart Like A Wheel" is kind of the anti-"Tapestry." It's full and pretty and strong and awesome, but that all rests in Ronstadt's voice and, to a lesser degree, Asher's arrangements. Instead of the songs being the centerpiece -- Carole King is first a songwriter -- the voice is the centerpiece and Linda Ronstadt has one of the best voices around.

Robert Christgau reviews "Heart Like A Wheel" by saying "she relates to these songs instead of just singing them," which is an apt description. The best singers are able to identify with the music they're singing and Ronstadt fulfills this duty.

Her country roots, not surprisingly, are the ones that show the best on "Heart Like A Wheel." Her version of J.D. Souther's "Faithless Love" is wonderful and her harmonizing with Emmylou Harris on Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)" runs over the pedal steel perfectly.

Ronstadt also flexes her vocal muscles in other genres, as well. The folk balladry of the title track brings Ronstadt's softer side out in the beginning and gains steam as the song does. Her country-rock version of the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved" is better than the original

Of course, the highlight of the album is Ronstadt's version "You're No Good." A blues rocker, it's easily Ronstadt's most surprising turn as a singer. Her "honey-colored soprano" (thanks, Rolling Stone!) fits the song's grooves about a woman who's been wronged in typical blues tradition. Her wail of "I'm gonna say it again" during the chorus evoke a real angry desperation Ronstadt hadn't shown before. calls it a "landmark of '70s mainstream pop/rock" and I'm not sure that's untrue. I tend to dislike most of that type of music (country doesn't do it for me and this nonsense album rock is too boring for my taste) and it is certainly tough for me to reconcile my giant crush on Ronstadt with her association with the Eagles, a band I liken to history's greatest monster. Still, "Heart Like A Wheel" really makes this type of music palpable in an interesting way. It may not be a must-have, but it's a great record.

No. 163: 1999

Band: Prince
Album: 1999
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The calm before the storm that was "Purple Rain" brings Prince expanding his lyrical themes. Instead of the simply dirtbag filthy sex songs, Prince waxes on America in "Free," the computer age in "Automatic" and, of course, nuclear apocalypse on the title track.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not sure they have it wrong. It's not his best, but it has the makings of a very nice album.
Best song: The title track is wonderful as a post-nuclear holocaust party track, complete with computer voices and sing-songy chorus.
Worst song: "D.M.S.R." isn't good and it goes on too long.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty great.

Prince's pre-"Purple Rain" public persona is well-known. He's weird, he wants to fuck you and maybe he'll talk about God afterward.

"1999" was Prince's turning point. He started writing songs about nuclear winter or conceptual pieces about technology. It's a wonderful piece of history; Without "1999," Prince is still doing "Controversy" instead of "Sign O' The Times." Without "1999," Prince never puts out "Purple Rain," save for "Darling Nikki."

Prince may not have had the pop credentials like Michael Jackson does. But, he was wildly avant garde and clearly more experimental. "1999" was not a genre-shifter like later Prince record (again, he's an artist in transition). Most of the songs are early electro pop, standard stuff for the 1980s.


I probably should be sick of the album's title track, but I'm not. You see, I graduated high school in 1999, so it was played at my prom -- it might've been the theme, I don't know -- and my graduation and all the goddamned time on every TV show for about eight months of that year.

Still, there's something wondrous in the crazily negative/scary lyrics of the song:

I was dreamin' when I wrote this
Forgive me if it goes astray
But when I woke up this mornin'
Coulda sworn it was judgment day
The sky was all purple
There were people runnin' everywhere
Tryin' to run from the destruction
U know I didn't even care

On the album -- as opposed to the single mix -- the song starts with a computer-modified voice of God giving the theme of the song, saying "Don't worry, I won't hurt you. I only want you to have some fun."

It's almost a picture of the '80s. The video features keytar, the lyrics are about an impending world war and the band's response, instead, is to party. While it could be a ridiculously scary song, it's not. The major chords rip through the song -- Phil Collins would later copy them for "Sussudio -- and the drum machine thumps.

I've probably heard this song involuntarily more than any other, yet I still love it. I know all the words and it's a surefire song to get people on the dance floor. Just don't listen to the lyrics.

Monday, September 24, 2007

No. 162: OK Computer

Band: Radiohead
Album: OK Computer
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Considered by many to be Radiohead's opus, "OK Computer" was the turning point for the band. Instead of being lumped in with britpoppers Oasis, Blur and Pulp, Radiohead was now being elevated to "voice of a generation" status. Still built around four-piece rock, "OK Computer" ventures into stranger tape effects, more complex song structures and darker lyrics than previous Radiohead record. In short, it's brilliant.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: There certainly is an argument to be made that "OK Computer" should come before "The Bends," but they're great for different reasons.
Best song: The fantastic "Karma Police" is a slam on the judgmental and powerful. It features Thom Yorke's best falsetto.
Worst song: "Fitter Happier" isn't a song, per se, but it does have the robot voice. It's awesome,but I can see why people don't like it.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

"OK Computer" is a wonderfully complex album that encapsulated a lot of what those of us coming of age in the mid-late 1990s felt: Isolation, depression and a growing uncertain fear that this is all there is. Technology was bearing down on us, outside pressures in an increasingly distant world and the ways to deal with it are all present themes on "OK Computer." In essence, it's a modern day "Dark Side Of The Moon."

It's kind of funny the classifications that "OK Computer" gets. It's certainly not mainstream rock; There's too much going on for it to be totally mainstream. It doesn't fit into any easy genre descriptions, as it's not punk enough to be punk, not hard enough to be metal, not soft enough to be mom rock. It's certainly got tinges of prog rock in it, but that genre as presently constituted (or, as it was constituted in 1997) consists mostly of Dream Theater, whatever Bundy K. Brown is doing these days and a million King Crimson knockoffs.

It is, a prog-rock record, though, in that it thematically apes "Dark Side." The alcoholism that peppers "Let Down," the quasi-religious "Paranoid Android," the speed-of-life anthem "The Tourist," or the checklist of slogans in "Fitter Happier." Maybe it's the obtuse economic/political commentary (written based partially on Noam Chomksy) of "Electioneering," the fright of mental health institutions of "Climbing Up The Walls" or the scariness of everyday life and conformity of "No Surprises."

(Ironic, considering Jonny Greenwood hates progressive Pink Floyd.)

Like "Dark Side," "OK Computer" takes the pressures of modern life and boils them into song. The isolation felt by listeners is constant and easy to identify with. It's strikingly beautiful in the same way Guernica is; Negativity is scary, but universal.


As's Ryan Schreiber says in his review, "OK Computer" is the first of its type.

OK Computer is the first album to intelligently express vehement hatred toward the corporate world's replacement of human emotion and personality with robotic behavior in their attempt to be "more professional."

In an increasingly distant world, "OK Computer" is an anthematic album. While Radiohead's later work built on this theme, "OK Computer" was the first to scream it from the mountaintops.


Outside of lyrics, the progressive thing remains in some of the music. There are tons of changes and strange sounds used musically. The lead single, "Paranoid Android" builds off a strange time signature, no chorus and a video that is as trippy as videos get. Part of the draw, though, is the post-modernism of the record. Referencing several genres and themes, the band redigests that which we grew up with. The feedback/single note guitar in "Exit Music (For A Film)" rings of "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" while the bells and keyboards of "Let Down" could come out of "The Bends." The band has acknowledged that "Airbag" is a tribute to DJ Shadow. The feedback the ends "Karma Police" is downright Glenn Branca-esque, leading into the old Mac voice software voice going with the themes on the album.


Maybe a testament to an album's greatness is the amount of tribute albums? If that's the case, certainly "OK Computer" is great. In addition to reggae tribute to the band, "OKX" was released this year, as a ten year anniversary situation. (It's available free to stream here.)


One of the better critical reviews of "OK Computer" tries to settle the argument as to whether the album or "The Bends" is a better record.

For all its ambition, OK Computer is not, finally, as impressive as The Bends, which covered much the same sort of emotional knots, but with better tunes. It is easy to be impressed by, but ultimately hard to love, an album that so luxuriates in its despondency.

Robert Christgau doesn't like it, either, but he doesn't like prog rock. He calls "Dark Side Of The Moon" a "snoozefest."


Still, "OK Computer" is genius. My own opinion is that it wasn't even the best record to come out of 1997 (Elliott Smith's "Either/Or," Daft Punk's "Homework," B.I.G.'s "Life After Death" and Mogwai's "Young Team" all vie for that title). Still, "OK Computer" is a fantastic update of "Dark Side Of The Moon." There's nothing wrong with copying the classics.

No. 161: The Dock Of The Bay

Band: Otis Redding
Album: The Dock Of The Bay
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Otis Redding is one of the finest voices in soul music and his early death in a plane crash is one of the defining moments for black music fans in the 1960s. "(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay" is probably his most famous song and a beautiful departure from raucous soul.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: While a fine album, the amount of Otis Redding on this list is kind of irritating me.
Best song: The title track is, of course, a classic.
Worst song: "The Hucklebuck" is kind of crappy.
Is it awesome?: It's good, but how much more Otis do I have to listen to?

The title track was recorded in the hopes that Otis could embark on a new phase of his career, doing more soft stuff.

Otis Redding died in December 1967 and "The Dock Of The Bay" came out two months later. It's mostly a collection of b-sides and singles. I imagine those involved likely just wanted to get some money out of this. The songs span the gamut from blues-oriented rock ("Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out") to soul balladry (the title track). The disjointed nature of the record is loved by some (Allmusic says "this is an impossible record not to love"), but I'm not in love with it. I think I'm just getting Otis fatigue.

Of course, I still have two more Otis records before I'm done with him. I guess five of his records isn't ridiculous; He is one of the defining singers of early R&B. But, I'm tired of him.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Unlisted: The Soft Bulletin

Band: The Flaming Lips
Album: The Soft Bulletin
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: No longer just an indie rock acid trip, the Flaming Lips put out a lush, heavily orchestrated album. Now a trio, the band doesn't wait to fuck around with kazoos or easy rhymes, but now simply created an atmospheric conception of reality on record that is basically perfect. The best album in a crowded field of 1999, "The Soft Bulletin" is beautiful.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This should, undoubtedly be on the list.
Best song: "Waitin' For A Superman" is likely the album's highlight, as it's the band's most introspective and conscious song. But, "Buggin'" is wonderfully fun, "The Spiderbite Song" has roots in the band's history and "The Spark That Bled" is almost operatic. And, of course, there's Wayne Coyne's beatboxing on "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate."
Worst song: This album is up there with the near-perfects.
Is it awesome?: Yes, yes. One thousand times yes.

I guess I could see a world where the Flaming Lips are considered middlebrow claptrap. They do straddle the line between being indie rock faves and AAA friends (mostly due to the music's use in commercials), but that line gets blurrier and blurrier by the day. I mean, who would've thought Explosions in the Sky would have a song in a Cadillac ad?

Still, The Lips have been doing this for a while. Their only real hit was a hit because of exposure on "Beavis And Butthead," despite it being the second-best song on that particular awesome album. Their oddball song subjects ("Christmas At The Zoo," "Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World," etc.) and hook-laden if not catchy four-piece ease never really caught on with indie rockers who weren't into, well, psychotropic drugs.

This eventually led to "Zaireeka," and experiment in quadrophonic sound as well as the gullibility of fans (I bought a used copy and didn't enjoy it). It looked like the first step in a more out-there Lips, but, in reality, it was simply the shedding of the weirdo skin. "Zaireeka," as misguided as it was, was simply a step towards greatness.


"The Soft Bulletin" has been lauded as a concept album, but I can't seem to find the subject of the album, nor a plot, so I'm going to kick that idea out of here. Rather, it's the Flaming Lips finally addressing the world at large and reality on a record. Instead of the droning guitar and metronome beat of "Slow Nerve Action" (the best song from "Transmissions") or the kazoo and guitar riffing of "She Don't Use Jelly," the band's tenderness shows through to a comrade in "The Spiderbite Song." Ostensibly about a lie trying to cover up Steven Drozd's drug use (he said the festering wound on his arm was a spider bite, when it was due to IV drug use), "The Spiderbite" is just as well a tribute to a friend as "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" is, only a quarter of the length and much more fun. Following it comes "Buggin'," a song that could easily serve as a child's singalong as the Zombies-chamber-pop that it actually is. It's wonderfully constructed, based in piano, a heavily reverbed drum/bass combo and sweet strings.


The thing about the Flaming Lips is that they're a band you root for. (Name-dropper alert) I think to the time I met Wayne Coyne and how incredibly nice the guy was. It was about a year after this record came out, three friends (hi, Tehft, Joc and Mark!) and I went to Lawrence to see Elliott Smith in Lawrence, KS (that was the closest he was playing to Columbia, MO, where we went to college). The Bottleneck is a fantastic club in Lawrence; Most of the important indie bands play there.

Anyway, like the idiot self-promoter that I was/am, I wore a KCOU (our school's radio station) t-shirt. The Flaming Lips had recently played in Columbia on the first "Soft Bulletin" tour -- it remains the best single show I've ever attended -- and Wayne came up to Mark and I after the show to talk about Columbia. He asked if we were from KCOU and we asked if he goes to a lot of shows in Lawrence. I'm paraphrasing, but he basically said that Lawrence is close enough to Oklahoma (where the Lips reside) that he'd make the trip for friends of his (he knew some people in Smith's band).

Remember, this is a time when "The Soft Bulletin" was being compared -- rightly, I want to say -- to "Pet Sounds" and "Dark Side Of The Moon." The band was on everyone's favorite list for about a year and a half. Their shows were becoming must-see events. And like the nice guy he was, Coyne was just chatting up a couple of guys who worked at a radio station he liked in a town 100 miles away. Like it was nothing.

Indie rock is a culture without much separation from the fans. There aren't a lot of douche bag indie rock superstars (Isaac Brock and Ryan Adams are the only ones I can think of. Oh, also Albini.); Most of them will chat you up. Most of the time, however, it's because they're in your town playing a show for your station. But, for some reason, I expected Coyne to be shy or withdrawn. I certainly didn't expect him to come up to us because we were wearing KCOU shirts. What a nice guy.


This is the reason bitch and moan about Pitchfork's reviews. The review starts out with a multi-paragraph explanation about the writer's work habits and his roommates. Things readers don't care about.

(Yes, I understand the irony in my complaining about masturbatory reviews.)

Still, one of the reasons I still love Pitchfork is this line: "One of the only albums I can compare it to is Dark Side of the Moon-- a sonic exploration into a bunch of morbid themes that sound extra good when you've been kissing Ol' Lady Bong." Absolutely true and as well-worded as you can expect. "The Soft Bulletin" is a "Dark Side" for aging and change.


"What Is The Light" is sparse and existential, as evidenced by the song's subtitle in the liner notes.

(An untested theory hypothesis suggesting that the chemical [in our brains] by which we are able to experience the sensation of being in love is the same chemical that caused the "Big Bang" that was the birth of the accelerating universe)

It's on this album that the band tackles the big questions. In "The Spiderbite Song," it's friendship and loyalty. On "What Is The Light?" it's the universe's depth and on "Suddenly, Everything Has Changed," it's the nature of getting older. "The Observer" is a cosmic-sounding instrumental -- not unlike Floyd's "The Great Gig In The Sky" -- that further brings up the question of existence.


Of course, part of my fondness for this record is likely based in when I saw the band perform at Columbia, MO's Blue Note in the spring of 2000. Unlike most bands who played at a venue the size of the Blue Note (not a big venue), the Lips put on a show. In lieu of having a live drummer, horn section and orchestra, the band played to tape a lot, with Michael Ivins playing a bass and Steven Drozd moving between the guitar and keyboards.

Behind the band was a large projector screen used to, presumably, expand the audience's experience. Boy, did it. The example I always think about was the video of an open chest cavity during surgery, showing the blob that is a human heart beating. Fittingly, the loop was recorded (and played) so that the beat of the heart corresponded with the beat of a song (I don't remember which). Later, the band showed Drozd playing the drums on the screen as they played the big drum sound of "Slow Nerve Action."

One of the other highlights of showmanship occurred right before and during the band's one hit, "She Don't Use Jelly." Because it got some radio play on MTV, the Lips were booked on the old Jon Stewart Show, and before they played the song in Columbia, they projected Stewart's introduction -- skipping it in a video effect -- before the wailing introduction to the song.

During the song, in the one beat to each part, as the song lifts, men (presumably) in bunny mascot suits flung confetti into the air. The bunnies were in the audience and made everybody happy.

And "The Soft Bulletin" songs were performed just as perfectly. Coyne brought out a punching nun puppet at one point, singing to it. He used fake blood capsules to accentuate the lyrics of "The Spark That Bled." It was perfect.

It's nearly impossible to describe the glee that I felt after that show. I immediately went back to my dorm and explained to my girlfriend how happy I the show made me


"Waitin' For A Superman" is the pinnacle of the record. A quasi-religious (spiritual?) track, the song was largely inspired by the death of Coyne's father and how Coyne dealt with it.

Is it gettin' heavy?
Well I thought it was already as heavy
As can be
Is it overwhelming
To use a crane to crush a fly?
It's a good time for Superman
To lift the sun into the sky

Is Superman the actual hero that we've come to know? Is it God? Is it something within us that lets us grieve and deal with loss? Is it all those things?

It doesn't really matter. The rolling drums and piano march lift Coyne's pain-stricken voice as the song falls into the chorus. The "Pet Sounds"-type production is filled in with the guitar that backs Coyne's voice, as well. It's lush and achingly beautiful.


I don't know if it gets lost in the shuffle of 1999's music or not. "Keep It Like a Secret," "Black On Both Sides," "Blackout!," "The Soft Bulletin," "Summer Teeth" and "Come On Die Young" (all favorite records of mine) came out in 1999. Hopefully, "The Soft Bulletin" rises to the top. It's one of the best of all-time.

No. 160: Electric Warrior

Band: T. Rex
Album: Electric Warrior
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: While it never garnered a huge audience in the States, T. Rex' brand of androgynous folk-rock had a strong following in England. "Electric Warrior" is the band's move to harder rock and, essentially, invented what we know as glam rock. Sleazy and stomping, "Electric Warrior" is a template that Bolan's colleague David Bowie followed throughout his career, to a lot of success.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: T. Rex never really hit is huge and is really only known in America for two songs (one of which is on here).
Best song: What can I say about "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" that hasn't already been recounted hundreds of thousands of times? It's a near-perfect song.
Worst song: I like every song on this record, actually.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

Fittingly, the week between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur was "famous Jews in rock" week at "One Man, 500 Albums." We had the Beastie Boys yesterday and Kiss and Marc Bolan today. It's too bad we couldn't fit Simon & Garfunkel, Lou Reed or Phil Spector in here somewhere.


My disinterest in David Bowie is mostly T. Rex' fault. Marc Bolan and Co. seem to do everything Bowie did -- save for the ludicrous alien concept albums -- only better. Bolan was the first to really push the limits of androgyny, he was one of the first to put a great deal of macho showmanship and sleazy blues rock against said androgyny and he was first to keep his folk roots somewhere in the picture. On "Electric Warrior," it's "Girl," an acoustic little love (sex?) song featuring the odd choice of a fugelhorn.

Otherwise, it's all cars and sex. "Jeepster" is the picture of this combination with Bolan extolling the virtues of both his love and British luxury cars (Just like a car you're pleasing to be hold/I'll call you Jaguar if I may be so bold,"). The sweet beat and overdriven Chuck Berry-esque guitar lick give the same impression as the lyrics: Cars and chicks are awesome. The song devolves into a "My Generation"-type chaos at the end, rounding up the theme in time. The carefree introspection of "Life's a Gas" may be Bolan's best lyrical and musical composition, with its wanking guitar licks and wonderfully laissez faire chorus ("But it really doesn't matter at all/No it really doesn't matter at all/Life's a gas,/I hope it's gonna last").

The only thing "Electric Warrior" suffers from is repetition. "The Motivator" sounds more like "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" than anyone would like to admit and the idea of banging chicks and having fun may get a little tired after a while. Ask Guns 'N Roses. Or The Mooney Suzuki. Or the tens of thousands of other bands that basically copied T. Rex' glam rock.


According to various reports, Bolan wrote "Electric Warrior" with the idea to hit it big in America. Sadly, this didn't happen, but one hit was produced. The highlight of the band's catalog, "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" is a romping roll through Bolan's apparent attempt at coming on to a girl. The riff has been copied more than anyone would like to admit (The Stones' "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)," two Oasis songs, Prince's "Cream," etc.) and the short horn parts and piano banging at the chorus showcase the band's ability to control their chaos.

Bolan's ridiculously sexual recording of the song makes the lyrics that much better. His snake-slither delivery sounds like Alec Baldwin's character in "30 Rock," with -- if you can imagine it -- more grease. And his sexual grunts and moaning doesn't exactly say "subtle."

(And, of course, the chorus of the song is "Get it on, bang a gong, get it on." Not exactly beating around the proverbial bush.)

And the lyrics... The lyrics! First, the exact notion of a girl being "Well, you're dirty and sweet/Clad in black," as the first verse of the song declares is wonderfully gross/sleazy and could only be sung with a guy wearing silk scarves and eyeliner. The brilliantly creepy/sexy second verse only reinforces this notion further:

Well, you're built like a car
You got a hubcap diamond star halo
You're built like a car, oh yeah
Well, you're an untamed youth
That's the truth, with your cloak full of eagles
You're dirty, sweet and you're my girl

Filled with fantastic metaphors ("cloak full of eagles"), cleverly rhythmic wordplay ("hubcap diamond star halo") and well-worn descriptions ("you're an untamed youth") fill the song with a certain grandiosity that bands like the MC5 and other rock and roll outfits never achieved. Almost poetic in its lyricism, "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" is one of the greatest songs of all time. And it's on a great album. This record is rated too low.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

No. 159: Alive!

Band: Kiss
Album: Alive!
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: We're talking about Kiss here, one of the most interesting live bands of all time. "Alive!" is a set of their early-career hits in the way they were meant to be played: In silly makeup and lots of crowd noise.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Kiss is more novelty act than rock band and, like the Beastie Boys, I've never met a big Kiss fan who wasn't a moron or a teenager.
Best song: "Strutter" is a really cool song and one of the band's only real good songs.
Worst song: "Rock Bottom" kind of stinks.
Is it awesome?: It's close.

Like it or not, Kiss is pretty important. Their version of rock showmanship made as much of a mark as nearly any band around. Among the fire-breathing, the Peter Criss balladry (hello, "Beth!") and Gene Simmons combo of blood and tongue is a band that played pretty standard hard rock. Listening to it on record isn't that exciting unless you try to think of a guy wearing Kabuki makeup singing.

So, Kiss is clearly at home on stage.

The sturm and drang that surrounds Kiss is all nonsense, but it's fun nonsense. And more importantly, it's great business for the band. By putting their names and faces on just about everything, they get ridiculous royalties every time something sells.

With that said, who buys this crap? I could see buying a Kiss t-shirt or maybe a Kiss lunch box. But, a giant Kiss lithograph of their comic book personas? A Demon Duck? What about a $75 Kiss lava lamp? Kiss perfume? Or maybe Kiss condoms?

I mean, there's a goddamned Kiss coffeehouse in Myrtle Beach. ("Coffee with attitude.")

Again, I ask: Who buys this crap? Are people this stupid?


With that said, I do enjoy "Strutter." The Donnas cover is much better, but Kiss' version isn't bad.


Let me say that I'm also not the representative of pretentious indie rock snobs, because Pitchfork has given "Alive!" a 10 out of 10 in their review. If I'd not had extensive experience listening to "Alive!," I might even be convinced that it's as great as the reviewer says it is:

Man, who didn't like Kiss? Back in the mid-'70s when America was stuck in between Watergate and Star Wars, Kiss reminded us that there were still broads to be nailed, beer to be imbibed, and a good time to be had by all. Alive! is total sonic proof of Kiss climbing their apex and knocking off one of the all time great live albums.

Of course, I wasn't even a thought in my parents' eyes when Kiss was good. "Alive!" is good, but it's Kiss. More novelty than actual band.

No. 158: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Band: Elton John
Album: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: A concept album wherein Elton John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin are described as Western movie heroes in the title track. The concept of this album is mostly the timeline of the duo's rise to the top of pop music. It's the last Taupin/John collaboration of value.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: As far as concept albums go, it ain't Sgt. Pepper, it ain't Tommy... hell, it isn't even "The Soft Bulletin." Overall, it's not a fantastic record.
Best song: Without a doubt, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight."
Worst song: "Better Off Dead" isn't great, but it's short.
Is it awesome?: It's not terrible, but it's not awesome. It's just good. All the songs are pleasant enough.

There is something incredibly masturbatory about writing a whole album about yourself and how you became a rock star. Certainly, most fans probably want to know about their idols, but it's more often self-aggrandizing ("Studio 60") than it is award-winning ("Seinfeld," season four).

And so goes "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy." It has nothing in the way of hits, save for "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." It's not particularly experimental, musically.

Still, everyone seems to love it. As I've recounted, I'm a pretty small-time Elton John fan; "Yellow Brick Road" and "Greatest Hits" is about enough for me. I imagine there's some sort of nostalgia for the Taupin/John days. "(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket" is a pleasant song. The fantastic album finale, "We All Fall in Love Sometimes" is also great. Still, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" is amazing. The back story is pretty amazing and John's extensive use of the bass notes on the piano really fill the song well.

It's not great. It's good and it pales in comparison to other concept albums.

(Also, our good friend Wikipedia has a fantastic writeup of the album. It's incredibly detailed.)

No. 157: Closer

Band: Joy Division
Album: Closer
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Hypnotic and depressing, "Closer" is the type of music one hangs himself to (Ian Curtis did, in fact, hang himself). Droning guitars and synthesizers build off slowly rhythmic bass lines as Curtis drones on about his epilepsy and wacky thoughts on love. Dissonant and powerful, "Closer" is nothing if not interesting. Also, it inspired a generation of somber, pale-faced teens across England to start bands.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's not particularly easy to listen to; The record is basically a suicide note set to dissonance. Half the songs are 5:51 or longer. It's not for everyone.
Best song: The opener, "Atrocity Exhibition" is great. "Twenty Four Hours" is the most interesting, with its reverb and more complex drumming. "Isolation" is the most radio-friendly.
Worst song: "Decades" isn't all that great and it goes on too long.
Is it awesome?: It's not for everyone, but I enjoy it.

There are a few too many Nazi references within the Joy Divison/New Order (New Order is Joy Division, post-Ian Curtis' suicide) for me to be totally comfortable with them, I think. The band's original name was Warsaw, New Order has Nazi implications and the actual name Joy Division was a reference to the prostitution wings in Nazi concentration camps. A lot of punk rock embraced Nazi symbolism in order to take away its meaning, but somehow, the starkness of Joy Division creeps me out a little.


KCOU, the college radio station where I worked, has a birthday celebration every October, as the station was formed on Halloween. Sometimes, there are shows on Halloween and many of the DJs, DJs-in-training and exec staff dress up for the show. My freshman year, when I was a merely a trainee, had a litany of shows (Superchunk/Guided By Voices, a pre-fame Bright Eyes, Emperor Penguin, etc.). I don't remember who played the show -- if I wasn't lazy, I could probably check -- but one show featured a costume contest. I wore a small child's Pikachu outfit; It didn't fit well, but that was the point. My friend Joe (whom I've quoted here) came as Ian Curtis. All he did, if I remember correctly, was tied a noose around his neck and put some blood on his shirt. I believe he won.

It was a perfect costume for that crowd, really. It was unique, it was macabre and it was delightfully pretentious; I certainly didn't understand the costume until he explained that it was Ian Curtis.


I've never been a huge fan of the British sad guy rock of the '80s. I'm not the biggest Cure fan, I don't love the Smiths and Joy Division never really floated my boat. I'll say that I like Joy Division more than the other two bands, but there is a real monotonous vocal thing going on with Curtis' voice. "Eternal," specifically, is almost clockwork-esque in its rhythm. "Atrocity Exhibition" is a great song, with disjointed studio effects and the ominous chorus of "This is the way, step inside."

"Twenty Four Hours" is picture of Joy Division. Overly dramatic and passionate, the song recounts the various Curtis depression-inducing stuff. As the song builds off an easy bass riff, the layered guitars come in and Curtis intones:

So this is permanence, love's shattered pride.
What once was innocence, turned on its side.
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move,
Deep in the memory, of what once was love.

Oh how I realized how I wanted time,
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find,
Just for one moment, thought I'd found my way.
Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away.

If the bolded lyric isn't the perfect Curtis lyrics, I don't know what is. It takes a certain type of depression to create the type of music Curtis did and it's just as moving as it is melodramatic and sad.

Joy Division is a huge influence on my favorite microgenre of music -- post-rock -- and are cited by two of my favorite bands as important. Mogwai has referenced them in song and interviews and Tortoise appears on the Joy Division tribute record doing "As You Said." So, I should love it.

But, I don't. It's fine, but I don't want to kill myself anytime soon, so identifying with the lyrics aren't easy.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

No. 156: Paul's Boutique

Band: The Beastie Boys
Album: Paul's Boutique
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Beasties were the VH1 of their time, taking bits and pieces of pop culture in their lyrics and regurgitating them in a party rap setting. In terms of hip hop record production, this one is important. Like, ridiculously important. The use of huge (and I mean huge) amount of samples on a record is the defining characteristic of "Paul's Boutique," thanks to the Dust Brothers production team. There's almost no new music on here, but simply bits and pieces of old songs. Sampling was toned down in the '90s, thanks to a lawsuit against Biz Markie, but "Paul's Boutique" is one of sampling's greatest triumphs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not a big Beasties fan and their snot-nosed-kids rap style gets irritating. Nasal rap is not good. Also, I've never met a big-time Beasties fan who wasn't a complete idiot.
Best song: "Hey Ladies" has, like, 500 samples and the best hook on the record.
Worst song: "What Comes Around" is slower than it should be.
Is it awesome?: I'm not in love with it, but it's clearly one of the most important records of the '80s.

Let's first talk about the actual Beastie Boys in 1989. They'd started as a punk band in the late 70s and became a three-man rap crew before the release of 1986's "Licensed to Ill," wherein they hooked up with the famous (and awesome) Rick Rubin.

Anyway, Rubin's technique -- while different than a lot of hip hop producers in that he used a lot of metal and hard rock samples -- was pretty standard in his use of samples. He didn't layer tons of samples and he kept a pretty standard number in the songs.

Enter the Dust Brothers. The Dust Brothers were a DJ combo that basically tried to cram as many samples in the music as possible. This included standard hip hop samples (Sugarhill Gang, Public Enemy, Afrika Bambaataa, etc.), classic funk tracks (James Brown, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, etc.), movie sound effects (including effects from "Psycho" and "Jaws") and classic rock (The Eagles, Beatles, Sweet, etc.). The samples are almost piled on top of one another, even causing Chuck D to say "Paul's Boutique had the best beats."

(Of course, this was a time before you had to clear samples, so this type of production is long extinct. Thanks to the landmark Biz Markie/Gilbert O'Sullivan case, samples now need to be cleared.)

The Beastie Boys, of course, did the same thing with their lyrics. Referencing just about everything they could, a new name-brand, advertising slogan or cartoon character name comes up ever second line. Acting like a regurgitation of last night's long night, the Beasties' lyrics dropped references to just about everything under the sun. Don't believe me? Check this out.

It's a record from a forgotten time, almost. It's pre-G-Funk, pre-whole sampling of hooks (a la Puffy) and pre-mashup. To say that "Paul's Boutique" is a landmark album would be understating it.


With all that said, I find the Beasties' flow to be kind of annoying. I know the call-and-response rapping style was popular in the '80s -- mostly because Run-D.M.C. did it -- but it gets really annoying when it's three nasally white kids from Brooklyn. Their voices were less annoying on subsequent albums, but "Paul's Boutique" is frustrating. So, while it's hugely important, it's not my favorite record.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

No. 155: Pretenders

Band: The Pretenders
Album: Pretenders
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Pretenders don't do anything groundbreaking, but they do a pretty good facsimile of a dark-hair fronted/more guitar-oriented Blondie.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I just don't see the draw in putting this record on here.
Best song: "Brass in Pocket" was the hit and it's great. "Precious" is harder than you'd think.
Worst song: "Space Invader" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's good, but awesome? Probably not.

"Few rock & roll records rock as hard or with as much originality as the Pretenders' eponymous debut album" is the sentence that starts the review. Uh, no. The first Pretenders record is nice, but it's an exercise in rock songs. Yes, Chrissie Hynde does some nice hooks. Yes, "Brass In Pocket" is brilliant. Yes, she curses like a sailor on "Precious." Yes, the Ray Davies cover is cool. Is the guitar solo on "Tattooed Love Boys" awesome? Absolutely.

(I've now recounted everything I like about this record. I have no earthly idea as to why critics love this album so much. Chrissie Hynde must have a big following in the rock critics' hearts. For what it's worth, the album was released the year before I was born, so maybe it was really important and awesome in 1980.)

But, a great album? Nope.

(A differing opinion, courtesy of Robert Christgau:

Tough gals, tough gals--suddenly the world is teeming with tough gals. And Chrissie Hynde is a good one. Maybe not all of her songs are championship singles, but she's got more to offer emotionally and musically (and sexually) than any of the competition, unless Patti counts. She's out for herself but she gives of herself as well; when she alternates between rapacity and tenderness you don't feel she's acting coy or fucked up, although she may be. And she conveys these changes with her voice as well as with her terse, slangy, suggestive lyrics. James Honeyman Scott's terse, slangy, suggestive guitar steals don't hurt either. A-

No. 154: The Low End Theory

Band: A Tribe Called Quest
Album: The Low End Theory
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Like De La Soul before them, Tribe made smart, literate hip hop that took a lot from jazz. While gangster rap was gaining steam, Tribe was rhyming about stuff like the music industry ("Rap Promoter" and "Show Business"), violence in music ("Vibes And Stuff") and regular hip hop stuff ("Check the Rhime").
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'd be lying if I didn't say it sounded a little dated. Q-Tip's rhyming cadence has changed a great deal, Id say, to its benefit. The beats are sparser than your average hip hop song from 2007.
Best song: "Scenario" not only is an awesome Tribe song, it also has the star-making guest rap by none other than Busta Rhymes.
Worst song: "Skypage" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

Part of my vision of early '90s New York is painted by groups like Tribe. I imagine a group of young teenagers gathered around a big boom box while they freestyle good-natured (always good-natured) battle raps against one another, always in the spirit of competition.

"Scenario" is the soundtrack, basically.


I don't know if there are a lot of rap listeners who listen to Tribe. I used to work with a large black man who had grown up in a housing project and he said Tribe made music for white kids. I don't know that what he said was wrong; I'm not black. I really enjoy Tribe, but they don't seem to fit into the template N.W.A. had been creating during the same time period.

Our good friend Wikipedia says record "established alternative rap as a definable genre, distinguished by aware, often abstract or political lyrics, and a light-hearted sense of humor, along with jazz and other unusual sampling sources." I'll be honest, I've not heard music of the term "alternative rap" music, but I was 10 in 1991, when it came out.

Nevertheless, the bass lines are jazzier and define the album, basically. Relying more on jazz than funk, "The Low End Theory" sounds like a something you could hear the Roots do (though, the Roots don't sample, but rather do their own music). Q-Tip even calls music "cyclical" in the opening track, comparing jazz to rap:

You could find the abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop
I said, well daddy don't you know that things go in cycles
The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin like Michael

"Buggin' Out" has easy rhythms and some great flow from Q-Tip (as I crack the, monotone/Children of the jazz so, get your own/Smokin R&B cause they try to do me"). The organ on "Butter" makes the song sound romantic, with Phife name-dropping Heavy D's "I Need Somebody." "Scenario" has been called the best posse rap song ever and I'd say it's close. Busta Rhymes' final verse is fantastic and more than makes up for Q-Tip's relative absence from the song.

Yes, Phife Dawg and Q-Tip's cadences sound really dated (and similar to one another). Yes, they dressed really stupid. Still, it's a great record and, lyrically, influence countless backpack hip hoppers.

No. 153: Moanin' in the Moonlight

Band: Howlin' Wolf
Album: Moanin' in the Moonlight
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Remember how I talked about blues standards? Yeah, Howlin' Wolf played the original versions of many of them. And they're here.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Blues was more of a live genre than one to be recorded. As such, Howlin' Wolf's first recording session was when he was 42 years old.
Best song: "Evil" and "Smokestack Lightning" are fantastic.
Worst song: "Moanin' for My Baby" is OK, but not awesome.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

Howlin' Wolf's voice is gritty and guttural. A huge man (300+ pounds and 6'6"), he supposedly commanded a room like no one. The thin production on "Moanin' in the Moonlight" doesn't do him the justice he deserves (his self-titled record shows his voice better), but the simple blues scales and hard-edged guitar are nearly unparalleled.

There's a reason he's considered one of the greatest: The template in film/TV of the gritty-voiced, wise bluesman is largely based on him. Along with Willie Dixon, Chess Records and Muddy Waters, he made Chicago the blues capital of the world.

"Evil" is powered by a fierce piano and harmonica duo in the middle of the song while Howlin' Wolf encourages the players. When his voice comes back to sing after the duo, his true blues colors show. The cynicism in his voice backs up the classic blues theme; The witch woman who has messed with the man's heart. It's a nearly perfect Chess blues song.

Monday, September 17, 2007

No. 152: The B-52s

Band: The B-52s
Album: The B-52s
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: If we're talking about "fun," I'm not sure there's a more fun record on this list. The B-52s are, in essence, a New Wave party band, and there are few things more exciting than New Wave party music. Junior Senior, Har Mar Superstar, The Faint, Atom & His Package, and the like take a lot from the B-52s. Also, "Rock Lobster" is one of the greatest silly songs ever.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not sure New Wave party music is particularly important in the grand scheme of things. Also, the beehive hairdo never really caught on.
Best song: "Rock Lobster" is fantastic.
Worst song: "Lava" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: "Fun." Remember that word. It really describes this one.

Now, I don't know how reputable IMDB is for all your John Lennon news, but according to IMDB, this was his favorite album before he died. Again, you can take that for what it's worth.


One of my closest friends does an incredibly silly impression of lead B-52 Fred Schneider. It's not particularly hard to do an impression of Schneider; He's basically the exact hyperbolic stereotype of a gay American man (in the same way Woody Allen is the hyperbolic stereotype of a Jewish American man). Anyway, whenever I hear a B-52s song, I think of that ridiculous impression.


Things that make "Rock Lobster" great:

  • Fred Schneider screaming "Rock Lobster" as the chorus. Not unlike the other huge B-52 hit, "Love Shack."

  • That little guitar riff.

  • The Kate Pierson/Cindy Wilson harmony of "Lobster, rock lobster. Lobster rock eeeeeee oooooo oooo."

  • The breakdown wherein Schneider gives the call of the fish at the beach. "Here comes a manta ray," he says and Pierson does some fantastic ridiculous sound. You really have to hear it to enjoy it.


All in all, a fun record. I enjoy it.

No. 151: Darkness on the Edge of Town

Band: Bruce Springsteen
Album: Darkness on the Edge of Town
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: After the success of "Born To Run," Springsteen put out his most moody record. While "Born To Run" was optimistic and reverential, "Darkness" is dark and brooding. As a highway populist, Springsteen is nearly unparalleled.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: While a fine album, it does not contain King's most famous song, "The Thrill Is Gone." Still, this is a fine placement.
Best song: "Badlands" is only ruined by a crappy sax solo.
Worst song: The title track isn't very good.
Is it awesome?: It's actually not bad.

It seems to me that there's a segment of Springsteen fans that calls each of his albums the best one. More than any other band, each record has its supporters as Springsteen's best. In doing research for this record, our good friend Wikipedia says "With its haunting themes of regret, failure and dashed hopes, many Springsteen aficionados consider this to be his finest album."

You don't see that with any other band. I don't think I've ever heard anyone defend "Please Please Me," "Beatles For Sale" or even "Let It Be" to be the Beatles best album. I've never heard anyone claim "The Who By Numbers" to be the Who's best record.

So... Springsteen has that going for him.


With all that said, I didn't totally hate this album. There is some good populist writing on here (the operateive line comes in the opening track: "You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don't come" exemplifies a stuck-in-the-craptown feeling that exists in great negative rock) and Springsteen's writing is truly mean on this record.

"Adam Raised A Cain" is cheesy blues-rock nonsense, but it's powerful cheesy blues-rock nonsense (now with call-and-response chorus!). "Prove It All Night" appears to be about the Dust Bowl -- let me reiterate that Springsteen is from New Jersey -- but is a convincing story of lovers, nonetheless (forget that it thematically treads on the same ground as "Thunder Road."). "The Promised Land" is similarly depressing, though more tenderly so.


Maybe I just enjoy Springsteen sounding like he's in pain. Maybe I find his Tom Carvel gargling acid voice to work well with darker lyrics. I don't know. "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" probably doesn't belong this high on the list, but it's the only Springsteen record I've enjoyed so far.

Friday, September 14, 2007

No. 150: Santana

Band: Santana
Album: Santana
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Um... I guess it's good to have one of the genre's guitar virtuosos on here, right?
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: More boomer-based self-love. The first Santana record isn't all that important in the grand scheme of music, only has one main hit and is mostly the product of jam bandery (which I'll examine in a minute). It has one hit and one sort-of signature song. It's not a great record, though the cover is neat.
Best song: "Evil Ways" and "Soul Sacrifice" are the only two really great songs.
Worst song: "Waiting" stinks.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty great.

Why is this record on here? I'm not really sure, to be honest. It doesn't have any particular super-duper-great songs (the band's best two songs are on the next one, "Abraxas"). It doesn't do anything, musically, of particular note; The Latin-tinged rock has been done with Love, Jefferson Airplane and the like already. The jam band aspect of it was more pronounced in bands like The Grateful Dead.

Robert Christgau's review sums it up well:

Just want to register my unreconstructed opposition to the methedrine school of American music. A lot of noise. C-

Not surprisingly, the RS summary for the list contains a quote that seemingly builds off this:

he first two times Santana tried to record their debut, they scrapped the tapes. But the third time, they came up with Santana, which combined Latin rhythms with jazz-inspired improvisation, hard-rock guitar and lyrical, B.B. King-style blues -- and even had a hit single, "Evil Ways." Back then, a lot of Carlos Santana's guitar playing was fueled by psychedelic drugs. "I don't recommend it to anybody and everybody," Santana told Rolling Stone in 2000. "Yet for me, I feel it did wonders. It made me aware of splendor and rapture." For millions of people, Santana did the same thing.

(Emphasis is mine)

So... What we have here is a band that played at Woodstock (the boomer event), took a lot of drugs (boomer experience) and has the appearance of multiculturalism (white guilt, something boomers perfected [and passed on to their children, as I can attest]). It hits the boomer triple play!


Carlos Santana is a fantastic guitar player, no doubt. And I do wonder (here comes some white guilt!) if his presence in music history is buoyed partially by his Latin heritage and whether that matters or not. On one hand, I have to think that a Mexican-born musician being a big part of musical history is important to young Latin-Americans who want to get into rock and roll, in the same way the black hard rock and metal musicians (Kings X, for example) might make some young black guitar players want to be a part of rock and roll.

On the other hand, Santana's music just isn't much more than jam band nonsense. He can play, but how does that make him so much different from a Latin Steve Vai or Joe Satriani? I do think there is a lot of white guilt in there; Liberals like to show how cultured they are and liking a Latin guitar player -- as opposed to the white ones -- might look more cultured.

Again, I'm not saying that's the only reason he's popular. Jam band stuff is popular. A lot of people love the Grateful Dead. Certainly his current persona of "middle of the road old guy who teams up with middle of the road young people" has nothing to do with his ethnicity.

But, again, why is this record so high? Why is it higher than Dead records? Why is it higher than the Roxy Music records? Why is it higher than "OK Computer" or any Metallica record? If we need Santana this high, why is it higher than "Abraxas?" I don't know.

No. 149: Houses Of The Holy

Band: Led Zeppelin
Album: Houses Of The Holy
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Coming off their masterpiece fourth album, Zep expanded their sound quite a bit. Straying from the hard rock and blues-based stuff they'd done, the record moves from genre to genre. Also, a classic album cover.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's not a cohesive album by any means and the genre-shifting is hard to take, certainly. It's not Zeppelin as we know it and I can't only imagine fans in 1973 thinking it a bit odd to hear Robert Plant imitating James Brown ("The Crunge").
Best song: "The Ocean" is classic Zep, but "Dancing Days" is my favorite song on the record.
Worst song: Nothing is really terrible, but the opening suite of "The Song Remains The Same" and "The Rain Song" are mostly just show-offs for Page's guitar work.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty great.

One of the benefits of this project is -- like the joy I experienced in listening to the Dr. John record for the first time -- enjoying Led Zeppelin again. My friends make fun of me because I don't care much for Robert Plant's voice (story here), but as a fan of wonky prog rock, there are some aspects of that in Zep's middle period. They really tried to expand what they did, moving away from the standard blues/heavy metal template of their first three records.

"Houses Of The Holy" shows the band at its most experimental. Building off "Stairway To Heaven," the first two songs on the record are the similarly sprawling. "The Song Remains The Same's" quick-tempoed guitar riffing is a tribute to Page's skill as it movements work in and out of his soloing. "The Rain Song," however, is more romantic-sounding. A love ballad, the song is accented by Page's acoustic guitar and John Paul Jones' mellotron. Page considers it his finest vocal performance on tape, as well.

(These two songs are famous -- maybe infamous -- for being the suite wherein Page used the Gibson EDS-1275. The double-neck guitar has taken on a Spinal Tap-ish feel after the band's 1976 concert film/fantasy mindfuck "The Song Remains The Same.")

"Over The Hills And Far Away" is classic Hobbit-inspired love nonsense, though it features some of Bonham's best drumming. "The Crunge" is considered a tribute/homage to James Brown, but it kind of gets to mocking Brown towards the end ("Where's that confounded bridge?" being the final spoken line). Still, it's amazing the musical dexterity the band shows on it. The mythology of "D'yer Mak'er" is pretty well-known (here's Plant discussing it in a radio interview), though it is the same dexterity on this one. "Dancing Days" is my favorite song on the record and is a classic non-hard-riff-based Zeppelin song. "No Quarter" is similar to the first two tracks on the record, though it is much more overt in its D&D nonsense. Finally, "The Ocean" finishes the album in classic Zep style: Big riff, big beat and wailing Plant.

"The Ocean" is really the only Zep-sounding song on the record. The pounding drums, the wailing spider-monkey voice, the rolling bass and the heavy riffing are all there on the band's tribute to their fans ("The Ocean" is an ocean of fans).

That's not to even mention the awesome album cover:

All in all, "Houses Of The Holy" is a great Zep record. While its not the fourth album, it's probably the second-best one.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

No. 148: Déjà Vu

Band: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Album: Déjà Vu
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: I cannot, by law, write about CSNY without using using this template of key words: "Supergroup," "harmony," "Woodstock," "Buffalo Springfield" and "counterculture." "Déjà Vu" has elements of all of those things.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's a pretty record, but probably forgotten by most of us under a certain age. It's probably not the best work of anyone involved.
Best song: "Woodstock" -- written by Joni Mitchell -- is great.
Worst song: Despite my love for Neil Young, I don't care for "Country Girl."
Man" stinks.
Is it awesome?: It's close.

What you know from this album:
  • It is considered one of the most widely anticipated follow-ups in the history of rock and roll.

  • "Woodstock" is the most rocking thing the group ever did together.

  • "Our House" was used in Tollhouse Cookie" ads in the 1990s.

  • "Teach Your Children" was used in an episode of the American version of "The Office."

Otherwise, it's folk-rocky harmonies. Not bad

No. 147: Dreams to Remember: The Otis Redding Anthology

Band: Otis Redding
Album: Dreams to Remember: The Otis Redding Anthology
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Otis Redding's voice and songwriting is nearly unparalleled. His mentor Sam Cooke started soul music, but Redding nearly perfected it and this collection is full of his best stuff.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's a greatest hits package for an artist who has multiple albums on this list.
Best song: "These Arms of Mine" is a great one.
Worst song: "Love Man" stinks.
Is it awesome?: Again, more greatest hits problems.

And here we have another double disc greatest hits compilation. Like the Same Cooke record on this list, a double disc of Otis Redding makes some sense. Most people look at Otis as a singles artist and don't identify him with a singular album or group of albums. puts it well:

So, Dreams to Remember is in limbo -- a fine collection that isn't really necessary. It's not a bad choice, to be sure, but The Very Best of Otis Redding, Vol. 1 and Otis! are better choices, depending on your tastes.

I think that's fitting. If you're not a big Otis fan, you should pick this up. His hits are fantastic and he was one of the best songwriters -- and singers -- ever. Overwhelmingly, though, to put on the list is silly. Why have a greatest hits compilation for a guy with records on here?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

No. 146: Surrealistic Pillow

Band: Jefferson Airplane
Album: Surrealistic Pillow
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Airplane were one of the preeminent bands of the "Summer Of Love" largely because of this album. The two songs you probably know from the record -- "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit" -- have been played countless times on the various 60s retrospective TV specials.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Outside of a two-ish year period, the Airplane mean nothing to no one.
Best song: Well, duh. The two songs you know.
Worst song: "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" isn't very good.
Is it awesome?: I don't think so.

The Jefferson Airplane went through two big changes between the band's first and second albums. The more minor change was the replacement of original drummer Skip Spence by Spencer Dryden. Spence -- known as a songwriter -- only had a hand in writing three songs from the band's debut and barely helped create the band's sound.

The larger change, of course, was the replacement of the band's female singer. The band's first singer, Signe Toly Anderson, left the band soon after Spence did, so the band poached Grace Slick from a band called The Great Society. Slick, a college graduate and former model, was just about what the band needed; A smart, powerful, sexy voice for the "Summer of Love."

And thus came the Jefferson Airplane (and, to some extent, Jefferson Starship) we've come to know. And "Surrealistic Pillow" is the Jefferson Airplane we all know. Save for "Volunteers," every song you know by the Airplane is on here. Of course, Slick's two great songs are here. "Embryonic Journey," Jorma Kaukonen's acoustic guitar piece featured on the final episode of "Friends," is on here (thank you, Wikipedia!). "Today," the band's hippie ballad, is here. "She Has Funny Cars," a bluesy riff about conformity and hypocrisy, is on here.

Listening to it again, I'm just not totally impressed. Like Moby Grape, I think the Airplane is a band buoyed as much by boomers' memories as anything. It's as not as though "Surrealistic Pillow" doesn't deserve to be on this list; It does. It's probably a 400-500 type album. But, at 146? I don't think so.

No. 145: Aja

Band: Steely Dan
Album: Aja
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Considered the greatest Steely Dan record, "Aja" follows the classic Steely Dan pattern of fusing jazz and rock and roll.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Do you know anyone who considers him or herself a big Steely Dan fan? I do, but I think I know the only Steely Dan fan in existence.
Best song: "Deacon Blues" is classic and I enjoy "Home At Last" for its theme (Odysseus).
Worst song: "Josie" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: I don't think so.

"Aja" has gone platinum. How this is, I could not tell you. The record is interesting, on a lot of levels.

Steely Dan makes muzak, basically. I hate to write that, because I do know the only Steely Dan fanatic in the world (my former college classmate's Kelly Dwyer) and he has tried to explain to me at many a college party about the band's brilliance -- between conversation about beer, Urge Overkill, the triangle offense and women.

And, I see it, on some level. They're literate and even wrote a song about the Odyssey ("Home At Last") on "Aja." They tried to tell some stories ("Peg") and reference college stuff ("Deacon Blues"):

I'll learn to work the saxophone
I'll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

The title track meanders for eight minutes, which is certainly entertaining, but the jazz-rock can put you to sleep. Outside of "Deacon Blues," I find it boring. Blah.

Look, Steely Dan is interesting and they're clearly great musicians. But, the fact is that they are not (and shouldn't be) on anyone's radar screen who is under 30 years old (other than my friend). They solely exist to give classic rock radio stations something to play late at night when the DJs have exhausted the Beatles, Stones and Zep songs.

Steely Dan has a great record and it's on this list (no. 238), but "Aja" just isn't it for me. If KD reads this, maybe he can correct me.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No. 144: Straight Outta Compton

Band: N.W.A.
Album: Straight Outta Compton
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Probably the seminal gangster rap record, "Straight Outta Compton" is a flurry of violence, sex and inner city 1980s life. Crack, crooked police, ghetto women and gang-rule all occupy N.W.A.'s world and few people could have told the story as well as N.W.A. did.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's not for the faint of heart. It's not for conservatives. It's not for Tipper Gore. It's not for most people.
Best song: The first three tracks -- "Straight Outta Compton," "Fuck tha Police" and "Gangsta Gangsta" -- are great.
Worst song: "Something Like That" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It is. It's a hugely important record.

Released twice in the late '80s (once in 1988 on vinyl and later in '89 on CD), "Straight Outta Compton" is the album that introduced America to Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube. For that, the record should be on this list and is hugely important. I mean, if they weren't putting together the foundation for gangster rap (let's say they were rapping about basketball and partying), it'd still be important.

But, they weren't rapping about parties and basketball. N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) was one of the first acts to layer tragic ghetto imagery with fierce beats (Dr. Dre wouldn't perfect G-Funk for a few years). Threatening, street-smart and unstoppable, Ice Cube and Eazy-E played off each other as well as anyone. Cube's voice, a picture of masculinity in his delivery starts off the record with the fantastic opening lines:

Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube
From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes
When I'm called off, I got a sawed off
Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off

Taking the standard boast rap and adding the element of ultraviolence was the group's specialty. Adding violence and aggression to a classic socially conscious song created one of the genre's endearing songs, "Fuck Tha Police." Playing out as trial against the racist police -- in skit form beginning and ending the song -- the song's first rapped lyrics again come from Cube:

Fuck the police
Comin’ straight from the underground
Young nigga got it bad cause I'm brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority


I've talked a little bit about gangster rap in this space and it's hard to discount what affect it has on the black community. Whatever the impact is now, this record was influential and out-there enough to make a huge impact on rap music.

And, a plea: The idea of "outlaw country" is something that is celebrated in a lot of places. Johnnie Cash was celebrated for shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Or getting hanged by the townspeople. Or robbing others.

"Outlaw country" is based on the idea of cowboy vigilante justice, something our culture celebrates a great deal. There is even a certain place for gangster vigilante justice in that "The Godfather" is considered by many to be the greatest film ever made.

And gangster rap is vilified.

Certainly, the "Clockwork Orange"-style hyperbole of gangster rap is too much. But, it's also not too different from the thematic styles of outlaw country. Vigilante justice. Sheriffs trying to arrest the protagonist. Protagonist in the right. Bodies pile up, etc.

Obviously, it's not looked upon the same. Black people in this country don't have a lot of power, so those in power probably want to continue keeping them without power. So... Gangster rap is vilified.

Plus... White people generally find black culture scary. Rock and roll was vilified because it was black music. Hip hop has gotten the same thing.

I wouldn't say it is a conspiracy; It isn't. I think those in power subconsciously don't want those without power to gain any. It's pretty simple; The status quo is celebrated by those who wish to maintain it.


Nevertheless, "Straight Outta Compton" is a great record. It started one of the preeminent genres of the 1990s and built a foundation for future rappers.

No. 143: Gris-Gris

Band: Dr. John
Album: Gris-Gris
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Building off of R&B, psychedelia and his native Cajun music (and a stage show reminiscent of Screamin' Jay Hawkins), Dr. John sculpted this bayou strangeness. With awesome grooves and crazy lyrics, Dr. John is about as weird/great as it gets.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Like a lot of "weird" music, it's not easy to digest on first listen.
Best song: "Mama Roux" is fantastic.
Worst song: "Jump Sturdy" isn't great, but it's short.
Is it awesome?: Yes!

Dr. John is neither a doctor nor is his first name John (his middle name is John). He's a piano player from New Orleans. According to Wikipedia, "The name "Dr. John" came from a legendary Louisiana voodoo practitioner from the start of the 19th century."

Apparently, gris-gris (or grigri) is a type of amulet used in Voodoo religious ceremonies. That's exciting, I guess, though a little bit confusing. By all accounts, his concerts were pretty insane. He wore headdresses and performed quasi voodoo-type ceremonies. So... That sounds fun.


Recently, in writing about "The Fountain," Nathan Rabin wrote in an AV Club blog "I found myself thinking 'Wow, I am way too sober to be watching a movie like this'" in writing about Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain."

Listening to "Gris-Gris," I feel the same way. I am way too sober to listen to this record. Dr. John is presumably singing in some semblance of English, but if you know what "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya" means, you're a better person than I. I'm not normally one to judge a book by its cover, but take a look at the cover of this record. My first thought was "wow, this is going to be fun."

And, boy, is it.


To say Dr. John is a Cajun version of Captain Beefheart is probably oversimplifying it a little. But, that's the feeling I got in listening to it. calls the first song a "veritable introduction to this new character," the character being "Dr. John." I tend to not enjoy those sort of "persona" records, but this one is fun. It's an odd mix of psychedelic arrangements, bayou R&B (and not the idiotic CCR nonsense) and straight up blues. The rhythm is a little bit fractured on the song, but it works oddly well, in Beefheart-ish fasion.

If Dr. John meant to make hypnotizing music, he did a great job. The record's best grooves -- "Mama Roux," "Danse Fambeaux" and "I Walk on Guilded Splinters" -- are as good as much of the R&B of the time, only with Dr. John's insanity. "Mama Roux," in fact, features a fantastic Hammond organ pushed to its limits of groove.


This is what I wanted to be doing for this project. I wanted to find music with which I wasn't familiar and enjoy it. I enjoy this. It's not going to the top of any playlist of mine anytime, but it's still a load of fun. Again, a voodoo Beefheart? Sign me up.

Monday, September 10, 2007

No. 142: A Christmas Gift for You

Band: Phil Spector (though, really, it's a various artists situation)
Album: A Christmas Gift for You
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Wow, this is weird. I, uh, don't think this is a necessary record, considering it's a gimmick album. I mean, I like Phil Spector as much as the next 26-year-old, but, a Christmas album?
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well, it's a Christmas album, isn't it? By their nature, these things are novelties. They don't get much play outside of a six-week period (and that may be generous). What happens during the other 46 weeks in the year?
Best song: "White Christmas" is a fun song.
Worst song: I don't like "Silent Night" by anyone.
Is it awesome?: Not really.

Let me say that I feel entirely weird riding the Metro in the middle of September while listening to a Christmas album. Needless to say, I'm about two months early on this thing.

Also, let's look at the absurdity of a New York-born Jewish fellow making what is considered a classic Christmas album. What song does the record lead off with? Of course, another song written by a Jewish dude. I'm going to say that "A Christmas Gift for You" is a little too Jewish to be taken really seriously.

(Though, really, how seriously does one take a Christmas album? Not really seriously, right? And for my tastes, the less Jesus, the better.)

Spector's sound, of course, is the signature of the record. Hearing the orchestra clash into the wall of sound while the percussion thumps is pretty amazing. The high harmonies of bands like Darlene Love and the Ronettes do standards like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Winter Wonderland" is pretty awesome. Also, much to my amazement and excitement, "Jingle Bell Rock" is absent. I hate that song and even the wall of sound couldn't save it.

But still, a Christmas album? Ahead of "Straight Outta Compton?" Really?

No. 141: Live At The Regal

Band: B.B. King
Album: Live At The Regal
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: With blues being one of the preeminent music genres that formed rock and roll, B.B. King is one of the first names everyone associates with the blues. As such, his great live record fits has some of his best songs ("Every Day I Have The Blues," "Worry, Worry," etc.).
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: While a fine album, it does not contain King's most famous song, "The Thrill Is Gone." Still, this is a fine placement.
Best song: "It's My Own Fault" is great.
Worst song: I like every song on the record, though I'm not really in love with them. They're all good, but few are great.
Is it awesome?: It's good, but I may not be the person to judge.

Despite my ambivalence towards it, "Live At The Regal" is wildly important. Like a lot of the blues artists, King wasn't well-known by white audiences until bands like the Rolling Stones brought blues to the mainstream.

Recorded in 1964 and released the following year, "Live At The Regal" was one of the records that put King into the public's consciousness. His slow-burn blues is considerably different that type of blues that Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. Certainly, putting it in context of a guy like Johnson; "Live At The Regal" is a fully formed record. Having a horn section and a full band, King's guitar-playing isn't out to the focal point on a lot of songs.

Overall, it's a fine record. Because blues isn't my favorite music style and this particular type of blues isn't my favorite (I prefer Johnson's and Waters' style), a lot of the songs work well in the background, but are not my favorites.