Thursday, June 12, 2008

Introducing... Albums That I Own

The next step in this little site's progression isn't, in fact, going to be on this site. I'm keeping One Man, 500 Albums up, but it will be dormant. I will not be posting here much in the future, if at all.

However, I will be continue to write about records, though not a specific list. Not unlike the unlisted albums on this site, I will be writing about various albums on the new site/blog/whatever, Albums That I Own.

As I wrote on the new site's welcome post:

But, I do want to bring out some of my favorite, odd and misplaced (within my collection, I mean) albums. This site gives me the opportunity to explain my interest, for example, in a Dixie Chicks record. No, I'm not joking.

As such, the first post on the new site is, indeed, a Dixie Chicks record. Though that album doesn't portend the type of music I'll be writing about -- I don't like country music much -- it does show that I'll be stretching a lot in my writing. It won't just be classic rock, but rather genres I enjoy (post-rock, for example) and quirky records in my collection.

Please, go check out Albums That I Own.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Unlisted: We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, this site's future is still unwritten. I'm not doing another list, as the work is too much for me right now. With that said, I'm going to continue to post unlisted pieces and here is an album I adore from a band I'm ashamed to admit I love.

Band: Death Cab For Cutie
Album: We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Well, Death Cab isn't a band that everyone knows, so I guess this album shouldn't be here. I imagine it's just a personal love of mine.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "We Have The Facts" is a wondrous romp through what appears to be an on-again/off-again relationship of hipsters in Seattle. Emotionally charged, the barbs fly ("For What Reason") while bitterness remains until the end of the album("Scientist Studies"). Musically, the perfect combination of emo-style vocal whining, angular Northwest guitars and four-piece production gives the lyrics more resonance.
Best song: "For What Reason" is vitriolic on a wonderful level; The song's opening lines give fuel for dumped boyfriends for ages: "This won't be the last you'll hear from me: it's just the start."
Worst song: There's no really bad song on here. It's a wonderful record.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

"I don't think I ever noticed."

I was standing with a tape recorder in my hand, about a foot away from Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla. Nervous, I'd just asked Walla what he thought of lead singer Ben Gibbard's dance moves. To me, a 21-year-old who was seeing the band a second time, Gibbard's strange foot motions were notable. To Walla -- a lanky cross between Prince Valiant and Spike Jonze -- this was just the way the show went.

I've never been a good interviewer -- my favorite interview I've ever conducted was with Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch and was almost entirely about basketball -- but this particular event with Walla was exceptionally awkward. I stopped being a real college radio person and turned into simply a fanboy, staring a member of one of my favorite bands down.

This was March 2002. I'm not sure I'd act any different six years later.


Despite growing up in the north suburbs of Chicago, my parents raised me a White Sox fan. Being a sports fan in general torments me -- it's a generally stupid group -- but being a White Sox fan torments me in particular. The Sox' fanbase is a lower class than many baseball fanbases, drawing from the group of fools who rush the umpire and try to beat up a coach. It's a group that includes the main guy from Styx. It's a group that asks questions about stolen bases of Mark Gonzales.

It's not a club I'm proud to belong.

Simlarly, I love Death Cab for Cutie. The aforementioned 2002 show was attended mostly by female Rock Bridge and Hickman High School students, with a smattering of University of Missouri people, mostly affected skinny men or squealing women. It's probably sexist, it's certainly stupid, but this annoyed me.

This fanbase, of course, connects to the band and the band's frontman. Gibbard, chief songwriter and lead singer, crafts music of a mostly adolescent nature. I don't know another way to describe it. Songs like "Photobooth" -- an indie rock update of "Summer Nights" -- tells the tale of teenage love, while Gibbard's voice falls between matter-of-fact snark and the whispery tenderness of a brooding sophomore. It's brilliant in its potential to draw both men and women into the mix. Drawing on relationship experience, the songs have an overly emotional feel, though it is one that we've felt. It's sensitive, but grave enough to have heft.

Gibbard's writing defines this. His lovelorn and simple lyrics hardly have the tone of McCartney, Lennon or fellow Washingtonian Cobain but rather read like overwrought prose, albeit pleasant and relatable overwrought prose. Side project The Postal Service was a an exercise in such lyrics (Sample 1: "I want so badly to believe that there is truth and love is real." Sample 2: "I am thinking it's a sign. That the freckles in our eyes. Are mirror images and when we kiss they're perfectly aligned.") and his Death Cab work -- while more nuanced -- relies on similar emotive responses.

This is both Gibbard's blessing and curse. Death Cab is an anomaly in the current irony-centric indie rock climate due largely to Gibbard's huge sincerity. Death Cab's music isn't like Pavement's; love is good, songs about girls are encouraged and Gibbard's breakups make for great song fodder. You'll find very few non-sequitors in Gibbard's songwriting and words aren't chosen solely because they fit rhythmically.

Of course, it's not the sincerity that makes Death Cab stand out. It's the quality of said sincerity. "Photobooth" is both ridiculous and wonderful at once. It reflects a reality none of us have ever known but have yearned for, the reality of emotional fuck buddies within a three-month constraint. "Send Packing" -- a song from Gibbard's pre-Death Cab solo album All Time Quarterback -- is among the greatest breakup songs ever written. "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" is a brilliant breakup album. The band's first record is full of fun metaphors and dancing guitar pieces.

But, it's also the sincerity that opens the band up for criticism. In an indie rock world that celebrates the obtuse non-sequitir (Malkmus), the overly dark (Jason Molina), the overly political (Sleater-Kinney), the genre quirky (Devendrea Barnhart, Will Oldham) and the ironic (The Go! Team, etc.), a sincere angular guitar rock band doesn't always have a place. Torquil Campbell summed it up well in an AV Club interview a while back:

God bless Animal Collective, but they really have, in their own strange way, made indie rock a much more conservative place than it should be. If you can create intellectual distance from your work, then critics will feel clever for getting it and give you good marks; if you create music that fucked-up 13-year-old girls might enjoy, then critics will feel like you're trying too hard and not give you good marks.

Death Cab doesn't get the criticism within the blog/Web community that Stars does -- Death Cab is a better band, after all. But, I've heard it many times from pretentious friends and I understand why. I often feel a little ashamed that I am a Death Cab fanboy. And I don't mean sorta fanboy. I mean I have every single thing the band has ever released, including the extremely rare split 7" with Fiver, the "Wait/Prove My Hypothesis" 7", the original "You Can Play These Songs with Chords" cassette and the limited edition "John Byrd" EP. I prefer to listen to music that's above the fray, instrumental post-rock like Mogwai and Tortoise. But, being a melodramatic asshole, Gibbard's songwriting hits my buttons. At my heart, I'm still a 16-year-old getting dumped, wanting to know why. Wanting some answers.


Simpsons creator Matt Groening has a theory that anything serial is looked at by fans as being constantly deteriorating from the point which that specific fan first encountered the particular thing. He uses "The Simpsons" as the example, in that the first generation viewers of the show -- myself included -- found the third, fourth and fifth seasons to be the best. Whatever you first saw is what you will love the best.

Another Simpsons writer (I'm blanking on whom) mentions on the same DVD commentary that something serial will have to change things soon enough, because everything else has been done. For example, charges of Homer being too stupid were levied at the show as early as season six, mostly because the writers needed to continue to push some sort of envelope. This is how "22 Short Films About Springfield" was made, as well. Someone had to do something to break new ground and find new humor.

This isn't to say that later work isn't good. It almost always is. But, it's tough to grow with a band or a TV show. Someone who first knew "The Simpsons" via the 15th season is going to have a completely different view of the show than I. That's just life.

A lot of people have gotten into Death Cab via "Plans" or their latest, "Narrow Stairs." I like "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes."


One notable thing about Death Cab's success is its slow burn. The band's debut album was well-received, though under the radar. "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" was critically acclaimed, but arrived at a time when the Web did not dominate music (and therefore independent music was still not as accessible via iTunes and such). "The Photo Album" and "Transatlanticism" grew the band's popularity, albeit slowly. Eventually, of course, Death Cab signed with Atlantic and "Plans" debuted at Billboard's no. 4 position. "Narrow Stairs," released earlier in May, debuted at no. 1.

So, I don't know if I'd call "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" as the band's breakout. Today's music climate doesn't necessarily make for good breakouts; fellow Pacific Northwesters Modest Mouse's "breakout" was simply when they got a video on MTV. I don't know that Death Cab has ever had a video on MTV, as the channel rarely shows videos anymore.

Like any band that achieves success within its time, Death Cab is a product of said time. The band's best work takes from the other angular guitar music of the time while combining it with the pleading lyric style of the region. Put simply, the best of Death Cab's work sounds most like the lovechild of Modest Mouse and Elliott Smith.

"We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" is the best of Death Cab's work. Writing about the album in 2000, I compared it to my favorite songwriter:

The total irony of this album is that it came out within a month of Elliott Smith's album, "Figure 8." Where "Elliott Smith" SHOULD HAVE gone with "Figure 8," Death Cab for Cutie perfected.

I stand by this. Elliott Smith's brilliance was in his ability to use the rhythms of everyday language in his songwriting. His songs weren't repetitive in word, he never used cliches and the pullout lines were always ones we all use in conversation.

Gibbard often gets a little cute with his lyrics, but "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" has the same conversational quality. My favorite song on the album -- and my favorite of his compositions -- uses this strategy in its opening line. while "This won't be the last you hear from me, it's just the start" isn't epic and sweeping like so many Cobain lyrics, it has a mid-career Dylan quality (this, of course, is without mentioning Gibbard's splendid delivery). The album is full of similar lyrics, slowly sang over Walla's brilliant melodic-meets-mathy guitars. The album's opening track lyrics end on Gibbard repeating "I rushed this. We moved too fast, and tripped into the guestroom."

The album's breakup theme is near universal. Tiny Mix Tapes compared it to Annie Hall and listeners (well, one listener. Me.) extrapolated it to their breakup emotions. The escapism ("What ghosts exist behind these attic walls?") and the forgotten love ("Misguided by the 405 'cause it lead me to an alcoholic summer. I missed the exit to your parents' house hours ago.") all inhabit the album in various places.

While Elliott Smith's great work was able to reconcile breakups with still-in-love infatuation, Gibbard's is more sinister. Like the brilliant "Send Packing" (final lyric: "I've nothing to say that we haven't gone already."), multiple tracks on the album. The record's centerpiece, the dual "Company Calls" tracks, recount a wedding in which the protagonist lambastes the entire experience, culminating in a raucous chorus.

Set your sights destroy this partyline,
'cause it's so tired.
Set your sights! Destroy this mock-shrine,
'cause it's so tired

The same song repeats the album's theme of a resentful breakup, as the narrator recounts the arguing and unhappiness in the brilliant opening lyric:

I'll take the best of your bad moods
and dress them up to make a better you

The second track in the diad, "Company Calls Epilogue" is more sedate. A morning after of sorts, the song is no less unhappy, using the "Title Track" method of delivering somber lyrics over the song's ending while lamenting said wedding. Slow and melodic, the almost-chorus teems with resentment:

Crashing through the parlor doors, what was your first reaction?
Screaming, drunk, disorderly: I'll tell you mine.
You were the one, but I can't spit it out when the date's been set.
The white routine to be ingested inaccurately.


I generalize a fair amount when I write. Part of that is playing the part of a polemicist, part of it is our culture ingrained in me. Part of it is trying to be a relatable writer and mostly, it's much more interesting than the "on one hand, on the other hand" method that often inhabits my head. It's more fun to write "country music sucks" than "country music generally sucks, but artists like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard make interesting and great music. Also, the Meat Puppets take a great deal from country. What is considered alt-country is also great, specifically Uncle Tupelo..."

And so on.

But, this record remains a wonder. Whereas later Death Cab albums fall into the overarching (The band's latest single "I Will Possess Your Heart") or the weirdly dark ("What Sarah Said"), "We Have the Facts" is specific and smart. As a concept album, it's easy to follow, but as a thematic one (slight difference), it's brilliant. It's easy to extrapolate. I first experienced the album during a breakup and personalized it to an outrageous extent. I acted like a child and took to the album as such. It was idiotic, immature and a time I wish I had back.

But, on some level, I'm glad I shared that time with the album, as strange as that sounds. It's not a place I want to revisit, but that was a time when I was able to achieve a depth of emotion I'm not sure I can access as easily anymore. The album makes me remember, on some level, why extreme teenage emotion can be fun.

Friday, May 23, 2008


And so it ends.

It's been 51 weeks since I started this project. It started as a test of baby boomer logic and my own discipline and it ends as a repudiation of the former and a confirmation of the latter.

I made it through the entire list, though somewhere my piece for "Armed Forces" got lost in the Internet. I'll rewrite it within the next week. Nevertheless, I got through about 490 records (after considering help from Padraig, Taft and Ellen) in under a year.

What did I learn? I learned that this type of list is ridiculous. We live in a culture wherein we rank everything constantly for no reason other than we need to fill column inches and TV time. The Web has followed suit with a constant barrage of 10 best this and 10 best that. It's an odd cultural entry to a variety of content, which is good. But, it also discourages serious criticism and analysis.

Gone are the days of the pullout stories and in its place are shorter pieces. I'm not one of the dinosaurs who laments these stories; this is the nature of information in 2008. I'm cool with that. Hell, I'm a Web producer by profession. But, I do appreciate great in-depth writing and we have lost a lot of that in the mainstream press.

Of course, I'm a total hypocrite being that none of my reviews are particularly in depth. But my point is mostly that these lists are an easy way to generate a lot of copy.


I mentioned above that the list has problems with the term "great." Like the MVP in sports, "great" is essentially meaningless. It could mean influence on other bands, it could mean records sold, it could mean groundbreaking sounds. It could mean any combination of those factors.

I've spoken a little about records that need to be on the list in lieu of some of the lesser albums (Quicksilver Messenger Service, for example). I'll just throw some more out there now with the caveat that this list is horrible incomplete.

  1. Something by Mariah Carey. If only because Carey's vocal style is the most imitated in all of music. If Whitney Houston is there, Mariah needs to be there.

  2. Anything by Garth Brooks or the Dixie Chicks. Country music, especially popular country, is wildly popular and not represented on the list.

  3. Any music not from Britain or the U.S. This is a little more abstract, as the list doesn't make any claims about putting "world music" on it, whereas there are definitely jazz and country records there. Still, it'd be nice to see some Fela Kuti on there.

  4. More jazz. Simple as that.

  5. Anything by the Foo Fighters. I actually don't like the Foo Fighters, but I do think they're one of the bigger bands of the past 15 years and at least as important as the last few Springsteen and Dylan records on the list.

  6. Something by Tupac Shakur. Tupac is rightly considered one of hip hop's greatest MCs and he is not represented on this list.

This is not counting my particular bent of having more indie rock and metal on the list (two genres I enjoy).


So... What now?

Despite suggestions, I am not going to tackle another list anytime soon. No AFI movie list, no RS 500 songs list. It's just too much work in too little time for me.

I haven't finalized what I'll do, going forward. I've got some ideas, but in the interim, I'll simply be writing some small reviews like the unlisted stuff from this site.

Obviously, thanks to everyone who has read, commented and helped with the project. It has been a blast and I've learned a ton.

No. 500: Touch

Band: Eurythmics
Album: Touch
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Despite not having two of the band's biggest hits, "Touch" is Eurythmics' strongest record.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The record isn't great. I could think of a lot of other albums to sit in this spot.
Best song: "Here Comes the Rain Again" is brilliant.
Worst song: "Aqua" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Annie Lennox had something of a solo career in the early 1990s with her album "Diva," wherein she sang tons of easy listening-type songs. The album's videos were a mainstay of VH1 back when VH1 was a place for AAA music and not a repository of over-the-hill celebrities acting like children for five more minutes of fame.

I bring "Diva" up only because that was my first exposure to Lennox. I wasn't aware of Eurythmics when I was a lad. For whatever reason -- my parents' listening habits tending towards the Beatles, our not having cable until I was 10, etc. -- I never really knew about the band until way after knowing about "Why" and "Walking on Broken Glass."

There's no question that Lennox has an amazing voice. Her low register croon is decidedly feminine, despite the androgynous qualities it has. "Regrets" is her best exercise of said voice on the album, while "Here Comes the Rain Again" is an amazing tale of unrequited love. "Who's That Girl" is straight synth pop with David Stewart bringing fine drum programming and even finer synth work. "The First Cut" is a genre-bending funk track, though the piece falls a little short of great funk.

It's overkill, I'm sure, but there's no question this album is a product of the times. Elecro pop is fun, but it's hardly timeless. Lennox' voice is fantastic, but Stewart's production is layered and cool. It also sounds like the 1980s.

No. 499: Born Under a Bad Sign

Band: Albert King
Album: Born Under a Bad Sign
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Albert King's 1967 is a later edition of blues, with the tight Stax house band. While not navigating the breadth of blues' styles like earlier blues records, the album's title track remains a classic.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I hate to sound repetitive here, but why complain about this album when it's no. 499? The title track is a classic and the
Best song: The title tack is fantastic.
Worst song: The tail end of the album is pretty boring.
Is it awesome?: It's close.

Again, the Stax House band, Booker T. and the MGs, make an appearance on the list. The band backs up King's awesome interstellar playing as tight as they are on the Otis Redding records of the same vintage. Duck Dunn's bass is clean and bright and Booker T. Jones' piano nearly carries "As The Years Go Passing By."

It's not in the same category as the classic blues masters (Muddy Waters, B.B. King, etc.), but it's pretty good stuff. The title track, of course, is a classic.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

No. 498: Tres Hombres

Band: ZZ Top
Album: Tres Hombres
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Before they were the guys with the crazy car, ZZ Top played hard blues riffs over and over. "Tres Hombres" is an album of hard blues riffs, played over and over.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: There's not a lot to hate here. It's ot one of the best 500 albums of all time, but at 498, is anyone really complaining?
Best song: "La Grange," a song about a whorehouse, is a classic. "Waitin' For The Bus" is pretty good.
Worst song: Once you get to "Have You Heard?" you're pretty tired of the same three riffs.
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Before ZZ Top was the ZZ Top we all know, the band was simply a three-piece from Houston. Playing inexplicably simple blues-rock, the band released "Tres Hombres" in 1975, to minor fanfare.

The album is actually quite pleasant for what it is. It's blues rock as filtered through a solo-happy guitarist and a rhytymn section happy to fall into the background. So, you have songs like "La Grange," a three and a half minute guitar solo, with some stolen John Lee Hoker riffs in between.

That's not to say "La Grange" is a bad song. It's not. It's tons of fun and that song's opening -- lifted or not -- is iconic in rock and roll music. You know it the minute you hear it.

"Jesus Just Left Chicago" is a similar blues song, in that the riff is lifted and the lyrics are thematically typical of the genre. "Waitin' For The Bus" isn't bad and "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" has a decent populist streak (though I still dislike blue collar rock).

It's not the worst thing in the world, but it's pretty standard blues

No. 497: Yo! Bum Rush the Show

Band: Public Enemy
Album: Yo! Bum Rush the Show
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Public Enemy's debut is a product of its times. It features some young, angry men practicing hip hop in a great way. It's not as solid as the group's later work, but it remains excellent.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Again, it's a dated record.
Best song: "Timebomb" is great.
Worst song: "Too Much Posse" is what happens when you give Flavor Flav a mic. This is a bad thing.
Is it awesome?: It's not totally awesome, but it's the precursor to something awesome.

As with almost all debut albums, "Yo! Bum Rush the Show" portends the general sound that Public Enemy would later perfect on albums like "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" and "Fear of a Black Planet." Chuck D's low rap and the Bomb Squad's production flow through the album.

With that said, the record is also a product of its time and its producer. Rick Rubin executive produced the album, despite actual production from the Bomb Squad. The record echoes LL Cool J's "Radio" in its old school feel. With all that said, the Bomb Squad's attachment to the samples and scratches of Terminator X. Some of the record sounds old, there's no way around it. "Public Enemy No. 1" is ridiculous and "Miuzi Weighs a Ton" is to gangsta rap as cro-magnon man is to a modern human.

Here's the other thing, Flavor Flav's prescence on the record is a little grating. "Too Much Posse" is a Flav track and he's awkward and stupid, rhyming "cool" with "fool" at one point. Flavor Flav is, in and of himself, a total joke. The hype man is one of the worst inventions in popular music. The Dickipedia entry on him sheds light on the silliness within, so I'll just link to it.

Again, I look to PE as the group many liberal boomers see as the extension of black people they knew from the 60s and 70s: The Panthers. They're mad, but they're old now, so they're harmless.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

No. 496: Destroyer

Band: Kiss
Album: Destroyer
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Wow, well. People like Kiss, right? I mean, they've sold tons of records and every time they tour, scores of makeup-covered morons push into the nearest stadium to proclaim their love of partying.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Bah.
Best song: "Detroit Rock City" is stupid, but fun.
Worst song: "Beth:" Worst song ever? I'd say maybe.
Is it awesome?: Not even close.

I haven't written extensively about my favorite current video game (only referencing it once), but I am an avid player of Rock Band. I love playing that game. I bought a Playstation 3 largely to play that game and that game only.

Anyway, there's a phenomenon in that game which I normally compare to Stockholm Syndrome. If you play Rock Band enough, you start to know -- backwards and forwards -- songs you wouldn't otherwise know or like. The game's soundtrack is extensive and there are tons of downloadable songs online. Nevertheless, in order to do well in the game, a player has to play a lot of goddamned songs the player doesn't like.

The game, for example, features songs by Molly Hatchet, the Killers, the Hives and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, all bands I wish would fall off the face of the earth. Still, I know those songs up and down because I've had to get the rhtymns down for playing the drums, the lyrics for singing and some semblance of the melody through playing the Rock Band guitar.

And so goes "Detroit Rock City," the first song from "Destroyer." It's a ridiculous song, written about a
Kiss fan who drank, drove and ended up dead after colliding with a truck in Michigan. It's based on a repetitive guitar riff and some wildly stupid lyrics, but I've come to know it as well as I know some of my favorite songs. know all the words. I can rock about a 90% on it


I like Pitchfork Media a fair amount -- I find myself defending it to friends and haters all too often -- but this review of "Destroyer" is an example of why people hate Pitchfork. Granted, it's an old review (and the site has moved away from this style of review recently), but the self-indulgent reference to a fictional "Troy" is stupid.


The rest of "Destroyer" is basically dung. "Beth," despite its popularity, is overwrought and dumb. "God of Thunder" is threatening in the same way an angry child is threatening; it's more cute than scary. "Flaming Youth" is awkward and stupid. "Shout It Out Loud" is clunky, due to some pretty mediocre singing.

Kiss is more of a phenomenon than a band. Their place in music history is important, but I'd hardly call their music great.

No. 495: New Day Rising

Band: Hüsker Dü
Album: New Day Rising
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the preeminent 1980s underground bands, Hüsker Dü was fast and furious before that term had soemthing to do with cars. Bringing pop melodies to hardcore speeds and muscianship to the Minutemen's ethos, "New Day Rising" is a classic.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'd suggest "Zen Arcade" is better, but I'm generally happy with this placement.
Best song: "Terms of Psychic Warfare" has a great guitar solo, the title track is awesome and "Celebrated Summer" shows the band's ability to branch out.
Worst song: I don't love "Whatcha Drinkin'".
Is it awesome?: Sure.

I am a liar. Earlier this week, I said Pearl Jam was the only band on this list without its best album on the list. Hüsker Dü also holds that distinction with "New Day Rising" here at 495 and "Zen Arcade" not on the list.


Hüsker Dü's influence is grand and "New Day Rising" backs up the band's reputation. The band was part of a wonderful blooming trio of bands in the 1980s out of Minneapolis/St. Paul including the Replacements and Soul Asylum (before they started to suck). Hüsker Dü was the hardest of the bands, starting as a hardcore band, all screams and distortion. As the band matured, vocals became more sing-songy and the guitars became more melodic, all while keeping the general aesthetic.

"New Day Rising" hitches up where "Zen Arcade" left off. The album's works themes like ambivalence and lost love are wonderful and tender. Bob Mould's voice is never better than on "Perfect Example" and Grant Hart's sadness is palpable on "The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill."

Of course, the bass lines roll ("Terms of Psychic Warfare") and the buzzsaw guitars on the title track show off the band's hardcore roots. Melody is wonderful, but thrashing is also awesome.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

No. 494: She's So Unusual

Band: Cyndi Lauper
Album: She's So Unusual
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: In another example of style trumping substance, "She's So Unusual" became a huge seller on the back of four huge videos and Lauper's crazy style.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's a typical 1980s record. There are bad compressed drums and crazy keyboards. Also, way too many backup singers.
Best song: "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" is great and "Time After Time" is a nice ballad.
Worst song: "I'll Kiss You" stinks.
Is it awesome?: No.

Cyndi Lauper's current popularity -- however small -- is more a product of the times than it is of her talents. That's not to say that Lauper doesn't have some talent; she's a decent songwriter and can sing a song within her limited range pretty well. But, for all intents and purposes, she should have been a one- or two-hit wonder. Instead, because of her strange style and quirky music videos, she's stuck around.

The album was released a scant two years after MTV's debut, so videos were incredibly important. Fighting with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince for airplay, Lauper fashioned a somewhat bizarre image -- layers of bright colors and giant hair -- that proved to be iconic.

She eventually became a gay icon, touring for the Human Rights Campaign recently. As an aside, I don't really understand who the gay community lauds as icons. Obviously, the "gay community" assumes that all gay people move as one, which is obviously not true. Nevertheless, individuality seems to be a big part of gay icon-ness, but I'd be lying if I said I understand what that means. Prince, for example, is quite the individual and wrote much better songs. Plus, you know, he's omnisexual. But, he's not a gay icon. But, Cyndi Lauper is?

As such, Lauper probably has the single most annoying speaking voice in the history of humanity (barely edging out Fran Drescher). The version I own of "She's So Unusual" has a few live tracks on it, and as Lauper introduces "She Bop," her ridiculous New York-via-nursery-school accent makes me want to stick a fork in my ear. Someof that comes through in her singing voice, but it mostly gets lost in the 1980s production.

"Campy" would be a fine word to describe much of the album. The album is over-the-top and pronounced, with the most famous single being a nod to femininity ("Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"). Only "Time After Time," a gorgeous ballad, remains understated. The backbeat keyboard from "All Through the Night" sounds like something out of a German disco, "Money Changes Everything" is yet another in the genre of "I hate the music industry" songs. "When You Were Mine" is a Prince-penned song that Lauper nearly ruins with her screech.

(Of course, "She Bop" is one of the more famous songs about masturbation. The video has Lauper dancing around the topic. That this video got airplay years before "I Touch Myself" really confounds -- and delights -- me.)

This album is probably the sneakiest 6x platinum album. Other than myself, I do not know a single soul that owns this record. Crazy, eh?

No. 493: That's the Way of the World

Band: Earth, Wind & Fire
Album: That's the Way of the World
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The best selling and best album from Earth, Wind and Fire features the group's famous harmonies and their signature funk sound.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Parts of the record get a little repetitive.
Best song: The first two tracks -- the title track and "Shining Star" -- are brilliant. Africano is also awesome.
Worst song: "All About Love" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's close.

Earth, Wind & Fire is perfectly pleasant. Again, because I'm a product of my time, EW&F has been a band good for three things:

  1. Dusty stations

  2. Advertisements for older people

  3. Hip hop samples

I guess I could add "background music" to that list after living with "That's the Way of the World" for two days. It's a perfectly fine album, it's just not memorable after the first two tracks. Certainly, the title track and "Shining Star" are amazing songs, but the album is just good enough after those two. "Happy Feelin'" is a more upbeat number, but has the same harmonized vocal style that came to be the band's trademark. "Yearnin' Learnin'" is a Stevie Wonder knockoff, though a good one. The instrumental Afrocentrism on "Africano" starts off with a nice little flute.

It's the type of album we should all have, but it's largely forgettable if you're not a fan already.

Monday, May 19, 2008

No. 492: Vitalogy

Band: Pearl Jam
Album: Vitalogy
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Delayed by the band's fight with Ticketmaster, "Vitalogy" was recorded mostly as the band toured the country. Problems within the band created a strange dynamic and some eclectic stuff.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Pearl Jam is still Pearl Jam. It's not great music.
Best song: "Nothingman" isn't bad.
Worst song: Bah. "Corduroy" stinks.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

Bands that are on this list, but without their best effort on the list:

1. Pearl Jam

That is all.

(Honestly, is Pearl Jam the only band without its best album on the list? I guess you could argue one of the early Soundgarden records, but I'd still go with "Superunknown." Maybe someone could claim "Chocolate City?" I don't know. "Vs." is the superior of the Pearl Jame records.)


Here's another question: Is Pearl Jame the most misrepresented band of its era? There's a feeling that Pearl Jam had a "grunge" sound, which is nowhere near true. The band's distance from the Seattle sound is large, considering Pearl Jam's entire being is one of anthematic classic rock. Instead of taking influence from the hardcore and punk bands of the '80s -- as Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden did -- Pearl Jam took influence from Neil Young and the Who.

Similarly, Vitalogy is Pearl Jam's more "punk" record, though that's a very relative concept. "Spin the Black Circle" is the analog-as-savior song, built on a high octane riff. "Not for You" and "Corduroy" is are classic Pearl Jam songs, all dirge and whine. The band branches off into the eclectic zone on a couple of tracks, trying to be Tom Waits on "Bugs" and a sonic scrap band on "Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me." Save for the weirder songs, the album is simply another Pearl Jam record. The songs run together and are entirely forgettable.

No. 491: All the Young Dudes

Band: Mott the Hoople
Album: All the Young Dudes
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: At the brink of breaking up due to shiftless sales, Mott the Hoople decided to take a decent cover and a David Bowie song and build an album around them. This is the result.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Save for those two songs, the album is forgettable.
Best song: Title track. No question.
Worst song: "One of the Boys" stinks.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

Is Mott the Hoople the worst band on the RS 500 list? My first thought is yes, but upon further reflection, Mott isn't the worst thing in the world. The worst artists on the list remain Meat Loaf or Quicksilver Messenger Service (of course, outside of U2 and Springsteen).

Still, "All the Young Dudes" is the second album on this list from the band, on top of six Bowie albums. Mott the Hoople were, essentially, Bowie proteges, and this album has the band's biggest hit. Written originally by Bowie for Mott, the album's title track wasn't even Bowie's first choice to give to the band. In fact, the band rejected the original choice, "Suffragette City" and opted for "All the Young Dudes" instead. Bowie, of course, sang backup on the record and the rest is sorta history.

The song is often misinterpreted as a positive song, though it's mostly about things like suicide, teenage rebellion and the apocalypse. The song dismisses the Beatles and Rolling Stones as, essentially, old people's music while lauding T. Rex. Certainly, an odd choice.

Still, like "Cherub Rock," the song's message is not what makes it fun. Bowie's skill at crafting a melody is evident by the singalong chorus. The song makes for a wonderful singalong -- it's easy to see 30 people crooning along to "carry the news."

But, you know, one song does not an album make. End of the list or not, this record shouldn't really be here.

Friday, May 16, 2008

No. 490: Entertainment!

Band: Gang of Four
Album: Entertainment!
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Sitting in a place with the Modern Lovers, Television and other such post-punk bands, Gang of Four's debut is a wonderful amalgam of the dominant music of the 1970s, filtered through an intelligence unforeseen until the record's release.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I guess I could see why some people don't like it, but that's not easy. More importantly, this album is far too low considering the music that followed it.
Best song: "Ether," "Return the Gift" and "Guns Before Butter" are all great.
Worst song: I don't love "Contract."
Is it awesome?: Yes.

Scores of words have been spilled on "Entertainment!" by writers far more talented than I. Robert Christgau says of the record "No matter how merely liberal their merely critical verbal content, the tension/release dynamics are praxis at its most dialectical."

The greatest bands were able to fuse forms while still maintaining a melody and catchy ethos. Gang of Four do this in spades. Each song is danceable in the same way current bands like The Rapture are catchy. It's the kind of catchy that won't get you on the radio -- Go4 never really got on the radio -- but it is the kind of catchy that could get you in an iPod ad or over credits on an episode of "Bones." As Jess Harvell of Pitchfork said in a review of the album, "They had attitude, energy, the big beat, skilled players funneling their virtuosity into the necessary notes, a handy way with a catch phrase, and sweaty live performances. Sounds like pop to me."

And that's how the record sounds. While Public Image Ltd. did a similar thing, their music was harder on the ears. Andy Gill's razorblade guitar on "Not Great Men" is rhythmic and fun, while the chorus is fun. Each is, indeed, a hook. It's the type of thing a listener hums soon after and never forgets.

Yes, catchiness/pop sensibility isn't the only thing important to a band, but songs with no hooks are the ones most forgotten. I recently got two albums by two of my favorite bands; both are bands known for considerable hooks. The first -- Death Cab for Cutie's latest -- is entirely forgettable. That's too bad, because DCFC is a favorite of mine, but they're fallen into a trap of boredom. So it goes.

The other album is Nine Inch Nails' latest, "The Slip." The record is much more hook-heavy and fun. Like Go4 -- from who Reznor has taken great influence -- the album is danceable, yet still maintains a line of heaviness.

Go4's ethos is much more punk rock and much more political (not to mention smarter) than NIN. "Damaged Goods" builds to a dance-rock fury while the Marxism "Guns Before Butter" is better than anything Rage Against the Machine ever released (not mention its around-the-world drumline. "Ether" stands along any great rock of the past 30 years and "5.45" bemoans the media and industrial life we live in, while utilizing the simplest of intros. Sounding like a better version of Fugazi, the album's message is clearer than its peers.

It's sad, really. Go4 was so ahead of its time, it's a shame the band never achieved the heights Fugazi did. Still, "Entertainment!" holds up so much later as a testament to their genius.

No. 489: Guitar Town

Band: Steve Earle
Album: Guitar Town
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Steve Earle was one of the earlier pioneers of alt country and his debut album still sits near the top of the genre's esteem. In 2006, it was ranked 27th on CMT's 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I am not a country music fan, nor a fan of 1980s production techniques. "Guitar Town" has both.
Best song: The title track isn't bad.
Worst song: "Down the Road" stinks.
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Again, let me first preface all I'm about to write by saying that I am woefully ignorant in the ways of country music. Certainly due to a classist bent, I was always under the impression that country music was for hill people and poor whites.

(This stereotype has moved, if our entertainment is correct, onto 1980s metal and the Chevy Camaro.)

So... I experienced much in the way of country music -- save for Johnny Cash and Richard Buckner (who is only country if you squint) -- until my college years when I was exposed to fellow Illinoisans Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy and the alt-country movement they helped spawn. Uncle Tupelo -- a band not on this list, by the way -- is always going to be my starting point when these discussions arise.

This means my appreciation for Steve Earle is minor. I know of him more from his "Jerusalem" album -- a record I reviewed for my college radio station -- than for this record.

"Guitar Town," to my ears, sounds a lot like the decade from which it spawned. It is the rock and roll of the time, with arrangements similar to Springsteen's. "Goodbye's All We've Got Left" has the same organ sound as "Glory Days" while "Someday" speaks of the blue collar blues evident on every Springsteen record.

The more country-sounding songs don't have any Springsteen in them, as "Hillbilly Blues" and "Think It Over" sound like something from a Hank Williams songbook (albeit overly produced). Neither is particularly good.

Earle's music certainly appeals to someone, but I prefer my country in the vein of Merle Haggard, Cash and Uncle Tupelo. This one is just too much a product of its time.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

No. 488: Voodoo

Band: D'Angelo
Album: Voodoo
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: I don't know enough about the Soulquarians to write about the whole of this album, but D'Angelo's thing is that he's a modern, slower Prince. "Unitled (How Does it Feel?)" is the grand example of this.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I actually think this should be higher.
Best song: "Playa Playa" and "Unitled (How Does it Feel?)" are wonderful.
Worst song: "Spanish Joint" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Sure.

Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson executive produced "Voodoo." This is a fact easily found not only by reading the album's liner notes or looking it up on our good friend Wikipedia, but also by listening to the record.

Thompson's hand is all over the album, with his downtempo drumming style absent from R&B and hip hop, save for the things he touches. The album's opening track

?uestlove was able to utilize what he called "human imperfections" in his drumming, turning off some (Lenny Kravitz was originally slated to appear on the album, but chose not to because he couldn't sing with the beats), but making for a cooler sound. the record is slightly Roots-esque, with "Playa Playa" sounding the most like a

Of course, D'Angelo's voice is the draw to the record. Sounding partially like a Prince cover singer, he lilts and moves through notes like a male Mariah Carey. "Chicken Grease" is a silly little song that features his entire range while "The Root" is soulful and great.

The guests are similarly good on the record. "Left & Right" is an odd sex song, considering the guests on the song are, um, Method Man and Redman. No offense to anyone who's had sex with either gentleman, but neither are exactly sexy.

Plus, of course, there is this:

A fine, fine record.

No. 487: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Band: The Smashing Pumpkins
Album: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: If you listen to the throbbing mass of Pumpkin fandom, this album is "Sticky Fingers," "Dark Side of the Moon," "Revolver" and "The Wall" all rolled into one. This, of course, is nonsense. MCIS is a picture of ego, though I'd suggest that ego isn't the worst thing in the world. The album has its highlights but is not some epic masterpiece.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: See above.
Best song: "Zero" has a great riff, but is lyrical nonsense.
Worst song: "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)" is dumb.
Is it awesome?: Not really, but it's better than I remembered.

"Alternative" is an odd term and one that lost, basically, all meaning during its run. By definition, it has to be the non-dominant form and, clearly, "alternative" was the dominant form of music for much of the 1990s. "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" was the height of pomposity for alternative music.

Like all double albums, the record bites off more than it can chew, but, MCIS is a wonderfully post-modern look at double albums. Taking elements from many of the classic double albums of the past, it reprocesses a lot of concepts record buys know and love. The goodbye/goodnight track reflects the White Album, the opening overture-type song is "Tommy"-esque, the concept of life and death reflects a non-double (but a classic concept album) in "Dark Side of the Moon" and the nihilism often played out in the lyrics reflects "The Wall." In fact, Corgan himself called the record "The Wall for Generation X."

In short, MCIS is, like "The Simpsons," a reflection of much of what has been stuck in our heads as music buyers.


With that said, let me lay out some of my feelings in a single paragraph, as I did in an e-mail to some friends last year:

I have to say, I like "Siamese Dream" some (specifically, the singles), but the masturbatory nature of Billy Corgan's writing just bugs the hell out of me. I specifically mention "Zero" as his last good composition largely because I only like that song and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" as decent tracks from the disaster that is "Mellon Collie." It's a double album (almost always a mistake, as double album=lots of filler), but it also has the wannabe nostalgia of "1979" and the symphonic nonsense/whinefest that is "Tonight, Tonight."

The piece on this project that garnered the most on-topic comments is "Siamese Dream," which entirely proves my point that Smashing Pumpkins fans worship the band to a larger degree than most bands. To sum up, I once wrote a column calling the fans of certain bands 'fanboys' and mocked them for it. The bands were Nine Inch Nails, Tool, Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins. When I wrote said column in college, I got tons of hate mail -- more than I'd ever received.

The funny thing, of course, is that I praised "Siamese Dream." Despite it being an arena-rock record, it has ridiculously good hooks, including a song I diametrically oppose (lyrically), but love to sing.

Smashing Pumpkins, at this point, is mostly in the past. No one claims that Billy Corgan -- well, I'm sure someone does, but I don't want to meet this fictional person -- is currently making good music. The band's best work is clearly "Siamese Dream" (though some would say MCIS is the band's best work) and "Siamese Dream" was released 15 years ago.

But, like a lot of artists who still exist in the past -- despite dragging a rotting a corpse of a back catalog around -- the Pumpkins have their defenders. It's tough to criticize their top work without getting hit by the fanboys and fangirls. Criticizing their bald genius is akin to stomping on these morons' collective foot.

And maybe I do hold Corgan's most self-indulgent moments against his better work. MCIS isn't the worst thing I've ever heard, to be honest, and there are decent songs on it. It raises a pretty simple question: How much should we hold our annoyance from an artist against said artist's work? How much should our separate the people from the music?

It's difficult, certainly. Billy Corgan annoys the hell out of me and his fans are even worse. His conceit that he's the greatest songwriter in this planet's history makes me want to punch him in the head. That his fans suck it up bugs me even more. They act like he's a great producer when all he's ever really done is -- gasp! -- hook up a flanger and Superfuzz and layer guitars. Oh my! I've never heard Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Kim Thayil and every other fucking guitar player -- save for Kurt Cobain -- do the same thing.

Also annoying is Corgan's whining voice. Sounding like someone with his nuts in a vice, Corgan's pitch is somewhere above a cat being slaughtered as he screamed "And I still believe that I cannot be saved" at the end of "Bullet With Butterfly Wings."

This is all without mentioning Corgan's obnoxious lyrics. His pseudo-nihilism is both annoying and rampant through the record. Two of the record's biggest singles -- "Zero" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" -- are almost nonsensical in their angst. "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)" is probably as much a nod toward Corgan's critics (Hello, Mr. Albini!) as it is inner monologue.

With all that said, MCIS isn't a terribly offensive record. Taken as a whole, it's bloated and annoying. The whole concept of Corgan trying to place the life cycle into an album makes me want to smash all my CDs. But, taken individually, the songs have their merits.

"Tonight, Tonight" is not as terrible as I remembered it last year. The CSO's strings are beautiful and actually work with Corgan's voice more than the band does. "Here is No Why" is pretty little riff and the duel fake Nietzschism of "Zero" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" is built on wonderful riffs. "1979" has cool samples and is a decidedly not-Pumpkins record.

Like all double albums, the record would be best-served to be cut down to one disc. There are about five or six good songs on the record and a whole lot of filler.

It bugs me to even remotely endorse this album, but there are some good songs on it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No. 486: Maggot Brain

Band: Funkadelic
Album: Maggot Brain
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Funkadelic's third album is a harder brand of funk than earlier records. Touching on classic 1970s themes -- empowerment, drugs, etc. -- the album is strong lyrically and darker musically.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Eddie Hazel's guitar is the signature of the record and it gets tedious.
Best song: "Hit It and Quit It" is great.
Worst song: The title track is way too long.
Is it awesome?: It's OK. I don't love it.

"Maggot Brain" is a wildly challenging album. Like many things George Clinton, it's pretty bizarre, but gone are the hits of previous Clinton-led work ("Atomic Dog," etc.) and left is a darker, more out-there record.

One needs to look no further than the opening title track to see this shift. The album opens with a 10 minute guitar solo. Sprawling and cool, "Maggot Brain" is a song that's not really a song. It's "Eruption" on heavy sedatives. The album's later tracks all carry guitarist Eddie Hazel's sound. His screaming wail dots the record.

It's a far musical cry from the Meters or Sly and the Family Stone, that's for sure. Lyrically, though, it works with similar themes. "You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks" is a song about unity among the poor. The song takes its refrain from a folk rhyme originally published in 1922. "Super Stupid" takes on the drug problem and takes influence from Jimi Hendrix. "Wars of Armageddon" is strange, long and fun. The lyrics are mostly about social power among the poor, as well as the politicians sending those to war.

It's not the records you know -- though you may know "Hit It and Quit It" -- but it is a good record. Worshipped by some, it takes a bit to resonate. But, when it does, look out.

No. 485: All Time Greatest Hits

Band: Loretta Lynn
Album: All Time Greatest Hits
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of country's biggest stars, Loretta Lynn's 2002 compilation is a one-stop shop for anyone learning to love her music. She sings of booze, men and jealousy with aplomb.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Maybe it's just my bias against country, but I could not get really into this record. It's pleasant enough, but it's not as good as the other country on this list, be it Haggard, Parton or Cash.
Best song: "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" is great.
Worst song: "Trouble in Paradise" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Bad timing. I can't enjoy this as much as I should, due to recent listens to Merle Haggard.

Loretta Lynn is basically worshiped by Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes. It's understandable, as she's, clearly, a tough lady. Her songs don't fuck around. She will cut you if you cross her. In the grand country tradition, she has big hair and an even bigger voice.

"All Time Greatest Hits" is the definitive single-disc country compilation of Lynn's. An accomplished gospel singer, her grit is evident on the record. She threatens a potential interest in her man on "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)," and the divide between two in "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man."

For a gospel singer, Lynn's amorous songs are a little striking, but fun nonetheless. "Out of My Head and Back in My Bed" and "Wine, Women and Song" and "One's on the Way" are such songs.

The music isn't entirely new and listening to this one directly after "Branded Man" is not good timing. It sounds less than Haggard's masterpiece, though that could just be my untrained-to-country ear. Nevertheless, a fun set.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

No. 484: Branded Man

Band: Merle Haggard
Album: Branded Man
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: In the same way Johnny Cash was a romantic vigilante, Merle Haggard was a badass who could knock your ass to the floor. His introspective laments dot the album and his beautiful manvoice portray the lyrics perfectly.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It should probably higher, but this is a decent placement. The sound isn't wildly divergent, so I can see why people don't like it. It is a genre piece.
Best song: The title track is brilliant and "Gone Crazy" is an amazing uptempo number. "I Threw Away the Rose" is aching and pretty.
Worst song: I like every song on this record.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

You know, I've complained over and over about the lack of hip hop on this list, but where's the country music? I'm not a country fan, but the genre was one of rock and roll's most influential precursors. Yes, there is a little more country on the list, but country has had a longer lifespan. Save for Hank Williams and Johhny Cash, there isn't much country here.

Moreover, there's absolutely no modern country. None. Now, I'm woefully ignorant of this particular genre, but shouldn't Garth Brooks make an appearance here? Or Faith Hill? Or the Dixie Chicks? Or someone from that genre? Instead of 50 Dylan albums and every band that ever set foot in San Francisco in 1967?


Merle Haggard is a badass. Like Cash, Haggard came into country when the idea of a noble cowboy was giving in to the Leone-style mythos of the 1960s. Cowboys, for many, were more about badasses and gunslingers than the Roy Rogers of the world. Haggard's version of "Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive" is buttressed by the album's title track -- about being misaccused -- and the not very subtle "Don't Get Married," a song in which the protagonist is in prison and asks Julie to remain faithful. After all, "someday, I'll be free." Similarly, the album wraps up with "I Made the Prison Band."

Hell, even the love songs are salty. "Go Home" is the tragic love story of Maria, a Mexican woman, and the protagonist, presumably Haggard. Set against a slight mariachi guitar line, the song is a cool crossover and a wonderful lyric.


Haggard's voice is strong and manly. "Somewhere Between" features his and Bonnie Owens' wonderful vocals playing off one another. The album's instrumentation is straight-up country, with layered guitars, an upright bass and a slide working the melody. It's a perfectly pleasant listen and a great surprise. This one is a classic.

No. 483: Life After Death

Band: Notorious B.I.G.
Album: Life After Death
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Released a few days after B.I.G.'s death, "Life After Death" has an oddly prophetic feel. The album art features him next to a funeral hearse and the songs about death dot the album. Armed with tight street flow and better production than "Ready to Die," the album's a fine two discs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's a double, so there is filler. Sometimes the guests do more of the heavy lifting than B.I.G. does, as "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems" shows.
Best song: "Notorious Thugs" is great.
Worst song: "What's Beef" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

The Source rarely gives five mics to a record and "Life After Death" is one of those albums. It puts the record within

The sad fact about this album is that it's biggest hit -- "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems" -- was problematic for two reasons. First, it's hardly the best song on the record. More importantly, the song introduced the pop music world to Puffy rapping. Puffy is annoying and his verse on "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems" just serves as an example of this.


"Life After Death" is certified Diamond, but that's kind of a misnomer, as each disc gets counted and it's a double. So, it's really only sold, like, 5 million copies. Sadly, B.I.G. didn't get to see the album's release, as that nonsense East/West Coast stuff culminated in his death two week's before the album dropped.

B.I.G.'s wit is the draw of the album, with him dipping into self-deprecation, over-the-top threats and ridiculous sex romps. "Fuck You Tonight" is an R. Kelly-style smooth jam, featuring the voice of, well, R. Kelly. "Sky's the Limit" features a 112 hook, but works a sweet backbeat and B.I.G.'s sad inspirational message. "Going Back to Cali" features a Zapp sample (!) and has one of B.I.G.'s better flows in his career.

Of course, the opening track from the second disc is the highlight of the album. "Notorious Thugs" was part of a soundtrack to my freshman year of college, largely because my roommate (and longest-running friend) loves the song and played it a lot (along with, oddly, the first Boston record). Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's Krayzie Bone's verse is easily the best thing he ever did and B.I.G.'s normally smooth flow gets broken up by his aping of the Bone Thugs style. It's amazing.


As is the way, a double album is just too much. There are far too many skits and far too many filler songs, but that's mostly the nature of the double album beast, isn't it? Considering B.I.G. is one of the three best rappers ever, it's forgiven. This album is a must-have.

Monday, May 12, 2008

No. 482: Armed Forces

Band: Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Album: Armed Forces
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Armed Forces" is one of Elvis Costello's great early albums, stoking political fires and using a very, very obscene word on "Oliver's Army."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm generally happy with this placement. It's a fine album and Costello deserves his due.
Best song: "Oliver's Army" is great.
Worst song: "Busy Bodies" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Sure.

"Armed Forces" is the final of Elvis Costello's albums on this list. Gaining three albums on the list, he's treated with the same respect as Black Sabbath, Big Star, Marvin Gaye and Tom Waits.

With that said, Costello's new wave staccato and posturing rock act likely hit its early apex on 1979's "Armed Forces." The record is decidedly political -- "Two Little Hitlers," "Senior Service," and "Oliver's Army" all snap at the British establishment -- and Costello's voice is distinct and clever. "Oliver's Army," a class-warfare anthem, is brilliant and sharp and the Attractions are at their best.

The U.S. release of the album includes one of Costello's most popular tracks, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding." The Nick Lowe-penned track remains a hit and is intimately fun.

Much of the album runs together as Costello's guitar work was never the stuff of legends, but the album's tone is clever and worthwhile. It's one of his best.

No. 481: The Smiths

Band: The Smiths
Album: The Smiths
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The band's first album, "The Smiths" is a clever little record highlighting the band's two great strengths: Morrissey's vocals and Johnny Marr's guitar.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: There's a certain sound and it's repeated. The lyrics aren't Moz' best. The band's sound isn't refined as it could be or later would be.
Best song: "This Charming Man" is among the band's best songs.
Worst song: I don't like "Miserable Lie"
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Like many debut albums, the Smiths' eponymous record is a hint at the band's later work while the band clearly works through its sound. Largely a contrast to the synth-pop of the time, Johnny Marr's guitar is still finding its voice.

Morrissey's affect gets a little tired. While his angrier work dots later records, "The Smiths" appears to be a bit more mopey and something less. Still, the lyricism i solid. Working off, I presume, his own pretentious mind, Moz drops references to "Ulysses," Al Jolson and Thomas Noel in "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle," a song some misinterpreted as possible Dateline-worthy."Hand in Glove" is sweet and pretty, with Morrissey singing of a unique love.

The band's highlight, though, is "This Charming Man." An ode to the underground scene of the day, the song is built off a jangly riff and uptempo drumline. Morrissey's vocals -- including his sustain on the chorus' "maaaaaaan" bit -- are unparalleled. An uptempo, jazzy bassline keeps the song moving. Like many Smiths songs, an ambiguous sexuality flows the the song, a specialty Morrissey utilizes often.
"The Smiths" is a fine record, but not perfect. "Meat is Murder" and "Louder than Bombs" are superiour albums, but "The Smiths" is certainly a good start.

Monday, May 5, 2008

A programming note

Because I've done two albums every weekday for almost a year now, it is high time for me to take a slight vacation from this project. I am doing so this week. I'll have a couple of unlisted albums for your perusal, but otherwise, we will resume the list with the first Smiths album on Monday, May 12.

Friday, May 2, 2008

No. 480: Faith

Band: George Michael
Album: Faith
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Oddly good, "Faith" is a wonderful intersection of white-guy soul and dirty pop. George Michael's thinly veiled -- or not veiled in the case of "I Want Your Sex" -- sexuality powers the album, along with his strong voice.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's certainly dated.
Best song: The title track is great, as is "Monkey.
Worst song: "Hard Day" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Actually, yes.

As I mentioned in a recent piece, one of the joys of this project is seeing how certain albums were received, despite my ignorance of said reception when the album came out.

"Faith" was released just before my seventh birthday and "I Want Your Sex" was wildly popular. In a rare show of parental censorship -- one thing my parents did really well was let me sister and I see/hear just about everything we wanted -- my parents (I don't remember if it was a combined effort or one or the other) weren't comfortable with two popular songs. One was Salt 'N Pepa's "Push It" -- which confused us, because we didn't understand the innuendo as 6- and 8-year olds -- and George Michael's "I Want Your Sex."

To this day, my purchase of this album was held up by this notion. I, like 10 million others, probably would've had this album before last month had my parents treated the song the same way they treated so many movies, CDs and TV shows.

So, my parents' ruling is one of the things I remember about "Faith," not the acclaim it apparently received. I mean, wow. I'm really struck by the reviews from Rolling Stone and AllMusic. AllMusic's review begins as such:

A superbly crafted mainstream pop/rock masterpiece, Faith made George Michael an international solo star, selling over ten million copies in the U.S. alone as of 2000. Perhaps even more impressively, it also made him the first white solo artist to hit number one on the R&B album charts.

The Rolling Stone piece ends this way:

It's a sentimental dead end. But the rest of Faith displays Michael's intuitive understanding of pop music and his increasingly intelligent use of his power to communicate to an ever-growing audience.


As for me, I understand the love for the album. It's actually incredibly smart, taking on contemporary issues like spousal abuse ("Look at Your Hands"), 1980s British politics ("Hard Day"), drug use ("Monkey") and, of course, religion ("Faith"). Yes, most of it is couched in Michael's easy sexuality, but that largely makes the records catchy.

It's a nice listen, but it's hardly the masterpiece it was found to be when I was a wee lad.


One final thing: "Faith" is a 1980s album, so it comes with the normal caveats that the 1980s were a decade of strange compression, big strings, horns and cheap drum machines. There's a lot of that stuff on this record and I imagine a lot of those songs would be better served by cover songs being produced by different artists.

Um, of course, other than this shit:

That's just wrong.

No. 479: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

Band: Richard and Linda Thompson
Album: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: More interesting than the band's other album on the list, "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" has a couple of strong songs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album is full of annoying voices, overwhelming folk string instruments and mediocre lyrics.
Best song: The title track isn't terrible. "The Calvary Cross" isn't awful.
Worst song: I hate "We Sing Hallelujah."
Is it awesome?: Nope.

I think I voiced my concerns well as to my feelings about Richard and Linda Thompson. "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" is stronger, if only because the album has some interesting guitar sounds.

The arrangements echo some combination of Neil Young's pacing with Donovan's instrumentation. Mandolin and dulcimer dot the drug/spiritual journey of "When I Get to the Border" while "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" features a strong organ.

More often than not, the combination of Richard Thompson's whine and the eccentric folk instruments don't go together. Notable, "We Sing Hallelujah" features a concertina playing off Richard's voice to a point of whining and annoyance.

I'm generally unhappy with this album and I'm not sure how it ended up here? Sorta religious folk music? Really? Instead of any dub, early ska or Mariah Carey (more on her next week)? Really?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

No. 478: Radio

Band: LL Cool J
Album: Radio
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Rick Rubin's first album produced, "Radio" is a killer early rap record with LL Cool J rhyming about his 'hood, his radio and his skills.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Yep. Dated. Old-sounding. LL isn't a great rapper.
Best song: "Rock the Bells" is fantastic.
Worst song: I don't love "I Want You."
Is it awesome?: It's a lot of fun.

When I was 17, I almost failed out of English, I was doing high school radio and I was in a band with some friends. I have recordings somewhere, but we did songs about MacBeth, Gene Roddenberry and Denis Rodman.

When LL Cool J was 17, he was hanging out with Rick Rubin and recording "Radio."


LL is kind of joke nowadays, but this first record is actually a delightful place in time. Rubin's beats are tough and typical -- this was the 80s after all. The record scratches are sometimes added to the hi-hat/snare/bass drum 4/4 rhythms laid down by bearded maestro.

LL actually sounds pretty quick on the take. His a cappella rap at the end of the end of the first side (It's about the last 45 seconds of "Dangerous") is one of his better bits and on CD is rolls right into the most modern song on the record, "Rock the Bells." Taking samples from AC/DC and Trouble Funk, Rubin's production is closest to that which he would perfect with Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys.


MTV called Rick Rubin the most important producer of the past 20 years recently. I'm not sure I totally agree, but his hands have been in so many things, it's hard to find total fault with it.

Rubin was, in some ways, Steve Albini before Albini was himself. Despite it being the 1980s, Rubin eschewed reverb, string sections and excessive synths. For more of hist career, he's mostly stuck to two types of music: metal and hip hop. He's also done with older singers like Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond.

Rubin's big strength is stripping all the noise out of a band and getting it "back to basics," as it were. Jay Z's "99 Problems" is a great example of this. Instead of having tons of jacked-up dance beats, Rubin simply did the same thing he did with the Beastie Boys: He took a heavy rock riff and had Jay rhyme over it.

"Radio" is his first production effort and Rubin's style has made the album a bit more timeless than dated. Sure, the beats are sparser than the best hip hop, but it's still a fine record.


LL is a more of an extreme case of my biases than the Coldplay record. LL is in an episode of "30 Rock," playing a hip hop entrepreneur feuding with Tracy Jordan. It's pretty funny and it really made me warm up to LL.

"Radio" is a pretty fun, from "If I Ruled The World" to the insult rap of "Dear Yvette" to the general greatness of "Rock the Bells."

No. 477: The Score

Band: The Fugees
Album: The Score
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the classic hip hop records of the 1990s, "The Score" produced three big hits and brought the world Lauryn Hill. Smart and catchy, the album sold well while still showing intelligence.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This record just doesn't resonate with me.
Best song: "Killing me Softly" is great.
Worst song: "The Mask" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It belongs here, despite my disinterest.

"The Score" introduced us to Lauryn Hill and Wycleaf Jean, so, it's basically a wash. The record revolves around some sparse-ish beats (speaking to Jean's lack of talent as a producer in my mind), but has the formidable talents of Hill throughout the album.

"How Many Mics" is a fine record, while "Zealots" is a little thin. Of course, "Killing me Softly" is a classic, done by Roberta Flack or done by the Fugees.

There's merit in the album's staying above the gangsta fray of the time. Moreover, the socially conscious undercurrent of the record ("The Beast" is a stidently anti-government song) could have kept the album out of kids' CD collections, as Common and Nas' early records mostly did. It didn't, as explains:

It's more like The Fugees did almost everything right here. Where Nas' Illmatic and Common Sense's Resurrection succeeded in producing top-notch material but ultimately failed to achieve any sort of crossover success, The Score did both.


It's pretty cool and pretty strange to see records on here that I lived through (as an adolescent or adult). On one hand, it's a little easier to put in context, while still reconnecting with the albums.

On the other hand, it's strange to hear a record I didn't like in the first place. "The Score" has an imprint in that it was one of the more popular backpack hip hop records of the time. Certainly, Lauryn Hill's talented and the record shows her off pretty well. But, her solo album is much better.

I can basically do without Wyclef, though I respect his political activism. The message on "The Score" is something to enjoy, but the album's hooks leave me a bit empty, just as they did when the album came out.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

No. 476: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Band: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Album: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The white-man blues genre was largely birthed from Chicago-born Paul Butterfield and his band. The uptempo craziness and harmonica took from the Stones and influenced later music.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This white guy blues rock is nice, but it wasn't popular and it wasn't groundbreaking. In fact, it's not really much of anything.
Best song: "Last Night" isn't bad.
Worst song: Their version of "Mellow Down Easy" is crappy.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

This, John Mayall and Blood, Sweat and Tears? Come on.

I see that the these records are the bridge between American blues and the rock of the 1960s, but that's also the role of, I don't know, Cream, the Stones, Hendrix, etc. About a million bands helped bridge that gap.

Perhaps it's me being a curmudgeon, perhaps it's music that I don't understand. But, all in all, the only good coming from it is Mike Bloomfield's debut on an album.

No. 475: Tunnel of Love

Band: Bruce Springsteen
Album: Tunnel of Love
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Argh.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "Born in the U.S.A" has its moments, but the follow up is very, very bad. Written largely about Springsteen's failing marriage, the album is disjointed and tortured. It's "Nebraska," but about love.
Best song: Blah.
Worst song: Just about all of them. Tons of horns, fast silly tempo.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

Divorce albums always have something to enjoy on them, but, because I can;t stand Springsteen, all I can find is junk on "Tunnel of Love." I know album covers aren't important, but Springsteen's ridiculous suit and bolo tie combo is indicative of just how dumb this record is.

I realize I'm not the person to judge this album, but I will say this: Springsteen's prescence on this is too great. As we've examined, the last 50-100 or so records on the list are basically throw-ins from the RS editors. There are a lot of random-ish bands or bands with no other albums on the list.

Look, I know I am not the average RS reader or musico. I understand that my disdain for Springsteen is atypical. And, honestly, my taste is my taste; It's not universal. And I'm not a moron. I know that Springsteen is a huge foigure in rock music. Having his albums on this list is reasonable.

But, "Tunnel of Love?" Please.


From a conversation I had with a huge Springsteen fan yesterday:

RJG: What can you tell me about Tunnel of Love?
Springsteen Fan: Not much. It's one of the only ones I don't own. It's not on the list, is it?
RJG: It's tomorrow.
SF: Whoa. I always thought it was generally considered to kind of suck. I remember my mom had it when I was maybe 10. Someone got it for her. Neither of us liked it much at all.

That sums it up very well.


Just to get the other side, I'll link to Robert Christgau's review

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

No. 474: Live in Europe

Band: Otis Redding
Album: Live in Europe
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Otis Redding's last album released before his death, "Live in Europe" has several of Redding's best songs. Backing band Booker T. and the MGs rock Redding's hits and the power of his voice fills the album.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm happy with this placement.
Best song: "Try a Little Tenderness" is a classic.
Worst song: I like every song on this record, though "Shake" isn't as strong as the rest of the tracks.
Is it awesome?: Sure.

"Live in Europe" was the final Otis Redding album released during his lifetime. On the tour, Otis pulled out all his hits and the popular songs of the time. Not surprisingly, he absolutely hit each song out of the park; Working the crowd perfectly and lilting his voice to each note.

The great thing, of course, about "Live in Europe" is Redding's backup band. Because they were the studio band for Stax/Volt, Booker T. and the MGs played on most of Redding's studio records, but hearing them tear through "Respect," "Satisfaction" and "These Arms of Mine" is striking and perfect.

The set closes with "Try a Little Tenderness" and Redding shows why he's one of the defining voices of soul. His voice fills the pressured silence perfectly as the crowd -- I assume -- watches in amazement.

It's a fantastic live record and one that showcases Redding's amazing talent shine.

No. 473: A Rush of Blood to the Head

Band: Coldplay
Album: A Rush of Blood to the Head
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: A huge record that cemented Coldplay as a huge band, "A Rush of Blood to the Head" was a giant hit. Featuring three huge singles, the album sold 3 million copies.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I think this album doesn't belong on the list, but the record is often slammed for no good reason.
Best song: "The Scientist" is lush and pretty.
Worst song: I don't like "God Put a Smile upon Your Face."
Is it awesome?: I really like this album.

(Let me first disclose something: Coldplay has a cameo in my favorite comedy film of all time. On one of the post-zombie news reports in "Shaun of the Dead," Coldplay makes an appearance touting a fictional Zomb-Aid charity record. I will always like them a little for that appearance.)

Coldplay gets a lot of shit around indie rock parts because of their incredibly earnest songwriting style. Pitchfork's review of "A Rush of Blood to the Head" called the album "boring," almost entirely in comparison to "Parachutes," the band's debut.

I'm not going to argue that "A Rush of Blood to the Head" isn't boring. It is. Coldplay isn't rewriting the rule book on rock and roll. Being a British band, Coldplay never put huge roots down in college radio and indie blogs, though "Parachutes" was revered by both camps.


Again, it's trendy to mock Coldplay, partially for the band's popularity, partially for lead singer Chris Martin naming his kid "Apple" and partially because he's politically outspoken (in the British way of writing "fair trade" on his piano).

Still, "A Rush of Blood to the Head" has highlights. The grand example is the rabid worldwide popularity of entirely British "In My Place," a tome on social class, friendships and life. "Clocks" is a rapid-pace tour de force with a great Martin vocal and piano line. "Politik" has a deluge of guitar, fitting the LOUDquietLOUD thing. "The Scientist," literate and charming, is based on the combination of a George Harrison song and Nathaniel Hawthorne short story.

The record isn't great. The production is a little thin and the tail end of the record is repetitive. Still, it's often shit upon and I don't think that's fair.

Monday, April 28, 2008

No. 472: Hysteria

Band: Def Leppard
Album: Hysteria
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Hysteria" is one of the diamond-selling albums on this list, notching over 12 million in sales. It's full of hooks, pop guitars and easy drumbeats, as well as strong harmonies.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The record is not metal, it's not difficult and it shares the aesthetic of a commercial jingle.
Best song: The title track is the most metal on the album, though still a pop song. Once upon a time, I was a big fan of "Pour Some Sugar On Me." Not really anymore.
Worst song: "Rocket" is a little much.
Is it awesome?: Not really.

There's something slightly unpleasant to think about a record written with the decided goal of producing hit singles. Producer Robert "Mutt" Lange and the band tried to write songs with the purpose of charting.

In the process, of course, Def Leppard faced the criticsm of mainstreaming their sound. "Hysteria" is not as hard as the band's earlier work and metal fans found themselves unhappy with the band.

Of course, none of this matters today. All that matters today is "Pour Some Suger On Me." The song, in my experience, seems to be the most popular karaoke song today. I don't frequent karaoke bars often, but every time I've been to one, I get to hear some very drunk people yelling "Oooooo, in the name of looooooooove!" to a simple electronic drumbeat.

This annoys me.


"Hysteria" is catchy, sure. Hell, it's a good record. But, damn right it should be good. It took three goddamn years to complete. Within the time the record was being recorded, Rick Allen lost his arm.

Some of the songs took the whole three years. The production of "Animal" took the entire time, while "Pour Some Sugar On Me" took only two weeks. The title track took somewhere in between the obvious two extremes.


I have a pretty soft place in my heart for "Hysteria." The album was one of the first my parents bought on CD for my sister and I. We listened to it a lot, mostly with me not understanding anything about the album. I just remember knowing all the words and playing my cheap-o electronic drum set while listening to "Hysteria" on headphones.

As as child, I loved "Pour Some Suger On Me" and it has since been ruined by karaoke and VH1. Too bad.

No. 471: Heaven Up Here

Band: Echo & the Bunnymen
Album: Heaven Up Here
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Liverpool band took psychedelic guitars an dark, Morrison-esque lyrics together to become one of the stalwarts of post-punk.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album is not even Echo & the Bunnymen's best. I hear it as an amalgam of better records.
Best song: The title track and "Show of Strength" are great.
Worst song: "All I Want" isn't good.
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Post-punk gets mostly tuned down within the confines of a magazine like Rolling Stone. It's a function of sales and someone like Echo & the Bunnymen didn't sell as many records as the more New Wave bands.

(Take all this with the caveat that genre is mostly meaningless. I'll use the post-punk/New Wave distinction here largely on the basis of record sales, hooks and popularity. Talking Heads were popular, therefore, New Wave. Echo & the Bunnymen didn't sell as many records, therefore, post-punk.)

"Heaven Up Here," though, is delightful and raucous. Partially a predecessor to grander records like My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless," the album features psychedelic guitars, though to a smaller extent than "Loveless." As with PiL, Echo & the Bunnymen is decidedly dark, though not in the way John Lydon's lyrics are.

"Heaven Up Here" is the Echo & the Bunnymen record with the fewest hook and the band's least accessible. Still, the album is mostly taking other pieces from better record and I'm not impressed.

Friday, April 25, 2008

No. 470: Document

Band: R.E.M.
Album: Document
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: R.E.M.'s great strength was intelligent lyrics backed by souped-up Byrds-style indie rock. The political lyrics and Stipe's tenderness back up R.E.M.'s further implementation of difficult instruments into the mix.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Along with “Automatic For The People,” “Document” is the band's strongest album. This should be higher.
Best song: “Welcome to the Occupation” is a classic Stipe protest song. "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" is great, though overplayed.
Worst song: I don't love "Lightnin' Hopkins."
Is it awesome?: Yes.

One of the great things about ambigous lyrics is that we all can project whatever we want onto the lyrics. Michael Stipe's greatest strength in songwriting is his ability to create these ambiguities while still injecting the songs with passionate, emotional vocal tracks.

Sarcasm is similar. I've misinterpreted my fair share of lyrics (hello, Eric Clapton!) simply based on the sarcasm of the lyric. “The One I Love” and “Finest Worksong” have similarly been misconstrued. “The One I Love” is often seen as a love song, while Stipe's other lyric "A simple prop to occupy my time" isn't exactly complimentary.

“Document” sticks out because the songs finally got an easy-to-understand focus that was missing in earlier records. Ambiguity stopped being the playbook and Stipe's criticism of the socioeconomic situation of the mid 1980s became a theme of a few songs on the record. “Exhuming McCarthy,” “Finest Worksong” and “Welcome to the Occupation” all criticized the Reagan years.

Stipe, of course, isn't the only reason to love “Document.” Peter Buck's guitar riffing is at its riffy best on “Document.” The arpeggio of “Disturbance at the Heron House” contrasts well with the dark-toned Stones-style riff of “The One I Love.” Mike Mills' harmonies fill “Exhuming McCarthy.” Bill Berry's supercharged drums fill “It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and the wole band shows its skills with their cover of Wire's “Strange.”


“Document” was the band's first real commercial success and the record was the final one for independent IRS records. In the early 1990s, a lot of R.E.M. fans found that the band has lost its way by signing to Warner Bros. This, of course, is ludicrous, as the band produced – in my humble opinion, obviously – three of its greatest songs (“Man on the Moon,” “Drive” and the brilliantly perfect “Losing My Religion” on Warner Bros. and a contender for the band's strongest album in “Automatic for the People.” An independent label is always great, but an indie band can move to a major and not lose its creativity, there's nothing wrong with making a little money.

No. 469: Metal Box

Band: Public Image Ltd.
Album: Metal Box
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Released as three 45s in, well, a metal box in 1979 (and a year later in conventional vinyl as "Second Edition"), "Metal Box" is disco meets punk meets Captain Beefheart, all with a melody.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's challenging, certainly, but worth it. I'd probably pop it up a bit higher.
Best song: "Albatross," the album opener, is great. "Careering" is tons of fun, too.
Worst song: "Chant" isn't really great.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty excellent.

After the breakup of the Sex Pistols, John Lydon's next band is rooted in a totally different -- yet strikingly familiar -- style. Avant disco in a way that hasn't been approached since, "Metal Box" is often challenging and classically anti-social.

Maybe ironically, but Lydon's lyrics are actually the worst facet of "Metal Box." His misanthropic stream-of-consciousness gets tired, though it fits the post-apocalyptic songwriting. Throbbing, disco-style bass and drums propel parts of the album -- "Memories," the album highlight, features some of the best versions of this. The cadre of drummers -- PiL drummer Sam Ulano had quit after the band's debut album -- on the record dance between slow-burn cymbal-based rock beats ("Poptones") to dance-rock ("Careering," "Graveyard," "Memories," etc.) to straight rock ("No Birds," "Chant").

This being 1979, no album would be complete without a fierce lead guitar and synth combination and "Metal Box" has it in spade. Taking cues from Can, a song like "Socialist" has a computer-sounding synth that meanders around the disco rhytymn section and "Albatross" has a Modern Lovers-esque post-punk guitar.

Solidly challenging and danceable, "Metal Box" is a wonderful record.


As is always the case with PiL, comparisons abound about the band as compared to the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols, I'd suggest, are pretty overrated -- though, I'm not the world's biggest punk rock fan. Allmusic puts it as such:

"Metal Box" might not be recognized as a groundbreaking record with the same reverence as "Never Mind the Bollocks," and you certainly can't trace numerous waves of bands who wouldn't have existed without it like the Sex Pistols record.

That's probably true, but bands like the Faint, !!! and Hot Chip are the reminders that PiL had an impact on rock music.