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.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

No. 468: Elton John

Band: Elton John
Album: Elton John
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Elton John's first American album (his actual debut wouldn't be released until 1975) is his most subdued and pretty. The opening track is one of Elton John's greatest songs, if not his best.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: There are a ton of mediocre midtempo rock songs on the album.
Best song: "Your Song." Of course.
Worst song: "No Shoestrings on Louise" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's uneven.

I've mentioned that I don't like love songs and I tend to stand by that. Of course, there are great loves songs and those are the ones I adore. The opening song from "Elton John," "Your Song," is one of those songs.

What makes "Your Song" one of pop music's the greatest love songs?

There are love songs that end up on big lists that don't really work. "Wonderful Tonight," as we learned, was written in sarcasm. "You are so Beautiful" isn't good, it's patronizing. "Brown Eyed Girl" is just mediocre. "Nothing Compares 2 U" is mentioned in several lits I've seen and, uh, that song's about a breakup.

I guess my own predeliction is to songs that speak to a visceral, unmeasurable feeling about love. I like songs that contain some level of humility. "I Will," a McCartney-penned Beatles track, is a favorite of mine because it speaks to the undying love a man has for his lady. It's been bruised and dinged, but it remains and the song's protaginist will "wait a lonely lifetime" for her.

Similarly, George Harrison's "Something" is not a song that proclaims a woman's beauty or any particular quantifiable quality. It's just... something. It's in the way she moves and the way she is. That, to me, is beautiful and romantic.

But, of course, lyrics aren't the only part of a great love song. "I Will" is lilting and a little quick, lead by an acoustic guitar. "Something" has a gorgeous lead guitar line and features Harrison's soft vocal.

"Your Song" is similar in its beauty. Elton John's tenor is pleasant and pretty, while the large orchestral arrangement lifts his voice. Bernie Taupin's lyrics are gorgeous in their confessional style, as Elton John croons the final verse wherein he can't describe his lady's eyes. The chorus' humility -- both in lyric and voice -- is striking in its simplicity.

It is the pair's greatest composition.

No. 467: Love and Theft

Band: Bob Dylan
Album: Love and Theft
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Dylan's songs about the South span genres and have him producing interesting lyrics about history, emotion and stories. Touching on mortality and conflict, "Love and Theft" is excellently layered.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Dylan's recent (the last 10 years) records are mostly masturbatory. Interesting? Sure. But, also really silly.
Best song: "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" isn't bad.
Worst song: "Floater" sounds like a floater. (rim shot)
Is it awesome?: Not really.

Oddly enough, we have two albums this week released on the same exact day, a rather important day in American history. Both "The Blueprint" and "Love and Theft" dropped on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Love and Theft" is, like "Time Out of Mind", Dylan's fall into Tom Waits territory. The idea of the album is the American South, from the Mardi Gras hop of "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" to the religiosity of "Sugar Baby." "High Water" speaks of the great Louisiana flood, "Summer Days" has a Southern R&B feel and "Mississippi" is, well, about the state.

It's not a horrible record, but it can get annoying. "Bye and Bye" is a sweet ballad, but Dylan's voice hurts it. "Po' Boy" isn't impressive. The self-immolation of "Floater" was lifted from a Japanese novel.

Dylan was a great songwriter and records like this are interesting. He knows how to construct intelligent songs, but he cannot sing them with any semblance of grace. His band is pretty good, but the music often meanders.

It's not fantastic, but it's interesting.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

No. 466: Live Through This

Band: Hole
Album: Live Through this
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Kurt Cobain's wife's band's album was released just days before his death and probably received a bit of a sales bump because of it. The album's moderately catchy and brought some of the riot grrl stuff to the mainstream.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album is hardly the best of the genre and there are rumors that Cobain wrote much of the record. Courtney Love's voice is annoying, too.
Best song: "Plump" has a good riff.
Worst song: "Gutless" stinks.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

As I referenced in my piece on "How Will The Wolf Survive," the tail end of the list contains a ton of records that are simply placeholders for a small fad or scene of music. There's a Loretta Lynne record and a Merle Haggard record to try and make up for the lack of country. There's some punk. There's "Faith." There are a couple of old school hip hop records.

And here we have the riot grrrl culture that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s. The aesthetic of punk ran rampant through riot grrl and Hole -- despite not being a good representative by any means -- is the magazine's nod to that culture.


Looking back, riot grrl showed a really nasty underside of punk rock culture. When Bikini Kill, L7, Bratmobile and the like came on the scene, any number of slurs were tossed about within the punk rock community, most of them implying homosexuality or an anti-male feeling. "Man-hater" and "dyke" were popular ones to hurl at the Kathleen Hannahs of the world, solely for their expression of emotion. They were hated all for being the personification of a quote from Bongwater's Ann Magnuson: "Except for Joan of Arc and Anne Frank, the thoughts of teenage girls have rarely been taken seriously."

And because this whole site is about one thing (me), I have to say that I've always been a big fan of riot grrl fashion, though I prefer its evolved counterparts. There's a real edge to it, something that's been lost in the "let's glorify the old idea of the feminine" girl power that came after riot grrl.

The fashion mirrors the message, often. As the original fashion sense of riot grrl was loud, dirty and decidedly in your face, the message was similar. Just on "Live Through This," there is little in the way of metaphor or implication. Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were overt in their message ("Suck My Left One" being one of Bikini Kill's first records), just as the band's early style was all baby doll, dyed hair and ugly SuicideGirl chic.

This will always be -- to me, a self-described (though that may be a misnomer, as I'm probably just being pompous about my politics) feminist -- segment of any movement that is incredibly annoying and, quite frankly, incorrect. It doesn't mean that these people are fully wrong in everything, but it means that

A quick diversion: For an grad school assignment, I had to attend the anti-war rally here in D.C. back in the fall. It was pretty big, though not huge. I'm not one for protests, personally. As a free speech absolutist, I like the idea of them, but it's not my scene.

The reason I don't like protests is because protests -- left, right, whatever -- almost always attract the most extreme of any movement. In the case of the religious ones, you find the folks who would like to bomb every abortion provider and the crazy people who believe the U.S. government should shoot anyone speaking Spanish. In the case of leftie protests, you get the people I saw at the anti-war rally.

Whatever you say about the right, they tend to stay on message. You will not see someone arguing for lower taxes at a pro-life rally. You probably won't see someone who wants to democratize Iraq at a pro-life rally.

But at an anti-war rally? Every single subgroup of the left's big tent was there. There were lots (lots) of socialists. There were a bunch of Sept. 11 conspiracy crackpots who believe the U.S. government caused the attacks. There were a fair amount of free Palestine people. The gay rights folks were there. The environmentalists were there. A man holding a mic hooked to a battery-powered amp preached socialism with the message that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wouldn't change anything from the Bush administration.

I can see the connection with the free Palestine people, however hard that connection is to make. It's not a direct connection, but it's Middle East policy. Fine. But gay rights? The Bush environmental policy? Socialism? What the hell do these things have to do with Iraq? Not much.

Even the people who were on message were obnoxious and distracting. I saw not one, but two papier mache devils meant to represent, I guess, Bush. I saw scores of SDS kids wearing bandanas as though they were banditos in an old Western. I saw people wearing Bush masks. There were more dreadlocked white guys there than at all the head shops in North America.

This, of course, is the downside of early riot grrl culture. Someone like Nomy Lamm, for example, is incredibly annoying. She makes annoying, dissonant music and she preaches "fat acceptance."

(Not to get further on my tangent here, but "fat acceptance" is patently ludicrous. Being extremely overweight is not healthy. Hell, being overweight in the first place isn't healthy -- I'm probably 20 pounds overweight and it shows up in the knee problems I've had recently. Eating because of depression is often something that can be treated, but being fat isn't good, sorry, BBW magazine.)

But, Lamm is correct in the way that she presents riot grrl in this particular quote:

I'd never had feminism presented to me in any way that was interesting at all, like all I knew of feminism was that it was like you can then work in a corporation and get paid the same amount as a man.

This, of course, gets to the central issue that most men have with radical feminism. Radical feminism -- and I'm probably totally wrong here, as I'm coming from a man's perspective -- posits that the entire system needs to be shifted. Often, this is associated with the queercore and androgynous movements, suggesting that gender doesn't need to be binary.

I don't agree with all of those things, but I'm incredibly glad that these people exist. There are too many religious organizations that subjugate women. These are the people who believe that women are only able to have children and can't speak to their own needs. These people hold great sway still and those of us in the mainstream aren't going to evoke change without some pushing from those on the wing.

Basically, what I'm saying is that I'm a gutter punk at heart. Just not in practice.


"Live Through This" has all the unfortunate trappings of this early riot grrl stuff. Lyrically, it's not subtle. "Plump" has the line "They say I'm plump, but I throw up all the time," "Jennifer's Body" has the bridge of "They found pieces of Jennifer's body" and "Asking For It" is, well, all about rape.

The music is mildly catchy, possibly reinforcing the rumor that Kurt Cobain wrote some or all of the record. None of it is particularly exciting, but it's perfectly pleasant soft/loud grunge. Love's voice is grating, but fitting of the music as riot grrl stuff.


"Hole" was famous because Courtney Love was married to Kurt Cobain. They're hardly the best band of their ilk, as L7, Bikini Kill and (especially) Sleater-Kinney are the best of this bunch. Sleater-Kinney is a brilliant band. Hole is just OK.

No. 465: Golden Hits

Band: The Drifters
Album: Golden Hits
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Drifters vocal style was one that stuck in pop music for a long time. The other side of girl groups, the band sand simple romantic songs for nice folks in the late 1950s.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Oldies are not really rock and roll. I understand having this type of music here as a place for early vocal rock vocal styles, but the record is just OK.
Best song: Pick one, they're all perfectly pleasant.
Worst song: Pleasant, but not great.
Is it awesome?: Blah.

I am far too young for this album. It comes from the same place as Dick Biondi and "Jingle Bell Rock."

The songs are pleasant and there's a lot of value in Lieber and Stoller's contributions to music. But, mostly, this is the type of thing Tony Kornheiser hypes up on his local radio show. It's radio for people who remember pop music before guitars.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

No. 464: The Blueprint

Band: Jay-Z
Album: The Blueprint
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: After a string of three decidedly pop-oriented albums, New York rapper Jay-Z took to a new producer to record part of his next album. The result was the album's first single ("Izzo (H.O.V.A.)"), the album's best battle song ("Takeover") and Jay's most evocative song to date ("Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)").
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This is a timing situation, in my mind. I prefer Jay's subsequent album, "The Black Album."
Best song: "Takeover" is the most aggressive on the album and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" has probably my favorite rap lyric ever.
Worst song: "Renegade." Eminem is not a good producer.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty great.

In an interview with MTV before "The Blueprint" was released, in typical fashion, Jay-Z told the interviewer he had perfected the ability to make a hit song. He cited "Change Clothes" as an example and was predicting "The Blueprint" to be less commercial and more soulful.

It was. Released September 11, 2001, the album was the soundtrack for a depressing fall. Coming off a misdemeanor plea to stabbing Lance Rivera (and another gun charge), the album was set to establish Jay -- in classic hip hop fashion, even when the rapper is the king -- as the front runner. The giant chip on Jay's shoulder may have been manufactured, his producers brought more soul samples to his work, foregoing the Neptunes-style pop to which he'd based so many of his recent hits.

Similarly, Jay found a new protege to help him back to the top. Kanye West produced the album's three best tracks with an ear for sound. Let's be clear, "Takeover" isn't really a production job, but rather a full-on lift, as West takes the Doors' "Five to One" nearly note for note. Still, West's choice of the song is remarkable and fitting and one that accents Jay's full-on venom toward Mebb Deep and Nas.

West's lift of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Ain't No Love In the Heart of the City" is similarly great and Jay's soulful rap is great. The melancholy of the record is striking and it provided a nice soundtrack. Of course, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" is one of the best songs Jay ever recorded, including my favorite line Jay ever uttered: "He who does not feel me is not real to me/Therefore he doesn't exist/So poof, vamoose son of a bitch."

The album is not solely West's. "Girls, Girls, Girls" is a more subdued commercial track while "Song Cry" is similarly tender. "Jigga that Nigga" was a single of consequence, though it's mostly just a really repetitive record.

The album has some of Jay's most interesting songs and was the soundtrack for a moment in time for hip hop. It partially bridges the gap between soulful rap of the backpack set and the pop rap of the late 1990s.

No. 463: Tumbleweed Connection

Band: Elton John
Album: Tumbleweed Connection
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Elton John's third album has Bernie Taupin writing about the American West, though John remains a piano singer/songwriter. Some of his earlier lush arrangements are perfected on "Tumbleweed Connection," as evidenced by "Come Down in Time."
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album isn't perfectly conventional, so it's not accessible. Most Elton John records have a hit or two, this one has none.
Best song: "Country Comfort" is the closest to C&W, with its slide guitar. "My Father's Gun" is epic-sounding.
Worst song: "Where to now St. Peter" isn't very good.
Is it awesome?: Not really. It's fine.

Elton John is someone I can't really imagine as an actual cowboy, but his album of cowboy songs is actually pretty good. Large and lyrical, the songs often trend over five minutes.

The songs go out there in a way Taupin and John would explore later on "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." The harder rock of "Son of Your Father" foreshadows "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting" and the large sound of "Come Down in Time" is the type of thing they would explore on multiple occasions later.

The album is certainly spotty. "Love Song" is a guitar/vocals track that doesn't fit anywhere near an Elton John record. And overall, it's a record of piano songs masquerading as cowboy songs. An ambitious record, certainly, but not executed really well.

Monday, April 21, 2008

No. 462: Here, My Dear

Band: Marvin Gaye
Album: Here, My Dear
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Despite being hated at the time, Marvin Gaye's album based on breakups (specifically his divorce) is mean, but great. It's been sampled a million times and rightfully so.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: As double albums go, this is one of the best, but it remains a double album. It has some filler and the topic (Gaye's ex-wife) gets a little old.
Best song: The title track is great and "Anna" is wonderful.
Worst song: "Somebody Needs Love" is boring.
Is it awesome?: Sure.

Marvin Gaye and Anna Gordy -- Berry Gordy's sister -- split in 1976. The divorce was quite acrimonious and resulted in a negotiation for Gaye to give half of the royalties from his next album to Anna. Gaye, in interviews, suggested he had two options. The first was to make what he called "a lazy album." The other -- the path he eventually chose -- was to make an album largely about the divorce.

THe result is as pretty as anything Gaye ever put out, but lyrically as vitriolic as ever. "Here, My Dear" is to be read sarcastically, as someone handing over a piece of themselves. Here, he says. "Take this. The double album is a point in time; it's Gaye at his most exhausted while still energetic. Angry, but still soulful, Gaye's pain makes for a great record.

"Anger" is funky and fun, but the lyrics speak of a different Gaye. Sounding something like a Sly Stone record on quaaludes, the track's famous line (Someday soon I'll hope and pray like Jesus/I'll reach that wiser age/hope I will learn I never profit from things I do in rage) speaks volumes about Gaye's state in 1978.

Gaye's voice is such that he can sing just about anything and sound great. The album opener, the title track, is more narrative in its tone -- speaking of Anna using their adopted son against Gaye -- while still angry. "Anna" is sometimes repetitive, but always compelling, as Gaye sings "What's it, husband, makes you so stubborn?" "Sparrow" is similarly harsh, but sonically more of a soul song, with a gorgeous sax line.

While Anna was topic A on the record, her brother did not escape without harm. Gaye's line about Barry Gordy, "you know you had a brother who thought he was cool/when really I was a dumb little fool," is a solid put-down and works well with the "Is That Enough."

(Say it with me...) As with all double albums, "Here, My Dear" has its share of filler. The lore says that the final two minutes of "Is That Enough" is simply Gaye going off to smoke a joint and have the sax player solo for a bit. "Somebody Needs Love" largely apes the guitar riff from "Let's Get It On." "Time to Get it Together" is full of cool harmonies, but ultimately shallow. "A Funky Space Reincarnation" is a mediocre attempt a Parliament-style bassline.

"Here, My Dear," like many great breakup albums, is often an exercise in overkill. The theme of divorce and bitterness is slightly overdone, but Gaye's voice makes up for it in spades.

No. 461: How Will the Wolf Survive?

Band: Los Lobos
Album: How Will the Wolf Survive?
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The first full album from East Los Angeles' Los Lobos is a neatly concocted combination of rock music and Latin music. Full of ranchera accordions and Mexican influences, "How Will the Wolf Survive?" is cleanly produced (by T-Bone Burnett) and fun.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The record is not necessarily great. The first two songs are pretty boring and if you don't have an ear for Mexican music, this record is not for you.
Best song: "I Got Loaded" is fun and the title track is smart and excellent.
Worst song: "I Got to Let You Know" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Maybe. I really don't know.

The history of Hispanic-Americans in rock and roll isn't super short, but in the same way AFrican-American music (hip hop, soul, R&B, etc.) is distinct from mainstream rock and roll, what is known as Latin music has never broken through into the mainstream. Richie Valens was an early rocker with Mexican roots. Certainly, Carlos Santana is one of the more famous Hispanic-Americans to incorporate Central American styles and music into his work, but he is mostly on an island. There was a bit of a Latin pop boom about 5-10 years ago, but that didn't really last.

Los Lobos are probably the only group -- save for Santana -- to have any semblance of success in adapting Mexican music into the full rock mainsteam. Unlike Santana, Los Lobos really wore their heritage on their sleeves, adding accordion and other Tejano elements into the songs.


The first two songs from "How Will the Wolf Survive?" lull the listener into thinking that the band is a simple rock band populated by Mexican-Americans, doing totally mainstream rock. Oh, no. The fourth song, "Our Last Night," is no different from the type of music I've heard living in Hispanic-American neighborhoods. It's full of accordions, the classic Tejano/Ranchera singing cadence and the Mexican rhythms. Though the lyrics are done in English -- a very bold move -- the music is classic Ranchera.

Like the white-boy-copping of Calexico, 15 years later, Los Lobos often sing about border topics. "Serenata Nortena" is a traditional Mexican folk song and "A Matter of Time" speaks to the border separation of lovers beautifully. The wonderful allegory of the title track is moving and cool.


As we move toward the end of this list, we'll see a lot of records like this one. Good ones, yes, but solely on the list because the magazine loved it or it symbolizes something or other. In this case, we have a record from a genre not represented on the list.

Friday, April 18, 2008

No. 460: Love it to Death

Band: Alice Cooper
Album: Love it to Death
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The band's third album is where it became the shock rock/teenage anthem band the band's leader would eventually become. The crazed, updated "My Generation" song "I'm Eighteen" is heavy on riffing and a staple of the singer's set.
Why Rolling Stone gets it right:
Best song: "Is It My Body?" is amazing, as is "I'm Eighteen."
Worst song: "Black Juju" isn't good.
Is it awesome?: Not really.

In the early 1970s, Alice Cooper was both a band and a man, in the same way Marilyn Manson was originally both a band and a man. In 1974, Vincent Furnier changed his legal name to Alice Cooper and the original band disbanded.

Frank Zappa signed Alice Cooper to his Straight Records label in 1969 and "Love it to Death" was the final album of the three-album deal. Zappa found the band's energy exciting and was fully in support of their shock rock mystique. Reportedly, after the "chicken incident" was reported, Zappa told Cooper not to deny anything. The publicity could only help the band.

Shock rock was relatively new, being influenced by Arthur Brown's craziness and fellow Michigander Iggy Pop's on stage cutting. Cooper took it to a new level, as he started incorporating an electric chair into his performances and using his on-air persona to vent out adolescent ragings. The lead single from "Love it to Death," "I'm Eighteen," was the singer's anthem at the time and backed up said persona. Acting as a made-up villain, Cooper was able to become threatening and thus had his hook.

"Is It My Body" is a great, sensitive song about the shallowness of sex in rock and roll. "I'm Eighteen" is defiant and cool. But, the rest of the album's actual songs aren't fantastic. "Black Juju" is the band's attempt at psychedelia and it solely takes the worst aspects (organ solos from Iron Butterfly, slow riffing, etc.) and runs with them for far too long. "Ballad of Dwight Fry" is similarly tedious. "Caught in a Dream" is entirely forgettable.

Alice Cooper has a place in rock music history, certainly. Like KISS, there is import in the band's stage presence. But the actual record? Not so great.

No. 459: Strictly Business

Sadly, this is Padraig's final contribution to the site. Read his other three pieces here, here and here.

Band: EPMD
Album: Strictly Business
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: A high point of 1988, one of hip hop’s greatest years, that basically defined the blueprint for classic Golden Age albums – funk/classic rock breaks + dope rhymes.
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: This is about right, even if it’s better than many of the albums RS ranked higher.
Best song: “You Gots to Chill” or “It’s My Thing”.
Worst song: “The Steve Martin” is kind of a novelty song.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

They weren’t the first to popularize the newer complex style of rhyming – that honor goes to the likes of Kool Moe Dee, KRS-One & Rakim. Nor were they pioneers of sample-based production like Marley Marl or Ced Gee. What Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith did do was make one of the most solid and enduring hip hop albums of the 80s. Even today it manages to be all things to all people; rough and rugged enough for discerning heads but still smooth as hell, great house party music but still funky and raw as hell. It’s also one of the hip hop records mostly frequently sampled by other rappers and producers.

How did they accomplish this formidable task? Well, first off, as I mentioned, they made good use of the hip hop toolkit circa ’88. Classic breaks from familiar sources like The J.B.s and Mountain show up, not to mention possibly the first sampling of Zapp’s electro-funk masterpiece “More Bounce to the Ounce” (since used for “Going Back to Cali” and roughly a trillion G-Funk songs). The beats are still stripped-down and minimal by modern standards but at the time they were as advanced as anything out besides the Bomb Squad and possibly Prince Paul’s work for De La Soul.

EPMD were also, along with those aforementioned producers and the Ultramagnetic MC’s, among the first to look to classic rock for loops. They began a long tradition of hip hop producers flipping terrible, generic rock (and later on, terrible easy listening as well) into great beats, here copping from Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff” and especially our boy Steve Miller. Ah, the early and glorious days of sampling when dudes could get away with rapping for “Fly Like An Eagle” on two different songs on the same album (!) and still make it sound awesome. They also sample Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” on three different songs, but hey, what’re ya gonna do?

On the rhyming front they come correct as well. Neither is on the level of a Rakim or Big Daddy Kane (though, who is?) nor do they constantly wow you with jaw-dropping wordplay. On the other hand, both have good flow and breath control and the rhymes are consistently on point and entertaining over the course of all ten songs. In true late 80s fashion they mostly stick to destroying wack MCs and talking about how great they are, but damned if it doesn’t sound fly as hell. They even do a little storytelling and flip the typical player anthem on “Jane” (over, of course, a loop from Rick James’ supremely funky ode to marijuana), initiating a series of songs that would run through all their albums.

The formula of “Strictly Business” was in fact so successful that Erick & Parrish decided to basically copy it for their next three albums, which are all, especially the follow-up “Unfinished Business”, worthy of attention if not quite on the level of the original, until breaking up in 1993 (there are a couple of predictably bad reunion albums as well). They also, through their crew The Hit Squad, released a bunch of great rap in the early 90s from the likes of Redman, Das EFX and K-Solo among others.

Finally I’d like to mention one more thing of possible historical interest – this album and “Unfinished Business” both came out on Fresh Records, subsidiary of Sleeping Bag Records, which was founded by none other than avante-disco legend Arthur Russell. The A&R for both Sleeping Bag and Fresh was Kurtis Mantronik of electro titans Mantronix. Fresh also put out albums by the likes of T La Rock (one of the originators of the modern style of rapping), original gangsta Just-Ice and Nice & Smooth, whose sex jams prefigured Snoop’s whole Don Magic Juan worshipping shtick. Maybe I’m the only one finds this interesting but I find it fascinating that so many different hip hop trends co-existed side by side on the same indie label not only with each other but also with a variety of weird 80s NY disco and garage house.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

No. 458: John Prine

Band: John Prine
Album: John Prine
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: John Prine's recounting of ant-war sentiments is played against a country sound. Wonderfully narrative and literate, the album is the great example of songwriting.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The record's a little too country for me.
Best song: "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" and "Paradise" are fantastic.
Worst song: "Angel from Montgomery" is popular, but I don't care for it.
Is it awesome?: It's pretty good.

Hey, John Prine is from Maywood, Illinois. That's on the other side of Chicago from where I grew up. That's kind of cool.


John Prine's sound is decidedly more country than I can really handle. Nevertheless, I think his political statements on the record are right on and amazing-- "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" is ridiculously awesome anti-Vietnam song that could easily be applicable today. "Sam Stone," while not as appropriate today, is much more of a well-formed song. It's stark and melancholy, thanks to a wonderful church-like organ. Prine's tale of a drug addict coming home from the war is striking largely because it told the complex tale long before the anti-war sentiment had reached anything other than catchphrase-style songs (Jefferson Airplane, for example).

"Paradise" is a wonderful song about development and the effects on the virgin countryside. Prine speaks of a farm and Kentucky backwoods that had been taken over by big business and lost the "green river where paradise lays." As AllMusic says, the song "became an environmental anthem without ever using the word 'environmental.'"

Prine also wrote about other topics. "Donald and Lydia" is an allusion to masturbation and "Six O'Clock News" deals with suicide. "Pretty Good" is strange song that sounds moderately rock-ish. Over a slight rock guitar, Prine sings of making love to an alien and a woman getting raped by a dog. It's pretty catchy, but, um, weird.

Maybe it's just my untrained-to-country ear, but the songs aren't terribly different-sounding. "Spanish Pipedream" and "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" use, essentially, the same slide guitar and drum setup. "Paradise" is more of a simple country/bluegrass song, but one that sounds far too familiar.

How this all came out from a dude from Maywood, I'll never know. Still, a pretty good record. That the Eagles and Jackson Browne became popular and this record didn't bugs me.

No. 457: For Everyman

Band: Jackson Browne
Album: For Everyman
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Um...
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Jackson Browne was one of the leaders of the "California"
Best song: "These Days" is the best song on the album and the best song Browne has ever written.
Worst song: The rest of the album is basically dung.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

I am not really familiar with the rationale behind three Jackson Browne albums on this list. His songwriting, I guess, is sometimes interesting and I'll definitely give that to him.

This album has a few decently-written songs. "Our Lady of the Well" is a nice little religious thing and "These Days" is a well-manicured song. Of course, Browne's version of the song pales in compared to the original version, when he wrote the song as a teenager for Nico.

Still, the first song on the album is the song co-written with the hateable Glenn Frey, "Take it Easy." Probably my least favorite song in history, "Take it Easy" is ridiculous in its simple stupid message and laid-back quasi-philosophy.


You know what's amazing? Jackson Browne has some seriously famous folks helping him on this record. Along with Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and his friends the Eagles... Elton John (!) helped out on the album. That's pretty damned impressive.


I can't stand the "California sound" and have made no real bones about that. There's a certain amount of boredom involved and the actual themes of the songs are remarkably boring.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

No. 456: Third/Sister Lovers

Band: Big Star
Album: Third/Sister Lovers
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Big Star's final record isn't really a full record, per se. Rather, it's the equivalent of Alex Chilton's doodles. There are a few great tracks.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Again, it's more of a sketchpad than an album.
Best song: "Nighttime," "Holocaust," "Dream Lover" and "Kanga Roo" are all very good songs. "Jesus Christ" isn't terrible.
Worst song: Much of the rest of the record is just blah.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

It seems, for bands that aren't deemed by Rolling Stone as super-duper important, the magazine jams the records together. All but one of the Roxy Music albums occur within 20 positions of one another. All three Big Star records come within 50 positions. Maybe not.


"Third/Sister Lovers" isn't great. It's got a few very good songs, but it's mostly just the dissolution of the band put to a record. Chilton's delusions of grandeur appear to be the larger theme of the album, as experiments abound.

"Kanga Roo," "Nighttime" and "Jesus Christ" all hit, while "Take Care" and "O, Dana" don't really. The guitar sound isn't as clean as Chilton's power pop from the first two Big Star records. His voice isn't nearly a soft, either.

For the most part, it full of songs better fit to a rarities compilation.

No. 455: Synchronicity

Band: The Police
Album: Synchronicity
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Police's best-selling album is similarly the band's best-known. It has a few hits and is emblematic of the band's end.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Like all things during this time period, there are too many synths on the record.
Best song: "Wrapped Around Your Finger" is great.
Worst song: "Synchronicity I" and "Synchronicity II" are both stinky.
Is it awesome?: Bah.

So... This album contains this song:

That video is kind of ridiculous and it kind of typifies the early 1980s. The zeitgeist appears to have been "Why wouldn't we have the guys in ridiculous costume?" I like that.


"Synchronicity" is the Police's best-known album and, of course, is the band's final album. It's a little self-indulgent -- hence the Jungian theme of the two (!) title tracks -- but it also has the band's most creepy and famous track.

The travesty of "Every Breath You Take" is that it's been sampled by Puffy and misinterpreted by many, many people. It's a creepy, creepy song, one based on Sting's divorce that other songs take lyrics from ("King of Pain" is the other big one).

The arrangements are the problem with these songs. The large majority of the songs have synthesizers on them. Despite being well-written songs -- "Wrapped Around Your Finger" being the operative one. The song is a wonderfully written love(ish) song covered by many, sans synthesizers. It's awesome, but the Police version is much worse.

That's the final album's problems. Sting decided he was more than a singer. He got so self-indulgent. That's a problem.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No. 454: Getz/Gilberto

Band: Stan Getz and João Gilberto
Album: Getz/Gilberto
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Along with "Kind of Blue," "Getz/Gilberto" is my favorite jazz album. It's beautiful in a way that soft, melodic music can only be.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Jazz is a tricky thing on this list, obviously, and
Best song: The whole album is great. "Doralice" is a great upbeat song while "The Girl from Ipanema" is a classic regardless of genre.
Worst song: There are no bad songs on this one.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

It's an excuse you've heard from me multiple times. I cannot, with any real substance, write about this album eloquently. It is striking in its softness, beautiful in its dissonance and rhythmic in its syncopation.

In the early 1960s, Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd took a trip down to Brazil via a State Department trip. Getz came back with an appreciation for bossa nova -- the new style -- and cut "Jazz Samba" with Byrd in 1962. The lead song, "Desafinado," (English: Off key) is an Antonio Carlos Jobim number considered to be an iconic bossa nova song. Getz and Byrd's version of the song is nice; both are excellent players.

But, in 1964, Getz hooked up with João Gilberto and Jobim (two Brazilians superstars of the genre) to start a small bossa nova craze in the States. "Getz/Gilberto," as the album was called, took many of Jobim's best songs and brought the brilliant genre to the masses.

The album made a star of Gilberto's wife, Astrud. A fantastically beautiful young woman from Bahia, Gilberto's low(ish) voice fits the mellow classic bossa nova instrumentation (classical guitar, bass, piano and drums) among Getz' expressive sax. Her interplay with her husband on the lead single, "The Girl from Ipanema," is brilliant and is largely what made the song the classic it is.

The song's bilingual lyrics (first in Portuguese, then in English) make for an exotic sound, but the genre's conventions are evident. Soft vocals -- not the harsh, obnoxiuosness of Frank Sinatra's later cover that makes me want to stick knives in my ears -- and Getz' saxophone doubles Astrud Gilberto's, well, sultry vocals.

Sonically, there are few things better than "Getz/Gilberto. Maybe it's the romance of it, but the record can best be described as smooth, despite the odd-rhythms. "Só Danço Samba" and "Doralice," the most upbeat numbers on the album, feature Getz' fantastic solos and a quick beat. "Para Machucar Meu Coração" is a tender ballad and the English-language "Corcovado" highlight's Astrud Gilberto's voice.

Of course, the album also has a redo of Jobim's classic "Desafinado." The song is something like a statement of purpose of the bossa nova genre. The song was written as a reaction to critics putting down the genre as off-key and ar rhythmic. The metraphor of a man simply proclaiming his love -- for his lady, for the genre -- is soft and elegant. Like "The Girl from Ipanema," it's one of the classics of bossa nova.


I adore bossa nova. I took a class in college on Brazil and we did a whole week on the genre. The music permeates a lot of 1950s/1960s Brazilian culture, including one of my favorite films, "Orfeu Nefro." I love the Sea and Cake, a band that simply updates bossa nova with a more rock and roll sound.

"Getz/Giberto" is my favorite jazz album, by far. I can listen to it, front to back, any time.

No. 453: Ritual de lo Habitual

(original cover)

(clean cover)
Band: Jane's Addiction
Album: Ritual de lo Habitual
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Jane's Addiction's second album was the record that broke the band into the mainstream. The band worked different genres -- again, this was the 1990s, when jester hats and huge pants were cool -- and did so masterfully.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Jane's Addiction is a thinking man's Red Hot Chili Peppers, but that still doesn't make them the Beatles.
Best song: "Stop!" is great, "Classic Girl" is great and "Three Days" is fantastic.
Worst song: "Of Course" is too long and not great.
Is it awesome?: It's close.

Jane's Addiction is a strong, strong band and "Ritual de lo Habitual" is a strong, strong record. The album starts great with the band's best song, "Stop!" and ends on a great note with the beautiful ballad, "Classic Girl."

"Nothing's Shocking" is a nice record, but "Ritual" is far better. The disjointed rhythm of "Ain't No Right" is a great testament to that part of the band while "Stop!" is Dave Navarro's best work. "Three Days" is a strange but great true story of Perry Farrel's bizarre personal life.

The album is great, but I can see why people don't love it. It's not perfect, but it's tons of fun.

Monday, April 14, 2008

No. 452: Music

Band: Madonna
Album: Music
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: People love this record and it does have tons of vocoder. There are a couple of good songs on the record.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: With another late-career Madonna record, I think RS is simply trying to boost more classic boomer situations.
Best song: "Don't Tell Me" is cool.
Worst song: I don't care for the title track.
Is it awesome?: No.

I went to university in Columbia, Missouri. As with many land grant Midwestern college towns, Columbia is not, uh, Paris. There's a lot to like about Columbia -- the downtown is great, the Midwestern sensibility is real, the clubs are cool, the college radio station is fantastic, etc. -- but it's not a huge city. So... There are two strip clubs in Columbia.

(A quick aside... I've been to two strip clubs in my life: One in Chicago and the one I'm about to describe, in Columbia. I did not enjoy either trip. I enjoy naked women as much as the next guy, but I am wildly uncomfortably being aroused around anyone in whom I have no romantic interest. Maybe I'm a prude, but I just equate arousal with intimacy.)

I've only been to one of the strip clubs in Columbia, Club Vogue. Vogue is the nicer of the two strip clubs. As Columbia isn't Paris, Vogue is not the Moulin Rouge. It's kind of dark and dingy. The women have stretch marks and bad tattoos. They wear clown-ish eyeliner and have had bleach jobs.

(This brings up the question of what Regina's, the lesser of the Columbia strip clubs, is like. I've heard it's just dirt bag filthy, though I'm very glad I've never been there.)

With all that said, the last 20 years have seen strip clubs being sort of glorified even with women. This came to a head in 2000 with Madonna's "Music" video. Featuring Sacha Baron Cohen, the video has Madonna going to a well-lit, quasi-glamorous strip club with a large runway-style stage. She's got on a silly outfit (more on that in a minute) and a "Sex in the City" group of friends. It looks, I imagine, somewhat attractive.

I had a female friend in college who tried -- kinda -- to emulate this video. She and her best friend headed down to Vogue -- the club welcomes women and, if she is willing, will try to get them on the stage -- and wanted to see what it was like. They barely got in the door before they saw Vogue's nastiness. They headed out and never looked back.

The point? Strip clubs are gross.


I think part of the draw in being a female pop singer is that you can spend about 90% of your time playing dress up. Madonna has little to no acting skill, but she's spend the last 30 years playing different characters in various outfits. Just in the past 10 years, Madonna has dressed up -- in videos, at least -- as a gothic priestess ("Frozen"), a strip club patron ("Music"), an aerobics person with some nasty camel toe ("Hung Up") and a cowboy ("Don't Tell Me").

I can see why that's attractive.


"Music" is not a fantastic record. It's largely a disco record with a couple of decent tracks. The title track is stuttering and crappy, though it has a decent vocoder. "What It Feels Like for a Girl" is decent. "Don't Tell Me" is very good, though largely because of its production.

Late-career Madonna pales in comparison to early Madonna, basically. She's doing similar things -- mindless pop music -- but she's not doing great stuff anymore.

No. 451: Back in the U.S.A.

Band: MC5
Album: Back in the U.S.A.
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The middle of the Motor City Five's three albums is also the band's cleanest-sounding. Though it is more political than "Kick Out the Jams," the record shows more of the band's clear influences -- American blues rock -- than any other MC5 record.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I can appreciate the political songs, but the album's sound isn't as raw and therefore not as distinct. In short, many of these songs would be fine on the Nuggets box. (Yes, I know I've said that before.)
Best song: "Teenage Lust" is fun.
Worst song: "Let Me Try." No good.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

"Back in the U.S.A." producer Jon Landau was a huge fan of 1950s rock and its clean sound. When he was doing this record, he made it his goal to shed the band of its noisey roots. The result is a pretty accessible record, though it was hated at the time.

The album starts and ends with covers and both songs are nice. "Tutti Frutti" is a frenetic tear through the Little Richard classic and the title track is a fine cover of the Chuck Berry classic. Both songs show the band's straight musical ability.

The political songs -- one could argue that "Back in the U.S.A" is a political song when done by the MC5 -- are clever, with "The Human Being Lawnmower" a strong indictment of America's Vietnam policy. "The American Ruse" is more broad, but similarly anti-1970s foreign policy.

The MC5 is still the MC5, so the protopunk remains, albeit in a restrained form. "Teenage Lust" is kind of silly, but tons of fun. "High School" has similar roots, though is less than "Teenage Lust." "Shakin' Street" is pretty good, but shallow.

The MC5, in a lot of ways is a lesser Nirvana. The band was looked upon as one of the standard-bearers of an entire movement -- psych protopunk -- while it was solely a lucky piece of the movement's pie.

Friday, April 11, 2008

No. 450: Fly Like an Eagle

Band: The Steve Miller Band
Album: Fly Like an Eagle
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Steve Miller had been recording music for eight years before his seminal work was released. Well-produced and catchy, the album is a very 1970s thing...
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: ... which is probably why I could do without it. It's not terrible like a Meat Loaf album, but if "Fly Like an Eagle" fell off the face of the earth, I would not be upset. It's mindless, catchy radio-friendly junk.
Best song: The title track is pleasant.
Worst song: "Wild Mountain Honey" is awful.
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Because I find Steve Miller to be mostly junk, I'll keep my feelings on this album brief. Miller's infusion of easy blues and even easier stoner vocals into straight rock and roll is somewhat attractive if boring. It is, like so much popular music from the 1970s, pleasant and mindless. "Fly Like an Eagle" is a song that says essentially nothing while attempting to sound like philosophy. It's "Free Bird," only infinitely worse. "Rockin Me" is a song about rocking -- these songs are almost always terrible -- complete with a thin guitar sound. "Take the Money and Run" isn't terrible, but like the rest of the album it's simply sugar.

I can appreciate the use of synthesizers; Miller clearly embraced the demon technology that so many mainstream rockers feared. That he overlayed it with an organ is even better. But, again, "Fly Like an Eagle" is nice record for stoners and I don't smoke weed.


I know I'm a terrible writer. I'm not a writer, actually. By trade, I'm a Web producer for a magazine, a journalist. For this project and for my baseball blog, I'm simply opinionated. That's my gift. I have tons of opinions. If I had my way, I'd be ranting on the radio; it is my best medium. But, unfortunately, those jobs are scarce and require a lot of hard work to get. Work, as it turns out, that I'm not willing to do.

Anyway, the point is that I'm not a skilled writer. Maybe my saying that is a defense system to deflect any criticism hurled my way. I know I'm not good. I'm trying to get better.

Nevertheless, overwriting is a pox on record criticism. I often reuse my own clichès because I worry about falling into the trap of using terrible metaphors in describing a mellotron. If I sound repetitive, I apologize, but the rapid-fire nature of the project makes for repetition and, more importantly, my aversion to overwriting is strong.

Which brings me to a review of the 2003 "Fly Like an Eagle" reissue from Rolling Stone magazine. The opening paragraph reads as such:

Fly like an Eagle may be the most complete and effective musical statement Steve Miller has ever made. Always enigmatic, always eclectic, Miller's albums have usually been ill-fitting jigsaw puzzles, but in this latest album he puts all of his cards on the table, face up. The result is a full house of rock & roll.

Any writer knows that mixing metaphors is bad. How the jigsaw, the cards and the table fit together, I'm not sure. More importantly, the card metaphor is ridiculous. For one, it assumes that the album is somehow akin to a card game to Miller & Co. I imagine it is not, but I'm not in his head.

Also, the drama involved in the writer's depiction is problematic. The conceit of laying one's card on the table is normally a last chance situation. Miller was not against the wall (to use a metaphor) in 1976, he was simply a struggling songwriter who had yet to break out.

Most importantly, though, the card metaphor is a tiredclichè. It's horrible and it has been used so many times in writing, my brain turns off the second I see it. I'm not a great writer and I should not be a better writer than someone who is writing for Rolling Stone.

No. 449: The World Is a Ghetto

Band: War
Album: The World Is a Ghetto
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: War's third album sans Eric Burdon is the band's finest. Smart and funky, the album was a revelation in the early 1970s.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I think I'm too young to see the import of the record. I guess I'm just desensitized to this type of music.
Best song: The title track is great.
Worst song: "So Good to See You" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's good, but I don't know if it's great.

I guess it's a testament to the times that a band made of many races of people playing crossover funk/rock stuff is boring to me. "The World is a Ghetto" is basically boring to me. Even the band's hits -- "Why Can't We Be Friends?" and "Low Rider" -- are more quaint than they are great.

At the time, the band was certainly seen as something. The album's lead single, "The Cisco Kid," was a funk song about the main character from a Hispanic TV show. The title track, not surprisingly, is fantastic and socially conscious.

Again, it's a nice record. I'm sure it belongs here in the mid-400s, but I am just not feeling it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

No. 448: In Color

Band: Cheap Trick
Album: In Color
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Embracing the irony of power pop music and the zeitgeist of the late 1970s, "In Color" is full of catchy choruses, harmonies and great guitars. Transitioning from "Cheap Trick" to the band's later, hook-laden work, "In Color" features one of the band's most-famous songs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "Heaven Tonight" is better and the band's debut is more interesting. Still, a fine record.
Best song: "Southern Girls" is a great record.
Worst song: "So Good to See You" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Nah.

Cheap Trick's sense of irony is glorious. While Jimmy Page was playing a doubleneck guitar for pompous rock songs, Rick Nielsen played a five-necked guitar.

The cover art for "In Color" shows off that sense of irony. The front cover features bassist Tom Petersson and lead singer Robin Zander on Harleys while the back cover shows the two stranger/nerdier looking members in black and white. They, of course, are on mopeds.


"In Color" was the turning point in sound for Cheap Trick. While the band's first album was more of a punk rock affair, "In Color" was produced by Tom Werman, with whom the band fought ferociously. Werman's ear for hooks and production was seen by the band as overproduction while Werman found the band to be too difficult.

In short, Cheap Trick went from being a Midwest punk rock band to the preeminent power pop band on "In Color." The seminal "I Want You To Want Me" has a different from than the well-known "At Budokan" version, with the "In Color" version having strong backing vocals. "Hello There" is harder, but is more of a catchy song than those on the band's debut. "Southern Girls" is similarly catchy with an almost overwhelming hook.

"In Color" is a fun, fun album. It's not the band's best, as "Heaven Tonight" is much better. "In Color" is nice, though, and a picture of a band in transition.

No. 447: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

Band: Devo
Album: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Devo is smart, smart, smart. Looking at humanity from 30,000 feet, the band laid out its world view -- humanity is devolving and we're worse off than we were 100 years ago -- in the song. The band borrows from other rock, literary influences and the scientific community on "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!"
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album isn't as good as later work by the band. It's clever and interesting, though.
Best song: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is great and "Mongoloid" is awesome, too.
Worst song: "Come Back Jonee" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's not the band's best work, but it is pretty great.

It always surprises me how many people haven't heard this version. It's a great song.


In the mid-late 1970s, Mark Mothersbaugh and Co. had built a following around the Midwest. Their movie, "The Truth About De-Evolution," won the Ann Arbor Film Festival and was championed by Iggy Pop and David Bowie. This eventually lead to a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records and this record.

The recording of Devo's debut was wrought with problems. Brian Eno and the band fought the entire time, with Devo wanting to structure everything as they did their demos and Eno wanting to freewheel the whole thing (Eno's recording style was very informal).

Devo is... Devo is... Devo is... How does one describe Devo? The band is, well, strange. Based on the theory that humans have devolved into mindless sheep (check the band's bio here), the band satirized modernity with electronic instruments, jerky rhythms and odd time signatures. Like a punk rock progressive band, Devo had themes and

Oddly enough, good comparisons can be made to Kiss and Genesis. Like the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, the band performed in character (Mothersbaugh's Booji Boy) and utilized masks, hats and costumes. Like the famous Kabuki-faced rock quartet, Devo performed as a whole. Sometimes, the band would wear bright yellow radiation suits. Other times, they wore matching shirt/shorts combos. Famously, they wore red stackable hats in the era of the band's best album.

Unfortunately, the band fell into the one-hit wonder camp, thanks to the success of "Whip It." Most people don't know that Devo has any other records or that they had a whole conceptual show surrounding their music. Most people don't know that the band was highly sarcastic, with the famous single being about masturbation. Hell, most people don't know that Mark Mothersbaugh now scores films (doing all but one of Wes Anderson's films).

Devo is a smart band. Like Weezer after them, Devo embraced a nerd-rock affect that was far before its time. Kraftwerk and Neu! were huge influences and the band helped usher in the wave of synth pop. The band addressed the issues of consumerism, sex and society. As art students at Kent State, the band had witnessed the Kent State shootings in 1970 and became almost reactionary. Like many in the punk/New Wave movement, Devo wasn't sticking around for complacency.


As an album, "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" is somewhat spotty. The highs are remarkably high, but the band's attempts at more conventional song styles weren't particularly effective (the band would perfect this dance on "Freedom of Choice"). "Space Junk," for example, isn't wonderful, though it's a nice attempt at a pleasant rock song.

Where "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" really shines is in its weirdness. "Jocko Homo," one of the band's signature songs and the centerpiece of their early live shows, was named after a pamphlet that posited that humankind was devolving into a half-man/half-ape creature (hence "Jocko Homo"). The call-and-response nature of the song was inspired by a section in "The Island of Doctor Moreau." Almost a lecture, the song is largely the band's theme song and statement of purpose.

The album's opener is one of the band's best songs and their best early attempt at a conventional punk rock song. "Uncontrollable Urge" is furious and energetic. Driven by a quick-action guitar and Mothersbaugh's manic "yeah"s, the song's sexual nature is rivaled only by Van Halen's Roth-era stuff.

Like "Uncontrollable Urge," "Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy" is a furious song about sex and masturbation. Mothersbaugh's crazy vocal style and the band's guitar-driven punk shines on the track.

The album's most controversial -- and one of its best -- songs is "Mongoloid." The song's message is that someone who is mentally disabled ("Mongoloid" being a ridiculously outdated term for someone with Down Syndrome) is on the same mental level as a "normal" human being, thanks to devolution. With a sweeping synthesizer and a motorik beat, the song glorifies the subject while putting down society.

Oddly enough, a lot of people have not heard the band's cover of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." It is, without a doubt, the most interesting version of the song. Almost Brak-like in his delivery, Mothersbaugh's vocals are crazed. He spits out the verses like a cartoon Tourette's patient while the slide-like bass and manic guitar pieces put the song together. All of this wraps itself around a Rube-Goldberg-sounding drum line that utilizes the weirder parts of the kit. The song's arrangement mocks the Stones' original meaning -- consumerism and young adulthood -- and does so beautifully. Mick Jagger calls it his favorite version.


"Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" is not Devo's best record. "Freedom of Choice" is the band's best record and is worlds better than this one. "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!," however, shows where the band started and where it would go. Like many New Wave records of the time, it was challenging and smart, two traits the band possessed in spades.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

No. 446: Suicide

Band: Suicide
Album: Suicide
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the more influential albums of its period, "Suicide" is the precursor to any punk rock that uses synths. It's often haunting, often destructive and always brilliant.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It could probably be higher, but not enough people have heard of the album.
Best song: "Frankie Teardrop" is 10 minutes of awesome.
Worst song: "Che" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: It's a hard listen, but it's worth it.

"Suicide" is a tough listen. It is, at times, grating, frustrating and sparse. Alan Vega's voice is caustic and often screeching. He works between crooning and screaming while Martin Rev's almost-Kraftwerk

While mostly progressive and German rock bands used synthesizers (see the Kraftwerk reference above), Suicide was the first real anti-band to use the synths in a DIY fashion. "Frankie Teardrop," based on a bass synth groove and a political tome about a Vietnam vet, is amazing and absolutely punk rock. "Ghost Rider" is short and quick, featuring a buzzsaw lead line.

As such, one of the great No Wave records was released.


Not to get into this again, but Suicide's record is lower on the list than "Tragic Kingdom." "Tragic Kingdom" is sugary nonsense and the Suicide album is challenging, smart and fun.

Certainly, the Suicide record is great, but not a lot of people have heard it. It influenced a ton of musicians. The Cars cited it as an influence (Ric Ocasek himself produced the album). Joy Division, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Spiritualized, Radiohead, Nick Cave and the Sisters of Mercy have cited the album as a favorite or influence. Like the Velvet Underground, not everyone has heard the Suicide album, but almost everyone who did eventually started a band.

"Tragic Kingdom," however, influenced more regular folks. Tons of women almost certainly started rock bands and joined rock bands because of Gwen Stefani's preening face. Our culture took tons of cues from the band and certainly the Avril LaVignes/Ashlee Simpsons of the world are largely born from Stefani's womb.

Here's the question, though: Do we really want to pump up the Avril LaVignes, Ashlee Simpsons and, ultimately, Gwen Stefanis of the world? Isn't the mass commoditization of third-wave feminism enough?

It harkens back to my views on college radio (a concept that has no real traction today, as college radio goes down the drain). I've always felt that college radio was the place for unheard music to find a home. In a time wherein the PR machine that is the music industry still holds a lot of sway, it was important to showcase the unheard music to someone.

A lot of the new DJs at our college station wanted to play whatever the hell they wanted. They looked at it with a "whatever taste I have" mind set, which is perfectly within the bounds of our format, but I didn't encourage them. A KCOU listener didn't come to the station to hear *NSync (we had one DJ who played them). The listener came to be challenged a little bit.

One of the biggest fallacies in my criticisms is based on that notion. Rolling Stone, in and of itself, is not a voice of the underground. It's current cover features Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (and Jack White), the picture of mainstream Boomer love. It was the voice of mainstream subculture even when it started up; It wasn't Creem. Hell, it isn't even Spin.

In fact, the magazine's place as the voice of the culture is the problem. When RS puts out a list like this, there are people -- stupid people, but people nonetheless -- who see it and fancy it law. Like the music industry machine, most consumers don't know any better. They need someone to tell them what's good/important/whatever, hence this list. The albums are "great," according to the all-important magazine.

The unfortunate fact is that RS -- by putting "Tragic Kingdom" ahead of "Suicide" -- is simply reinforcing the industry position. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this is akin to a political news reporter not vetting what a politician says. The journalist is there to question and relay information and when RS simply repeats the party line ("Gwen Stefani is pretty and No Doubt is full of substance") despite facts to the contrary -- critics have collectively panned "Tragic Kingdom" -- is a dereliction of duties.

No. 445: Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash

Band: The Pogues
Album: Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Shane McGowan is a wonderful songwriter and the record is a testament to the Irish folk music in which he dabbled. The band's Irish style is popular worlds over.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This record does not hit me. I have never really enjoyed Irish culture, so I can't speak to the greatness of the record.
Best song: Ugh.
Worst song: Ugh.
Is it awesome?: Someone else needs to rate this. Commenters, go!

I hate to be this person, but I can mostly do without the Irish love that sometimes pops up in the United States. I don't have anything against the Irish, per se. I'm sure Ireland is a nice place. I don't drink beer, so I can't speak to the tastiness of Guinness. I'm not a fan of Notre Dame or the Boston Celtics. I am very brand-loyal toward Irish Spring soap (I am not kidding), but that's about the extent of it.

(A particular pet peeve of mine is St. Patrick's Day v. Cinco de Mayo. I feel like Cinco de Mayo should be as big a holiday as St. Patrick's Day. It's a similar thing -- ethnic holiday based around drinking -- with much better food. Why isn't Cinco de Mayo more popular? Because it comes from Mexico and Americans now, apparently, hate Mexicans.)

So... The Pogues don't speak to me. It doesn't help that Decemberists lead man Colin Meloy -- a human and a band that annoy me more than just about anyone -- cites it as his favorite album. Pitchfork -- an organization of which I am a fan -- ranked the album 67th best album of the 1980s.

I like Sinéad O'Connor's record, but the rest of the Irish culture in America situation never really hit me.

Still, the traditional Irish vocal cadence, the tin whistle and the thematic elements are not my favorite things. Like many records, I'm wildly unqualified to write about this stuff, so I'll simply point you to two things:

Sorry readers, I have failed you.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

No. 444: Criminal Minded

You've read him twice, here he is for a third time. Take it away, Padraig...

Band: Boogie Down Productions
Album: Criminal Minded
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Well, it’s a hip hop milestone from the beginning of the Golden Age of hip hop featuring arguably the greatest MC of all time. I think it should be much higher. I also like hip hop way more than Rolling Stone.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: A lot of the production, unsurprisingly, sounds dated. Also, BDP’s 2nd album “By All Means Necessary” is better.
Best song: My favorite is probably “Poetry” but I feel compelled to mention both “South Bronx” and “The Bridge Is Over” for their historical importance.
Worst song: I’ve never been too into “P Is Free”.
Is it awesome?: There can be no doubt that it is.

“Criminal Minded”, along with “Paid In Full” by Eric B. & Rakim and Public Enemy’s debut, marks the beginning of the Golden Age of hip hop that lasted roughly from the end of 1987 until, depending on your view, 1993 or so. It was a groundbreaking release mainly because of KRS-One’s immaculate, intricate rhyme schemes. It was also widely misinterpreted, mainly based on the cover, seeming almost designed to scare the wits out of white people unfamiliar with hip hop, showing a very serious KRS and late Scott La Rock armed to the teeth. I’d imagine that still had some shock value 20 years ago.

(A quick aside here, for anyone not familiar with KRS/BDP – Boogie Down Productions was originally a duo with KRS as MC and La Rock as DJ. Tragically, shortly after the release of “Criminal Minded” La Rock was gunned down trying to stop a fight from breaking out. After that BDP became KRS and a rotating cast of his wife, brother and various associates for several years until in 1992 he decided to just record under the name KRS-One.)

That cover is very appropriate, however, as it symbolizes rap’s transition from the safer confines of electro and silly costumes to the far more serious and threatening (to some) world of gangsta rap and Afrocentrism, the two themes that would define this Golden Age, KRS having influenced both. In fact, many critics consider this album to be a frontrunner of gangsta rap (again, because of the cover), which I’d disagree with. If you want to find the roots of gangsta rap I think you’d do better to look at Schoolly D, Ice T & Too Short as well as the devastation wrought by crack cocaine in the 80s and the larger than life crime figures it birthed, like Kenneth McGriff and Felix Mitchell.

The production will probably seem underwhelming to anyone not familiar with that period of hip hop. In 1987 sampling was just beginning to gain popularity and the beats generally mix drum machine programming with a sample or two, mostly from obvious sources like James Brown as well as reggae artists like Yellowman and producers Sly & Robbie. The aptly named “Dope Beat” is probably the most egregious offender, as it seems inconceivable now that someone could get away with rhyming over the main riff from “Back In Black” but it was a different time, before the lawsuits against De La Soul and Biz Markie made sampling considerably more difficult. I like the stark, minimal structures of the beats, but I can see how they’d turn some people off. There are almost no catchy hooks and 90% or more of the album is just KRS rhyming over cracking loud drums.

That’s not so bad though, as the main attraction is KRS’ skills on the mic. He didn’t just come out of the blue, having been influenced by earlier lyrical MCs like T La Rock and especially Kool Moe Dee, but he and Rakim were the guys who really took it to the next level combining internal rhyming, multi-syllabic rhyme patterns with more complex and serious topics. Even when his rhymes aren’t complicated KRS just sounds great. His cadence and flow are impeccable.

Right off the bat he’s on a mission to elevate hip hop to the level of poetry, as the title of the first song suggests – “Poetry is the language of imagination/Poetry is a form of positive creation”. There’s KRS as teacher, an element that would become more prominent in his later work following Scott La Rock’s death.

There’s also a noticeable Jamaican influence on songs like “9mm Goes Bang”, with KRS’ lilting flow evoking the chatting done by dancehall DJs. That’s not surprising, as both of his parents are from the island and he clearly inherited their taste. This is another element that would continue to be prevalent in his music.

I’d be remiss if I don’t mention KRS as the quintessential battle rapper. And make no mistake, from the very first moment he’s on a neverending mission to crush all opposition, a theme that is endlessly repeated. The PSA about sucka MCs at the beginning of “Word to Our Sponsor” is hilarious even though I’ve heard it 50 times.

The famous battle cuts are “South Bronx” and “The Bridge Is Over”. They’re from the Bridge Wars which was, in a nutshell, one of the greatest feuds in the history of hip hop, between BDP and members of The Juice Crew from Queens (a legendary group in their own right), which KRS also used to launch his career by battling and crushing the, at the time, better known MC Shan. “The Bridge Is Over”, KRS’ finishing blow, is particularly devastating and for my money the best diss song ever (other contenders would be “No Vaseline”, “Hit Em’ Up” and “Ether”).

You’ve probably heard this album by now. If you haven’t, find a way to do so, even if you don’t like hip hop at all.

No. 443: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

Band: Same Cooke
Album: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Sam Cooke's albums were great, but he was truly in his element in the Harlem Square Club. His interactions with the crowd are fantastic and the record remains one of the great live albums of all time.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm satisfied with this placement. I imagine it should be a little higher.
Best song: "Having a Party" is the best.
Worst song: "Somebody Have Mercy" is good, but not great.
Is it awesome?: It is.

Sam Cooke's studio-recorded work is pretty amazing, but this disc shows off what kind of charismatic singer Cooke could be. He works with the Harlem Square Club audience like a patriarch addressing his extended family.

Many of the great hits are here. He starts the record with "Feel It" and brings the screaming crowd to its feet. He rocks "Bring It On Home To Me" with the fervor of a man possessed. "Twistin' the Night Away" starts with Cooke's almost preacher-esque odes to the crowd, when he then hits the song out of the park.

Of course, he ends the set with his greatest song, "Having a Party," as the crowd nearly explodes out of the club. They sing along, breathlessly, as Cooke eggs them on. King Curtis' sax works off Cooke's graveled-voice soul perfectly. While the crowd erupts, Cooke feeds off its energy.