Saturday, January 31, 2004

#86) New York Dolls - Rock'n'Roll (released in 1994, purchased in 1997 on cassette at the Wiz in Brooklyn while hanging out with my cousin)

Three reasons I don't feel like saying much about these guys: 1) so much has already been said, particularly by arguable personal fave critic Robert Christgau, whose best stuff about them is in his Grown Up All Wrong anthology, but this piece is solid too. 2) While I enjoy the Dolls plenty, I don't LOVE them enough to think what I have to say is particularly unique about them. They're as good as timeless trash gets without transcending its trashiness. 3) I have a really awful headache.

Anyhow, I picked the comp Rock'N'Roll as my fave Dollswork because it features almost everything from their two full-lengths along with three extremely enjoyable outtakes ("Courageous Cat Theme" highlights the guitars, "Lone Star Queen" highlights lead bow-ay David Johansen and "Don't You Mess With Cupid" highlights everybody). The song sequence is a gas - side one of the tape feels way more dramatic than the debut, and if the feels-long-though-not-nearly-the-longest track "Stranded In The Jungle" wasn't here this comp might be a couple notches higher on my list.

Friday, January 30, 2004

#87) Rod Stewart - Every Picture Tells A Story (released in 1971, I first heard the album over the summer of 2002. I got the Reason To Believe: The Complete Mercury Recordings box as a Christmas present that year. Thanks, Mom!)

Taking the Beggars Banquet-era Stones sound to its loudest ("(I Know) I'm Losing You") and softest ("Mandolin Wind") extremes, Rod and his drinking buddies do what they basically did on every Stewart album - amble through Stewart's story songs and a bunch of R&B and folk covers until they've filled the tape. This just happens to be the one album of his where each song resonates as much as the next, whether the source is as familiar as "That's All Right, Mama," as obscure as Tim Hardin, or as inimitable as Rod The Mod's noggin. Stewart's interpretive skills make it impossible to tell which songs he wrote himself, with the possible exception of the title track. Too crass to be Dylan and too rich to be anyone else, the song mixes sage advice with lines like "Shanghai Lil never used the pill," providing both youthful absurdity and lyrical detail before bursting into a barroom rave-up, with Stewart and Maggie Bell repeatedly noting that "Every picture tells a story, Tony!" (or so I hear it). I'm not sure with the adage means, but I appreciate their spirit. While I can relate more with 1972's "You Wear It Well"'s I-done-fucked-up humor than "Maggie May"'s tale of a stud who can't say no, there's a reason he revisited the sound so blatantly. Every song hits its mark without it ever coming off like effort. I doubt we'll ever see an album this varied again that doesn't sound either aggressively test-marketed or willfully eclectic.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

#88) A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory (released in 1991, I bought a copy on used CD at Arboria my senior year of high school)

Most of the reviews of this I’ve read focus heavily on the idea that The Low End Theory is the best “jazz-rap” album of all time. Personally, I think this angle is a bit overbaked. Tribe doesn’t really treat jazz samples any different than Rick Rubin did heavy metal samples or Puff Daddy did pop hits – they’re swiping hooks to create a standard hip-hop backdrop for the raps. There’s nothing particularly jazz-like about the structures here, it’s simply the timbres and some lyrical self-hype that give the jazz “vibe” (which Tribe wholly admits that they’ve got). That said, the sounds do give the album an effortless flow that pulses with energy and authority without coming off as overly aggressive. Even “Scenario,” the hardest track here (and an early commercial highlight of Busta Rhymes’ career), comes off more playful than angry. Rappers Phife and especially Q-Tip are more like comedy/drama male leads rather than anti-heroes or action movie stars, they don’t inspire macho idolization so much as endearment and attraction. Avoiding obvious attention grabs while never succumbing to boring we-don’t-do-bad-things-love-us-for-it “positivity,” The Low End Theory is one of the most consistently engaging rap albums I’ve ever heard.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

#89) Everclear - Sparkle & Fade (released in 1995, I'd listen to various people's copies for years before my sister finally gave me her CD of it last summer)

Art Alexakis really scares me. Just when you want to dismiss him as simply another self-serving rock asshole harshly recounting the ways women have failed him, he turns to camera to himself with a blunt acuity that transcends the cliches of bitter puds like Tom Petty. There’s no self-pity to be found within the frustration voiced throughout Sparkle & Fade, just a frank, desperate hope that voicing these memories will help him break free. What scares me about him (aside from his unashamed commercial brass-ring hunger in interviews and freaky stare’n’smirk) is that despite his observational skills and honesty, he - at least on this album - still hasn’t figured out how to beat the contradictory dilemma of wanting to be free…with someone else.

Aided by unfussy guitar-bass-drums arrangements that imply the band could actually pull this pop-thrash off live, Sparkle & Fade seems like it could be a concept album about a relationship except the songs aren’t in chronological order. The break-up song (“Santa Monica”) precedes the Bonnie and Clyde tracks (“Summerland,” “Heartspark Dollarsign”), both of which come after the horrifyingly cynical relationship sum-ups “Electra Made Me Blind” and “Heroin Girl.” Thanks to this kaleidoscopic quality, I can see why they closed the album with the reflective “My Sexual Life,” a song which makes blunt how much regret & history goes into these songs. Still, I hope at least one concert from this era ended with “Heartspark Dollarsign.” I still like to think there's "a power bigger than the pain."

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

#90) Mekons - Mekons Rock'n'Roll (released in 1989, I purchased it on used cassette at Arboria sometime near the end of high school)

The Mekons don’t actually call rock music “capitalism’s favorite boy-child” on “Memphis, Egypt,” but it sure sounds like it, and having that slander in the midst of one of their hardest rockers ever sums up the paradox that fuels the Mekons’ finest, most accessible set of songs to date. Is rock the sound of freedom and an easily achieved form of expression or bread and circuses for the rabble to chew on while their lives become more futile and worthless with every passing day? Well, duh, both. Can anthemic country-rock be merged with lyrics like “When I was seventeen, sex no loner held a mystery. I saw it as a commodity, to be bought and sold like rock’n’roll” and still have a chance of mainstream acceptance? Possibly, though it would require enough ambigious shtick that the people who want to miss your message would be able to - something that the Mekons realize would greatly diminish their overall value. Do we need another Bruce Springsteen?

That weathered yet enduring quality, which (to quote another lyric) is like “the sound of failure and cold water running,” has made the evolving troupe consistently rewarding for over 20 years. However, Rock’n’Roll is the one album where it sounds like they’re going to try to take their message to arenas, a move that doesn’t feel like commercial capitulation as much as an inspired desire to reach a larger audience - to find out how many people have ever felt like a Mekon. Label woes sent them almost immediately back into the underground, but the music remains charged with testimonial spirit. I do wish they’d ripped into Bono a bit more on “Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet,” though.

Monday, January 26, 2004

#91) Flaming Lips - In A Priest Driven Ambulance (released in 1990, I ordered the CD from City Lights sometime in late 1999/early 2000, back when I was under the false impression that The Soft Bulletin represented a glorious new breakthrough in pop music - I still think "What Is The Light?" is beautiful, though. Sadly, this album is now only available as part of a bloated 2CD compilation called The Day They Shot a Hole in the Jesus Egg. It's probably still worth it.)

On In A Priest Driven Ambulance, the Flaming Lips had a sinister edge (not to mention a spazzoid guitar assault) that would be gradually be replaced over the decade by benign cutesypoo pomp – today they’re the indie Supertramp at best and the indie Styx at their worst. But in 1990, the Lips resembled a thoroughly unprofessional Neil Young & Crazy Horse trying to turn John Lennon’s Sgt. Peppers-era work into actual ROCK songs. Wayne Coyne would never again sound as frustrated as he does on “There You Are,” or as foreboding as he does on blasphemously bonkers tracks like “God Walks Among Us Now” or “Rainin’ Babies.” There’s an affecting sense of manic insecurity here, which reaches its peak on “Mountainside,” a six and a half minute kamikaze burst of horror and affection, with guitars (courtesy of Coyne and future Mercury Rev leader Jonathan Donohue) squealing and swooping over the rhythm section’s nutso throb, symbolizing Coyne’s repeated declaration that he’s “flying into your mountainside, dying in your plane crash of LOOOOOOVE!” The closing cover of “What A Wonderful World” is definitely a mawkish portent of the schlock to come, but the rest of the album is plenty engaging and twisted enough to make up for it.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

#92) Michael Jackson - Off The Wall (Released in 1979, my sister gave me a scratched-up cassette copy in high school. Eventually I purchased it on used vinyl at Arboria sometime in college. There's a major skip near the end of the title track so I may well buy this on CD sometime in the future. I'm curious to hear what a Jackson "demo" track sounds like.)

"You know I was wondering...if you could keep on…because the force has got a lot of power…and…it makes me feel makes me feel like...ooohhh!"

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the first "oooh" of Michael Jackson's adult career appears right at the beginning of his first Epic solo album, triggering a cascade of strings, swelling horns and glass-bottle percussion straight from Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up, pt. 1" - only more urgent and excited. Where his later (and admittedly great) multi-platinum successes would be mostly driven (however subtly) by fear and anger, Off The Wall is a work of joy. Jackson seems intoxicated by the sound and spirit of disco, celebrating a world of party people with a charged mixture of innocence and confident sexuality. Michael himself wrote and co-produced the three most insistent dance numbers, and the softer work on side 2 (written by hired guns such as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder) is never less than professional. Off The Wall's unique spirit is unlikely to be found again - Jackson's effortless grace seems beyond the reach of aerobicized, herky-jerk thrusters like Justin Timberlake and something sure spooked Jackson good by the time Thriller reared its head.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

#93) Def Leppard - Hysteria (I checked it out from the Salisbury, MD public library the previous summer but finally bought a used cassette of the album in Boston over Thankgsiving break 2002)

Mutt Lange doesn't produce albums so much as entertainment monoliths. They're meant to sell consistently for two years and dominate radio waves for eternity and, as far as I'm concerned, Def Leppard's Hysteria remains his finest achievement both commercially (the album is one too many A-sides away from sharing the same structure as Singles Going Steady) and artistically. If it seems unfair to credit the producer rather than the band itself, it might be because these guys starting blowing goats the second Lange left them to their own devices (though their pre-Lange work is strong enough that maybe he just pushed them so far into the world of overdub majesty that there was no returning to what they could achieve by themselves, which was OK AC/DC wanna-be stuff).

Anyhow, Hysteria. These arena-filling cybernetic creampuff epic actually frighten me sometimes, especially the vocal samples over the extended drum break in "Rocket," which sounds so disturbingly inhuman that I'm surprised these guys were able to push the song into the U.S. Top 20. Most music implies a cyborg-like quality through clunkiness, but Def Lep's futurism is far more fluid, like an H.R. Giger painting. It renders the hooks on songs like "Pour Some Sugar On Me" and "Armageddon It" superheroic and surreal, something the band liked to offset with bad haircuts and lots of denim (robots do not wear denim).

Their warm-bloodedness is further made clear by the ballads; the harrowing questions raised by "Love Bites" make me wonder if long-term relationships could possibly work while the monumental beauty of the title track reaffirms why people bother to find out. It's the human heart beating beneath the metallic sheen that makes Hysteria's arena-rock metropolis seem somewhat utopian. Though to cut down on the bloat, I could live without "Love And Affection" and especially "Women" though (ooh, take THAT out of context!).

Friday, January 23, 2004

#94) Kelly Osbourne - Shut Up! (released in 2002, purchased on CD that year at City Lights during my 1st or 2nd Annual Xmas-Money Pre-Pazz'n'Jop Last Minute Record Hunt)

I'm just as surprised as you are, folks. It's not like I expected the spoiled rotten scion of a drug-addled TV icon to create a smart and moving pop-punk classic with the help of Celine Dion's producer and a bunch of anonymous session shmucks named Power Pack. She did, though, and that she did is one of the more recent reminders I've had that all albums should be heard with an open mind, lest the peripheral aspects of an artist - hype, haircut, private life, what have you - interfere with your ability to hear the actual art.

Somehow the parties involved created a unique mixture of brash glam-punk and studio-shine melodic pop made further memorable by Osbourne's lyrical gift for capturing the exasperation and confusion of a person trying to sort out their own problems while dealing with serious interference from parents, boyfriends, etc. The soaring internal drama of "Come Dig Me Out" doesn't just live up to the standard set by Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out, Osbourne's single would have been one of that album's highlights if S-K had written it. She might not be capable of vocal acrobatics, but songs as joyfully withering as the title track and as endearingly sentimental as "More Than Life Itself" benefit from her amateurish gusto. Papa Osbourne provided more than his share of big-hearted, openly vulnerable hard rock with Black Sabbath, and Kelly has the skills to do the same. Hopefully we'll give her the chance.

(note: the album has been recently reissued as Changes with live tracks and an admittedly horrific titular duet with Ozzy. The original album should still be easy to find)

Thursday, January 22, 2004

#95) AC/DC - High Voltage (released in 1976, purchased on used vinyl at City Lights sometime in my junior year in college - half because of Chuck Eddy's rave in Stairway To Hell, half because I thought the cover would like great at the front of my record collection. It wasn't until later that I really got into the album - and started buying more AC/DC)

One of the best things that happened to me last year was discovering the collected works of Bon Scott; I am incapable of being unhappy while listening to his voice. His confidence, glee, humor and wisdom, coupled with equally authoritive guitars and groove (the first verse of "Little Lover" reveals why these guys are so determinably danceable) make second thoughts and nagging doubts seem foolish. "Well you can stick your nine to five livin'/ And your collar and your tie/ And stick your moral standards/ 'Cause it's all a dirty lie/ You can stick your golden handshake/ And you can stick your silly rules/ And all the other shit/ That they teach to kids in school /'Cause I ain't no fool." Christ, I don't think I'm EVER going to be able to get a graduate degree now.

Other highlights on High Voltage, their startlingly fully-formed debut, include Bon's bagpipe solo on "It's A Long Way To The Top," the way he announces he's "mighty unclean" on "TNT," the retro kick of the music to "Can I Sit Next To You Girl?" (reminiscent of their producers' old band, the Easybeats), the audible leer and endless card-game/STD metaphor of "The Jack" (all complaints of tastelessness are rendered humorless by the ultra-meta coda) and the astounding shriek Scott emits during the title track (would anybody pretending to be socially maladjusted let that be heard?).

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

#96) Rocket From The Crypt - Group Sounds (released in 2001, purchased probably on the day it came out at City Lights. I've been nuts about these guys since I saw the "On A Rope" video on 120 Minutes back in 1995)

Finally, something not remotely alt-canonical (though still alt, dang it)! Until doing the 2/3-year-long record collection reappraisal that led to this list (and the decision to get rid of a third of what I owned), I’ve been under the assumption that my favorite RFTC album was their latest, Live From Camp X-Ray, thanks to its coherent lyrical zeitgeist (no album better captured my own distanced-by-TV, horrified/fascinated mindstate about 9/11, let alone connected it to fratphobia). While that album does represent an impressive step for a decade-plus old band (it’s #154 with a bullet here), Group Sounds remains their crowning achievement. Combining the scabrous sound of their indie 7-inchs with the songcraft of their two major label full-lengths while cutting down on the filler, the songs here burst forth with a compact frenzy resembling Pink Flag performed by Otis Day & The Knights.

Speedo a.k.a. John Reis (RFTC songwriter and lead singer, Hot Snakes guitarist, Swami Records president, personal hero and boycrush recipient) is a master of effective arrangements, intertwining memorable vocal, horn and guitar (even bells – which I’m a sucker for – on “This Bad Check Is Gonna Stick”) hooks to create melodic beasts that once inspired my college roommate Ben, a real ragtime piano enthusiast, to announce with delight that RFTC sounds like his kind of music performed “really, really, really fast.” This focus on musical interplay (along with Reis’s cryptic mushmouth – I thought “Savoir Faire” was “Sidewalk King,” “White In White Belt” was “What In The Hell,” and “Straight American Slave” was “Save, American, Save!”) has kept the band from getting the mainstream attention fans like me think they deserve. They played in State College twice to promote this album, one show being an lunchtime acoustic set at a local video rental hut, to the delight of probably a hundred people total; I think God was doing me a big favor or something.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

#97) Morrissey - Bona Drag (released in 1990, purchased on used cassette at Arboria, a local record store, some time in college. The first time I attempted to buy it, I accidentally grabbed a copy of Kill Uncle instead. I wasn't pleased.)

Compiling early singles and b-sides (not to mention rescuing the finest songs off of his otherwise overponderous debut Viva Hate), Bona Drag is usually the first Morrissey solo album I recommend to people (especially if I don't think they'll appreciate the glam swagger of his best later material, though I certainly do). While songs like "Interesting Drug" and "Suedehead" won't exactly inspire statements like "Johnny who?" they certainly provide a solid musical backdrop for the Mozzer's memorable declarations of pith and pine. As wonderful as his lyrics get here, part of Morrissey's appeal for me will always be the non-verbal swoons he emits when the music is particuarly inspiring. Check out the choked gurgles that precede the titular choruses of "Hairdresser On Fire" and "Last Of The Famous International Playboys," or the moans that follow the latter's moog-peppered bridge; if the music fits the mood of his lyric, he's more than willing to stop playing Oscar Wilde and just croon along wordlessly. It's this surrender that makes me sympathetic to his moonier moments (plus the fact that us straight outcasts often dare not say our love's name either).

Monday, January 19, 2004

#98) Bratmobile - Pottymouth (released in 1993, purchased on vinyl at some basement store in NYC around the beginning of college)

Erin Smith’s guitar and Molly Neuman’s drums provide the surge of rock without the overbearing weight – by comparison even the B-52’s plod, while Alison Wolfe howls above it all, pushing her obsessions away and pulling them back – sometimes in the same song. If K Records hadn’t happened, Pottymouth wouldn’t have happened, but Bratmobile transcends their obvious roots with a perversely grounded yet giddy anxiety entirely their own; the youthfulness here sounds neither forced like late Jad Fair’s or coy like Calvin Johnson’s. No frustration is going to keep Wolfe from trying to be “the Joanest Jett around,” especially when Smith (who, on a personal note, helped me realize that you can do a lot with just one guitar string) has an endless supply of surf-punk riffs to bolster her confidence. It’s a shame that more bands can’t exorcise their conflicting urges with similar musical joy.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

#99) Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady (released in 1979, I bought a used CD of it at City Lights around my senior year of high school. Someone wrote the word BUTCH above Steve Diggle's head in the liner notes)

Yeah, these guys weren't really anything more than Paul McCartney on speed (instead of luhv it's LAHV! and instead of yeah-yeah-yeah it's ohhh-ohhh), but louder faster rules, you know? And it's not like I've had enough of silly love songs, especially when they're naughty, blitzing, treble-icious and catchy. The irony of praising the Buzzcocks for goosing the Herman's Hermits template with speed and violence is that my favorite song here is the slowest and most incandenscent. "Why Can't I Touch It?" bounces about like Wire doing Television doing reggae for six minutes of gorgeous yearn while Shelley pines for the security of tangibility, something that life (and especially romance) will rarely provide. Singles Going Steady is pretty sweet for something so sharp (and vica versa).

Saturday, January 17, 2004

#100) Cypress Hill - Cypress Hill (released in 1991, I bought a used CD of it at City Lights, a local record store, sometime in college)

Consistently great beats, novel samples (my favorite is either the flatulent trumpet on "Stoned Is The Way Of The Walk" or Muggs putting the Duke Of Earl to good use on "Hand On The Pump"), a bizarre mix of playground chanting and verbal violence and most importantly, the revelation that college students and gangstas share some things in common: a dislike of authority figures and a deep appreciation for marijuana. Cheech And Chong's Up In Smoke meets Tougher Than Leather for the ultimate in midnight madness. B-Real, whose nasal glee was the bridge between Eazy-E and Snoop Dogg, was easily the best scatter in hip-hop ("A scooby doo, y'all, a scooby dooby doo!") till Nelly. Muggs' percolating percussive funk is what makes the album a true classic, adding a wallop of humor and perversity to the Bomb Squad sample-layering blueprint without losing an inch of thug authority. I like badass fun.