Source Tags & Codes - by ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
A hugely aggressive stoner-rock album. The drums flash and burn and crash, the guitars pull left, right, and center... and the lyrics/emotions are pure and hot. They put on a neck-snapping performance at Coney Island a few years back that stills rattles in my head.
Dilate - Ani Difranco
But... speaking of emotionality... this album, more than another, has proven the most cathartic for me. She burrows down into a broken relationship and details every shattered and shredded surface. She plays every instrument on this album except for a few of the drum tracks. Ani Difranco started selling tapes of her music out of the back of her car at age 18, shaved her head bald at 19 to scare off male fans that just wanted to sleep with her and not listen to her music, and by 21 had started her own music label. She is a folkie, a punk, a brilliant lyricist, has a whipstrong voice, and lives her life on her own terms. Every time I see her perform I find new things to respect and love about her. If you fall in love with her there is a lot more out there... she has released almost an album a year for over 20 years... start at the girl&guitar beginning and work your way up through a body of work that I have never grown tired of.
Windowlicker - Aphex Twin
Aphex Twin is an enigma and a freak, and a very respected member of the electronica community. This tiny little EP highlights all of these attributes. Essentially, the first track mocks modern hip-hop and pushes it to strange new places, the second track deconstructs jungle and teasingly hides a visual image inside the sounds that can only be discovered using a spectogram (if interested read more about this at Wikipedia), and the third track consists of music boxes on an acid trip.
Funeral - by Arcade Fire
They were barely a blip on the social radar when David Bowie tapped them for greatness and started showing up at their concerts and performing with them from time to time. That’s when everyone else noticed what Bowie had noticed... that this band had found a big open vein of emotion and propulsion and release that they were able to communicate to anyone willing to open their ears and listen and open their mouths and shout along.
Bang Bang Rock & Roll - by Art Brut
Arty self-aware punk for the new millenium... few bands have written a more self-conscious opening song than these guys. “Look at us, we formed a band!”. And trust me, the next time you go to a museum to see Modern Art, you should have Modern Art playing on your headphones.
Gulag Orkestar - by Beirut
A young guy from middle America, but with a soul of a trumpet player in the south of France 100 years ago. Each succeeding album from this guy just goes further and further into melodic bliss and deserves your attention if you enjoy the sound... but this is where it all started.
The Three EP’s - by the Beta Band
A short-lived Scottish band at the end of the 1990’s, they built a sound that mixed folk and electronica... but most importantly did this mixture in the service of some fantastic tunes. This collects their first three EPs... their two albums never reached the heights of their earliest work which you have here.
Hound Dog - by Big Mama Thornton
Written by two Jewish guys, famously performed by Elvis Presley in a perfectly neutered version so that white America could enjoy it... but this is the definitive original performance of this song. It will knock your socks off from the first guttural pull of Mama Thornton’s voice. And suddenly, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, been snooping round my door - you can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more.”, takes on a significance you never could have noticed before.
A Brief History of Love - by The Big Pink
These guys mix the smash of electronica and the squeal of rock guitars into a heady brew that was wonderful to see (perhaps in part because the drummer is a cute Japanese girl who expertly pounds out the rhythms), and is wonderful to listen to at high volume. And the title reminds me of some expert advice I was given a few year back... every relationship ends in only one of two ways: someone leaves, or someone dies.
Homogenic - by Bjork
She is from Iceland. Her voice is a vortex of crazy, able to do anything she asks of it. Her first album was all dance music, and by this (her third album) she had sculpted her own electronic/emotional landscape. She also wore a swan dress to the Academy Awards a few years ago and got lampooned for it.... which if Lady Gaga did it now would be seen as a bold stylistic choice. A polarizing figure to be sure, but that she creates her own world is never a question. Its just a question of whether or not you want to visit her world. I suggest you do. And if you like it, go back the beginning and work your way forward.
For Emma, Forever Ago - by Bon Iver
Guy gets his heart broken. Hides out in a cabin in the woods. Records an album all by his lonesome. The lucky thing is that this guy has a talent for writing haunting melodies and has a voice the sways and swoops all over his beautiful songs. I bet the girl that broke his heart is second-guessing that decision now...
Perfect From Now On - by Built to Spill
I try to see these guys every chance I get as they are a superb guitar show... huge lunging sounds that can turn on a dime into intricate melodic improvisations. This is the album that first got me hooked.
The Greatest - by Cat Power
This band is really just one girl, Chan Marshall. Her first few albums are dark and oblique performances, full of great power but hidden by a density that is not easily accessed. Then she went south, got a band with swing and soul, and recorded this open and inviting album. She’s welcoming you in... so go on in.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
The singer’s voice might catch you off guard the first few times you hear it... but listen to those guitars, feel the pull of these songs, notice all the inspired little snippets of extra instrumentation, and then listen to the crazed-to-near-collapsing energy of his voice again and see if it doesn’t all make a perfect kind of sense. “Gimme me some salt, gimme me some salt, gimme me some salt.”
CWK EP - by Cold War Kids
Some kids from California got together and banged out a couple of songs and played some terrific shows (Jessica can attest to this, having seen them at the very beginning in a tiny little underground basement show). This smattering of songs captures a bit of that nervous energy and thumping momentum. Sadly they couldn’t really pull it together for a proper album worth listening to, so this is really all there is... but for what it is, its very good.
Why There Are Mountains - by Cymbals Eat Guitars
I mean... this album starts huge. It starts off where many bands try to get to over the course of many epic songs, and it does it better than most... right at the beginning of their debut album! So, can they maintain that energy for the rest of the album? Thankfully this New Jersey band does just that, by following the musical trails where ever they need to go, screaming, buzzing guitars, tinkling pianos, glockenspiels, whatever it takes.
Live Santa Monica ’72 - by David Bowie
Where do you start with David Bowie? This guy changed direction more times than I care to count, and often succeeded in whatever he attempted. But his catalogue is so strange that is hard to know where to begin. I took years to even approach it, and also because the few times I did listen to a whole album of his I found some good songs and some bad songs. Having now listened to a lot of Bowie I can say that I was right... every album has some good and some bad. But the good is so damn good. And in music history you’ll find Bowie’s fingerprints everywhere... all over the damn place. Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Arcade Fire, etc etc etc. So, here is a live performance to give you a sense of how good this man can be... and then when you have time, dig around some more. He’s worth it.
Bitte Orca - by Dirty Projectors
Stillness is the Move is such a fantastic song that Beyonce’s sister felt compelled to make an R&B cover of it. This is sharp and angular music that may take a moment to become familiar with, and it is created by a truly strange man with his two female singers. Their last album was a cover of a Black Flag album... but not a normal cover where they learned the songs and put their own twist on it. No, they just tried to remember the feeling of the songs they had heard 10 years ago and then make something that approximated that feeling. And the name for this album was chosen simply because it sounded nice to put those two words together. Strange. But there is a good reason they are so important in indie music right now... their music is as strangely powerful as their stylistic quirks.
Change - by Dismemberment Plan
A terrific DC band, that I saw play at William and Mary before they broke up a few years ago. Their music grows out of the shards and shadows of the punk scene, but its not dumb and snotty as some punk can be... hell, one of the tracks even references the McLaughlin Group. Its a shame they broke up, cause there is a ton of beauty and energy to be found in their music.
Entroducing... - by DJ Shadow
I was introduced to this album years ago by reading a list of Thom Yorke’s favorite albums at that particular moment. (Side note: I didn’t include any Radiohead in this compilation because I figure you’ve already heard plenty about them. There is a wealth of great music in that band... but I wanted to show you other types of things that were going through my head at this particular moment. And it’s not just Radiohead that is missing from this compilation... as much as is here, there is SO MUCH MORE that is not here...) This entire album is constructed out of a myriad of samples. Samples on top of samples on top of samples. That’s cool, but the genius is all that you hear after all that layering is the new song that he’s created. This is one of my favorite albums year after year after year.
The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 - by Bob Dylan
You might have heard of this guy before... you’ve probably heard a couple of his songs. Well, take another look. This is a concert from the turning point in his career... when he left the folk sound and started playing with a rock band. He and his lyrics were so important to his fans at this time that when they heard the rock instruments they called him Judas (which you can actually hear happen at the end of Ballad of a Thin Man, which causes Dylan to react in anger and tell his band to play the next song “fucking loud”); he was leaving their isolated world and so they called him a traitor. Little did they know that this new mask of his would carry even more weight than the one that came before. I first heard this amazing concert, which was knowingly split between acoustic and full band material, while sitting on a porch in the sunshine smoking a proper Cuban cigar and drinking authentic Absinthe from Hungary. You may not currently have that particular context with which to experience this album, but music this alive and potent provides its own context where ever you might be and what ever you might be doing... “like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.”
Fleet Foxes - by Fleet Foxes
Multi-part harmonies, with melodies that seem to come rolling down from the blue-tinged Appalachian mountains. Its as though a couple of pure-voiced men got together into a backwoods shack with a couple of instruments, some exquisite recording equipment, and a passion to take the essence Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and re-articulate it for the smoky woods of the American east coast. There are no California girls... they are replaced instead with meadowlarks and quiet houses.
Entertainment! - by Gang of Four
This album is fantastic punk rock, a fantastic critique of capitalism, and an inspiration to a slew of bands... even the Red Hot Chili Peppers cite them as a major influence. Andy Gill’s guitar is a monster, with enough angularity and abrasiveness to cut your ears up if you’re not careful... and he knows that sometimes the silence between bursts of noise can be just as powerful as the noise itself. Enjoy!
Veckatimest - by Grizzly Bear
I must admit, I didn’t understand these guys the first time around. Though, that should have tipped me off, cause often the stuff I don’t love at first eventually wins me over more effectively that stuff that immediately catches my ear. Like Frost said, I prefer the road less travelled. On this album we are bathed in a multitude of beautiful harmonies, not unlike the Fleet Foxes. But their melodic decisions are idiosyncratic and counter-intuitive... which is why I couldn’t latch on to it at first. It helped seeing them in concert, where there was a more full-blooded approach to some of this same material. But then I came back to this album and realized it was all here but that I had to pay attention the first couple of listens or I would miss it. Then once you hear it, its in your head forever.
Lust for Life - by Iggy Pop
You’ve probably heard the title song... which commercialization and over-playing has rendered a little hollow. But the lust is still there and will always be there even if we lose the ability to hear it, and the rest of the album is a hidden gem that could easily be as over-played as the first song but thankfully has remained largely unknown because it consists of a batch of broken and rambling songs that keep swinging away at you till you crumple to your knees from all the abuse. “We’ll be the stars that shine so bright... the stars were made for us tonight”. This is the triumphant sound of a man getting off of hard drugs long enough to make an album that pulls no punches. David Bowie played producer here, and his pop sensibilities rubbed off on the punk brutality of Iggy to make a fascinating hybrid.
Turn on the Bright Lights - by Interpol
Ahhh... Interpol. Hypnotically interlinked guitars and drums and bass, and then there is that dead-eyed voice that is like the smoky trail of a cigarette that leads the whole midnight procession into deeper darkness and obsessions. Even the brightest lights will not illuminate this claustrophobic and cathartic chunk of music.... it will remain in back alleys and basement clubs and drag you down with it.
In the Reins - by Iron and Wine
This is actually a joint venture between the solo artist Iron&Wine and a full band called Calexico. Together they find the dusty, lonely, and reflective moments of lives that are failed and forgotten... and they take those lost things and bring them to a burnished glow so that they can shine forever.
In The Jungle Groove - by James Brown
The man sings about soul music, drummers, and hot pants. Clearly a genius. He invented funk, and then 20 years later hip-hop invented itself by using samples of his music. In short... he’s dominated a huge section of rhythm and music for nearly 40 years and his influence continues to be felt today. But what really matters is that every time the needle drops on one of his records (an anachronism I hope you’ll forgive me) everyone wants to start dancing, grooving... moving. He made music to move people, and it still moves. As a homeless guy told me the night James Brown died, “James Brown is not in the ground!” Amen.
Post Nothing - by Japandroids
Two guys; one shredding on a guitar and the other pounding on drums. Each taking turns singing. “We used to dream, now we worry about dying.... I don’t want worry about dying, I just want to worry about those sunshine girls.” Its stark, its simple, it loud as hell... and when they play, the huge noise that they create drives away all the other sounds and fears of our daily lives, and leaves us in a blank slate of a place that is not nothing... its post-nothing.
Unknown Pleasures - by Joy Division
Named for the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp, this is a band that took the energy and lawlessness of punk and dovetailed it down into pure despair and nihilism... so much so that the lead singer killed himself just before the release of their second album. Doesn’t sound like much of a sales pitch, right? But they have a propulsive rhythm section that drags the singer forward into bleak honesty, and a guitarist who carves dark shadows at crazed angles, and it was recorded with particular precision so that between each instrument was an immense amount of sonic space. Its in this cavernous aural space that Joy Division achieve their true success... saying more with less.
Cross - by Justice
French duo create aggressive opera-disco electronica album and instantly become two of the coolest guys on the planet. “Do the D.A.N.C.E. 1, 2, 3, 4... fight. Stick to the B.E.A.T., get ready to ignite. You were such a P.Y.T., catching all the light. Just easy as A.B.C., that’s how you make it right. Do the dance... the way you move is a mystery.”
808’s and Heartbreaks - by Kanye West
Kanye put out three enormously successful hip-hop albums, and then had a real bad year. His mother died during a botched cosmetic surgery, he lost his fiancee, and he realized that the fame he had been chasing and finally achieved carried a heavy cost of isolation with it. So, he did the unexpected. He looked back at the recent music and found inspiration in the glitchy electronic debut album by Radiohead’s vocalist, Thom Yorke. He went from that minimalist template and added tribal drums and pushed the vocoder to the limits of its potential. The result, after a brisk three weeks in the studio, is an album that sounds like nothing else in his catalogue. Sure, its self-indulgent for him to be this minimal, and its lyrics are clearly despairing... but it keeps moving, it keeps trying new sounds, it keeps being honest. Who knew a vocoder could sound honest? Kanye did.
The La’s - by the La’s
A lovingly crafted little folk-rock gem from a couple of Brits at the very start of the 1990’s. Contains one of the greatest songs about heroin called There She Goes, has a fantastic 8 minute closing song, and the rest of this great album may not always reach those sublime heights but easily performs in every note as a wonderful jangly guitar-pop album utterly specific to its time and place yet full of timeless melodies. The only sad note attached to this album is that its creators never pulled it together long enough to ever record a second album, so this is all we have of their work to enjoy.
Little Joy - by Little Joy
Named for a bar just around the corner from where the album was recorded, it captures a perfect sense of the pleasant uncertainty that permeates the album. The drummer of the Strokes and the vocalist of Los Hermanos came together to record this endlessly enjoyable summer-time album, but its that floating sense of confusion and hunger drifting in the background that matures the sound into something all together more enjoyable than a collection of mere summer grooves.
Exile in Guyville - by Liz Phair
Supposedly a track for track response to the Rolling Stones masterpiece Exile on Main Street (which upon even cursory inspection appears to be patently untrue, but it is nonetheless a nice conceit to frame the album with because it does offer an alternate universe to that presented by the mainstream patriarchy of rock and roll epitomized in many ways by the Stones who on occasion would have huge inflatable phallic symbols on stage while they performed), this is the debut album of a woman who for a brief moment spoke like the sort of bluntly honest girl some of us had been fortunate enough to meet in life but had never heard on record. All the great females of the past spoke in metaphors, but Liz just said exactly what was on her mind (listen to Flower), and also had a fine sense of emotional detail.... “and it’s true that I stole your lighter/ and it’s also true that I lost the map / but when you said I wasn’t worth talking to / I had to take your word on that.” The mix of her down-turned voice, low budget/lo-fi recording, and willingness to speak the truth in the midst of her clever melodies make this an album that continues to resonate.
Transformer - by Lou Reed
Once again, David Bowie steps behind the decks to create an album with a brilliant performer who wants to find a new direction. Lou Reed was 9/10th of the amazing Velvet Undeground, but after that band dissolved he knew he wanted something different. Bowie takes the pre-punk lyricism and aggression of Reed and drapes it all with strings and absurd harmonies and off-beat instrumentation... and it should sound like a mess, but instead it comes off as massive and majestic and fun. “You’re gonna reap just what you sow.”
Mezzanine - by Massive Attack
This is one of the hallmark bands of the early 90’s Trip-Hop movement that was populated with such diverse acts as Portishead, DJ Shadow, Morcheeba, and many many more... none of whom liked to be called Trip-Hop, because only music critics like labels. On this, their third album, Massive Attack went darker and edgier with deeper beats mixing the divergent vibrations of wood and metal, and pushing everything along with throbbing guitar lines. Its a film-noir soundtrack for a new millennium.
Oracular Spectactular - by MGMT
Before they were famous... before they had achieved the validation of hit singles and positive reviews and successful touring... they had the balls to sing the following lyrics on their opening song of their debut album, “Let’s make some music, make some money, get some models for wives. This is our decision, to live fast and die young. We have the vision, now lets have some fun. Forget about our mothers and our friends, we’re fated to pretend.” If everyone hadn’t gotten on board with their infectious big-beat electro-pop music, this would have sounded damn stupid. But it turns out they actually were fated to pretend.
In A Silent Way - by Miles Davis
I never understood jazz growing up. Didn’t make a damn bit of sense to me. That all changed when a friend of mine played this late-period Miles Davis album for me. Just two tracks, each about 20 minutes long... not much more than just extended grooves on a couple of basic musical ideas... but my god, what movement and interplay inside of those grooves. And then, if it wasn’t all brilliant enough before-hand, at the 12:45 mark of track two a mellow but insistent riff comes in that still haunts my dreams. It changed everything for me... and I went back and explored Miles, Cannonball, Coltrane, Armstrong, Evans, etc etc etc and found a whole world of music that I had never heard of before. If nothing like that happens to you... no worries. At least you’ll still have had this groove to enjoy, and that’s more than enough.
Axxess & Aces - by Jason Molina
“Resistance failed / and friendship failed... / as lovers we did not fail. / You won’t have to think twice / if its love you will know. / We get no second chance in this life. / You won’t have to think twice / if its love / you will know.”
This guy kills me... and this album is the perfect document of all of his strengths. Impassioned vocals, lyrics on the edge of obsession, and guitars that sound like they were pulled from the back of dusty bar-rooms in forgotten mid-western towns. If you, or your heart, ever get lost out on the highway this could very well be the album that helps you find your way home. But home will be a different place when you get back...
Loveless - by My Bloody Valentine
A tiny little drum beat kicks off this guitar album, and after that little moment of space the rest of the album is just filled with sound. The sound of this album has been discussed and dissected more times than can possibly be counted. Some say there are hundreds of guitar tracks and feedback samples piled on top of each song, others say its mainly the singular guitar work of Kevin Shields and his idiosyncratic use of the tremolo bar, but however it all came together each song was recorded and mixed so adroitly (by Kevin Shields in a total of 19 different studios over 2 years) that they end up sounding like gossamer sheets being pulled across your skin with occasional jagged shards of glass woven into the mix to make you bleed a bit. This is the definitive “shoegazer” album, and has spawned countless imitators... but nothing quite compares to this. Which is perhaps why My Bloody Valentine have not recorded another album in 18 years despite multiple efforts to do so.
NEU! - by NEU!
When Radiohead threw a curveball in 2000 with their masterful Kid A a lot of us wanted to know what the hell they had been listening to in the days prior to make them end up in the crazy places that they explored on that album. One of the bands they referenced was NEU!, a German band from the early 1970’s. (Another that they cited was another German band called Can, who have some superb albums that are also worth checking out.) NEU! was a duo that decided to make minimalist and forceful music and came up with something that would affect everyone around them for years to come. Tight, tripped up drumming, simple bass line runs, simple rhythm guitar scratches, and some droning guitar lines that float along in and out of the propulsive spaces created by those drums. This was all they needed to create the “motorik” sound... music with which to drive your car. Their former bandmates, Kraftwerk, would release a cleaned up version of this sound on their hugely influential album Autobahn a few years later. Joy Division clearly found inspiration in the dark industrial madness of the track Negativeland. Bowie, (in Low) and U2 (in Passengers and Zooropa) both dipped into this Krautrock sound in their careers, and then finally so did Radiohead. Funny how two German guys who barely sold any records in their day ended up affecting so much popular music.
In the Aeroplane over the Sea - by Neutral Milk Hotel
Hmmm... an indie-rock album about Anne Frank and WWII that makes prominent use of accordions and trumpets. Sounds like a train wreck, right? But when you use that starting location to explore the depths of loss and pain and the fragile hopes that can be sustained in the darkness... then all of a sudden it makes a beautifully cracked sort of sense. And when you approach songs the way that band leader Jeff Magnum does, with fire and inventiveness and total commitment... well then, it doesn’t matter where you start cause you can go any direction and we will follow you.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
A terrific example of shoegazer pop music that is being made right now. Their name is as precious as can possibly be imagined, but they back up that dangerous choice with clever firework pop music that keeps shooting out pretty melodies and jangly guitars that sway to insistent rhythms. Their pain is our joy.
Person Pitch - Panda Bear
This is one part of the three person band called Animal Collective, that is an enormously popular indie band at the moment. But this is the work of just one of the members, and he likes to call himself Panda Bear. We don’t ask why...
As with several other bands these days, the close harmony beauty of the Beach Boys is a clear antecedent to the vocal harmonies that rise up out of the heavily sampled musical fabrics on this album. There is an over-stuffed feeling to the rhythms here as they pulse forward, that is then layered with light instrumentation and those spectral harmonies... so much is going on it could have been too heavy or even claustrophobic, but instead it coalesces into something bright and ultimately uplifting. Notice the mid-song change up of Take Pills for a great example of how he can make the mad mess of music into something magical.
Brighten the Corners - by Pavement
Ahh... Pavement. This is the fourth of five albums. Every one of them is the sound of indie rock in the 1990’s at the sweet spot intersection of batshit crazy and brilliant. Stereo is the perfect introduction to that blending of purposes.... the bass and guitar start off trying to find a movement, and even when the drums kick in they seem to bounce all around uncertain of themselves, and then the vocalist starts singing about pigs, jocks, and tired nations and none of it seems to make any sense even though it’ll make you smile at the absurdity of it all... and then, there is a pause, two false build ups, and then (Hallelujah!) it all comes together in an anthemic chorus of self-awareness... “Listen to me.. I’m on the Stereo!”
I dare you to not sing along.
Slanted & Enchanted - by Pavement
And this is where it all started. The debut album by Pavement lives inside the sounds of its guitars that are all bruised and biting and beautiful. Joining that lovely sound are the drums that kick along with an acid-head stutter, and a bass that is stringy and lopes along at a slacker pace that is all its own. “I was dressed for success, / but success it never comes. / And I’m the only one who laughs... come join us in a prayer / we’ll be waiting waiting here / everything is ending here.” So sings Stephen Malkmus, but of course in reality this is where it all began.
To Bring You My Love - by PJ Harvey
This is the third album (released in 1994) of this fantastic singer and artist, and it is my personal favorite. Her earlier work was stripped and ripped rock with punishing vocals. On this album she scaled back the aural aggression a bit to allow for a slower buildup and a deeper burn. “I’ve laid with the devil, / cursed god above, / forsaken heaven, / to bring you my love.” This music is as scary as it is seductive, and not just because of her primal voice... but because she portrays terror and love as being ultimately the same thing.
Atlantic City Expressway - by Real Estate
The loveliest of summertime albums from a couple of boys out of my home-state... New Jersey. With bits of psych-rock guitar lines melded with a surf pop sensibility and relaxed but fully conscious vocals/lyrics that sway along... this is music to lift you up but keep you cool. Perfect for the end of a hot summer day (or even a reflective evening in winter if the mood should strike you... cause who can wait all year to hear music this lovely).
The Shape of Punk to Come - by Refused
“I’d rather be forgotten, than remembered for giving in.”
This was the sound and shape of the New Noise, straight from Sweden. It doesn’t sound like punk, but it took the aesthetic of valorizing the new and ran with it to glorious conclusions. Jazz, rock, metal, punk, techno, etc are all blended together with a set of politically charged lyrics that challenge the status quo... “art as a real threat”. This album was, and still is, a real threat.
Cold Fact - by Rodriguez, Sixto
This is a period piece, and I include it in this mix in large part because of its history... there is a lot of folk-pop political music from the late 1960’s/early 1970’s that still gets played on oldies stations today, but this is an album that never reached a larger audience even in its time... but it deserved greater attention then and still offers many pleasures today. Sure, I could have given you Forever Changes by Love or Moby Grape by Moby Grape as a similar forgotten top-quality album from that time period... but I prefer to offer this one to you because its got a singular voice the whole way through that kills me with lines like, “Don’t bother to buy insurance, because you’ve already died.”
Exile on Main Street - by the Rolling Stones
Sometimes when you make enough money you realize that if you lived in another country you might actually pay less taxes... you realize you have enough money that you can become a citizen of the world and that your money can float from place to place and actually be stronger and safer that way. This was the case for the Rolling Stones as they were preparing to work in earnest on their 10th album... so they were literally in exile in a mansion in France as they recorded much of this album so as to avoid English taxes (which we already know are terrible, because of the whole “No Representation without Taxation” argument in the 18th century that lead to the cessation and creation of the United States, and also that angry George Harrison song Taxman which is on the excellent Beatles album Revolver). As many of the members of the band were heavily into drugs at this time, the recordings sessions were a fractured mess... many parts being played individually at one time and then other parts being added later on by other members. This is actually now common practice for many recording sessions, but at the time it was unusual and it was not organized, so it caused a lot of confusion and frustration for the band. And so, in exile, on drugs, and confused... and what comes shining through is a kick-ass double album of r&b, soul, country, and dirty rock & roll. “Call me the tumbling dice... you got to roll me. Got to roll me. Got to roll me. Keep on rolling!”
Daydream Nation - by Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth having been making noise rock for nearly 30 years, with crazed guitar tunings and enormous noise-freak solos on every album and at every concert. They have lead the way for many other bands over the years, and continue to impress today. But this is their big double-album that came out at the end of the 1980’s, and it is a big beautiful sprawling riotous mess of sounds that deserve to be played at maximum volume. It cost them a bit more than their previous albums, and it was recorded by a hip-hop engineer who had worked on the aggressive Public Enemy albums, and when it came out it was an underground success that helped create and expand the “alternative” scene that eventually exploded into grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Though history provides wonderful context, it doesn’t make music sound better.... so I’ll stop talking now... just enjoy those crazed guitars and slamming drums from a time when NYC was still dangerous.
Is This It - by the Strokes
This is terrific pop-rock music from a time when NYC was no longer dangerous, but the sound and energy of this album makes you believe that maybe it still was and you just weren’t going to the cool parts of town. It turns out these guys were all too well-clothed and too well-connected to be invited anywhere truly dangerous or offer any real danger themselves... but there is a strangely insistent and broken hunger in these songs that can drive them deep into your skull and leave them there for days... and that’s all good music has to do, regardless of pedigree and provenance.
The Loon - by Tapes N Tapes
A couple guys hanging out in a cabin in Wisconsin, took the sounds of a million records that they loved (Pavement, Pixies, etc) (which reminds me… I absolutely should have put Surfer Rosa or Doolittle on this mix… fantastic albums from a deranged post-punk band called the Pixies that lived in a world all their own) and distilled them down into a potent brew of 11 strange songs that are uniquely their own world. Songs go fast, then slow, then dance in a circle whilst getting drunk, and sometimes seem about to trip and fall flat... but then they take off in another direction that makes the near-failure seem like a reckless action cleverly followed up by further bold action. Fortune favors the bold.
Marquee Moon - by Television
They built the stage at CBGB’s with their own hands to help convince the owner that it should be a music venue. They inspired their contemporaries, like Patti Smith and the Ramone’s, and they influenced countless acts that came after them. One of the original members (Richard Hell) invented the punk aesthetic that would shortly thereafter be popularized by the Sex Pistols, and is still worn by punks today around the world. And at the heart of all of this madness is the music, and at the heart of the music are two fantastically fused guitars... there is no rhythm and lead here, just two different guitar lines in intricate conversation with each other. There are no blues down-turns, no jazz inflections, and all that’s left of rock&roll’s aggression is the nihilistic burn... this was a kind of guitar playing that no one had ever heard before. And they gave us the true mantra of punk music... though its muddy in the mix at the end of the first song, but if you listen carefully, you can hear them remind us to ... “pull down the future with the one you love”.
The Eraser - by Thom Yorke
The lead singer of Radiohead decided to step away from his band for a moment or two and write a full album of glitch rock. Now we know for sure who has been breeding electronica into Radiohead’s overall sound, though there was rarely any doubt when considering the music he always cited when asked what he was listening to. Astonishingly this is not a vanity project, or even a little half-baked... its a full artistic statement with a full slate of varied rhythms and tonalities. And, if you’re in the right mood, it can catch you by the throat and never let go. (Strange side note: If you’ll remember, this is the album that inspired Kanye to make his own stripped down electronic hip-hop album. Don’t let them tell you otherwise... the music industry might be dying, but music is alive and well.)
Dark Was the Night - by Various Artists
Compilations for charity, as a rule of thumb, suck. This is just one of those incontrovertible facts that one has to accept, like gravity. Well, in this case if you let go of that apple you are holding... it will fall up. (Especially if you follow a suggestion mentioned on So Far Around the Bend by the National.) This compilation is a great mix of 30 different artists, and though it skews toward the fey and the folkie, it still offers a wide variety of sounds and styles inside that larger sonic framework. There are bands here that aren’t on this mix, and if you like the sound of anything on here I strongly suggest you track down more of that artist’s work... these are some good people on here. And the second track is a cover of a Nick Drake song, and I highly recommend all three of his albums... and Spoon is great, and Yo La Tengo have several terrific albums, and Sharon Jones is a soul-stomping superstar who stole the show when I saw them all perform at Radio City Music Hall, and etc etc etc
Message: Roots of Rap - by Various Artists
A friend recommended this compilation (another compilation!) to me just a little while ago, and its a great primer on old-school hip-hop. My favorites are The Message,White Lines, and That’s the Joint... but as I listen to this I’m also reminded of how much I love Parliment and James Brown and how they created the original music that was then sampled to such great affect by these artists. If you really enjoy this, then you should look back to the source material as well... just like my recent discovery of Master of Puppets because DJ Shadow samples a piece of that Metallica album on his Entroducing...
Loaded - by Velvet Underground
This is the fourth and final VU album, and easily the most pop-oriented, with bright and shiny harmonies and pleasing melodies. But the pop flourishes are inspired and leave a lasting impact, and the stranger moments are as strange and as satisfying as any of their other strange moments. Sweet Jane, Rock & Roll, Cool It Down, I Found a Reason... and then the damaged train that keeps gathering steam for 8 minutes as it heads towards a cliff, Oh! Sweet Nuthin’...
The Velvet Underground - by Velvet Underground
After releasing two abrasive and noisy rock albums the VU dropped the experimental John Cale, and replaced him with someone who was willing to follow Lou Reed’s lead... which at this moment angled toward the folkie and the confessional. And they had also just had their amplifiers stolen before the recording sessions. But, no matter the reasons for the quieter sound, these are still the songs of a band unafraid to sing about the difficult physical and meta-physical realities of our world in the space of single couplet. The cutting and witty and insightful edge of their music and lyrics is still alive and sharp on this album (even now, 40 years later), but it is simply framed in a more acoustic medium this time... which just gives us another way to appreciate the strength of Lou Reed’s songwriting abilities. “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime... between thought and expression, let us now kiss the culprit.”
The Velvet Underground & Nico - by Velvet Underground
Andy Warhol picked them as a sound he wanted to be connected with. So he gave them the chance to record an album the way they wanted to, and the result was such a molotov cocktail of sounds and words that the album was a total failure at a commercial and critical level. But, as has been said before, those who did hear this album were deeply affected and inspired to make music of their own. And this simultaneously primal and street-smart music has continued to impact each successive generation of musicians. It is, and has been canonized as, the Rosetta Stone of punk, alternative, indie, etc.... And really, any album that has an enormous banana on its cover has to be awesome, right?
You & Me - by Walkmen
The Walkmen have several albums which are various permutations of their warbling and woozy bar-room rhythms matched to clanging guitars and various other little tinkling sounds. I’ve heard them all, enjoyed them just fine, and then moved on shortly thereafter. But then came this low-key slow burn of an album in 2008, and I can’t get it out of my head. “I know that it’s true / It’s gonna be a good year / Out of the darkness / and into the fire”.
De Stijl - by White Stripes
Ahh... the White Stripes. Brother and sister? Or did they used to be married? Or are they just obsessed with red, white, and black? And then this, their second album, came out and we all realized that they were just informed by a 20th century Dutch minimalist aesthetic called De Stijl (the Style). Dutch minimalism as applied to Deep-South Americana blues, and on occasion fragile little folk ballads... yeah, who knew that would end up being a recipe for world-wide success? Not even those of us who were enjoying the sound as it was happening could have guessed where Jack White would take this by 2010... where will he go in the next 10 years?
XX - by XX
When they perform they stand in a row, together. The drum kit of course is just a little synthesizer pad, so this is easier to do than it is in a band with more traditional instruments. But this presentation matchers their reductive and minimal sound, and the shadowy interplay between the male and female vocalist leaves us with more questions than answers... and if properly phrased, a question is more intriguing to listen to than an answer. At the tail end of 2009, this was the sound of cool.
Fever To Tell - by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
And in 2003, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the sound of fearless art-rock dance-floor lunacy. I remember seeing their first EP in 2001 at a Tower Records (no longer with us, R.I.P.), which had the cover art of a girl with bee-stung lips wearing a gold necklace that had the word “MASTER” in cheap bling... and I remember being scared and attracted to that cover in a way that I had never experienced before. I didn’t listen to that EP till I heard the album two years later... both were a revelation that took me weeks to process. I didn’t know that such down and dirty shit was still being made... but I’m so glad that it is, and still is today.
Is Is EP - by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
At this point, living in NYC, I was now fully on the YYY bandwagon, and couldn’t be happier when this raw bloody slab of dark thrash music came on the scene. For a year I thought track four was talking about Isis, the Egyptian goddess that resurrected her brother after gathering the pieces of his body that had been killed and cut up and strewn across the vast expanses of the land and sea. “All my loves are hidden in pieces / all my loves are within a wild night.” Then I was dissuaded from that notion... but who knows, maybe I was onto something?
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Listen to the bouncing “do do do dodo do do” that comes right after the guttural death scream on Art Star and then enjoy the realization that the guitar part is matching that lovely little ditty. And let’s not forget that Karen O has the chutzpah to sing in the last song, “Its the year to be hated, so glad that we made it...”, which riffs off the melody of Crimson and Clover from 1969 on their first release, and then finishes it up with ... “It’s our time, our time, our time!... to be hated, to be hated”. How could you not love them?
All Hour Cymbals - by Yeasayer
Ahh... the pop lunacy of Yeasayer. They took a slew of popular musical trends and threw them into a blender, started it up, added intelligent instrumentation and idiosyncratic vocals, and had the audacity to show the results as a proper album. Its joyous and soulful and danceable and makes you want to shout along, like on track 3 called 2080 when you join them in singing, “Yeah, yeah!” (the rest of the lyrics only make sense when sung... its an abomination to transcribe such lunacy to the printed page.) Sing along, and remember that sometimes cymbals are necessary at all hours.
Everybody Knows this is Nowhere - by Young, Neil
Neil Young. There are only a few other people that have carved such a strange and long-lasting musical journey as Neil Young. This is one of his earliest efforts, and contains some of his most famous songs... and rightly so. There is an even mix here of compact little country songs of emotional poignancy and ragged 10 minute guitar epics that bleed and surge across fragile harmonies. These are the two basic templates that he would explore for most of the rest of his career... but this is only the beginning. If you enjoy this... there is so much more.