Saturday, February 28, 2009

February 28: Gogol Bordello, "Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike"

Artist: Gogol Bordello
Album: Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike
Year: 2005
Label: USA Side 1 Dummy

From time to time, a band comes along that simply defies description. They usually present something so amazingly unique that it is impossible to push them into any pre-existing musical genre. Pulling influences from bands like Einst├╝rzende Neubauten to Bob Marley to anything Nick Cave ever touched, gypsy-punks Gogol Bordello crate some of the most original music in decades. Their debut record, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike is a refreshing musical journey that appeals to anyone, regardless of musical preference.

Frontman Eugene Hutz brings the influence and experience of living all over eastern Europe as a refugee after being evicted from Russia following the Chernobyl disaster. The result of these varied backgrounds come through in the eclectic feel throughout Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike. Gogol Bordello takes the high energy, forceful vocal stylings of punk rock and combines it with traditional gypsy instruments (fiddles, accordions, etc) and the result is pure musical brilliance. The record is amazingly addictive and it is perhaps due to the fact that this diverse medley of musical styles appeals to something in everyone.

Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike is one of the most beautifully chaotic musical recordings ever. When the traditional feel of fiddle-based jigs smash up against revolution-themed lyrics being sung with the fury of punk rock, it creates an irresistibly addictive sound. While at times, the record is a SKA-heavy skank-fest, it quickly shifts to an equally impressive hip-hop/reggae party and then into an all out punk explosion. When Gogol Bordello brings all of these influences, it is clear that, much like their gypsy heritage, their music is truly a mash-up of countless musical styles from over the decades.

The albums' title pretty much explains a majority of the lyrics found throughout the record. The songs speak of issues of coming to America, clashes of cultures, and many are anthems for the less fortunate in society. This is where, once again, the "gypsy" influence is quite clear. Whether they are writing about living in the slums or trying to find a job, all of the songs have an amazingly universal feel to them and in many cases, it is nearly impossible to NOT sing along. At the same time, all of the lyrics are backed by bouncing, upbeat music and many times, this juxtaposition leaves the listener in awe of the groups' undeniable talent.

Whether the songs are being sung in English or a host of other languages, the songs throughout Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike are extremely catchy and you will find yourself singing along after just a few listenings. Gogol Bordello truly makes music like no other group in history has ever created. Staying true to their roots, they combine countless genres and influences and mash them together into a sound that is fantastically unique. Though the truth is, each of their four records are equally brilliant, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike is the perfect introduction to a group and sound that everyone must experience.

Standout tracks: "Immigrant Punk," "Start Wearing Purple," and "Undestructable."

Friday, February 27, 2009

February 27: The Who, "Tommy"

Artist: The Who
Album: Tommy
Year: 1969
Label: MCA

Over the decades, countless bands have attempted to make records that tell a complete story. Most of these efforts end up with a handful of loosely connected songs, telling an annoyingly predictable story. From time to time, a band will succeed and present a coherent tale through music. When it comes to the "rock opera," one name stands high above the rest. The first true rock opera, the unmistakable, the unbeatable, The Who's Tommy.

The production on Tommy is peerless. The perfect combination of folk, classical, and rock and roll intermingle in a stunning manner. From the moment this double album begins, it is obvious that Tommy is like nothing else ever recorded. Full orchestration with a rock feel, moving beautifully over acoustic guitars creates an amazing mood for the album. The bulk of the record was written (music and lyrics) by guitar legend Pete Townshend and Roger Daltey brings his words to life with his famed vocal style.

As most are aware, the story follows the rise of the albums' namesake from his birth to his rise as an icon to masses of youth. The key in the story is that Tommy "becomes" "deaf, dumb, and blind" after witnessing the brutal murder of his mothers' new lover by his thought to be dead father (yes, that's a bit confusing, but it is correct). A majority of the first first two sides of the record concern Tommy's parents attempting to find a cure for his problems. The album also gets quite dark with songs of abuse in "Cousin Kevin" and "Do You Think It's Alright/Fiddle About." Overall, the entire first record of Tommy is somber and grim, following Tommy as he spirals further and further from society.

Perhaps the best known song off of all of Tommy, "Pinball Wizard," signals the change in the mood of the record. After defeating the long-standing pinball champion, Tommy begins to progress and "get better." This culminates when he "wakes up" in the song "Smash The Mirror." many critics see this song as an implication that Tommy achieves enlightenment during the song. The remainder of the record follows Tommy as he becomes a cultural icon, preaching to masses of adoring "disciples." Tucked into the final side of Tommy are two of the finest songs in "Sally Simpson" and "We're Not Gonna Take It."

The late 1960's and early 1970's produced some of the most innovated and phenomenal musical creations in history. No style or combination was "off limits" and bands were very free to shift styles at will. UK rock-gods, The Who, had already established themselves as one of the finest groups on the planet with hits like "My Generation" and "Magic Bus." However, when they released Tommy, the landscape of music was permanently changed. Doubled, and even tripled harmonies, a brilliantly told story, and some of the most famous guitar riffs in history make Tommy something far beyond the term "legendary."

Standout tracks: "Amazing Journey," "Sally Simpson," and "We're Not Gonna Take It."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

February 26: Liz Phair, "Exile In Guyville"

Artist: Liz Phair
Album: Exile In Guyville
Year: 1993
Label:: Matador

In the early 1990's, most female performers were sitting behind pianos or singing mellow, folky songs with an acoustic guitar. Then, in 1993, the world was introduced to the hard rocking, sassy, suggestive Liz Phair. After releasing her debut record, Exile In Guyville, countless imitators flooded the music scene. She can never be duplicated, and the album remains to this day one of the most significant albums ever recorded.

It's no secret that the title of the record is a small reference to an Urge Overkill song, but a VERY large reference to the Rolling Stones' masterpiece Exile On Main Street (which we'll get to later this year). However, many people have made the case (and it's a good one) that it goes beyond simply a common title, and that Exile In Guyville is a "song by song" response to the Stones' record. Listening to the lyrics on both records, many songs seem to clearly be at odds with one another. Perhaps the most clear example is if you set the feel and lyrics of the Stones' "Let It Loose" against those of Phair's "Flower." The lo-fi production on the album as well as the variety of sounds and moods on Exile In Guyville evoke the spirits of the Stones classic.

Lyrically, Exile In Guyville remains one of the most brutally honest and revealing records ever recorded. Phair smashed down walls that had long held back female artists as she was not at all hesitant to get as graphic about taboo subjects such as sex and love as her male counterparts had throughout history. While many critics felt that her lyrics were perhaps too risque, the fact is, male singers had been singing similar sentiments and "worse" for decades. The reality was, few females had been as blunt and as well written as Phair. Her clear, pointed, powerful delivery demanded you pay attention to her and she had the musical skills to back up her unsurpassed lyrics. In many ways, her complete openness can be seen as the beginning of the female musical uprising which would eventually culminate in Lilith Fair. Though content-wise, she shares little with a majority of the acts that peformed at Lilith, it was very much the spirit of female equality and empowerment in the music world that she began with Exile In Guyville.

Exile In Guyville showcases Phair and her band's ability to create amazingly relaxed and beautiful moods as well as the fact that, in her heart, Phair was as rock and roll as anyone. Even taking into account the fact that the record is a very lo-fi production, the songs all shine and have all been perfectly produced. Whether it is the oddly echoing piano of "Canary" or the crunching guitars on "Johnny Sunshine," each song has its own individually superb feel. It is quite impressive just how much noise the band can make, considering that there are only three people playing. Phair's boundless vocal range also helps to push Exile In Guyville into the stratosphere of recordings as it enables the music to have much more diversity. Whether she is singing softly with her guitar, or yelling over the band, each and every note she sings is absolutely brilliant.

Somewhere between Debbie Harry and Alanis Morrisette, female singers (for the most part) seemed to fade into musical obscurity amidst the fury of hair metal. Most female singers were either singing softly, or making predictably mediocre pop songs. Thankfully, Liz Phair destroyed the paradigm and pumped new life into what was becoming a stagnant music scene. Her epic debut record, Exile In Guyville rewrote the rule book for female performers and served as a warning to the world that she was a force to be reckoned with lyrically and musically. Though she has only released four albums since, she remains a living legend in the music world and Exile In Guyville remains a cornerstone of rock music.

Standout tracks: "6'1"," "Fuck And Run," and "Flower."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

February 25: Zero 7, "When It Falls"

Artist: Zero 7
Album: When It Falls
Year: 2002
Label: Elektra

Music labeled as "electronic" tends to be marginalized and all grouped together as "techno." The fact of the matter is, when you move away from the bass heavy, rave inspired, DJ-whocares garbage, you will find some of the most acoustically pleasing albums ever created. Artists and groups who fall into the "ambient/downbeat" classification tend to be some of the most creative and diverse musicians in any genre. Following in the footsteps of the group Air, UK duo Zero 7 constructed a remarkably gorgeous audio experience with their 2002 release, When it Falls.

Perhaps the greatest pitfall of ambient/downbeat electronica artists is attempting to make records beyond a debut that does not sound like the same idea repeated. As the genre is somewhat restricting, the ability to create completely new soundscapes and moods is what separates the good from the great. The main members of Zero 7, Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns, seem to have an endless stream of brilliant musical ideas and are able to keep things fresh throughout When it Falls. While the album stays "chilled out" from start to finish, each track has its own identity and the duo shows how much latitude there truly is within the genre.

Perhaps the most prominent aspect that sets Zero 7 aside from the rest in their genre is the fact that they use a decent amount of live instrumentation on their recordings. Harmonicas, keyboards, and guitars mix in with the electronically created sounds to form a grand musical landscape. The are often so wonderfully relaxing and smooth that they could easily find their way to "adult contemporary" radio stations as easily as they could be found on This ability to craft genre-crossing music is rarely seen within the electronic world, but the capability of the music found on When It Falls to have this mixed appeal are absolutely undeniable.

On both of their first two records, Zero 7 benefits greatly from the presence of vocalist Sia Furler. Her vocal range seems to be endless and the mellow, bluesy moods she helps to shape are often breathtaking. Although the instrumental tracks are absolutely enjoyable, when Hardaker and Binns let Sia work the vocal booth, it propels the songs to another level. Two of the most amazing songs on the entire record are "Passing By" and "In Time." The paired vocals of Furler and Tina Dico are simply stunning. The truth is, both musically and lyrically, these songs could have been a 1970's folk-vocal hits as easily as they are turn of the millennium electronic masterpieces.

Most music fans write off any electronically-based albums as "techno." Truthfully, the sounds and sub-genres are as varied as those of what people label as "rock" music. From the wildest "drum and bass" to the eccentric sounds of "trip hop" to the lulling moods of "drone," there are truly a world of styles within the electronic world. Somewhere between ambient/downtempo and mellow pop music, you will find the group Zero 7. With gorgeously textured music and jaw droppingly incredible vocals, their sophomore effort, When It Falls is one of the many lesser-known records that should be a part of every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Somersault," "Passing By," and "In Time."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

February 24: Goldfinger, "Hang-Ups"

Artist: Goldfinger
Album: Hang-Ups
Year: 1997
Label: Universal

In the 1990's, there was a brief SKA revival thanks to a handful of California based bands. While No Doubt went for the more relaxed feel, and Rancid went the more punk feel, Goldfinger took both styles with equal measure. Their sophomore effort, 1997's Hang-Ups, ranges from Cali-thrash to a power-punk skank-fest (that's skank as in the SKA dance movement).

One of the most difficult things to do with punk-based bands is to capture the energy of their live performances in a studio setting. On Hang-Ups, the band solves this issue by letting frontman John Feldmann handle production duties. Over the past twenty years, Feldmann has become one of the most sought-after punk producers and has been behind hits for artists ranging from Mest to Ashley Simpson, to Hillary Duff. He works his magic on Hang-Ups and each song explodes off the album and makes you want to groove, mosh, or simply get up offa' that thing!

As a band, Goldfinger is a musical powerhouse. Guitarist Charlie Paulson (who is now back with the band after years away) is easily one of the finest punk axemen ever. He relentlessly attacks each song and is also able to give the more laid back tunes the perfect musical "bounce" for a swinging SKA song. Bassist Simon Williams (whom Feldmann met when they were working at the same shoe store) brings an incomparable combination of funk and punk. Feldmann himself is one of the most prolific singers to ever grab a microphone. The energy and emotion he brings in all of his lyrics are absolutely top notch. Perhaps the most...interesting member of the band is drummer Darrin Pfeiffer. Not only can he play drums like a bat out of hell, but he has made a name for himself with a number of hilarious stage antics. If you've never experienced them live, next time they're in your town, it's worth going if nothing less, than for "Twinkie."

One of the aspects that makes Hang-Ups rise above the rest is the variety in the songs and sounds found on the album. The horns (provided by pals Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish, and Fishbone legend Angelo Moore) provide a brilliant contrast to the guitar work and help to keep the SKA feel intact. Feldmann also has a gift for writing beautifully self-revealing lyrics and he shines with songs like "If Only" and "Disorder." Even when Feldmann is singing these sometimes somber songs, the songs remain somehow upbeat and keep a smile on your face.

To sum it up, Goldfinger's Hang-Ups is a damn fun record. Perhaps it's over-exposure to the California sun, but each song on the record is pure joy to hear time and time again. Taking the fundamentals of bands like Social Distortion and miking them with a strong love of SKA, Goldfinger now stand tall as the "elder statesmen" of the pop-punk/power-punk movement. To this day, they still put on one of the most high energy and spirited live shows on the planet. If you're looking for a vibrant, rocking album to brighten up your collection, Hang-Ups is the record to grab.

Standout tracks: "Superman," "Question," and "Chris Cayton."

Monday, February 23, 2009

February 23: Miles Davis, "Birth Of The Cool"

Artist: Miles Davis
Album: Birth Of The Cool
Year: 1950
Label: Blue Note

Throughout the history of music, there are a handful of records that not so much "change" the music scene, as absolutely shatter it and forever alter the landscape. Usually, these records occur well into a musicians' career and are the fruits of decades of perfecting their craft. In 1950, up and coming trumpet player Miles Davis was able to accomplish this feat on his debut record. It has been forever enshrined in what may very well be the most important jazz record ever, Birth Of The Cool.

Birth Of The Cool
is most well known as it was really the first time that an artist had taken the "bop" sound of jazz and infused the jumping, full sound of the big-band era. With nearly a dozen horns, there are times when Birth Of The Cool sounds like a swing record than any sort of jazz record as the brass section bounces in perfect synchronicity. Recorded primarily over two sessions in 1949 and 1950, the group only performed a few dozen times but were never financially successful. This is truly amazing considering how pivotal the record was, as well as the all-star lineup that played on the sessions.

Musically, there is only so much one can say about Birth Of The Cool. Many of the biggest names in jazz either played on the record or took part in the countless "jam sessions" that led up to the recording. The music itself is the very definition of "cool," as it never gets too crazy or out of hand, and the rhythm remains steady throughout each piece. While this by no means infers that there is not a great deal of exploration or feeling, the songs remain controlled and never lose sight of the primary musical theme.

One of the most impressive aspects of the group dynamic on Birth Of The Cool is that they are able to keep a very quiet (read as "intimate") feel to the tunes even though there are well over a dozen musicians in the studio. The band plays along with one another, not trying to out-do each other, and the music benefits from this group humility. These sessions, arranged by the legendary Gil Evans, featured some of the most notable jazz musicians of all time including drummer Max Roach, pianist Al Haig, and trombonist Kai Winding. Since all involved were able to keep their egos in check and not "compete" with one another, there aren't any points where they "over play" the music or play too forcefully. Therefore, the mood remains very relaxed and it rarely sounds like there are as many musicians on the songs are there truly are.

Miles Davis' name is nearly synonymous with the word "jazz." Over his fifty years of recording, he created new styles and sounds constantly. During the late sixties, he would reclaim his significance by melding jazz and rock with the exalted Bitches' Brew. While that record helped to move jazz into a new era, his debut record, Birth Of The Cool, was everything the title advertises. Without this seminal work, there may very well have been no "beat generation," no funk music, and perhaps no Coltrane. To say Birth Of The Cool is an essential record is a massive understatement. Perhaps it's better to say that if you are looking to own the most influential jazz record ever, this is the one for your collection.

Standout tracks: "Jeru," "Venus De Milo" and "Rouge."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

February 22: Tom Petty, "Wildflowers"

Artist: Tom Petty
Album: Wildflowers
Year: 1994
Label: Warner Bros.

When it comes to American music icons, Florida's own Tom Petty remains high up on the list. After releasing a pair of undeniably successful Heartbreakers records in 1989 and 1991, Tom Petty took a few years off and then released one of his finest musical efforts. Though a majority of The Heartbreakers appear on the album, 1994's Wildflowers is credited as a solo Tom Petty release.

To be perfectly honest, there is not one sub-par song anywhere on Wildflowers. Most of the songs would not have worked with the full instrumentation of a full Heartbreakers record, so it is understandable that this release is presented as a solo outing by Petty. The record is very laid back and a majority of the songs are simple acoustic guitar tunes with soft instrumentation and Petty's signature vocal sound. This gives the record a very intimate feeling and, after a few listenings, the true meaning behind the albums' title becomes clear through the mood it conveys.

Tom Petty has always been a phenomenal lyricist, and his work on Wildflowers is no different. As usual, the songs appear to be quite autobiographical and Petty rarely shys away from letting the listener in to his deepest thoughts and feelings. Wildflowers has beautiful songs of love and longing, as well as amazingly introspective tracks like "You Don't Know How It Feels" and "It's Good To Be King." He writes another brilliant thought with the line, "...can I help it if I still dream time to time?" Petty also writes amazing "American Anthems" and he unleashes another classic with "You Wreck Me."

The album gains great benefit from its producer, the one and only Rick Rubin. Rubin kept Petty focused on creating a very organic sound as the previous two Heartbreakers albums had been extremely over-produced. This stripped down feeling clearly made Petty more releaxed and it is plain to hear in the music. The sessions for Wildflowers occurred at the same time as Rubin was working with fellow southern legend Johnny Cash. Shortly after the Wildflowers recordings were completed, Petty and all of the Heartbreakers joined Cash in the studio and it would be released as Johnny Cash's Unchained.

Tom Petty has a knack for writing simple, yet incredibly catchy songs. Many of his tunes have become "American anthems" and they have helped to cement his legacy as one of the finest musicians in history. Whether he is playing backup for Johnny Cash, making records with The Heartbreakers, or working in a solo setting, he always produces recordings of the highest caliber. The gorgeous music and relaxed, honest vocals make 1994's Wildflowers one of his finest recordings and an absolute essential for all music collections.

Standout tracks: "You Don't Know How It Feels," "Time To Move On," and "It's Good To Be King."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

February 21: The Flaming Lips, "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots"

Artist: The Flaming Lips
Album: Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
Year: 2002
Label: Warner Bros.

At the turn of the millennium, the music world was stale and stagnant. A majority of mainstream acts were cheap copies of one another. Music of significance WAS being created, but it was only heard in small clubs and the dark alleys of the music scene. Then suddenly, a group who had been making music for twenty years saved the world from boredom with their avant-psychedelic masterpiece Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.

The Flaming Lips had already released nearly a dozen albums, but until the release of Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, they were best known for their alterna-hit "She Don't Use Jelly" from 1993's equally impressive Transmissions From The Satellite Heart. With Yoshimi..., the group took their bass-driven sound, tossed in their keyboards and sound effects, and created one of the most sonically beautiful "rock operas" ever recorded. From rock to ambient to nearly gospel, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is a truly remarkable album. Also, the album is about ninjas fighting with robots...I mean really, do you need any more of a reason to buy and love the record?!?

At times, Yoshimi... sounds like a musical fight between The Crystal Method and The Moody Blues. The music has amazingly gorgeous textures, and yet is edgy and aggressive at the same time. Most of the record is made up of a series of breathtaking instrumental pieces with light, drifting vocals scattered throughout. The record surrounds the listener with sound and that, in turn, pulls the listener deep into the futuristic tale. The Flaming Lips present a wide range of sounds as some of the tracks are very spacey, some sound like vintage psychedelic era anthems, and yet, there are also songs that have a very industrial feel. They execute all of the various styles sensationally and the album has a great variety, and yet there is no question of the albums' overall unity.

The lyrics and vocals of Wayne Coyne are something beyond the normal usage of the word "magnificent." His tone and delivery melt into the backing music and his voice truly becomes another instrument. Lyrically, the album contains some of the most artistically exquisite phrasing in history. At the same time, many of these wonderful words concern universal realities and are very plainly stated. The albums' sole single, "Do You Realize?" states, " you realize...that everyone you know...someday will die." Obviously, this is about as basic and common a thought as there is; but when it is presented in the matter that is is on Yoshimi..., it has amazing impact and beauty simultaneously.

The fact that The Flaming Lips are able to sing about deep subjects such as integrity, morality, and death, and yet present them in as beautiful manner as they do has set them far apart from their peers over the decades. Over that time period, they have mastered the ability of creating gorgeous soundscapes and intertwining vocals perfectly throughout. With Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, the band makes the most cohesive record of their career. While projecting a futuristic story, they are still able to present issues we deal with in our own era. It seems that the creativity of The Flaming Lips knows no bounds and all we can do is hope for more amazing music in the years to come. If you've yet to experience Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, run, do not walk, to your nearest online store, record shop, or wherever you get your music and find yourself a copy.

Standout tracks: "Fight Test," "In The Morning Of The Magicians," and "Do You Realize?"

Friday, February 20, 2009

February 20: Digital Underground, "Sex Packets"

Artist: Digital Underground
Album: Sex Packets
Year: 1990
Label: Tommy Boy

While a majority of the hip-hop world was trying to be political like Public Enemy, or hardcore like N.W.A., a group of rappers from Oakland decided to keep things funky and funny, and in the process unleashed one of the finest hip-hop records ever. Light-hearted, yet undeniably solid rhymes defined Digital Underground and their famed debut record, 1990's Sex Packets.

Led by the dual personalities of Shock G/Humpty Hump (in case you didn't know, they are the same person), the record is like none other in any aspect. The beats and music draw clear inspiration and influence from George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. They lyrics are witty, humorous, and absolutely original. Having more than half a dozen different emcees around the microphone also provides for a variety of styles and vibes throughout the album. While Shock G handles a majority of the vocal duties, distinguished rappers like Money B, PeeWee, and DJ Fuze take prominent roles throughout the album. Oh..and some guy named Tupac Shakur got his start in Digital Underground as well.

Group founder and primary rapper Shock G also handles engineering and producing duties on Sex Packets. The soundscapes he creates are nothing short of astonishing. Taking loops from P-Funk, Hendrix, and a huge amount of original keyboard tracks would normally be too much for a single record. However, the record flows smoothly as the music keeps the vibe the very definition of the word "fun." The group addresses the fact that their form of hip-hop is difficult to pigeon-hole into a genre with the song, "The Way We Swing." Sex Packets is a party record in its purest form. Every song is a good time both musically and lyrically.

Sex Packets leaves no doubt that Shock G can turn a phrase as good as any lyricist in any musical genre. Mixing hilarious one liners and visuals with some of the most sensuous rhymes ever committed to record enables Shock G to shine tall above other emcees. It is this latitude that separates Sex Packets from what one would consider a "novelty" record. The album IS funny, and it IS sexy, but at its core are amazing music and peerless rapping skills. If it was "just another novelty rap record," the albums' mega-hit "The Humpty Dance" would have lost relevance long ago...and it hasn't.

Combining outrageous stories, non-traditional delivery, and a dual personality are usually a recipe for disaster when they are all on a single track. Throughout Sex Packets, Digital Underground puts on a brilliant display of all that rappers strive to accomplish. Whether describing their idea for a new sexually-hallucinogenic drug (a Sex Packet) or regaling tales of exploits in the bathrooms of fast food restaurants, they make it clear that they have no interest in "hardcore" or "gangsta" rap and would rather have fun in their rhymes. Incredible music and beats under expertly delivered, clever rhymes make Sex Packets part of the crux of hip-hop music.

Standout tracks: "The Humpty Dance," "Freaks Of The Industry" and "Dowutwhyalike."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

February 19: The Velvet Underground, "Loaded"

Artist: The Velvet Underground
Album: Loaded
Year: 1970
Label: Warner Bros.

Having already released three amazing albums in as many years, the odds were well against The Velvet Underground being able to go "four for four." However, they managed to beat said odds with what would be the final "great" record of their career with the faultless Loaded. Ironically, the record was released nearly a month after Lou Reed had formally left the band.

The album's title is significant as it it a reference to the notorious request that renowned Atlantic records exec, Ahmet Ertegun, asked of the group. In short, he asked them to stay away from drinking and drugs throughout the recording process as he felt it had an adverse impact on their music. The group did "the best they could," and the results of the studio time were exactly what Ertegun had hoped they would. Loaded is packed full of radio friendly songs, while at the same time keeping the soul of the group intact.

The most significant difference between Loaded and the previous Velvet Underground records is the sound and feel of the record. Loaded has far less experimental jazz-based songs and the music and lyrics have much more "pop" appeal. This fact makes it no surprise that Loaded was the most commercially successful record the group ever made. The record also spawned the legendary singles "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll."

One thing that remains strong throughout all of the records of The Velvet Underground is the "cool" feel in all of their music. The unmistakable vocal delivery of Lou Reed never fails to produce the image of the legend standing behind the mic in his sunglasses. The rhythm and flow of the songs are a bit jazzy, a bit poppy, but truly, each song is the definition of the word "cool."

The open and free musical stylings of The Velvet Underground created a strong base for the launching of numerous genres throughout the 70's and 80's. While on the first three Velvet Underground records, the true brilliance of Lou Reed's writing was somewhat lost amidst the musical journey and experimentation, his talent shines crystal clear on every song contained on Loaded. It is quite difficult for a band that is used to "jamming" to shorten their usual format. However, with the release of Loaded, The Velvet Underground proved that not only can it be done, but it can be done with spectacular results.

Standout tracks: "Rock and Roll," "Cool It Down," and "Train Round The Bend."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

February 18: Counting Crows, "August And Everything After"

Artist: Counting Crows
Album: August And Everything After
Year: 1993
Label: Geffen

The early 1990's were a glorious time for music lovers. In every direction, the boundaries of music were being pushed and altered. Amidst the explosion of grunge and gangsta rap, five guys from Chicago decided to make the case that morose lyrics and accordions were just as good a sound as any other. The quintet, Counting Crows, released one of the finest records of the decade with 1993's August And Everything After.

Overall, August And Everything After is a very grey record. Feelings of the fall season with a bit of a chill in the air permeate the mood of the record. Each song has a distinctive, beautiful melody that provides an excellent shell for singer Adam Duritz to hide inside with his lyrics. The songs are all wonderfully smooth and relaxing, yet somewhat haunting and disturbing at times. The juxtaposition between the graceful melodies and the gloomy vocals create a seemingly impossible balance that is simply stunning to experience.

Duritz took this record to immediately cement his legacy as one of the finest lyric writers ever. His lonesome words, sung with as much heart as anyone, are many times reminiscent of early Springsteen albums. Though the album does get upbeat at times ("Mr. Jones" and "Rain King"), overall it is a somber affair.
The morose, broken emotion in Duritz's words and delievery can be summed up with his line, "'s 4:30am on a doesn't get much worse than this..." If you have ever experienced this feeling, you are well aware that somehow, in the words and delivery, Duritz nails the emotion to perfection.

Combining the accordion along with the always gorgeous Hammond B-3 organ overtop a "standard" rock band instrumentation makes the music of Counting Crows immediately identifiable. The songs all have insanely catchy hooks and, when they are quicker tempo tunes, the songs are as pop-radio friendly as one can imagine. The mega-hit "Mr. Jones" is a perfect example, as it is a perfect pop song, yet it is a lyrical lament of the struggle to the top of the music scene and dealing with what comes along with fame (in later years, Duritz would admit that the lyrics were also a reference to his own drug issues at the time). In a sadly ironic coincidence, "Mr. Jones" topped the Billboard charts three days after the death of Kurt Cobain.

Not a single song on this record is a "skipable" song. Every tune is brilliantly heartbreaking and further cements the album as a true masterpiece. Duritz sings, "...I wanna be Bob Dylan..." during "Mr. Jones." With the lyical barrage he unleashes on August And Everything After, it is clear to anyone that he certainly has the writing talent to equal his idol. Along with his backing band, they successfully created one of the finest records of the decade with August And Everything After.

Standout tracks: "Perfect Blue Buildings," "Sullivan Street," and "Raining In Baltimore."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

February 17: Third World War, "Third World War"

Artist: Third World War
Album: Third World War
Year: 1971
Label: Fly

Amidst all of the peace loving, flower children in England as the 1970's began, there was an underground movement of musicians who were tired of the mellow, predicable music. Throwing psychedelic to the side in favor of straightforward rock and roll, Third World War put true meaning behind their name with their 1971 self-titled debut.

When producer Phil Brown told his talent scouts that "I want a no-bullshit, working class band—I've had enough of all this pseudo peace crap," he was presented with a raucous, yet undeniably talented duo of Terry Stamp and Jim Avery. The pair wrote all of the material for both of the bands' records and Stamp handled vocal duties while Avery played bass. Rounding out the group were Fred Smith (drums) and Mick Liber (guitar). Oddly enough, when Third World War hit the road, they changed drummers, guitarists, and added a piano player.

Overall, Third World War is a straightforward rock record with Stamp's raspy, working class vocals leading the way. Their songs are simple, politically minded tunes to which all can relate. Whether it's singing about unemployment, riots, or the pompous aristocracy, Third World War was clearly a band for the disenfranchised masses. The band was certainly not familiar with the term "subtle," with song titles such as "Preaching Violence" and "Get Out Of Bed You Dirty Red." Instead of songs of people coming together for peace, the band was more interested in people coming together to topple the "powers that be."

The guitar work is jarring at times and is certainly well ahead of its time. Quick bursts of simple chords with aggressive vocals on 1971. From that fact, one could certainly make a good case that Third World War were pioneers of the UK punk movement. The band also pulls things back and makes less musically confrontational songs, yet the lyrics are just as hostile. Perhaps it's the rough sound of his voice, or perhaps it's the somewhat snide, angry manner in which he sings, but it is clear throughout the record that this band has something to say, and you're going to listen!

Third World War will never appear on any "best" lists anywhere. Their music was far ahead of its time and was so far from the mainstream (even for the early 1970's) that they never even made it onto the radar. Their self titled debut record may sound like a damn good "standard rock" record in modern times, but in 1971, it was a sound that had never before been heard. The antagonistic vocals and driving guitar work make this record a piece of the puzzle that would lead to punk rock. Though it is a rather difficult record to find (there were small CD re-releases in 2000 and 2002), it is well worth the search.

Standout tracks: "Working Class Man," "Shepards Bush Cowboy," and "Preaching Violence."

Monday, February 16, 2009

February 16: Bob Marley & The Wailers, "Exodus"

Artist: Bob Marley & The Wailers
Album: Exodus
Year: 1977
Label: Tuff Gong

In recent years, the music of Robert Nesta Marley has almost become cliche. Thanks to advertising campaigns, most people no longer remember that he was perhaps the finest protest song writer ever. Along with his backing band, The Wailers, he created one of the greatest records ever with 1977's Exodus.

The title can be seen as quite intentional as the record was recorded a few short weeks after a nearly successful attempt to take the life of Marley. Exodus is understandably somewhat more reflective than a majority of the Bob Marley catalog, and it would also be his only recording for nearly three years. Even though some of the songs are more introspective and personal, the title track is as good a "statement" song as has ever been recorded. Two of Marley's most beloved songs are also found on this album, "Three Little Birds" and "One Love/People Get Ready."

The record slowly fades in, with the familiar "ska" sound beaming rhythmically from the guitar of Mr. Marley himself. The record then turns starkly political with the duo of "So Much Things To Say" and "Guiltiness." This pairing of songs shows just how brilliant a lyricist lived inside Marley. Both songs speak of ways in which Jamaicans and African-Americans had been oppressed over the years and how one must be careful not to forget their past. Along with this theme, there is also an overlying theme of the need for strong community. This is emphasized with the immortal line, "...when the rain falls, it don't fall on one mans' house..."

Musically, the record is everything that reggae is supposed to be. Laid back, rhythmically strict sounds, with a small horn section to fill in the gaps. Much like the blues, even when singing of loss and trouble, the music still has an ironically care free vibe. As is always the case, when Bob Marley needs a bit of "extra firepower," he calls upon the finest backing vocalists ever, the I-Threes. When his voice blends with theirs, it is absolute perfection.

Moods from relaxing under the sun, to marching for your rights are all flawlessly conveyed throughout Exodus. While a bit restrained, Bob Marley is still able to pen simple, timeless lyrics and places them perfectly over the smooth, chilled-out music that is reggae. While many people look to Bob Dylan as the "best" protest song writer, many (including I), would argue that Bob Marley is far more deserving of the title. Named the best album of 1977 by countless magazines, Exodus is a key album for any and every collection.

Standout tracks: "So Much Things To Say," "Exodus," and "Turn Your Lights Down Low."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

February 15: Dinosaur Jr, "Beyond"

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.
Album: Beyond
Year: 2007
Label: Play It Again Sam

It is a rare occasion that a band can make the best record of their career when approaching their third decade of making music together. It is even more rare when it also happens to be their first album after a two decade hiatus. However, Dinosaur Jr. has always been a band that did things "their way," and their 2007 masterpiece, Beyond is a testament to the endless potential of the band.

Beyond marked the first album with Dinosaur Jr's original lineup since 1988's Bug. Taking this alone into account should be enough to understand just how significant it is that such a stellar record was created. The rhythm section of Lou Barlow and the man called "Murph" on drums sound as energetic and fresh as a group of kids jamming in their parents' garage. The incomparable J. Mascis is clearly at the top of his game lyrically, musically, as well as with his unmistakable vocals. Throughout Beyond, it is clear that this trio left unfinished business musically back in 1988 and were ready to unleash it onto the world.

A majority of the songs on Beyond are outright rock and roll barn-burners. Updating their late 1980's alternative sound, the band appears ready to rumble with any of the current "rock" bands of the modern day. The songs are aggressive, and yet beautifully melodic at the same time; a skill that has always vaulted Mascis above his peers. Compared to other Dinosaur Jr records, J Mascis seems far more comfortable with himself and attacks the songs, both with his voice and guitar, in a far more vigorous manner. Even with his unmistakable "throaty" singing style, the songs are all gritty, yet bright.

The production on Beyond is also carried out masterfully. Dinosaur Jr's grey, dusky, somewhat melancholy mood is still there, yet the record sounds clean, but not overproduced like so many "garage rock" bands. Mascis' vocals blend in perfectly with the instrumentation and this flawless mixing may be largely due to the fact that Mascis himself produced the record. It is also clear that, for a band that plays with such an overwhelming sense of despondence, they are having quite a bit of fun playing together. Each song is vibrant and remains "fresh," even after repeated listenings.

Between the mid-eighties alternative moment, and the rise of Nirvana, the music scene was dominated by the "hair bands." However, throughout these dark times, alternative, more "roots" based rock was making underground waves with bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. After one of the messier band breakups in history, one could only assume that Dinosaur Jr would forever live on the "bands that could have been" list. Their potential was obvious, and though he tried, J Mascis simply could not duplicate the chemistry of his original lineup. Twenty years after the founding members parted ways, they unleashed an absolute musical gem with 2007's Beyond. For those who love "true" rock music, you cannot afford to miss out on this album.

Standout tracks: "Almost Ready," "This Is All I Came To Do," and "What If I Knew."

Saturday, February 14, 2009

February 14: Eddie Hazel, "Game, Dames, And Guitar Thangs"

Artist: Eddie Hazel
Album: Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs
Year: 1977
Label: Warner Bros.

When it comes to funk, most people consider the bass the most important instrument. During his time with Funkadelic, Eddie Hazel proved that a guitar can be just as essential, culminating with the classic "Maggot Brain." On his only solo record, Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs, Hazel proves that he is deserving of the title "guitar god."

Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs is bookended by an extended jam and a quick reprise of the Mama's and Papa's hit, "California Dreamin'." On both, Hazel and his backing band (which includes Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, and The Brides Of Funkenstein on backing vocals), put a funky, relaxed, groovy spin on the classic. Each band member follows the traditional P-Funk style and explores the groove in their own way throughout each song. If you consider the lineup and the sound, Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs is very much a more mellow Funkadelic record...without George Clinton (though he is credited as a producer).

Hazel is absolutely blistering on each and every track. Taking the elements of funk, and pushing them to new places. There are times when he is pretty much playing heavy metal. While all of the songs are primarily instrumental jams, don't let the idea scare you from listening. The songs all move and groove and keep your ears and mind active the entire time. Even on the fourteen minute burner, "Lampoc Boogie," (which can only be found on the Rhino re-release) you are simply left in awe by the amazing talent.

There are a few other things of note about Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs. First off, it is an EXCEPTIONALLY difficult record to find. It was released as a small run, and did not recieve much response from the buying public. There is a 2006 re-release of the record, but finding an original copy of the vinyl is both hard and expensive.

Two other notable things about the record is that Hazel covers a second song, as he puts his spin on the Beatles song, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." With minimal offense to Beatles fans, Hazel and his band absolutely destroy the song, to a point where one forgets that the Fab Four recorded the original. Also, the popular jam-band Phish ripped off the key groove to their song "Tweezer," from "Phyiscal Love," found on this album.

Parliament, Funkadelic, and all of the various projects led by George Clinton featured fantastic musicians creating the funkiest of grooves. When the primary members (Bootsy, Bernie, Eddie) took time for their own solo projects, many members sat in and it always yielded incredible results. When Eddie Hazel recorded his record, Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs, he firmly etched his name into the wall of guitar heroes. His playing is sensational and with his backing band being who they are, it is an absolute essential record for all .

Standout tracks: "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," "Pyhsical Love," and "Lampoc Boogie."

Friday, February 13, 2009

February 13: Black Flag, "Damaged"

Artist: Black Flag
Album: Damaged
Year: 1983
Label: SST

In 1983, seminal hardcore band Black Flag found themselves beginning a new (and final) chapter in their career. With their third singer (Henry Rollins) in tow, they entered SST studios and recorded one of the most important hardcore albums ever, Damaged.

The album gives no warning, obliterating the listener immediately with the angst-ridden anthem , "Rise Above." The entire album is packed with fast hitting, rageful, music attacks. Taking a nod from The Ramones, only three songs even reach the three minute mark, with five songs not even taking two minutes. Taking on issues from being marginalized by society, to police brutality, to the pointlessness of drinking and drugs, the band gives a peek into the power and energy of their legendary live performances with this studio recording.

What sets Damaged apart from the earlier Black Flag releases is undoubtedly the addition of Rollins on vocals. His delivery is far more confrontational and aggressive than his predecessors. Rollins doesn't really sing, he speaks forcefully; or as some call it, yells. The vocal punch he provides is an ideal compliment to the ferocity and chaos of the music behind him. With his attitude behind the mic, Black Flag's songs went from "angry" to "riot-inducing."

The powerhouse behind Black Flag was, and always will be, the incredible writing and guitar work of guitarist and band founder Greg Ginn. Ginn plays relentlessly at a breakneck speed through the entire record. The rhythm section, while accomplished in their own right, are obviously doing all they can to simply keep up with Ginn. The songs Ginn wrote for Damaged explode off of the record and are a sure-fire way to get anyone "pumped up." As Rollins himself once said, "...he had written the perfect songs for a full scale riot..."

As a band, Black Flag are one of the founders of what is now refered to as "hardcore punk." Their "take no prisoners" attitude and well-known rigerous work ethic gave them a sound and reputation that has been strived for, but unequaled since. Their 1983 release, Damaged, introduced the world to the raw power of vocalist Henry Rollins, and further cemented their legacy. To find a record that has an equal sense of urgency is nearly impossible, and everyone should experience the sheer force of this notorious group.

Standout tracks: "Rise Above," "Police Story," and "Damaged 1."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 12: The Cinematic Orchestra, "Everyday"

Artist: The Cinematic Orchestra
Album: Everyday
Year: 2002
Label: Ninja Tune

When a band claims that they make music "for movies that don't exist," you can be sure, that if nothing less, the results will be interesting. The Cinematic Orchestra do just that and, in the process, release some of the most original, amazing music around. Their 2002 release, Everyday, is an absolute masterpiece of avant-ambient-trip hop-jazz.

The Cinematic Orchestra is a group of eight musicians led by the composer and multi-instrumentalist, Jason Swinscoe. Taking a large part of their sound from classic jazz, quick drum rhythms and meandering horns are a constant in the music. However, that is where any similarity to any other music ends. Swinscoe brings in equal parts of electronica, hip hop, ambient, and even punk and fuses them together into a sound that is simply indescribable. To put it another way, the reality of this group is that they are amazing live musicians, improvising over digital loops and sounds.

Everyday opens with the down-tempo track, "All That You Give." Mixing harps, horns, and a grooving, slow bassline, it is absolutely gorgeous. Avid music nerds will be blown away once they recognize the unmistakable vocals of soul legend Fontella Bass (for those who don't know the name, she sang the hit "Rescue Me," which is often attributed to Aretha Franklin). The song sets a perfect mood for the record, which keeps an intoxicatingly "cool" vibe throughout.

On each and every track, The Cinematic Orchestra push the boundaries of music in mind boggling ways. The tempo shifts throughout the album, showing the true genius and ability of the group. From the syrupy title track, to the brisk patterns of "Flite," Everyday is truly a musical experience. The group even incorporates a bit of hip-hop as illustrious rapper, Roots Minerva, lends his rhymes to the track, "All Things To All Men." On each and every track, The Cinematic Orchestra push the boundaries of music in mind boggling ways. Taking the chance on such experimentation is a rarely seen thing in modern music; success in the experiments is even more scarce.

Mixing digital loops alongside live instrumentation and spinning them into brilliant musical compositions is the essence behind The Cinematic Orchestra. Their music is like nothing else and they are at their finest with their sophomore release, Everyday. From soul to hip hop, from techno to ambient, this record truly runs the gamut of sounds and textures. To fully comprehend just how extraordinarily original and phenomenal this record is, get yourself a copy of Everyday as soon as possible!

Standout tracks: "Burn Out," Flite," and "Man With The Movie Camera."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

February 11: Guns N' Roses, "Appetite For Destruction"

Artist: Guns N' Roses
Album: Appetite For Destruction
Year: 1987
Label: Geffen

For some reason, many people cannot fathom how the "good times" sound of "hair metal" transformed into the angry, gritty "grunge" movement. The answer is Guns N' Roses and their landmark debut, Appetite For Destruction. More than 20 years after its release, it still stands as one of the most important records ever made.

It is rather hard to talk about Guns N' Roses without becoming cliche. Their antics and band drama are things of legend (and more recently, jokes). Both in their music, as well as in their personal lives, they remain one of the most explosive bands ever. Appetite For Destruction captures this idea perfectly and the album is a brutal assault from all angles. Even in its slower moments, the music still feels like a constant middle finger to all who are in earshot.

Appetite For Destruction pummels the listener, strongly supported by the unmistakable combination of Slash's guitar work, alongside the devastating vocals of one W. Axl Rose. Musically, Appetite For Destruction has all of the elements of the late 80's "hair metal" crusade. However, that is where any similarities cease. Instead of the "feel good," "constant party," and "girls girls girls" themes, Guns N' Roses explore themes such as the dark side of Los Angeles' city life and the dangers/consequences of drug abuse. Of course, they do take a moment to immortalize their favorite visual stimulation with the anthem, "Paradise City."

From the opening of the album, tension building guitars alongside a screeching howl, the band has everything from their amps to their attitudes "at eleven" and never let up. It has become such a staple song that the killer guitar work and dark, graphic lyrics of "Welcome To The Jungle" rarely get the credit they deserve. Rarely has their been such a loud, realistic depiction of the grim actuality of inner city pitfalls (that wasn't a rap song). The final lyric to the song sternly sums it up, "'s gonna bring you down..."

Of course, Appetite For Destruction, caused at least an equal amount of controversy as by the men by whom it was created. Guns N' Roses "dangerous" image and feel can also be literally seen in the fact that the "real" cover to the album was censored and replaced with the image above. The "real" cover was moved to a smaller (and also censored) version inside of the albums' liner notes. To see a smaller version of Robert Williams' original album cover, click here.

Another interesting point of controversy on Appetite For Destruction occurs during the the albums' final song, "Rocket Queen." For those not familiar with the song, the title is a VERY clever double-entendre for women of ill repute. In the crazy world of rock and roll, perhaps it is more accurate to refer to said "Queens" as "groupies." This in itself is nothing new; rockers have been singing of such ladies for decades. However, about halfway through the song, there are some rather "interesting" noises going on alongside the music. For the record, they were recorded "live," and if you want to fully understand the controversy behind the sounds, click here and skip to the third paragraph (include the opening "quote" as a paragraph).

The truth is, pages could be (and have been) written about the significance of Appetite For Destruction. It is truly one of the most important and "game changing" records in the history of recorded music. While Guns N' Roses would become more musically adventurous with the Use Your Illusion records, Appetite For Destruction embodies everything for which the band stands. Due to both its colossal historical significance, as well as the fact that it's a monster record musically , Appetite For Destruction should have a prominent place in every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Welcome To The Jungle," "Mr. Brownstone," and "Rocket Queen."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

February 10: The Evens, "Get Evens"

Artist: The Evens
Album: Get Evens
Year: 2006
Label: Dischord

Ian MacKaye is a freaking genius! Whether it’s Fugazi, Minor Threat, running Dischord Records the way he has over the past 3 decades, or standing up for that which is right, Ian MacKaye is THE MAN! In 2001, Ian teamed up with former Warmers drummer Amy Farina and the pair released their self titled debut as The Evens. Music lovers around the world rejoiced! Their sophomore effort, Get Evens, took their simple, scaled back approach, and perfected it.

When there are only two members in a band, it is quite difficult to really "scale back" the sound or production. However, by comparing The Evens' two albums, it is clear that the duo did indeed find a way to be more basic in their music. Get Evens was recorded over a few quick sessions and released months later. The speedy recording process left no time for overdubs or additional instruments, and the result is a very pure, organic feeling throughout the album.

Get Evens is so natural in its mood that the limited instrumentation and vocals create a sublimely intimate atmosphere for the listener. The unembellished sound of Ian’s baritone guitar and Amy on drums provides a perfect musical vehicle for their songs of cynicism and protest. Ian and Amy's voices effortlessly blend together and form a simple, yet lush, landscape over and around the intelligently simply music. While the music and lyrics coalesce in magnificent fashion, there is enough space for each instrument and both vocalists to stand out as individuals.

Along with the superb lyrics and music, one cannot ignore the fact that Get Evens is a brilliant protest record. Nearly every song challenges the dominant paradigm of the United States. Covering subjects from unemployment to the violations of civil liberties, the record is an all out declaration of war against the status quo of our society. The Evens leave little to subtlety with outright lyrical onslaughts on songs like "Everybody Knows" and "All You Find You Keep." The album’s final track, "Dinner With The President," is a masterful poke at everyone’s favorite fool. Questioning why he can’t get a meeting with "Dubbya," MacKaye quips, “…available, but they’re not calling me…I live in town, it’s not geography…”

Going against the stream both lyrically as well as the overall approach to the music defines what The Evens are as a band. Guitar, drums, vocals; that's all you need for music. The Evens take this minimal instrumentation and inject it with attitude and super-smart lyrics. The record is stellar from start to finish and one can only assume (and hope) that a band with this much to say won't be out of the studio for long. To put it simply, Get Evens confirms that often times, simpler is better.

Standout tracks: "Cut From The Cloth," "You Fell Down," and "Dinner With The President."

Monday, February 9, 2009

February 9: Morphine, "Yes"

Artist: Morphine
Album: Yes
Year: 1995
Label: Rykodisc

Morphine are truly an anomaly in the vast list of rock bands. Bass, drums, sax, and vocals are all the group needed to make their mark; no guitars necessary. During their brief career, the trio carved out a place in music history all to themselves. Their amazing sound was perfected on their 1995 release, Yes.

Morphine, as a group name, also provides insight into the general tone of their music. Deep, bluesy, jazz-trance topped off by Mark Sandman's spoken-sung vocals sound like nothing else you've ever heard. The bass slides all over the background of the songs, creating a slow, funky groove. Instead of lead guitar, the songs are punctuated and filled out by loud bursts and vibrating riffs from Dana Colley's saxophone. It goes without saying that this fact alone puts Morphine and their music in a class of their own.

Yes has a decent amount of latitude, and yet, the album rarely deviates from the overall sound and mood. From the quick, poppy "Honey White" (which was released as a single along with "Super Sex") to the dreamy "Whisper," to the somewhat spooky "The Jury," Morphine showcases just how much one can do with their unorthodox instrumentation. The songs, all composed by Sandman, are all extraordinary in their own right, and all together on one record create something nothing short of spectacular.

Mark Sandman's vocals are a perfect compliment to the eccentric melodies of the band. Sandman pivots on a dime from his normal speaking voice to his unmistakable baritone singing. A majority of the lyrics on Yes are of loss of love and the realization of fault in oneself. From the manner in which Sandman delivers the lyrics, one can only assume that the songs are autobiographical. At times, he is reminiscent of a blues singer as you can clearly tell he is singing from deep in his heart. Sadly, Morphine's career was cut short when Sandman collapsed and died on stage in Italy in 1999.

When a certain type of music becomes popular, bands by the dozens fall into line, creating the same sound over and over. Thankfully, when this occurs, there are also those who seek to create music as distant as possible from the mainstream. Ignoring the age old tradition of having a lead guitar to drive the music, Morphine created a sound that has never been heard since. The dusky, ambient, anesthetizing Yes showcases their amazing creativity and proves that paving new ground is always superior to replicating stale tradition.

Standout tracks: "Radar," "I Had My Chance," and "Sharks."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

February 8: The Doors, "The Doors"

Artist: The Doors
Album: The Doors
Year: 1967
Label: Elektra

The Doors are one of the legendary groups who will forever live in the upper echelon of classic bands. No band made music that sounded like them, and there will NEVER be another Jim Morrison. Their debut, self titled record is not only a perfect introduction to the band, but it captures the group rising to fame, and perhaps still "pure" in their music.

The steady movement of Ray Manzarek's keyboard drives a majority of The Doors' songs, and is certainly the musical catalyst throughout this record. Robby Krieger rides the line between jazz and rock as he dishes now-famed riffs and chords on his signature Gibson SG guitar. Overall, the drums are simple beats and small fills, but that is not implying that John Densmore is not up to snuff. Densmore's background of jazz drumming definitely comes through in the music and masterfully rounds out the overall sound of the band.

Then of course, there is the Lizard King himself, the paragon, Jim Morrison. While Mick Jagger and Robert Plant were delighting crowds with their rock moves and screaming vocals, Morrison stole hearts with his swagger and deep, resonating voice. With the "cool" sound that the band creates with their jazzy-rock sound, Morrison provides a delightful contrast with his cocky, sexy vocals. Many of his antics have become rock-lore, but the reality is, he is one helluva singer. His vocals usually stay in the lower registers, but he shows many times that he is capable of belting out higher notes when necessary.

More than four decades later, as an album, the songs on The Doors look like a "greatest hits" record. The Doors three biggest hits were all off of this record, "Break On Through," "Light My Fire," and the winding, somewhat sinister, "The End." Needless to say, the rest of the songs on The Doors are absolutely "up to par" (if not better) with these celebrated hits. No single band member can take credit for this dense batch of incredible songs as nearly all of The Doors recorded catalog were written by the group as a whole. While Morrison provided a majority of the lyrics on later albums, their debut record was truly a group effort.

The Doors will always remain musically relevant as new generations become enamored with their sound, as well as the enchanting personality of Jim Morrison. Over ten albums, they took their distinctive sound and marched their way to the very top of the list of legendary bands. Their debut record, The Doors, endures as their finest album and superbly encapsulates everything that they were as a band. If somehow, this album has escaped your ears, it is beyond a necessary record for your collection and you should rectify that oversight immediately.

Standout tracks: "Soul Kitchen," "Light My Fire," and "The End."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

February 7: The Pharcyde: "Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde"

Artist: The Pharcyde
Album: Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde
Year: 1992
Label: Delicious Vinyl

When it comes to the tightest, razor-sharp lyrical flipping, it is nearly impossible to top The Pharcyde and their debut record, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. Clever rhymes, spit rapid-fire over jovial melodies enabled the record to become one of the cornerstones of the rap/hip-hop explosion of the early 90's as well as one of the most significant rap records ever.

"Smart" or "witty" simply do not do justice to the level of intelligence behind the lyrics of the quintet of emcees that make up The Pharcyde. Whether they are joking about "Ya Mama" or critiquing police harassment, the rhymes are savvy and explosive, only dropping "four letter words" when they actually work with the rhyme. Each rapper makes room for the others, and this benefits the overall album as they each shine throughout and play off one anothers' rhymes perfectly. Seriously, name one other rap group that "name checks" Magic Johnson and Menudo in the same song...and makes it cool.

Musically, the background beats and sounds evoke the freeness and experimentation of the 60's psychedelic movement. Panning various sounds from ear to ear, the DJ's truly make the music "move." Live instruments, dancing keyboards, as well as the traditional "samples," create a wonderfully full sound throughout the record. These songs are so impeccable that they themselves have been sampled countless times since their release. The best known was when R&B singer Joe ripped the entire hook to "Passin' Me By" for his 2000 hit, "Stutter."

Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde has a staggeringly broad scope in sound and feel for a single rap record. It has traditional, forceful, bragging rhymes with "I'm That Type Of Nigga" as well as social commentaries with "Officer." "Soul Flower" is an absolute 70's funk bonanza while "Otha Fish" is a self-affirming song of self-worth. "Ya Mama" remains an absolute classic to those who know it well. In short, it's four minutes of first class "ya mama" jokes as the mic is passed around the group in a long contest of "one upsmanship" of "ya mama" one liners.

In reality, one could write pages on nearly each track on Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. It has no moments of weakness or wackness. Every rhyme is stellar and the music tracks are equal in their level of refinement. The Pharcyde, as a group, have very few peers when it comes to ability to write a crushing rhyme. Though it was somewhat lost in the explosion of "gangsta rap," if you haven't experienced Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, you are truly doing yourself a disservice.

Standout tracks: "Oh Shit," "Soul Flower," and "Passin' Me By."

Friday, February 6, 2009

February 6: Mississippi Fred McDowell, "Live At The Mayfair Hotel"

Artist: Mississippi Fred McDowell
Album: Live At The Mayfair Hotel
Year: 1995
Label: Infinite Zero/Onyx Classix

Recorded live at London's Mayfair Hotel in 1969, Live At The Mayfair Hotel brilliantly captures one of the original Delta Bluesmen, Mississippi Fred McDowell, in his element. The record is a combination of two British LP's, and this release gives listeners the entire show on one disc. As Fred says himself, "I do not play no rock and roll, I play just old country blues and I hope you like it...and if you don't like it, I'm gonna play it anyhow..."

While he may not be as well known as some of his contemporaries, artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt to the Rolling Stones have recorded covers of his songs. Live At The Mayfair Hotel is as straightforward a blues record as one can find; simply a man, a mic, and a guitar. There is no drummer, just Fred's foot stomping away on the floor. This bare-bones instrumentation creates a fantastic mood on the record and shows the best way to hear and perform the blues; honest and intimate.

What separates Mississippi Fred McDowell from other bluesmen is the emotion and feeling he puts behind both his singing as well as his playing. Though Live At The Mayfair Hotel captures Mississippi Fred at nearly 70 years old (he passed away 3 years after the recording), he sings with the same pain and conviction that he did when the songs were originally penned. The album goes from "great" to "essential" when legendary blues singer JoAnn Kelly joins Fred on stage for an absolutely mesmerizing performance of the traditional slave-spiritual, "When I Lay My Burden Down."

Throughout the record, it's clear that Mississippi Fred is having a great time performing, and the crowd is perfect. By perfect, I mean they are silent while the master is playing. The crowd also helps in that none of them want Fred to leave the stage, cheering for encore after encore. Every twang and foot tap comes through on the album and it helps to create a wonderful mood for the listener. From the slow, lulling blues, to the quicker, boogie blues, Live At The Mayfair Hotel is unquestionably a blues classic.

Live At The Mayfair Hotel is honest and organic in every sense of the word. Mississippi Fred McDowell's vocals and stage presence are magnificent and the fact that it's live, and therefore has no "studio polish," makes the recording all the more authentic in its sound. To put it simply, Live At The Mayfair is everything a blues record should be.

Standout tracks: "61 Highway," "When I Lay My Burden Down," and "Shake 'Em On Down."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

February 5: Tori Amos, "Little Earthquakes"

Artist: Tori Amos
Album: Little Earthquakes
Year: 1992
Label: Atlantic

Though the "girl and piano" format had been done countless times before, when Myra Ellen Amos (there's a little music nerd trivia) slid onto the bench, the genre was forever changed. Tori Amos' solo debut, Little Earthquakes, is beautifully unsettling as it combines masterfully melodic piano playing with intense and deeply intimate lyrics.

Musically, Little Earthquakes keeps to a very simple formula of simply letting Tori and her piano take center stage and stay there. There are string arrangements and occasional guitar work, but Tori and her piano remain the focus (as they should) throughout the hour long record. From light, whimsical ditties, to pounding, aggressive opuses, Amos pushes her piano to its limits in every way possible.

Aside from her piano work, Tori Amos is notorious for her blunt, sometimes hauntingly realistic lyrics. Little Earthquakes set a very high standard for this honesty as Tori addresses issues from questions of her own self worth to issues with her parents. Tori's vocals soar from the lowest tones to glass-shattering screams, showing that her talents have no boundaries. Her vocal delivery is also notable in that she does not use a windscreen in the studio. Her breathing in and out is heard quite clearly and it has become a part of her signature sound.

For anyone who knows anything about Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes contains the song "Me And A Gun;" one of the most significant songs of the past decades. The song chillingly recounts the evening that Tori was raped by a bar patron she gave a ride home to after a show she played when she was 21. The song runs just under three and a half minutes and the impact, even after repeated listenings, is truly beyond words. Many scholars believe that the release of "Me And A Gun" helped to bring the issue of rape to the forefront of society and the success of the song enabled Tori to found RAINN, an organization to fight and advocate for victims of rape, incest, and other sexual crimes.

Tori Amos released her debut solo record in a time when music was exploding into new genres in every possible direction. With Little Earthquakes, she showed that she was far more than just another girl sitting behind a piano singing. Tori's adept piano expertise, combined with her staggeringly honest lyrics demanded all to take heed. Little Earthquakes is still as relevant and powerful as it was when it was first released and is a necessary listen for all who appreciate pure, candid, sincere music.

Standout tracks: "Silent All These Years," "Leather," and "Me And A Gun."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

February 4: Isaac Hayes, "Hot Buttered Soul"

Artist: Isaac Hayes
Album: Hot Buttered Soul
Year: 1969
Label: Stax

Combining the experimental and open sounds of the psychedelic movement, taking the spirit of Motown, and placing it atop the struggle for civil rights, Issac Hayes created some of the most significant records in history. Between establishing himself with Black Moses and winning Grammy's with Shaft, Issac Hayes released one of the most monumental and important albums with his 1969 release, Hot Buttered Soul.

Hot Buttered Soul runs just over 45 minutes of smokin', groovin', funky soul, but it only has four songs. The albums' opener, "Walk On By" features a steady, ripping guitar lain over a drippingly sweet and smooth funk hook. Hayes' velvet-bass vocals croon with the sorrow of rejected love. The trio of female backing vocals punctuate perfectly and provide a magnificant juxtapistion to Hayes' low moans and pleads. Running throughout the twelve minute song is a brilliant orchestral arrangement and the combination of all of the sounds and vocals are truly awe inspiring.

The middle of the record features a pair of no less noteworthy songs in "Hyperbolicsyllablecsequedalymistic" (and yes, that is spelled correctly) and the albums' shortest song, "One Woman." The first of these two songs contains what may be the funkiest bassline ever recorded. Stinging guitar bursts and mellodic piano fills round out the wall out sound upon which Hayes' scatters move of his signature silky vocals. Bits and pieces of this song have been sampled over and over throughout the years.

On "One Woman," Hayes sets the funk aside and turns out a pure soul classic. The string arrangement returns and, along with some woodwinds, create another gorgeous sonic texture behind Hayes and his backing singers. A classic tale of a man caught between two women, Hayes struggles and agonizes over which woman to choose. As he says, "one woman is making my home, while the other womans' making me do wrong."

The final song on Hot Buttered Soul, "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," clocking in at nearly twently minutes, opens with a sermon-like monologe. Finally, after over nine minutes of Hayes' storytelling and preaching, the song builds from an alluring orchestral movement and then crashes head-on into an all out soul explosion. Majestic horns, coupled with sliding organ tones construct an absolutely stunning wall of sound. The song itself is, in fact, a cover of a Jimmy Webb song released three years previous.

When one thinks of soul music, James Brown and Aretha Franklin come immeditely to mind. While they are both legends beyond reproach, Issac Hayes delievers the genre without the glitz and gloss, just the heart. First class vocals, breathtaking extended jams, and more funk and soul than ever before make this album one of a kind. Isaac Hayes had already established himself as a talented musican, but with Hot Buttered Soul, he solidified his place as a music icon.

Standout tracks: The album only has four tracks, all four are well beyond the term "standout."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

February 3: Dax Riggs, "We Sing Of Only Blood Or Love"

Artist: Dax Riggs
Album: We Sing Of Only Blood Or Love
Year: 2007
Label: Fat Possum

In a time in music when everything is produced to the nth degree, Dax Riggs' is a breath of fresh air as Dax and his band nail each and every track on this dark return to raw rock and roll. Though the entire record has a beautifully dark ambiance, it manages to avoid being clich├ę.

Blending elements of blues, grunge, goth, and punk, We Sing Of Only Blood Or Love somehow flew below the radar of the “music press.” Taking the White Stripes’ stripped down studio feel and combining it with the sheer urgency of punk, Dax bangs out 15 masterful tracks in a shade over 35 minutes. The range runs from the acoustic “Ouroboros” to the bluesy “Night Is The Notion” to the sheer rock of "Scarlett Of Heaven Nor Hell.” The dingy, unprocessed sound keeps the songs together as one brillantly coheseive unit. Whether the band is crashing through an all out punk rock scorcher, or digging a deep, foot-stomping groove, it is quite clear that the lineup on We Sing Of Only Blood Or Love are phenomenal musicans with no musical boundaries.

Dax Riggs keeps things bare bones with instrumentation, only veering from the guitar-bass-drums forumla for touches of menacing pianos and organs. In many cases, such a simple formula fails to work. This however, is not one of those cases. The drum tone on the record is absolutely perfect and the listener gets the feeling that the drummer is playing directly behind their ears. The vocals are also precisely placed and Riggs sings straight to the listener, drawing them into his world. The guitars grind and growl around the bassline and create an ideal platform for Dax's unmistakable vocals.

Lyrically, the songs follow similar grim themes and yet the record is upbeat and fast paced. Riggs goes from nearly spoken delivery to sensational scream-singing in a matter of notes and makes clear that, like his music, his voice knows no bounds. Also, some may find a similarity in the albums' cover to those of rocker Andrew W.K. This is most likely a very intentional reference as WK produced this wrecking ball of a rock record.

The term "garage rock" has been beaten to death over the last decade by critics across the world. It seems that any time a band doesn't perfect-pitch vocals or overdub a dozen guitar tracks, they are suddenly "edgy" and "raw." When Dax Riggs released We Sing Of Only Blood Or Love, he gave the world a perfect paradigm of how the "garage rock" sound should be played. From end to end, the album is a faith-restoring rock and roll tour de force.

Standout tracks: "When I Was Bleedin'," "Living Is Suicide," and "Wall Of Death."

Monday, February 2, 2009

February 2: Nine Inch Nails, "The Downward Spiral"

Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Album: The Downward Spiral
Year: 1994
Label: Nothing/Interscope

Try as they might, no band or artist can duplicate the amazing sounds that Trent Reznor creates when making music for his primary band, Nine Inch Nails. This is no more evident than on the bands' 1994 release, the album that is arguably the most important electronic/industrial record ever, The Downward Spiral.

In the studio, Reznor "is" the entire band as he plays/programs all of the instruments and supplies the guitars, lyrics, and vocals. Taking programed drums, inserting annihilating guitars, and a myriad of sounds and textures, NIN uses The Downward Spiral to set the standard for industrial records. Wild time signatures which only a computer could play enable Reznor to push into never before explored musical territory.

Pulling all this together, The Downward Spiral is, as its name implies, a dark and dismal tale of the undoing and collapse of a man. Reznor's lyrics are as bleak and dismal as any that have ever been penned. In fact, the album is a story, following a man from his psychological breakdown, all the way to his lonely suicide as the record closes. Whether singing or screaming, Trent understands his lyrics to the point where they truly become a part of him and reveal his soul. The juxtaposition between the speedy beats and the depressed lyrics show the inner pain of man losing control in a completely new and startling light.

The Downward Spirial spawned two very unlikely singles in "Closer" and "Hurt." The former was the song that shot Reznor to the status of "alternative icon" as it stripped down and criticized one of the most basic human functions. "Hurt," meanwhile, is arguably one of the most brilliantly painful lyrics ever written. Rarely does an artist reveal themselves to such a point as Reznor did with this song. It is beyond pain and beyond heartbreaking; and yet completely universal. So amazing was this song, that the late Johnny Cash recorded his own gut-wrenching rendition.

In the music world of 1994, grunge was all the rage and "g funk" rap was bursting onto the scene. When Nine Inch Nails released The Downward Spiral, it was truly a one-of-a-kind record. The sounds were groundbreaking and, combined with the lyrics, the record was able to bring "industrial" music into popular culture. Had it not been for this record, countless bands (Marylin Manson, KMFDM, Tool, etc) may have never made it out of the garage. Few albums can completely define a genere. The Downward Spiral happens to be one that can, therefore making it an essential for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Runier," "The Becoming," and "Hurt."