Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March 31: Fela Kuti, "Gentleman"

Artist: Fela Kuti
Album: Gentleman
Year: 1973
Label: Creole

To those who love music, the name Fela Kuti holds an extremely high, if not mythical place in the history of music. Generally thought as the man who brought African music to the world, as well as founding the genre of "Afrobeat," Fela released more than thirty albums in just over fifteen years. Though there is not one "bad" album Fela ever released, his 1973 release, Gentleman, contains perhaps is most significant work, and can be seen as the record that launched him to international recognition.

Writing about Gentleman is essentially all about one song. The title track fills one entire side of the vinyl, clocking in at nearly fifteen minutes. While this is, by no means, a song which should be significant for its length alone, the content found within that time span is unparalleled. "Gentleman" is Afrobeat perfection, from instrumentation to lyrical content. The b-side of Gentleman contains a pair of brilliant jazz-fusion numbers, but they are largely overshadowed by the a-side of the record. "Gentleman" is one of the most infectious grooves ever recorded. The song embodies everything it means to play "Afrobeat" and Africa 70 prove that they were (and are) one of the finest bands ever assembled. Pulling influences from jazz, funk, blues, and even a bit of psychedelia, Africa 70 have been cited as influences to everyone from Talking Heads to Jay-Z.

Hailing from Nigeria, Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti had already made a name for himself, earning the titles of "Father Africa" and "Black President." As a bandleader, organ player, prophet, vocalist, Fela was undeniably talented. However, Gentleman marks Fela's debut on tenor saxophone. When former sax player, Igo Chico left Africa 70, Fela swore that he himself would fill the void. Learning the sax in just a few short months, Fela sounds as if he'd been playing for years. To make this point even stronger, "Gentleman" opens with a wandering sax solo, that is eventually picked up on by drummer Tony Allen, and catapulted into the groove. A tight and talented mixture of African drums, horns, bass, and the peerless drumming of Allen prove that Africa 70 were as amazing as any other band in history.

The lyrics of "Gentleman" are simple lyrics, and this further personifies everything that Fela sought to accomplish with his music. The lyrics were perfect for group "call and response" and were words that every African could fully understand. Rising up strong against the post-colonial powers that were still set in British ways, Fela proudly asserts, "I am not a gentleman like that/I be Africa man original." Pushing the point further, Fela rattles off a list of the "odd" clothing that he sees his countrymen wearing; clothes which are clearly unsuitable for the African heat. His message is just as strong and pointed as that of Malcolm X and other civil rights leaders when they spoke out against things like conking their hair and styles of dress. "Gentleman" is a song of rebellion and pride that is unrivaled even by songs of similar stature from Bob Marley or Bob Dylan.

A few times in each generation, an artist comes along and turns the music world on its head. Bringing new ideas and spinning old forms into something fresh, these artists are the element that extend the progression of music. In 1973, Fela Kuti and his band, Africa 70, forever changed what it meant to "groove." Combining aesthetics of blues, jazz, and rock, along with the traditional African sounds, Fela and his brilliant band birthed the genre that we now refer to as "Afrobeat." Releasing more than thirty amazing records in less than twenty years, the Fela Kuti catalog is nothing short of astounding in both size as well as substance. Fela Kuti truly never recorded a "bad" record, but he truly outdid himself with his unsurpassed 1973 release, Gentleman.

Standout tracks: "Gentleman," "Fefe Naa Efe," and "Igbe." (Yes, that is the entire record)

Monday, March 30, 2009

March 30: Soccer Team, "Volunteered Civility & Professionalism"

Artist: Soccer Team
Album: Volunteered Civility & Professionalism
Year: 2006
Label: Dischord

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: for the best, most original music around today, grab anything from Dischord Records. Constantly searching for new, amazing sounds, Dischord remains the pinnacle of a label with no "format agenda." From the loud, aggressive sound of Black Eyes to the simple mood of The Evens, the bands on Dischord are truly a cross-section of everything that is fresh and amazing in today's music scene. The label is so phenomenal, that even their employees make amazing albums. In 2006, Dischord employees Ryan Nelson and Melissa Quinley formed the group Soccer Team, and released their own album to date, Volunteered Civility & Professionalism.

The duos that Dischord produces are nearly always amazing, as seen in the work of The Evens and Aquarium, among others. With Soccer Team, the small-band success continues, and the stripped down, organic sound fits the bands' style perfectly. Soccer Team has a talent for writing extremely un-poppy, pop songs. The tunes found on Volunteered Civility & Professionalism are all catchy and well constructed, yet represent a sound like nothing else around. At times, the songs on Volunteered Civility & Professionalism almost seem like incomplete thoughts, or perhaps "themes" as opposed to songs with a "normal" structure. This is not a bad thing, as each song is nothing short of brilliant. The vocal work is so gorgeous, that many times, the songs truly leave you wanting more. This is no more clear than in the short, yet beautiful song, "Head Outside." The ethereal music, and Quinley's stunning vocals create a cozy, almost intoxicating mood, yet the song is just a touch over two minutes.

As is often the case with duo's and trio's, the music is rather simple in nature, but not to the point where it sacrifices originality or skill. With Nelson handling both bass and guitar, and Quinley taking duties on drums, all of
Volunteered Civility & Professionalism has a natural, yet sophisticated sound. The range of musical ideas is impressive, and there are clear influences from groups like Throwing Muses and The Who throughout the record. These influences are perhaps most clear on "All The Walkers Home," which feels like the spacey, borderline spooky feel that Pink Floyd mastered in their "pre-Dark Side" years. However, Soccer Team has such a distinctive sound, that the similarity does not seem intentional, but the influence is clearly present.

One of the best things about Soccer Team is that both musicians have amazing voices, and the shared vocal duties push
Volunteered Civility & Professionalism to the "next level." While their voices are similar in that they are both very warm and relaxing, they are each distinctive in their delivery, and their voices play beautifully off of one another, giving the album amazing depth. Both Quinley and Nelson sound just as good whispering the vocals as well as they do when they are singing at full strength. Simply put, both of them have boundless vocal talent, and also posses a great understanding of what sounds best with each of their songs. The lyrical throughout Volunteered Civility & Professionalism are just as gorgeous as the music and vocals. Many of the ideas behind the songs are refreshingly universal, from simple tales of every day life ("We Closed A Record Store,") to one of the more interesting tributes ever recorded ("Johnny Hart's B.C.") This range in lyrical themes is yet another reflection on the wide-ranging ability that is found in Soccer Team.

When a group is able to make pop songs that sound nothing like pop songs, it is clear that the formula they are presenting is working quite well. Finding bands that are able to accomplish this feat is a skill that Dischord Records has been perfecting for nearly thirty years. From Fugazi to Black Eyes to The Evens, the bands on Dischord are always original, and always amazingly talented. A pair of employees stepped out of the offices and into the studio and released one of the finest records that Dischord has ever put out, with Soccer Team's
Volunteered Civility & Professionalism. The lo-fi production, uncluttered instrumentation, and fantastic vocal work make the record stand out from anything else in music today. Though they suffer the fate of all "small" labels and don't get much exposure, Soccer Team and their album, Volunteered Civility & Professionalism are readily available from http://www.dischord.com and everyone should experience this beautifully original and amazing record.

Standout tracks: "We Closed A Record Store," "Head Outside," and "Traffic Patterns"

Sunday, March 29, 2009

March 29: Metallica, "Kill 'Em All"

Artist: Metallica
Album: Kill 'Em All
Year: 1983
Label: Elektra

Since mentioning them as an aside the other day, I've been able to listen to little except early Metallica. That's not a bad thing, as their first few albums are some of their best work to date. Metallica have become a household name throughout their career and have been vaulted to the upper echelon of bands. They are easily one of the most respected rock bands in history, and they can be credited with creating a new genre with their early records. They've been making music for nearly thirty years, yet it is their 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All that still stands as their shining moment.

Kill 'Em All truly marks the birth of the genre of "speed metal." Combining the ethos of the punk movement with heavy influences from UK bands like Motorhead and Judas Priest, Metallica constructed a sound that countless bands would attempt to (unsuccessfully) duplicate over the years. The sheer speed found on many of the songs automatically placed Metallica far away from their ppers as songs like "Hit The Lights" and the legendary instrumental "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth" showed an entirely new, break-neck speed, approach to metal. Though the album may lack in "variation," the formula that Metallica presents on Kill 'Em All is a focused musical assault the likes of which had never before been heard. Though it lacks some of the grandeur that would become part of Metallica's trademark sound, the foundation for everything that would make the band world famous can clearly be heard throughout Kill 'Em All.

When it comes to musical precision, few albums and artists come anywhere near the perfection that is found on Kill 'Em All. Throughout the record, James Hetfield's crunching, lighting-fast, yet steady rhythm guitar is the driving force. Lead guitarist, Kirk Hammett, provides spectacular solos, even on the songs written by former guitarist, Dave Mustaine (who would go on to form Megadeth). The shear length of many of the songs on Kill 'Em All also make this album stand out from the rest. Metallica places many "jam" sections into their songs, making many of them clocking in at over six minutes. Such long songs were unheard of in any genre outside of jazz and psychedelic music, and it is another example of how Metallica paved the way for a new genre. The fact that many of these tunes are still the most enjoyed songs of their live performances is a testament to how brilliant the songs are on Kill 'Em All.

Lyrically, Kill 'Em All is where the "dark" themes for Metallica began, much to the dismay of parents throughout the world. With songs that seem to be written from Satan's point of view ("Jump In The Fire,") to songs about war and death ("Phantom Lord" and "The Four Horsemen") the content of the record was just as intimidating as the music itself. Taking these themes, and adding the distinctive vocal sound of James Hetfield solidified the bands' dark, badass image that has stuck with them for an overwhelming majority of their career. Hetfields vocals often define the words "evil" and "dark" and often are nothing short of downright scary. Though it would take a few years for him to perfect his spoken sound, as Hetfield sings and screams, he is, in the process, turning his voice into a true iconic sound of heavy metal.

In modern times, Metallica are as big a band as you'll find anywhere on the planet. Though some might argue that they have mellowed out in their age, the fact remains that they were the pioneers of speed metal and turned heavy metal into one of the most influential sounds of the 1980's. Playing as speeds that few had yet achieved, and creating lengthy masterpieces that were nowhere to be seen at the time, Metallica pushed into uncharted musical territory, and in the process, became rock legends. Though most will go for their early 1990's releases as an introduction to the band, there is no doubt that their debut release, Kill 'Em All, shows Metallica in their purest form, and the record is an essential for every fan of music.

Standout tracks: "The Four Horsemen," "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth," and "Seek And Destroy."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

March 28: Norah Jones, "Come Away With Me"

Artist: Norah Jones
Album: Come Away With Me
Year: 2002
Label: Blue Note

One could make the case that Blue Note Records is the most well respected and legendary record label in music history. The greatest musicians, most of whom laid the ground-work for today's genres, were all on the Blue Note label at some point in their career. So, when such a label decides to sign their youngest artist in history, music fanatics pay close attention. At just twenty-two years old, a then unknown jazz and blues singer entered New York's famed Sorcerer Sound Studio and recorded a record that would change the world. Norah Jones, and her 2002 debut record, Come Away With Me, are already nothing short of a classic work of American jazz and soul.

When you're the daughter of Ravi Shankar, you sometimes reap the benefits of your genetics. On Come Away With Me, Norah was lucky enough to gain the assistance of legendary producer Arif Mardin (he produced hits for Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, The Bee Gees, and Carly Simon, among others). Mardin takes Norah's unique blend of jazz, blues, and country and molds them into a cohesive sound that is the definition of the word "beautiful." Topping the charts in over a dozen countries, Come Away With Me pretty much swept the Grammy awards, and it holds the record as the fastest album to ever gain "diamond" certification (that's 10 million copies sold).

Using more than a dozen musicians throughout the record, Jones and Mardin craft gentle, yet bold musical textures, and each band member plays superbly. While a majority of the songs on Come Away With Me were written by band members Lee Alexander (Jones' longtime boyfriend and bass player) and guitarist Jesse Harris, Jones penned two of the songs (the title track and "Nightingale") as well as covering a few of her favorite songs. The band as a whole is stellar, helping to flesh-out Jones' bluesy-western mood. This country influence is a bit of an anomaly for Blue Note, but it is executed with such precision, and blended so seamlessly with the jazz and blues elements, that even "Blue Note purists" can't help but love the record. Jones' backing band clearly understands their collective role and create gentle textures over which Jones places her divine vocals.

The true majesty behind Come Away With Me is in the voice of Norah Jones. Throughout Come Away With Me, Norah Jones pulls influences from Willie Nelson to Nina Simone for her singing, and this seemingly impossible combination produces results that are nothing short of stunning. The terms "sultry" and "elegant" have been used countless times to describe the exquisiteness found in her vocal work. These descriptions work well, but I would add the words "heavenly" and "alluring" as her singing pulls you into each track and keeps you entranced. Jones is able to croon as well as she can swing and her pitch is perfect everywhere she journeys on the musical scale. The truth of the matter is, in the current musical world, there may not be any vocalist with the grace, range, and power equal to that of Norah Jones.

Though children of famous musicians often struggle to make their own name (Jakob Dylan, Julian Lennon), Norah Jones is such an undeniable talent, that her legendary father becomes a footnote to her career. Being the youngest artist ever signed to the famed Blue Note Records is a very intimidating premise, yet Jones proved that there was a reason why she was the one chosen. Her debut record, Come Away With Me, is a blissful musical journey, combining moods from country to jazz to blues, it is truly a one of a kind recording. From her breathtaking vocals, to her classic piano work, to the perfection of her backing musicians, Norah Jones constructed an album that is as close to flawless as you'll ever find, and for this and other reasons, it is beyond an essential album for ever collection.

Standout tracks: "Cold Cold Heart," "Lonestar," and "Nightingale."

Friday, March 27, 2009

March 27: Primus, "Frizzle Fry"

Artist: Primus
Album: Frizzle Fry
Year: 1990
Label: Caroline

Most people have difficultly discussing the "musical void" that occurred between the death of "hair metal" and the rise of grunge. The truth is, this time period is represented by some of the most artistically original albums that the world has ever heard. Countless combination and sounds were being tried, all hoping to be the "next big thing." During this time, few labels were more important than Caroline Records. Releasing records from up and coming groups like Smashing Pumpkins, Ben Folds, and White Zombie, the label is truly "where" new music was happening. Among these amazing bands was an odd little trio from California named Primus. Their 1990 debut record, Frizzle Fry, is a brilliant piece of funk-infused rock and remains one of the greatest albums ever.

The opening song of Frizzle Fry says everything one needs to know about Primus, when Les Claypool sings, "...to defy the laws of tradition, is a crusade only of the brave..." Ignoring anything and everything about music that had been done previously is what Primus does best. From their wildly diverse instrumentation, to the often abstract lyrics, to the unmistakable vocals of Claypool, Primus is a band in their own league...or perhaps more amusingly, in their own world. The deep, driving bass, the breakneck guitar work, and the furious drum work helps to make Frizzle Fry one of the most enjoyably addictive records ever recorded.

While a majority of Primus' songs are based around the peerless basswork of Claypool, the guitar work of Larry "Ler" LaLonde and the brilliant percussion of Tim "Herb" Alexander take the sound from "good" to "amazing." The chemistry between the three musicians is obvious from the opening moments of the record, and the sound they produce is absolutely individual. Primus uses Frizzle Fry to show that they are as much a metal band (Claypool was famously denied a spot when he auditioned for Metallica in the 80's) as they are a funky punk band. The record makes it seem as if they were as much influenced by Frank Zappa as much as they were by Funkadelic or The Stooges. Whether it's a full-tilt rocker like "Groundhog's Day," a meandering beat generation inspired piece as in "Spegetti Western," or just simply one of Primus' trademark "strange" tunes like "Pudding Time," the band is flawless throughout Frizzle Fry.

When Primus gets going, they are able to ride the fine line between chaos and lightning fast musical madness. Primus is playing nothing short of a speed-metal classic on Frizzle Fry's title track, yet the following song, "John The Fisherman" is a funky rock song if there ever was one.Though it has been said many times concerning groups like Black Flag, Primus truly makes music that is as close to riot-inducing as you'll ever hear. Truth be told, at their live shows, these songs coax the crowd into a frenzied, joyous, mosh-fest and the band feeds off of the energy and chaos of the crowd, and vice versa.

With his sarcastic, wacky voice, Les Claypool is certainly one of the most recognizable voices you'll find on record. From nasal singing to spoken word delivery and everything in between, Claypool's vocals are as original as the music over which he sings. One of the main things about Claypool's vocals that make them so amazing is the fact that it is quite clear that he is enjoying them as much as the listener. The style and content are such that, if he wasn't in love with the words, they would fail to work and the song would fall apart.

Lyrically, Frizzle Fry is often as absurd and strange as the music itself. Though the band addresses issues like gun control (years ahead of its time), religion, and the pitfalls of consumer culture, the band is often outright silly with lyrics like those of "Spegetti Western." Whether writing about nursery rhymes, "b" movies, or a host of other oddities, lyrically, Primus are undeniably one of a kind. Easily one of my all-time favorite lyrics is when Claypool quips, "...funny thing about weekends' when you're unemployed...they don't mean quite so much...except you get to hang out with your workin' friends..."

Over the past twenty years, Les Claypool has established himself as one of the worlds' premier bass players, and one of the most unique frontmen of all time. His innovation and originality musically, lyrically, and vocally have earned him the respect and adoration of peers and fans alike. His first band, Primus, remain one of the most important bands in history for their pioneering combination of musical styles and instrumentation. Pushing aside the "most musicians = harder rock" idea that had been set throughout the 1980's, the trio created some of the most powerful rock/metal/punk that has ever been heard. Their 1990 debut, Frizzle Fry remains a masterpiece to this day and is beyond an essential album for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Too Many Puppies," "Frizzle Fry," and "Pudding Time."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

March 26: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Are You Experienced?"

Artist: The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Album: Are You Experienced?
Year: 1967
Label: MCA

Truth be told, the most innovative musicians are the most difficult about whom to write. Many of them were so significant, that their impact has almost become lost, or cliche, over the decades. High atop the list of the most influential musicians in history is the one and only, James Marshall Hendrix. Though his recording career was tragically short, the amount if impact he had in that time is immeasurable. His debut record (with his first band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience), 1967's Are You Experienced? may very well be the greatest debut record in the history of recorded music.

NOTE: The UK and US had VERY different releases of this album. For the sake of writing this, I will be referring to the 1997 MCA re-release, which combines all of the possible 17 songs.

1967 was perhaps, the most important year for rock and roll. The Who were experimenting with The Who Sell Out and The Doors released their debut record. Oh, and some little band released some record called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. However, in just four years, Hendrix eclipsed all of these giants and made himself one of the names most closely associated with rock guitar, and with good reason. His technique and approach to the instrument were like nothing heard before. Taking the psychedelic movement to its fullest, and glossing it over with Ike Turner-inspired feedback and effects, Are You Experienced? marks a critical turning point for rock and roll.

The variety in musical styles found on Are You Experienced? is a testament to how brilliant a songwriter there was in Hendrix. From outright rockers like "Foxy Lady" to gorgeous ballads in "May This Be Love," to as classic blues as you'll find with "Red House," The Jimi Hendrix Experience truly knows no musical boundaries. Songs like "Third Stone From The Sun" showcase everything that it meant to be "psychedelic," and Hendrix's loose, mellow guitar work on the track defines the term "far out." Hendrix's brief, poetic verses on the track also give it a feel like nothing else on Are You Experienced? and a few of the underlying riffs and themes he plays would eventually turn into the base-music for other songs.

When you are playing in a band with a musical giant, it is easy to get "lost in the mix." Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell have perhaps, suffered this fate worse than any other. The fact of the matter is, they are easily one of the finest rhythm sections in rock history. Both infuse their own jazz-based influences, and it provides yet another dynamic to the sound. This background is especially effective on the instrumentals and extended jams throughout Are You Experienced? To hear just how much they contribute to the texture of the record, get a pair of decent headphones, find a quite room, and listen to everything going on in the right channel of the music. Though Hendrix would work with other combination of extremely talented musicians, the chemistry he found with Redding and Mitchell would never be equaled.

Over the years, many people have forgotten that the reason Hendrix had the impact that he did goes far beyond his sensational guitar work. It wasn't solely in the notes he was playing, but how he approached the music, and the ways in which he used the instrument. It is clear throughout Are You Experienced? that Hendrix sees his amplifier to be as much of an instrument as his guitar. The distortion and feedback that he creates pushed well beyond the sounds of what Pete Townsend and Jeff Beck were trying at the time, and this truly ushered in the new era of rock. This is not even mentioning the VOLUME that Hendrix pushed through his amplifier. At the time Are You Experienced? was released, guitars were still a bit of a "backing" instrument, and nobody had ever dared to put a VERY loud guitar on record, let alone at the "front" of the music. There are times on the record when Hendrix's guitar nears distortion from volume, but he either holds the "critical" level, or simply jumps in, full force, and makes the distortion "work."

Similarly, many of Hendrix's most famous riffs and lyrics are found on Are You Experienced? The main musical phrases on "Fire," "Manic Depression," and "Purple Haze" are certainly three of the most instantly recognizable riffs ever recorded. These songs have proved timeless, from "Fox(e)y Lady" appearing in one of the most legendary scenes of the film, Wayne's World, to the infamous "I Can Hear Jimi" argument in the film, White Men Can't Jump. Oh, and for you hip-hop heads, you'll find "the" sample from The Pharcyde's "Passin' Me By" on the title track of this record.

Lyrically, Hendrix muses on unfaithful women in "Hey Joe," questions about drug experimentation with "Stone Free," and thoughts on psychedelic state of mind on "I Don't Live Today." All of the songs found on Are You Experienced? help to serve as further proof about just how limitless this band was when recording. From the somewhat spooky, "...there ain't no life nowhere" to the amusing "...'cause if my baby don't love me know more, I know her sister will..." Hendrix can turn a phrase like few others in history. A personal favorite is also when Hendrix says, almost as an aside, "...so if you're finished talking, let me get back to my groove..." at the end of the song, "51st Anniversary."

The name "Jimi Hendrix" is now synonymous with exceptional guitar work, as well as rock music itself. From his amazing voice, to his brilliant lyrics, to his peerless guitar work, Jimi Hendrix will forever be a god among gods in the world of music. The fact that he was able to accomplish so much in just four short years of recording is nothing short of stunning (and tragic, if you consider "what could have been"). Though he recorded many albums with many different lineups, his debut record, The Jimi Hendrix Experience's, Are You Experienced? is by far, one of the ten most important records ever recorded and it should be loved, studied, and revered by all.

Standout tracks: "Red House," "The Wind Cries Mary," and "Third Stone From The Sun."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

March 25: Beasts Of Bourbon, "Little Animals"

Artist: Beasts Of Bourbon
Album: Little Animals
Year: 2007
Label: Albert

If there is one thing that Australians do VERY well, it is their masterful approach to the true definition of the term “hard rock.” While many Aussie punk bands have been influential throughout the world, aside from AC/DC, most people can't name another band from "down under." When Kim Salmon wasn’t working solo or with his host of bands (The Scientists, The Surrealists, etc), he found the time to assemble ultra-cool rockers, Beasts Of Bourbon. Though they release albums about once a decade, their 2007 release, Little Animals, is nothing short of phenomenal.

The band, which basically began as a “bar” band for Salmon, yet was easily one of his finest musical vehicles before he departed the band in 1994. Pushing all gimmicks and experimentation to the side, Beasts of Bourbon take the age old formula of simple, dirty, blues driven rock and roll, and it works perfectly. The production is clean, in that it is well recorded, but the grittiness of the sound remains. This helps to promote the mood of the band being crammed into the corner of your favorite bar, wailing away to anyone who will listen. The band are very disciplined in their playing, rarely straying far from the core of the tune. However, the band certainly has a sense of humor, as is evident in the albums' closing tune, "Thanks."

The music of Beasts Of Bourbon is as straightforward as rock and roll gets. Proving that crushing riffs, growling vocals, and a powerful, steady beat is all you need for incredible rock and rock, Little Animals is a refreshing return to a classic sound. The dual guitar of the band provide the drive, while thumping bass and crisp drums complete the simple, time tested, rock sound. The band has the resonance of a typical “bar” band, but their tone is pure, kick-your-teeth-in rock. From off-the-rails rockers like "The Beast I Came To Be" to deep, blues tunes like "New Day Of The Dead," Beasts Of Bourbon shine brilliantly with a modern, yet classic sound.

To be frank, Tex Perkins has the perfect “rock star” voice. An even balance of croon and growl enables Beasts Of Bourbon to have one of the most stunning overall sounds in music today. Penning all of his own lyrics, Perkins is well aware of what he sounds best singing about and the theme of “women, wine, and song” permeate Little Animals. Perkins has the soul of a classic blues singer, yet is voice is so aggressive and rough that it fuses perfectly with the dynamic music over which he sings.

Australian bands have immense difficulty breaking into the world market due to their geographical isolation. However, from AC/DC to The Birthday Party, they prove time and time again that they are among the best when it comes to down and dirty rock and roll. Throwing modern production techniques to the curb, Beasts of Bourbon stay true to their sound and deliver rock and roll that is as good as it gets. Though it began as a "one off" project, Beasts Of Bourbon represent rock music in its purest form, and their album, Little Animals, is not to be missed.

Standout tracks: “I Told You So,” “Sleepwalker,” and “Too Much Too Late.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

March 24: Michael Jackson, "Thriller"

Artist: Michael Jackson
Album: Thriller
Year: 1982
Label: Epic

There are certain artists that are so massive in significance that it is truly difficult to separate the music from the individual. These artists have such widespread impact that their presence alone can induce riots, and their style and sound are mimicked across the globe. When it comes to the phrase "international superstar," there are few bigger than the "King Of Pop" himself, Michael Jackson. For nearly forty years, Jackson has been a force to be reckoned with in the world of music. While his solo debut, Off The Wall, was a telling sign of things to come, it is his legendary 1982 release, Thriller, that catapulted him permanently into the musical stratosphere.

It is hard to figure out where to start when talking about an album that had such wide-ranged impact as Thriller. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the record is, while most albums have two, MAYBE three singles, SEVEN of Thriller's nine songs became "Top Ten" hits worldwide. To call such a feat "astounding" is an understatement, especially considering that this triumph was also accomplished whilst passing Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon and The Eagles Greatest Hits to become the largest selling album in music history (it still holds the title). Thriller also won a record breaking eight Grammy awards, including "Album of the Year," "best male vocals" in the pop, r&b, AND rock categories, and a pair of Thriller's songs were nominated for "Song of the Year."

While Off The Wall had a bit more of a "disco" feel to it, Thriller is all about being outright funky. This may be due to the fact that music icon Quincy Jones played a major role in the albums' production. Sounds ranging from Afrobeat based chanting, to brilliantly arranged horn sections, to the trademark synth sounds that defined the 1980's, Thriller truly has everything one could want in a record. Nearly every song on the record is instantly recognizable from its opening chords, and there are few people on the planet who don't know the lyrics to every song (even though they may not realize it). Sisters Janet and LaToya Jackson both lend backing vocals to the record, and musicians from Paul McCartney to rising guitar virtuoso Eddie VanHalen make appearances throughout Thriller. Oh, and Vincent Price makes a famed cameo on the title track...VINCENT FREAKING PRICE!!!

While the musical arrangements throughout the record are absolutely wonderful, the truth remains that the driving force behind the entire record is the vocal work of Jackson. In the case of Michael Jackson, at times, it's not what he sings, but the manner in which he sings.While Jackson's limitless vocal range was already well known by this point, Thirller marks the point where it was clear that he was able to convey the emotion of the songs in ways never before heard. The attitude and soul behind his vocal performances are inspired, and it is obviously that Jackson enjoyed the entire process of recording the vocals. The grunts, "ohh's" and other vocal ad-libbing by Jackson that first appeared on Thriller have now become directly associated with Jackson to the point where the textures he creates with his vocals are often lampooned.

It is impossible to deny the fact that there was one force, beyond the music and vocals that helped to make Thriller as successful as it became; MTV. The albums' release coincided almost perfectly with the moment when MTV began to get a worldwide audience. Needing a superstar to help lift the network to the top, and give the idea behind the network some sense of "credibility," Jackson filled the role with a handful of now legendary music videos. Whether it is the lighted sidewalk of "Billie Jean," the poolhall of "Beat It," or the utterly legendary "Thriller," the videos that Jackson released for the record have become icons in their own right. Case in point, Michael's red leather jacket and the "zombie dance scene"...you can picture them, right? Icons.

With a visual medium now in place, one more aspect that makes Michael Jackson the "King of Pop" became evident to the world; the guy could dance! From the aforementioned "zombie dance" to the spins and pop and lock movements, Jackson is still regarded as one of the most talented dancers ever in music. This is not even mentioning the most envy-inducing dance move in the history of the universe: The Moonwalk. Even three decades later, any mortal who can perform the move is instantly vaulted to a higher status than anyone else in the area. It is also perhaps the most universally recognized dance move that people can "name." While a majority of the trends and fads of the 1980's disappeared long ago, The Moonwalk is truly timeless and will be attempted by generations to come.

Michael Jackson will forever remain one of the most important musicians in the history of recorded music. From his early hits with The Jackson 5 to his legendary videos, he defines the word "icon." Though he has only released two albums over the past two decades, the work he released before the 1990's will forever remain some of the most treasured music the world has ever heard. Boundless vocal range, all of the soul and attitude that one can handle, and some of the best dance moves ever make Michael Jackson the kind of talent that will never again be seen. His 1982 release, Thriller, remains the best selling record in history, and with good reason, it is one of the greatest recordings ever, and everyone should own and love a copy.

Standout tracks: "Thriller," "Billie Jean," and "Beat It."

Monday, March 23, 2009

March 23: George Harrison, "All Things Must Pass"

Artist: George Harrison
Album: All Things Must Pass
Year: 1970
Label: Capitol

In the years following the break-up of The Beatles, all four members attempted solo careers, with varying degrees of success. The most impressive of all of these attempts was that of George Harrison. Instead of taking the formula of his old band and molding it into a solo affair, Harrison dared to follow his own musical ideas and pushed deep into unexplored territory. Though he is sometimes lost behind the "star power' of Lennon/McCartney, Harrison's 1970 album, All Things Must Pass is a true musical tour-de-force, and a testament to how essential he was to his former group.

Releasing three superior full-length albums is a task many musicians do not achieve throughout their entire career. However, Harrison accomplished this task in one single release. All Things Must Pass is a full SIX sides of amazing music. The first four sides are flawless songs, while the remaining two sides are more experimental and “jamming” in nature. A handful of the songs were tunes that Harrison had composed during the end of his time with The Beatles, but were never used by the group. While sides five and six are significant in their own right, I will concentrate this review on the first four sides, as that is where the true genius of the album is found.

Obviously, with all of the content, the music itself is very wide ranging. The album features influences from the time that Harrison spent in India, as well as more traditional sounding songs, which he has always excelled at writing. On All Things Must Pass, Harrison manages to infuse a rather heavy sense of spirituality or mysticism, yet the music itself does not suffer, and the music is still has a completely universal appeal. Easily transitioning from guitar to piano to a host of other instruments, Harrison also involves full orchestration in many of his songs and it helps to keep All Things Must Pass fresh and stimulating throughout.

It is whilst listening to All Things Must Pass that it be comes apparent that Harrison was easily as talented, if not moreso, than the more “popular” Beatles writing team of Lennon/McCartney. While some may see this as blasphemous, if you read the credits on Beatles’ records, most of their most beautiful (not necessarily popular) songs were penned by Harrison. Without the constraints that come with “sharing the spotlight,” Harrison uses All Things Must Pass to present many diverse arrangements, ideas, and longer songs that would not have fit in well with his former band.

A pair of songs off of All Things Must Pass have attained the title of “classic” since the albums’ release. “My Sweet Lord” and “Awaiting On You All” have cemented their place among the greatest songs ever. The former of the two songs was the lead single off the album and reached the top of the charts in both the US and UK and the album itself topped the charts in more than half a dozen countries. Both of the songs remain in heavy radio airplay across the world and are proof of just how brilliant and talented a musician there was in George Harrison.

While Lennon and McCartney made huge waves as solo artists, George Harrison took a much quieter path in his post-Beatles career. Staying true to his ideals and daring to try new musical ideas, he pushed the boundaries of music, instead of rehashing the sounds he had created with The Beatles. Though released nearly forty years ago, All Things Must Pass has withstood the test of time and remains one of the greatest musical contributions that the world has ever known.

Standout tracks: “My Sweet Lord,” “What Is Life,” and “Awaiting On You All.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

March 22: Manu Chao, "Clandestino"

Artist: Manu Chao
Album: Clandestino
Year: 1998
Label: Virgin

Singing in three different languages is something almost never heard on a single record, let alone on a single song. Combining sounds and styles from France, Spain, Portugal, and a host of other countries, Manu Chao is one of the most dynamic musicians today. A true cultural melting pot, Manu Chao has been making some of the most beautifully unique music on the planet for more than a decade. Truly, he has never made a record short of stellar, but his 1998 release, Clandestino is perhaps his finest album to date.

One of the most noticeable aspects to Manu Chao’s records is the fact that nearly every song flows seamlessly into the next. The transitions are so fluid that many times, you aren’t even aware that the song has changed. While on many albums, this gives the feeling that the album has no diversity, on Clandestino, it simply serves to keep the mood steady and grooving throughout. The record is also diverse in that it is perfect for really any situation. The songs are so solid that they work as background music for a meal as well as they work for getting a party started. The sounds and vibes are absolutely infectious and the more you listen to Clandestino, the more you come to realize the genius of Manu Chao.

The music of Manu Chao is a reflection of his own diverse heritage. The heavy overall Latin influence is combined with reggae, blues, electronica, and even a bit of hip-hop. From simple guitar and vocal tracks, to full orchestrations with dazzling horn sections, Clandestino is pure enjoyment. The number of instruments on each song helps to create a gorgeous sonic experience and listeners can’t help but smile throughout the entire record. The one thing that runs constant throughout Clandestino (as well as all of Manu’s records) is the overall upbeat tone to the music.

Manu’s vocal work is just as vibrant and engaging as the instrumentation on Clandestino. Even if you don’t speak any of the three languages he sings in, it is clear in his tone that, even if the lyrics are somber, the mood is one of moving on from bad times. Many songs are so catchy that you will find yourself singing along in no time. (it is a great way to learn a new language!). Manu's vocal style is equally as diverse as the subject matter and languages in which he sings. From smooth, relaxing singing, to all out crowd call and response, to rapping and everything in between, Manu Chao truly has no vocal limitations.

The term "world music" is somewhat inaccurate as it is usually referring to a group that plays a single brand of "local sounding" music. Pulling various aspects his own diverse cultural upbringing, Manu Chao truly makes "world music." The sound is like nothing else you'll ever hear, and it is a pleasure to listen to time and time again. Each of one his albums are nothing short of superb and the light, carefree feeling that runs throughout all of his records make them somewhat addictive. Manu Chao's 1998 release, Clandestino is a party for anyone in earshot and those who haven't should do their best to get themselves a copy as soon as possible!

Standout tracks: “Bong Bong,” “Lagrimas De Oro,” and “Luna Y Sol.”

Saturday, March 21, 2009

March 21: Rage Against The Machine, "Rage Against The Machine"

Artist: Rage Against The Machine
Album: Rage Against The Machine
Year: 1992
Label: Epic

Truly great records, the ones that will stand the test of time, are able to be identified my hearing a few seconds from any point on the album. The music, lyrics, and general mood are so strong and significant that there is simply no way that anyone can mistake it for anything else. When the most important albums of the 1990's are discussed, for some reason, the album that many people (including myself) see as THE most important, is often left out of the discussion. In terms of influence, originality, and outright brilliance, none have it in higher amount than the 1992 debut from Rage Against The Machine.

Rage Against The Machine marks the first time that metal and rap were fused perfectly together. In many ways, when the band called it quits eight years later, it was clear that the genre died with them. From the opening moment of the album, it is obvious that Rage Against The Machine is a rock powerhouse, the likes of which have never been seen. In the early stages of the record, it is obvious that the first word of their name perfectly describes the mood of the album. Forceful, fierce, and unrelenting, Rage Against The Machine redefined everything that it meant to be "hardcore." Truth be told, since its release, the song "Killing In The Name" has become nothing short of a "battle cry" for those across the world who feel disenfranchised. Some will argue that there has never been a more simple, yet completely universal rallying call for rebellion than the line, "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!"

The driving force behind the band is undoubtedly the guitar work of a true innovator, Harvard graduate, Tom Morello. On each of their records, the band made a point to state that "all sounds created by live instruments." This is essential as the ways that Morello plays sound as if they must be computer generated. While he can make some of the most unconventional sounds ever, he also has a serious talent for writing some of the most recognizable, crushing riffs in history. This is to take nothing away from the rhythm section of bassist Tom Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. The pair help to create what may very well be the most get-up-out-of-your-seat intense music that the world has ever seen. The music, when not at full attack, seems to circle around, creating a menacing, tension-filled feeling. The band has a brilliant grasp on when the tension has reached its peak, and slams back into the song full throttle.

If Bob Dylan were born two decades later (and with Mexican heritage), he would be RATM frontman Zach De La Rocha. de La Rocha (who is the son of a Mexican political artist), has a gift for writing some of the most intelligent, insightful, and brutally honest lyrics. One could argue that he single-handedly brought the plight of the Mexican Zapatista's to the forefront of American politics. However, his lyrics are not only for those South of the US border. As their name infers, the lyrics on Rage Against The Machine, are just that; an ear-splitting yell to the "powers that be." Not one to take the path of passive resistance, de La Rocha screams his warnings, "...we don't need the key, we'll break in!" and "How long? Not long...'cause what you reap, is what you sow!" Taking full aim at the myriad of "problems" that he sees, Zach preaches, "Yes I know my enemies, They are the teachers who taught me to fight me...Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission, ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite...All of which are American dreams!"

From time to time, a band comes along that are so utterly awe-inspiring, it becomes hard to remember what the world was like before they existed. These bands demand to be heard, and make some of the most significant records of all time. Rage Against The Machine is an album like no other, and forever altered the musical landscape. Though many have tried, since their debut record exploded into the world, no other band has been able to come remotely close to the combined talent, originality,and intensity of Rage Against The Machine's debut record.

Standout tracks: "Killing In The Name," "Bullet In The Head," and "Wake Up."

Friday, March 20, 2009

March 20: Grinderman, "Grinderman"

Artist: Grinderman
Album: Grinderman
Year: 2007
Label: Anti

Knowing myself as well as I do (which is pretty damn good), I will say that it's extremely likely that the first artist/band to make a "legitimate" second appearance in this blog is going to be Nick Cave. Whether working as a solo artist, The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds, or Grinderman, Nick Cave is simply in a category all to his own.

That being said, after releasing a double disc showing how beautifully he could still compose melodies and ballads (Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus), it was quite clear that Nick Cave needed to cut loose and get back to his roots. Grabbing a trio of Bad Seeds members (that's three of a possible seven for those of you scoring at home), the new band entered the studio and recorded what can be seen as the beginning of the second wind of Cave's career. Each and every member of Grinderman is in prime form, and Cave is as good as ever on the groups' only disc to date, their self titled 2007 release.

This incarnation of Nick Cave's backing band have the sound and energy of a bunch of teenagers playing in the garage until their mom comes home. Grinderman is a a loud, wild rock affair and the album never relents, even in its more meandering songs. The usual themes of women, women, and occasionally, women are present, as they have been throughout the decades of Cave's recording career. Grinderman features a number of different approaches to the subject of women, from the can't-impress-them-enough ("Get It On") to outright love ("Honey Bee (Let's Fly To Mars)") to pining for the love of a street walker ("Depth Charge Ethel.") Much like all of the great songwriters, Nick Cave and turn a phrase with lines like, "To kiss Ethel is like drinking the stars/But do not kiss her, make you come unglued...So if you want a piece of her, you better get in there fast/Right now there's a ticketbox and a queue..."

Musically, Grinderman, as a band, have explored so much musical territory in their combined bands that it is not surprising just how much variety and skill is on the record. The band is able to produce creepy, lulling, yet animated songs as well as they can blow the doors off with as fierce a rock and roll song as you'll find anywhere. It is obvious that, even though they are having a blast i the studio, they are all disciplined enough musicians that things to not get out of hand and become cliche. The band has the spirit of a garage band, yet the fact is, when they get into the groove, they are as powerful a rock group that there has ever been. At some points on the record, they sound like the love-child of The Stooges, Suicide, and Little Richard. To put it simply, when Grinderman gets going, it is nearly impossible not to turn the volume up to eleven.

Throughout Grinderman, one thing is very clear: Nick is having a blast singing all of the lyrics. Even when he is snarling and screaming, you can tell that he is doing so with a huge grin on his face. As he has done his entire career, Cave contributes a variety of vocal styles on the record. Sometimes, he speaks in the manner of the beat poets, sometimes he is almost a mock lounge singer, while at other times, his powerful singing is so good that you wonder why he isn't the biggest rock star on the planet. Along with is voice, Grinderman contains some of Cave's most genius lyrics to date. He probes inside himself and reveals dark, but true inner thoughts and crafts them into dazzling lyrics. While many will try and disregard the merit of a song like "No Pussy Blues," if you can get past the title, it is undeniably one of the most brilliant lyrics of male frustration that has ever been written.

Nick Cave has been making music in his own, somewhat strange, fashion for nearly thirty years. Over this time span, he has proven himself as one of the foremost lyricists of his generation and certainly one of its finest singers as well. After a solid, yet perhaps dreary Bad Seeds record, he formed a new band and they donned the name Grinderman. There is no doubt that my absolute, hands-down, no question-about-it favorite album of the past nine years is Grinderman's self-titled debut. I am aware that this is a VERY lofty statement, but the fact remains true. Since then new decade began, there simply has not been a single record that has even come close to being as absolutely stunning as Grinderman. If you don't own it, get it. It's that simple.

Standout tracks: "No Pussy Blues," "Depth Charge Ethel," and "Love Bomb."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March 19: Snoop Dogg, "Doggystyle"

Artist: Snoop Dogg
Album: Doggystyle
Year: 1993
Label: Death Row

In every great story, the student eventually becomes the teacher. After making a bit of a name for himself on Dr. Dre's The Chronic, Snoop Doggy Dogg was ready to take the world by storm. Whether the world was ready or not, in one fell swoop, he went from a nobody to one of the most successful and well respected rappers ever. When he dropped his 1993 debut, Doggystyle, the world was forever changed. The album still stands today as one of the most iconic albums not only in rap, but in music in general.

The production on Doggystyle is where its brilliance as a record begins. Much like on The Chronic, Dr. Dre unleashes some of the most original, catchy, and now classic beats and riffs. In many ways, Doggystyle is a continuation of The Chronic as the production, the beats, and the cast on the record itself are all nearly identical. The albums as a pair still stand today as the pinnacle of everything that is "West Coast" rap. However, Doggystyle is far from a "copy" of The Chronic. Snoop seamlessly moves into the spotlight, and while the sounds are similar, the mood of the two records are quite different. Taking Dre's P-Funk inspired sounds and pulling and pushing them with his voice, his vocal tracks become an instrument onto itself. Where Dre's record is more aggressive and angry, Snoop's is more laid back, presenting the true "G Funk" style.

Snoop Dogg has made his name in the rap world with his clear, casual, tongue-twisting delivery. In an age when rappers were trying to cram as many words as they could into a phrase, Snoop took an almost "blues" approach and preferred to make the words smoother and more laid back. Snoop still has the uncanny ability to deliver forceful, even angry lyrics while still keeping his loose, smooth style. Not enough can be said about Snoop's lyrical prowess; he flips phrases like no other rapper and it gives his rhymes a bit of a feeling of mystery. The manner in which he arranges his rhymes are second to none and enjoyable unpredictable. His ability to create vivid images and convey emotions, from intense to relaxed, are strong and clear even on this, his first album. Simply put, Snoop Dogg is everything that rappers aspire to be; original, powerful, and XXXXXXXX

As a record, Doggystyle was legendary in many ways beyond it's lyrics and sound. First and foremost, upon its release, it became the first debut album to ever enter the Billboard charts in the top spot. Taking the usual ideas of parties, women, and a bit of street life, Doggystyle was still pioneering, as it was graphic in ways that were taboo until that point. Tracks like "Lodi Dodi" and "Murder Was The Case" brought subjects to the spotlight that no rapper had dared discuss previously, and in great detail. With the content of Doggystyle, Snoop Dogg opened the floodgates of lyrical content and nothing was "off limits" from that point. Of course, the album also introduced a new words with the still used, "biatch" and adding an "iz" into nearly anything.

These days, Snoop Dogg is a rap superstar, a style icon, a film-maker, and a reality TV star. In general, the public loves him and finds no "harm" in him or his image. However, when he released his blockbuster debut record, Doggystyle, he had parents calling for his imprisonment and for his album to be banned from record store shelves. Taking the same formula that made The Chronic a huge success, Snoop takes the torch of hip of and officially begins a new era in rap music. Beyond iconic, every song on Doggystyle is a hip-hop classic and the record as a whole is undeniably one of the most important albums in the history of music.

Standout tracks: "Gin n Juice," "Lodi Dodi," and "Tha Shiznit."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 18: Van Morrison, "Moondance"

Artist: Van Morrison
Album: Moondance
Year: 1970
Label: Warner Bros.

As the 1960's transitioned into the 1970's, traditional folk music was being pushed aside in favor of singer-songwriters who could command more musical power than simply a guitar. Pulling influence from jazz, blues, r&b, and even some Celtic folk styling, Van Morrison remains today one of the biggest innovators ever in music. Having already made his name with the critics with his previous effort, Astral Weeks, Morrison finally earned the adoration of the public with his monumental 1970 release, Moondance.

Though it is best known for the title track, the song "Moondance" is just the tip of the iceberg on this sensational album. First off, the actual song "Moondance" was not even released as a single until nearly seven years after its initial release; yet the record was a commercial success from the start. Ridding himself of nearly every musician from the Astral Weeks recordings, Moondance almost plays as the perfect connected-contrast to it's predecessor. Instead of the bleak lyrics and borderline overdone orchestral movements, the songs are far more simple, yet uplifting and hopeful. The fact that Moondance marks Morrison's first credit as a producer most likely plays a large part in the albums' "different" sound. Morrison once again peers deep into himself and brings the listener a host of brilliant lyrics and delivers them in perfect form.

Van Morrison is absolutely one of the most brilliant musical composers of his generation. Instead of using musical charts, Morrison mostly created the music while the sessions were in progress throughout the recording of Moondance. Aside from the most basic musical structures, the music is nearly completely improvised. The fact that such little planning and production went into the record, and yet such a masterpiece was created is a testament to Van Morrison's skill and talent in every aspect of the world of music. From gospel ballads to more intimate numbers, as well as his trademark Celtic-folk, Morrison proves time and time again that he is anything but a "traditional" folk artist.

The vocal work on the record is almost mythical in nature. It has been noted many times that nearly EVERY vocal track was recorded in a single take, many without instrumentation for him to hear. Morrision has been quoted many times as simply stating, "No one knew what I was looking for except me, so I just did it." It is nothing short of astounding that, with such little planning, and little to no backing music, Morrison was able to nail nearly every vocal on Moondance on the first shot. Having one of the strongest, most wide ranged voices around certainly didn't hurt either. Morrison has the soul of the finest jazz singers, and the power of the best rock frontmen. Whether swinging the tune, mellowing out and getting sensual, or belting out like a rocker, Van Morrison brings is "A game" throughout Moondance, in every style and on every song.

Van Morrison will forever stand as a music legend. While he may be best known for penning one of the most covered songs in history ("Gloria"), it his full length album work that allows him and his endless talent to shine. Fusing together the sounds of jazz and blues with a heavy dose of soul and his own personal roots, his music has a universal feel, yet is absolutely individual and unique. All of Van Morrison's "pre-Mercury records" albums are worth owning and enjoying. However, his 1970 release, Moondance, is a perfectly flawless and commands a prominent place in every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Moondance," "Crazy Love," and "Into The Mystic."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 17: Talking Heads, "Remain In Light"

Artist: Talking Heads
Album: Remain In Light
Year: 1980
Label: Sire

As the 1980’s began, the avant and punk rock movements continued to expand in every conceivable direction. The hotbed of these experimentations in music were NYC clubs The Mud Club and, of course, CBGB’s. Artists from The Ramones to Patti Smith to Blondie all honed their chops live on stage, night after night. While few of the bands had similar sound, some were so “out there” that they have a genre all to their own. What is now called “math rock” or “nerd rock” dates back to the originators; Talking Heads. Their 1980 masterpiece Remain In Light is a flawless their brilliance in both innovation, as well as musicianship.

Easily one of the most consistently innovative bands in history, Talking Heads represent everything that was amazing at the "artsy" punk movement. A majority of the band members met as students at the Rhode Island Institute of Design and they played their first live show at CBGB's in 1975...opening for The Ramones. On their forth studio release in as many years, Remain In Light finds the band delving deep into the influence of AfroBeat music, and production led by Brian Eno (Roxy Music, Eno/Cale) helped to keep the band pressing into new territory. Remain In Light also clearly marks the "end" of an era for Talking Heads. Their next album would be nearly three years later, and subsequent albums steadily declined musically, leading to the end of the band.

Constantly changing, poly-rhythmic beats are the core of the music of the Talking Heads. Strong influence from AfroBeat as well as the inconsistent nature of punk both help to mold their sound. One of the more interesting aspects is that, although not in the traditional sense, the music on Remain In Light is increasingly funky. Without using too much bass-work, the songs contain deep grooves made from unorthodox musical methods. The rise of the synthesizer also played a key role in forming the music as many "odd" noises fill in the gaps in the music. A full horn section, strange distortion on the guitars, and a host of other new ideas truly make Remain In Light sound like no other album ever made, even by Talking Heads standards.

David Byrne will reign forever as one of the most unique vocal talents to ever find a recording booth. Though he is perfectly capable of singing gorgeous melodies, an overwhelming majority of the time, he chooses to deliver his lyrics in a choppy, spoken manner. Though on Remain In Light, the lyrics have less meaning than on their previous efforts, the style in which they are delivered as still as essential to the music as ever. Though it flopped upon release, the single "Once In A Lifetime" features one of Bryne's most simple, yet brilliant lyrics in the line, "...and you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?" On this song in particular, Byrne sounds lost, and perhaps a bit uncomfortable in the music, and this can be seen as one of the earliest signs of the end of this amazing band.

Talking Heads were one of the smartest and ingenious bands in the history of music. Constantly perusing new sounds and styles, their music is, if nothing less, amazingly original. With more of an underground following than a popular one, the band has achieved "cult" status since their first releases in the late 1970's. Pushing the lyrics to the back burner and turning up the level of experimentation, Talking Heads created their finest record with 1980's Remain In Light. The combination of funk, AfroBeat, and the general quest for invention that defined Talking Heads makes this album well beyond brilliant and everyone should own and love Remain In Light.

"Standout tracks: "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)," “Crosseyed & Painless,” andHouses In Motion."

Monday, March 16, 2009

March 16: The Clash, "London Calling"

Artist: The Clash
Album: London Calling
Year: 1979
Label: Epic

Every once in a great while, an album comes out that is so surprisingly amazing, they should make it a law that everyone must own a copy. Most of the time, when such an album is released, it not only defines a genre, but often an entire generation as well. As 1979 came to an end, a UK quartet was determined to make the "punk" sound and ideals rule the world. The group: The Clash. The album: London Calling. The impact: immeasurable.

Everything about London Calling was revolutionary, from the artwork to the music to the marketing and everything in between. Perhaps as a signal that "old rock" was officially dead, the albums' cover is a tribute to Elvis Presley's 1956 debut. Everything about London Calling is fresh and original. For the record, the man on the cover is bassist Paul Simonon, and he is on stage at The Palladium in New York City. Since its release, the image is become nothing short of iconic for everything that it means to be a rock and roller.

Though it was released as a double album, the band demanded that it be sold at "single album" prices. In reality, The Clash had reached an agreement with their label to release one full album, and one 12" EP. However, when the album was delivered to CBS (Epic was a subsidiary label), it was two full albums worth of music. The pricing was an issue at first, but moving two million copies in a matter of weeks made it easier for the label to forgive the "mistake" by the band.

Fusing together rock, reggae, and punk rock, The Clash created a sound all their own. London Calling kicks off with the title track; a fist-pumping call to arms. A warning of "World War III," the song pulls influence from the "Three Mile Island" nuclear accident. The rest of the album showcases just how diverse The Clash were as a band. Songs ranging from SKA and reggae to rockabilly and even what one would consider "lounge" music all appear on London Calling. The fact that The Clash clearly had no regard for the "boundaries" of the genre is a statement in itself. Whether in the music, the lyrics, or simply the energy behind the songs, the punk aesthetic is present throughout; proving that punk is more than an image or style of dress (Sex Pistols = posers) and that "true" punk is in the heart and mind.

Lyrically, the words of The Clash are some of the most inflammatory and motivating words ever written. When it comes to vocalists to get people moving, Joe Strummer is high atop the list. The phrases he penned for London Calling range from the explicitly political ("London Calling," "Spanish Bombs") to songs about London's "SUS laws" ("The Right Profile") to songs of VERY odd nature for punk bands. Strummer also takes a moment for a quick "pot shot" at the former generation of musicians who swore they'd die before they got old ("Death or Glory".) The band also features Joe Strummer's take on the age-old story of "Stagger Lee" in the tune "Wrong 'e Boyo." Such diverse subject matter and musical styles usually end in a chaotic mess of an album, yet London Calling bucks the trend and is nothing short of spectacular.

One of those "odd" songs is "Lover's Rock." Well before it became a large social issue, the song finds The Clash warning young Brit's about unprotected sex. It's all summed up in the lines: "But nobody knows the poor babies name/When she forgot that thing that she had to swallow." For any band to tackle such a "taboo" issue was still unheard of; let alone a band on a "major" label. The song proves once again, that The Clash were going to do things exactly as they pleased, regardless of what anyone else thought.

Even after more than thirty years, The Clash remain one of the purest examples of a "working class" band. Their consistent "no frills" production, diversity in both musical style as well as lyrical content, and some of the most generally "accessible" music ever makes this band fall into the exclusive category of "bands nobody can hate." Whether yelling against the establishment, recalling his own childhood, or sending a warning to the youth, Joe Strummer sings with a voice and passion that cannot be ignored. The Clash are undoubtedly one of the most important bands ever, and London Calling is easily one of the best and most important records ever made.

Standout tracks: "London Calling," "Lost In The Supermarket," and "Death Or Glory."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 15: Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Blood Sugar Sex Magik"

Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Album: Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Year: 1991
Label: Warner Bros.

In the early 1990's, music was beginning to once again expand in every direction. Genres were being crossed and fused together, creating new sounds and styles. Before Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins took over the planet, there was a short lived genre simply called "alternative rock." Eventually, this would become a catch-all grouping for anything that wasn't considered mainstream. However, in 1991, underground sensations, Red Hot Chili Peppers, smashed down the wall and forever changed the term "mainstream" with their legendary record, Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

Red Hot Chili Peppers began as a band known for fusing the fury of punk, the volume of metal, and the groove and soul of funk into their own unique sound. Having already achieved minor success with their cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," the group entered a mansion-turned-studio with mega-producer Rick Rubin. Rubin helped the group to concentrate and clean up their sound, letting the true genius of the music shine through. Scaling back the "metal" factor of the group and forming into a cleaner, more funk-based sound proved to be exactly what the group needed to fulfill their potential.

The music sounds a bit different than their previous efforts in large part due to the style of guitarist John Frusciante. He played less aggressively than his predecessor, deceased guitar prodigy Hillel Slovak. This stylistic change afforded the rest of the band space to create complex rhythms and textures around the guitar and, in general, freed up the band musically. It goes without saying that the Chili Peppers are driven primarily by the brilliant basswork of the man who only needs one name, Flea. Whether pushing deep into a slow groove or fingers flying at the speed of light, Flea has no limits on bass and it gives the band much of their distinctive sound.

Anthony Kiedis has established himself over time as one of the most introspective lyricists ever. Bearing his soul completely, he lets the listener into his deepest, most private thoughts, and the results are some of the most heartfelt songs ever recorded. One of the clearest examples of Kiedis' talent is the unlikely hit song, "Under The Bridge." The gorgeous melodies present a stark juxtaposition to the lyrical tale of Kiedis' own battle with heroin and cocaine addiction. The song nearly never happened as Kiedis felt the words were far "too soft" for the bands' musical style (the song peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts). The half singing/half rapping vocals that Kiedis delivers flow perfectly with the music and further add to the Chili Peppers inimitable sound.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers stand as one of the most successful bands in music today. Nearly two decades of making music in their own distinctive style has earned them a spot high atop the list of rock legends. Taking their influence of punk, funk, and metal, the band fuses them together to create amazingly catchy tunes with some of the finest lyrics around. While their last few albums have had far more pop appeal, the reality is, Blood Sugar Sex Magik may very well be the most important "alternative" album ever, and can certainly be seen as one of the records that, in fact, created the entire genre.

Standout tracks: "Breaking The Girl," "Funky Monks," and "Suck My Kiss."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

March 14: The Cranberries, "Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?"

Artist: The Cranberries
Album: Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?
Year: 1993
Label: Island

By 1993, grunge and "G Funk" rap dominated the popular music scene. Every label was trying to find artists who could present these styles and ride the EmpTV gravy train. Somehow, a short Irish woman and her three bandmates broke through with a sound that was absolutely nothing like anything else being played at the time. Deolores O'Riordan and her band The Cranberries burst onto the scene with their ironically titled 1993 debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?

The Cranberries draw clear influences from post-punk artists like The Smiths and Morrissey (they actually used Smiths' producer Stephen Street on the album.) Their songs, while not depressing, have a feel of loneliness and melancholy throughout. Even with the more up-tempo songs, the lyrical team of O'Riordan and guitarist Noel Hogan have penned a series of songs of love and the problems it creates. The combination of scattered, yet not empty instrumentation with the magnificent vocal work of O'Riordan almost leave the listener in a blissful trance.

Making more with less is definitely the ethos used on Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?. The guitar and drum work is simple, not to say that it is unskilled. Hogan makes the most of the notes he plays, leaving plenty of room for the other band members, a few string instruments, and the amazing vocals of O'Riordan to shine. The rhythm section is also rather understated on the record, and again, not due to lack of talent. The Cranberries simply enjoy the challenge of making great musical works with minimal instrumentation. This musical economy works wonderfully and each song has a very distinctive, yet cohesively warm feeling.

The vocals O'Riordan are absolutely unparalleled. Rarely moving from the upper register of the music scale, she sings completely in control, yet there is a beautiful looseness to her voice. Unlike a majority of singers who attempt to thrive in the high notes (Mariah Carey), O'Riordan can actually sing words and sustain the notes instead of shrieking up to them and then returning to the lower notes. From an intimate whispery sound to belting out her entire vocal range, O'Riordan's vocals are unmistakably brilliant.

As previously stated, for such a quiet and mellow album to have as much impact as it did was nearly unheard of at the time. Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We? spawned a pair of Top 20 singles in "Dreams" and "Linger." The former has been covered nearly a dozen times and has been featured in a number of films as well. Both songs remain as two of the most identifiable songs of the musical explosion of the 1990's.

When it comes to having an immediately recognizable sound, Irish rockers The Cranberries are up there with the best. The sparse music and phenomenal vocals set this group far apart from the rest of the music of their generation. Though subsequent albums were quite strong, their debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We? stands above the rest and is still largely regarded as one of the most significant albums of the 1990's.

Standout tracks: "Dreams," "Pretty," and "Put Me Down."

Friday, March 13, 2009

March 13: Slayer, "Reign In Blood"

Artist: Slayer
Album: Reign In Blood
Year: 1986
Label: American

In honor of today being Friday the 13th, I've decided to be a bit cliche and review one of the most delightfully evil bands ever, Slayer. For nearly thirty years, when it comes to thrash/speed metal and all out noise assaults, they are pretty much second to none. Their 1986 release, Reign In Blood is maelstrom of organized chaos and arguably the greatest metal album in history.

The albums' release came with a large amount of controversy and its overall impact was massive. Initially, the release of the record was delayed for the albums' cover art. Another hold-up was the Reign In Blood's opening track, "Angel Of Death." The song discusses Nazi concentration camps, and there were loads of accusations about the band being supporters of the atrocity. After the band made it quite clear that they in no way condoned such acts, the record was released with the questionable artwork (though their main label, Geffen, did not include it on its list of album releases the week it came out.)

Temporally abandoning their Satan-fueled lyrics, the band moveed to songs of death, insanity, murder, and overall, more "street" or "universal" themes. While most metal bands of the time (Metallica, Megadeth, etc) were writing albums that clocked in at well over an hour, Slayer was quoted many times as saying, "so what?" when it came to album length. It is from this fact that the heavy influences of the punk movement are clear in the bands' approach to recording. Many of the songs on Reign In Blood lack any repetition and change tempo and keys mid-song. This choice in style is rarely heard anywhere in the heavy metal genre.

One of the most amazing things about Reign In Blood is its speed. Covering twelve songs in just under a half hour, such concentrated aggression was unheard of at that point. The lightning fast doubled guitars of Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King finally brings the musical "punch" that is lacking on the bands' first few records. Though he would leave the band for nearly a year after the albums' release, drummer Dave Lombardo takes Reign in Blood to set the bar at a nearly unreachable level for drummers in metal bands. He keeps break-neck pace through every song and it drives the tornado of music coming out of the speakers. The fact that Slayer finally lives up to all of their potential may be due to the fact that Reign In Blood was their first album with an up and coming producer named Rick Rubin.

Whether delivering spoken lyrics with the fury of the finest punk singers, or hitting notes that would make Steve Perry jealous, Tom Araya was, and remains, one of the most amazing singers on the planet. Understanding that volume does not necessarily equal more intense, Araya's vocals remain in control throughout the record, yet they are still strong and fiery. Artists ranging from Chuck D to Tori Amos to the gents from KMFDM have all cited Araya as a huge influence on their style and, listening to a majority of metal bands since, it is clear that most of them are trying to duplicate Araya's style.

While most critics tend to completely write off the entire heavy metal genre, the impact of Reign in Blood is simply undeniable. Public Enemy sampled parts of the record on their Fear Of A Black Planet album. Tori Amos has covered "Raining Blood" live for years, and released a studio cover of it on her 2001 album, Strange Little Girls. Classical metalheads Apocolyptica have covered many songs off the record, and a handful of tracks of Reign In Blood have been featured in video games (Tony Hawk's Project 8, Guitar Hero III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.) Such wide ranging acclaim, even more than twenty years after its release, helps to support just how much significance lies within Reign In Blood.

Speed metal, or thrash metal, are extremely difficult genres in which to find success. While there are countless bands who try, most miss the mark by a longshot and sound like second-rate reproductions of bands that have already succeeded. High atop the list of great metal bands stands the immortal Slayer. Their name alone has become synonymous with the genre and for good reason. They pioneered the thrash sound, throwing conventional restrictions of how the genre "should" sound to the wayside and making the albums they wanted to create. Their 1986 release, Reign In Blood, is a masterpiece of musical mayhem and is essential in understanding the entire genre.

Standout tracks: "Angel Of Death," "Altar Of Sacrifice" and "Raining Blood."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

March 12: Black Eyes, "Black Eyes"

Artist: Black Eyes
Album: Black Eyes
Year: 2003
Label: Dischord

Since the early 1980's, one record label has stayed true to it's D.I.Y. roots and, in the process, released some of the most original and amazing records ever. The label is Washington, DC's Dischord Records; and its founder, Ian MacKaye, seems to have a knack for finding the most amazing in experimental and "different" sounding bands. One of these many groups was the short lived Black Eyes, and their 2003 self-titled debut is a rowdy, yet undeniably amazing record.

Though they were only together for a few short years, breaking up shortly before their second record was released, in that time, they were one of the most high energy bands around. Overall, the band is a mixture of groups like Q And Not You, Fugazi, Cake, and Suicidal Tendencies. Creating brilliantly complex rhythms, the group, both live and in the studio, were known for generating complete musical mayhem. While the songs themselves give a feeling of uncontrolled chaos, the group is very regimented and the songs keep a very clear structure.

When it comes to the sound that Black Eyes produces, it all comes down to their choices in instrumentation. Dual drummers (formally, though all of the members play percussion throughout the record), dual bassists, dual vocalists, and a lone guitarist ensure a sound like no other. The two vocalists use their contrasting styles (low singing versus manical screaming) to create a very confrontational mood on a majority of the songs. The music laying underneath gives many of the tracks on Black Eyes a very menacing, perhaps evil aura.

"A Pack Of Wolves" is easily one of the most intense songs ever recorded. Barely over two minutes, the caterwauling vocals and tension-filled bassline and drums create a feeling of bottled chaos, ready to explode. While the group does show the pace down from time to time, this is when the songs push into realm of "scary" or sinister. The dual instrumentation is the essentaial aspect on both of the groups' styles

Though they own existed for a few years, Black Eyes crafted a sound that was all their own. With an unorthodox instrumentation, and some of the fiercest vocals you'll find, they fit in perfectly with the Dischord Records ideal. While the sound on Black Eyes may not be to everyones' liking, it is nonetheless an incredible and original sounding record and should have a spot in all music collections.

Standout tracks: "A Pack Of Wolves," "Deformative," and "Letter To Raoul Peck."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

March 11: Del McCoury, "Del And The Boys"

Artist: Del McCoury
Album: Del And The Boys
Year: 2001
Label: Hollywood

First off, there are HUGE differences between country music, western music, and bluegrass. This is an essential fact that most people cannot get past. Now that you've dealt with the fact that anyone singing with a "southern twang" isn't necessarily singing "country music," let's move on, shall we?

What do you do when you feel you've made all the solo records you feel you can? Simple; get your children, and make a record with them. If your children are young, it may not work well. However, if your sons happen to be accomplished musicians in their own right, it can produce extraordinary results. After four decades of being one of the finest bluegrass musicians on the planet, Del McCoury went into the studio with his sons and recorded one of the finest albums of his career, 2001's aptly titled Del And The Boys.

Del McCoury has been a music legend for over forty years, so it's no surprise that his sons, Rob and Ronnie are equally brilliant musicians. While many "classic" musicians have attempted to "modernize" their sound to stay relevant, Del keeps things as old school as they get. Extremely simple production, nearly all acoustic instrumentation, and no overdubs keeps a very warm and full sound on Del And The Boys. The album beams with an inviting aura and it proves that their is real magic in simplicity. To further this point, at their live shows, the band uses a single vocal microphone, and most of the time, only one or two mics on stands to capture the sound of their instruments (if any).

Like most bluegrass, a majority of the songs on Del And The Boys are about loneliness, loss, and love...with some scattered religious overtones. Each and every song on the album is fantastic and the mood and tempo are varied and keeps things fresh. The songs feature lightning fast fiddle picking, banjo, mandolin, and guitar as well as some of the most soulful instrumentation around. The fact is, Ronnie McCoury may very well be the greatest mandolin player in history. The case for this nomination is highlighted on the song, "Goldbrickin'." From the heartbreaking opening tale of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" to the sing-songy "The Bluegrass Country," the album represents and presents everything that is great about the bluegrass genre.

Del McCoury has one of the most unique voices you'll ever hear. While with many artists, the "country twang" in the voice is more of a distraction in their singing, Del has honed it perfectly over the decades and it provides a beautiful mood and authenticity (since he is as bluegrass as they get) on the songs. Without any filters or effects in the way, Del sings clear as a bell and, even at seventy years old, his vocal range and delivery is stunning. The harmonies with the rest of the band give a very "campy" feeling and it is obvious that the entire band had a blast recording the album. Fellow legend Ricky Skaggs also makes a few appearances on the record, lending some backing vocals.

When you're pushing seventy years old, nobody will call you out for packing up your guitar and calling it a career. The fact that, not only is Del McCoury still making records, but he still sounds as amazing as ever and it is a testament to his prowess as a musician. Keeping things simple and not over-producing the album provides an environment where the music is able to shine in all its glory. Attempting to turn a new generation onto the sounds of bluegrass, he enlisted his sons and, as a group, they whipped out one of the most enjoyable bluegrass records in years. Each and every song is pure joy to experience and everyone should have Del And The Boys in their collection.

Standout tracks: "All Aboard," "The Bluegrass Country," and "Travelin' Teardrop Blues."