Thursday, April 30, 2009

April 30: Beastie Boys, "Paul's Boutique"

Artist: Beastie Boys
Album: Paul's Boutique
Year: 1989
Label: Capitol

Very few artists have withstood the test of time as well as the trio of rappers from Brooklyn, New York, known as the Beastie Boys. Their career has run the spectrum, beginning as a wild party group to one of the most innovative, musically creative acts in history. Having released everything from overly orchestrated, hyper-technical albums to stripped down, fully instrumental records, the Beastie Boys are constantly pushing the boundaries on what is "acceptable" within the hip-hop genre. Though most people claim their chart busting debut, Licensed To Ill is their best album, the truth is, the Beastie Boys have made at least three records which are superior. Looking over their thirty year musical career, there is little doubt that their 1989 release, Paul's Boutique, is not only their best recording, but one of the greatest hop hop records ever.

The backstory behind Paul's Boutique cannot be separated from the record itself. After riding the massive wave of Licensed To Ill for more than two years, the Beastie Boys found themselves in a chaotic, litigious battle with their label, Def Jam records. Not only did they leave their label, but in perhaps a bigger surprise, they left their beloved New York City for the sunny shores of Los Angeles, California. Furthermore, to aid with the album, the group brought in a duo of unknown producers known as The Dust Brothers. It is the addition of The Dust Brothers that gives Paul's Boutique most of its unique sound. The duo, using samples like never before, can be credited along with the album for bringing an end to the carefree (and royalty free) use of sampling. Sampling the likes of The Beatles to Curtis Mayfield to The Ramones to Rocky Horror to Public Enemy (often within the same song), the samples to time ratio on Paul's Boutique is nearly unmatched in both number as well as diversity, yet it is still very much a Beastie Boys record.

Upon its release, Paul's Boutique was a commercial and critical failure. With most people looking for some resemblance to their debut record, many felt that the Beastie Boys had lost their focus or that they were a one hit wonder. Critics and fans alike tried to make the case that the album was a jumbled mess, yet in reality, it is exactly the opposite. Paul's Boutique is so musically dense that it is nearly impossible to wrap your head around the majesty of the record in just a handful of listenings. Comparing it to the other rap records that had been released previously, Paul's Boutique is light-years ahead of its time, and this also contributed to the fact that most people simply did not "understand" the record upon its release. Far beyond the basic "beats and rhymes," yet not quite to the "wall of noise" of Public Enemy, the trio of emcees and duo of producers find a stunning middle ground that has never been heard since. All of this is without even mentioning the mind-blowing, twelve minute masterpiece that closes the album. Simply put, Paul's Boutique is so brilliant that one really needs to take time with it to fully appreciate the absolute pièce de résistance that lies within.

One element that has been consistent throughout the entire career of the Beastie Boys is their trademark style of intertwined rhymes. The three emcees rapping in, out, and around one anothers' rhymes keeps each song fresh, and is also a testament to how well the three work together as a team. From the almost jovial rhymes of "The Sounds of Silence" and "Hey Ladies" to the more focused, harder rhymes of "Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun," serves as proof that the Beastie Boys are far more than the "frat boy" rap that they presented on Licensed To Ill. Though there are still a few "party" tracks on the album, Paul's Boutique also serves as the transition for the Beastie Boys where their rhymes (well, some of them) began to move from simple "girls and beer" lyrics to far more conscious content. However, at the end of the day, the core of what makes the Beastie Boys great remains as clear as this album as it is on any of their albums: Paul's Boutique is fun. This is one of the major elements that has aided in the longevity of their career, as the Beastie Boys have been able to keep things light and entertaining, even when bringing more serious lyrical content.

The Beastie Boys are easily one of the most highly respected groups across all genres since they appeared on the scene thirty years ago. Transitioning from simple "party rap" to exceptionally intelligent, conscious rhymes with live instrumentation, they continue to push the boundaries on what can be done within the rap genre. Intertwined rhymes over some of the most original and wide-ranging samples and beats ever composed, Paul's Boutique serves as a musical landmark in every sense of the word. Heaps of top notch rhymes and mind-blowing samples and beats are crammed into Paul's Boutique, yet the album flows wonderfully, and once you get past the density, it is truly an astonishing record. One can make the case that this album was a true product of the extenuating circumstances that the group found themselves in, and this is perhaps why none of their other albums bear any resemblance to Paul's Boutique. Reinventing themselves in nearly every use of the word, the Beastie Boys, with the help of The Dust Brothers, unleashed upon the world one of the most tremendous musical efforts in history with their unrivaled 1989 album, Paul's Boutique.

Standout tracks: "Egg Man," "High Plains Drifter," and "Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 29: Lucero, "Tennessee"

Artist: Lucero
Album: Tennessee
Year: 2002
Label: Madjack

Call them alt-country, call them punk-country, call them whatever you want, but the reality is, Memphis based band, Lucero, are one of the most amazing bands in the current music scene. Bringing a refreshingly original blend of Southern rock, combined with influences from indie-rock as well as a dash of punk, Lucero represent everything that is bright about the future of music. Barely a decade into their career, they've released half a dozen records, all of which are worth owning, and have their next record slated for a summer 2009 release. Though we'll discuss much of the rest of their catalog later this year, it is Lucero's sophomore release, 2002's Tennessee, that presents everything that makes this up and coming band one of the best kept secrets in the current music scene.

The sound throughout Tennessee is raw and organic, yet their sound is "studio perfect" without sacrificing this feeling of musical honesty or purity. The production on the record is top notch, yet the band still brings the energy and emotion of a band playing in a bar or in someones backyard. As much influenced by Johnny Cash as they are by The Replacements, Lucero creates a beautiful blend of country music and lyrics, yet gives it an indie-pop sensibility. The band, who all hail from the state of Tennessee, understandably keep their "local" music style at the core of their sound, yet they are equally well versed with everything from The Cure to The Ramones. The overall Southern feel that pervades all of Tennessee is further enforced by the fact that North Mississippi All-Stars drummer, Cody Dickinson, was the lead producer on the record. Truly, there is no other band in today's music scene that makes music quite like Lucero.

With all of the songs on Tennessee being attributed to the entire group, it is clear that the band realizes that a complete group effort yields the best results. From meandering, melodic ballads to slow, sad laments, to bright, bouncy, rockers, Tennessee serves as proof that Lucero is capable of mastering every approach to their signature sound. Keeping a strong base in the southern and western sound, the band is not afraid to push into harder, more aggressive rock with songs like "The Last Song." Taking the distinctive "twang" of country, Lucero makes the sound their own by turning it up "to eleven." Though a majority of the songs on Tennessee are country-rockers, Lucero further shows their versatility by flawlessly incorporating everything from banjos to the airy, somewhat haunting, cello and piano of "Fistful Of Tears." Furthering this musical exploration, whether blending in violins or the unmistakable sounds of a Moog organ, Lucero are not afraid to attempt unconventional approaches to the country-western aesthetic.

Lucero frontman, Ben Nichols, has an absolutely perfect voice for the groups' sound. An ideal balance between country crooner and gritty rocker, Nichols' voice conveys the honesty and feeling of the "kid next door" sitting on the porch singing about his own troubles. Singing songs of love, loss, and drinking, the lyrics are all universally relateable and fit the music perfectly. The simple, down-home feeling is perhaps best displayed with the lyric, " hands won't stop shaking and that can't be good, I would forget you, if only i could...think about anything else, that slow dance at the end of the night..." On many of the more heartfelt songs, it is clear that the words are extremely personal, and Nichols delivers the vocals with an awe-inspiring sense of honestly and soul. Case in point is the bittersweet, yet undeniably brilliant, slide-guitar based, lamenting, "Ain't So Lonely." From his amazing, unmistakable voice to the beautifully honest lyrical content, Ben Nichols is poised to become one of the most prominent frontmen in history.

In an era of music that has become increasingly stagnant and predictable, bands like Lucero serve as proof that there is still the potential for amazing, original music to be made. Bringing a signature style of country-western based rock with the attitude of indie and punk, Lucero are a band that are accessible and enjoyable to music lovers across the spectrum. With the sensational singing of Ben Nichols at its core, Lucero's music is an absolute joy to experience time and time again. Pushing the southern-rock aesthetic into uncharted territory, Lucero have found their musical forte, and it is truly exciting to ponder the music they will make as their career progresses. Each of their records are solid both musically and lyrically, but their sophomore album, 2002's Tennessee, is truly a masterpiece and serves as a formidable introduction to this band that is destined for greatness.

Standout tracks: "Sweet Little Thing," "Ain't So Lonely," and "I'll Just Fall."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April 28: Throwing Muses, "Throwing Muses"

Artist: Throwing Muses
Album: Throwing Muses
Year: 1986
Label: 4AD

While Athens, GA and Seattle, WA receive a vast majority of the credit for the "alternative" music explosion of the early and mid-1980's, one of the most amazing and important bands of this movement were making their mark from Newport, RI. Bringing a far more stark and somewhat haunting mood to their music, along with unorthodox musical and percussive progressions, Throwing Muses remain one of the most influential bands of the last thirty years. The bands' most powerful lineup only lasted until 1992, but the music they created in this time is nothing short of phenomenal. Though the rest of their catalog is not to be ignored, Throwing Muses' self-titled 1986 debut is a landmark record in both musical and stylistic content.

The album itself is now often referred to as Untitled, since the current lineup of the group released a formally "self titled" album in 2003. However, for the sake of this post, I will refer to the album as a self-titled effort. Throwing Muses were the first American band to be released by the world renowned 4AD label. The label, whose alumni include the likes of The Pixies, The Birthday Party, and Bauhaus signed a majority of their US-based acts on their relationship with Throwing Muses, and it serves as a testament to the amazing talent found within band. At the core of the group are dual-vocalists and guitarists, step-sisters Kristin Hersh and Tonya Donelly. Though tensions would eventually lead to Donelly leaving the group (she would go on to play with The Breeders before forming Belly), the four albums the pair helped create are all nothing short of genius.

Pulling influence from the jerky, punk style, combining it with beautiful folky melodies, and capping it off with stark, tortured lyrics, Throwing Muses is truly like no other album ever. Shifting tempos, purposefully minimal of use of cymbals, and wild mood swings within songs form the trademark sound of Throwing Muses. The music runs the gamut from the acoustically based, jolting "Stand Up" to the anthemic "America (She Can't Say No)," to the melodious "Vicky's Box." The music often turns on a dime, and these contrasts of tension and release remain among the most impressive ever recorded. The unconventional drumming of Dave Narcizo and uncredited basswork of Leslie Langston (seriously, she's never mentioned anywhere in the liner notes) provides the ideal rhythm backing to the work of Hersh and Donelly. Narcizo's drumming is often reminiscent of the sparse, gloomy moods of Joy Division, yet he is equally capable of drumming at breakneck speeds, often with the same song. As a band, the four musicians create heavy, complex musical landscapes, often teeming with an undeniable feeling of anguish.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the music of Throwing Muses is the shared vocals of Hersh and Donelly. Even at times when Hersh's vocals are too fast or otherwise lost in the music, the emotion behind the words is always clear, and she is clearly one of the most distressed and tortured artists in music history. Many of the lyrics on Throwing Muses are somber, elegiac, self-revealing tales of Hersh's own battles with mental illness and her vocal delivery is often uncomfortably honest and gloomy. The juxtaposition between Hersh's jarring, sung-spoken delivery and Donelly's sweet, ethereal voice gives the album great depth. The most clear example of just how much diversity lies between their style is can be clearly heard between Throwing Muses' first two songs. The opener, "Call Me," presents everything that makes the band great, with a sonic explosion being capped off my Hersh's aggressive, almost rapped lyrics. The song also gives a brilliant example of the stylistic and mood shifts that make Hersh's vocal delivery so unique. Following "Call Me" is Donelly's only writing credit on the record, the soft, dark "Green." While it is clear that the band did their best to make Donelly's song fit in with the rest of the album (all written by Hersh), the song makes it clear that Donelly's style, both in content and delivery, is far more accessible, and this would become more obvious as Throwing Muses' career continued.

The post-punk movement of the 1980's produced some of the most original and innovative bands in music history. When the avant or "alternative" music scene began to move out from the underground, bands like Sonic Youth and R.E.M. garnered a vast majority of the attention and credit. However, the lasting impact of bands like Throwing Muses simply cannot be denied. Fluidly mixing the aesthetics of the punk and folk genres, Throwing Muses created some of the most imaginative and ingenious music ever. The dark, soul-revealing lyrics of Kristin Hersh, and her brilliantly paired vocals with Tonya Donelly still stand as some of the most creative and overall finest singing around. Using wild sound samples, radical approaches to drumming, and creating some of the most bleak, angst ridden music ever, Throwing Muses still stands as one of the most daring creative endeavors to ever be recorded.

Standout tracks: "Green," "Hate My Way," and "America (She Can't Say No)."

Monday, April 27, 2009

April 27: The Specials, "The Specials"

Artist: The Specials
Album: The Specials
Year: 1979
Label: 2 Tone/Chrysalis

As the 1970's came to a close, the popular musical sounds were shifting drastically, and the reggae and SKA sounds of the Caribbean began to make a comeback into the music scene. Perhaps due to the worldwide influence of The Clash, this rebirth was closely associated with the punk movement. At the front of the revival of the SKA sound were a band that opened for The Clash throughout their "On Parole" tour, British legends, The Specials. Their flawless blend of SKA and punk remains without equal to this day, and their self titled, 1979 debut marks a turning point in music history.

Originally conceived as a way to get their legendary live sound onto a full length record, the songlist on The Specials is comprised of almost all of the bands' entire live set at the time. Only omitting a few songs form their live set, most notably, "Gangsters" (which was already out on a 45), the album perfectly captures the energy and emotion of the band. Sonically, The Specials is superbly produced, in large part because the man at the mixing console was none other than Elvis Costello. Costello managed to make the somewhat dark mood of The Specials music appear a bit brighter, and therefore it was far more accessible to fans. The tracks are a perfect mixture of studio polish and the gritty, live feel that made their shows notorious. Lending backing vocals to the record is one time member of Masters Of The Backside (the band that eventually became The Damned), Ohio native, Chrissie Hynde. Having this balance of seasoned music pros, along with the raw sound and energy that the band themselves provided helps to make The Specials nothing short of phenomenal.

Introducing the world to a new style of music, the sound found throughout The Specials remains a joyous celebration of musical freedom. At the core of the sound is the now well known "SKA" riff on the guitars found throughout nearly each track. When guitarist Roddy Radiation leaves the "riff" to Lynval Golding, he is free to lay down blistering solos and crushing, punk-fueled chords. The drums of John Bradbury provide a wonderful, consistent bounce to the record, and perfectly back the basswork of "Sir Horace Gentlemen." When The Specials feel the need to introduce horns to the sound, they call upon the talents of Rico Rodriguez and Dick Cuthell (who would end up joining the band full time). Rodriguez, who not only played on the original recording of "A Message To You Rudy," as well as The Specials cover of the song, hailed from the seminal SKA band, The Skatalites, and his presence on the album undoubtedly gave the group "street cred."

With nearly half the band adding vocals, the primary singing duties are shared between Terry Hall and Neville Staple. The contrast between their vocal styles and sounds gives the songs wonderful depth, and they play perfectly off of one another. In a bit of ironic prediction, one of the finest, most poppy songs on The Specials is the aptly named, "(Dawning Of A) New Era." Lyrically, The Specials features some of the most brutally honest, if not rude, lyrics you'll find anywhere. Summing up their distaste for all the bad "nights out" they'd ever had, the band muses, "All the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss..." An all out attack on listeners, "Little Bitch" is a "take no prisoners," rude as hell, yet enjoyable tune. However, much like their punk influences, The Specials take time on their debut record to address social issues. "It Doesn't Make It Alright" is a brilliantly written rallying call against racism. Taking a page from The Clash, The Specials openly address their distaste for teen pregnancy with the song, "Too Much Too Young" and takes the idea further with the "trial" found within the lyrics of "Stupid Marriage." From giving the finger to those who didn't like them ("It's Up To You") to discourses on important social issues, the lyrical content found on The Specials is diverse and yet unforgivingly honest.

In 1979, disco was dead, and punk was beginning to fizzle into mediocrity. Taking the island sound of SKA and blending it with the ferocity of punk, The Specials started a musical movement that is still very relevant today. The catchy, bright "SKA riff" has become the base for countless bands from Goldfinger to No Doubt to Amy Winehouse, and one simply cannot deny the widespread, lasting influence of The Specials. Bringing the intense and aggressive energy of their live performances, as well as their trademark unrelentingly honest lyrics, The Specials remain one of the most outstanding bands to ever record.. Lasting only a few years (though they reformed in 2008), The Specials produced seven consecutive UK Top 10 hits, as well as some of the most important albums in music history. Releasing a pair of amazing studio albums before breaking up, The Specials permanently cemented their place in music history with their groundbreaking 1979 self titled debut record.

Standout tracks: "A Message To You Rudy," "Nite Klub," and "Too Much Too Young."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

April 26: 311, "Grassroots"

Artist: 311
Year: 1994
Label: Capricorn

Eras of musical exploration are also far more enjoyable than the stale, copycat eras that follow. Much like the late 1960's, the early 1990's were a time when bands were constantly combining genres to create styles that had never before been heard. Along with groups like Sublime, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rage Against The Machine, 311 took the ethos of punk and metal and infused it with reggae and pop sensibilities. Largely responsible for creating the rap-rock genre, 311 remain one of the most important and talented groups in music history. Rapidly approaching twenty years as a band, their sophomore release, 1994's Grassroots still shines as their finest recording to date.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Grassroots is the fact that the entire record was recorded in the bands' shared house in Van Nuys, CA. Instead of the traditional style of single instrument recording, the entire band (and vocals) were all recorded simultaneously in the living room of the house. The band also recorded their debut record, Music, during these same sessions. When 311 gets intense, as on the opening track, "Homebrew," they are unrivaled for the level of sheer power in their music. However, the true brilliance of the band lays in the fact that they are able to slow things down and be just as amazing, as is exemplified in the song, "8:16am." It is this diversity that sets the band aside from both their contemporaries, as well as the bands that have attempted to duplicate their sound since the release of their equally impressive debut record in 1993.

The music of 311 is an unmatched fusion of reggae, heavy metal, and hip hop, often containing a healthy dose of psychedelia. 311 innovated a new style with the help of turntable master, S.A. Martinez. Mixing in samples and record scratching, 311 were truly the first rap/rock act. Martinez also contributes secondary vocals throughout the entire album, and the dual singer model is another aspect that forms 311's distinctive sound. The man known simply as P-Nut lays down some of the fastest, funkiest basslines ever throughout Grassroots. Whether pounding away at a thrash metal tune, or creating a tripped-out, hallucinogenic groove, P-Nut brings nothing but perfection to each song. Tim Mahoney proves that he is just as brilliant playing SKA riffs as he his taking extended, laid back solos or going all out like the best in metal. At times sounding like a 1970's Grateful Dead solo, at times resembling the early 1980's metal explosion, Mahoney is one of the most all around talented guitarists you'll find. Both guitarists use effects to make their sound more "crunchy" or simply using "wah" pedals without overdoing it, and the variance in guitar work keeps the songs fresh. Drummer Chad Sexton is nothing short of phenomenal throughout Grassroots, as he puts on a clinic on how to play nearly every style of drumming possible. From the most crushing, rapid tempos, to the laid back and funky rhythms, Sexton proves to be one of the most talented drummers of his generation.

As a band, 311 centers around the bands' founder, rhythm guitarist, and lead singer, Nick Hexum. Constantly switching between singing and rapping, Hexum was a true innovator, and his style has been copied countless times since. When rapping, the truth is, Hexum delivers faster, and more original rhymes than a majority of "true" rappers of the time. The lyrical combinations and amazing alliterations found throughout the lyrics on Grassroots are a testament to his ability to write lyrics to rival the flawless, style-shifting music played by the band. Hexum's singing voice is the perfect tone and tenor for the music over which he sings. His voice glides blissfully over the complex landscapes created by the rest of the band. Proving throughout Grassroots that he is as talented a singer as he is an emcee, Hexum remains one of the most prolific frontmen in the music scene.

311's combination of metal, funk, and hip hop is one of the most pleasantly addictive sounds in the history of music. The band pretty much created the entire genre and idea of metal-hip hop fusion, and countless "mega bands" of the current music scene owe their entire careers to this seminal band. Pulling heavy influence from the psychedelic and reggae sounds as much as the ideals of punk and heavy metal, 311's music is always original, and more importantly, always of the highest quality. The diversity in the bands' inspirations affords them to explore a wide range of musical territory, and this leads to the fact that none of their releases are anything short of "solid." However, their first three albums are absolutely amazing, with their second record, 1994's Grassroots, standing as the finest release of their career.

Standout tracks: "Homebrew," "8:16am," and "Applied Science."

Saturday, April 25, 2009

April 25: Barry White, "Can't Get Enough"

Artist: Barry White
Album: Can't Get Enough
Year: 1974
Label: 20th Century

It is a true testament that, nearly forty years after his debut release, no artist can even come close to Barry White when it comes to the perfect soundtrack for those "special moments" in life. With his legendary voice and heartfelt lyrics, there are few artists who were able to achieve true crossover success as well as White did throughout the 1970's. Beyond music, White is held as a worldwide superstar, having appeared in everything from movies, to commercials, to a memorable appearance on The Simpsons. However, it is his voice and his style that will forever remain as his most notable talent. While every record he released on the 20th Century label is a disco-soul classic, his third album, 1974's Can't Get Enough may be the finest recording of his career.

As he did throughout nearly all of his career, Barry White handles his own production duties, and this helps to ensure that the album is exactly how he wanted it to sound. Throughout Can't Get Enough, White crafts a wonderful combination of disco classics and slow, funky, soulful love ballads. Aside from the disco-based songs, a clear influence from the work of Issac Hayes can clearly be heard on most of White's early albums. Yielding a pair of number one singles in "You're The First, My Last, My Everything" and "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe," the album itself also reached the top of the charts in both the US and UK. The album contains the original mix of "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe," which has a different runtime and musical arrangement than the single version with which most people are familiar.

Along with producing Can't Get Enough, White also wrote all of the lyrics, and wrote all of the string and horn arrangements. Even the most novice music listener can clear hear that the arrangements that White has put together are stunningly complex. The fact that such complex classically styled arrangements were able to top the charts is nothing short of amazing. Each song is absolutely beautiful, and the "late night" mood that White creates remains unrivaled to this day. The string section on Can't Get Enough is spectacular, creating lush backdrops on the ballads, and yet being able to take a more prominent, and perhaps unorthodox, role on many of the upbeat, more disco-based songs. White flawlessly incorporates some of the funkiest guitar riffs around as well as Moog keyboards as well as featuring a beautiful Bösendorfer piano on "I Love You More Than Anything." White's ability to work with such a wide range of instruments and sounds, and yet create a seamless, alluring sound truly shows what a talented a musician he was beyond his legendary voice.

Barry White has a voice that can never be mistaken for another. Perhaps the deepest, most rich voice to ever record, White's voice is as much a legend as the man himself. Throughout Can't Get Enough, as well as most of his career, White mixes his normal speaking voice into his singing, and it helped to create his distinctive sound. Both styles are what helped to earn White the nickname of "The Man With The Velvet Voice." While the lyrics on Can't Get Enough are still a bit more tame and subtle than those White would later write, the themes of love and those things that go on behind closed doors are still at the center of White's music. Clocking in at over ten minutes, White's classic, "I Can't Believe You Love Me," features minutes of White seductively speaking to his love interest, pouring his heart out before breaking into a majestic, soulful ballad. It is these seamless changes in vocal delivery, combined with the breathtaking music that makes the music of Barry White truly distinctive and sensational.

Barry White is something beyond the term "music legend." From his voice to the notorious content and style of his music, he is truly one of a kind, and there will never be an artist that even comes close to his sound. White's definingly deep and smooth voice has been wooing fans, both male and female, for nearly forty years, and it proves that what he created was something that remains truly timeless. Can't Get Enough features White's brilliant string and horn arrangements, overlain with some of the most soulful and sexy lyrics that have ever been written. Reaching prominence during the rise and apex of disco, White stayed true to his musical style, and was able to achieve continued international success throughout his entire career. For the first decade of his career, White released nearly a dozen brilliant albums on the 20th Century label. While they are all worth owning, his 1974 release, Can't Get Enough may be the best of the bunch and is an absolute essential for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "You're The First, The Last, My Everything," "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe," and "I Can't Believe You Love Me."

Friday, April 24, 2009

April 24: Motörhead, "Ace Of Spades"

Artist: Motörhead
Album: Ace Of Spades
Year: 1980
Label: Bronze

Certain names demand respect across music genres and generations. When it comes to speed metal, THE most important figure can be named with one simple word: Lemmy. Lemmy Kilminster is the embodiment of everything that "is" rock and roll. Singing ruckus lyrics of women and drinking, being kicked out of former bands (Hawkwind), wearing the leather and jeans, and oh yeah, he was a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, Lemmy represented everything that one wants in a rock frontman. His legendary trio, Motörhead, are almost solely responsible for the genre of speed metal, and paved the way for countless acts, from Metallica to Slipknot to Slayer. The band has released more than twenty albums over their career, but their 1980 release, Ace Of Spades, stands high atop the mountain of the best rock/metal albums of all time.

The title track of the album has become one of the greatest rock anthems in history. From television and movies, to stadiums, to video games, the song is instantly recognizable, and has truly withstood the test of time. The single spent over three months in the UK Top 20 and served as proof that a band did not need to "tone down" their sound or appearance to gain commercial success. The song remains the bands' "calling card," and it helped to drive the album into the Top 5 on the UK sales charts. Though the band has admitted that, after nearly thirty years, they are a tired of playing the song, Lemmy himself admits, "...we can't ditch Ace of Spades, it wouldn't be right. If I go to see Little Richard, I expect to hear "Good Golly Miss Molly," or I'd be pissed off..."

Motörhead truly created a new genre with their early records, and, along with its predecessor, 1979's Overkill, Ace Of Spades perfected the blueprint that countless bands have since followed. Taking the breakneck speed of punk and combining it with the gritty, heavy sounds of bands like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, Motörhead helped to push the genre of heavy metal into the next generation of musicians and music lovers. The duo of Lemmy's bass and the blistering guitar playing of "Fast" Eddie Clarke rank among the finest rock combinations in history. The drumming of Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor is nothing short of stunning, he makes the punk influences the most clear, keeping the turbo-speed songs moving without any signs of slowing down. Again, at the core of Ace Of Spades stands the proof that a high energy live band like Motörhead did not have to sacrifice and of their live vigor simply because their were in the studio. Due to this refusal to alter their sound, the album jumps out of the speakers and refuses to let up throughout its thirty-seven minute runtime.

The songs found on Ace Of Spades are as stereotypically "metal" as you'll find anywhere. Lyrics about drinking, women, and general disorderliness, the album is a rock and roll masterpiece. Many of the songs are a bit "tongue in cheek," most notably, the rather risqué "Jailbait." Regardless of the lyrics, Motörhead's sound comes down to one fundamental element: the unmistakable voice of Lemmy Kilminster. "Rough" and "coarse" don't really cover the sound that comes from Lemmy. More "gravel" than "grit," Lemmy's voice is nothing short of the quintessential heavy metal voice. Though the pitch of his voice does change from time to time, on most songs, it sounds more as if Lemmy is speaking or shouting as opposed to singing. However, without hearing it for yourself, one cannot understand just how perfect the vocal styling of Lemmy fits with the music and lyrics he writes. Though countless artists have tried to imitate his sound and swagger, nobody comes close, and there is only one man worthy of the name "Lemmy."

As a band, Motörhead represents everything that is great about being a rock band, yet they never take these ideas to excess or to a point where they become cliché. The crushing guitar and bass over the ferocious drumming helped to create the genre of speed metal, as well as lay the groundwork for thrash metal. With lyrics of the general reckless abandon and the rock and roll lifestyle, delivered by the legendary voice of Lemmy Kilminster, Motörhead remain one of the most highly respected and most loved rock/metal bands in history. One truly cannot point to a "bad" record that was recorded by the bands' original lineup, Ace Of Spades also marks the beginning of the end of this lineup, as they would only record one more album together. With the legendary title track leading the way, Motörhead's 1980 release, Ace Of Spades, stands above their other records, and is unquestionably one of the greatest rock/metal albums to ever be unleashed upon he world.

Standout tracks: "Ace Of Spades," "(We Are) The Road Crew," and "The Chase Is Better Than The Catch."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

April 23: Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road"

Artist: Lucinda Williams
Album: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
Year: 1998
Label: Mercury

Often times, it takes a musician a bit of time to hit their stride when it comes to releasing records. Over a twenty year span, Lucinda Williams released five albums. Then, over the next ten years, she released just as many. While she has had a cult-like following since her 1979 debut, it took more than twenty years for her to gain commercial success. Coming more than six years after her previous effort, Lucinda's 1998 release, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is absolutely spectacular, as easily the best album of her distinguished career.

Bringing her signature style of folk based, country-rock, Lucinda Williams has been hailed as the female Bob Dylan since she appeared on the music scene in 1979. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was actually recorded in 1993, but unsatisfied with its sound, Williams tossed the recordings and began a search for a new production team. Working with legends like Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, and Roy Bittan, the album was mixed by the one and only, Rick Rubin. Still unhappy with the sound, Lucinda took a well documented 3 years, overdubbing and re-mixing the album. It is due to this lengthy post-recording process that the album sounds, by far, the most produced of her entire career. This works pretty well for Williams, but purists may feel that the sound is too clean for what makes Lucinda Williams great. When Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was finally released in June of 1998, it was hailed worldwide as nothing short of stunning, and it would go on to win Williams' first Grammy award.

As the name suggests, the music found on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is a perfect soundtrack for traveling, and the mood throughout the record as a constant feeling of "home." Musically, Lucinda Williams sticks close to her country-rock sound throughout nearly the entire record, giving the genre a bit of pop sensibility as well. Taking the classic sound of slide guitar, combined with bright acoustic guitar, and a healthy dose of organs, Williams invokes the spirit of the Allman Brothers as much as she channels Joan Baez and Patsy Cline. Mixing in multiple guitars, mandolin, harmonica, and even a pair of dorbos, the sound on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is beautifully full and rich. Even when the songs are more relaxed in nature, the addition of pianos and even accordions retain the "Southern charm" that permiates throughout the entire album.

The core of what makes Lucinda Williams the legend that she is, is her uncanny ability to craft and sing some of the most brilliant songs ever. The running theme throughout Car Wheels On A Gravel Road are the sounds and moods of late evening in the deep South. Truly, many of the songs give the ambiance of sitting on the back porch with Williams as the sun goes down. While this theme is often directly conveyed ("Lake Charles,") As with many of her songs, the lyrics on this record seem to revolve around love, and the relationship between people. The lyrics throughout Car Wheels On A Gravel Road are easily relatable, and Williams' voice is far more lively than on her previous recordings. This alteration in the sound of her vocals may also be due to the lengthy post-production on the album. Williams also has a talent for creating an atmosphere simply within the way she sings. Keeping close to the country style of singing, Lucinda Williams never gets too loud, and her voice captivates with the soul and honestly that she brings to each song.

The genre of country-rock is one of the most difficult musical styles to pull off successfully. Most artists who attempt it end up pushing too far to one side or the other. However, when a singer does, in fact, find the path to perfectly walk the "middle ground," the results are nearly always musically second to none. Bringing in country icons Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams unquestionably had the talent around her to make an amazing record. Taking nearly six years to finish, Williams put her own spin on the country-rock genre, and solidified her spot as an undeniable musical luminary in the process. Though she had been performing for over twenty years upon it's release, Lucinda Williams' fifth album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is her finest effort to date and an album that can (and should) be enjoyed by all music lovers.

Standout tracks: "Right In Time," "Can't Get Go," and "Greenville."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April 22: The Lemonheads, "It's A Shame About Ray"

Artist: The Lemonheads
Album: The Lemonheads
Year: 1992
Label: Atlantic

The so-called "triple threat" in music comes around once in a generation. This anomaly occurs when you have an artist who possess amazing writing skills, a heavenly voice, and enough good looks to garner a fervent legion of fans, both male and female. As the son of a fashion model, it is little surprise that underground icon Evan Dando easily filled the last part of this equation. To prove he possessed the other necessary components, one needs to look no further than the 1992 release from his legendary band, The Lemonheads. Combining various genres and forming them into flawless, addictively sweet pop songs, The Lemonheads created one of the greatest pop/rock albums ever with their classic record, It's A Shame About Ray.

It is a rather rare occasion when one can claim artists as diverse as Hüsker Dü and Graham Parsons as the primary influences of a band. However, with The Lemonheads, the ideals of both of these artists, as well as the "alternative" ideals of groups like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth can clearly be heard. A majority of The Lemonheads catalog before It's A Shame About Ray is far more aggressive, giving a more clear view of their punk influences. On this album, Dando crafts perfect pop songs at nearly every turn, making the record one of the most enjoyably addictive albums in history. Records like It's A Shame About Ray provided the perfect soundtrack for the blossoming "alternative" movement of the early 1990's, as it could be enjoyed by the "flannel and Doc Marten's" crowd as much as the pseudo-hippies or punkers. To put it simply, It's A Shame About Ray is one of the most universally appealing albums ever recorded.

The lineup of musicians on It's A Shame About Ray is so impressive that it cannot be overlooked. With Dando handling lead vocals and lead guitar duties, the musicians that filled out the recording sessions are notable in their own right. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, perhaps best known for his work with Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, contributes a decent amount of guitar playing to the record and provides a brilliant contrast to Dando. Assisting Dando by playing bass, as well as singing sensational backing vocals throughout, It's A Shame About Ray features another rising artist named Juliana Hatfield. The duo of Dando and Hatfield is absolutely stunning, and their paired vocals are nothing short of magnificent. Drummer Dave Ryan lends the perfect backbeat, adding in non-traditional percussion sounds which help to add amazing textures throughout the album. However, each of the musicians is well aware of their place on the record, which is behind Dando's amazing songwriting and singing.

Throughout It's A Shame About Ray, the music of The Lemonheads serves as a testament to how skilled a writer lives in Evan Dando. Writing music which ranges from punk-fused rockers all the way to alt-country ballads, the one constant is that each song is equally as beautiful as the others. At the core of Dando's writing is the fact that everything he composes is extremely catchy, and brings a pop/rock brand of upbeat "fun" in every song. Dando's love for punk lays under many of the albums' more speedy tunes, such as the fantastic "Kitchen," yet it is not overpowering to the point where it will turn away listeners. With the album clocking in at just under a half hour, the punk influence goes further with the fact that an overwhelming majority of the songs on It's A Shame About Ray are quick-hitting, angst-infused, power-chord based anthems. Dando is able to take acoustic guitars and give them enough attitude and soul to avoid the juxtaposition between the light instrumentation and hard music becoming cliché.

Nearly as diverse as the music he writes, there are few singers whose names can be mentioned in the same breath as Evan Dando. Overall warm and friendly, the voice of Evan Dando can very much be described as a "boy next door" sound. This mood is further reinforced by the fact that many of the songs on It's A Shame About Ray speak of suburban angst and tales of middle class outcasts. These facts further aided Dando in becoming an underground hero for hordes of youth across the world. Having a seemingly endless vocal range, his full, strong voice helped to catapult him to international fame. From slow, crooning ballads to spunky rockers, Dando sounds nothing short of perfect on each and every song. At times, on the more punk-based songs, Dando's vocals border on sounding like a more sonically pleasing Joey Ramone. Whether singing about longing for love, the discovery of new music, or raging teenage angst, the voice of Evan Dando became the underground voice of a generation, and he sings flawlessly on each song found on It's A Shame About Ray.

For anyone who was aware of music in the early 1990's, Evan Dando will forever hold a much revered spot in their hearts. Easily one of the most talented singer-songwriters ever, Dando composed the perfect soundtrack for the "alternative" generation of music lovers. Combining elements of punk and country, Dando created some of the most outstanding, original music of the past twenty years. With it's constantly changing lineup, the members of The Lemonheads who recorded It's A Shame About Ray were easily the most impressive grouping of the band over the thirty years in which it has existed. Releasing seven albums in ten years, The Lemonheads remain one of the most beloved bands of the music explosion of the 1990's. Their 1992 release, It's A Shame About Ray is truly as good as albums get, and is undoubtedly one of the most essential records for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "It's A Shame About Ray," "(My Drug) Buddy," and "Alison's Starting To Happen."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April 21: Dire Straits, "Brothers In Arms"

Artist: Dire Straits
Album: Brothers In Arms
Year: 1985
Label: Warner Bros.

Combining jazz with rock is one of the most difficult tasks to successfully complete. Usually, one of the two genres overpowers the other to the point where it disappears. Over nearly twenty years, Dire Straits perfected the formula, releasing six brilliant studio albums, and becoming worldwide superstars in the process. While none of their records are weak, their 1985 release, Brothers In Arms, presents everything that is great about the band, and remains one of the finest recordings in music history. Serving as the "turning point" into the digital age, Brothers In Arms stands as the first FULL digital recording to ever be released, as well as the first album to ever sell one million copies on CD, and it also was the first album to outsell LP versions on CD.

Brothers In Arms
achieved worldwide success (reaching #1 in more than a dozen countries), mostly based on the power of the albums' first and fifth single. Easily the most recognizable song of their entire career, the Grammy winning single, "Money For Nothing," remains a classic to this day. The song, which critiques modern musical culture, targeting MTV and artists who were more about image and excess-based lifestyles as opposed to musical talent, was ironically one of MTV's most popular videos ever. Many of the lyrics in the song caused quite a bit of controversy, especially lines like, "that little faggot with the earring and the makeup..." Even with the anti-MTV themes and alienating lyrics, at the core is a brilliantly constructed pop song and one of the greatest hooks ever.

The fifth single off of Brothers In Arms, is the much beloved "Walk Of Life." Soaring up the charts, it was Dire Straits best selling single, and presents everything that is great about well constructed pop songs. The Hammond organ intro to the song is easily one of the most recognizable riffs in history, and it can still be heard at sporting events throughout the world. Lyrically, "Walk Of Life" is a blast from the past, directly referencing songs like Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman" and "What I'd Say," Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and "Mack The Knife" among others. The song resonates still today, and in 2000, British pop-diva Billie Piper used the song title as the title of her third album.

Musically, Dire Straits remain one of the most minimalistic bands to ever record. While Mark Knopfler is worthy of the Guitar God status to which he is held, he is very much of the "more with less" school or musical composition. However, even without pressing notes into every available measure, the band still presents masterfully constructed pop songs throughout Brothers In Arms. At times pushing into a "new age" sound, the band heavily incorporates synthesizers and the aforementioned Hammond organ. Using these keyboards to create an often delicate musical landscape, Knopfler intertwines his superb guitar playing, with amazing riffs, as well as beautiful finger-picking throughout the record. Mixing in faint horn sections, as well as interchanging live and programmed drums, Brothers In Arms never fails to present some of the most gorgeous musical soundscapes ever recorded.

The common themes within the lyrics on Brothers In Arms is another aspect that helped to propel the album to the level of success which it achieved. This is due to the fact that Mark Knopfler also has a knack for writing some of the most ubiquitous lyrics ever penned. Rarely getting overly complex or deep into allusions, nearly all of the lyrics on Brothers In Arms describe experiences and feelings that can be understood by anyone and everyone. With songs like the title track, as well as "Your Latest Trick," Knopfler proves that he can write a beautiful, soulful song just as well as the sardonic, whimsical tunes for which he is best known. The album does shift to darker themes, as the second side of the album cal clearly be seen as a social critique of the wars that the UK was waging in both Nicaragua and El Salvador at the time of Brothers In Arms' release. Songs like "Ride Across The River" and the spectacularly melancholy title track are blunt, yet beautiful criticisms of the events, with Knopfler singing, "...but it's written in the starlight, and every line on your palm...we're fools to make war, on our brothers in arms."

One of the most creative and well respected bands in history, the music of Dire Straits remains relevant and admired to this day. Crafting perfect pop songs, both musically and lyrically, Mark Knopfler is highly regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of music. From sharp social criticism, to melodic love songs, to his trademark sarcastic takes on popular culture, Dire Straits showed amazing versatility while playing their hallmark jazz-rock fusion. Though they often took years between records, the results were always worth waiting for, and their entire catalog is worth owning. One of the best selling records of the 1980's, Dire Straits 1985 release, Brothers In Arms, is their finest recording of their career, and is one of the most important records ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Money For Nothing," "Walk Of Life," and "Brothers In Arms."

Monday, April 20, 2009

April 20: Pink Floyd, "Dark Side Of The Moon"

Artist: Pink Floyd
Album: The Dark Side Of The Moon
Year: 1973
Label: Capitol

On very rare occasions, the majesty of an album moves beyond the band, beyond the music, and the entire record itself becomes a cultural icon. From the album cover to the sounds found on the record, to the album title itself, everything about Pink Floyd's 1973 classic, The Dark Side Of The Moon (and for the record, the first word in the proper title is, in fact, "THE"), is the absolute definition of "iconic." Countless new styles and techniques were pioneered on the album, and it remains the longest running album on the "Billboard Top 200" charts (it was on the charts for 741 weeks, and was only removed after Billboard adjusted the "way" they categorized albums. 2 years later, they changed it back, and in total, the album has been on the charts for more than 1,500 weeks). From the sales, to the sounds, to the timeless cover, everything about The Dark Side Of The Moon makes it one of the most important albums in history.

If you step back from the record, the lyrics on The Dark Side Of The Moon are easily the most uninspired and mundane that Rodger Waters ever wrote. Covering a wide range of themes, from mental illness to greed, compared to the rest of the Pink Floyd catalog, the lyrics and themes on The Dark Side Of The Moon are extremely unfocused and scattered. However, when they are combined with the mind-blowing musical textures and landscapes that the band creates, they are transformed into nothing short of stunning. The entire band handled the production duties for the record, though Alan Parsons (yes, THAT Alan Parsons) lent quite a bit of help behind the boards as well. As it usually does, the group effort pays off big time for Pink Floyd, and with each member adding his own touches to the tracks, the songs become far more complex and well rounded.

With The Dark Side Of The Moon, Pink Floyd took the ideas and styles they had created on their first seven albums, and brought it all together in perfect harmony. Fusing together stellar guitar riffs, alongside strange soundbites and moody keyboards, the album took psychedelia to a whole new level. On The Dark Side Of The Moon, the band trailblazed new roads and showed the limitless applications of the synthesizer. There are so many layers within each song on the album, that it is nearly impossible to grasp them all in a single sitting. With each successive listen to The Dark Side Of The Moon, listeners discover new sounds and effects on the album that they have never heard before. The sonic landscapes that Pink Floyd creates on each track are seamlessly fused together to construct over forty minutes of uninterrupted musical bliss. The dream-like, ethereal mood runs the entire length of the record, and listeners can easily get lost within the cocoon that the band has designed.

As previously stated, compared to other Pink Floyd records, The Dark Side Of The Moon severely lacks lyrical focus. Though there are some songs that can be linked together due to theme, this is one of the new Pink Floyd records does not contain a clear concept. However, there are still moments of first-rate writing on the album, most notably on the songs "Time" and "Us And Them." Mixing traditional singing from Gilmour, Waters, and Rick Wright, along with spoken snippets and pre-recorded spoken parts, The Dark Side Of The Moon is strangely diverse in this aspect. Though due to the sounds moving around the vocals it is often hard to distinguish "who" is singing, each vocalist performs brilliantly, keeping the dreamy, spacey mood intact. All of the vocal work and lyrics are completely overshadowed by the angelic, bluesy singing found on "Great Gig In The Sky." Countless myths surround the recording of this breathtaking vocal, and it remains one of the most awe-inspiring three minutes of singing ever.

The words "Pink Floyd" or "Dark Side Of The Moon" carry with them a myriad of stereotypes and emotions. Perfectly fusing together the sounds and styles they'd created over their career, The Dark Side Of The Moon finally brought the band international success. Though the band would release other albums that would garner worldwide acclaim, The Dark Side Of The Moon remains their most commercially successful release to date. Pioneering techniques like multi-track recording, tape loops, and experimenting with early synthesizers, the influence of Pink Floyd and The Dark Side Of The Moon stretch into nearly every music genre. Beyond the word "legendary," the album itself is nearly an anomaly, as the cover art is nearly as iconic as the music contained within. Still selling the better part of 10,000 copies a week, more than forty years after its release, The Dark Side Of The Moon is undeniably one of the most significant albums in music history.

Standout tracks: "Time," "The Great Gig In The Sky," and "Us And Them."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

April 19: Eminem, "The Marshall Mathers EP"

Artist: Eminem
Year: 2000
Label: Interscope

There are a number of artists throughout the history of music that are so significant, that it is often hard to remember how music was "before" their arrival. Love them or hate them, their impact is so wide-reaching that they occupy the most elite space in the world of music legends. In 1999, the world was forever changed when Dr. Dre let his newest protege loose upon the masses. Since the arrival of Eminem, there have been countless imitators, but the reality is, nobody has come close to his skills, and he will forever be one of the most talented rappers ever. Though nearly ten years old, his 2000 release, The Marshall Mathers EP still stands as his finest release to date, as well as one of the best rap albums ever.

With a unique combination of dark comedy, social criticism, and outright anger, Eminem still stands as one of the most talented emcees ever. Creating an entire world within his albums, Eminem draws in the listener, and then leaves them to be verbally brutalized, whether they understand his lyrics or not. Often times accused of "going too far" with his rhymes, it is clear throughout The Marshall Mathers EP that Eminem TRULY doesn't care whether or not you understand (or even like) what he is saying. While many critics believed that the success of his debut record was only due to its vulgar content, Eminem uses his sophomore record to prove without question that he is one of the most gifted rappers in history.

Throughout The Marshall Mathers EP, it is clear that Dr. Dre is at the top of his game. While a majority of rap records at the time were already falling into the "too much bass" trap that still plagues the genre, Dre understands that Eminem's rhymes are the highlight, and he finds the perfect level of sound, though truth be told, the raps would work just as well with no music at all. The beats and sounds are some of the finest ever created as Dre perfectly balances his signature "G Funk" sound with sparse effects, leaving plenty of room for Eminem's brilliant vocals. Aside from the beats and music, Dre has an uncanny talent for knowing the perfect time to "keep" the studio chatter on songs, and many of Eminem's "side comments" are the perfect finishing touches to tracks. Dre brings in former protege Snoop Dogg, and the trio deliever nothing short of a "G Funk" classic with the track "Bitch Please II." The fact that Eminem fits in perfectly with these rap kings is a testament to both the diversity of his delivery, as well as his unquestionable talent as an emcee.

It's been said countless times already, but Eminem is undoubtedly one of the most talented rappers to ever grab a mic. Able to shift between multiple rapping styles and sounds, Eminem is able to deliver incredibly diverse moods and styles throughout The Marshall Mathers EP. His rhymes, running from hilarious to downright frightening, are always original and can rarely be ignored. While many of his rhymes are delivered with a healthy dose of sarcasm, the brilliant part of Eminem is how skillfully he hides mountains of truth in each verse he spits. He also proves to be one of the most fearless rappers ever, as he takes The Marshall Mathers EP to settle "beef" with everyone from the mass media to pseudo-rappers Insane Clown Posse to his own mother. Eminem holds nothing back, slamming nearly every "A List" pop group at the time, taking multiple opportunity to "dis" N'SYNC, Brittney Spears, as well as one of his all -time favorite targets, Christina Aguilera. Though each of these groups had their own dedicated fan base, somehow Eminem turned them into his own fans, even while destroying their idols. This sums up Eminem completely; the ability to make you love him while he shows all of the problems and shortcomings in your lifestyle and world views.

If nothing less, Eminem is a rapper who is extremely aware of his place in the rap world, as well as the true perception of him by others. Directly calling out all of the band-wagoners in the music media, Eminem blasts them off the planet, when he fearlessly shouts, "...half of you critics can't stomach me, let alone stand me..." The albums' lead single, "The Real Slim Shady" remains a landmark in the history of rap. The beats Dr. Dre created are some of the most catchy and radio friendly since his work with Snoop Dogg. The rhymes thrown by Eminem are, by far, some of the most self aware that have ever been heard on record. Eminem dispatches all of his imitators with the opening line (and chorus), "Will the REAL Slim Shady please stand up." Taking the rest of the song to call out the media and turning all of their "problems" with Eminem against themselves, Eminem shows his true talent as a rapper. Whether it is issues of the swearing on his records or the "lewdness" of his rhymes, Eminem skillfully shows the media that he is no worse than countless other parts of society. The only difference, he claims, is that he "has the balls to say it."

Dr. Dre can be seen as the driving force between the re-birth of rap music at the beginning of both the 1990's as well as 2000's. The number of amazing rappers that he has brought to the world makes him second to none when it comes to discovering "the next big thing" as well as knowing how to best present their skills. Dre outdid himself when he was able to convince the entire world to give a chance to a skinny, somewhat crazy, white kid who had some of the most original raps ever. Since he emerged in 1999, Eminem has been one of the driving forces in music, aggravating conservatives and critics with his worldwide success, despite his often crude, yet brutally honest lyrics. From shouted, angry lyrics, to hilarious, yet equally deft rhymes, Eminem remains second to none in the rap world. Each of his records are worth owning, but his 2000 release, The Marshall Mathers EP is an absolute rap classic, and will forever be a landmark within the rap genre, as well as the overall history of music.

Standout tracks: "What I Am," "The Real Slim Shady," and "Marhsall Mathers."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

April 18: Oasis, "Definitely Maybe"

Artist: Oasis
Album: Definitely Maybe
Year: 1994
Label: Epic

The United Kingdom has a storied musical history, featuring many of the most successful rock bands ever. From the "British Invasion" to The Clash to Radiohead, they are often second to none in originality and rock prowess. Though once a certain sound or style has taken off, there is usually a dull period full of imitators, occasionally a band will emerge with a refreshingly new sound. On even more rare occasions, a band will surface that takes the "old" style, and makes it even better. Magically encapsulating nearly everything great about British rock over thirty years, Oasis shot to international super-stardom with their stellar 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe.

Definitely Maybe is simply amazing, featuring eleven perfectly crafted rock/pop songs. Each song is so strong, that in many ways, the record feels like a "greatest hits" album. With beautiful harmonies and catchy, rock music, as much it may be a bit over-reaching, and perhaps border on blasphemy, there are many moments on Definitely Maybe, when Oasis sound surprisingly like an updated sounding Beatles. In fact, upon the release of the albums' third single, "Live Forever," there was buzz across the globe that the song was actually from late-era, "lost" Beatles tape. Obviously, this was false, but the fact remained that the song, and album, were nothing short of stellar. On the power of the single, Definitely Maybe sold more than 100,000 copies in the first two days of its release, helping it to become the fastest selling debut record on both sides of the Atlantic. Three of the four singles off the record broke the "Top 20," and the band decided to forgo a fifth single only because, as Oasis' primary songwriter, Noel Gallagher, put it, ""You can't have five singles off a debut album."

The music throughout Definitely Maybe is as close to rock-pop perfection as has ever been recorded. Bringing an adequate amount of "punk" attitude, the music is as accessible as any pop song, yet the attitude gives it a certain edginess. Careful not to be too aggressive, the songs fit perfectly with nearly every radio format, and garnered a wide audience upon the release of both the singles, as well as the album itself. From amazingly poppy numbers like "Digsy's Diner" and "Shakermaker," to the all-out rock assault of "Bring It On Down," to the charming acoustic sounds of "Married With Children," Oasis executes each song on Definitely Maybe with absolute perfection. Writing all of the music and lyrics for the album, the lead guitar work of Noel is complimented perfectly by the steady, of rhythm guitarist Paul Arthurs. The rhythm section of bassist Paul McGuigan and drummer Tony McCarroll rounds out Oasis' "classic" band style and sound. McCarroll's drumming is superb, and his tremendous talents are highlighted on Definitely Maybe's first single, "Supersonic." Each member of the band knows and plays his role perfectly, and the combined sound truly embodies what it is to write a flawless rock-pop song.

Setting aside the exemplary music, perhaps the most important aspect of the sound of Oasis is the varied vocal style of the always confrontational, Liam Gallagher. Perhaps now best known for his turbulent behavior and generally abusive attitude, the fact is, Liam remains one of the finest singers to emerge in the past two decades. It is clear that Liam understands how each song is best presented, and nearly always providing his own backing vocals, Definitely Maybe presents the "coming out" party for one of the greatest and most pompous singers in history. Whether belting out gorgeous harmonies or singing with a wonderfully sarcastic snarl, Liam shines brilliantly throughout Definitely Maybe. After hearing the initial mixes of the record, Liam demanded that a majority of the vocal over-dubs and "cleanliness" of the vocals be tossed. The results of the change are another aspect that set the vocal sound of Liam apart from a majority of his peers. The final vocal mix on Definitely Maybe are quite far to the front of the mix, and the raw, slightly gritty sound help to catapult the record from "good" to "classic."

Over the past fifteen years, Oasis have rarely been far from the public eye, due to their great rock records, as well as their notorious public antics. From legendary public meltdowns and band breakups to fights over royalties and rights, Oasis is a band that won't be ignored. However, even with all the drama, the fact remains that, at the core of it all, is one of the best rock bands of the past twenty years. Pulling influences from everyone from The Smiths to The Who to The Stone Roses, Oasis is clearly a band that loves their influences, as well as their own music. The peerless combination of the Gallagher brothers' writing and singing is the key behind the amazing music that the band has produced throughout their career. Though they've made many solid records since, there is little doubt that their finest record, and easily one of the best records in history, was their monumental 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe.

Standout tracks: "Rock N' Roll Star," "Live Forever," and "Supersonic."

Friday, April 17, 2009

April 17: Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited"

Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: Highway 61 Revisited
Year: 1965
Label: Columbia

There are a handful of artists who have such diverse and influential catalogs, that it is nearly impossible to decide exactly "which" album to review first. Very close to the top of this list is a man whose name is easily one of the most recognized and respected in the history of music: Bob Dylan. Both musically and lyrically, there are few artists who garner the reverence and reputation as Dylan, and comparing an artist to him is almost always considered an honor. After much deliberation, I have decided to make the first Dylan review what many consider to be one of the most important albums ever, 1965's Highway 61 Revisited.

Though Dylan had already broken the folk mold (and taken a LOT of heat for it from fans and critics) by "going electric," he takes everything one step further by bringing in an entire "rock and roll" backing band for Highway 61 Revisited. The album title itself is a reference to the legendary highway that runs from Minnesota (Dylan's home state) all the way to New Orleans, LA, also a musical hotbed, influences of which can be heard throughout the record. Dylan himself admitted that the record may be his best work, famously saying, ""I'm not gonna be able to make a record better than that one... Highway 61 is just too good. There's a lot of stuff on there that I would listen to." One rather interesting aspect of the record is the fact that producer Tom Wilson had really only produced jazz records until Highway 61 Revisited, though he worked with the best of the best including Coltrane and Lester Young, as well as a majority of Dylan's previous albums. As much as Highway 61 Revisited was a transitional record for Dylan, it was for Wilson as well, as Wilson would go on to work with such cutting edge acts as The Animals, The Mothers Of Invention, and The Velvet Underground.

The backing band on Highway 61 Revisited centers around blues guitarist, Michael Bloomfield. When Dylan recruited him to the band, Bloomfield was the lead guitarist for the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The guitar work is anything but standard blues, with Bloomfield playing in unorthodox keys and constantly shifting in front and behind the organ playing of Al Kooper. Kooper, who was one of the founding members of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, brings contributions to Highway 61 Revisited that became the influences for bands like The Doors, The Velvet Underground, and one can even draw a connection to modern acts like Phish and Ben Folds. The connection with The Doors is further enforced by the fact that drummer Harvey Brooks handled all of the Highways 61 Revisited drumming, as well as contributions on various Doors records, including The Soft Parade and L.A. Woman. The rest of Dylan's backing band have similar, top notch pedigrees, and as a single unit, they remain one of the most highly respected bands in history.

It is almost cliché to even attempt to talk about the lyrical talent of Bob Dylan. Few artists can be mentioned in the same breath, and his lyrics throughout Highway 61 Revisited are no exception. Writing darker songs than his previous efforts, Dylan shines with songs like "Desolation Blues" as well as the title track. The song, "Highway 61 Revisited" brings the usual attacks on capitalism, yet the song gets rather discomforting as Dylan mixes in references to biblical events, incest, gross brutality, and plays this all against a whimsical, circus-like musical background. The juxtaposition between the lyrics and sound remains almost unparalleled to this day. With "Desolation Row," Dylan tones the band down and it is a bit of a throwback to the "classic" Dylan sound. One of Dylan's longest single songs (over eleven minutes), the song is a biting confrontation of racial tensions, thought to be inspired by Dylan's knowledge of a lynching of several black circus workers in his own hometown (decades before Dylan's birth). Again, the contrast between the music and the lyrics border on eerie, and yet highlight the brilliance of Dylan's talent.

That being said, Highway 61 Revisited specifically revolves around two tracks. The somewhat lesser known of these two standout tracks is the scathing, "Ballad Of A Thin Man." The song, which is a strike back at the general ignorance and banality of the music media, remains one of the most brilliant songs in history. Generally believed to be directed at then Rolling Stone and Village Voice writer, Jeffrey Jones, Dylan uses the song to berate writers for not truly understanding the complete idea of "what" and "who" they are writing about. Summing it up his detest and questioning of ability of music writers, Dylan writes, "You try so hard, but you don't understand/just what you'll say, when you get home...Because something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?"

However, even taking everything previously stated into account, Highway 61 Revisited can be summed up in the albums' first song and lead single, the timeless tune, "Like A Rolling Stone." Perhaps the greatest "riches to rags" song ever composed, the tune has been hailed by everyone from John Lennon to Frank Zappa to Bruce Springsteen as one of the most influential songs they'd ever heard. Zappa was quoted years later saying, " I wanted to quit the music business, because I felt: 'If this wins (sells well) and it does what it's supposed to do, I don't need to do anything else.'" The song itself can easily be seen as Dylan collectively referring to an entire generation in the form of a single woman. As the song progresses, Dylan gets more and more aggressive, challenging the woman (generation) to be able to survive after being forced to fiend for themselves. Referencing everything from drug abuse to dirty politicians, "Like A Rolling Stone" stands as what may be the finest "down and out" song ever. Dylan closes the song with one of the most legendary lines ever, as he states: "...when you got nothing, you've got nothing to lose."

Bob Dylan is an island onto himself. Beyond a legend or an icon, he simply "is" Bob Dylan. Influencing nearly every artist who has made music since his 1962 debut, Dylan fearlessly pushed into unexplored musical territory, often losing him fans along the way. Whether acoustic, electric, blues, or rock, Bob Dylan creates music that transcends genres, socioeconomic classes, and even languages. With a catalog that could take one an entire lifetime to properly experience, it is often difficult to decide just "where" to start. While nearly all of his albums from the 1960's are nothing short of classic, perhaps his finest record of the decade, and perhaps his career was his seminal 1965 release, the preeminent, Highway 61 Revisited. If you've never experienced this musical treasure, you are truly doing yourself a disservice and should find yourself a copy of the album as soon as possible.

Standout tracks: "Like A Rolling Stone," "Ballad Of A Thin Man," and "Highway 61 Revisited."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

April 16: The Noisettes, "What's The Time Mr. Wolf?"

Artist: The Noisettes
Album: What's The Time Mr. Wolf?
Year: 2007
Label: Vertigo

Once in a great while, a band will come along that smashes together two just diverse genres, that the result is mind-bendingly awesome. Usually, the genres combined are so distant on the spectrum that being presented with the idea of fusing them together seems completely insane. When a band is described as a combination of Billie Holiday and The Stooges, it is almost guaranteed to be worth a listen. Upon hearing The Noisettes major label debut, 2007's What's The Time Mr. Wolf?, you'll never again be able to listen to music the same.

A trio of UK natives, The Noisettes are easily one of the most wonderfully intense and amazing bands to emerge over the past decade. The sound of The Noisettes follows the raw, dirty, under-produced sound of groups like The White Stripes and The Babyshambles. Jamie Morrison serves as both drummer and producer on the record, and he successfully captures the bands' breakneck speed and spirit on the album. With moods that range from jazz and blues to outright punk abandon, What's The Time Mr. Wolf? presents a band that seems to have endless talent and potential. The fact that The Noisettes clearly have such wide ranging influences enables them to move far beyond the basic tenets of punk and rock, and create music that is truly unique.

Throughout What's The Time Mr. Wolf?, the band members show off their diversity, as they play brilliantly through a variety of styles. From swinging, soulful numbers to stripped down, punky sounds, The Noisettes execute each genre with perfect precision. The guitar of Dan Smith drives each song, whether he is assaulting the listener with crushing chords, or flying around with masterful solo sequences. Morrison's drumming is often so vigorous that it becomes almost unsettling. It is this drum-work that gives The Noisettes a great amount of the intensity that makes their sound delightfully addictive. Along with taking lead vocal duties, Shingai Shoniwa also plays a mean bass guitar. Rounding out the bands' sound perfectly, she brings the ideal balance between thrash and almost jazz in her stylistic approach to the instrument. On each song found on What's The Time Mr. Wolf?, it is clear that The Noisettes are exceptionally talented, and understand how to flawlessly approach and fuse together all of their music influences to produce an amazing sound that has never before been heard.

Often referred to as a "diva gone wild," it's hard to argue that the voice and delivery of Shingai Shoniwa is not the most important element of The Noisettes. Channeling the spirits of the finest soul singers, as well as having the ability to shrill and scream with the best of them, Shoniwa is nothing short of stunning. Her voice often borders on hypnotic, as she flawlessly transitions from velvety, swinging crooning to forceful, room shaking screaming, often within the same song. The range, in both notes as well as style are perhaps best presented on one of the albums' finest tracks, the poppy, yet potent, "Nothing To Dread." Combining brilliant harmonies, breakneck guitar, bass, and drumming, and intermittent shrieks from Shoniwa, the song is simply stunning. Not enough can be said about the pure majesty found in Shoniwa's voice. Where most singers lose track of the notes when screaming or shouting, she manages to stick each note with outstanding accuracy, and it further solidifies her high stature among the singers of the current music scene.

UK trio, The Noisettes, are undoubtedly one of the most original and amazing bands in the world today. A sound that is as much "war era" soul as it is post-disco punk, they will certainly be a band to be reckoned with for years to come. Each member of the band plays superbly throughout What's The Time Mr. Wolf?, and the album is, bar none, one of the most refreshingly original sounds in years. Vocalist Shingai Shoniwa's voice is unparalleled in the world today, and her ability to sing beautiful melodies as well as scream with the intensity of the finest frontmen vaults her light-years beyond her contemporaries. Having only played together for a few short years, The Noisettes have just released their sophomore album. However, their debut record, 2007's, What's The Time Mr. Wolf?, is unquestionably one of the best albums of the decade, and can certainly be seen as the first building block for a band whose career and sound will no doubt become legendary.

Standout tracks: "Don't Give Up," "Bridge To Canada," and "Nothing To Dread."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

April 15: Sublime, "Sublime"

Artist: Sublime
Year: 1996
Label: MCA

In the world of music, when other artists "name check" you in their own songs, you can be assured that you have reached some level of worldwide notoriety. If this occurs after your death, and on the strength of only one "great" album, it is a testament to the strength of that album. The fact that, over a decade after his tragic death, Bradley Nowell is still being mentioned in songs, serves as proof to how spectacular a musician he was, as well as the longevity of the power of his songs. Releasing only three albums, Sublime's 1996 self-titled record is far and away their finest recording, and easily one of the most important records of the decade.

The album, originally slated with the title Killin' It, was retitled, and given a new cover when Nowell died of a heroin overdose only seven weeks before the albums' release. Sublime was a very unexpected commercial success, yielding a trio of hit singles, including a now legendary number one song. While "Wrong Way" and "Santeria" have both been permanently ensconced into music history, there is little doubt that Sublime will always be best remembered for the anthemic, "What I Got." The song, which ironically is a rather dark tale of drug abuse, was so perfectly crafted, that you can ask ten people what their favorite part is, and chances are, you'll get ten different answers. More than a decade after its release, "What I Got" still receives regular airplay and can be regularly heard at sporting events, as well as in a countless number of video games.

At the time of Sublime's release, there was simply no other band in the world making similar music. Combining a deep love for punk, thrash, SKA, and surf-rock, Sublime's sound is varied enough to keep the record interesting, yet the songs are undoubtedly cohesive. The sound of the band goes from the lulling, mellow "Jailhouse" (which happens to be a Bob Marley cover), to the thrashed-out, "Paddle Out" to the dub inspired, riot tale, "April 29, 1992 (Miami)." The interplay between bassist Eric Wilson and the guitar of Bradley Nowell is in perfect balance throughout the various styles displayed on Sublime. Wilson's bass thumps and growls, and combined with the classic "SKA" rhythm from Nowell, they create the blissful "bounce" that defines the SKA sound, and it helps to make Sublime one of the most enjoyably addictive records ever. Drummer Bud Gaugh proves to be one of the most diverse drummers of the decade. From jazzy, island-inspired rhythms, to full-force punk explosions, Gaugh performs brilliantly on each and every song. Keeping things musically simple, Sublime found a formula that worked superbly for their talent, and staying within the sounds' musical boundaries help to make Sublime an album that reflects its namesake.

At the core of Sublime, musically, lyrically, and spiritually is the now legendary Bradley Nowell. Though he passed away shortly before the albums' release, he quickly gained "cult" status due to the worldwide success Sublime. Nearly every song on the album is unpretentious to the point where they are universally releatable, yet each song is clearly personal to Nowell. Though the lyrics on Sublime are nothing extraordinary, the honesty and simplicity found within the words helped to catapult Nowell to the heights of stardom. Nowell also possesses the same simplicity and honesty in his voice, making each song a very personal experience between Bradley and the listener. Singing with as much soul and emotion as any frontman in history, the voice of Bradley Nowell has become one of the most recognizable sounds of the era. Even when the music is heavy and fast, Bradley's vocals are measured, clear, and concise. A perfect example of the juxtaposition between the music and vocals is found on the multi-tempo'ed, SKA-driven, "Same In The End." Throughout Sublime, often amid the chaos of the music, the steady, sincere voice of Bradley Nowell proves to be the element that takes the band from "good" to "great."

Throughout the history of music, there are countless singers and bands whose careers ended far too early. Nearly all of them beg the "what if" question due to the potential shown within the work they left behind. Presenting an honesty that often borders on haunting, Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell undoubtedly falls into the category of great musicians who were gone far too soon. Sublime's punk/metal infused SKA/reggae sound remains unsurpassed to this day, and though often singing about dark themes, the overall mood of their sound is upbeat and hopeful. Though their entire small catalog is worth owning, Sublime's self titled release is an absolute essential, and without question worthy of being referred to as "required listening."

Standout tracks: "What I Got," "Seed," and "Paddle Out."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April 14: Joy Division, "Unknown Pleasures"

Artist: Joy Division
Album: Unknown Pleasures
Year: 1979
Label: Qwest

Following the punk rock explosion of 1977, music branched off into dozens of directions as bands combined the new form with other styles. Bands took the simple, no frills ethos and blended it with their own musical ideas and influences. Taking a much more bleak and gloomy approach, Joy Division's sound and style paved the way for genres we now call "goth," "emo," "industrial," and many others. Though only together for three years, both of their albums are amazing. However, their 1979 release, Unknown Pleasures is both a flawless record, as well as a musical landmark.

Everything about Unknown Pleasures reinforces the overall feel of dark desolation combined with powerful music and lyrics. The album cover itself is a transcription of a star going super-nova, and in many ways, this is a perfect analogy to the album inside. The sound throughout the album furthers this juxtaposition as there is a large amount of "empty space" on each track, and in many ways, the production is such that it almost feels as if the music itself is sneaking into this empty space for a moment, then disappearing again. This was purposefully done, and can be attributed to the genius of legendary producer, Martin Hannett, who would further his legacy with bands like the Buzzcocks, Dead Kennedys, and Psychadelic Furs. The odd, random sound effects, from smashing glass to sounds of chaotic movement that bookend many of the songs further reinforce the overall contrast between silence and pandemonium that is clearly the spirit behind Unknown Pleasures.

The music of Joy Division is all about creating stark contrasts in style and mood. A classic quartet, the band takes a set of instruments that have been used millions of times, and create a sound that is entirely new. One of the most significant aspects that sets Joy Division apart is guitar player Bernard Sumner's dual role playing synthesizer. Though it has been used by other bands before, on Unknown Pleasures, it finds a more prominent role, and contributes greatly to the albums' haunting, sometimes creepy mood. Sumner's dark, sludgy guitar tone and feedback often borders with a sound that can only be described as "metal," and combined with the thumping, sometimes threatening basswork of Peter Hook creates a tone that is often as chilling as it is welcoming. Stephen Morris' drumming sounds as if it is a bit misplaced in the mix of instruments (it's far more forward that most drum tracks), but once you get into the crux of Unknown Pleasures, it is clear that not only was the placement of the drums purposeful, but it works brilliantly.

Throughout Unknown Pleasures, the vocals of Ian Curtis are nothing short of breathtaking. Combining the dryness and rhythm of Mark E. Smith (The Fall), with the dark, somewhat eerie mood of Ozzy (Black Sabbath) or Glenn Danzig (The Misfits), Curtis' voice fits perfectly with the music being created. Even when delivering a more mellow, slower vocal, there is an unsettling sense of urgency in each song Curtis sings. Most of the vocal tracks have a disturbing echo or "openness" to them, and it often gives the songs a threatening, ominous disposition. With lyrics ranging from clear Biblical references to songs that speak of emptiness and vastness that parallels the music, Curtis' delivery can be seen as one of the first examples of a dismal, somber, yet somehow romantic mood. It is in the lyrics and vocals throughout Unknown Pleasures that one can clearly hear the foundations of what we now call "goth" as well as the building blocks for the "industrial" sound that appeared nearly a decade later with bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.

From the music to the vocals to the production, Unknown Pleasures is a shining example of a band that is perfectly in sync throughout each and every song. No member attempts to steal the spotlight, and their ability to move through each song as a complete unit takes the record from "good" to "astounding." Taking the stripped down, angst-ridden principles of the punk movement and fusing them with desolate, melancholy sounds and vocals, Joy Division birthed a new genre and sound that still has great influence today. Lasting only two albums and three years, the band has had as much, if not more impact as bands with ten times the longevity. Their impeccable debut record, Unknown Pleasures, is a true musical masterpiece in every sense of the word, and it is beyond a "must own" album for every music fan.

Standout tracks: "Disorder," "New Dawn Fades," and "Shadowplay."