Saturday, April 30, 2011

April 30: The Beatles, "I Saw Her Standing There"

Artist: The Beatles
Song: "I Saw Her Standing There"
Album: Please Please Me
Year: 1963

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Throughout the course of the entire history of music, there are a very small number of bands and individual artists who are so influential, so iconic, that they are perhaps more a part of "regular" history than exclusively to just music.  These performers can be counted on a single hand, as their contributions to both music, as well as society in general, are so massive that culture itself hinged on their presence and across the planet, their names remain in legendary status.  Yet it is these same groups that have been so instrumental in the development of music that it is almost impossible to discuss their greatness without incurring the wrath of their most dedicated fans for choosing any single moment over another, and there is perhaps no band with which this is more true than The Beatles.  Truly a group that needs no introduction to anyone anywhere, there may be no other group that single-handedly shaped both music as well as the industry behind it as much as them, and though they had a comparatively short career, the number of different styles they perfected during that time is one of the many reasons they remain the unmatched icons that they are today.  One can easily name two or three songs from any given album that are worthy of the title of "best," and yet one can make the case that to find the beginning of the modern age of rock and roll, one need look no futher than The Beatles monumental 1963 single, "I Saw Her Standing There."

From the moment the song begins, it is quite clear that there is something new going on in almost every aspect of the song, and the fast count in from Paul McCartney that opens "I Saw Her Standing There" remains one of the most exciting moments ever captured on tape.  The band takes his energy and speed and comes out of the gates with a tone and attitude that, though "mellow" by today's standards, were certainly "dangerous" when compared to the other music of that era.  The way in which the guitar of George Harrison rings across the track is nothing short of stunning, and one can even argue that the attitude one can hear within his playing is as punk rock as one can find given both the tone and context of the song.  Along with the rhythm guitar of John Lennon, the pair created what remains one of the most recognized riffs of all time, and one can hear this as the true bridge between the older rockabilly-based sound, and the new style that "is" the more modern rock and roll approach.  McCartney's bassline is equally impressive, and he quickly proves that he is as talented a musician as he is both a writer and singer.  With Ringo Starr's drumming rounding out the sound, there is an overwhelming confidence that comes forth in the combined sound of the band, and it is this swagger, along with the amazingly catchy musical arrangement that has enabled "I Saw Her Standing There" to retain a status far beyond "iconic" for nearly fifty years.

However, one simply cannot discuss any work of The Beatles without bringing up their consistently brilliant vocal arrangement and lyrics, and the singing on "I Saw Her Standing There" is one of their finest moments, showing many of the bands' own influences.  Paul McCartney handles nearly all of the vocals on the song, and there is an energy within his voice that seems to be in a competition with the music over which he is singing.  It is this attitude that separates "I Saw Her Standing There" from much of the rest of the catalog of The Beatles, and even by today's standards, his vocal performance is far more energetic than "standard" rock songs.  Furthermore, it is the way in which McCartney works the entire vocal scale that makes the performance so special, and there are few moments in music history that are as iconic as when he jumps to a brilliant falsetto during the chorus section of the song.  It is in this moment where one can see the groups' clear influence from the likes of Little Richard, and much like the musical arrangement, the bridge between the old and new styles becomes apparent.  The way in which the group blends together their harmonies is also one of their "calling cards," and though they are brief on "I Saw Her Standing There," they are just as impressive, and one can easily understand why songs like this were able to send live crowds into riotous frenzies.

Providing the essential final element, the lyrics, also a product of the work of Paul McCartney, are some of the most enjoyable in the entire Beatles catalog, and they prove that often times, simple words are the finest choice.  Even all these decades later, the honest, direct nature of the words can still be easily applied to the world of "teenage longing," and there is perhaps no other song in history that better speaks to the idea of needing the courage to talk to a beautiful girl.  Though many may not see it in such a light, songs like "I Saw Her Standing There" can be a source of courage for such situations, as the swagger and confidence that comes through in the lyrics certainly has an inspirational quality, and once again, it is this attitude that places the song in its own category.  It is also the fact that in every aspect, "I Saw Her Standing There" has aged perfectly, continuing to be covered by countless artists, that proves its overall significance, and one can easily argue that there is no song that has ever achieved the level of sheer perfection that one can experience in these three minutes.  From the sting of the guitars to the shake of the rhythm section to the absolutely revolutionary vocal performance, the combined work that is "I Saw Her Standing There" represents everything that there is to love about rock and roll music, and while they certainly had a massive amount of legendary singles, there are none that have had the same impact and longevity as one can experience within The Beatles unforgettable 1963 single, "I Saw Her Standing There."

Friday, April 29, 2011

April 29: Mott The Hoople, "All The Young Dudes"

Artist: Mott The Hoople
Song: "All The Young Dudes"
Album: All The Young Dudes (single)
Year: 1972

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During periods of almost excessive musical creativity, it is somewhat understandable that a band here and there somehow "slip" through the cracks of history and their efforts become largely forgotten.  However, when such a band was exceptionally unique for their era, and was able to garner a significant amount of commercial success, such circumstances can be ignored, and it becomes puzzling how their accomplishments are overshadowed as the decades pass.  This happened to a number of bands as the 1960's transitioned into the 1970's and music seemed to explode in countless different directions, but more than forty years after their debut, it remains baffling to consider the lack of credit that is given to the sound and attitude found in the music of Mott The Hoople.  Fusing together the early workings of heavy metal, glam rock, and traces of punk, one can easily argue that without their songs, the biggest musical breakthroughs of the 1970's simply would not have occurred.  With seven brilliant releases before calling it a career, the band has fallen into the category of "oh, that's who sings that song?" as a number of their singles continue to receive significant airplay to this day.  Due to this high number of "classic" songs, it is hard to point to just one as their finest moment, but one would be hard pressed to find a more defining moment in the bands career than one can experience in Mott The Hoople's pivotal 1972 single, "All The Young Dudes."

From the very first notes of the song, the glam-rock elements of the song become the most clear, and yet one cannot ignore just how much the song seems to sound like the work of another famous artist.  The latter of these two elements is of little surprise, as the song was both written by and produced by none other than David Bowie.  Yet while the connection to Bowie's other work of that time period is clear, it never sounds as if Mott The Hoople is "borrowing" or "copying" his sound, as they quickly establish the song and tone as their own.  The way in which the guitars of Mick Ralph instantly command the attention of the listener, before sliding into a more relaxed, yet somehow soaring guitars remains one of the most stunning moments in all of music history, and the aggression that comes forth and different times on the song helps to push it into a category all its own.  Along with Ralph's work, the perfectly toned, almost dancing organ work from Verden Allen is without question the musical highlight of the song, and the fact of the matter is, no other act in history has been able to achieve a similar tone.  It is the way in which these two sounds, combined with the rest of the band, manage to inject a swagger and attitude, whilst rarely showing the musical aggression that almost always comes with such a sound that makes "All The Young Dudes" such a unique work, and much the reason it has achieved an almost anthemic status as the years have passed.

However, while the band creates what is without question one of the greatest musical moments in history, the song simply would not have the sting it does without the vocal work of Ian Hunter.  It is his performance that highlights the swagger and edgy tone of "All The Young Dudes," and one can not only hear his own influences, but even in his singing here, one can quickly trace those who borrowed from his sound.  The link to the Bowie sound is again clear, but there are also moments on the song where Mott The Hoople clearly borrowed a bit from the British band that took over the world a decade previous.  However, though he certainly does not try to hide his influences, Hunter has his own sound and style, and it is the way in which he is able to work the entire vocal scale, mixing in all out rock excess with an almost "kid on the street" introspection that makes his sound so unique.  Yet it is the almost raw, unrestrained vocal sound he achieves that enables "All The Young Dudes" to almost demand the listener sings along, and there is an "everyman" accessibility to Hunter's vocals.  Even with all this in mind, "All The Young Dudes" happens to remain one of the more controversial songs when it comes to the themes within the lyrics, and many have interpreted it as a "nod" to the "rent" boys of the day.  Regardless of whether one reads the words as such, or takes them as a slam on industry of the time, it is impossible to forget the song, as the vocals of Ian Hunter quickly grab the listener and keeps them engaged the entire song.

Almost from the moment it was released, "All The Young Dudes" was a massive, almost iconic hit across the globe.  Perhaps due to the way in which the band was breaking new musical ground, or maybe simply due to the absolutely amazing swagger within Ian Hunter's performance, even to this day, few artists have been able to match the overall mood of the song.  Even Bowie himself would tour with the song, and yet even the songs' writer could not match Mott The Hoople's iconic performance.  In the years that followed, the iconic status of "All The Young Dudes" was further cemented by the wide range of cover versions, with everyone from Ozzy Osborne to Tesla to Smashing Pumpkins recording their own take on the track.  One must also point to The Clash's "All The Young Punks" as a clear nod to Mott The Hoople, a band they often cited as a massive influence on their own sound.  Strangely, even with all of these covers and accolades from their peers, Mott The Hoople remains a somewhat "second tier" band in the eyes of most critics, and yet without their recordings, there is no way that music develops in the way that it has since their time.  The way in which they fuse the glam-rock sound with a harder edge, and yet retain elements of psychedelia remains completely unique, and though many have tried to match there sound, there is simply no other song in history that can compare to Mott The Hoople's magnificent 1972 single, "All The Young Dudes."

Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 28: Jackie Wilson, "Lonely Teardrops"

Artist: Jackie Wilson
Song: "Lonely Teardrops"
Album: Lonely Teardrops (single)
Year: 1958

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Though it has become a "thing of the past" due to the massive changes in "what" the mainstream public seek in their top musical performers, there was a time when almost every hit maker could be quickly identified by some aspect of their sound.  Whether it was a certain tone in their guitar, a speed with which they played, or the sound of their voice, the amount of diversity one finds in music seems to get greater as one goes back in time.  Then of course, there are the handful of performers that served as the "transitions" from one style to another, and these few musicians remain the most iconic and influential artists of all time.  Though a majority of their names are well known, there are a few of these greats that have somewhat slipped from the public consciousness, and strangely enough, some of these "lost" names are amongst the most important to the development in music.  Case in point: there is perhaps no other singer than was more pivotal to the move from r&b to soul than one finds in the solo catalog of the great Jackie Wilson.  Boasting a seemingly limitless vocal range, along with what may very well be the most outright powerful voice in history, there is simply no comparison to his sound.  Though he had a number of hits as part of The Dominoes, there is no song that better defines the greatness and lasting impact of Jackie Wilson than one finds in his unforgettable 1958 single, "Lonely Teardrops."

Within seconds of the opening on "Lonely Teardrops," it is apparent that this song is quite different from other singles of the time in a number of ways.  Not only is the overall sound a bit more aggressive and loud than most, but one can also hear the tone and mood that would serve as the blueprint for the core of the "Motown sound" within these opening notes.  However, "Lonely Teardrops" also manages to keep a foot firmly planted in the current r&b sound of the time, and the sway and stutter to the rhythm is as good as any other song of the era.  It is this rhythm that becomes the most distinctive aspect of the song, as every element, both instrumental and vocal, seem to work their way into the rhythm is some way.  The sound of the guitar is completely unique, and it injects an almost island feel into the song, also giving a slight nod to what would become known as "surf rock."  The raw sounds of hand claps and the echoing tambourine make the cadence of the song even more significant, and it is all kept in place by the winding, almost walking bassline that persists throughout the entire song.  It is this rather sparse, yet somehow deep musical arrangement that sets "Lonely Teardrops" so far apart from the other songs of the era, and it is similarly the reason why the song remains widely regarded as one of the truly great songs during this "golden age" of musical recording.

Yet even with this completely unique musical arrangement, the focus of the song never moves from the blistering performance of Jackie Wilson's voice.  He quickly makes a vocal statement that he is like no other crooner, as there is an unrestrained power within his voice that often pushes to the recording to an almost distorted level.  This completely raw and unguarded approach would become the model for countless later artists, and it is in this almost screaming, pained sound where the roots of the soul sound can be found.  Furthermore, the fact that Wilson seems to have no limits as to how high or low he can sing only adds to the overall impact of his vocal performance, and it is the way in which this wide range of notes blend with the overall intensity of his voice that push "Lonely Teardrops" to the level of a truly timeless song.  All of the emotion and power of the song are pushed to their fullest extent by the fact that the lyrics to the song are as perfect and universal as any other song in history, and this is the final key that turned it into an absolute classic.  While the mid-to-late 1950's were certainly "the" time for songs of love and loss, "Lonely Teardrops" stands among the best, as the imagery of tear-stained pillows and deep longing have rarely been better captured.  It is the way in which Jackie Wilson takes this idea to its fullest by his unwavering, almost screaming cry for help, and it is no surprise that the song was such a success with the youth of the time.

Due to both the exceptional musical performances, as well as the spot-on accuracy of the emotions that are conveyed, "Lonely Teardrops" shot all the way to the top of the r&b charts, making the first in a number of such hits for Jackie Wilson.  Yet the aspect of the song that may be the most intriguing is perhaps the fact that the song was penned by none other than a young Berry Gordy.  Truth be told, it was the profits from the success of "Lonely Teardrops" that Gordy used to found and fund the initial recordings for Motown Records.  Due to this connection alone, the proximity in sound between "Lonely Teardrops" and the "Motown Sound" makes far more sense, and yet one can argue that no Motown vocalist, or any vocalist for that matter, ever reached the same heights as one can experience within the voice of Jackie Wilson.  At times, the force with which he sings is almost unsettling, and one cannot help but be drawn into the feelings of heartbreak which he conveys with every line.  It is this straightforward, blunt approach that remains the core form for a number of different musical genres, and nearly every one can be directly lined back to Wilson's sound.  His voice never wavers, and the stark contrast between his singing and the almost monotone cadence of the instrumentation remains one of the most uniquely brilliant moments in all of music history.  Though it is sometimes lost in the shuffle of the other groundbreaking songs of the era, there is simply no getting past the monumental and pivotal sound that Jackie Wilson achieved on his timeless 1958 single, "Lonely Teardrops."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 27: Madonna, "Borderline"

Artist: Madonna
Song: "Borderline"
Album: Madonna
Year: 1983

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For some artists, due to the fact that they have had careers that spanned numerous decades, it can become difficult not only to recall a world without their music, but some may forget exactly "why" that artist rose to fame in the first place.  Those performers who have managed such longevity with a consistent level of mainstream success are in almost every case true icons of music, and their names alone are often definitions in themselves.  While there are a handful of artists who have achieved such a status, there is no other that has shaped the entire world of music in the same manner as Madonna has done for nearly thirty years.  From her early dance hits to her rather controversial and overly-sexualized period to the multitude of ways in which her sound would branch off, there are few performers that can continue to demand as large an audience around the world and it is impossible to think of the current music scene without her massive influence.  Yet one can argue that though she had a large number of later hits, it was her 1983 self-titled debut that remains Madonna's greatest musical achievement, and the record is as flawless as any other pop album in history.  Filled with many of her best known songs, Madonna is an almost disco-style dance album that was released in an era when such records simply were not being made.  While every song on the album is an absolute classic, few are as perfectly crafted or have proven to have the longevity as one finds in Madonna's magnificent 1983 single, "Borderline."

As is the case with so many of Madonna's songs, the melody has become almost ingrained in the minds of society, and it is instantly identifiable by the uniquely crafted opening keyboard progression.  Played by her bassist, Anthony Jackson, there is an almost bubbly feel to the synthesizer, and this sets the tone for the entire song.  It is the way in which this mood manages to stay almost dream-like, whilst also instantly pulling the listener in with the energy that makes "Borderline" so distinctive, and as the rest of the musical arrangement drops in, there becomes little question that the song is as much of a dance track as any other of Madonna's recordings.  The programmed drums and additional synth tracks blend in perfectly, and it is in the combined sound that one can find the true difference between "Borderline" and the rest of the Madonna catalog.  While so many of her songs have been "played into the ground," due to the exceptional, but not over-done production on this song, even after decades of hearing it, the song remains fresh and exciting, vaulting it into a truly iconic status.  This is largely due to the production work of the songs' writer, Reggie Lucas, who handled an overwhelming majority of the work on the song, and it is no surprise that due to the flawless musical execution and irresistible dance mood, "Borderline" would become the first of many top ten hits for Madonna, as well as "officially" marking her arrival as a force in the pop scene.

Yet it almost goes without saying that the song simply would not have achieved its status without Madonna's vocal work, and "Borderline" provides the earliest display of the full extent of her singing abilities.  While many of the other songs from her debut seem to restrict her range within a certain area, there is a sense of vocal freedom on "Borderline," and Madonna works all across the musical scale.  Along with the wide range of notes she deploys, it is the spirit with which she sings that truly pulls the listener into the song.  Making use of a various vocal inflections, Madonna conveys the frustration and pain of the lyrics in a completely unique manner.  The fact that she is able to take rather somber lyrics and turn them into a timeless dance track is a testament to her abilities as a performer, and even after countless listenings, "Borderline" remains one of the many songs in her catalog that almost demand for the listener to sing along at various parts.  Furthermore, the songs' lyrics are the first example of Madonna's long list of songs which challenge gender-roles, as she seems fed up with the games her lover is playing.  This is highlighted by lines like, "... but then you let me down, when I look around, baby you just can't be found...," and yet due to the way in which she delivers such words, most people only hear the song as a fantastic, upbeat dance number.  As she pushes the song through its almost mesmerizing path, it becomes clear that "Borderline" is the vocal highlight of Madonna's debut record, and it is much the reason that the song retains its power almost three decades later.

If one looks at "Borderline" in comparison to the entire history of recorded music, it is impossible to deny the connection that her vocals on the track have to the early "girl groups" of "the Motown era."  Both in the manner with which she delivers the words of heartbreak, as well as the tone of her voice throughout the verses, the link is quite clear, and yet it is the slinky, completely captivating groove that keeps the song in regular radio rotation.  Even for those who may not be fans of Madonna's work, the overall quality of the music and vocals on "Borderline" cannot be denied, and it may be due to the fact that the song has not been over-played like many of her other songs that enables it to retain its impact over the generations.  Regardless of the reason, there are few songs that are as truly perfect as one can experience within "Borderline," and there is not an "off" note anywhere on the track.  The song was further helped by the accompanying music video being widely embraced by the EmpTV audience, and it would begin a similarly long list of music videos that defined a large portion of Madonna's career.  As the decades have passed, "Borderline" has been covered by a wide-range of artists, and it also continues to make appearances throughout popular culture, cementing its legacy as one of the defining moments of pop music.  Whether it was due to the fact that it was a bubbling dance-pop record in an era when such songs were scarce, the flawless, catchy musical execution, or the absolutely phenomenal vocal performance, there is simply no denying the true musical perfection that can be experienced on Madonna's timeless 1983 song, "Borderline."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April 26: Tim Buckley, "I Can't See You"

Artist: Tim Buckley
Song: "I Can't See You"
Album: Tim Buckley
Year: 1966

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One of the larger misconceptions across the long history of music is the idea that as you go back in time, it is easier to place artists into a single category.  That is to say, many people are under the belief that musical genres were more strict and songs less likely to cross into different styles the further back that one goes.  Obviously, music simply would not have progressed if this were the case, and one can find some of the most unique musical combinations during the under-rated period of musical exploration that was the mid-1960's.  It was during this time period that countless musical norms began to fall, and the idea of the "pop superstar" began to develop.  This was also the point where the psychedelic movement began to fully develop, and it was often the way  in which these elements were incorporated that led to the most stunning musical moments of the era.  Taking a base in folk music, and finding amazingly unique ways to infuse this new, psychedelic style, there are few performers in history that can compare to the sound and voice of the great Tim Buckley.  Recording for less than a decade before his tragic passing, Buckley left behind one of the most diverse and stunning catalogs, and yet few of his records can compare to the impact of his self-titled 1966 debut.  Standing as one of the few truly perfect records ever recorded, one can quickly understand just why Tim Buckley is held in the iconic status that he is by hearing his brilliant 1966 recording, "I Can't See You."

For an artist that was largely labeled as "folk," the opening notes of "I Can't See You" seem to suggest everything but such a title.  Immediately grabbing the listener with a wide range of sounds, one can easily argue that the last genre one would associate with such an arrangement is folk.  Due to both the pace of the music, as well as the slightly aggressive nature of the opening, it is quite difficult to place "I Can't See You" into any single genre, and even as the song evens out for the verses, there is still a great deal of ambiguity within the sound.  The song is led by the guitars of Lee Underwood and Buckley himself, and there is a winding, almost exploratory nature to the playing.  It is within this sound that the psychedelic influence of the song becomes most clear, and one can find traces and outright copies of this musical approach in countless artists that followed.  Bassist Jim Fielder adds to this tone, as he seems to almost be trying to "out-run" the other guitarists with both his pace, as well as the twists and bends of his playing.  The final element that sets "I Can't See You" apart from its peers is the fast-paced, almost nervous performance from drummer Billy Mundi, and it is within his playing that the song moves far apart from both folk and psychedelic.  It is the bouncing, almost manic tone within the drumming that gives it an almost haunting feel, and there has never been another song that has a similar experience that one can find on "I Can't See You."

However, while the musical arrangement and tone is wonderfully unique, there is simply no getting past the fact that Tim Buckley possesses one of the strongest and most moving voices in all of music history.  Easily able to work every note of the entire musical scale, Buckley's voice is instantly recognizable, and even within his most powerful moments, there is an intriguing, almost blissful calm that plays in brilliant juxtaposition to the music over which he sings.  It is the way in which his voice plays against the arrangement on "I Can't See You" that helps make the song stand out from the rest of the Buckley catalog, and yet one can also easily hear just why he remains one of the greatest and most revered vocalists in history.  Furthermore, there is a unique simplicity within his singing that is more in the school of "singer-songwriter" than folk, and the way in which they seem to speak in a confused manner to a partner is one of the most distinctively beautiful moments in music history.  There are times within "I Can't See You" where Buckley seems to be trying to pull the person in question back into the relationship, and yet one can also see the lyrics as little more than a casual, upbeat remembrance of pleasant times.  Though each line is perfectly crafted, there are few lyrics in history that are as perfectly beautiful as when Buckley sings, "...don't leave me in the air to hover, sing it out don't make me suffer, don't be ashamed love is no sin..."

In every aspect, "I Can't See You" is as close to musical perfection as one will find anywhere else in any genre.  From the unique tension and mood that are set forth by the music to the soaring vocals and gripping lyrics, not a note is out of place, and as the lead track to his first album, the song certainly set high standards for Tim Buckley's career.  Yet it is the way in which all of these elements work with one another that pushes "I Can't See You" into a category all its own, and it remains one of the few songs in history that must be experienced firsthand to be properly understood and appreciated.  The almost scattered, speedy tone of the rhythm section sets a tone for the song that makes it impossible to categorize, and the dynamic, yet unintrusive arrangement from the rest of the band gives the song a depth that would serve as a blueprint for countless later artists.  But even with this exceptional playing, there is no question that the focus of the song is on the voice of Tim Buckley, and it only takes a few moments to understand why he remains such a legend.  There is a pain within his voice that suggests a close proximity to the lyrics which he sings, and the way in which he conveys the emotions of his words makes his songs impossible to forget.  Though his entire debut record comes together to create a true masterpiece, there is no other song on the album that can compare to the power and emotion that can be found in Tim Buckley's magnificent 1966 recording, "I Can't See You."

Monday, April 25, 2011

April 25: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #69"

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(Left Click (PC) or Command-Click (Mac) to save it to your's about 75MB)

One hour of amazing music and commentary from "The Guru" himself. 

Tracklisting (all links are to MY write-ups of that artist, song, or album):
1. Gogol Bordello, "Sally"  Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike
2. Martha & The Vandellas, "Dancing In The StreetDancing In The Street (single)
3. Sia, "The Church Of What's Happening Now" Colour The Small One
4. Bad Manners, "Walking In The Sunshine"  Trojan Ska Revival Box Set
5. The Clash, "I Fought The Law"  Cost Of Living EP
6. Bud Powell, "Un Poco Loco (alt take #1)"  Complete Blue Note Recordings
7. Wesley Willis, "Rock n Roll McDonaldsGreatest Hits
8. Tori Amos, "Icicle"  1994/11/08
9. Motörhead, "Love Me Like A Reptile"  Ace Of Spades
10. Jay-Z, "U Don't Know"  The Blueprint
11. George Harrison, "Isn't It A Pity (Version Two)"  All Things Must Pass
12. AC/DC, "Girls Got Rhythm"  Highway To Hell
13. Robert Johnson, "Stop Breakin' Down Blues"  King Of The Delta Blues
14. Jerry Lee Lewis, "Lewis Boogie"  Live At The Star Club - Hamburg
15. Aerosmith, "Draw The Line"  Draw The Line
16. The Rugburns, "Me And Eddie Vedder"  Morning Wood

Sunday, April 24, 2011

April 24: Grandmaster Melle Mel & Duke Bootee, "The Message"

Artist: Grandmaster Melle Mel & Duke Bootie
Song: "The Message"
Album: The Message
Year: 1982

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While some genres take decades to evolve, and seem to have a slow rise to notoriety, a few have simply burst into the mainstream, seemingly out of nowhere.  Though this latter situation is rather rare, and one can find traces of the style in question in earlier songs, when a sound emerges so suddenly, it almost always becomes part of the actual definition of the genre.  This was perhaps no more true than when the world-at-large was introduced to a sound called "hip-hop" in the late 1970's, and in comparison, few genres have changed as drastically over the decades.  Yet even in its early days, there seemed to be some dissent as to "what" the purpose of the genre was, as many artists seemed to simply wish to keep it close to its roots in the Jamaican "toasting" style.  Conversely, some saw a far more important application of hip-hop music, and while many later artists try and argue that it was their efforts that first reported the "problems" of the inner city, the truth of the matter is, such songs were present from the earliest days of the genres' existence.  Though it stands today as what may very well be the most mis-credited song in history, one can find the entire foundation for the hip-hop genre within Grandmaster Melle Mel & Duke Bootee's 1982 masterpiece, "The Message."

Though there have been a number of musical hooks that have risen to an iconic status, few are on par with that found on "The Message," and it is almost impossible to think of a time when it did not exist in the form put forth on the song.  The way in which the unmistakable keyboard progression dances across the track is as close to musical perfection as one will find anywhere, and over the decades, it has been re-sampled a countless number of times.  While in most cases, this progression would be a very upbeat one, there is a dark mood that persists throughout the song, and it is reinforced in the manner with which the keyboard clashes with the break-beat.  Though the beat structure is rather simplistic, it fits perfectly with the rest of the musical arrangement, and it is within this aspect of the music that one can hear how disco gave way to hip-hop music.  There are also a number of DJ cuts and slides throughout "The Message," and it is these small touches that give the song its fantastic sense of movement, as well as establish itself as an entirely new musical approach.  However, it is the bassline that proves to be the most essential aspect of the arrangement, as it gives the song a deep groove, and also gives it a rather intimidating tone.  On every level, "The Message" quickly set itself far apart from everything else being created at the time, and one can easily understand why the song is held as such a work of visionary genius.

However, as fantastic as the music is, the song simply would not have worked had it not been for the vocals of both Duke Bootee and Melle Mel.  Taking an aggressive, straightforward vocal approach, there was never any thought of altering either voice in the slightest, and this helps the frustration in their lyrics to come through clearly.  There is a free, almost relaxed tone within the rapping during the verses, and it is largely this aspect of the music that pushed the song to commercial success, as they perfectly blend with the music over which they perform.  Yet it is rather strange to think of crowds "enjoying" this song, as the lyrics on "The Message" are as brutal and unapologetic as one will find anywhere.  The way in which these two emcees paint a picture of the life in the inner-city is exceptionally dark, and while many have tried, few have been able to match this brutal honesty.  Finding no need for lines of excessive violence or swearing, "The Message" proves that by simply reporting things "as they are," a song can have far more impact than the mindless garbage that is spewed within the current hip-hop scene.  Though each line in the song hits hard, there may be no other lyric in hip-hop history that is more iconic than the repeated, "...don't push me 'cuz I'm close to the edge, I'm trying not to lose my head..."  The "power in simplicity" that runs throughout the entire song serves as the ideal finishing touch, and even almost thirty years later, "The Message" manages to hit just as hard as it did when it was first released.

Strangely enough, almost from day one, "The Message" has taken the title for the most improperly credited song in all of music history.  Most people do not think twice before mentioning the name Grandmaster Flash when asked of "The Message," and yet Flash, as well as the other members of The Furious Five, had absolutely NOTHING to do with this track.  In fact, they made it quite clear during the recording session that they had no interest in the song, and all of "The Message" is the sole work of Melle Mel and Duke Bootee.  Not only did Sugar Hill Records improperly label the album upon release, but when it came time to create a music video, the rest of the band was "forced" into the song, and other members lip-synced the verses.  Even in later years, when the song was being honored for its groundbreaking nature, this mis-crediting continued, and to this day, few people are aware that Grandmaster Flash is nowhere to be found on "The Message," aside from his name on the record's sticker.  Regardless of this mistake, one cannot deny the massive impact that the track continues to have, and few songs have been sampled as consistently across the entire world of music, making appearances both musically and lyrically in a wide-range of hit songs.  To this day, the song can still hold its own with everything being recorded within hip-hop, and there are few songs as perfect or as timeless than the simple genius that can be found within Grandmaster Melle Mel & Duke Bootee's "The Message."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

April 23: Patti Smith, "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria"

Artist: Patti Smith
Song: "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria"
Album: Horses
Year: 1975

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For a very select group of performers, using a term like "legend" or "icon" simply does not do justice to the overall importance of their presence within the timeline of music.  These elite musicians helped to shape both the landscape of music, as well as the fabric of culture so significantly, that their name alone demands the utmost respect, and even as the generations pass, their influence and impact never fade in the least.  Furthermore, many of these artists manage to define a certain style of music, and yet simultaneously find themselves placed into a category outside of that same style, and this was perhaps no more evident than when one looks at the two years leading up to the "punk explosion" of 1977.  With the sound that would be termed as "punk" being largely developed in New York City, many contributed to its evolution, but one can easily argue that there was no figure as essential to the birth of punk than the one and only Patti Smith.  Often placed into more of an "art rock" genre, there is no question that in every way, Patti Smith "is" punk rock, and her aggressive, often chaotic musical approach remains one of the largest influences on all vocalists to this day.  Making her mark right out of the gate, her 1975 debut, Horses, stands as a pivotal moment in music history, and few songs better represent her sound, style, and scene than one can find in Patti Smith's masterful reworking of the classic song, "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria."

There is no question that the keys to "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" becoming such an unforgettable moment in music history lives within the mood and intensity that is often overwhelming, and there is no other version of the Van Morrison tune that even comes close to Patti Smith's.  Her band clearly understands just how to build tension, as well as how to give the song an amazing sense of movement, and much of this perfection comes through via the guitar of the great Lenny Kaye.  Following the brief, yet haunting piano opening from Richard Sohl, Kaye drops a pair of ringing power chords, before sliding into a perfectly toned, classic sounding progression.  It is this juxtaposition in tone and mood that instantly set the song far apart from anything else being recorded at the time, and it is the attitude he conveys via his guitar throughout the song that would be the final element in the development of the "punk sound."  Bassist Ivan Kral gives "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" a fantastic sway, and also helps the overall groove of the song to be established, proving that such can exist within a punk structure.  The playing of drummer Jay Dee Daugherty is absolutely perfect, and he manages to give a certain touch to the aggression within his playing that has rarely been matched since.  It is the way in which all of the musicians move as a single unit, building the tension to a feverish level that makes "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" so superb, and after hearing this take, one almost forgets that other artists ever even recorded the song.

However, while the music cannot be overlooked due to its energy, there is nothing that can overshadow the stunning performance of Patti Smith, and with "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" being the first track on Horses, it was this song that served as her introduction to most people.  Though she rarely does more than "speaking with purpose," there is so much going on within Smith's vocal delivery that it becomes understandable why so many later artists cite her as their primary influence.  While earlier artists had made great strides for female empowerment within music, none did so with the same success and drive as Patti Smith, and the aggression and swagger within her voice is second to none.  Smith holds nothing back, letting the music and mood carry her away, and this unrestrained performance never loses its impact, even after repeated listenings.  Yet along with the sheer force in her voice, one cannot deny the fact that Smith was (at the time) making a rather controversial statement by not changing the lyrics at all, and in fact making them even more risqué.  Her iconic opening statement of, "...Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine..." stands as one of the most stirring lyrics ever recorded, and one can easily argue that later punk bands took this as their influence when penning their own words of defiance.  The outright sexual hunger that Smith conveys is also far beyond that of any other version, and in the six minutes that "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria" runs, Patti Smith was able to make herself an absolute icon for a wide range of reasons.

It is impossible to downplay or overstate the importance and influence that Patti Smith had on the development of punk, and one can even make the case that her punk attitude was never matched.  Strangely, as the years have passed, many critics have attempted to separate Smith from the punk scene, trying to "force" her into a more "hard rock" or "art rock" genre.  While many would see this as an attempt to lessen the importance of punk rock, one cannot separate the two, as Smith's contributions can still be heard across nearly every style of music.  All across her 1975 debut, Patti Smith proves that there is nothing that cannot be achieved within music, and there has rarely been as perfect a fusion of "performance art," poetry, and unrestrained rock and roll as one can experience on the album.  Yet while the record is filled with magnificent musical achievements, none are on par with Smith's re-working of "Gloria," and the way in which Smith completely rewrote the lyrics (largely retaining only the chorus) can be seen as a song of female empowerment; and one that went far beyond anything that had been done to that point.  In so many ways, Patti Smith completely defied every norm of the music industry, and when one looks at the entire history of music, it is almost impossible to find a figure that was more deserving of the title of "revolutionary."  Encapsulating the New York music scene at the time, as well as serving as a "warning" of the sound which was to come, there is simply no other song in history that can measure up to the musical brilliance that can be experienced on Patti Smith's monumental 1975 song, "In Excelsis Deo/Gloria."

Friday, April 22, 2011

April 22: Ben Folds Five, "Jackson Cannery"

Artist: Ben Folds Five
Song: "Jackson Cannery"
Album: Ben Folds Five
Year: 1995

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Those who choose to go completely against the mainstream sound at any point in history are relegated to only one of two possible fates.  In most cases, the band goes nowhere, as their inability to pull fans from the popular sound eventually leads to artistic frustration.  However, there are a few bands that are so brilliantly unique and present such a fresh, unignorable style, that they have little choice but to become the leaders of an alternative music scene.  With this in mind, one can easily see over the course of history that whenever any certain sound becomes overwhelmingly dominant, those who sound different rise far more quickly as "anti-heroes," and this was perhaps no more obvious than when one looks at the overall music scene during the mid-1990's.  In a world that had been dominated for a few years by overly aggressive hip-hop and loud, distorted punk rock that was being called "grunge," it seemed that the music scene had lost its sense of humor and quest for more melodic works.  Then, in 1995, the self-titled debut from Ben Folds Five was released, and an entirely new underground music movement was born.  Quickly proving that a piano-led outfit could bring just as much energy and emotion as a more traditional lineup, nearly twenty years later, the album remains fresh and exciting.  Though each track is superb in its own way, there are few songs that better define everything that makes Ben Folds Five so uniquely fantastic than what one can experience on their 1995 song, "Jackson Cannery."

Marking both the first song the band ever recorded, as well as the lead track on Ben Folds Five, "Jackson Cannery" sets the bar for excellence quite high, as in every aspect, the song overflows with musical brilliance.  From the first notes that come charging out of Ben Folds' piano, it is quite clear that the band not only has "something to say," but they have no intention of creating music simply for the sake of selling records.  There is an aggression within Folds' playing that is reminiscent of the attack and spirit that was first recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, as there are moments where it seems that Folds is bent of breaking the keys if at all possible.  Yet he never sacrifices the beautiful melody for the sake of this fury, and "Jackson Cannery" is clearly where piano "meets" rock.  This energy and mood are deepened by the bass of Robert Sledge, and it is his performance that lends the song an almost nervous feel, as if the band might explode at any moment.  Drummer Darren Jesse highlights this feeling, as the pounding of his kick-drum has a maniacal, unwavering tone that persists throughout the entire song.  The fact that the trio are able to create such sound and mood without needing to be overly loud or disordered is a testament to their determination to stay true to their own sound, and it is much the reason that so many music fans turned to the band as a "way out" from the often obnoxious sound and image of a majority of "popular" bands at the time.

As the bands' namesake, Ben Folds not only delivers a fantastic piano performance on "Jackson Cannery," but he also establishes himself as one of the most unmistakable vocalists and sharpest lyricists of his generation.  Throughout the song, Folds works the entire vocal range, from the deepest notes, all the way into perfectly executed falsetto, and this alone places him into a category all his own.  Yet it is also the spirit in his voice that makes him so unique, as he has the talent for delivering absolutely brutal words, yet singing them in such a way that they somehow come off as jovial or somehow positive.  Even after countless times of hearing the song, the sheer joy of singing that can be heard in Folds voice never fails to pull the listener in, and in many ways, it is this fact that gained him the dedicated following that he retains to this day.  However, Folds uncanny talent for turning a phrase is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his music, and "Jackson Cannery" takes the listener through a wide-range of emotions.  From funk to soul to deep blues, in both his delivery style, as well as the content of his words, Ben Folds shows his mastery as a lyricist, and the song is one which every listener likely has a different "favorite" line.  The entire song seems to speak to those trying to "find themselves," and this is one of the other reasons why "Jackson Cannery" quickly caught on with so many youth who could relate to the content and emotion found within Ben Folds' perfect musical execution.

The fact that a piano-led group was able to find such wide-ranging and long lasting success in an era dominated by mostly mindless, overly macho music is proof that there is always a large group of people who are looking for something different, if not "better" than what the mainstream has to offer.  It also supports the idea that in such situations, purposeful defiance of musical norms can lead to far superior results, especially when there is an overwhelming amount of talent within the band in question.  Throughout all of their debut record, Ben Folds Five offer a fresh, exciting, and uniquely rebellious group of songs, and well over a decade after their release, the songs easily retain these qualities.  Granted, there were other songs on Ben Folds Five that became staples of the bands' live shows, yet no other brings the "rock" feel quite like one finds on "Jackson Cannery," and it is also the most brilliant display of the entire range of Folds' vocal abilities, as well as his uncanny ability to craft cryptic, yet easily relatable lyrics.  Truth be told, there is simply no other artist or band in the entire history of music that has been able to create music quite like Ben Folds Five, and while one can pick out their influences, to find a similar band is simply no possible.  Perfectly fusing soaring melodies, aggressive vocals, and some of the most irresistible energy ever captured on record, there are few songs that are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the magnificent 1995 song from Ben Folds Five, "Jackson Cannery."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

April 21: Stan Getz, "The Girl From Ipanema"

Artist: Stan Getz
Song: "The Girl From Ipanema"
Album: Getz/Gilberto
Year: 1963

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Though they are perhaps the most scarce occurrence one can find across the long history of recorded music, it is impossible to deny the rare moments when true musical perfection transpires on an album.  Within almost every genre, one can find a single point that largely defines the rest, and yet even within these landmark songs, there are a few that rise to the top of the list of perfection for one reason or another.  In many cases, it is due to the groundbreaking nature of the song in question, though in many cases, it is due to the tone and mood found on the song that makes it completely unforgettable.  However, even in these elite few recordings, there are some that have become so iconic, yet few know the performers responsible for the music.  This is perhaps no more obvious than when one looks into the fantastic catalog of the great Stan Getz, as one can easily make the case that it was his music that introduced "bossa nova" to the world at large.  It is almost impossible to argue against Getz's place as one of the most elite sax players of all time, and when one looks at his catalog as a whole, one can see that there was no point of "musical plateau" at any point throughout his career.  However, there is also little arguing that Getz was at his best in terms of both composition as well as tone when he led the 1963 session that produced the now iconic song, "The Girl From Ipanema."

While there are many riffs and progressions that have become instantly recognizable across the globe, few hold the status and timeless nature of that found in the opening moments of "The Girl From Ipanema," and within seconds, Getz has set the stage for one of the most perfectly mellow songs in history.  The lone, soft, meandering guitar of Joao Gilberto instantly transports the listener to the oceanside, and one can almost feel the sun beginning to set over the horizon.  The way in which the guitar seems to slowly sway back and forth is the essence of the bossa nova, and it has rarely sounded as good as one finds on "The Girl From Ipanema."  The level of authenticity that can be felt within just the guitar is almost overwhelming, and even after repeated listenings, the song never loses this impact.  Pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim punctuates many of the guitar lines with small fills, and the delicate way in which the drops these into the song manages to make the relaxed feeling even more intense.  However, it is when Getz and his tenor saxophone enter the song that the group runs the danger of altering the face of "The Girl From Ipanema."  Yet even as Getz plays a slight variation on the key phrase, he manages to keep the spirit of the song firmly intact, and it serves as the ideal finishing touch to the brilliant mood and tone found on "The Girl From Ipanema."

Truth be told, while most are familiar with this song, very few have experienced the entire work, as a majority of played versions only contain the second and third verses of the song.  The full recording, clocking in at about five-and-a-half minutes, is actually a split vocal, with Joao Gilberto singing the songs' opening verse, and setting the mood for the vocals just as perfectly as he does with his guitar.  Singing in Portuguese, this simple, soft voice are absolutely phenomenal, and there is no other song from any point in history that finds such an ideal balance of mood without coming off as cliché.  His singing also lends even more authenticity to the song itself, and the sense of innocence in every aspect of the vocals is what has enabled "The Girl From Ipanema" to become so timeless.  However, while Gilberto's vocals are nothing short of superb, most are only familiar with the second and third verses, sung by his wife, Astrud.  Lending a similarly smooth, velvety voice to the song, it stands today as one of the most iconic vocal performances in history, and yet as legend has it, she recorded the vocals at the very last minute, doing so without any backing track to guide her singing.  Though her lyrics are not a literal interpretation of those from her husband, the mood she conveys manages to match it perfectly, and even after more than four decades, "The Girl From Ipanema" remains just as perfect and unforgettable.

Following the release of the Getz/Gilberto version of "The Girl From Ipanema," it almost instantly became a standard, and over the decades it has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to The Supremes to Nat King Cole.  However, none ever come close to the sheer perfection found on the original, and it was the massive success of the song that enabled the entire bossa nova style to gain a large following outside of its native Brazil.  Over the years, the song remains the blueprint for the genre, and "The Girl From Ipanema" still manages to make regular occurrences throughout all areas of popular culture, serving as the final proof to the truly unique nature of the recording.  It is perhaps the fact that the musicians manage to capture such a pure and accurate depiction of life that makes the song so intriguing, and though it can be applied to so many situations, "The Girl From Ipanema" was in fact written about a very specific person.  "The" girl from Ipanema was named Heloísa Pinto, and composer Vinicius de Moraes watched her walk past the café where he would write on an almost daily basis.  In reality, Pinto would go on in life to become a model, and it makes the lyrics of the song perhaps even more fitting, and one can argue that more honest words of the praise of beauty have never been written.  Regardless of the source of inspiration, the song remains in a class all its own, and one would be hard pressed to find a more perfectly mellow or absolutely stunning recording than one can find in the 1963 Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto take on "The Girl From Ipanema."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

April 20: Peter Tosh, "Downpresser Man"

Artist: Peter Tosh
Song: "Downpresser Man"
Album: Equal Rights
Year: 1977

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Though there is often times some basis for it to occur, whenever an artist is completely defined by a single moment or image, the true brilliance of the artist in question is almost always lost.  While one can understand when an incident "outside" of music becomes the cause of such, when a recording or statement manages to overshadow the rest of their work, it can be seen as almost tragic.  With that in mind, one can easily argue that there is nothing more frustrating within the history of music than the ignorant argument that reggae music is little more than fuel for stoners, as the genre has produced some of the most confrontational and beautiful music ever.  Taking this idea to the extreme, there are countless people who assume that there is little more than thoughts of getting high within the music of the great Peter Tosh, and few statements are further from the truth.  Throughout his career, Tosh has been responsible for some of the most impressive and influential songs in the history of reggae, and taking his catalog as a whole, those songs about drugs stand in a clear minority.  After leaving The Wailers, the first few solo records released by Tosh remain some of the most essential in reggae history, and few are better than his 1977 record, Equal Rights, and one can quickly understand just want a powerful artist lived within Peter Tosh by hearing his finest song from that album, "Downpresser Man."

From the moment that "Downpresser Man" begins, almost every side of Peter Tosh (real name: Winston McIntosh) becomes completely evident, and there are few performers that have as instantly a recognizable a tone as one finds here.  It is in these early moments of the song that one can quickly sense a bit of a darker, more aggressive tone, and while his previous co-worker (Bob Marley) may have had a talent for the power of his subtlety, Tosh shows no such tendency within any aspect of his song.  "Downpresser Man" kicks in with a tough, edgy ska sound from the guitar of both Tosh and Al Anderson, and they bring a uniquely nervous tension and bounce that runs throughout the entire song.  The keyboards from Earl Lindo work in perfect harmony with the guitars, and there are many times on the track where there is an almost jazz-like feel to his playing.  The keyboards also seem to move up and down in the mix, and this enables "Downpresser Man" to have a sense of movement unlike any other song in reggae history.  Bassist Robbie Shakespeare gives one of his finest performances, and it is often the open spaces he leaves in the rhythm that highlights the impact and groove that he brings to the song.  It is the way in which these musicians all blend together with one another, making it almost unnecessary for a drummer, that makes "Downpresser Man" so unique in its sound and mood, and there is no other reggae song that manages to balance aggression and beauty as perfectly as one finds here.

Yet it is the vocals and lyrics form Peter Tosh that truly make "Downpresser Man" so extraordinary, and it is in these elements that he places himself far apart from his peers.  There is a strength and pride within Tosh's voice that can be felt on nearly every one of his songs, and on "Downpresser Man," the defiant, almost confrontational spirit within him becomes the most clear.  Tosh clearly understands "where" his voice sounds best, and he rarely moves from that range, and one can quickly understand why he "clicked" so well with Marley, as they share a similar vocal scope.  However, Tosh's vocal approach is far less passive, and the "message" which he is attempting to convey is far less subtle, yet one cannot deny that it retains a punch equal to or greater than almost any other song from any other genre in history.  Tosh makes no apologies for the political sentiment within his song, and has no problem letting it take the spotlight, as he crafts his frustrations into some of the most beautiful and forceful words ever penned.  Painting a picture of boiling oceans and burning rocks, Tosh's allusion to hell for those who oppress others is not subtle in the least, and yet it does not seem forced in any way.  Furthermore, Tosh does not seem to be offering any "way out" for the accused, and it is the blunt manner with which he presents this "fate" that makes "Downpresser Man" such a stunning recording.

Sadly, as the decades have passed, this defiant, poetic talent of Peter Tosh has been largely overshadowed by his penchant for smoking marijuana, and he has become an odd "hero" in the "fight" for its legalization.  While there are certainly songs within his catalog that make such a status understandable, it has been pushed to a point where the "true" nature of his music has been forgotten by many, and few have experienced the true power that can be found within his songs.  The way in which Tosh was able to craft lyrics of defiance and rebellion remains second to none, and this can be heard and felt all across his Equal Rights album.  Though it is most clear within his lyrics and singing, one cannot deny the fact that there is an attitude and aggression within the music that helps to push these feelings to their maximum potential.  Throughout "Downpresser Man," one can feel the tension and almost anger that is being built within the music, and it enables the lyrics to hit far harder, and make the song absolutely unforgettable.  To this point, when one looks at the Equal Rights album as a whole, the song manages to eclipse the rest of the record, as it presents the ideal balance between powerful vocals and an intricate musical arrangement.  It is these combination that highlights the exceptional talents of Peter Tosh, and the "real" character and mission of his music can be best experienced within his 1977 classic song of warning and defiance, "Downpresser Man."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

April 19: The Heartbreakers, "Born To Lose"

Artist: The Heartbreakers
Song: "Born To Lose"
Album: L.A.M.F.
Year: 1977

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When one looks at all of the different sounds and styles that came and went throughout the music of the 1970's, it is almost expected that there would be a handful of groups that were able to blend many of them into a single, new entity.  Seeing that many of the styles were birthed from the hard rock sound of the late 1960's, there was already a common thread between them, and it was simply waiting for a band to come around and put to all together.  However, the one band that may have done it best is one that rarely receives credit for such, as their short-lived, yet highly controversial career tends to overshadow many of their musical accomplishments.  Taking the "glam rock" attitude and making it even sleazier, then giving it an injection of the punk spirit, there are few groups that could hold their own with the power and sound of The Heartbreakers.  The bands' icnoic 1977 debut, L.A.M.F., remains one of the most stunning recordings in history, and few albums have been remastered, re-sequenced, and argued over as much as L.A.M.F.  Nearly every track seems to jump off the record, finding a unique musical space somewhere between the Hanoi Rocks, The Sex Pistols, and The Ramones, and the album remains just as fresh and exciting today as it did upon its initial release.  Yet while every song on the album is fantastic, there may be no finer a representation of everything it means to "be" rock and roll than one finds in The Heartbreakers' classic 1977 song, "Born To Lose."

As the opening notes of "Born To Lose" ring across the track, there is a darker mood that is absent from much of the punk music made in 1977, and this tone holds strong throughout the entire song.  It is quickly pushed slightly into the backdrop as guitarists Johnny Thunders and Walter Lure lead the sonic assault.  The tone of their guitars brings to mind many of the guitar greats of all time, as there is a grind and glory within their sound that pushes the song to something beyond "just" punk rock.  Though it is a rather simplistic arrangement, one can hear why Thunders is hailed as one of the greatest guitarists ever within the spirit of his playing.  Furthermore, one can clearly link his performance and sound on "Born To Lose" to his early days as a member of The New York Dolls.  Yet it is the combination of players on "Born To Lose" that make the song so brilliant, and the rhythm section of bassist Billy Rath and drummer Jerry Nolan are in top form throughout the song.  The way in which the group is able to push past the constraints of the "punk" sound and inject full-on rock and roll majesty is what helped to define an entirely new side of the punk genre, and there has rarely been as perfect a crossover between hard rock and punk rock as one finds here.  From the soaring solos to the distinctive punch that hits with each and every listen, "Born To Lose" stands as one of the few songs in history that never gets old, and it continues to easily surpass nearly everything that has been recorded since.

Adding the ideal finishing touch to the song, the vocals of Johnny Thunders find a similar balance between the spit-fire attitude of punk and the powerful, more structured sound of hard rock.  Rarely showing any need for much more beyond his speaking and shouting voice, he manages to somehow turn this stripped down sound into something to which all can relate, and it is his vocals that are the key to the now-anthemic status of "Born To Lose."  This is further reinforced by the group vocals, and one can quickly sense just how involved and high-spirited their live shows must have been.  Yet there is something that almost borders on chaos within the voice of Johnny Thunders, and it is this edge that sets him apart from his peers, giving the listener the sense that at any moment, the entire song might fall apart.  This wild, uniquely defiant sound is in many ways as "punk" as punk gets, making other vocalists seem either more tame or complete fakes in their delivery style.  The way in which Thunders seems to almost spit each phrase with a challenging tone perfectly captures the confrontational, almost detached spirit of punk rock, and lyrics like, " in a jungle, it ain't so in the city, it will eat out your heart..." only reinforce the authentic, almost primal tone that the band executes with absolute perfection across "Born To Lose."

Truth be told, shortly after the release of L.A.M.F., The Heartbreakers imploded, and while they would reunite a handful of times with slight changes in lineup, there was never as potent or pure a grouping under the name of The Heartbreakers as one finds throughout the album.  Even more than thirty years after its initial release, the punch and grit of the record are still as powerful, and one can easily make the case for it being one of the pivotal albums of both hard rock and punk rock.  Yet the band and album are still somehow placed into an almost cult-like status, rarely receiving the acknowledgments so clearly deserved for the way in which both re-shaped the musical landscape.  It is the manner in which the band took the glam rock sound and infused it with the attitude and reckless abandon of punk rock that makes their sound both unique and powerful, and though other groups attempted such a sound, none came close to that which can be experienced throughout L.A.M.F.  Each song on the album hits with a rock fury that has rarely been heard elsewhere, and with "Born To Lose" as the lead track, it sets a fantastic tone for the music that follows.  There is little arguing that the song stands as Johnny Thunders' finest musical moment, and it is within the song that one quickly realizes that he lives every bit of the attitude and each word that he sings.  It is this sense of authenticity, along with the fast-paced sound and a venom that makes The Heartbreakers' 1977 song, "Born To Lose" an absolutely stunning musical moment.

Monday, April 18, 2011

April 18: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #68"

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(Left Click (PC) or Command-Click (Mac) to save it to your's about 75MB)

One hour of amazing music and commentary from "The Guru" himself. 

Tracklist (all links are to MY review of that band, song, or artist):
1. Pearl Jam, "Even Flow"  Ten
2. Goldfrapp, "Train"  Black Cherry
3. Rodrigo Y Gabriela, "Tamacun"  Rodrigo Y Gabriela
4. Otis Rush, "I Can't Quit You BabyI Can't Quit You Baby (single)
5. RUN D.M.C., "Peter Piper"  Raising Hell
6. Tom Waits, "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six"  Swordfishtrombones
7. Thin Lizzy, "Chinatown"  Chinatown
8. The Smithereens, "Wooly Bully"  Encino Man Soundtrack
9. The Clash, "I'm So Bored With The U.S.A. (demo)"  DOA
10. Wirepony, "Untitled"  Tour EP One
11. Social Distortion, "Prison Bound"  Prison Bound
12. MC5, "Kick Out The Jams"  Kick Out The Jams
13. The Jackson 5, "The Love You Save"  Motown Singles Collection
14. Alice Cooper, "Long Way To Go"  Love It To Death
15. The Stooges, "1970"  Fun House

Sunday, April 17, 2011

April 17: NOFX, "Linoleum"

Artist: NOFX
Song: "Linoleum"
Album: Punk In Drublic
Year: 1994

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While there are a handful of common elements that bond together almost every artist or band that "makes it big," one of the most disappointing trends is watching bands begin to take themselves and their music far too seriously.  Over the course of history, one can point to countless bands that seem to have sucked all the "fun" out of their sound as their career progressed, and it often seems that once a band "makes it," that they forget that one of the main points of being in a band is to have a good time.  Thankfully, there are a handful of groups that have managed to keep their attitude intact, even as they climbed to greater success, and few bands have held this balance more firmly than California punk legends, NOFX.  For nearly three decades, the band has been pumping out their own blend of ska, punk, and "Oi!" style rock, and alongside their amazing energy, there has always been a very unsubtle grin within their presence and lyrics.  Over that time period, the band has released more than a dozen studio and live recordings, and one can easily argue that the group hit their stride with their fantastic 1994 album, Punk In Drublic.  Filled with many of their most memorable songs, the energy on the album never lets up at any point, and even more than twenty years later, it still holds its own with nearly any other punk album.  Though one can make the case for a number of songs on the album being the bands' "best," one can quickly understand why NOFX are held in such high regard within their 1994 song, "Linoleum."

Serving as the lead song on Punk In Drublic, few albums are defined quicker than one finds here, as the first thing the listener hears is a powerful, high energy guitar riff from El Hefe.  He is quickly joined by the bands' other guitarist, Eric Melvin, and the duo roll out one of the most invigorating guitar lines ever, and one can quickly feel how such playing would have instantly set any audience into a frenzy.  In many ways, this is the "point" of NOFX's brand of punk, as there is a sheer elation that comes forth int heir playing, and one gets the sense that they write their music for their audience as much as they do for themselves.  Also showing that the punk ethos is still alive and well, the band forgoes any unnecessary solos or other "filler," and "Linoleum" stands as two-and-a-half minutes of pure punk bliss.  Adding fuel to this vigorous sonic assault is the bass of Fat Mike and drummer Erik Sandin, and they remain today one of the most potent rhythm sections in the history of punk rock.  The way in which Sandin seems to be trying to "out run" the band, pushing them to an almost break-neck speed, never relenting for even a moment on "Linoleum."  It is the combination of their musical precision and almost breathtaking speed that makes NOFX one of the few bands that have been able to capture their live energy within a studio, and it has rarely sounded more perfect than on "Linoleum."

Along with handling bass duties, Fat Mike (AKA Michael Burkett) has risen to become one of the most iconic vocalists in the history of punk rock.  Without question, Fat Mike possesses one of the most distinctive voices of the punk genre, and there is also an "every man" sense to this vocal performances.  Bringing an energy that matches that of the music over which he sings, Fat Mike makes no excuses for his sound, and it is this raw, authentic feel that has earned NOFX such a fervent following.  The bands' want to keep a bit of humor in their sound comes through most clearly within the writing of Fat Mike, and there are few lyricists who are able to be as socially aware and inject some tongue-in-cheek lines as perfectly as one finds within his words.  There are also countless examples across the NOFX catalog where Fat Mike gets philosophical, writing far deeper lyrics than a majority of his peers, and this is very much the case on "Linoleum."  Though one may be quick to overlook the words as he belts them out, one can find a rather refreshing, simplistic message with his signing, as Fat Mike seems to argue that there is a great deal of joy to be found within a more modest, if not sparse lifestyle.  In fact, there are few lines that are more "punk" than when Fat Mike sings, "...possessions never meant anything to me, I'm not crazy well that's not true, I've got a bed, and a guitar..."  The bands' love for humor appears later, when he refers to ripping off a parking meter, and it is this balance, as well as the way in which Fat Mike presents it, that makes "Linoleum" such a brilliant musical work.

As the decades have passed since the release of Punk In Drublic, "Linoleum" has found its way into a number of parts of popular culture, making appearances in a handful of video games, as well as being referenced (rather oddly) on the TV show, One Tree Hill.  Yet even without these other appearances, there is little arguing against the songs' power and lasting impact, as it retains these qualities even with the passage of time and repeated listenings.  It is this fact that separates both the song, as well as NOFX as a band, from their peers, as in most cases, songs begin to lose their potency as the years pass.  This further support just why NOFX are so revered by other bands, and why they are still able to command large audiences more than thirty years after the band first formed.  In many ways, one can point directly to the bands' lighter attitude as the reason they have survived all this time, as other groups that take themselves too seriously seem to burn themselves out as they try to "stay true" to the image they have created.  Instead of falling into this trap, NOFX have always taken the "this is who we are" approach, and this sense of honesty and lighter mood remains evident to this day.  While there are a number of songs within the catalog of NOFX that have become "classics" of the punk style, few pack the musical punch and better define the group than one finds in their sensational 1994 song, "Linoleum."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

April 16: Thelonious Monk, "Brilliant Corners"

Artist: Thelonious Monk
Song: "Brilliant Corners"
Album: Brilliant Corners
Year: 1957

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Though it happens quite frequently across all genres and decades, referring to an artist or sound as "ahead of its time" has become one of the more over-used phrases in music history.  While in the more modern sense, it is often citing a performer that paved the way for others, in the 1940's and 1950's, there were slight variations on the term that put it in a more negative light.  Yet the idea remained the same, and in at least one case, after years of critical neglect and dismissal, those same people cited the same artist as a true musical genius.  Ironically, the artist in question had not changed their sound or approach at all, and one can argue that the general public had finally "caught up" to his vision.  It is this fact, as well as the uniquely brilliant compositions he recorded throughout his career that places Thelonious Monk into a musical category all his own.  Without question one of, if not the most influential jazz pianist in history, one can see many of Monk's recordings as the absolute definition of a number of the "sub genres" of jazz, and few performers stayed as dedicated to their musical visions as one finds within his catalog.  Due to his massive influence and pioneering approach, nearly every Monk recording can be cited for its importance.  However, to fully appreciate the sheer genius and talent that lived within Thelonious Monk, one need look no further than his winding, fast paced 1957 masterpiece, "Brilliant Corners."

As the title track of his extraordinary 1957 record, "Brilliant Corners" is one of the finest and most complete musical explorations in the Monk catalog, and it also features one of the better groups of musicians that one can find on his studio albums.  Much like a number of the seminal jazz recordings of the era, the line-up on "Brilliant Corners" reads like a "who's who" of jazz giants, and it is led by the saxophone duo of Sonny Rollins and Ernie Henry.  They are joined by trumpet master Clark Terry, and the way in which the trio lock together for the songs' main phrase stands as one of the most upbeat, yet powerful moments in all of jazz history.  The rhythm section of bassist Paul Chambers and drum legend Max Roach fills out the bands' exceptional membership, and the interplay between the almost free-form drumming and the "dancing" sound from Rollins stands as one of the few musical moments that all must experience.  It is this loose, open feeling that defines the composition, as even on the solos, there is a certain relaxed mood across the track, and it is in this aspect that one can fully understand the musicality that lives within the "bop" sound.  While the band members keep the more hard-edged, angular progressions and tone intact, they use "Brilliant Corners" to prove that the bop sound is just as beautiful as any other jazz sub-genre, and that is why one can point to this recording as "the" definition of that style.

However, while one cannot in any way minimize the importance or quality found within the band, there is also no getting past the absolutely superb performance from Thelonious Monk himself, and "Brilliant Corners" is without question one of his finest studio moments.  It is the way in which Monk is clearly conscious of the pitch and power of the rest of the band, and the way in which he adjusts around their sound that sets "Brilliant Corners" aside from the other iconic songs of his catalog, as Monk takes his more typical "quirky" arrangements and pushes them into a vast, soaring celebration of sound.  Whether he is taking the lead or lightly leading the band from behind their instruments, Monk proves his exceptional talents as he plays both parallel and perpendicular to the sounds of the other musicians, showing his uncanny sense of both the dramatic and finesse within his playing.  Constantly switching his own timing, Monk seems to take each of the band members in a different direction, and his own solos are where his more typical sounds can be found.  It is also during Monk's solos that one can hear the unique relationship that he had with his drummers, and with Roach, the two are able to play off one another in a manner unlike any other recording in history.  Both seem to want to expand the arrangement to its fullest, and it is the way in which Thelonious Monk is able to almost make the song itself "breathe" that serves as the final proof of the truly genius nature of "Brilliant Corners."

Truth be told, even the musicians themselves had difficulty with the complexity and demand of Monk's composition, and the final studio version is actually cut from several different takes, all spliced together by Monk himself.  Even with this knowledge in hand, one can listen as carefully as possible, and there is no moment anywhere on "Brilliant Corners" where one can detect a change in the source sound.  Furthermore, the overall mood and energy stays consistent throughout the recording, and with these two realities in mind, one is left to wonder what sort of moments were "left" on the studio floor.  The final product, regardless of its origin, has risen to an iconic status, due to both the complexity of the arrangement, as well as the almost relaxed mood of the musicians that seems to go against the challenge of Monk's song.  This was surely due to both the exceptional level of talent within the musicians, as well as the talents that Thelonious Monk possessed as a band leader, and it is his performance in this area that proves the leader need not retain the spotlight to be effective.  In fact, one can cite "Brilliant Corners" as one of Monk's more subtle performances, as he is able to fade a bit into the background when he is not delivering a brilliant lead part.  Though the song is clearly a hard-bop classic, it puts far more focus on the more melodic side of the genre, and it is this difference that makes Thelonious Monk's 1957 recording, "Brilliant Corners," one of the unrivaled moments of true musical genius.

Friday, April 15, 2011

April 15: Suicide, "Frankie Teardrop"

Artist: Suicide
Song: "Frankie Teardrop"
Album: Suicide
Year: 1977

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It is often within the "extremes" of any given genre that one finds not only the most difficult sounds to grasp, but in most cases, where one can find the links and bridges to other styles of music.  This fringe of a genre is a place in which artists can work in the most free form, as they are not constrained by the rules or commercial trappings of the established sound in question.  Yet even in this space of musical freedom, there are still some "rules" that apply, and there are only a small handful of groups that have ever pushed music to a place of true creative anarchy.  It is these few groups that while never receiving nearly the level of credit they deserve, have served as the building blocks for new styles, and this entire idea was never more clear than when one looks at the development of the "no wave" movement.  Finding a completely unique take on the punk rock ethos, one can easily argue that there was never a band "more punk" or more musically courageous than the legendary duo known as Suicide.  Coming out of the l970's performance-art scene of New York City's lower east side, there is simply no way to accurately describe the music of Suicide, as it falls somewhere between punk rock noise and compositional genius.  This completely unique musical approach and sound can be experienced at its high-point throughout their 1977 self-titled debut, and there is nothing that can prepare a listener for Suicide's musical masterpiece from that record, "Frankie Teardrop."

Clocking in at ten-and-a-half minutes, "Frankie Teardrop" is a musical journey that knows no peers, and in every aspect, it stands as one of the most disturbing, yet completely captivating songs ever recorded.  It is within "Frankie Teardrop," as well as much of the album, where one can see how the sound of Suicide was the catalyst for the entire "synth pop" movement, as keyboard player and drum programmer Martin Rev creates the entire blueprint for the style.  The tight, fast, repeated progression that dominates the first half of the song builds a completely uncanny sense of tension, and though it is a cyclical sound, it manages to keep digging deeper and getting darker with each repetition.  It is this unending rhythm that also sets the mood for the song, as the lyrics speak of the downfall of a man from over-work, and one can feel an almost mundane, tedious tone within Rev's simple sonic arrangement.  The level of complexity within the music is beyond simple, and the fact that it is able to carry so much power within the sound is perhaps the greatest proof ever of the idea of attitude being superior to design.  Though many saw the "core" of punk as loud, driving guitars, on "Frankie Teardrop," Rev proves that such instruments are not even necessary, and though it defies almost every musical convention, there is no question that "Frankie Teardrop" is a work of musical genius that knows no equal.

Yet even with the sparse arrangement forming an almost hypnotic sound, there is nothing that can prepare a listener for the absolutely stunning vocal performance given by the great Alan Vega.  Combining the wording and style of the beat-era poets with an attitude and delivery that completely defies description, it is his efforts on "Frankie Teardrop" that make the song truly extraordinary.  Though during the verses he never moves beyond a steady, almost detached spoken sound, it is the shrieks and screams that give the song its unique dramatic feel.  It is in these moments that one can quickly understand just how deep into the song Vega was during the recording, as he has clearly "given in" to the music and is letting it dictate his performance.  Yet while many see this as little more than chaotic noise, when one considers this performance from a deeper level, one can easily argue that the song is far more politically defiant than the long list of bands that attempted to make far more straightforward statements.  The pain and agony of the downfall of the lyrical protagonist can be felt to a level unlike any other recording, and there are many points where the yells from Vega are outright disturbing.  One can completely feel the "nightmare" that Vega has created both lyrically and vocally, and there has never been another recording that has even come close to the drama and tension that one can experience though Alan Vega on "Frankie Teardrop."

However, for those who may somehow not be able to feel the downtrodden nature of Vega's vocals, the lyrics which he delivers cannot be mistaken, and there has rarely been as soul-crushing a lyric as one finds here.  Offering no "gloss" or attempt to make light of the situation in any manner, "Frankie Teardrop" is the most brutal look into the world of a "working class" man whose world falls apart.  Lyrics like, "...well Frankie cant make it, 'cause things are just too hard, Frankie cant make enough money, Frankie cant buy enough food..." may seem scattered or uncreative, but it is the way in which Vega delivers these realities that give the song a haunting tone.  This downward spiral continues throughout the song, ending in Frankie killing his family and himself, and the way in which the latter half of the song comes across, it almost "dares" the listener to play the song again.  It is in this facet of the song that one can understand what a truly disturbing sound sounds like, as Suicide has no need for forced theatrics, proving that brutal honesty and conviction can easily trump overly-orchestrated musical arrangements or vocals.  Yet it is also this dark, almost defiant sound that pushed Suicide far into the fringe of music, preventing them from gaining much of the credit they so clearly deserve.  Whether it is the mesmerizing music or the absolutely mind-blowing vocal and lyrical performance, there has truly never been any other song in music history that even remotely compares to the unique brilliance found on Suicide's haunting, almost traumatic, yet absolutely genius 1977 song, "Frankie Teardrop."