Friday, September 30, 2011

#25: Pain of Salvation: BE

Release Year: 2004

In 2005, I was heavily into the progressive metal scene, and one of the bands that had a small, but devout, following was Pain of Salvation.   This was their most recent album at the time, so I decided to check it out... And I didn't like it.  I found it overindulgent, and lacking any real structure.

Two years later, I finally decided to check out some of their other work, and I liked it.  I went back to BE, and perhaps I was just in a different place, but I liked it.  It is still overindulgent and lacking any real structure, but it is awesome.  I think Daniel Gildenlöw has earned the right to be overindulgent.

BE is a concept album about the existence of God and humankind.  All of the track titles are in a sort of pseudo-Latin, referencing the classic language of theological discourse.  The music is incredibly varied, with styles ranging from spoken word, to Medieval folk, to metal, to straight piano.  There are really only five to seven normally-structured songs, connected by thematic instrumentals or limited-vocal pieces.

For this album, Gildenlöw wrote a complete score.  The metal parts blend tastefully with the orchestra, and it gives it a depth that does not feel at all contrived.  The more I listened to this album, the more I found that the transitions are not filler, but nicely tie the album together.

There are two highlights for me: first, the track "Vocari Dei," which the band created by setting up an answering machine and instructing their fans to talk to the machine as if they were talking to God (and the result is a thoroughly enlightening pastiche of pleas from skeptics, believers, upset people, worried people, children, and apologetic people); and finally, the track "Iter Impius," which is an incredibly beautiful song about a man who is the sole human being wealthy enough to survive human extinction, just to find that he bought loneliness on a barren planet.  This is one of my favorite songs ever.

I will admit, I have not immersed myself in this album enough to really understand what it's about, but if you want to be challenged, this is a great record.

Standout tracks:
  • Iter Impius
  • Vocari Dei
  • Lilium Cruentus
  • Nihil Morari 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

#26: The Black Crowes - Amorica

Release Year: 1994

The Black Crowes' first two albums, Shake Your Money Maker and The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, were both solid southern rock albums.  The demonstrated that they could write rock songs and ballads as well as anybody.  But they were somewhat lacking in depth.

With Amorica, that changed.  They started experimenting a little bit, and some folk influence started creeping in.  And we got a collection of songs that fit together better than either of their previous albums.  This is where the Crowes went from being just another guitar rock band to being real artists with a truly interesting contribution.

Lest you think they ceded their ability to write solid rock songs, their riffs are as good as they ever were.  But there are more dynamics, and the softer parts are more textured, and feature more acoustic instrumentation.

Every time I hear this album, it throws me into another Black Crowes kick.  This is the best early Crowes album, and one of my favorites of the 1990s.

Standout tracks:
  • Wiser Time
  • Descending
  • Nonfiction
  • A Conspiracy 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

#27: Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers - Sonoran Hope and Madness

Release Year: 2001

The Refreshments were one of the most popular bands in Arizona in the mid-1990s.  They had hit songs on the radio and on television series.  After their 1997 record The Bottle and Fresh Horses, however, the band split, and singer/songwriter Roger Clyne and drummer P.H. Naffah regrouped under the moniker "Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers."  This band, while similar in some respects to The Refreshments, had a more Americana feel.

Their sophomore album, Sonoran Hope and Madness, is the quintessential Arizona record.  It marries Clyne's time spent on his uncle's ranch in Tucson with his suburban Tempe upbringing, and the result is a record that captures the Zeitgeist in turn-of-the-millenium Arizona.  Here we have a city rapidly growing into a metropolis, yet struggling to somehow retain its rural attitude.

That's the theme of this album, and that's why I like it.  Here we have Clyne at his songwriting pinnacle, and his storytelling was as good as ever.  The themes are distinctly Southwest: songs about trailer parks, murder in Mexican villages, diversity and tolerance, and the transition from farmlands and ranches to stucco and highways.  Even the interlude, an instrumental "Home on the Range," evokes a yearning for open spaces.

To perfect the motif, the album is bookended by something else that is a critical aspect of Arizona youth: bottle rockets.

RCPM would gradually get less creative and less introspective after this album, but this one might go down in history as Clyne's magnum opus.

Standout tracks:
  • Buffalo
  • Better Beautiful Than Perfect
  • Colorblind Blues
  • Mile High and Risin' 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

#28: Beastie Boys - Ill Communication

Release Year: 1994

Beastie Boys are an interesting sort of rap group.  White people love them, and they started out as a hardcore punk outfit.  License to Ill and Paul's Boutique were two of the most influential rap albums of the 80s, and they pretty much wrote the book on sampling with the latter.

For me, though, Ill Communication is where they shine the most.  This album has style.  With this one, they focused more on music then with any of their previous records; that's why it has no shortage of instrumental tracks, and most of the vocals are distorted.  I'm not sure what message they were trying to send by doing this, but I like it.

This is more Beastie Boys as musicians than Beastie Boys as emcees.  While I don't like the two hardcord punk tracks on this album, I appreciate their role in showing us their roots.  One of my favorite tracks here, "Bodhisattva Vow," has a cool Indian feel to it.  And "Get It Together," one of the few straight raps, featuring Q-Tip, just flows beautifully.  The Beasties peaked at this album; each studio album following this got progressively less awesome.

Standout tracks:
  • Get It Together
  • Bodhisattva Vow
  • Do It
  • Root Down 

Monday, September 26, 2011

#29: Cracker - Greenland

Release Year: 2006

Years ago (about four of them), when I finally decided to check out Cracker, I downloaded two of their albums: Kerosene Hat and Greenland.  Hat had their hit song "Low," and a few other recognizable tunes, like "Eurotrash Girl" and "Lonesome Johnny Blues."  On the surface, you'd think that would be the better of the two records, and while it is very good, it was Greenland that really stood out to me as a great record.  While it did not spawn any hits, it was very cohesive, had a distinct sound, and had very well-written songs.

This is the record that most perfectly blended their California punk rock attitude with their country tendencies, creating a stunning meld of Americano-tinted folk rock that proved that these guys aren't just alternative rock has-beens.

This album is mellow, but upbeat.  It doesn't have any punk anthems like "I Hate My Generation" or "Teen Angst," but it does have a couple of loud, riff-driven songs.  This will go down, in my mind, as one of the most underrated albums of the decade.  It is Cracker's best album, and their most consistent since The Golden Age.

Standout tracks:
  • Sidi Ifni
  • Where Have Those Days Gone
  • Everybody Gets One For Free
  • Fluffy Lucy 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

#30: Neil Young - Time Fades Away

Release Year: 1973

In 1973, Neil Young was hot off his hit record, Harvest, which is probably his most successful album ever.  While touring in support of that album, he was trying to play the songs he wanted to play, with a band he was not comfortable with, to audiences who just wanted to hear Harvest.  The result is Neil Young's live album Time Fades Away, which is, to this day, (officially) only available on vinyl.  Neil hated the tour, and the shows where these songs were recorded, but released it "so you could see what could happen if you lose it for awhile."

What happened is a great collection of songs.  There are a few classic Neil Young guitar rock songs, reminiscent of Crazy Horse.  There are three piano ballads ("Journey Through The Past," "Love In Mind," and "The Bridge") which make this album really work.  And it closes with a longer, upbeat track more in the vein of "Cowgirl" called "Last Dance."

There are all kinds of great Neil Young records to choose from, but this is one that stands out for its rawness, its history, and, also somewhat importantly, its music.

Standout tracks:
  • Last Dance
  • Journey Through The Past
  • Don't Be Denied 

Friday, September 23, 2011

#31: Punch Brothers - Punch

Release Year: 2008

Punch Brothers are one of my favorite bands.  The musical talent and creativity these guys have is paramount.  They were formed by Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek fame) as a vehicle to record the 40 minute long suite he composed called "The Blind Leaving The Blind."  They went ahead and recorded an album of covers and original songs called How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, and then, a couple years later, finally went into the studio to record the suite.  Punch is the result.

The one thing I value most in music is originality.  An album can have great songs, but if it doesn't bring anything new to the table, its ceiling is a lot lower.  Punch is about as unique as it many albums are there with bluegrass instrumentation, while being centered around a jazz and classical music influenced four-movement suite?  This is certainly the only one I've heard.

Besides their phenomenal aptitude, and musical creativity, these guys just keep it interesting.  I've seen them three times now, and each show was completely different.  They might play their early material; they might play newer material; they might play some Beck, Radiohead, or Strokes; and they might even play some Bach.

Definitely check this one out if you like to be challenged.

Note: "The Blind Leaving the Blind" is the subject of an excellent new documentary called How to Grow a Band. I'm not sure if it's going to ever have a wide release, but it was a thoroughly engaging watch, and an interesting window into the trade-offs in trying to write the music you want vs. pleasing your audiences. I was fortunate enough to watch this documentary, and get a limited edition poster signed by the band.

Note 2: Check out the cover.  I just noticed that they're sorted from shortest to tallest, and also from least dressed to most dressed.  Awesome. 

 Standout tracks:
  • The Blind Leaving the Blind
  • Punch Bowl 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

#32: Porcupine Tree - In Absentia

Release Year: 2003

Yes, I know this is the third Porcupine Tree album I've picked, but considering (a) they've been one of my favorite bands since 2005 and (b) Steven Wilson has always been a believer in the album as an art form, you'd expect them to have several outstanding albums.

 In Absentia marked a radical change in direction for Porcupine Tree.  Steven Wilson had just finished producing a couple of Opeth albums, which are, of course, progressive death metal.  Wilson cited this experience as something that rekindled his love of metal, so what we got here is the first "metal" PT album, and one that alienated a lot of older fans, but was very well-received in the prog metal crowd.

The great thing about this album is that, despite its easily being the loudest PT record in existence, it is still as melodic, if not more melodic, than their previous work. The guitars are much louder and in-your-face, and the drums are more technical (thanks to the addition of drummer Gavin Harrison), but there are still cool bass grooves, layered vocals, and lots and lots of atmosphere.

Besides the overall sound, it's just a great collection of songs.  Some of them could have been hits if they had a record company with deep enough pockets.

Standout tracks:
  • Trains
  • Prodigal
  • The Sound of Muzak
  • .3 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

#33: Opeth - Damnation

Release Year: 2003

Beauty in despair.  Those are the first things that come to mind when I think of this album.

Opeth originally intended to make Deliverance and Damnation (both produced by Steven Wilson) a double album, but the powers that be wanted them separate.  So we have the balls-to-the-wall heavy Deliverance, and its antithesis, Damnation.  The former is somewhat mediocre (though it has its moments), but the latter is one of the most beautiful albums I've ever heard.

If you listen to any song here, you'd probably be surprised to find out it was made by a death metal band.  It is all clean vocals, rich melody, unplugged guitars, keyboards, and the signature Steven Wilson atmosphere.

This is one of those albums that you can't listen to repeatedly, because there is nothing upbeat here.  Yet, it's one of those albums you have to have in your collection, because there is nothing else like it available - not even from the band that created it.  It has a thread of sorrow woven throughout every aspect of the music, from the lyrics, to the instrumentation, all the way down to the actual packaging.

Incidentally, I listened to their new one, Heritage, for the first time today.  I might need to add a disclaimer to this list, that it only includes albums released before this month.

Standout tracks:
  • To Rid The Disease
  • Death Whispered A Lullaby
  • Windowpane

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

#34: Oceansize - Effloresce

Release Year: 2003

Every once in awhile, you run into a band that did it right the first time out.  Oceansize is one of those bands.  Oceansize, from Manchester, England, released four full length albums and at least two EPs before breaking up earlier this year.

Oceansize was generally labeled as progressive rock, though they don't really have anything in common with most bands in that umbrella.  They do tend to write lengthy songs, which in the early days had some jam tendencies, with repeated riffs, and lots of build ups.  Their last couple of albums, Frames and Self-Preserved While The Bodies Float Up, feature more chaotic arrangements.  Everyone Into Position was probably their tightest record, but Effloresce is my favorite.  This album just features so many great melodies and instrumental sections that it's almost overwhelming.  They hit the perfect spot on their first album, and while the others were unique, to be sure, this one has the best combination of experimentation and structure.

These guys are loud when they need to be, and quiet when they need to be.  If you like a good, dynamic album, this is a great choice.  Oceansize were excellent musicians, and one of the most underrated bands of the 2000s.

Standout tracks:
  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Show
  • Amputee
  • Catalyst
  • One Day All This Could Be Yours 

Monday, September 19, 2011

#35: The Rolling Stones - Let It Bleed

Release Year: 1969

In the 1960s, The Rolling Stones were a great band.  When you think of the 60s, that are really two bands that come to mind: The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones.  In my mind, the Stones were the greatest band of the decade, not the Beatles.  Despite that, the best stretch of Stones albums came from 1968 through 1973, starting with Beggar's Banquet.  Let It Bleed is the following album, and a very solid album indeed.

This album has it all: a classic opening song in Gimme Shelter, 60s punk like Live With Me, the monumental closer You Can't Always Get What You Want, and even a little honky tonk in Country Honk.  This album is still decidedly 60s, but you can hear the 70s creeping in.

 It's difficult to explain what is so good about the Stones; the songs are simple.  Compared to the burgeoning progressive rock movement, there really wasn't very much to it.  Really, it's just rock and roll.

Standout tracks:
  • You Can't Always Get What You Want
  • Midnight Rambler
  • Let It Bleed
  • Monkey Man 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

#36: Billy Joel - Streetlife Serenade

Release Year: 1974

For some reason, Streetlife Serenade is my favorite Billy Joel album. It doesn't have his most memorable songs, or greatest, songs.  But it seems to me like it has the most soul.  Like it's his most coherent album.

The best song here, and maybe the biggest hit, is "The Entertainer," which was made in response to the record company editing his single "Piano Man," and thereby messing with his art.

Pretty much every song on this album is solid.  The two instrumentals - the thoroughly upbeat piano romp "Root Beer Rag," and the latin-tinged closer "The Mexican Connection" - are two of his best.  It has a few excellent ballads, my favorite being "Roberta."

If you're the "Greatest Hits" type of Billy Joel fan and want to check out one of his albums, this is the first I'd recommend.

Standout tracks:
  • The Entertainer
  • Roberta
  • Streetlife Serenader
  • Root Beer Rag 

Friday, September 16, 2011

#37: The Refreshments - Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy

Release Year: 1996

This is one that goes all the way back to junior high for me.  It was eighth grade, and I was really beginning in earnest to listen to alternative rock music. The Refreshments had several hits at the time (at least locally), and they, along with Gin Blossoms, ruled the local music scene.  Every CD wallet (which was the iPod of that era) at every party had to have this disc in it.

This album has stood the test of time.  Most of the music I listened to in 8th grade has no appeal to me anymore, but fifteen years later, I enjoy this as much as ever.  In fact, I appreciate it more, because I tend to enjoy better-crafted songs like "Nada" more than I did back then.

Interestingly, I think their follow-up, The Bottle and Fresh Horses, was musically superior to this, but it doesn't hold quite the place in my heart.  When you think of the Arizona music scene in the 90s, this is the first album that comes to mind.

Standout tracks:
  • Nada
  • Mekong
  • Banditos
  • Down Together 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

#38: Porcupine Tree - Signify

Release Year: 1996

Porcupine Tree is a band that had several distinct eras.  Signify came at the tail end of their psychedelic period, and featured more structure than Up The Downstair or The Sky Moves Sideways, but still was about half instrumental.

This is my favorite Porcupine Tree prior to their 2001-or-so hiatus.  The atmosphere is excellent, the songwriting is superb, and, as you would expect from psychedelic rock music, there are some great bass grooves.

There are really only five songs with lyrics and singing, and that's kind of what makes this awesome.  You have songs like "Waiting Phase One" with a nice vocal melody, followed up with "Waiting Phase Two," which is just an instrumental continuation of the same bass groove.  You have songs like "Every Home Is Wired," which is an early display of Steven Wilson's superior vocal layering technique.  And, finally, you have the last one, "Dark Matter," which is one of my top 5 Porcupine Tree songs, and one I never, ever get sick of hearing.

This is not the first Porcupine Tree album you should listen to, but it one of the best.

Standout tracks:
  • Dark Matter
  • Waiting Phase One
  • Idiot Prayer
  • Every Home Is Wired 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

#39: Yes - The Yes Album

Release Year: 1971

I can describe why I like this album in two words: Steve Howe.

This was Howe's first record with the band, and his contribution is noticeable, to say the least.  While this album doesn't enjoy the popularity of Yes's two following albums, Fragile and Close To The Edge (both very good albums), this is the album that began their run of excellent records, and my favorite.

It's hard to find a better song than "Starship Trooper," and I have to say the last movement of the song, entitled "Würm," is one of the best instrumental stretches in any rock song, and one of the best endings ever.  I know that sounds like somewhat of a hyperbole, but it's really tough to deny (incidentally, "Würm" was composed by Howe).

The other reason I really like this album is because of another Howe contribution, "Clap."  This is one of my favorite guitar pieces, for its melody and technical creativity alike.  It is this song that makes me wish I were a more accomplished guitarist, because I would love to be able to just pull out an acoustic guitar and rip this one out.  If you play guitar, and you haven't heard this song... What are you waiting for?

This is a very solid album for Yes.  It came after they had achieved incredible musical aptitude, but before they started writing songs that require your full concentration to enjoy.

Standout tracks:
  • Starship Trooper
  • I've Seen All Good People
  • Clap 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

#40: Neil Young - Freedom

Release Year: 1989

Neil Young has had a very long career, beginning in earnest in the 60s, and continuing today.  I consider Young to be the best songwriter alive, a title that many believe belongs to Mr. Dylan.  His most well-known, and indeed strongest, body of work was from 1969-1979, beginning with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and ending with Rust Never Sleeps.  Every album in this period is spectacular.  1979's Rust featured an acoustic front side and electric back side, with different versions of "Hey, Hey, My, My" on each side.

The 80s were a very turbulent period, music-wise, for Young.  He started with a seemingly patriotic folk album, then went with a new wave rock/punk album, followed that up with an album where most of the vocals were computerized, then released a rockabilly album, followed by a country album... That only takes us to mid-decade, but you get the picture.  The upshot is that his popularity eroded by 1987, and Life became his least successful album ever.  But then, out of nowhere, emerged Freedom.  This is the album that kicked off the grunge movement, and brought loud, angry rock music to the forefront of the music world.  "Rockin' in the Free World" became his biggest hit in probably a decade.

Neil borrowed the Rust bookend concept with this one: the album begins with an acoustic version of "Rockin' in the Free World," and closes with the more well-known electric version of the same song.  Though this album is known for its angry protest song, it is actually more toned down and folksy than its successor, Ragged Glory.  There is quite a variety of styles here, with several folk tunes, and only a few rockers.

Freedom is Neil's most solid album after 1975, and, despite being released in 1989, one of the most important of the 90s.

Standout tracks:
  • Rockin' in the Free World
  • Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Part I) 
  • Eldorado 
  • Too Far Gone 

Monday, September 12, 2011

#41: Porcupine Tree - Stupid Dream

Release Year: 1999

Most people I talk to have never heard of Porcupine Tree.  And that's quite unfortunate, because they're an amazing band.  Steven Wilson is one of the geniuses of modern music, and one of the rare musicians with an appreciation of the more artistic aspects of music.  Each Porcupine Tree album is truly an album, with songs that belong only on that album.  Wilson has been known to exclude great tracks simply because they do not fit the motif he is shooting for.

Stupid Dream is the first Porcupine Tree album after they left behind their psychedelic phase, and the songs take a more conventional structure than any of their previous work.  Here you have music that has tight melodies, and a relatively limited amount of instrumental stretches.  It still manages to maintain a little bit of its psychedelic influence, however, with some very tight bass grooves in songs like "Slave Called Shiver" and "Don't Hate Me."

I'll just let Mr. Wilson explain what I just wrote:
The main source of the shift in sound came from a natural move into the realms of songwriting and away from the more abstract instrumentally based material of previous albums. I was particularly under the spell of Brian Wilson, but also listening to artists like Jeff Buckley, Soundgarden and (the incredibly over rated but still rather good) Radiohead. Also for the first time the album was recorded in one extended period (rather than sporadically as with previous albums) in a remote residential studio in Wales, where the band were able to experiment and collaborate on a cohesive sound for the album. Consequently the album contains our most vertically complex music, as opposed to horizontally complex (whereby the tracks comprise simple sections, but many of them strung together). Here the songs are relatively tightly structured but much more layered than anything we had attempted before.
Do yourself a favor and check out this band, and this album is probably a good one to start with.

Standout tracks:
  • Even Less
  • Slave Called Shiver
  • Don't Hate Me
  • Pure Narcotic 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

#42: The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

Release Year: 2006

There is a lot about I like about The Decemberists... The folk-influenced sound, the melodies, the witty lyrics, and especially their extremely fun live show.  They have the best stage presence of maybe any band I've seen live, much of which could be attributed to Colin Meloy's refusal to take himself too seriously (at both of the shows I've been to, he introduced the song "Dracula's Daughter" as "the very worst song [he] ever wrote").

To really experience this band, you have to see them live, but The Crane Wife best exemplifies what I like about them.  It has several examples of catchy folk-pop songs, as well as two lengthy (by folk-rock standards) epics that give you hints of the more ambitious attempt at a rock opera that would come with The Hazard of Love.

It's really hard to pick a favorite Decemberists album, since none of them seem quite serious enough to be a magnum opus, but this is the one I'd consider the most well-balanced.  It is ambitious enough to make you feel like a lot of thought was put into it, but not serious enough for it to be pretentious.  And it is just well-written, catchy, and diverse.

Standout tracks:
  • O Valencia!
  • Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)
  • Sons and Daughters 
  • The Crane Wife 3 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

#43: King Crimson - Red

Release Year: 1974

King Crimson in the 70s was an interesting band.  Each album was stylistically completely different, and the lineup was a revolving door for musicians (only Robert Fripp was in the band throughout that whole era).  Red was their last album recorded before Fripp finally declared King Crimson to be "completely over for ever and ever," and it was actually released after they broke up.

This album is notable for being the only heavy Crimson album, and the only album they recorded as a trio.  Without any flutes, violins, saxophones, or other more classical instruments remaining, King Crimson took on a sound far more akin to the typical 1970s rock band.

Red still has many of the progressive elements that made earlier Crimson albums so interesting–the last two tracks in particular feature some improvisation–but I find it far more accessible than anything else they've done.  While it's not the most brilliant work they've done, it's a one-of-a-kind album in the King Crimson world, and probably the one I'd recommend for people who want to ease into the King Crimson way of doing things.

Standout tracks:
  • Fallen Angel
  • One More Red Nightmare 

#44: Leftover Salmon and Cracker - O Cracker Where Art Thou?

Release Year: 2003

What happens when you take David Lowery and Johnny Hickman from Cracker, and give them a jamgrass band as their musical accompaniment?  You get one of the coolest novelty albums ever recorded.

Cracker had a few hits back in the early nineties, the most well-known being "Low."  Cracker has always been considered a rock band, but they've always had threads of country throughout their music.  So, they seem like a natural choice for making an entire album of bluegrass covers (well, maybe adaptations, since I'm not sure it can be a cover if it has the original singer).

This album really works for me for two reasons: (a) I really like Cracker, and (b) I really like bluegrass.  The other reason this album has sentimental value for me is that it really introduced me to the bluegrass genre. Furthermore, it taught me that bluegrass music and rock music can be compatible (for more on that, check out Keller and the Keels, who cover Amy Winehouse's "Rehab," Butthole Surfers' "Pepper," Marcy Playground's "Sex and Candy," and an alternate version of Cracker's "Teen Angst."  Also, Punch Brothers versions of The Strokes' "Reptilia" and "Heart in a Cage," Beck's "Sexx Laws," and several Radiohead covers).

Standout tracks:
  • Get Off This
  • Low
  • Eurotrash Girl
  • Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now) 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

#45: Radiohead - OK Computer

Release Year: 1997

I didn't really start getting into Radiohead until Kid A came out in 2000, but I was a fan of the two Radiohead songs I heard on the radio: "High and Dry" and "Karma Police" (I never much cared for "Creep").  The former was from their straightforward rock album The Bends, and the latter is found on OK Computer.

When I finally decided to further investigate this Radiohead band, I started with Kid A, since it was their new album at the time, and then worked back.  If I enjoyed Kid A, I was blown away by OK Computer.  This was an album that had some of the straightforward rock elements of its predecessor, but it had a killer atmosphere.  They took it to a level where they weren't just assembling a few random songs they had written, without any thought as to how they fit together.  For the first time, they wrote an album, which had a distinct aura and thematic elements, and where each piece became a necessary component of a single coherent unit.

I get tired of all the bleeps and bloops on their post-Kid A work, but I never get sick of this album.  There's really not a bad cut here (except for "Fitter Happier," of course).

Standout tracks:
  • Paranoid Android
  • Exit Music (For A Film)
  • Karma Police
  • Climbing Up The Walls 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

#46: Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson - Waylon & Willie

Release Year: 1978

Sometimes when getting to know people, the question comes up: "Do you listen to country music?"  To that I am often tempted to respond, with a silent jab at what passes for country nowadays, "I listen to country music.  Do you?"

I hate that new crap that passes for country music, and so does the Rolling Stone editor whose comments are pasted on the back of the vinyl edition which I possess: "Some of the stuff that's passing for country these nothing but a disgrace.  The world needs a lot more Waylon & Willie right now and a whole lot less of that other crap."  Yes, I hate what I typically refer to as country pop, which is what most modern country is.

That's not to say "Waylon & Willie" wasn't popular.  It was.  In fact, this came at the height of the outlaw country movement, and it topped the country charts for several months.  But this was legitimate country.

 The music here is solid, with the highlights being two songs written by another outlaw country stalwart, Kris Kristofferson: "Don't Cuss The Fiddle" and "The Year 2003 Minus 25."  I first fell in love with these tunes when I heard them performed by the lighthearted bluegrass cover trio Keller and the Keels.  This is probably not the greatest country album ever, but it is the one that introduced me to both Jennings and Nelson, and the outlaw country movement in general.  More importantly, it showed me that country music can be enjoyed, if done correctly.

Standout tracks:
  • Don't Cuss The Fiddle
  • The Year 2003 Minus 25
  • The Wurlitzer Prize 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

#47: Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

Release Year: 1975

Pink Floyd had a pretty awesome run there in the 70s, with Meddle (1971), Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977), and The Wall (1979).  Dark Side and The Wall are easily the two most well-known, but to me, their best album is Wish You Were Here.

This album borrows a format that has become a mainstay in progressive bands throughout the decades, where they sandwich a few standard-length songs in between two extended, and usually related, song suites (the earliest similarly structured album I can think of off the top of my head, without doing any serious effort, is King Crimson's 1973 album Larks' Tongues in Aspic).  Here, it is the excellent "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond."

But it's not "Shine On" that makes this album a winner... In fact, it's rarely those extended bookends that make these albums work... It's actually the three middle tracks.  I cannot think of a more diverse and enjoyable mix of songs than "Welcome to the Machine," "Have A Cigar," and "Wish You Were Here."  "Machine" has an aura that no other Pink Floyd song achieves, "Cigar" features one of The Floyd's greatest grooves and guitar solos, and the title track is brilliant in its simplicity.

I've been listening to Pink Floyd since I was in high school.  Twelve years after I first heard Dark Side, this is the Pink Floyd album I like the most (and writing this review is really making me wish I had placed it higher than #47).

Standout tracks:
  • Welcome to the Machine
  • Have A Cigar
  • Wish You Were Here
  • Shine On, You Crazy Diamond
  • (yes, that's the whole album) 

Monday, September 5, 2011

#48: Ben Harper - The Will to Live

 Release Year: 1997

Ben Harper has evolved a lot over time.  For me, The Will to Live was where he was at his artistic peak.  This album has the perfect blend of folk, gospel, and rock.  It has a level of sincerity he hasn't touched since then, and a level of entertainment he hadn't reached in his previous two albums.

I probably have listened to Burn to Shine considerably more than this, but I like this one more.  It's hard to explain, but it all comes down to art.  This album is legitimate art.

Nothing Ben did after Burn really inspires me, though it is, for the most part, solid.  I'll take the folksy, gospel-singing Pleasure and Pain Ben Harper over the rocking Relentless7 Ben Harper any day of the week.

Standout tracks:
  • Faded
  • Roses From My Friends
  • Glory and Consequence
  • The Will to Live 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

#49: Beck - Sea Change

And now for my 49th favorite album of all time... Beck's Sea Change.

 Release Year: 2002

This is an interesting one... I haven't heard it a whole lot of times.  I rarely listen to it, because it is incredibly mellow.  This is melancholy on a disk... and that's why I like it so much.

In case you've only heard Beck's sample-heavy radio hits ("Where It's At," "Sexx Laws," "Loser," etc.), this isn't your normal Beck Hansen.  This is all acoustic, sample-free, and backed by strings.  And it's really dark.

This album is what really turned me into a fan of Beck's.  Yeah, I liked some of the Odelay stuff.  It's an excellent album.  Here, Beck ditched the expectations and used a vehicle that is absolutely perfect for the message he was trying to get across.

 And that's what good art is.

 Standout tracks:
  • Paper Tiger
  • Guess I'm Doin' Fine
  • Sunday Sun