Monthly Archives: February 2012

The 10 Most Over-Rated Albums

Has there ever been an album that you’ve thought was over-rated? I have plenty, but I’ve somehow managed to narrow it down to 10.  Some of these are actually from artists that I like, so this piece isn’t entirely just a smack-down of certain artists.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band – The Beatles

I love the Beatles.  I do.  And while Sgt. Pepper has many incredible moments (most notably “A Day in the Life” which might be the best Beatles song), it is over-run by Paul McCartney’s flights of fancy into classical pop and music hall stylings.  Sure at the times of its release it had a huge impact all across the board, but even Magical Mystery Tour is more exciting than this.

Kid A – Radiohead

Electronic beeps and noises do not necessarily make for compelling music.  Unless of course, Kid A’s cold sound must clearly represent one’s isolation from society!  Genius!   At any rate, Kraftwerk tried similar things some 25 years before Kid A‘s release yet Radiohead seems to get all the credit.

Harvest – Neil Young

Neil Young has a lot of great albums (Tonight’s the Night, After the Goldrush, Harvest Moon, etc) but Harvest seems to get the lion’s share of attention.  Young seems to be at his best when he’s on the outside looking in, or blazing the trail for everyone else.  And Harvest seems to be neither despite its popularity.

 IV – Led Zeppelin

Hair metal and power ballads all seem to start with this album.  The Rolling Stones were always better at writing sleazy songs, so “Black Dog” just seems lame in comparison.  The only song that really stands out is the blues song “When the Levee Breaks”.

Tommy – The Who

As far as The Who go, Quadrophenia is a far better rock-opera yet Tommy has permeated its way into popular culture.  Much of Tommy is softer than The Who’s usual violent musical attack, and there are far too many 30-second songs put in just to advance a story that never really quite measures up to its own ambitions.

Nevermind – Nirvana

“Teen Spirit” is great and so are some of the other songs.  I have two main problems with Nevermind’s status: it’s not as “raw” as some suggest (have you ever listened to Raw Power?”) and it certainly does not belong in the same league as say, Pet Sounds.

(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? – Oasis

The British music press seems to think Oasis’ second album is something that God created on the 8th day.  While “Champagne Supernova” and “Wonderwall” are worth listening to, the old criticism that Oasis are The Beatles with really loud guitars doesn’t really hold up: The Beatles songs were memorable.

The Wall – Pink Floyd

Self indulgence doesn’t get any more credit for being brilliant than it does on The Wall.  First off, the whole premise of the album is built (ha!) around a silly metaphor for life.  David Gilmour has some pretty awesome moments (particularly the solos on “Comfortably Numb”), but all I’ve ever gotten out of The Wall is this: I’m depressed.

Slanted and Enchanted – Pavement

I’ve tried.  Really, I’ve tried to like Pavement.  And theoretically, their lo-fi should appeal to me.  It seems to me that rock critics of the 1990s wished that they had a Velvet Underground of their own.  Me? I’d just rather listen to the real thing.

Back in Black – AC/DC

Thank God I never have to go to school dances and hear the strangely required spin on “You Shook Me All Night Long”.  I never understood the fascination with this band – every song sounds the same and the lady singer sounds like a squirrel.

Album of the Week: “Exile on Main St.” – The Rolling Stones

I wasn’t ready for Exile on Main St. the first time I heard it. Like many, I knew the stories and the album’s status in the rock and roll canon.  At the time, my Rolling Stones collection consisted of Sticky Fingers, Let it Bleed and Hot Rocks.  In other words, most of the “big ones”.

Expecting most of the songs to sound like hard-rocking opener “Rocks Off” I grew a bit disappointed as I went further into the album.  There didn’t seem to be an immediacy to the songs and many of them blended together.  A few such as the camp-fire styling of “Sweet Virginia” and Keith Richards’ “Happy” snuck through.  Otherwise, Exile seemed lost on me. I didn’t quite see what the big deal was.  Maybe all the rock critics who loved this album were in the same state of mind that the Stones were while making this album.

After a few listens, I put it aside for awhile only listening to it occasionally. Over the years, as I read more about Exile the more exciting the story became but the music itself never really seeped through.  In one interview I read, Mick Jagger wondered aloud why so many fans and critics rated the album so highly.  I’m with you, Mick.  I just don’t get it. There were so many songs on Exile that it was hard to find my way inside.   It seemed here was a party going on, but I was not invited.

A few years later, I friend of mine played me “Shine a Light” in his car.  I had obviously heard the song before, but I never really connected with it.  Yet, this time was different.  Perhaps it was the beer going to my head, but Jagger’s drunken gospel really struck a chord with me:

May the good Lord, shine a light on you. make every song, your favorite tune.  may the good Lord, shine a light on you warm like the evening sun. 

Suddenly, the rest of the album made a whole lot more sense.  Exile on Main St. wasn’t rock and roll in the sense of loud guitars, but taking all of rock and roll’s roots and putting altogether in one album.  The traces of Gospel, R&B, Soul, Country and Blues that fill Exile’s four sides are never forced. Each song sounds like it came it to being organically, in a haze of drugs and booze.  There’s not a forced note on the album.

“Shine a Light” for me represents all of the contradictions on Exile, and what makes it great.  The song itself is straight-up Gospel – a song seeking redemption of a friend – on an album full of sleaze.  Of course, many of those singing old Gospel and spiritual songs were no saints either.  Jagger may want the good lord to shine a light, but he also brags about “kissing cunt in Cannes” on “Casino Boogie”.

The fact that the album sounds like this is quite an accomplishment.  Shit, it’s an accomplishment the album was even made.  There’s no doubt that the stories behind Exile are legendary.  Sometimes it’s hard to separate the tales from the music.  But what the listener is left with is a great piece of music whose influence will still be heard for years to come.

Song of the Week: “Hey Sah Lo Ney” – Ronnie Spector

There are many different versions of “Hey Sah Lo Hey” and each has its own merits.   Mickey Lane’s version is garage-soul at its best.  The Action gave the song a Mod spin in the early 1960s.

Ronnie Spector’s version found on her 2006 album Last of the Rock Stars bursts through the doors with buzz-saw guitars and pounding beat. Each version of the song is fun and will make you get up and dance, but Spector demands it from the listener.  Spector’s voice sounds as great as ever, and she’s fully in command here as she leads the band through the sing-along chorus.

Youtube doesn’t seem to have Spector’s version so I couldn’t post it, but if you can find it (or just buy the rest of the album – it’s great) it’s worth a listen.

Friday News Round-Up: Billy Bragg & Wilco, George Harrison & President Obama Sings! (Again!)


  • According to Rolling Stone, a third volume of Mermaid Avenue will be coming soon as a part of a re-issue of the other two albums.  Suffice to say, I’m pretty excited about this as the first installment remains of one of my all-time favorite albums.
  • MC5 bassist, Michael Davis died last Friday at the age of 68. I had no idea until I read an article about him this week that he and Ron Asheton played in Destroy All Monsters together.  Makes sense, considering that both The Stooges and The Mc5 were making similar styles of music around the same time.
  • The New York Times had a pretty awesome interview with Dhani Harrison about the new iPad app “George Harrison: The Guitar Collection”.   The app contain 360 degree views of some of Harrison’s most well-known guitars as well an information on which guitars he used for what songs.  I’m sure this was a huge under-taking, but I’m hoping that similar apps could be made for classic albums.  How cool would that be if we had that type of information and in depth analysis for Exile on Main St. or Pet Sounds?
  • For the second time in about a month, President Obama got a chance to show off his singing skills.  At a blues tribute at the White House on Tuesday, Obama sang a few lines of “Sweet Home Chicago”.   While his singing wasn’t quite as awesome as his Al Green impersonation, Obama proved himself to be no slouch on the microphone.  It must be noted that, even the President can’t be swayed when Mick Jagger hands you a microphone.

New Music Thursdays: “Gills” – I Am Oak

Release Courtesy of The Musebox:

 

In 2010, after the release of their debut melancholic folk LP On Claws to critical acclaim, I Am Oak was invited to be a part of over sixty-five tours and festivals throughout the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxemborg, Switzerland, and the UK, including a sold out show at the Unitarian Church as part of the Great Escape festival. Fast forward one year and I Am Oak have released their sophomore LP Oasem to unanimous praise, even earning“Album of the Year” at the prestigious 3VOOR12 Awards. Listen to the award-winning album here: http://snowstar.bandcamp.com/album/i-am-oak-oasem.
I Am Oak is the folk/experimental project formed around Dutch singer-songwriter Thijs Kuijken. Described by the 3VOOR12 judges as “night songs” and “songs that take you on a journey,” Kuijken’s truly unique sound is created by manipulating minimalistic sounds into complex and gentle sound arrays using his own voice as the main backbone complemented by guitar, banjo, organ, beats, and samples, all produced and arranged out of his bedroom.

Wednesday Lists: Mick Jagger’s Top 10 Vocal Performances

A few weeks ago, I looked back some of the Beatles’ best rockers.  On today’s list, I’m going to focus on the world’s other greatest rock and roll band – The Rolling Stones and specifically, Mick Jagger.  Before he watched soccer games with Bill Clinton and jammed with Obama at the White-House, Jagger claimed he got no satisfaction yet always managed to get his rocks off (ha!).  Anyway, here are my favorite Jagger moments in no particular order.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

No Rolling Stones list is complete with “Satisfaction”.  In many ways, it’s the ultimate rock and roll song with its legendary riff and sexually charged lyrics. When Jagger spits out the man he sees on the street “can’t be a man because he doesn’t smoke the cigarettes as me” he makes it sound like a fact.  He sings the verses with such authority and anger, that you’re almost scared to find out what he would sound like if he did get satisfaction.

“Prodigal Son”

There’s no question that the Rolling Stones were rock and roll’s best interpreters of the blues.  On “Reverend” Robert Wilkins’ “Prodigal Son”, Jagger actually sounds as if he was singing on a porch  in the Mississippi Delta with a whiskey bottle at his feet.  If you didn’t know this was an English man singing, it might be hard to convince you otherwise.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

On paper, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” sounds like kind of silly.  An English band singing a Gospel-style song, with backing vocals by the London Bach Choir.  But Jagger commands the song whether its in its the song’s affected opening lines, or the yelps and screams he unleashes as the song reaches its climax.

“Sympathy for the Devil”

When Jagger’s devil claims to have watched the death of Anastasia and the Czar, you can almost imagine him appearing in the window.   As sung by Jagger, the devil seems to enjoy the evil he’s brought on the world.   The song also contains some of the best non-verbal vocals ever put to wax.

“Let it Loose”

“Let it Loose” might be Jagger’s best performance.  It’s absolutely gut-wrenching, yet never depressing.  He sings loudly, but never yells.  It’s all soul and full of a power, that few rock and roll singers have.

“Paint it Black”

During the verses, like the band Jagger sounds slightly col and detached.  On the choruses’ on the other hand, a fury is unleashed.  Later when Jagger admits that “I could not foresee this thing happening to you,” it’s just him and the sitar, but only briefly.  Just as quickly as the brief pause came, before he pulls the listener back into the darkness.

“Wild Horses”

Probably The Stones’ best ballad, and one of the few songs where Jagger really lays himself bare.  Mick Jagger’s persona is usually bigger than life, and on “Wild Horses” he sounds not only devastated and sympathetic, but also human.

“Rocks Off”

There’s a moment during the bridge where Jagger’s voice sounds distorted.  It sounds almost psychedelic, in a way.  For the rest of the song, Jagger fights to be hard over the rest of the band and who wins is a matter of debate, but a song about masturbation never sounded so triumphant and glorious.

“Miss You”

What’s crazier?  The fact that Jagger walks alone in Central Park in late the 1970s, or the way he sounds when he sings it?  The delivery of the line”what’s the matter, man?” would sound silly in most people’s hands. In Jagger’s you know even before he finishes it, that whatever the problem is, it will most certainly be solved.

“Dead Flowers”

Another country-tune, where once again Jagger sounds more authentic than some of the actual musicians in the genre.  Jagger once claimed that the song was more suited to Richards, but I’m not buying it.

 

Album of the Week: “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” – The Pogues

The Pogues’ previous albums Red Roses For Me and Rum Sodomy and the Lash brought a new life to Irish folk. The Pogues were Ireland’s version of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.  They took their native music and revolutionized it through the fury of punk, without sacrificing any of the integrity of the heritage, which they clearly loved.

Even though by the time of If I Should Fall From Grace with God, The Pogues were experimenting with their sound, it still remains the quintessential Pogues album.  Though many bands have since copied their style, in the 1980s the Pogues were kind of outsiders. No one was making a racket like them, and certainly no one was writing songs as intense and literary as Shane MacGowan.  But being on the fringes always seemed to suit The Pogues, and it’s a theme that is everywhere throughout the album.

From the very beginning, MacGowan confirms where he lies:  “If I should fall from grace with God where no doctor can relieve me, where I’m buried beneath the sod but the angels won’t receive me.”  It’s a heavy line, but MacGowan snarls it with a drunken confidence. “Let me go boys,” He declares, should anyone think differently.  “Let me go down in the mud where the rivers all run dry.”   On Plastic Ono Band, it took John Lennon 10 songs before he was able to conjure up the balls to deny God.  MacGowan on the other hand, casts himself out of heaven in just one line.

Though the title song is one of the fastest songs The Pogues would ever record, it’s contrasting elements are everywhere throughout the album.  Many of the songs sound like a party and are perfect drunken sing-alongs.  But their lyrics are heavy and sophisticated. Sonically, much of If I Should Fall From Grace with God is the musical equivalent of an Irish wake: there’s lots of drinking and perhaps merry-making, but the occasion is serious.

There’s nowhere to go after that except, perhaps hell. Following “If I Should Fall…” MacGowan seeks revenge on the sailors who left him for dead in the previous life.  “This debt cannot be paid with all your jack,” He warns without mercy.  Yet, once again the music sounds positively uplifting – and The Pogues exit the song with a rollicking coda that would not have been out of place on the ship where the narrator died.

Being exiled from heaven and one’s own body is nothing compared to what takes place in “Thousands Are Sailing.”  Dealing with Irish immigration and subsequent life in America, the haunting song is easily one of the Pogues’ crowning achievements.  Though the song seems to jump back and forth between time, it captures the trials and tribulations that many Irish immigrants faced when coming to the United States.  “Did you work upon the railroad? Did you rid the streets of crime?” MacGowan asks.  Though guitarist Phil Chevron wrote the song (and sings it in concert), the bittersweet lyrics are bettered suited from MacGowan’s slurs and growls.

For all its heavy-handedness, there are still some moments of pure fun on If I Should Fall From Grace with God. “Fiesta” is a Spanish-tinged blast of energy complete with a dig at Elvis Costello who produced Rum Sodomy and the Lash.  “Bottle of Smoke” is perhaps one of the best songs ever written about horseracing.  When MacGowan shouts: “Come you bastards!” halfway through the song, you’re left to wonder if he’s yelling at the band or the horses in the race.

On If I Should Fall From Grace with God, The Pogues proved that they were capable of becoming one of popular’s music’s most exciting and original bands. MacGowan’s songwriter was at its peak, and with the help of producer Steve Lilywhite the rest of the band sounded white-hot.  Unfortunately, like many bands The Pogues streak wasn’t to last but If I Should Fall From Grace With God remains one of the best albums of the 1980s.

Song of the Week: “O Children” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Who would have thought that one of the most touching moments of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 would come courtesy of Nick Cave?  Yet there it is: Cave’s “O Children” coming through the transistor radio offering a bit of comfort for Harry and Hermione.

At first, the song is playing softly in the background.  It’s slow and melancholy, but not entirely depressing.   As the two draw closer, and awkwardly dance, for  brief moment their problems seem to fade. There’s an underlying hope in the Gospel-like voices of the background singers: “hey little train, wait for me.  I once was blind but not I see.”

As presented in Deathly Hallows, “O Children” brings some much needed happiness.  As for the song itself, Cave twists a tale of murder and betrayal. The children that are asked to lift up their voices have actually been murdered at the hands of their own parents. The song even begins ominously: “pass me that lovely little gun, my dear, my darling one.”  The murder is meant to be quick – the cleaners are already on their way.   Once the deed is done, the children are asked for forgiveness and the parents lament that: “it started out as a bit of fun.”

Lyrically, the song is quite startling, but musically the song never suggests the turmoil underneath. The background singers lift the song to lofty heights, and bring a bit of tenderness.  As the song builds in intensity, the singer’s voices grow louder (the part used in the movie), finally revealing what the dead children have to say:

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun
And the train ain’t even left the station

Hey, little train! Wait for me!
I once was blind but now I see
Have you left a seat for me?
Is that such a stretch of the imagination?

How did strange tale end up in a Deathly Hallows you’re wondering?  According to the Los Angeles Times, musical supervisor Matt Biffa came across the song, connecting the lyrics and finally convinced director David Yates to use it.  Cave as it turns out, was happy that a more obscure track was used for the movie.

Still, it might seem strange that a song about parents murdering their children would be in a Harry Potter movie. Of course, the entire series revolves around the murder of Harry’s parents.

 

New Music Thursdays: Teeth & Tongue – “Unfamiliar Skirts”

“Unfamiliar Skirts” is a mesh of (slightly) noisy and intricately layered guitars and the lush singing of Teeth & Tongue front woman Jess Cornelius. “Unfamiliar Skirts” is the lea single from Teeth & Tongue’s second album, Tambourine. The song starts off quite slowly with some atmospheric guitars, before a harsher strumming forces its way.  Instead of letting loose vocally, Cornelius softly lets out the lethal  blow: “You will seek salvation in some unfamiliar skirts”.

Teeth & Tongue will be playing South By Southwest next month.  Check out “Unfamiliar Skirts” here.

 

Album of the Week: “Mountaintops” – Mates of State

Sticky-sweet melodies have always been Mates of State secret weapon. Like their previous 5 albums, Mountaintops is full of such instances. Opening track “Palomino” opens with a glorious wordless chorus while “At Least I Have You” bounces along with an infectious “la-la-la” hook.  When Kori Gardner declares, “we wait, we don’t give up”, there’s a hint of triumph there. Mates of State are the type of band who clearly work hard at what they do, yet they still make manage music that sounds effortless.

For Mountaintops, there are few instances where the duo slightly abandon their trademark synth-pop for something a little deeper. “Unless I’m Led”, is a dark and spooky ballad driven by Jason Hammel’s repeated refrain of “oh little girl, pick up the pieces”. His voice sounds slightly sympathetic, until Gardner reveals that she blames him for the cause of her problems: “You were following my mess, and I’m never in another mess, unless I’m led.”  It’s moments like these on Mountaintops that you realize that while Mates of State are a fun band, there’s also some seriousness behind all the up-tempo songs.

Even some of the bouncier songs are filled with a slight sense of melancholia.  “I’m kinder when the summer beats around me” Gardner admits in the opening line of “Sway”.  Musically, “Sway” offers no such indication of taking “comfort in what I used to be” – it’s one of the album’s brightest moments with its pounding drums and keyboard hook.

That’s not to say that Mountaintops is full of discontent.  ”Total Serendipity” and “Basement Money” sounds like Gardner and Hammel had a blast recording and recall some of the band’s earlier works.

Ultimately, Mountaintops is a triumph for the band. It’s easily their best album from start to finish and contains everything that is great about Mates of State – irresistible melodies, synthesized instrumentation that still sounds human, and an enjoyable album from start to finish.