Monday, January 13, 2014

My greatest 100 albums of the last 30 years 79 - 70 [Continuing from where we left off the last time]...

79. Lucinda Williams - Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)

Man, it's about time we had some oestrogen in here, damn! I admit this list is almost overwhelmingly male. Can't explain why, I guess I'm just a sucker for the type of music that dudes make (generally a noisy racket). There ARE a few females though and Lucinda is definitely one of the privileged few who crack the nod. This was Lucinda's breakthrough album. She was already well known in certain circles and her reputation as a songwriter was very well established prior to Car Wheels. But when she released this, she got major attention and even won a Grammy, if I'm not mistaken (not that that means anything, generally speaking). Lucinda is just one of the best song-writers living, simple as that. She's a story-teller, and makes it seem so easy, but its far from simple stuff she's putting down. On Car Wheels she just nailed down a bunch of incredible songs that contain timeless ruminations on that main vein for songwriters - why things go sour in relationships. This is Lucinda's forte and she does it better than pretty much anyone else on the planet. Musically it's pretty standard alt-country rock fare, with very competent backing from her band and some cracking slide guitar on Joy. Nothing wrong with it, but its fairly mainstream. The main pleasures are to be had from Lucinda's words and distinctive voice, particularly when she slows it down a bit and the yearning fills her voice like a palpable force on songs like Lake Charles, Greenville and Jackson. You can bet when Lucinda puts a place name in a song, its going to be cracker.

78. New Kingdom - Heavy Load (1993)

This one comes from my brief dalliance with hip hop and its one of the few hip hop albums that has survived within my collection over the years. This is just one of the coolest, funkiest records I have ever heard, plain and simple. I really don't have a lot of music that could be described as 'feel good' but this is definitely one of them. The band comprised two dudes, Nosaj and Sebastian and they managed to release a grand total of two albums during their career (the second one - Paradise Don't Come Cheap - also made it onto my list). Bottom line, these dudes were just so out there they would never have made it in this sheep-like world. They did entirely their own thing and simply fell between the cracks. Their musical heritage ranged from Black Sabbath, Hendrix and Grand Funk Railroad to Bootsy Collins and Curtis Mayfield to Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan. The balance of the influence was the urban environs of Brooklyn where the lads grew up plus a deep and wide smorgasbord of 70s cultural influences that include filmic landmarks like The Warriors, Blade Runner (both sampled to superb effect on the record), Two Lane Blacktop and the collective works of Bruce Lee to a deep appreciation for the good things in life (being good weed, good hooch and bad wimmins but not necessarily in that order). Basically though any attempt to categorise these guys will pretty much end in tears. This album is clearly affiliated to hip hop but these guys were just too original to ever be confined by anything that rigid. By the time you get to their sophomore effort, fuhgeddaboutit, it simply stands alone in the annals of music. In all my years of listening I've never heard anything else like it. Needless to say Heavy Load is a party album and you need to be imbibing your poison of choice to fully appreciate its subtle charms. If you are suitably oiled, by the time you get halfway through the rekkid (the seriously groovy Mama and Papa) if your head ain't bobbing and your feet ain't tapping then you, my friend, better check yr pulse.

77. The Angels of Light - How I Loved You (2001)

This is Michael Gira's first post Swans record. On the cover is a picture of Michael Gira's Mom. It's a great picture, the sun is on her face and she's really smiling away, happy as anything. His Dad is on the back. Its hard to imagine Michael Gira even having parents. You kind of imagine the guy was abandoned as a child, left in a garbage can or dumped on the steps of an orphanage. A real hardcore orphanage, like you see in the movies, where they whale on the kids all the time. Angels of Light is described in some places as 'apocalyptic folk'. I'm not sure who came up with this description but it really fits. At first listen, as opening track Evangeline kicks in, its really quite normal. Just an acoustic guitar and that distinctive baritone, with some filler noodling going on in the background. Quite a few instruments coming up now (if you love instrumentation, Gira never disappoints), including lap steel guitar, ukulele and sleigh bells (no sign of Santa yet though). It has a sort of country western feel to it but I still prefer apocalyptic folk. The album continues on in this vein until it really hits its stride on track 7 with My Suicide, followed by the gossamer delicate New York Girls and then rises to a new level with Public Embarrassment, which despite its prosaic title, is the perfect realisation of what he is trying to achieve here - a perfectly syncopated sea shanty that swings along with deceptive power, carried forth by Gira's doom-laden vocals and the impeccable timing of his backing band. Delve a little deeper and listen to the lyrics and there's no doubt its the man who spent the better part of two decades at the helm of one of the most extreme bands ever running the show. As such it is a very nice accompaniment to Swans. The fact is, Gira is a musical phenomenon, perhaps even a genius. Certainly the depth and variety of his output is unmatched by anyone else working in the modern oeuvre. Angels of Light adds another arrow to his quiver, but it turns out AOL was just a little sidebar and he still has much to offer through his primary vehicle, Swans, of which more later...

76. Spiritualized - Ladies and Gentleman we are Floating in Space (1997)

Seguing nicely into another gent who likes making epic records. I refer to lead man of Spiritualized, Jason Pierce, another musical genius who is in many ways a British version of M. Gira, in that he is always trying to reach a transcendent state, whether it be through the use of mind-altering pharmaceuticals or taking his ever-changing band into new and unexplored areas of unfettered musical expression. On Ladies and Gentleman, the band really hit their stride and acclaim for the album was pretty much universal, including NME naming it their album of the year. They made no bones about what the record was inspired by, with the packaging designed to resemble typical over the counter drug packaging. Lucky for them all that white powder R 'n R didn't prevent them from recording an album that, despite featuring a double decker bus-load of musicians, still hangs together beautifully and in several tracks, achieves a white light white heat type of ecstasy that recalls both the best baptist church revivals and the experimental freak outs of bebop jazz. Its actually one of the most intriguing things about Spiritualized that, despite being a cutting edge band, most of their influences can traced directly back to 'roots' music like jazz, blues and spirituals. But its what they do with it that counts, and on Ladies and Gentleman, they really raise the roof. Can you give me hallelujah?

75. Surgery - Nationwide (1990)

OK, this album was something of a grail for me back in the day. First off, it was damn hard to find. The band were with Amphetamine Reptile Records, but the CD was released through an obscure German label called Glitterhouse. Bear in mind this was 1990 and pre-Internet days so getting this stuff into the country was damned hard. A buddy of mine with good connects had a copy and when he played it I was instantly drooling. They had this awesome sound which immediately set me off, kind of a hard rock bluesy feel, lots of influences (practically the whole spectrum of hard rock it feels like sometimes) but with a definite new edge to it. Bear in mind the whole album was only 9 songs and about 33 minutes long but it packed a LOT of cool shit in that short space. The kicker was track no. 2 - Maliblues. It starts lazily with an extended intro, some wicked guitar licks and a frenetic drum track (genius drummer alert) and then they ratchet up the speed a bit. The guitar work throughout is just off the hook, bluesy and tight as hell, backed by a demonic rhythm section that never loses its way. It never really lets up after that, its just full blown kick-ass rock and roll, with singer Scott McDonnell's growly drawl pulling everything together. The great thing about Surgery was they could do up-tempo but then on a track like Highway 109 they could really slow it down and stretch it out, lay on some wicked-ass slide guitar and get into some hoodoo voodoo slow-cooked southern fried blooze rock. The record reaches a peak with the intensely awesome Drive-In Fever, which evokes long, hot summer days, flying down the blacktop in a 70s muscle car, the 8 track turned up all the way to eleven. Surgery would later be picked up by legendary major label Atlantic and release the incredible Shimmer record but it was all for nought. Fate would deal them a cruel blow and they would go out in flames when lead singer Scott McDonnell died unexpectedly in 1995 of a severe asthma attack. It was a true bummer as the band were clearly destined for great things.

74.  Red Red Meat - Jimmywine Majestic (1994)

This one is a natural progression. It just slots right in there. It too takes the blues and twists into something new and strange. This is a pretty remarkable thing in itself, that this pretty basic form of music can be manipulated in so many new and unusual ways but that's because it taps into primal human emotion. There are only so many stories you can tell but the one where the flame or raven-haired bitch leaves you high and dry after ripping your heart out is pretty much universal. The art of Red Red Meat was to create guitar rock that sounded like no-one else, at a time when guitar rock was everywhere. A lot of this is due to the atypical rythymns and stop start time changes they employed. Some was due to the highly distinctive voice and ripping slide action of singer/guitarist Tim Ritulli. They sounded like no one else because they were unlike anyone else. They also weren't afraid to take things a little slower when the mood took them. First track Flank is a ripper but then they follow it up immediately with Stained and Lit which is a beautifully crafted love song, bruised and slow and gorgeous, with Ritulli's world-weary lines dripping like slow poison. You'd think that would be enough for one day but they follow it right up with Braindead, another dirgey ditty that established the meloncholy mood with a vengeance. The chorus is lovely: tremors through your habit/ blue and clean and not enough/ coming empty handed/ doctor up the meter/ milk your bait another day dry/ braindead when I'm with you/fine lusted all around you grey I know. If you ever figure out what it means, let me know. Moon Calf Tripe is another groove trip. Laconic and bluesy and rife with unexpected start stop time changes, it makes it clear they weren't following any script other than their own, and the only copy was long lost. Whatever they were on about it was clear what the mood called for - plenty of hard alcohol and barbituates and devil take the hindmost. Red Red Meat, a party band for the pre-dawn suicidal crew. Come one, come all.

73. Screaming Trees - Sweet Oblivion (1992)

Geez, I can't believe it, another blues-soaked manifesto! Must be a pattern here. OK this one wasn't quite as gloomy largely due to the sheer exhiliaration the band were able to generate when they were at full tilt.

With two XL sized dudes in flannel shirts and logger boots doing twin axe duty and the croaking smoked hickory vocal stylings of Mark Lanning at the helm, Screaming Trees came out of the Seattle scene that delivered up a bunch of other bands, some of whom became pretty dern famous. Altough they started out on the major street cred indie label SST, when the G-word explosion happened they were quickly snapped up for a handsome sum by major label Epic. As such they were unfairly labelled as sell-outs and money whores. (Music politics can be just as ugly as the normal kind it would seem.) Not that any of that matters because their first offering on that label was a monster. Yes, it sounded pretty dern slick compared to a lot of their comprades of the time (having major label money didnt hurt in the studio) but the songs were thing, forget everything else.

They just swung and swung hard. This is the beauty of looking back. You can just listen to the music and judge it for the way it is, without all the bullshit that usually comes with it. It starts off pretty great with Shadow of the Season, all squealing guitars under the throaty roar of Lanning's pipes. Its a big sound. Hell yeah it makes you think of the giant trees and cascading rivers of the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest. It even has tabla drums, tho not quite sure if that's geographically relevant. However, the band only really hits its stride with the second track, a true monster called Nearly Lost You.

Their 'commercial' appeal is instantly obvious here. This is classic rock, timeless and it damn near shifts them out of the alternative label and into the big leagues through sheer momentum. Almost but not quite. Yes, it has the instant FM radio appeal that Nirvana tapped into with THAT song. Nowt wrong with that. And the kicker is, the next song is even better. Dollar Bill is a swinging anthem, it makes me think of vintage Johnny Cash, its that good. It makes you want to stand up and punch the air. Its a stone classic by god. With this three song intro it was clear that Sweet Oblivion tapped into a rich vein of song-writing, a classic rock sensibility that signalled the Trees KNEW shit about writing songs. They should be celebrated for that, not punished.

72. Glassjaw - Everything you Ever Wanted to Know About Silence (1999)

I must say I know very little about this band. Normally, I get into a band, I buy more than one of their CDs. I pursue them, read up about them... I'm obsessive that way. But these guys came along, I think I saw this in a local store one day, listened to it, liked what I heard and bought it. So it was a spontaneous thing. I liked the band name, liked the cover design, liked the sound and that was enough. This was also their debut album, so no real history to consider. Turns out, though, it was to become a bit of a cult classic. The singer/songwriter Darryl Palumbo had been through a heavy duty  break-up before the album was made and all that came pouring out of him. Not that this is an unusual state of affairs by any means. We are know that artists use these milestone events in their lives as raw material. But THIS guy really did a number with it. The album is like an epic, and there is something truly operatic about it, except its performed by a punk rock band. The first three songs alone contain enough peaks and troughs and raw emotion to fill any normal rock record. And its one of those records where it just gets better and better as it goes along, until you cannot help admiring the shit out of their creativity. They just play the hell out of it, with levels of intensity rarely experienced in any artform. With Palumbo's vocals sometimes straying into heavy metal territory, its an interesting crossover album, with one foot in punk and the other in metal. I like it because I admire and appreciate intensity and 100% commitment and these guys are all that. Given this level of intensity it can be an exhausting record to listen to unless you're in a certain frame of mind, but most importantly it is never dull. In terms of the overall sound the closest point of reference is probably System of a Down's Toxicity, but its a much better album than that. 

71. Tom Waits - Rain Dogs (1985)

Changing pace just a tad, this is the second of three Tom Waits records featuring on this list. Rain Dogs followed Swordfishtrombones and it didn't take a dummy to figure out that Waits was really kickin it like Bruce Lee at that time of his life, artistically speaking. Rain Dogs is truly a remarkable record because it is perfect. Yes, I said it. Its a perfect record. 10/10. Whereas Swordfish has songs that are equally vivid and glorious in terms of imagery and originality, Rain Dogs is just a tiny bit better as an ALBUM (although that judgement can change on any given day in my mind.) It just rolls from song to song with absolute ease, and each song is a perfect little prose poem set to music, fully realised and polished to perfection. There isn't a false or jarring note on the whole exercise.

To my mind, Waits doesn't really make music, he is a poet that sets his poems to music. And on Rain Dogs he is at the height of his powers. Particularly the writing... it is just remarkable and, critically, seems effortless throughout. His output at the time must have been lightning in a jar phenomenal.  The album features 19 tracks but he could just as easily have let it go at 12 and it would have been just as good. The first ten songs are probably the strongest set of tracks in the entire Waits back catalogue. It is crowned by the first of two magnificent triptychs on the record: Jockey Full of Bourbon, Tango Til They're Sore and Big Black Mariah.

In these three songs, Waits' unique talent for mining the treasure chest of America's past is so fully realised and note perfect your jaw hits the floor. Tango Til They're Sore is the high point. With its jaunty gin joint piano and slurry trombone backing to Waits' incredible wordplay, its the soundtrack to an imaginative life so rich and detailed it feels like you're dreaming awake every time you listen to it. Just when you think he's peaked, he comes out with 9th and Hennepin, Gun Street Girl and Union Square - another set of three perfect songs. At his peak, Waits is untouchable, and he would only ever once supercede the triumph of this record with his masterpiece, Frank's Wild Years.


Well things are pretty lousy, for a calendar girl...
The boys just dive right off the cars and splash into the street
Then when they're on a roll, she pulls a razor from her boot
And a thousand pigeons fall around her feet...

70. Tindersticks - Tindersticks (1993)

This record is a natural progression from the above. Much like Waits, Tindersticks are frustrated poets. Except the Tindersticks approach is looser, more sprawling, a kind of spoken word thing. Like Waits, they like living in the past... they play real instruments, wear suits and hats. They are incurable romantics... unlike Waits, they are British, which is kind of interesting. When this double album came out in 1993 it was very different to the guitar rock which was dominant at the time. So in that respect it was a refreshing change. All these violins and things was in total contrast to the almost 100% diet of guitars and drums we were on. Melody Maker got so excited at the prospect of a good new Brit band they named it album of the year. Despite this, my more blinkered mates sneered at it. It was a bit too girly for them. Not that its easy listening by any means. A lot of people describe the music I listen to as 'depressing'. I've never understood that description, but it kinda fits when it comes to Tindersticks. They are definitely dark and moody. Singer Stuart Staples has a unique approach to 'singing'. He doesn't really do it, preferring to alternately mumble and croon in his deep baritone. On this record it works very well. On the follow-up to this, it became a bit tricky and somewhat annoying, largely due to the often murky production. The production on this record (by the band and Ian Caple) works because its clear, you can hear and attempt to identify every instrument (a wonky thrill in itself) if you want to, so it doesn't fall into the trap of the second album, which was murky and therefore unbearably dirgey in places. This is important because the kind of music Tindersticks makes is risky in that it is best experienced live, in an auditorium with perfect acoustics. We did actually have occasion to see them live in a beautiful old theatre and I almost had fisticuffs with an idiot standing behind us, who insisted on talking loudly to his mate while the band played. Its not background music, its music to give your full attention to, to listen to carefully, glass of wine or bourbon in hand. But like I said, live is actually best.  Despite the unique stylings of the singer, Tindersticks succeeds because it is full of great songs and beautiful melodies. Listening to it now as I write this, 20 years later, its as strong as ever. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My 100 Greatest Albums of the Last 30 yrs 89 - 80

[Continuing on from where we left off last time...]

89.  Thin White Rope - Moonhead (1987)

One of the most unusual bands to ever come down the pike, Thin White Rope defy categorisation. From the bizarre cover art and band name (taken from a description of ejaculate by the inimitable William Burroughs) to the name of the album, its a head scratcher right from the get go. And the picture doesn't get any clearer once you lower the needle on the first track of side one either. The first thing that jumps out at you from opening track Not Your Fault is the weird tremulous voice of singer Guy Kyser. It's a unique voice, and when combined with the warped slide guitar of lead axe murderer Roger Kunkel, it quickly dawns that you're in the presence of a true original. The band hailed from somewhere out in the desert in southern California and undoubtedly this spooky environment informed their music considerably. It has a rural otherworldly quality to it, although it can't be described as country music (or even alt-country, although that movement was undoubtedly influenced by TWR). While pinning the band down and placing them in a neat pigeon hole is next to impossible, one thing is clear, they could play the hell out of it. On tracks like Wire Animals and Come Around, the band raises a hellish racket. And just when you think you have the band's abilities nailed down, they weigh in with Thing. This little ditty about love turned sour is so insidious, so beautifully rendered, once heard it will never be forgotten. Roger Kunkel's amazing signature slide guitar is a feature of the album throughout, especially on Wet Heart where the pairing reach new heights of dementia. He is surely one of the slyest, most talented and under-appreciated axe smiths of his time. In their short career TWR would struggle to reach the heights of Moonhead again, although a subsequent slab, The Ruby Sea, is definitely up there in terms of pure weirdness and originality.

88. Pussy Galore - Corpse Love, The Early Years (1988)

One of my most sincere regrets is selling the LP version of this album which has since ceased to exist. This 1988 release compiled the tracks from the first PG releases including the Feel Good About Your Body 7", Pussy Gold 5000 ep and Groovy Hate Fuck ep. All of this, along with some other tracks off the Pussy's notorious full length cover album of the Stone's Exile on Main Street, and other material from that time, was released years later on the CD Corpse Love. But damn the original LP (original cover art shown here) was a thing of power and beauty, and I just preferred the single minded purity of the thing. Pussy Galore were easily one of the most influential bands to come out of NYC in the late 80s early 90s. Jon Spencer would go on to bigger things with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion but his early band in a lot of ways was a lot more impressive. Featuring the ultra-cool Julia Cafritz on guitar, supplemental vocals and general attitude, plus the guitar genius of Neil Hagerty, who would later form the mighty Royal Trux (more of them later), the Pussies were pure hell on wheels. This first offering was so raw, so brutal, that when mates and I first listened to it, we thought it was a joke. There was no bass to speak of, drums often consisted of bit of scrap metal and the subject matter was offensive in the extreme. A few song titles to wit: Cunt Tease, You Look Like a Jew, Kill Yourself, Die Bitch, Dead Meat, Pretty Fuck Look, Teen Pussy Power. It was nasty-ass! But the lyrics were also frequently hilarious and the songs even tuneful, although it did take a few beers to unlock the secrets within. There was a method to their madness. At first glance it sounded like something out of a nightmare, a demolition derby, the end of civilisation as we knew it. Take one part Cramps, one part Unsane and one part Stooges circa Raw Power and you'd have an inkling of the kind of mayhem these guys produced. In the fullness of time, I grew to love them dearly.

87.  Pixies - Surfer Rosa (1988)

The listing of this album so low down on the list might provoke howls of protest from my massive readership *ahem*, given that it has since become one of the most iconic records of the era, but as I said originally this list is as much chronological as anything else so don't take it so much to heart kiddies. 

I received this on its release in 1988 while living and working in East London as a student reporter for the Daily Dispatch. I was ensconced in a commune with several other blokes, three of whom also worked at the paper. I used to order two records a month from Street Records in Johannesburg. They only cost 50 bucks apiece but seeing as how I was earning just under a grand a month, that was all I could afford. 

This record was released simultaneously with fellow Bostonian's The Throwing Muses' sophomore effort House Tornado. I ordered them both and was immediately taken with the Pixies' more rough-edged, guitar-driven sound, although the Muses album is a classic in its own right. The cover art (LP version shown) was by design genius Vaughan Oliver and of course it remains a classic in the annals of 4AD. For some reason I don't remember my initial listening experience as vividly as some of the other albums listed here, but I do recall being really taken with the spanish bits, both on the cover and elsewhere. 

It's pretty hard to judge this record objectively now, given how much water has passed under the bridge. Suffice to say they were true originals and I still consider Surfer Rosa to be the best thing Pixies ever did (although on any given day, I will just as easily accord Doolittle that same honour). On most days though I prefer Steve Albini's rough 'drums-first' production over Gil Bellows' slicker finish, and songs like Where is My Mind, Something Against You, Broken Face and River Euphrates have that quintessential Pixies sound to my ears. 

Unfortunately this band was seized on as the holy grail by a lot of people later in the day and as a result their music became somewhat over-exposed. Although this does not affect the quality of the music at all its a bit like having a hot new girlfriend who you really dig and then finding out that most of your mates have already slept with her. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I don't listen to this band nearly as much as other records from that time but it never fails to amuse when I do give it a spin.   

86. Big Black - Atomizer (1986)

Hooboy! Where to start with this one? This album came into my possession after my buddy Chris decided he didn't like it and asked if I wanted to swap. I had just got Meat Puppets' Up In The Air in and it hadn't quite grabbed me so I offered him that. The rest, as they say, is history. I remember putting it on, listening to Jordan, Minnesota and it felt like I'd fallen through the rabbit hole. For me this was a pivotal moment in musical appreciation, which sounds a tiny bit gay I admit. 

There's never really been a band quite like Big Black, before or since. They were like Kurt Russell's car from Death Proof, whipping down a deserted highway in some distant apocalyptic future, after the zombies or machines have won, depending on whose dystopian vision you subscribe to. When they get going its like a blitzkreig, only with guitars instead of tanks. Anything that gets in their way is just obliterated - instant roadkill. Their momentum was deadly, and their sheer efficiency was mind-blowing. Not a note was wasted. Critical to their sound were two things: the use of a drum machine (Roland) instead of a real drummer, the prominence of the drums and bass in the mix and custom made aluminium guitars that made this freaking weird hollow scraping sound. The most effective songs were little vignettes, short stories, some drawn from real life. 

Although it was the epic track Kerosene that gave the Brit weeklies Melody Maker and NME the most wood, for me it was the three songs in the middle that send the album into the stratosphere. Bad Houses, Stinking Drunk and Fists of Love are probably the height of the Big Black sound, particularly the first track, where they slow things down and employ a first person perspective. It allowed songwriter Steve Albini to really get his twisted story-telling abilities out there, and boy was it creepy as fuck. I tell myself I will not go/ Even as I drive there... Follow that up triptych with tornado Bazooka Joe and the head-crunching live finisher, Cables and you had a record that pretty much scooped out your brains and filled the cavity with nitroglycerine. 

I have to add that this is now available as a CD called The Rich Man's Eight Track Tape. As any fule kno Albini despises digital so he only begrudgingly agreed to release this material on CD. Lucky for us, they included some earlier material on it, including an EP called Headache. This is some of the best shit BB ever did, and includes head-crushing industrial stompers like Ready Men, Grinder and a beautiful little noir tale called Things To Do TodayBuy a pack of Squares...

[Check out this awesome and rare footage of an enture live BB show recorded in '87. BB kicks in at around 8 mins... ]

85. Royal Trux - Accelerator (1998)

OK, I better confess right up front that this is the first of several Royal Trux albums on this list. In my opinion, Royal Trux are the greatest unsung band of the last 30 years. It's stupefying to me why they aren't accorded the same wild accolades as other bands from that era, many of whom are infinitely less interesting. Although their upfront image was that of hopelessly wasted rockers straight out of Spinal Tap, it belies the quality of their output. Hidden beneath the 'too stoned to give a crap' personalities of Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty, ex-Pussy Galore, are incredibly talented musicians who can't help but create stone classics each time they venture into a studio. There is no other way to explain the rich complexity and enduring quality of their recorded output. 

Of all the RT albums I own, Accelerator is the least immediately accessible and most likely to sound just plain nuts to the sober or uninitiated. On this record, they put their cosmic blues rock persona to bed and reduced their songs down to the bare bones, injecting a strong element of the 80's style, glitzy trash sound that characterises Herrema's later bands, RTX and Black Bananas. The remarkable thing about Royal Trux is that each album they produce has its own distinct sound and flavour. On Accelerator, the chanty vocals and chaotic mash-up blender of found sounds are pushed to the front and the guitars are processed and mixed way down and sometimes eliminated altogether. 

Nothing on the album can be fully appreciated by one casual listen. Sometimes, like on Yellow Kid and Juicy, Juicy, Juice, the effect is so chaotic and raw it's as if they've regressed to the level of a scratch jug band on heavy acid. It's like Michaelangelo came back to life and started working in neon graffiti on the New Yawk subway. On The Banana Question, they repeat the line 'is that a question?' over and over again (with the odd expletive thrown in for good measure) until the chorus kicks in, as the band rips it up in the background with multiple instruments, most of which are impossible to identify. 

On New Bones they slow it down a tad and let some of that magical guitar come through a bit more, for a spacey funky sub-reggae vibe that will have you drooling down your chin if the spliff is big enough to last the ride. Just when you think they're done messing with you, they produce the daytime radio friendly Stevie, which might have been covered by the Jackson Five, that is, if the Jacksons were originally bluegrass musicians from the Ozarks. It sounds like utter chaos but the difference is that Herrema's and Hagerty's rampant talent and kaleidoscopic mixing abilities puts an unmistakeable stamp of genius on everything they do. 

84. Shudder to Think - Pony Express Record (1994)

This is another one that falls into the 'greatest bands you never heard of' category. Shudder to Think were an outfit from Washington DC who released several albums back in the mid to late 90s. I got into them around 1995 and the release for that excellent year in music was Pony Express Record, a shimmering, darting, swooning slice of rock heaven with a crooner at the helm and a kick-butt riddim section behind him. There's was a very visual sound and singer Craig Wedren could really turn a memorable phrase and PER was chock full of them. He also proved particularly good at writing music for film (check out quality lesbian drama High Art featuring Ally Sheedy for some idea of their soundtrack work). Pony Express Record was their fourth full length, if memory serves, and it really delivers on several fronts as an expression of 90s 'art rock'. Never been quite sure what that means myself but I guess it can be put down to rock that doesn't fit neatly into any one category. The first thing that hits you is Wedren's vocals. His soprano voice is not the sort of delivery you expect from a pretty hard hitting rock band (bear in mind, this was years before 'emo' came along). The next thing that separates STT from the rank and file are there superb arrangements. Nothing can really be taken for granted. Slow, fast, mid-tempo... they do it all, often in one song. It's a disorientating experience but no less delicious for it. On Pony Express Record, they really hit their stride with X-French T Shirt and No Rm 9, Kentucky. This is where the unique combo of Wedren's angelic vocals and the bands tricky-dicky, stop-start, keep-you-guessing rhythms gell perfectly. STT would release their masterpiece, 50,000BC a couple of years later but we'll get to that soon enough.  


83. Swans - Children of God (1986)

Swans. Has a band ever had a less appropriate moniker? I don't think so. Nevertheless it seems to fit perfectly and to this day it is one of my favourite band names. Swans arrived on the scene in the early 80s as a project dreamed up by front man and all-round driving force, Michael Gira (pronounced Jee-rah). Interestingly enough, Gira has stated he had absolutely no musical ability when he started the band. Some might chortle and say that was pretty obvious when you listened to the music, but considering the remarkable career he has fashioned (which shows no sign of abating) despite zero musical training, I consider it a hugely impressive feat that Swans have evolved from, dare I say it, ugly duckling to full-blown cult phenomenon. 

As any fule kno, Swans started life as a sort of musical camp-out for masochists. Their live shows were exercises in brutality, with songs with titles like Raping a Slave being hurled at the audiences like massive, extended aural hammer blows, with Gira exorcising his demons at the mike... and what demons! Gira is one dark boykie, make no mistake. However, by the time Children of God came about in 1987 Gira had hooked up with a lady named Jarboe blessed with the voice of an angel and Swans had really spread their wings, musically speaking (OK, I'll stop now). Her influence on the band during this period was considerable. 

Still, Gira's preoccupation with degradation and power remained firmly in play from a thematic point of view and the album is named for a notorious Californian cult that encouraged their followers to have sex with each other's children. Despite its nauseating provenance, CoG is a powerhouse of a record. Massive brain-crunching dirges like New Mind and Sex, God, Sex drive you mercilessly to the ground and then you are lifted up by apocalyptic folk songs like In Your Garden and Blackmail. Then on Our Love Lies, the two perform a duet that is akin to Johnny and June Cash on quaaludes. It's an amazing range of musical expression that creates a profoundly disorientating effect on the listener. 

Despite the urge to chuckle from time to time at the utter blackness of it all (Gira himself is well aware of this, the Swans' 'greatest hits' was entitled Various Failures), like all Swans' output, its a singular and hypnotic listening experience - if you have the stomach for it. Although knee-jerk labels like 'depressing' and 'gothic' have followed the band around for years, the unwavering commitment of the band to its artistic vision and the sheer beauty and power of the music cannot be denied. 

Gira and Jarboe: birds of a feather

82. The Jayhawks - Sound of Lies (1997)

I must admit right from the get-go that I bought this record without knowing much about the band at all. I seem to recall it was on special and I remember reading a glowing review of it (I remember the dude said SOL was 'about as exciting as rock and roll gets' which definitely impressed me). 

But I had no idea what the band sounded like. As it turned out, it was a near perfect slab of rock and roll and the sound of a band that was in the process of being torn apart (one of the founding members, Mark Olson, had just left, which just proves once again the old saw that creativity thrives on adversity).

The Jayhawks play a brand of cosmic country rock that it's not embarrassing to admit you like, although on this album they moved further away from their country roots and into increasingly... shall I say, 'groovy' territory. This record is so full of hooks and awesome melodies its ridiculous. I can hear everything from the Beach Boys to Crosby Stills and Nash to The Eagles on it. So maybe it's their Californian album? Hailing from the frozen burg of Minneapolis they no doubt yearned for sunnier places and the sound is definitely sun-drenched and blissed out, evoking long summer days surfing off Baja, those awesome station wagons with wooden sides and other fantastic imagery from the classic era of longboard surfing.

They are also incredibly skilled musicians and multi-instrumentalists so if you're the kind of person who gets off on that, this is the record for you. The beautiful production, courtesy of legendary knob twiddler George Drakoulias, will also have you in ecstasy. It is pure ear candy from start to finish. SOL is filled with heartbreaking harmonies, lead by singer Gary Louris, who has the ideal voice for a country rock band, filled with yearning and sorrow. The back-up vocals, however, are the secret ingredient that's pushes it into fresh heights of aural pleasure along with the superb piano backing (I am a sucker for piano in rock music) and other exotic instrumentation that crops up throughout. 

I got into this record so much I went out and bought a few more Jayhawks records, including the follow up, Smile and earlier outings when Mark Olson was still with the band like Blue Earth, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass. The latter in particular is a near-classic although it does not have the consistency of SOL, which I consider to be the finest offering from a band who I reckon belongs in the rock and roll hall of fame.

81. Mercury Rev - Deserter's Songs (1998)

It was difficult to figure out where this record should go on the list. It is undeniably a piece of absolute musical genius but its not typically what I go for. It's one that I have to be in the right mood to enjoy. Its not exactly difficult but it is demanding. Suffice to say its great to listen to as you're drifting off to sleep because it definitely evokes a dream world of infinite possibility straight out of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. It has a real timeless quality and fits right alongside the Jayhawks' SOL in that, it too, is a perfect expression of what Gram Parsons called 'cosmic American music'. The Rev are indeed cosmic. When they hit the scene with a major bang in the early 90s with Yerself Is Steam, the praise they garnered was pretty much ecstatic. Here was a unique sound that seemed to herald something totally new in rock music. As it turned out Mercury Rev were no one trick ponies and they proved they were deep... real deep, venturing out even further into the distant reaches of the universe a few years later with Deserter's Songs. It's a unique record in that even lovers of classical or opera or jazz (hell, Broadway musicals even) would likely respond to it. It has everything: great songs, beautiful melodies, fantastic production, exotic instrumentation aplenty. At first listen some may find it a bit twee and refuse to delve further but that would be a mistake. As big a fan as I am of dirty rock and roll with guitars front and centre, the likes of Deserter's Songs - which eschews guitars almost entirely - is no less powerful. It takes you on a journey, much akin to something out of the Wizard of Oz. And every step of the way is filled with wonder and dreaming. Its power to transport you simply cannot be denied if you keep an open mind and simply yield to it. Cynicism has no place in the world Mercury Rev creates, they are open-hearted wanderers of the universe and they will take you along with them if you simply close your eyes and let your imagination run free.

80. Sonic Youth - EVOL

For the final album in this instalment we go back to New York noise terrorists Sonic Youth. EVOL was the follow-up to their ground-breaking Bad Moon Rising outing and it saw the band considerably more 'filled out' and writing actual songs. For me this was the most fully realised Sonic Youth album of the early 'pre-Daydream Nation' phase and the one I returned to again and again over the years.  It still has that sinister edge of BMR on songs like Tom Violence and Shadow of a Doubt but at the same time it introduces a real sense of sensuality and femininity on songs like Star Power and Secret Girls, which no doubt shows the growing contribution of bassist Kim Gordon. Talking about femininity may seem a little weird until you consider that the noise scene was almost overwhelmingly male and testosterone laden. Kim Gordon and Julia Cafritz of Pussy Galore (who later formed a band together called Free Kitten), along with Lydia Lunch, were real pioneers of this budding movement. On EVOL Thurston Moore retreats almost entirely into the background on vocals (with the notable exception of Marilyn Moore) and the band is a lot better for it. Lucky for us he doesn't give up his duties entirely and there is plenty of the patented chiming guitars and feedback that makes this band instantly recognisable.  Although the follow-up to this, Sister, was in many ways even more accessible, and Daydream Nation is considered their masterpiece, EVOL has always seemed like the quintessential Sonic Youth record to me. The album has a remarkable cohesion and its literally busting out with vivid images at every turn. Not only that but the band rein in the noise for noise sake (only really indulging in it on closer Expressway to Yr Skull), focusing on the melodies instead and I think this is one of the reasons why it has endured for so long.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

My 100 greatest albums of the last 30 years

It's become pretty obvious to those of us who were of a certain age in the late 80s and early 90s that we were lucky enough to be in our prime when some of the greatest bands ever to come down the pike were cranking out album after album of truly awesome shit. It was like they were coming off some assembly line in rock and roll heaven, so sublime and consistent was the quality.

Of course, I'm not talking about the pap that was playing on the radio, hell no. I'm talking about the good shit that was coming out of the basements and garages and small clubs, mostly in the USA, coast to coast. These records were being released on small independent labels with names like SST, Touch and Go, Blast First, 4AD, Trance Syndicate, Amphetamine Reptile, Domino, Big Cat, Thrill Jockey, Glitterhouse, Kranky.... 

It was like a giant underground tsunami that built and built, until the wave finally broke sometime around the late 90s. By then, the world had discovered Nirvana and grunge happened and it got pretty messy. Some bands got signed to major labels and made a bit of dough and a lot of good bands who should've gone nova got passed over. 

But the music has stood the test of time. Some of those bands are now reforming and playing and touring again and sound just as great as before (Dinosaur Jr, Swans), others never quit playing at all but just adopted different personas. In any event, its hard not to be nostalgic, and I admit that most of my record buying in the last 5 - 10 years has been devoted to accumulating as many of the releases from this era as I can. Hell, there isn't much around these days that can even touch these bands, to my ears. 

So in the best tradition of anally retentive music freaks everywhere (of which I am definitely one), I thought I would try to sum up what I consider to be the best 100 albums that came out of that era. It's loosely defined as the best 100 in the last 30 years. What are we in now, 2013? So that would be since 1983. That would pretty much cover it. Some of these might predate that by a year or two, but hey, who's counting right?

So here we go... bear in mind, this is loosely in order of preference, but it's not fanatically strict or anything. Hell, it might even be in chronological order, as I think back on how it all presented itself to me. Above all, this list is strictly PERSONAL. These are the best 100 albums in my opinion. There are a LOT I had to leave out, no doubt about it, but that's the nature of the beast. Its all about ruthless culling until you get to that top list of all-time classics.

I wont put em all up at once, so keep checking back. This is the first 10, or 100 to 90, counting down... enjoy!  The rest will come along in due time (I do have a real job y'know).

100. The Blasters - Hard Line

This is pretty much where it all started for me. I took one look at the cover of this album and I was gone. Sucked into a vortex of pure Americana. It seemed incredibly cool to me that people would still be making traditional rock and roll in the early 80s, albeit with a hard punk edge. Dave Alvin's voice was also something else, it had pure hillbilly in it, a coyote yelp that spoke of the high prairie, cut through with the fins of a 1958 Plymouth Fury. Of course, these guys were pure Los Angeles by then, but the music seemed to encompass all of the USA. It took in Route 66, Sun Studios, the Appalachian Trail, the Mississippi Delta and the vast sweeping prairies of the mid-west. It was true blue. The lyrics were also superb, vignettes of a blue collar life, lived from paycheck to paycheck. It kicked off with the finger popping rockabilly of Trouble Bound, which spoke of the craziness of youth, the need to get out and live it up, no matter what the consequences and ended with the rip-roaring, hell-for-leather rebel yell of Rock and Roll Will Stand. For a 17-yr old, this was heady stuff indeed. Despite the energy of the music, it was clear the Blasters were real pros, hard-working musicians who spent every night in smoke-filled bars, playing the hell out of it. They played this stuff for a living, this was no side project while studying law at college. Although they were thrown in with a lot of new US music coming out at the time, they were clearly different. I just couldnt believe how cool they were. I immediately attempted to source a pair of skinny jeans, boots and striped shirt, just like Dave Alvin wore. I was a disciple from day one.

99. Jason and the Scorchers - Lost & Found

Jason and the Scorchers came out of the same barrel of bourbon as the Blasters (by then, the movement had been branded cow punk, which sounded kind of silly to my ears) but they were even more high octane. Lost and Found was sheer rock and roll, as pure and as devastating as 101 proof white lightnin' taken straight from the jar. Band leader and singer Jason Ringenberg had a pure, high voice that ached with yearning. He was a seriously natty dresser too, sporting a pink coat, string tie and full blown Stetson on the cover of the album. Hailing from Nashville, they were the real deal, as down home and countryfied as any cowpuncher tooling along in his Ford F-150 with a bottle of Bud between his knees. Except this wasn't any kind of country music you'd heard before, this was country played with punk fire and metal ferocity. They were like the bastard offspring of Jerry Lee Lewis and AC/DC. Jason and the Scorchers ripped that shit up! There were plenty of tunes, no doubt about it, but they played the hell out of it too. Lost and Found was their high water mark. We're talking a perfect set of tunes, by all accounts this should have been a massive album on the popularity stakes. The first two tracks - White Lies and If Money Talks - are pure slamming rock tunes, and by the time I Really Dont Want to Know kicks in, if you aren't on your feet playing air guitar and whipping your head back and forth, there's something seriously wrong with you. Hell, you may even be dead. 


98. The Gun Club - Miami

The Gun Club were lead by a madman with bleached blonde hair called Jeffrey Lee Pierce. A southern boy, transplanted to Los Angeles, he embraced the rock and roll lifestyle with no reservations and had a gargantuan appetite for the vices that have claimed so many musicians before their time as they would eventually claim him too. Miami was the second outing by his band, and although most Gun Club aficianados prefer the first album, Fire of Love, to me Miami was the sound that defined them. The cover was the first thing that caught my eye. Its a stark image of two of LA's famous palm trees, while the key members of the band are squashed into the bottom third of the picture. Jeffrey looks pissed as hell. Miami hits the ground running, there are no weak tracks on the album,  although a mighty cover of Creedence's Run Through the Jungle is a definite the stand-out. But it was the second half of the album where it achieved instant classic status. From the haunting voodoo of Watermelon Man, the demented stomp of Bad Indian, the story of infamous outlaw John Hardy and finally the brief but immensely powerful Fire of Love, with its cascading riff and crashing cymbals, the bands incredible diversity and creativity was in abundant evidence. The closer, Mother of Earth was blues rock perfection, and it never fails to send chills down the spine every time JLP sings the lines: I've gone down the river of sadness/I've gone down the river of pain/ In the dark under the wires, I hear them call my name/I gave you the key to my highway/and the key to my motel drawer/And I'm tired of leaving and leaving/ I can't come back no more/ Oh my dark-eyed friend/I'm recalling you again/Soft voices that speak nothing/speak nothing to the end. Jeffrey had been to the other side, looked into the abyss and he knew a bad end awaited him. But before he went out, he put down some true classics, of which Miami may well be the greatest testament to a life lived truly 'off the reservation'.


97.  Black Flag - My War

Full credit for this being featured here must go to my buddy Chris Kerstein, who saw the potential of this band way before I did (actually, the fact is Chris introduced me to most of the bands featured in this section). He practically thrust it under my nose and said, 'take a listen to this, fucker!' However, my head was into other sounds at the time, so I waved it off. More fool me. Years later, once I had become a committed fan of the Rollins Band, I would seek out the band again and come to fully appreciate the power of Black Flag. My War is a bizarre and challenging album, the title track a blast of sheer menace courtesy of Henry's patented turn-my-guts- inside-out vocal stylings and Greg Ginn's machine gun riffing. After that, things slow down a bit and Ginn's genius manifests itself, even introducing a bit of heavy metal in there with I Can't Decide. By the time you get to Beat My Head Against The Wall, you realise there is nothing at all predictable about this band. Later on, things get even weirder as the band slows down to a near crawl, pre-empting the doom rock movement that would spring up in the deserts of Arizona some years later lead by a band called Kyuss. Black Flag were always saddled with the success of earlier punk classic Damaged. As good as it was, that sound was very limited, and the real 'hardcore' fans were forever condemning them for wanting to spread their wings a little. This is idiotic in the extreme. Any creative person wants to be able to grow and try new shit and Black Flag were nothing if not creative. My War is the sound of a punk band doing whatever the hell it wants to do in the studio, while remaining fiercely true to its values. Nothing more punk rock than that.

98. Hüsker Dü - New Day Rising

Black Flag brought a lot of attention to the label SST, who had a variety of bands on their roster at the beginning of the 80s. One of these was a power trio from Minneapolis called Hüsker Dü. Yeah, weird name right? Apparently they got the name from some Swedish boardgame. Nobody had any idea how to pronounce the dang name either. It didn't really matter though because it looked cool as hell on the album covers. Plus they had this sound. It was pretty damn awesome. The guitars were loud, yet melodic. It sounded like there were three guitarists, but there was only one, singer Bob Mould. Yeah, weird name! Plus, old Bob looked like a redneck trucker, although as it turned out, he was pretty far from that. And they had all these tunes, gorgeous tunes. It was a punk rock all right, but once you got past the screaming on the title track, some really beautiful songs came to the fore. Like my all time favourite, The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill. My gawd what a song this is! The chorus is just the catchiest fuckin' thing ever. WTF kind of punk band was this? It turns out the band had not one but TWO great songwriters and they made sure the tunes never got boring. The tuneful side of HD would reach its epoch on a later album, Candy Apple Grey, but this one was a pivotal record for me at a certain time in my life when I was young, dumb and full of, well, you know what...

97. Sonic Youth - Bad Moon Rising  

It is hard to gauge exactly the impact this record had on my impressionable young mind. Suffice to say it was profound. From the bizarre cover image to the pic on the back of the band wrapped up against the New York cold, I thought they were the coolest dudes on the planet. These guys were just out there. Many would pick Daydream Nation as the Sonic Youth record to namecheck but for me, Bad Moon Rising represented the 'true' Sonic Youth. When I got through grooving on the cover art and the music kicked in, it got even weirder. Although Sonic Youth would gradually move more and more into melodic tunes that could be hummed while you drove around, on this album the sound was uniformly forbidding and severe. It sounded like western civilisation was on the verge of crumbling to dust and the apocalypse was just around the corner. Relying on chiming guitars, distorted feedback and cryptic intoned vocals, this was 'art' rock at its most hostile and oblique. What rescued it from pretentiousness was the undeniable power of SY's creative vision. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were a potent team, a Sonny and Cher for the disaffected generation. By the time the mighty closer, Death Valley '69 kicked in, with a stellar contribution from fellow NY art weirdie, Lydia Lunch, it was obvious that they would soon be leaders of the emerging New York noise scene, and so it came to be.   

96. Dinosaur Jr - You're Living All Over Me

Another band that SST had picked up on was yet another power trio, this time lead by a long-haired, sleepy eyed dude, who seemed to the antipathy of a rock star. J Mascis may well have been the prototype slacker, but when he got up on stage, he was a guitar god, and the band were infamous for cranking it up to ear-bleeding levels when playing live. J's guitar is the first thing that comes at you when you put this on, the wah wah pedal working furiously. Opening track Little Fury Things hits you right between the eyes, especially when J starts in with his deadpan vocals. Its a really weird combo, but it works. The rhythm section is perfectly in time and the songs are short but still manage to sound expansive. The songs were usually about the longing for understanding and companionship, no doubt signalling that the guys' high school years were less than wonderful. The lyrics of Sludgefeast expressed that yearning perfectly: I'm waiting/please come by/ I've got the guts now/to meet your eye. Naturally it makes for superb material if you're of a musical bent and feel the need to express yourself. The over-arching impression is that these guys were just busting out with musical ideas, and each track on the album is full of interesting asides. For a band on a punk label, they were helluva versatile on their instruments, even muso-like. Fortunately the guitar solos never overwhelmed the tunes, and as a result, You're Living All Over Me assumed instant classic status. Lucky for us, Dinosaur Jr have now reformed and are putting out new records, and they are just as great as anything they did 25 years ago.

95. The Replacements - Let It Be

This was another record cover that I pored over for hours. It just fascinated the hell out of me. To this day I still own a pair of dirty white hi-top Converse sneakers because of this record. It's just a bunch of dudes sitting on a roof, no grooming, no special lighting, no exotic animals or locations,  the incredible ordinariness of that picture didn't even hint at  the remarkable musical talent that the group shared. By day they were ordinary schmoes, wastrels, with no hope of ever becoming anything worth a damn. But by night, behind their instruments, they were budding rock gods. Ol' Bob Stinson, now dead, is the one second from left with the wasted look on his face. Chances are pretty good he was wasted at the time. Singer Paul Westerberg sits to his left. What a voice, what a writing talent. In any other universe, The Replacements would have been as big as Queen, or Led Zeppelin, they were that great. Let It Be is so full of incredible tunes its not even funny. And yet they were on the verge of falling apart before their career even got started, so chaotic was their general approach to everything. Despite this they still managed to produce an album that is still astonishing today in its amazing depth and variety. It even has a song on it called Gary's Got a Boner, (if that isn't the greatest song title ever, I don't know what is). But despite two albums of extremely trashy punk rock that preceded it the Replacements proved with Let It Be that they were very far from one trick ponies. Two albums were to follow that were arguably even better, cementing their position as easily one of the most influential bands of the post-Beatles era.

94. Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones

I know I referred sneeringly to 'pap on the radio' in the intro to this piece, but ironically that was exactly where I first heard Tom Waits. Granted it was late night radio when there was a much better chance of the good stuff being played. It was a piece off Swordfish and I was immediately struck by the voice and the rich imagery the song conjured up. To my mind Swordfish is one of the most cinematic records ever made. Every song is like a little movie in your mind. The words are so descriptive, the music so evocative, you only have to close your eyes to be totally immersed in it. On Shore Leave, the post-war feel of a sailor enjoying some RnR is rendered in such vivid detail, that its hard to believe Tom Waits wasn't in the merchant marines most of his life. On Soldier's Things, all it takes is a solitary piano and double bass as Waits recites a litany of items that once belonged to a boy gunned down in some foreign country to achieve an unforgettably haunting effect. The music is uniquely atmospheric. It's not a rock record, its not a jazz record, it's not a spoken word piece, but it has elements of all of these. Leading it all with his smoky, whisky drenched voice, Waits spins tales purely of the imagination, soaked in bathtub gin, one part Damon Runyon, one part pulp magazine and one part barbershop repartee. 

93. R.E.M. - Reckoning

In some ways it's bittersweet when a band you've known and enjoyed for a long time goes big. In the case of R.E.M. it was more bitter that sweet. This was largely because they seem to be divided into two different bands, the early and the later version, a bit like Elvis. It was the later version of the band that went massive, but for many of us, it will always be the early R.E.M. that is the one worth caring about. Reckoning was probably their first true manifesto. Although another excellent record - Murmur - preceded it, Reckoning is where R.E.M. came into full flower. All of the elements that defined the band were there in full strength. The whole affair was drenched in mystery, the unique mystery that is the American South. From the cover art by Reverend Finster, to the oblique vocal stylings of Michael Stipe (who on earth knew what he was singing about, but whatever it was, it sounded truly exotic), to the dense and intricate patterns woven by guitarist Peter Buck, it was a unique and exciting presence.  On Reckoning, this all comes together with stunning power on the track Seven Chinese Brothers. For a long time this was the quintessential R.E.M. song for me, along with Gardening at Night from the Chronic Town E.P. Not that it's the only good track on the album, in fact there isn't a weak number on the entire album, and they are more than capable of rocking out, (as Pretty Persuasion amply demonstrates). A band has never been able to sound quite so powerful without making a lick of sense before or since. It was pure musical poetry.

92. Scratch Acid - Scratch Acid

It's difficult to over-estimate the impact this album had on the American post-hardcore noise rock scene. It was pretty much unique when it first exploded back in 1984; with the exception of the Butthole Surfers, no-one else was working in this area. Considering it was an eight track EP that clocked in at just over 20 minutes, this was no mean feat. Still, there was enough madness and originality encapsulated in those eight tracks to fill three albums by any other band. These four scarily normal looking individuals from Austin, Texas had made a record that could give Ed Gein the heebie jeebies. From the moment the first track Cannibal comes gibbering and sobbing out of the speakers, you know you're in the presence of some truly debauched individuals who knew no limits to their collective imaginations. By the time you reached track 8, Lay Screaming, it was hard to prevent the bile from rising to the back of the throat. That didn't change the fact that they had incredible vision and musical ability however. They simply chose to write about the 'darker' side of life. David Yow would go on to do more psychopathic things with The Jesus Lizard, along with his compatriots David Wm Sims and Ray Washam, a rhythm section of extraordinary ability who also made an immeasurable contribution to the short-lived Rapeman project lead by analog champion and professional knob twiddler, Steve Albini. 

91. Honeymoon in Red - Honeymoon in Red

I don't recall exactly how this album came to be in my possession. Certainly my recollection of receiving it is not as vivid as some others. I do, however, distinctly recall the time and place that I first got into it. It is one of those albums that are able to take me back to that time in my life whenever I listen to it, which is possibly why I have such a fondness for it. Originally intended as a side project of notorious Melbourne punk rockers, The Birthday Party, the collaboration process apparently wasn't as equally rewarding for all involved, and the project never managed to produce another album. Despite the objections of Nick Cave and Mick Harvey (who asked that their names be removed from the liner notes) to the over-dubbed and remixed tracks, it is a vivid and startling listening experience, quite unlike any other.  Rich and varied sonic landscapes are created over which Lunch croaks or intones her lyrics like a giant black crow. My description might make it all sound unbearably gothic but the sum is often greater than the parts. The preoccupation of the songs is very much directly out of noir cinema - murder and betrayal, the usual smorgasbord of human frailty and treachery. The overall effect is pretty dark, admittedly, but the beauty of the arrangements and the peerless weirdness of it all saves it from complete parody. It works particularly well on tracks like Dead River, Done Dun and the mighty Three Kings. Truth be told the only thing that really lets the side down is the rather odd vocals by Mr Howard, which to my ears verge on the comical on Still Burning and the cover version of Some Velvet Morning. Let's just say, Nick Cave he ain't!

90. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - The Firstborn is Dead

Once again I have to thank my old buddy Chris for turning me on to this record. I distinctly remember him waving it at me, insisting it was brilliant. The cover was certainly startling enough, depicting Cave in stark relief, dressed all in black, hair slicked back, hands folded in front of him like a serial killer about to unveil all his darkest secrets. The music within was equally evocative and found Cave at the height of his obsession with the American South. As any fule kno, this part of the world offers a tremendously rich musical vein to mine, from delta blues to traditional folk and prison songs. Cave and the band were clearly steeped in it. From the opener Tupelo, which is as stark and forbidding as it gets, the album rolls forward with all the power of the mighty Mississippi.  Black Crow King continues in a similar vein, with its call and response form echoing that of the mournful work songs of old chain gangs. On Knockin' On Joe it gets so dark it borders on parody but it's rescued by the utter sincerity of the delivery. Fortunately the next track, Wanted Man, a cover of a song by Johnny Cash, is a real knock-out and easily one of the best things Cave has ever done. All in all Firstborn is Dead is once again an album that doesn't always make for easy listening, but is strong meat all the way and a work of tremendous imagination. Given I was barely out of high school when I started listening to it, and that it introduced me to the works of Flannery O'Connor, it sure as hell left an impression on my young, partially formed brain.