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.