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...

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.