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. 

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