Monday, February 2, 2015

Hoo-boy, back in action! Apologies for the long delay between posts but that is LIFE, baby, the bills have to paid, etc etc. So without further ado, let's get down to it!



59. R.E.M. - Chronic Town (1982) 

Back when I was still a dumb-ass high school student my buddy Chris lent me this LP. I took it home and my life was never the same again. It was only five songs but it was the equivalent of a seismic event in my tiny little world. Once the second track, Gardening at Night, kicked in I was totally under their spell. My brain reeled trying to take it all in. What WAS this shit? WTF was Michael Stipe singing about? Was this even singing? All I knew was that it sounded like nothing else I'd ever heard, and it had a unique power unlike anything else around at that time, with the possible exception of Echo and the Bunnymen. Those two bands would dominate the early and mid-80s for me, along with a dozen others, including legends like Violent Femmes, The Replacements, The Blasters and Jason and the Scorchers. But R.E.M. had a lock on that most valuable of all ingredients for a budding rock band - mystery. And Chronic Town was the ultimate expression of their art. Even though they went on to be a major rock band and racked up millions of dollars worth of record sales, they never really surpassed that first EP in terms of intensity and pure rock and roll magic. It was a pivotal moment when the needle of my cheap shit turntable hit the first groove of Wolves, Lower. Not just for me but the entire planet. When this little five track grenade exploded it was the signal that we were about to begin the most fertile period of musical expression the world had seen since the late sixties. Little did we know it seems increasingly likely to be the last the world will ever experience. 

58. Rage Against the Machine - Battle of Los Angeles (1999)

Some people may find it a little weird to see this band on this list. They were controversial on many levels when they were around. They were intensely confrontational, sung about difficult social issues, pissed all over corporate America at every turn and yet they were hugely popular (well, their first album was anyway). Given their extreme views against corporates people were quick to accuse them of hypocrisy for signing to a major label which probably made them a lot of dough (like that's something to be ashamed of). In any event, the band had its own problems and by the time they got to Battle of Los Angeles, there was a lot of issues piling up and putting a strain on relationships, which had showed on the disappointing Evil Empire. Which made this, the follow up record, that much more remarkable. BOLA is definitely not the sound of a band falling apart. Its their best record by a long chalk in my opinion and looking back now, after all the bullshit and jealous sniping has faded away, they were really a pretty awesome unit.

First off, there are very few bands on earth who can reach the intensity of RATM when they are in full roar. Secondly, they were consummate musicians and it shows here on every track. That sounds like a wonky statement, but anyone who doesn't have a tin ear should be able to appreciate their abilities to create an insanely exciting racket. They also conjure up a degree of atmosphere on songs like Ashes in the Fall that is almost cinematic in the vividness of its detail. Tom Morello is of course legendary in what he can do with a guitar but its how he works seamlessly with the rhythm section of drummer Brad Wilk and bass genius Tim Commerford that makes this band so incredibly powerful. And then there's Zack de la Rocha, who I consider to be one of the most kinetic and riveting performers ever. Yeah, OK, both personally and politically he may have had problems up the wazoo but a huge amount of RATM's appeal can be credited directly to him.

Battle of Los Angeles is all vintage RATM subject matter but what sets it aside from the two earlier releases is that it just kicks serious ass from the word go. Over the first four tracks it achieves such a high level of intensity it sounds like the final testament from the last band on the planet who are witnessing the whole shithouse going up in flames before their eyes (bear in mind it was recorded in 1999). As it turned out it WAS their last testament bar the covers record Renegades and it sounds like they put every last ounce of creative energy and juice they had left into it. The level of energy and fury this record achieves is mind-blowing. The other thing that always impresses the shit out of me is the remarkable variety and creativity of these soundscapes. You'd think a rapper fronting a rock band would get lame fast but BOLA is chock full of cool ideas, possibly peaking with the incredible Mic Check which amply demonstrates just how much potential this genre hybrid had. Potential which I think only RATM and possibly the Beastie Boys ever fully realised.

Much credit for this must go to Morello, a musical prodigy of epic proportions who straddled both the hip hop and rock worlds. He's never been more resourceful with his amazing guitar skills than he is on BOLA. But at the end of the day, this is the sound of band moving and playing together as a unit, at the height of their creative powers. When they finally imploded they left a big hole. I highly doubt we'll ever see their like again.

57. Rollins Band - Hard Volume (1989)

If you go through this list, it will become immediately apparent that one thing always impresses me where music - or any artistic endeavour - is concerned. That thing is intensity. Henry Rollins in his youth had enough of this ingredient to fill a warehouse and of course he poured it into some of the most extreme music you'll ever hear on this planet, beginning with his legendary stint with punk freaks Black Flag. After he left BF and formed Rollins Band, he was going through a period of his life which fed into his already highly developed sense of alienation and sociopathy, resulting in a remarkable period of creativity that is unmatched by any other artist working at that time that I am aware of.

These early RB albums were gathered on a fantastic box set (now unfortunately out of print) by some obscure British label who dubbed it Audio Airstrike Consultants 1986 - 1988, for some reason that escapes me. The set includes the records Hot Animal Machine, Live 1987/1988, Life Time and Hard Volume. However, my acquaintance with the other pieces came much later. My first exposure to Hard Volume  was shortly after it was released at a time in my life when I was ripe for something as instructional as this record. In fact, the release I had was slightly different in that it ended with the awesome 25 minute live track Joyriding with Frank, which is now found on the Live 1987/1988 re-release. I was aware of Black Flag and Henry of course but I never counted myself a huge fan that outfit or Henry at that time. I had also never heard anything by Rollins Band. Hard Volume changed all that in an instant.

I stated above that Rage's BOLA has few equals in my collection in terms of sheer intensity. That was a little bit of a reach. Henry Rollins in his early days had a total lock on intensity. Always one to wear his heart on his sleeve, his music was in your face to the nth degree. The cover art of the records at that time are an excellent pointer to the music within. Stark black and white photography (in this case Henry's naked torso, no sniggering at the back there Beavis!) and song titles. No extra bullshit, no pictures of the band posing, nothing quite so pussyfied as all that. It was something akin to a religious ceremony, a massive catharsis performed in public for all to see. He used to take to the stage in his gym shorts and nothing else bar multiple tattoos and with his new band - comprising Andrew Weiss, Sim Cain and Chris Haskett  - behind him in full force, he would reach deep inside his guts and pull out all the things about society that sickened him. And there was a LOT that repulsed him. These 'shows' could last 2 hours easy. I deeply envy those who were lucky enough to witness them.

Remarkably Hard Volume followed on from a possibly even more intense predecessor called Life Time which many consider to be THE Rollins Band outing. While Hard Volume arguably does not quite match Life Time's blow torch intensity (it would be impossible for even HR to top the likes of Gun in Mouth Blues, I doubt anyone ever will) where it does excel is in terms of the amazing 3D landscape that the band manages to achieve as they give musical life to these brutal confessionals. The cool thing about the Rollins Band is while they could write straight ahead rock songs, they were never tied down to the format. Hard Volume stretches out. The songs are long, expansive, EPIC. Its probably wrong to even call them songs.

Bear in mind there's only seven tracks to the whole thing (although the CD adds a few outtakes - including the incredible Ghost Rider - and demo versions to flesh it out a bit). Once you've moved past the entres and get to the main course of four tracks comprising Planet Joe, Love Song, Turned Inside Out and Down and Away you are deep into Henry's world at that time in his life. And what a world it is. I challenge anyone to listen to these four songs and not be affected. With this tracks Henry plumbed depths of his soul no ordinary human being could ever confront, let alone commit to an artistic statement that was intended for public consumption. Its a stunning achievement and the sheer 'take no prisoners' ballsiness of it left a deep and lasting impression on me.

Rollins Band crushes yet another helpless audience into dust.

56. Fugazi - In On the Killtaker 

Its hard to talk about Henry Rollins without thinking about Ian McKaye and Fugazi. They were good friends before Rollins joined Black Flag and together they would create some of the most memorable music of the 80s - a truly remarkable relationship. Fugazi were known for their political and punk rock ethos almost as much as their music, but this actually does them a disservice. They were rigidly committed to the music, never courting the mainstream press or doing anything to 'sell' themselves other than touring relentlessly and producing one superb album after another. They also started their own record label, Dischord, released all their own records, set the prices themselves (when I was living in the UK and hard up for dough, I actually used to buy Fugazi CDs because they were cheaper than all the others), controlled every part of the process so that they could do what they wanted on their own terms. On top of all that they were simply brilliant. Its actually hard to pick a Fugazi album to feature on this list, but In On the Killtaker was my introduction to the band and for me it remains their finest moment. although the next one Red Medicine was just as impressive in every way. Their sound became so influential at one point it seemed that every second band sounded like a Fugazi clone. Glassjaw, Quicksand, At the Drive In, Tar...   just a few that come to mind. 

55.  Bitch Magnet - Umber (1989) 


Which brings us to Bitch Magnet. Its hard to find a place for these guys on this list being as how they are easily one of the key influences on the entire post-punk hardcore movement. A trio based out of North Carolina, they released only two full length records that I am aware of - this one and Ben Hur which came out in 1990. Two! However, both are total fucking monsters. In fact either one could be here on this list and both deserve to be here. In truth, I'm not sure why I chose Umber over Ben Hur. Possibly because my release of Umber also contains the original release Star Booty. Anyway, nevermind.... get both! Its a damn shame they couldn't have kept it together long enough to do a third, although Sooyoung Park, genius frontman, did go on to make a couple of crackerjack records with his next band, Seam. At college when they started, the band later stated that their name as chosen as a joke - they were such geeks they couldn't get women to so much as look at them.

Therein lies a clue to their greatness. Like much great art, no doubt these epic tracks are fuelled by sexual frustration. However, not one to dwell on lyrics much, I was just attracted to the incredible sound of this record. There's only one guitar? Getthefuckouttahere!  Its just incredible the ROAR that they managed to create. And the drumming... oh my freaking high hat! But what really makes the record so engaging - what makes it a stone classic - is the uniqueness of the compositions, which just nail that ever-popular LOUD /quiet dynamic and Sooyoung Park's awesome mumbling delivery (when he's not yelling like a nutter) that people would later swoon over when Slint did it on Spiderland. Hey, Bitch Magnet did it first, OK, so just, like, get over it....  I cannot understand a word Sooyoung Park is saying but so what. Works like gangbusters anyway and all credit must go to whoever recorded this. The mix is freaking insane! I would like to add that actually securing this record was a momentous achievement in my record collecting history (bear in mind this was prior to the old interwebz). It wasn't an easy one to come by, as the band released it in a tiny obscure label named The Communion Label. Wow, cool. However, a crowd of visionaries called Temporary Residence Ltd has now released a CD entitled simply Bitch Magnet, which contains ALL of their back catalogue, including their first EP, Star Booty. Apparently this is 'remastered' for digital which makes it very tempting. In fact I think I will add it to my Amazon cart right now.  

54. TAD - Salt Lick / God's Balls (1990/1989)

[OK, a little preamble first. I will freely admit that this list has changed a few times since I started it. I have a lot of records and they are scattered all over the house. So what happens whenever I sit down to write a piece for this list, I have to go and look for the actual fucking record if I don't have it on my hard drive (which is frequently the case) and then take another listen to it to refresh my memory. Which wouldnt be a problem EXCEPT my shit is totally disorganised. No alphabetical or anything like that. So I have to REMEMBER where the CD is. Yeah, ball ache! So in the process I sometimes come across something and think to myself, "oh fuck, this HAS to be on there..." which means something has to come off. Now I did have Screaming Trees' Dust on here as well, but damn it, they already had Sweet Oblivion, so I removed that and included THIS monster of a record, which is actually TWO albums, but so fucking what.... who cares!]

Alright alright alright .... enough of that, lets get back to it. Man, what can I say about THIS brute of a release? I picked it up in Tower Records in London - may that great store's soul rest in peace - that much I do remember. It should be pretty clear by now that I like hard guitar rock. I'm not apologising for that. If you were expecting more rap (which I do like, oddly enough) or folk (ditto) or fucking German techno, then tough shit! This is NOT the list for you. As I said earlier - intensity is what impresses me. And THIS record has it in spades. Great big heaping bulldozer heaps of it. I mean how can you NOT include a record called God's Balls? Its just not possible. OK just a quick bit of background. You all remember grunge right? Who can forget that shit? Well, Tad came out of that Seattle scene but they weren't grunge, nothing like it. God knows WHAT they were. A kind of hellacious metal/punk combo with a giant bearded nutjob as a frontman. Who was of course Tad Doyle. Now everyone who was into music at that time remembers the fat guy who led this band but by Christ not many remember that they were absolutely incendiary and played the absolute bejesus out of it. ESPECIALLY on these two records which came out in 1989 and 1990 respectively (yes, indeed those of you who are paying attention will have noticed: 1988 - 1990 was an insane couple of years for music!!!).

This release starts off with Salt Lick which is actually an EP and then goes into the debut album - the hilariously named God's Balls. Salt Lick is easily one of the most crushing records I have in my collection. It is MASSIVE. I don't know what these guys were on or smoking or drinking, whatever it was, they were seriously fired up when they did this record. It is just brutal. Recorded by Steve Albini it is unfortunately now quite muffled and requires that you crank it right up to appreciate all the finer details. I wish like hell someone would release a re-mastered version but that is unlikely. Although TAD were one of the best, most original and fiercest of the Sub Pop / Seattle bands they faded into relative obscurity quite quickly and their mates Nirvana and Soundgarden (I wont mention the other one that starts with P, even though I will confess to actually buying their debut album) went on to much bigger things. What a real shame. They were really something. In any event, this is an ESSENTIAL release if you ever want to burrow deeply into the pivotal '88 - '90 years and understand FULLY just what was going on in those heady days.

53. Tool - Lateralus (2001)

Holy shit man, I can't believe how good this list is getting now. Practically every record from now on is going to be a freaking masterpiece. I have TWO Tool records on this mother raping list so you can appreciate that I really RATE these bastards. I don't really have a ton to say about this record. It came out in the mid-90s from what I recall. I remember getting into Tool when I was in London in '95-'96. That was an intense time for music, I was looking around for new stuff and I somehow got exposed to Tool. I think I read a review in on the of the Brit papers at the time and it sounded pretty intense. There was a picture of front man Maynard James Keenan performing at a gig and he looked pretty damn intense, that much I do remember. So I went out looking for their debut full length record, Undertow. For some stupid reason it was very hard to find, even in London. Well not so much hard to find as expensive, which is just as bad. In any event, I eventually sprung for it and since then I have bought every Tool release.

Tool remain something of an enigma. First off, these guys are hugely popular, which is not exactly the case with most of the bands on this list. There are no less than 1,784 separate reviews for this particular Tool record on Amazon. That's right, 1,784 people sat down and gave their thoughts on Lateralus. This all despite the fact that they make intensely convoluted and difficult music. Reason being is they are classified as 'metal'. And as any fule kno, there are millions of metal fans the world over, the vast majority of them spotty faced male teenagers but there you go. The other reason for their devotion to this band is the mystery factor. Tool have a lock on mystery. They are smart enough to do very little press, they only release a record once every few years, each one is a hugely anticipated affair. The packaging is always very complex and expensive. The songs are long, intricate affairs, most going on for well over 5 minutes. All of this sounds suspiciously like the sort of Prog rock you used to get in the mid-70s, by bands like Yes, Rush and King Crimson and indeed, there are elements of that in Tool's work but thankfully for us all, they still manage to rock like a sonofabitch despite all that. They are the real deal and create a massive sound that still manages to be intricate and delicate while at the same time assuming the crushing heaviosity of a runaway Panzer tank.

52. Pain Teens - Destroy Me, Lover (1993)

So much promise unfulfilled. That's what I think of every time I listen to this record. I came across Pain Teens when they were part of a remarkable record label called Trance Syndicate which was started by King Coffey of Butthole Surfers fame some time in the early 90s. They were responsible for some insane releases by bands like Crust, Ed Hall, Cherubs, Drain, Today is the Day and several others. One of their best acts was Pain Teens, who released this fantastic album and two others - Born in Blood and Beast of Dreams - and then disappeared, to the best of of my knowledge. What a shame, because they were one of the most interesting and original acts to ever come out of that early 90s melting pot of musical creativity. Pretty much comprising two people - singer Bliss Blood and a talented knob-twiddler called Scott Ayers - Pain Teens created a vivid cinematic sound tapestry of amazing detail and complexity, hard to categorise and pin down. Destroy Me, Lover is notable for its remarkable variety, from the crunching heaviosity of Tar Pit to the bitter sweet croonings of RU486 to the apocalyptic folk of The Story of Isaac to the chaotic and kaleidoscopic closer Shock Treatment its a mind-blowing display of virtuosity, carried along by Bliss Blood's intoxicating voice and song-writing ability. As such Destroy Me, Lover remains one of the most interesting and unusual records in my collection. Its just a shame they couldn't keep it together a bit longer.

51. Luna - Pup Tent (1997)

The New York Times once described Luna as New York City's slyest band and I have to agree with that statement. They've also been described by Rolling Stone as 'the best band you've never heard of'. Understated just doesn't begin to describe it. They make it sound so effortless you really have to wonder why they bother showing up. But show up they will - count on it. I'd actually owned this record for quite some time before it finally revealed itself to me. I wasn't actually even expecting to like it that much but I'd learned from experience with their first release that Luna always reward repeated listening and with patience all will eventually be revealed.

And then boom! we were playing at work one afternoon, getting ourselves in the mood for a forthcoming Christmas party, and it just hit me how brilliant it actually was. The opening track IHOP is a classic example. The slithering guitar track which announces it is accompanied by a jaunty little counterpoint and metronomic drums while Dean Wareham does his chatty voice over. It trips along, keeping you entertained with its witty observations until the guitar kicks in again, this time with much serious intent (and accompanied by what sounds like trumpets?!?) before it reaches its eargasmic crescendo. And that's just the first track. You realise then that you are in the presence of true masters of the art, totally in command of their medium. Which should come as no surprise, considering they have been doing this shit for longer than most people have been shaving. First achieving a modicum of fame as the late lamented Galaxie 500, a band famous for being so laid back it was practically catatonic. Luna rose from the ashes with LunaPark in '92.

My buddy Athol admired that record a lot and I bought it on his recommendation. They went on to release one consistently great record after another and even gained some acclaim. In fact, Luna are like the Wes Andersons of the music world, in that you pretty much know what to expect, but the experience is no less enjoyable for it. Rolling Stone added Penthouse to their list of the best 100 albums of the 90s but in my humble opinion they should've kept listening cos the following Pup Tent for me is their finest effort. Where Penthouse is very laid back, even for them, Pup Tent is a lot more urgent, probably their most upfront record, as if they finally decided to emerge from behind the velvet curtain and just rock out. If Luna had a fault, it was that they could be a bit twee, a bit too cutesy pie. Pup Tent dispenses with all that. In fact, these ten tracks add up to about as close to a perfect record as you will ever find. And it won't even demand any of your attention. At first. Put it on in the background and go ahead and attend to the housework or whatever the hell. Just know before long you will find yourself in front of the stereo, not quite remembering how you got there, but just knowing you wanted to take a closer listen to that song to see if you can figure how they did that. Oh yes, sly indeed...

I'm going to end it there and get this out, as we will now be going into the top 50 - woohoo!! Stay tuned...