Wednesday, June 27, 2012

197 Murmur. You can Murmur all you like.



Album: Murmur
Artist: REM
Year: 1983
Genre: Rock

Tracks

  1. Radio Free Europe
  2. Pilgrimage
  3. Laughing
  4. Talk About the Passion
  5. Moral Kiosk
  6. Perfect Circle
  7. Catapult
  8. Sitting Still
  9. 9-9
  10. Shaking Through
  11. We Walk
  12. West of the Fields

It's funny how an album's appeal waxes and wanes. When Murmur was first released in 1983, Rolling Stone Magazine was enthusiastic but held one star in reserve when giving it 4 out of 5 in it's review. Great but could be better.

By the end of 1983 when Rolling Stone compiled their greatest albums of the year, Murmur had somehow found that extra star and topped the list. On reflection it was clearly the best thing anyone had put out that year and even beat Thriller (which managed 20% more stars when it was reviewed).

Seven years later, Rolling Stone sat back to consider the best albums of the entire decade and concluded Murmur was actually only the eighth best, one behind Thriller at number seven.

Leap forward two decades and Rolling Stone is compiling the best albums of all time- the hallowed top 500. Murmur makes the grade but it's definitely beneath Thriller, 150 places beneath it in fact.

It seems time has not been as kind to REM's debut as it has to Michael Jackson's biggest album which on the whole is strange. REM continued to be a well-respected band who earned extra kudos by quitting when they were ahead. Jackson became a walking punchline who generated more headlines than positive reviews. You would think their reputation would have soared while his took a beating. Granted Jackson died which is always a brilliant career move but this list was put together when he was still alive but his career was on dialysis in an iron lung.

It's more surprising still when you consider the fact that Thriller sounds like a product of the eighties but Murmur seems kind of timeless. It relies on a guitar/bass/drums formula which worked in 1963 and still works today. If you put REM's career retrospective best-of on random you'd be hard pressed to pick the 1983 tracks from the latter ones.

For some reason however Murmur has gradually ebbed away in people's estimations and has been overtaken by a host of other albums that languished below it when the decade was being assessed in 1989.

My own explanation is that the main reason people loved Murmur so much in 1983 was that it sounded like it could have come from 1963 which back then was a rare thing. When everyone was recording with synthesizers and drum machines, the sound of a rock band doing what rock bands used to was a breath of fresh air. It was enough to be afford it a degree of greatness then but thirty years later it sounds a bit... dull. The production values aren't good enough to elevate it above a fairly mediocre collection of tunes that don't really linger in the memory long after the album has ended.

Highlight: Radio Free Europe
Lowlight: We Walk

Influenced by: Big Star
Influenced: College radio

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote:  "I'm aware the sheer mediocrity of Murmur is blinding"

-I've never heard mediocrity described as "blinding" before.

Friday, June 22, 2012

198. The best of Little Walter- Who?



Album: The Best of Little Walter
Artist: Little Walter
Year: 1958
Genre: The Blues

Tracks
  1. My Babe
  2. Sad Hours
  3. You're So Fine
  4. Last Night
  5. Blues with a Feeling
  6. Can't Hold Out Much Longer
  7. Juke
  8. Mean Old World
  9. Off the Wall
  10. You Better Watch Yourself
  11. Blue Lights
  12. Tell Me Mamma 
I've said it before and I'll say it again- this list is odd. It keeps throwing me surprises but few things are more baffling than its treatment of The Blues. I'm a great believer in the blues as an artform and if I had my way there'd be a lot more of it here but it definitely wouldn't be in this order. If you're going to list the top Blues artists of all time (and I'm sure people have) John Lee Hooker would be near the top of everyone's lists, Bo Diddley would feature as would Albert King. Little Walter would appear somewhere but you would think he'd live in the shadow of Hooker, Diddley and King.

But not on this list.

On the top 500, Little Walter sits above great releases by much bigger names. Hooker, Diddley and King all appear much lower in down the countdown and don't appear above him at all while Howlin Wolf, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters all have great releases considered less worthy than Walter's efforts.

It's baffling and even more bizarre when you consider the fact that Little Walter's biggest contribution to blues music was to revolutionize the harmonica. Now I've no doubt the harmonica was long overdue for a bit of a stylistic overhaul. It needed an inspirational force as much as any other instrument (except perhaps the Lute, the great rock lutist has yet to come forward) but there aren't really that many people out there playing it are there? I'm pretty sure almost every album on this countdown features a guitar somewhere and I can safely say there are drums on every single album- but the blues harp is a lot more limited in its scope.

So why is a guy who revolutionised an obscure instrument more highly regarded that a guy who invented an entire beat and the guy who wrote Boogie Chillen (and by extension La Grange)?

That's not to say this isn't a great album. It's classic blues with some songs that might not be instantly recognized by most but have been covered by Clapton and his contemporaries throughout the ages. They might not be blues standards but they're certainly not blues sub-standards. There's some great stuff here.

If you're a fan of blues harmonica you probably own this already. If you've got an interest in the blues then this is worth checking out, but only after you've payed your blues dues to John Lee, Bo and Albert.

Influenced by: Robert Johnson
Influenced: You know that harmonica player? Yeah him.

Highlight: You better watch yourself
Lowlight: Sad Hours

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "This is certainly the place to start, the finest single-disc Little Walter-compilation on the market."

-And you know that there are lots of others to choose from. You can only call yourself a great bluesman if your compilation count reaches a half century.

So is Little Walter bigger than Hooker? Let me know below.

Friday, June 15, 2012

199- Highway to Hell. Advance Australia Fair



Album: Highway to Hell
Artist: ACDC
Year: 1979
Genre: Rock

Tracks

  1. Highway to Hell
  2. Girls Got Rhythm
  3. Walk All Over You
  4. Touch Too Much
  5. Beating Around the Bush
  6. Shot Down in Flames
  7. Get It Hot
  8. If You Want Blood (You've Got It)
  9. Love Hungry Man
  10. Night Prowler

Hooray! This is a truly wondrous and momentous moment for this little blogger. I've done 300 of these posts over the past three years and I've tagged every one of them. I've filled out a box that used to be below my text (but blogger moved to the side because they have to enforce a meaningless cosmetic update once a year in order to look contemporary) designating the year, decade, genre and nationality of the release. The latter usually sees me selecting American with occasional British respite. But not today. Noooo today is different. I'm proud to be typing this while standing at attention and announcing that this post requires me to create a tag called "Australian".

It's a moment that swells me with pride, the edge of which is dulled somewhat by the knowledge that it's taken over 300 posts for this tag to be employed and in the next 200 albums I will get to use it only one more time- for the same band.

According to the people who voted for this list, the only musical act to step out of the great southern continent was ACDC. Forget Hunters and Collectors, Spy V Spy, anything Nick Cave has been in or Midnight Oil, they don't exist or they just don't matter. Oh well. Such is life, as another great Australian said before his career was abruptly ended. We should be thankful for what we've got even if what we have is 1/250th of the countdown.

Highway to Hell catches ACDC at the peak of one of their mid-period reinventions when they'd clearly been listening to music from the baroque era while developing a fascination for poylrhythms, fretless cellos and Kierkergaard. No that's just crap I made up for a giggle- it catches ACDC in the period just before their first singer died and they found another one and continued as if nothing changed. It's rock and roll with bad boy lyrics and badly-veiled sexual references (unless the lyrics to Beating Around the Bush are more charmingly naive than I've given them credit for). It's pretty much the same album they released five times before and would release again and again over the following decades.

But don't for a second think I don't love this to bits. It's rock that never deviates from a formula but that formula really works. You know that an Acca Dacca release will have two really great songs on it and a lot of filler. Sometimes that filler is never worth hearing twice but their great albums (the ones on this list for example) have a better quality of filler. Girls Got Rhythm, Shot down in flames, Walk all over you and Touch Too Much don't have you reaching for the skip button which means Highway to Hell is actually worth listening to all the way through.

The top 500 might not have Cut, 10-1, Redneck Wonderland or Harry's Reasons but at least ACDC are flying the flag for Australia. Now if you'll excuse me I have a tag to use.

Highlight: Highway to Hell
Lowlight: Get it hot

Influenced by: Chuck Berry
Influenced: Boofhead bands. Lots of boofhead bands (god love 'em)

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote:  "For good lovely music, get Foreigner and Dire Straits insted who were a billion times better than this lousy AC/DC album."

-Good and lovely aren't words I've often heard associated with the music of Foreigner.

So how far are you down the highway to hell? Let me know below.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

200- The Downward spiral. So much hurt





Album: The Downward Spiral
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Year: 1994
Genre: Rock

Tracks


1. Mr. Self Destruct
2. Piggy
3. Heresy
4. March of the Pigs
5. Closer
6. Ruiner
7. The Becoming
8. I Do Not Want This
9. Big Man with a Gun
10. A Warm Place
11. Eraser
12. Reptile
13. The Downward Spiral
14. Hurt


Ironic that I should hit a landmark like album 200 only to have it entitled The Downward Spiral. In theory we're ascending greater heights at this point and not descending anywhere. Every album should be a further step towards magnificence until number one makes us spontaneously weep tears of joy at its flawless perfection.

It's possible The Downward Spiral might induce crying in some listeners but not tears of elation. The theme behind Nine Inch Nails' most acclaimed album is the protagonist's slow descent towards a suicide attempt during the final track. Theoretically that means you could listen to the album in reverse order and it would detail one man's ascent from the depths of despair into a happier place, which would work if the album didn't start bleak already. The point from which the hero spirals downwards is fairly low in the first place.

Track One is Mr Self Destruct which features upbeat lyrics like:

I am the truth from which you run
and I control you
I am the silencing machine
and I control you
I am the end of all your dreams
and I control you

Cheery stuff. From that whimsical highpoint the album descends slowly to the final track Hurt. Not since Hendrix covered All Along the Watchtower has a song been so conclusively taken over by another artist. Johnny Cash's version of Hurt, recorded less than a year before his death, takes Trent Reznor's original, strips away the anger and layers on an old man's melancholy at the end of his life. In an era where every technique, idea and affectation had been used in a video clip at least twice, Cash delivered one of the greatest set of images ever to accompany a musical performance.

A concept album about one man's downward spiral into nihilistic, existentialist despair is a recipe for the worst kind of self-indulgent tedium but Reznor manages to salvage his vanity project by being original and unpredictable. It's introspective industrial rock with techno beats and instrumentation that refuses to be bogged down in any specific genre. While it's generally heavy and Reznor delivers vocals with a sense of shouty angst, it's capable of throwing you for a complete loop throughout its running length.

The Downward Spiral requires a certain occassion to appreciate, it's not something you would fling on when guests pop by for dinner or you wanted something upbeat and breezy to accompany your housework, but if you're in a dark mood and you don't want manufactured blackness it might be just what you need.

Highlight: Hurt (but it's even better when Cash does it)
Lowlight: By the final few songs the sense of despair might be too much for some.

Influenced by:  Techno, german industrial music and despair.
Influenced: Johnny Cash,

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "This is computer-generated malaise-oriented music to hate yourself by and which will turn you into the wussy which will embarass both of your parents (unless your Dad is gay and bi-polar)."

-Amazon reviews: offending people for over a decade and still going strong.

So is this a downward spiral into terrible music or damn good fun? Let me know below.

Friday, June 8, 2012

201 Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme-



Album: Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme
Artist: Simon and Garfunkle
Year: 1966
Genre: Pop

Tracks

  1. Scarborough Fair/Canticle
  2. Patterns
  3. Cloudy
  4. Homeward Bound
  5. The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine
  6. The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)
  7. The Dangling Conversation
  8. Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall
  9. A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd into Submission)
  10. For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her
  11. A Poem on the Underground Wall
  12. 7 O'Clock News/Silent Night

The more you listen to Simon and Garfunkle the more you realise that their inevitable break up wasn't the dissolution of a partnership as much as a songwriter shedding his backing vocalist. Simon wrote all the songs on Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme and sings most of it. Garfunkle tinkles the piano but if Simon couldn't have played the parts himself he could easily have found someone lounging around the studio who could have done it just as well. It's hard to know exactly what Garfunkle brought to the partnership, I can only assume he had really good drug connections or made excellent coffee.

Simon managed a few career highpoints after the partnership broke up but Garfunkle never really made it as a solo artist. Part of his issue was no doubt related to the fact that there's something romantic about a duo. There's just something about idea of two guys who join together to make music. We love the idea of friendship and we love picturing a duo making each other laugh and enjoying each other's company while they create magic. It's why the great comic double-acts (Morcambe and Wise, Fry and Laurie, Laurel and Hardy, Bush and Quayle) are so popular and endearing. Friendship is such a noble and basic ideal.

It's also what makes the dissolution of a partnership so unsettling. When bands collapse we're sad but often not surprised. We can blame musical differences and understand how hard it is to keep a collection of individuals together. But the breakup of a partnership feels like two friends falling out. It's one guy saying "I can't stand that guy anymore". We like to think they could work through their differences and keep going.

But Simon decided to shed his foolish-haired "partner" and go it alone. When you study the sleeve of this album you can understand why. He clearly didn't need Garfunkle around and was probably sick of having to give co-credit (and co-finances) to a guy who was basically an appendage with a silly name.

Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme has some classic songs (The opening track, Homeward Bound and "na na na na na na na Feeling Groovy") and it's fair share of less than inspirational filler. The mediocre tracks are actually a bit of a surprise when you look at their career. Sixties bands were notorious for cranking out albums at a furious pace. The Beatles managed two a year on average and Creedence once hurled three out in a single 12 month period. Sime and Garf managed less than one a year. You would expect their hit ratio to be slightly higher. But it's a minor quibble, when an album has Homeward Bound it seems churlish to complain because not all the songs are that good.

Influenced by: Dylan
Influenced: General acoustic ballardy

Highlight: Homeward Bound
Lowlight: 7 O clock news/Silent night (a statement where there should be a song)

Favourite Amazon Customer review quote: "Isn't it time that we all admit that some things from the sixties just don't age very well?"

-A fairly contentious quote to start a review with.

So you do think think Simon was a wise Sage or just a product of his Thyme? Let me know below.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

202 Bad. Possibly Very Bad



Album: Bad
Artist: Michael Jackson
Year: 1987
Genre: Pop

Tracks


1. Bad
2. The Way You Make Me Feel
3. Speed Demon
4. Liberian Girl
5. Just Good Friends
6. Another Part of Me
7. Man in the Mirror
8. I Just Can't Stop Loving You
9. Dirty Diana
10. Smooth Criminal


There are few things in modern music more creepy than Michael Jackson trying to be romantic. When he sings a slow ballad declaring his love it's genuinely shiver inducing. I'm not just saying that because there's a real chance that the people who aroused feelings of affection weren't old enough to see Die Hard without an accompanying adult, it's something about the way he sings. It's an attempt to be romantic and slightly sleazy from a guy who doesn't really understand romance or sleaze. He sounds like someone whose heard about love and listened to Sinatra trying to woo someone but doesn't really understand what's behind it. Jackson does romance the way my niece does knock knock jokes- she understands the mechanics behind what's going on but she doesn't actually know how to do the funny bit. Unlike my niece's attempts at door-related hilarity however, Jackson is deeply unsettling when he tries to touch genuine human emotion.

Thankfully Bad isn't a collection of Jackson's love songs. In amongst his attempts to mimic humanity he gets angry, which is something that people from his planet do very well. Ire is an emotion that Jackson pulls off with a lot of success. The title track and Smooth Criminal show off what a compelling guy the King of Pop could be when he had a reason to shout and go "Woo" and "Shamon" and make other noises that expressed mild irritation. A tetchy Jackson makes for a much more engaging artist than an infatuated one. Interesting then that throughout his numerous trials and legal issues, when you'd think he'd have a legitimate reason to get stroppy,  his music was at his least successful.

Bad hasn't dated well at all. The eighties instrumentation and its creator's legal issues have conspired to take away something of its edge. It's a dance album written for the type of discotheque that doesn't exist anymore and while it was a perfect snapshot of the time,s it's not something modern audiences can connect with in an era when dance music has lost its innocence and so has Michael Jackson.

Influenced by: Stevie Wonder
Influenced: Alien Ant Farm (whatever happened to them?)

Highlight: Smooth Criminal
Lowlight: I just can't stop loving you

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Jackson has been dead for a couple months now right? Why is he still in the paper? What about Ted Kennedy? He was a senator for decades and nobody gives a damn. what the hell is wrong with this picture?"

-Interesting social commentary but is an Amazon review really the time and place?

So is this Bad or not? Let me know below.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

203. Wheels of Fire- Three guys playing together



Album: Wheels of Fire
Artist: Cream
Year: 1968
Genre: Rock

Tracks

  1. White Room
  2. Sitting on Top of the World
  3. Passing the Time
  4. As You Said
  5. Pressed Rat and Warthog
  6. Politician
  7. Those Were the Days
  8. Born Under a Bad Sign
  9. Deserted Cities of the Heart
  1. Crossroads
  2. Spoonful
  3. Traintime
  4. Toad
Eric Clapton is a brilliant sideman. Or at least he should be. The guy is an incredible guitar player, adequate but limited vocalist and occasional songwriter. He has a real feeling for the blues, a tried and tested ability to rock and a tendency to descend into mawkish waffle. He's the sort of guy who was perfect as a lead guitarist in The Yardbirds or John Mayall's Bluesbreakers or would be brilliant if he could find a Mick Jagger to hitch his wagon too. He needs a singer to liberate him from the microphone and a songwriter worthy of his ability. Instead he has a career littered with former bands, less then inspiring solo albums and moments of magnificence playing other people's songs (and very occasionally his own).

Cream was Clapton's third major band and one of the first supergroups, with all three members bringing a successful past history to the band. Clapton played guitar and chose blues covers, Jack Bruce played bass and co-wrote the hits and Ginger Baker was in charge of drums, ugliness and odd children's poems. Together they performed incredible stage shows which showed off just how much they hated each other. The band was notorious for playing loud shows in which the three members would ignore what the others were doing and solo frantically on their own in an attempt to outshine the others.

Listening to live Cream you can appreciate how truly great improvised music requires an ability to pay attention to your bandmates. Miles Davis led groups who weren't just great players they were great listeners as well. Wheels of Fire is a snapshot of a band who never really liked each other in the first place not getting on well. It's made up of two discs- a collection of studio material with some terrible originals (Pressed Rat and Warthog is just dire) and a live album full of ego-driven self indulgence. Wheels of Fire would be a fairly tedious listen if it wasn't for White Room, one of the greatest songs recorded in 1968 and Crossroads one of the most exciting five minutes of music ever played on an electric guitar. The notes he flings out of that thing are just blistering. If all of Cream's live shows were that focused, intense and jaw-dropping they would be one of the best live acts ever, and if they consistently wrote songs of the quality of White Room they'd be known as so much more than just a failed experiment that briefly flared brilliant. Eric Clapton's career is what happens when the perfect sideman thinks he's a band leader. Cream is what happens when he plays with two other sidemen who have the same idea.

Influenced by: The Blues and The Beatles
Influenced: The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Highlight: Crossroads
Lowlight: Pressed Rat and Warthog

Favourite Amazon Customer Review: "If you feel that "Pressed Rat and Warthog" is just a humorous or novelty song, please pay more attention to the lyrics."

-Ooh no don't go doing that. And by the way I never thought it was humorous (or much of a novelty).

So are you glad the wheel was invented or do you wish they'd turn it in? Let me know below.