March Music Days: The Crucial 100
I’m going to be candid about the inspiration for this list: In 1995, Alternative Press published a list of the 99 best records to be released since they began publication 10 years prior. As an amateur student of rock music, by that point I’d consumed dozens of lists like this, all of them in established, respectable music publications, and all of them bearing an eerie similarity to one another. So you can imagine my surprise when I scanned the Alternative Press list and came across not familiar glorified workhorses, but names like The Dwarves and PJ Harvey and the Fastbacks.
That list was revolutionary for me. It was the first list that dared to say the canon was wrong. It was the first list that redefined which records mattered and why, and the first list to present popular music through a decidedly defiant perspective. Most importantly, it was the first list to suggest that maybe you don’t really need to own all those James Taylor records. It is in the spirit of that list that we present eMusic’s Crucial 100: 100 albums that we think it’s important you own. These are the albums that rearranged our brains, and influenced the music that we care about. And for you lucky winners of our $500 credit contest: This is where we think you should start spending.
Songs of Unrest & Revolution
No one — not Bob Dylan sneering at Mr. Jones, not Roxanne Shanté tearing other female rappers to ribbons, not U-Roy sending up "gal-boy I Roy"— has put so vicious a mockery on record as Sly Stone did with There's a Riot Goin' On. Only he wasn't attacking a straw man or the competition: as his band disintegrated around him (Sly did much of the instrumental work himself, with few full-band performances... and a handful of guitar parts handled by Bobby Womack), Stone was side-eyeing his impossibly hopeful earlier records. Riot turns everything he'd ever done inside out — and, as the ultimate proof of his genius, made it even stronger. Here, the affirmations of old turn queasy, and set up withering denouements: The brave and strong survive . . . But you're crying anyway 'cause you're all broke down. When I'm lost, I know I will be found . . . Look at you fooling you. That extended to the music, too, most clearly on "Thank You For Talkin' to Me, Africa," in which the audaciously celebratory 1970 single "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" is sent back on the road covered in soot and at a third of its previous gear, but it's equally easy to hear the stuttering horns of "Brave & Strong" and the jagged guitar vamp of "Africa Talks to You 'The Asphalt Jungle'" as Bizarro World versions of "Dance to the Music" and its kin. It's the longest, darkest night of the soul ever put on record; it's also the deepest, most compulsively listenable album Sly — or anybody else — ever made.more »
In February 2000, the Roots won their first and only Grammy for "You Got Me," the lead single from fourth studio effort Things Fall Apart. In its chorus, Erykah Badu sings as if she's already lost hope in her tour-diary romance; remorse breaks her words into two. But Things' Grammy-winning single barely indicates just how much the Roots had learned to illustrate the hip-hop stories they'd grown so adept in telling —... tales of a pained, conscious existence rather than a drugged-up one, orchestrated by mellowed-out arrangements far more nuanced than even Badu's masterful aching. In "Table of Contents (Parts 1 & 2)," ?uestlove's cymbals whirr as if being sucked into a vacuum cleaner as Black Thought ricochets across his retelling of the band's origins in South Philadelphia. A playful tit-for-tat with Mos Def ("Double Trouble") simmers and pops around gently pulsing chimes. Scott Storch's fingers listlessly drag their way through a keyboard melody over which a fraught Black Thought cries: "Building his fifth foundation in the wilderness/ thoughtless, trespassing into the Thought's fortress." "You Got Me" helped the Roots sell more than 900,000 copies of Things Fall Apart — more commercial attention than the Philadelphia band's ever received before. But as soon as the Grammy-winning single thrust the Roots into mainstream airwaves, the band decided to stray as far from Top 40 territory as possible. The result? The genre-bending Phrenology.more »
"We're Bikini Kill, and we want revolution girl style noooooow!" On this album's first song, nestled between shards of feedback, lead singer Kathleen Hanna howled the battle cry that lit riot grrrl afire. But it wasn't a double dare, it was a promise: for an instigative seven years, Bikini Kill dealt fierce blows to punk rock's misogynist "White Boy" (as one song is titled) through abrasive guitar blasts and lyrics that combined... feminist polemic with the distinct intellectual valley-girl patois of their progressive hometown — teeny-tiny Olympia, WA. Encouraged by the DIY dictum that playing music sloppily was better than not playing music at all, Bikini Kill tore through their riffs with punk-rock vehemence and vision — but it was Hanna's exceptionally raw singing style that really got the band motoring. Sounding like the final hour of an exorcism, she growls, grunts, sasses, snarls, whines and screams this mother out; witness the snotty, possessed energy of "Suck My Left One" (a song congruous with X-Ray Spex's "Oh Bondage Up Yours"); the bloody shrieks and feedback tilt-a-whirl of "Thurston Hearts the Who"; and the self-determined anthem "Feels Blind," where Hanna spits, "I eat your hate like love!" Though their best album, Pussywhipped, arrived two years later, these tapes (half-produced by Fugazi's Ian MacKaye) seethe with untamed, eruptive energy and the thrilling first spark of ideation.more »
The token communal house/dorm room/juice bar/island resort's reggae album (second only Bob Marley and the Wailers' Catch A Fire), Peter Tosh's solo debut Legalize It remains a stone classic, even if most of its fans rarely explore beyond the dense foliage of the front cover and title track to the treasures within. As a teen in the early '60s, Tosh befriended Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer and the trio became... a vocal group before eventually evolving into the Wailers. After two smash successes (Catch A Fire and Burnin') as well as a car accident that fractured Tosh's skull, Island refused to release a Tosh solo album and he left the fold to pursue his own rebel path to stardom.more »
While "Legalize It" has remained a rallying cry for decades (most recently in California), it's actually his least politically-charged album, though it is his most emotionally-fraught. Aside from the lilt of "Ketchy Shuby," Tosh grapples with darker moods. The heave of "No Sympathy" has Tosh match his aching guitar line: "Only me feel the pain/ not one good word of advice/ from any of my so-called friends" and "Why Must I Cry" — despite its bright synth line and island meter — finds him isolated by his heartache. On the roiling piano of "Igziabeher (Let Jah Be Praised)," Tosh conjures up biblical disasters to scatter non-believers and his enemies "as the smoke was driven away." And he doesn't mean that kind of smoke.
If 13 Songs was a soup of dubbed-out Stooges songs, Repeater boiled it all down to screeches and thuds, welding shards of feedback, bass thrum and tom rolls — a sound as stark as the album's blue-and-white cover, and as dynamic as the interior photos. Lyrical impressionism mixes with guilt and rage. At one end: "What a difference/ a little difference would make." At the other: "We are all bigots/so filled... with hatred /we release our poisons." The title track bellows at D.C.'s crack crisis; "Merchandise" reminds you of what they don't sell on tour. "Provisional" from Margin Walker gets a two-guitar reboot as "Reprovisional," hinting at power that was once only implied. "Shut the Door," a compassionate, furious look at a heroin overdose, is almost haiku-like in its simplicity and all the more powerful for it.more »
The CD pressing of Repeater was appended to include the 3 Songs 7-inch. "Joe #1" is a thudding instrumental, "Break-In" an older song about assault, but "Song #1" is a almost a post-hardcore manifesto: "Fighting for a haircut?/ Then grow your hair/ Crying for the music?/ I doubt you really care/ Looking for an answer?/ You can find it anywhere/ It's nothing."
Dig the new breed.
Dark Nights of the Soul
In 1991 — at least five years before the first blog was identified as such — Oberlin art history grad Liz Phair quietly sent around a series of home-recorded cassettes she'd made under the moniker Girly Sound. The recordings were crudely rendered, rudely conceived (covering such post-feminist subjects as "Black Market White Baby Dealers" and "Willie the Six-Dicked Pimp") and immediately caught the ear of alt-nation's underground cognoscenti, who recognized an art-damaged... rebel without a cause when they heard one. Those recordings quickly went down in rock history as one of the finest albums of its era, maybe even of all time: she released 1993's Exile in Guyville, which for all intents and purposes reads today as an eighteen-track, album-length blog, replete with all the technologically-enabled oversharing and snarktastic, hit-and-run gender politics this description implies.more »
Phair was living at home with her parents in Winnetka, Illinois (suburbia being the best locale from which to wage war on an unsuspecting, male-dominated rock hierarchy) when she began re-recording some of her early Girly Sound demos with producer Brad Wood. What took shape was originally touted as a song-by-song response to Pussy Galore's noisy assassination of the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main Street — a claim that no longer seems plausible (is "Girls! Girls! Girls!" really Phair's answer to "Turd on the Run?"); the record helped paint her as something of a pop-culture pirate princess from the get-go. The album quickly established its no-holds-barred M.O. with "Glory," an ode to cunnilingus ostensibly meant to "empower" but equally intended to shock, to determine which people were paying attention (and most certainly, the little girls understood, championing Phair as their tough-talking older sister almost immediately). This was followed in rapid succession by rough-and-ready autobiography that portrayed Phair as little but "a cunt in spring, you can rent me by the hour" ("Dance of the Seven Veils"), a scheming pleasure addict who "jumps when you circle the cherry" ("Canary"), a commitment-phobic tramp who secretly wishes for a boyfriend who "makes love 'cuz he's in it... and all that stupid old shit" ("Fuck and Run"), employs devastatingly personal self-critique ("How sleazy it is, messing with these guys") on "Shatter" and showcases her signature Girly Sound tune "Flower," a multi-Liz madrigal promising some anonymous indie rock dude she'll be his "blowjob queen" and "fuck you and your minions too" (unfortunately changing the "and your girlfriend too" lyric from her original tapes). All of this devastation was delivered in a voice so deadpan and emotion-free it was described by Rob Sheffield as "Peppermint Patty on a bad caffeine jag" and came across like the alt-nation's musical answer to another Liz, Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose self-skewering pseudo-confessional narratives also oddly prefigured the stylistic norms of the blogosphere by a number of years.
How an album so prescient and influential — one can argue that Alanis Morrissette owes the entirety of her career to the firewalk first traveled on Guyville — ever disappeared from Matador's catalog is beyond me, particularly when you consider that in this post-digital, file-sharing age, nothing should ever truly go "out of print." But the album's re-release, while not offering anything particularly revealing in the way of extras save for Phair's interpolation of "Wild Thing" as something of a Mean Girls rewrite, does underscore its importance by stripping away the pretend-porn veneer that originally defined it and revealing the core of what it was, is, and always shall remain: the document of a generation of women in transition, preparing the way for what the New York Times recently described as the lingua franca of the internet, a dialogue that, by turn, has emerged as "smart yet conversational, funny in a merciless way, righteously indignant but comically defeated, where every man [cheats] on his partner and all the women are slutty." Welcome, boys and grrls, to the 21st Century.
"One day I blew my nose and half my brains came out." That was David Bowie in 1976, nearing the end of a years-long coke binge that had burned through the better part of his nasal passages and rendered him so clammy and paranoid he was diving into black magic to escape, drawing pentagrams on the floor of his L.A. apartment, keeping his own urine in jars in the refrigerator and burning... black candles as protection from evil spirits. He was seeing ghosts, giving loopy interviews heavy on Hitler-praising pull-quotes and his marriage to Angie was on the verge of collapse.more »
And so Bowie, with Iggy Pop in tow, went to Berlin to get clean (an aim at which he only fitfully succeeded) and, as he put it, "[to discover] a new musical language." Low, the first part of his celebrated Berlin Trilogy and the first stage in a full sonic reinvention. Unlike the plastic soul of Young Americans or Station to Station's manic panic, Low revels in total existential blankness. Bowie was openly in the thrall of bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk, and Low clearly reflects the influence of the former's stentorian, motorik rhythms and the latter's subzero synthesizers.
The album is famously divided into two halves, with a batch of Bowie-sung "song fragments" counterbalanced by a suite of gorgeous but deeply unsettling ambient-instrumentals; what's most notable is that, spiritually, Bowie feels as ice-cold and absent on the songs where he sings as on the ones where he doesn't. Herky-jerk "Breaking Glass," with its hectoring Carlos Alomar guitar line finds Bowie as self-referential as he'd ever been, darkly warning "don't look at the carpet — I drew something awful on it," before snidely declaring: "you're such a wonderful person — but you've got problems." De facto pop single "Sound And Vision" — if only because no other song on the album features an immediate hook — finds him distrusting his own senses, cooing "Don't you wonder, sometimes, 'bout sound and vision?" over the kind of chilly cascading synths that typically turn up on Joy Division albums.
As solid and striking as the vocals are, though, Low's back half is where it moves from experiment to masterpiece. Using layer upon layer of unholy synthesizer, Bowie — with the help of producer Brian Eno, himself no stranger to the power of ambiance — create an entire, flickering nighttime urban cityscape, where hustle and busyness ("A New Career in a New Town") slowly give way to the awful eeriness of nighttime ("Subterraneans"). Bowie's voice appears in fits and starts, mostly chanting strange, monosyllabic nonsense words — a thin, pale warlock looking glumly into his cauldron, drawn and spent. Taken together, the two halves of Low offer a picture of an artist at a crossroads, unsure of where to go next, but knowing all roads lead to darkness.
Up until 1987, the last place in the world you might have expected to hear an acoustic guitar was on a Swans album. But with Children of God, the band augmented its brute physicality with a "New Mind," as the opening track put it, and a new palette to match. ("I will be there/ With my eyes wide open/ I will be there/ I will be ready/ To receive/ The new mind.")... From the cover alone, with its puce-and-fuchsia color scheme, its swirls and crosses, you could guess that Swans had entered a new phase, and the album's first three tracks made that abundantly clear. "New Mind" sounded more or less like the Swans of yore — more cleanly produced, perhaps, but still displaying the same doomy riffs, the same war-dance drums, the same call-and-response vocals — but the "In My Garden" came from a different universe entirely, with a high-necked bass melody inspired by Joy Division, limpid pianos reminiscent of Harold Budd, and a wraithlike Jarboe intoning, "In my garden/ We'll never die." "Our Love Lies" completed their transmutation with strummed acoustic guitars and tambourine and Michael Gira not just growling but singing, his baritone sinking to the lower limit of his register like a body weighted by stones. The rest of the album alternates between slow-motion head-bangers, like "Our Love Lies" and "Like a Drug," and deathly folk songs judiciously touched up with synthesizers and effects, like "Blood and Honey" and "You're Not Real, Girl." On the hypnotic title song, Jarboe's ecstatic mantra ("We are children/ Children of God") swirls above see-sawing guitars and stark, metallic drum beats; there's little doubt that, whatever their previously nihilistic outlook, Swans finally see the light of redemption, however fleetingly.more »
A few months before Children of God, Gira and Jarboe explored even more gentle textures on a pair of albums recorded under the name of Skin. Jarboe's voice carried Blood, Women, Roses, while Gira assumed center stage on Shame, Humility, Revenge, but both albums shared the same downy textures, forsaking Swans' usual sturm und drang in favor of strings, acoustic guitars, hushed synthesizers, and echoing electronic drums — a mixture that could almost have been mistaken for This Mortal Coil. Both records were repackaged in 1988 as the double LP, The World of Skin, and 14 songs were selected for 1997's Children of God / World of Skin reissue.
Released after a five-year break between albums — then the longest in his career — Bone Machine marks the beginning of a era in which Waits's records are isolated and self-contained, as if he goes dormant after each session and reemerges only after he's come up with something to say. The marionette march of "Earth Died Screaming" recalls the clatter of Rain Dogs' "Singapore," but Waits strips the songs bare as he... goes, paring away the excess; "Jesus Gonna Be Here" is just upright bass, dobro, and Waits's voice echoing in what sounds like an empty warehouse. On "In the Colosseum," he sounds as if he's been to hell and back and might just consider repeating the journey, the clanking percussion forging a concrete link to the album's title. Like the contemporaneous The Black Rider, Bone Machine risks falling into a fire-and-brimstone rut, but "Black Wings" shifts the album into a slightly less apocalyptic register. "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" could be a demented Disney theme, and "That Feel" closes with a dash of ghostly gospel harmony. It's hardly Waits's most approachable album, but its skeletal embrace is surprisingly welcoming.more »
The cover of PJ Harvey's second album shows her in the shower — a typical setting for a male fantasy, but one that she upends by being depicted mid-hair-flip, creating an arc of wet hair and water that frames her gently grinning face. That upending of traditional tropes of desire was all over her debut, Dry, but it becomes even more in-your-face on Rid of Me, which is littered with body parts... and fluids and the emotions brought forth by their deployment. Engineered by Steve Albini in such a way that it brought the essential tensions of Harvey's music — masculine/feminine, beautiful/ugly, ecstatic/unfulfilled — right to the forefront, Rid of Me contains some of the most iconic songs of Harvey's career — the ode to swagger "50ft Queenie," the low-end-plumbing depiction of female frustration "Dry," the take-the-reins cover of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." There's also "Yuri-G," a depiction of romantic madness that might be one of the most-overlooked songs in her catalog, despite its garage-borne chorus and fearless troop toward its endpoint.more »
But it's the differing treatments of the gender-flipping "Man-Size," which are presented as both a straightforward, slow-build rock song and as a piece arranged for strings and voice (called "Man-Size Sextet"), that perhaps best encapsulate the tension that's all over the album; while the Albini-engineered "Man-Size" has at least a bit of foreplay involved before Harvey breaks into a caterwaul on the song's final chorus, on the string-assisted version (which was arranged by Harvey's percussionist Robert Ellis) nerves crackle and snap against each other thanks to the strings clashing against each other in an icy, dissonant way as Harvey declares her dominance — at times, though, she does it in such a controlled way that it sounds like she's communicating through a jaw wired shut from repressed desire. The beauty brought forth by the strings only serves to underscore the jitters brought on by the idea of possibly possessing what is desired; that fear isn't brought on by the idea of possible transcendence as much as it is borne by the idea of losing that always-desired feeling, and subsequently having to root around the ugly, unfulfilling world of debasement and thwarted intentions explored elsewhere on the album.
The enduring idea of a hip-hop underground relies on our faith in the entrepreneurial spirit. Nobody wants a boss, and this is part of what compelled El-P to leave Rawkus in the late 1990s and form his own label, Definitive Jux, future home of Aesop Rock, Cage, Mr. Lif, Murs and others. He poured himself into the label's first album, the debut from Harlem rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega. The Cold... Vein remains an outlier classic, El-P channeling his inner Eno, and Vast and Vordul looking up from their comic books and imagining their escape from the present might come in the form of teleportation.more »
Arguably Aphex Twin's definitive album — and not only because it bears his birth name — 1996's Richard D. James Album keeps you guessing. How can something feel at once so slight and so substantial? Whimsical melodies play out like music-box fantasias against forbiddingly complex drum programming; James has never seemed more like a trickster, with his self-evident sense of humor running from goofy ("Milkman") to deranged (the strange outro to "Girl/Boy... (Redruth Mix)"), but tracks like "Boy/Girl Song" and even the quadruple-time "4" hide an unmistakable sense of melancholy beneath their cartoonish folds. Many of the tracks here run to a measly two or three minutes — a blink of the eye, compared to the epic inclinations of so much electronic music. But with tempos racing to 180 BPM or so, and with chopped and rearranged breakbeats sprayed in a kind of hyperrhythmic slurry, James squeezes more action in his short-form sketches than many producers manage in an entire album. Hyperactive and/or mischievous listeners will get their fix in the brazenly kinetic antics of "Corn Mouth" or "Inkey$"; sensitive types are advised to start with the coy "To Cure a Weakling Child" or the plangent "Figerbib."more »
We all know about the "Difficult Second Album" — the oft-rushed record made amid suffocating expectations and incessant touring. But some follow-ups not only make good on a promising debut but also retroactively imbue the entire enterprise with more intrigue than could have been recognized at the start. In 2007, M.I.A.'s Kala and LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver entered the ranks of this special kind of second album, and so did Burial's... Untrue.more »
Part of the allure of dubstep, the sound that Burial — an anonymous London musician — helped establish, is that it's so sparse and elemental that it eludes description almost by design: To formally address the qualities of dubstep is to paradoxically do damage to its most evocative parts — the parts that aren't there, the haunted parts, the spectral spaces that surround the tangible sounds and make it all happen through the force of their very absence. It's complicated, but it's also extremely compelling — and more immediately so on Untrue than it was on the self-titled 2006 debut that made Burial's name.
Untrue benefits from the conspicuous presence of vocals that prove newly forceful and free. Whereas voices served as atmospheric agents on the debut, here they drive tracks into the space of certifiable songs. "Archangel" announces the change at the start, with a mercury-mouthed male diva singing about "kissing you" and "holding you" in desperate, unsettling tones. A similar strategy plays out in "Near Dark," in which the vocal sentiment in the refrain "I can't take my eyes off you" applies just as much to ears.
The way that Burial foregrounds vocals as melody-makers veers back toward 2-step garage, the poppy post-jungle sound that ultimately evolved into grime and then into dubstep. The formal lures of dubstep proper remain here, but they also sound more kinetic and progressive. Even when the voices fade and drift like mist in the background, there are moods to be gleaned from the beats — the ticks and trips that toggle like drum 'n'bass risen from the grave as something irretrievably decayed but also irresistibly angelic.
The mid-1990s was a prosperous time for aspiring dance artists, as big beats graced TV commercials and briefly invaded the charts. But the album-length statement of genius remained an elusive quest. That's what made Homework, the debut album from the mysterious French duo of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, so absorbing. Rather than a collection of singles — massive though they were — Homework managed to capture a feeling of discovery... and exploration.more »
So there were the era-defining hits "Around the World" and "Da Funk," as well as throbbing club wonders like "Phoenix," "Revolution 909" and "Indo Silver Club." But there were also occasions for reflection and nostalgic pauses, like the ethereal, cresting "Fresh" and the noisome funk of "Oh Yeah," or skits like "Daftendirekt" and "WDPK 83.7 FM," a tribute to the teachers broadcasting daily along the FM dial. As the name suggested, Homework resulted from years of careful study of the finest house, techno, electro and hip-hop records. Perhaps this appreciation for musical history is what compelled Daft Punk to even greater heights in the years to follow. Despite the mystery around their true identities, this is a debt they were never above repaying, from the elaborate, reference-filled Homework album sleeve to "Teachers," a roll call of the duo's personal heroes.
Short Films & Diary Entries
Wanting to shed the sexist perception that fellow Fugee and ex-boyfriend Wyclef Jean had shaped her, Lauryn Hill retaliated by creating one of the best albums of the 90s. "Music is supposed to inspire," she sings on "Superstar" — perhaps to Jean, her failed svengali, perhaps to her label bosses, perhaps to her own demanding audience. "So how come we ain't getting no higher?" She then sets out to answer the... question for herself.more »
Like Marvin Gaye's epic albums of the 1970s, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" is an emotionally raw set of performances. Hill's voices proliferate, sometimes moving in unison or harmony, sometimes commenting on or responding to one another, sometimes pleading, preaching, declaring and doubting all at once.
The incendiary, hard-rocking "Lost Ones," the witty, winning "Doo Wop (That Thing)," the angry, avenging "Final Hour," and the sweetly remembered "Every Ghetto, Every City" are her moments of clarity. But for the rest of the record, she works through the confusion and ambivalence wrought by love and betrayal — never more intensely than on "Ex-Factor" and "I Used To Love Him." Even the songs about uplift, like "Tell Him," "Everything Is Everything" and "Forgive Them Father," are rooted in the possibility things truly might not improve.
"The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" reached its commanding heights only by ruthlessly plumbing the depths. It remains a searingly honest, deeply wrung portrait of a great artist at the peak of her powers.
At a time when the lyrics "ro-ma, ro-ma-mah/ ga-ga, ooh-la-la" can land a singer a spot high up on the Billboard charts, it's fun to play an album like Court & Spark, if only to remember the range of feeling that the English language can express when one knows how to use it. A quintessential Joni Mitchell record, Court & Spark looks at loneliness, solitude and love from many sides, and... concludes that no matter whom you're with or what good times you may be having, the sad, gray days will soon come calling.more »
At least it's not a bummer to listen to. Far from it, in fact. Mitchell's voice is clear and lovely, as fresh and flawless as spring. And her music is a wild, beautiful tangle of jazz and folk that gives audible form to love's crazy contradictions. (Not surprisingly, it's the best-selling album of Mitchell's career). Listen to Court & Spark, and you might imagine that, instead of giving her lover a clutch of pretty flowers to show how she feels, Mitchell would take him by the hand and run with him through a fragrant garden labyrinth. A simple woman she is not.
Court & Spark yielded her highest-ranking single: "Help Me," which reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1973. It also features a cover of the Wardell Gray bebop composition "Twisted," which jazz singer Annie Ross popularized with her swinging 1952 rendition. But for me, its telltale track is "Down to You." Mitchell sings, "Everything comes and goes/ Marked by lovers and styles of clothes/ Things that you held high/ And told yourself were true/ Lost or changing as the days come down to you." It's practically a Joni Mitchell manifesto: feeling love fully yet expecting — no, knowing — that it will end and that we are all ultimately alone. Oh, Joni.
Both singer and sound were more confident on this second album from Mary J. Blige, the first she co-wrote, and considered by many fans her best. Out went the chilly New Jack Swing echo and synth deco of her debut; in came an extended heart-to-heart with fans by the fire over a beat that meant business.more »
Let it be admitted that the sound is more conventional: The '70s soul samples of... the title track and "Be Happy" are seamlessly blended or recreated rather than recontextualized in a rap way — the direction executive producer Sean "Puffy" Combs and frequent studio guest the Notorious B.I.G. were taking hip hop in general. But if D.C.-hired producer Carl "Chucky" Thompson was brought in to make Blige sound like a true soul singer at home in her mother's music, he did his job: Blige makes Rose Royce's "I'm Goin' Down" her own, in part because down was exactly where she was going.
Or as she would sing 11 years later, "'94 was My Life, and my life wasn't right, so I reached out to you and told you what I been through." She also told you what she was still going through: "I'm satisfied even when I cry," she sings on "No One Else," presumably to the track's co-producer K-Ci Hailey, whom she later described as the inspiration for much of My Life's blueness. "Mary's Joint," with its longing melody later borrowed for Janet Jackson's "I Get Lonely," sounds like hopelessness kidding itself, while the No. 1 dance hit "You Bring Me Joy" seems unconvinced. Most double-edged of all is "I Love You," with its repurposed Isaac Hayes piano line and dog-whistle synth (a nod to Dr. Dre), as funky and resigned as Marvin Gaye at his most autumnal. Has the title sentiment ever sounded more doomed?
Blige put the question to herself squarely on "Be Happy": "How can I love somebody else, if I can't love myself enough to know when it's time, time to let go?" The album sold 2.8 million copies in the U.S. and was nominated for a Grammy in the R&B album category. But it marked the twilight of Uptown Records and a parting of ways with Puffy.
Coat of Many Colors is the moment when Dolly Parton became a star. Its title track a Top Ten narrative of Dolly's humble origins a story that follows her still Coat brought her out from Porter Wagoner's shadow and cast her as country's Self-Made Woman No. 1. It also wonderfully encapsulates every element of the nearly 40 years of Dolly's career that have passed since its release: it dabbles in bluegrass and... roots music, features triumphant, Memphis-style R&B, and winks at the majesty of pure pop, all in a tidy 27 minutes. It's a killer. The best song by a long shot is "Here I Am," a song so stupendous it's a miracle it was never an enormous, career-defining hit. Written by Dolly (as is almost every song here), "Here I Am" is a big, '70s-style power ballad, a finger-wag to any man that might underestimate how great even a little bit of Dolly would be in your life. "I can help you find what you've been searching for," she brags with stunning boldness. No bashful lady, she. It's hard to call Coat of Many Colors a country record; it's so much more than that. But every song has its roots in Americana, in the humble hollows of the Appalachians and the songs and tunes passed down through God, through love and through sorrow. Dolly knows all of these. She sings from experience "Traveling Man" and "My Blue Tears" (which can make you weep from its beauty) and it's one she boldly shares. Dolly's career has been incredible in its longevity and its sincerity. And even amidst all of her success, this is her best moment.more »
Early '70s protest soul had as much silliness and bandwagon jumping as any other musical era. But it can't be a coincidence that Stevie Wonder's greatest album is also his most deeply pessimistic — not only because there was so much to rail against in 1973, and that the government's and society's crimes against humanity had a special sting that would dissipate the more frequently they occurred (familiarity breeds disinterest at least... as much as contempt), but Stevie has always been at his sharpest when he has a direct target to aim for.more »
On Innervisions, Wonder took stock of the world around him and found a good deal of it wanting — yet he refused to give in to despair, even when sneering at drug abuse on "Too High," cutting a flim-flam man to pieces on "He's Misstra Know-It-All," or, most unforgettably, turning his voice to gravel to warn against damnation on "Living for the City." There's an inherent optimism that lights the darkest passages of this very dark album; that fits with Stevie the activist. But surely the amount of wrong to lament in the early '70s did its share to spur Wonder to his peak.
Rather than a soothing, instantly iconic rolling electric-keyboard melody of the sort that opened Talking Book ("You Are the Sunshine of My Life"), "Too High" worms in at a daunting angle, heavily informed by jazz (Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters was released only two months after Innervisions) as well as funk, and sounds as slippery as the song's subject. The falsetto doo-doo-doo refrain is a little shticky the first time it appears and mournful the last, after the woman who lets drugs take her life over dies: "What did her friends say?/ They said she's too high." "Misstra Know-It-All" and parts of "Jesus Children of America" dig at false preachers. "Living For the City" ends on a sermon. Stevie was a scold, all right, but he picked his targets perfectly.
The mammoth Songs in the Key of Life is rightly seen as Wonder's I-can-do-it-all culmination, but Innervisions ranges more confidently across nearly as much terrain. "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" goes to Cuba and brings back a great spoken intro: "I speak very, very, um, fluent Spanish." "Visions" is a spiderweb of guitars (and Stevie's Fender Rhodes) that could have been on any number of the period's folk albums. The moony synths of "Golden Lady" turned prog heads around; "All in Love Is Fair" will surely end the first act when Broadway finally gets around to a Stevie jukebox musical (step on it).
And "Higher Ground" is classic rock, flat out: the rhythm swinging and jittery, pounded along by Wonder's sinewy drumming, the twining synthesizers and clavinet tangling like guitars, and Stevie at his most call-the-troops. It's like a totally sober version of John Lennon in "Tomorrow Never Knows": "Believers, keep on believing/ Sleepers, just stop sleeping." Yet listen close to the song's fade-out. There's an ad-lib, just barely audible: "Don't you let nobody bring you down — and they'll sho' nuff try." Brrr.
With her tender, imperfect vocals, lank brown locks and low-slung acoustic guitar, the singer and songwriter Judee Sill embodied the earnest, folksy spirit of California's Laurel Canyon in the 1970s. Sadly, Sill also embraced the era's excesses, and her dark biography is befitting of a martyred cult idol: After running away from home as a teenager, she married an aspiring gangster, was arrested for armed robbery and hauled off to reform school,... picked up a heroin habit, and hustled for cash as a petty thief. But with help from Graham Nash, David Crosby and David Geffen, Sill channeled her personal lapses — and the gospel hooks she collected in reform school — into two stunning folk records before dying of a drug overdose in 1979.more »
Judee Sill was released in 1971, and — unsurprisingly — it's lyrically preoccupied with grand notions of redemption and hope. "Sweet silver angels over the sea, please come down flyin' low for me," Sill begs on the impeccable "Jesus Was A Crossmaker," over building piano and eventual percussion. On opener "Crayon Angels," Sill lodges another plea for rescue: "Nothin's happened but I think it will soon, so I sit here waitin' for God and a train — to the Astral plane," she sings. Like Nick Drake, Sill's records weren't particularly appreciated in her lifetime, and her posthumous canonization feels almost cruel, but Judee Sill remains a haunting, evocative portrait of a singer using her voice to seek salvation.
If you're looking for a first serious jazz album to listen to, this might be the one. Charles Mingus occupied a unique place in jazz, one foot planted squarely in tradition — particularly the composer's tradition of Duke Ellington — and the other in the new thing which, in 1959, when this was recorded, was in the process of coming into existence. Both tendencies are in full display here, with one... of Mingus's finest bands (although he referred to it as a "workshop," which is quite accurate) running through a brace of originals that pay tribute to the past ("Open Letter to Duke," "Jelly Roll") and express the present ("Fables of Faubus" refers to the governor of Arkansas 'bitter opposition to racial integration).more »
There are first recordings of two of Mingus 'immortal classics here. "Better Git It In Your Soul" is infused with a gospel feeling, with Mingus yelling encouragement in the background, and was a shout-out to the "soul" movement in jazz, which stood in opposition to some of the more hyper-intellectual stuff on the scene. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" was Mingus 'obituary for the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had just died. The overwhelming sadness of the melody disguises the fact that it's absolutely of its moment in structure and harmony.
Mingus, as a bassist, relied heavily on his reedmen, and three of his best, John Handy (alto sax, clarinet), Booker Ervin (tenor sax), and Shafi Hadi (alto and tenor sax), are on board. The trombone underlying the ensemble is Jimmy Knepper on some tracks, Willie Dennis on others, piano is by the incredibly underrated Horace Parlan, and Mingus 'long-time rhythm partner, Dannie Richmond, sits at the drums.
It doesn't get much better than this: I've been listening to this album for over 30 years, and I hear something new every time I sit down with it.
The first indie-label album ever to hit No. 1 on the college radio charts was an unlikely one: this debut by the peculiar, wonderful duo of singer/guitarist Rebecca Gates and drummer Scott Plouf. The Spinanes had initially been very much a part of the early-'90s "international pop underground" scene ("Entire" mentions a cassette by Olympia, Washington, band the Go Team), but they quickly became as interested in precision and complexity as in... soft, fragrant melodies. Gates's lyrics here are impressionistic and emotive, but the duo plays so crisply that they sound absolutely specific. It helped that half of their hooks were rhythmic: "Spitfire" is built around Plouf's snare cracks, "Noel, Jonah and Me" around variations on a stop-time lurch. And they had a sense of negative space that's rare for a rock band — Gates's dreamy murmur and resonant, open-tuned riffs up top, Plouf's inexorable attack at the bottom, and nothing but air between them.more »
When Dennis Edwards replaced David Ruffin in the Temptations in 1968, producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield gave a brand new bag to Motown's most popular male group. Introduced to the psychedelic sounds of Sly and the Family Stone via Temp's member Otis Williams, Whitfield took Stone's fusion grooves and made them cinematic. Starting with "Cloud Nine," Whitfield de-emphasized Ruffin's departure by distributing the vocal line across the Temptations' widely differing voices á la... Sly and Family, while white session guitarist Dennis Coffey brought the wah-wah of Jimi Hendrix. "Cloud Nine" won Motown its first Grammy, and it established the label's new sophisticated, yet streetwise style soon embraced by all of its stars. For its 1969 sequel "Runaway Child, Running Wild," Whitfield expanded the track's length to nearly 10 minutes, and the prototype for disco's extended mixes was born.more »
What distinguished Whitfield's sprawling productions from lengthy acid-rock tracks was that they weren't mere jams. Based on verses and choruses just like the group's early hits, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and the others are paced as miniature symphonies with multiple peaks and valleys. The same strings that gave Motown its density during the mid '60 were now isolated over the beat. Instead of a constant blare, instrumentation came and went, swelled and subsided. The constant fluctuations made the listening experience more like a journey — a key disco metaphor. Rather than encouraging dancers to sprint, Whitfield paced his records to suspend them in rapture.
All-Night Dance Party
Some compilations that highlight a particular sound during a particular time follow a straight line. But when that time and place is as relatively under-documented as early '70s Nigerian pop, such tidiness isn't so necessary — it's enough to just crack the door and to keep it open for an enticing while. That's why Nigeria Special, a brilliant two-hour tour through a musical world that ranged far more widely than even a... serious fan of this era and place might have been aware, is such a triumph. Covering the period just after the Biafran War (1967-70) had ended, Nigeria Special concentrates on the region's late highlife and the post-Fela Kuti fallout of Afrobeat — Kuti was an exemplar of the style, but by no means the sole model of success. If that means the collection's focus blurs a little, that's more than made up for the sheer breadth, range and intrigue on display here.more »
Many of Nigeria Special's cuts are so juicy it's impossible to believe they've never been made available outside of Nigeria before. The Funkees'"Akula Owu Onyeara" — originally released in two parts, and edited together here for the first time — works like Fela at his most rhythmically sinuous; the simple keyboard figures could be Morse Code signal for uncut funk, and it has one of the most perfect endings you'll ever hear. George Akaeze & His Augmented Hits'"Business Before Pleasure" is delectably light-footed Afrobeat with laconic chants and jazzy horns so friendly they belie the title: this is business as pleasure. The nonstop forward motion of the Semi Colon's "Nekwaha Semi Colon" is formally disco — the hi-hat/kick-drum pattern points right at it — but it's so hypnotic it seems rooted in something far older (and more intrinsically Nigerian). The highlife tracks are equally hot: St. Augustine & His Rovers Dance Band's "Onwu Ama Dike" is made even lovelier by its slightly messy rhythmic feel, not to mention the semi-sweet horn line.
Compiler Miles Cleret claims that there are thousands more such goodies that have just been sitting in Nigeria waiting to be rediscovered. The 26 included here are such a pleasure to listen to that, for anyone who loves them, they could inspire fantasies of booking a flight to Lagos and starting a treasure hunt of one's own.
After a drunken quarrel on the Armed Forces tour turned into a disaster that left Costello looking like a dick at best and a racist at worst (in retrospect, it was definitely "dick"), he took solace in old soul records — the deep Southern soul of Stax most of all — and somehow ended up cranking out even more amazing songs than he had been over the previous few years. The album... that subsequently came out of a frantic recording session in Holland speeds through 20 songs in 48 minutes, and it's the Attractions' most impressive work as a group: flexible, powerful, psychically synched-up, and above all fast. They effortlessly pull off one soul groove after another (keyboardist Steve Nieve cops licks from Booker T. and the M.G.s all over the place), as well as tear-in-my-beer country ("Motel Matches"), ska ("Human Touch") and garage rock ("Beaten to the Punch"). Those last three, by the way, all happen in a seven-minute span.more »
If some of these songs are formal exercises, they're fantastically entertaining formal exercises: The opener "Love for Tender," for instance, is the riff from "You Can't Hurry Love" taken at bottle-of-amphetamines speed, wrapped around approximately five thousand puns about money ("I pay you a compliment/ You think I am inno-cent"), and executed in less than two minutes. The first single, oddly, was a cover — Sam & Dave's downtempo soul duet "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," reworked as crazed new wave — but Costello's original songs reward ungnarling their tightly-knotted wordplay, especially "New Amsterdam," a little waltz about portable exile that he recorded on his own. The big lyrical picture of Get Happy!! is a bitter young man measuring himself against the guys that the girls he likes seem to be more interested in, and figuring out reasons to despise them all; by the end, though, he's figured out that he's kind of a dick, too.
This 1963 show from Nashville's New Era Club is a candidate for best live album ever, and you need only hear her version of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do" to realize that. It's one of the sexiest things ever recorded, with Etta wailing and moaning before making erotic nonverbal sounds — you can't even call it scat-singing — that bring the house down. The raunchy band, featuring David... T. Walker on guitar, is torrid; the audience, which roars out call and response with Etta, is fevered. "Tell Mama," indeed. Or else.more »
1963, Miami, Florida — below the Mason Dixon line. Jim Crow was still law, Martin Luther King was just about to march on Washington, and the bluntly named Chitlin Circuit (the collection of clubs where black artists played and sang for black audiences) was still in full operation. Sam Cooke had been a star for most of his life by the time of this now-legendary gig at the Harlem Square Club. At... 32, the singer already had a best-selling Greatest Hits album, and had entranced legions of church-goers as a certified gospel sex symbol through the fifties (including a very young Aretha Franklin, who has always admitted her melismatic signing style was a straight-up tribute to her friend's liquid vocals). Cooke had been working his audience members, especially those of the female persuasion, into bosom-heaving frenzies for years — and not just because of his movie-star good looks. The plain truth: Cooke could sing like no other man before or since.more »
This live recording shows off all of Cooke's gifts. "It's All Right," is the gospel classic "Touch the Hem of His Garment" (which, not coincidentally, Cooke had already made into a hit with the Soul Stirrers), secularized. Except instead of praying to Jesus for mercy, Cooke advises each man in the audience to "shake and wake" his woman up when he comes home at night, wait until she "wipes all the sleep from her eyes," and tell her "Believe me baby, it's all right." A perfect lullaby.
Songs such as "Cupid" or "Twistin 'the Night Away" may sound retro now, even corny at times, especially to ears used to the tough funk of James Brown or George Clinton. But that's because it's almost impossible, in our current Yes We Did era, to imagine what it must have been like back then for a soul singer whose rough edges were so easy to smooth. Cooke could charm with such ease, it would have been a piece of cake for him to go the Sammy Davis route. But he didn't. And JB and Dr. Funkenstein, not to mention Prince and (early, fantastic) Michael Jackson, wouldn't have been the same if he had. Live At the Harlem Square Club does have a bit of a preserved-in-amber quality. That's not the record's fault, however. By 1964, Cooke was dead, shot to death in a motel under circumstances that were never clear (his last masterpiece, the introspective, heartbreaking, "A Change is Gonna Come," was not released until after his death). It's wonderful to be able to hear his voice here, so relaxed and true, and with the audience he knew and loved the best. As Cooke tells the ladies in the crowd, and they ecstatically croon back, "I think of you every morning, and dream of you every night."
Bruised Knuckle Bottle-Breakers
t the end of the decade of "women in rock" (yes, Virginia, we only get one), this trio born of the Northwest "riot grrrl" scene defined feminist punk by ingraining the lessons they'd learned in their Women Studies classes as deeply into their music as phallocentrism is etched into the sound of Led Zep or Snoop Dog. Go beyond the lyrics (which do read like a punk Sisterhood Is Powerful) to revel... in the non-linear dialogue of awesome yowler Corin Tucker and chatterbox Carrie Brownstein, the taut-yet-flexible song structures rising up from Janet Weiss's Amazonian drums and Brownstein's guitar heroism, which sparkles in circles instead of hammering for the gods. Dig Me Out has the anthems any grassroots movement needs, but the band can also do lovestruck ("One More Hour"), funny ("Little Babies") and spooky ("Jenny") —` thus proving conclusively, for any doubters, that grrrls are people, too.more »
The re-release of a treasured cultural touchstone is occasion for seeing how the work in question has telescoped the years, and, more to the point, how your own perceptions and persona have evolved and grown along with it. With the second coming of Exile On Main Street, the Rolling Stones' controversial and iconic masterwork, the looking-back not only encompasses myself, but the glimmering binary stars of the Stones, Mick and Keith; and,... in some ways, these responses overshadow the album itself.more »
I have particular reason to welcome a chance for reappraisal, since two weeks after Exile's original release in the late spring of 1972, I reviewed the album for Rolling Stone, giving it a medium-cool analysis I've had some cause to regret over the years. It was a classic case, as the cliché goes, of not seeing the forest for the trees. Song by song, even over the kitchen sink of a double album set, individual highlights seemed hard to come by, though the thrill of hearing "Happy," "Rip This Joint," and "Shine A Light" has been burnished on this reissue by their many sing-alongs over the years, and "Tumbling Dice" is a undeniable classic. But to my then rock-critical ears, thinking with head instead of heart, this was a comedown from the Stones scaling the peaks of some of the most cataclysmic music of their career, an arc that seemed to ascend around Beggar's Banquet, continue through Let It Bleed and burst into fireworks with Sticky Fingers, when, not so coincidentally, they were at their apex of creativity and influence. I was spoiled, and my disappointment showed, especially given the first long form double album of the Stones' career.
But Exile, as the title implies, is more about time and place, a mood and atmosphere, and its sprawling, ramshackle track listing, trying on blues forms and extending heightened jams, stretching out for long solos from Stones' sidemen like sax player Bobby Keys and pianist Nicky Hopkins, with an especial nod to the group's slide guitarist at the time, Mick Taylor, gives the album a documentary in-the-making feel, enhanced by a remastering, which seems to clear up some of the tube-driven haze of the original vinyl edition (whether this is a good or bad thing I will leave to your speaker system).
The tale has oft been told of the Stones setting up a mobile recording studio in Keith Richards's basement in the south of France, inside a mansion called Nellcote, though the album was later pieced together in sessions that transported tapes from London to Los Angeles; and it is within this compressed, hothouse atmosphere, a heart of darkness on the verge of tropic (see the claustrophobic "Ventilator Blues," and the booklet photos of sprawled bodies on the floor of the makeshift studio, not to mention Charlie's striped jacket being used as a bass drum muffler!), that the Stones put together the loosest, most freewheeling album of their career.
That's the way Keith wanted it, and his current view of Exile is that it is a sacred text, allowing no tampering within its concentric circles of recorded groove. Mick, however, couldn't resist and in the bonus disc, gathered with the help of Don Was, adds new lyrics to four songs that are a call-and-response to his younger self: "You always brought out the best in me," he lays his heart on the line in the frankly beautiful "Following The River," and I wonder if he's talking about Keith. The alternate takes and "bonus" material don't change Exile so much as show its process, the tracks that didn't make the official release holding their own: "I'm Not Signifying" is lascivious in its cakewalk, and "Plundered My Soul" is all impassioned romp, galvanized by Charlie Watts' archetypal loping drums, affectionate regret coloring the remembrance.
Beyond bonus, however, it is Exile's remarkable resilience as an album that pushes play in this decade. Much of its myth is just that — a celebration of lifestyle and rock stardom that took root in a fecund, overheated basement as the hours ticked till dawn. It was Mick who gathered the tapes of the Nellcote sessions and overdubbed the gospel-ish feel that imbues Exile with its sense of redemption amidst decadence. The duality of the Stones' was never more manifest than here, with Keith's voice entwining harmonies with Mick, Mick slightly back in the mix, and the force of the band carrying them forward. It's interesting to compare the two versions of "Soul Survivor" with each fronting the song, just as it is fascinating — now almost four decades later — to contemplate the roads not taken: In the opening "Rocks Off," one of the Stones' many nigh-trademark barrelhouse stompers, a bridge appears out of nowhere, and the song slows, turns psychedelic as tremolo phasers wash over the guitars and vocal. It seems almost contrary to the festive mood, a malevolence and an intimation of gathering storm clouds, and I find myself wishing they would have followed its tangent.
But then, I'm not so different than I was when I first took a stroll down Main Street. Neither is Exile.
The song that has always enchanted me on The Black Album is the last song, which is called "My 1st Song," which is meant to be the last song of Jay-Z's career. Got that? It is a beautiful, bedeviling denouement; Jay has rarely rapped better, more intricately, and with such purpose. It's because he knew exactly what he was meant to be doing: Saying goodbye. "Goodbye, this is my second major breakup/... My first was, with a pager/ With a hooptie, a cookpot, and the game/ This one's with the stool, with the stage, with the fortune/ Maybe not the fortune, but certainly the fame."more »
Knowing what we know now — Jay-Z would be back to full-time recording artist status in three years — makes examining the self-flagellation of The Black Album something of a fool's errand. Elizabeth Mendez Berry wrote for The Village Voice that he'd become "bored by the alter ego he'd outgrown." So how seriously do we take the musings on a half-hearted retirement? Well, maybe without that specter hanging, we can hear it for the achievement it is: a great Jay-Z album.
Originally conceived as a single-producer venture in 1998 with DJ Premier, The Black Album wouldn't come together until years later. It was later advertised with a one-producer, one-song plan, which also never panned out. Finally, it became a typical sort of Jay-Z project, featuring contributions from trusted collaborators, in-house Roc-A-Fella super-producers, Kanye West and Just Blaze, sensing the moment as much as Jay, and crucial additions from a murderer's row of sound men (Timbaland, Eminem, DJ Quik, The Neptunes twice, Rick Rubin, out of rap retirement for a spell) and a handful of then-unknowns and never-heard-from-agains (9th Wonder, The Buchanans, Aqua). Together, there are canonical songs: "Public Service Announcement (Interlude)," initially just a tossed-off one verse proclamation of pride that became a defining document for the MC, with lyrics — from "got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain" to "like Che Guevara with bling on, I'm complex" — that became rallying cries. Rubin's stomping "99 Problems" still sounds like a tank full of cowbells taking a 40-foot drop onto the pavement. Kanye's "Encore" is a convivial farewell song, though it comes early in the mix. Eminem's "Moment of Clarity" is tightly wound, but never tight-lipped, as Jay raps, "I've dumbed down for my audience and doubled my dollars/ They criticize me for it yet they all yell holler." Even "Threat," the then-ascendant 9th Wonder's contribution, returns Jay to the creeping majesty of his debut, Reasonable Doubt.. And what would a pro forma Jay-Z album be without a Neptunes trifle? At the time of release, "Change Clothes" seemed a grievous error, a cold calculating move designed to ensure record sales. So many years on, it is what it was supposed to be: a palate cleanser.
"My 1st Song" still kills me. It's that "maybe not the fortune" line. Jay-Z has long been a dramatist, a self-styled orchestrator of his own mythology. And nothing could be more grand than a ceremonial retirement. Except, maybe, for the even grander comeback. But then, there is one more Easter egg worth parsing on The Black Album. From "Encore": "When I come back like Jordan, wearin' the 4-5/ It ain't to play games with you/ It's to aim at you, probably maim you." Considering said comeback, he was more right than he knew.
Moody and Beautiful
Having established herself on the pop stage with Debut, follow-up Post (1995) saw Björk's ambitions go widescreen.With everyone from Tricky to Howie B to 808 State's Graham Massey fighting over the producer's chair and a musical palette ranging from ambient dub ("Possibly Me") to strident techno-pop ("Army of Me") Post boasts a musical vision to match Cecil B. DeMille.more »
And then there's the lyrics. Bizarre, brazen and remorselessly tongue-in cheek,... songs like "Enjoy" and "You've Been Flirting Again" are dark, delirious examinations of the mating game whilst "Hyperballad" is euphoric — "We live on a mountain/ Right at the top/ There's a beautiful view" — but only to disguise a damning rejection of consumerism. It was smash hit "It's Oh So Quiet" which kept the accountants happy, however. A reworking of Betty Hutton's Hollywood showtune "Blow a Fuse" delivered with a kindergarten cutesiness, confirming her role as indie-rock's reigning queen of weird. From this point on, Björk was in the big league.
Arranger Gil Evans was one of Miles Davis's key allies throughout his career. Starting in 1957 they collaborated on four projects for trumpet and orchestra, beginning with the fine Miles Ahead and ending with the problematic but still rewarding Quiet Nights. The series 'middle volumes are Porgy and Bess, where Gershwin's music inspires some of Miles's most poignant trumpeting, and the exquisite Sketches of Spain. Its long flagship number recasts a... slow movement from a 1939 guitar concerto by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo; it's enlivened by Evans 'gorgeous dissonances for flutes and massed brass, and flamenco echoes from rattling castanets. But the album's real marvels are a pair of shorter pieces derived from field recordings, which push Miles into previously uncharted territory. "The Pied Piper" is based on a Peruvian Indian pennywhistle melody, played by a pig castrator to advertise his services as he makes his rounds. Miles imbues it with such deep feeling, it's as if he empathizes with the pigs. "Saeta" draws on music for a Spanish Holy Week procession, right down to the sound of a brass band advancing from and then retreating into the distance, like something out of Charles Ives; the dire, wounded sound of Davis's trumpet is unforgettably stark.more »
The success of his 1995 debut Brown Sugar left D'Angelo in a minor funk, irked by the music industry and suffering from a bout of writer's block. The unease that accumulated during his sabbatical surfaced with his 1998 single, "Devil's Pie." Built on a paranoid, tail-chasing DJ Premier bass loop, D'Angelo turned away from the earthly delights of Brown Sugar and crooned about the spiritual crisis in hip-hop and beyond: "Drugs and... thugs, women and wine/ Three or four at a time/ Watch them all stand in line/For a slice of the devil's pie." From its very title to its dark aesthetic, Voodoo fixed on the possibility of purpose and redemption beyond the material world — this was an album that explored the meaning of "soul" as something more than a musical classification. There were still crushing moments of conventional beauty, like "Untitled (How Does it Feel)" or the charming "Send it On," and Method Man and Redman lend their intimate chemistry to the muscular "Left and Right." But on moments like "Chicken Grease," with its sketches of a bygone Southern simplicity, and the captivating "Africa," Voodoo felt ghostly and haunted, as though D'Angelo and Soulquarians were trying to conjure a portal to the past during their marathon jam sessions.more »
The first four songs here, including the gigantic hit "Chain of Fools," are Aretha the newly minted superstar stepping out from behind the gospel pulpit to address the secular world. The rest, from the "I Never Loved a Man" outtake (!) "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" to her sister (and backup singer) Carolyn Franklin's deep ballad "Ain't No Way," are all about the pulse and ache of sex —... they're not come-ons, exactly, but meditations on what happens behind the bedroom door, and what that means to everything outside it. And the all-star band, featuring Bobby Womack, Spooner Oldham, and (briefly) Eric Clapton, rolls toward the blues right alongside her.more »