Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Life in Music

Inspired by a series I came across at YAM Magazine, I've decided to complement my A Life in Movies post with a similar journey through the music that's stood out for me each year since my birth. Of course, I never heard most of these albums until I hit my late teens, but then that was the case for the movie post too. As I did with my movies post, I will limit myself to one selection per artist to avoid simply piling on, say, Radiohead and Animal Collective albums. I've also included videos for each to give a taste of the albums I picked.

1989: King's X — Gretchen Goes to Nebraska

King's X's second album is their most overtly Christian though the band always opposed description as a Christian rock outfit; indeed, even at its most spiritual, Gretchen contains doubts and realism, transmuting its loftier moments into wistfulness rather than sermonizing faith. Also, it's about as groovy and catchy as subversively technical heavy metal gets, emphasizing Beatlesque vocal harmonies and a funky bottom that manages to sound nothing like Red Hot Chili Peppers and its clones. Doug Pinnick's soul screams on "Mission" and "Over My Head" alone will convert you. To the band, I mean. Calm down.

1990: Public Enemy — Fear of a Black Planet

Admittedly a step down from their previous album, but that's only because every rap album is a step down from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Fear of a Black Planet occasionally tips the outfit's precarious balance between social activism and egomaniacal posturing in the favor of the latter ("Welcome to the Terrordome" blames Jewish groups for being angry about Professor Griff's disgusting anti-Semitic comments), but this is ultimately the third straight landmark from the rap crew. By the time you get to the final track, you're ready lob Molotv cocktails in the streets.

1991: Temple of the Dog — Temple of the Dog

I couldn't decide whether to put Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger or Pearl Jam's Ten here, so I split the difference with this proto-supergroup of members of both bands in tribute to Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone (the band that would became Pearl Jam). In contrast to Soundgarden's mix of sludge and Sabbath and PJ's classic rock throwback, Temple of the Dog is mournful and elegiac while still retaining an edge. The blistering build-up of "Call Me a Dog" and agonized screams of "Say Hello 2 Heaven" are Chris Cornell at his finest, while "Reach Down" offers a stunning glimpse at the guitar interplay that would make Mike McCready and Stone Gossard the best guitar duo of the modern era. Also, check "Hunger Strike" for Eddie Vedder's first recorded vocals for a major release.

1992: Faith No More — Angel Dust

Mike Patton's initial work with FNM on their second LP, The Real Thing, was nasally and half-hearted, only occasionally suggesting real range and skill. But Angel Dust saw not only him but the band grow to unfathomable heights of complexity and intelligence. No longer did Patton and the band sound like RHCP knockoffs; Patton infused the group with his interest in the avant-garde, resulting in an album sonically varied enough for him to unleash his full vocal capabilities. He croons, moans, gnashes, growls, shrieks, raps, holds operatic vibratos and more, and the band never flags behind him. About as daring as mainstream metal gets.

1993: Jeff Buckley: Live at Sin-é

Grace may be the album that will keep Buckley in infamy long past his untimely death ended his career just as it begun, but I prefer this intimate, lilting live album recorded before he made his first (and last) studio album. A four-song EP expanded to a packed 2-CD gig, Live at Sin-é shows Buckley at his rawest, that angelic voice of his echoing in a New York dive before an audience rapt into silence. Not since Van Morrison went into another world during "Listen to the Lion" on It's Too Late to Stop Now have I heard a crowd so utterly awed by a performer. Running through his collection of written material and an eclectic bag of covers running through Zeppelin, Dylan, Édith Piaf, even Qawwali icon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It's the perfect snapshot of the forces swirling through Buckley, influences we never got to hear in full when he drowned during the making of his second album.

1994: Johnny Cash — American Recordings

Having long since taken on the role of legend, which, as Miles Davis will tell you, means you belong in a museum instead of a stage, Johnny Cash suddenly came stomping back to form with the help of Rick Rubin, who knew that the hard-traveled wisdom of Cash's work would only be more insightful now that he was an old man. The American Recordings series, however inconsistent, is one of the great late-career resurrections in popular music, and its first entry best captures the dying but still smoldering fire in the artist, one he managed to keep going for another decade without sapping all the heat from this sound.

1995: Pulp — Different Class

I've enjoyed some Blur and Oasis, but when I want Britpop, I go straight to the top. Yes, Pulp, with its witty lyrics (the best fusion of comedy and commentary in song since Morrisey came along), populist sympathies and crooning emotion, wins out every time in my book as the third party candidate of the Battle of Britpop. This album is damn near perfect, its title not only emphasizing the class consciousness that pervades their work but the caliber of their music. "Common People" is the best song of the '90s.

1996: The Wildhearts — Fishing for Luckies

Admittedly, this isn't my favorite Wildhearts album (that would be 1995's P.H.U.Q.), but if The Wildhearts represent what Guns 'n Roses could have been if Axl didn't implode like a collapsing star, Fishing for Luckies demonstrates that even Axl's penchant for longer, more intricate songs could have still worked within the band's sound. Some of the songs on this 1996 expansion of a mini-LP stretch past the 7-, 8-, even 11-minute mark (one song is technically nearly 30 minutes, but it's just looped effects after a minute or so). But even the longer tunes sound like proper, party hard rock, frontman Ginger guiding the cascading, sometimes conflicting instruments to the next memorable riff and bridge.

1997: Devin Townsend — Ocean Machine

One of my five favorite albums of all time. Devin Townsend is the Van Morrison of extreme metal, personal to the point of esoterica in his lyrics and capable of vocal and musical ranges that shame most punters. This spectral, ghostly album is the sound of a man standing on a cliff overlooking the sea, contemplating jumping to his death on the rocks below. His side project, Strapping Young Lad, was all about anger, but the main feeling here is anguish. By the time he ends the album's final, hidden track with a sustained banshee shriek of pain, even this eardrum-splitting wail seems a continuation of its quieter, strained moments.

1998: Buckethead — Colma

Forget the goofy name, the weirder look and the penchant for effects-driven, hyperspeed shred metal; when he puts his mind to it, Buckethead is also one of the most beautiful guitar players on the planet. This album, recorded for his mother while she recovered from cancer, is his most gorgeous, a mostly acoustic affair that sounds gentle even when the old Buckethead style pokes through on the fast yet atmospheric "Big Sur Moon." When he goes electric, as he does on "Machete," his legato could challenge Eric Johnson's; it's almost like he isn't strumming, merely moving along the fretboard to the next note without ever diminishing the sound.

1999: The Roots — Things Fall Apart

I have a hard time even going into why The Roots are amazing. A mixture of Prince and hip-hop block party, they are without question the most exciting act out there right now, and they also happen to be one of the most consistent bands in the studio. This is their finest work, a showcase of deft lyrical ability and incredible flow. Jazzy and catchy, Things Fall Apart tightened the band's early, more jam-oriented work into something that knocked on the mainstream's door even as it could still surprise you.

2000: Modest Mouse — The Moon and Antarctica

Almost had to flip a coin between this and Stankonia, but in the end I like this album a bit more. Modest Mouse's greatest album somehow manages to add to their sound—chucking in orchestral touches and denser song structures—while feeling more sparse than preceding efforts. Isaac Brock's repetitious wordplay has never been finer ("I wanna remember to remember to forget I forgot you"), and the songs have never been more piercing and searching. The aggression is still there, but now it's tempered by more reflection, offering up some of Brock's greatest insights into pain and alienation.

2001: The White Stripes — White Blood Cells

The White Stripes were the apotheosis of rock primitivism, punk so punk it went back to true roots rock: blues. Their 2001 effort easily stands as their most ferocious studio offering, perfectly condensing the duo's blend of metal, punk and blues into bursts of energy short enough to fit on old 78s. "Hotel Yorba" is nothing but acoustic guitars and Meg's endearingly undisciplined drumming, but it sounds heavier than just about anything an electric band can cook up, while the blistering "Fell in Love With a Girl" is a sock-hop number as played by the Sex Pistols.

2002: Bruce Springsteen — The Rising

Springsteen's last great album had been his achingly personal and confessional (once you buried under the '80s synth sound) Tunnel of Love in 1988, but this album, released in the wake of 9/11 and informed by the attack, show that most American of rockers helping us through the tragedy. Anger, confusion and unending pain inform it, to the point that even the song written before the attack, "My City of Ruins," becomes inextricably linked to that awful day. But there is also hope, not only on a grand scale ("The Rising") but in the personal joys of continuing to live and love ("Mary's Place").

2003: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros — Streetcore

Joe Strummer's final album is the best thing he'd done since London Calling, a recalling The Clash's blend of hard-hitting but melodic rock and an intuitive understanding of reggae. Indeed, it sounds like a lost Clash album, but it's also very much the product of a man who'd grown older and wiser. There's always a tendency to reevaluate final songs after an artist's death to see if he "knew," but despite Strummer's sudden death from an undiagnosed heart defect, it's uncanny how centered and at peace he sounds here, despite the political lyrics. At last, he can laugh at the world's darkness, not in nihilistic despair but in some sort of dinner-table understanding between bitter rivals who nevertheless observe etiquette.

2004: Mike Keneally and the Metropole Orkest — The Universe Will Provide

Of all the people to pass through Frank Zappa's ever-shifting, always virtuosic band, Mike Keneally is the one to best understand his former employer's outlook and preference of composition over showboating. Mixing rock with an orchestra is usually a recipe for pomposity and regret, but Keneally's compositions are clearly written with an orchestra in mind and not lazily transcribed for classical instruments. Not to be forgotten are the Orkest's own jazz and improv abilities that allow for greater interaction between them and Keneally. Keneally is sadly unknown, which is all the more upsetting considering how hook-laden a great deal of his music is, and you can hear that catchiness even in this grab bag of orchestral jazz rock.

2005: Robyn — Robyn

The killingest pop star on the planet came stomping back to life after a middling second and third album with a collection of ass-kicking, brilliant Europop to assert her world dominance. Well, America might not appreciate her properly, but I've yet to pass this along to someone who hasn't become a fan. Whether announcing her supreme power with "Konichiwa Bitches" or diving into genuine sorrow with "Be Mine!" and "With Every Heartbeat," Robyn is never less than sincere regardless of what emotion she's conveying at the time. She's also a great singer, not just catchy but aware of the perfect way to hit every note for maximum impact.

2006: TV on the Radio — Return to Cookie Mountain

TVOTR's art-soul is gripping from the moment you first hear one of Tunde Adebimpe's soaring falsettos. Their sound is always drifting, collecting and separating until you're not quite sure what's going on but can't help but love it. Even when the band drones, they do so with such rich harmony that the whole thing is transporting. And then they can come in with a perfectly formed slice of greatness like "Wolf Like Me" and tear the house down.

2007: Animal Collective — Strawberry Jam

Animal Collective's sonic textures have been evolving since their first album, moving from freak-folk all the way into the poppy strains of Merriweather Post Pavilion, but Strawberry Jam strikes the best balance between the mainstream and the avant-garde. The songs build into ecstatic frenzies of sounds so tactile and colorful the album might be the first to give people synesthesia. "Fireworks" and "For Reverend Green" give me such a high I can't even listen to them while driving for fear of losing all concentration.

2008: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

Nick Cave is another one of those artists who makes so few missteps that it's easy to simply get used to quality releases by him, but this hard-hitting LP demands your attention with its driving riffs and a demonically inspired Cave. Its best tracks are the bookends, the pounding title track and the heavy but spacious and searching "More News from Nowhere."

2009: The xx — xx

Post-punk R&B never sounded so good, with beats offsetting that existential vacuum feeling of post-punk production. The wordless intro alone is a mini-masterpiece, and this is one of the few cases of pop minimalism done perfectly. It's a bashful album, insecure but also determined to prove itself. This is the sound of someone placing a toe in a pool, with the suggestion that a cannonball is rapidly approaching.

2010: Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

What can I say? It's not West's best album (that would be Late Registration), but it's certainly his most "West" record. This is a momument to rap and rock megalomania, a pharaoh's pyramid erect to glorify Yeezy. Featuring a host of perfectly chosen guests, inventive samples (King Crimson? Oh Kanye, you beautiful madman) and lyrics perfectly situated between self-deprecation, self-pity and self-aggrandizement, MBDTF sounds like the end of an era even though I have no idea what era that might be.


  1. Great list, so what is your favorite so far for 2011?

  2. I've only listened to a few albums so far, but I'd said Fucked Up's David Comes to Life is the best studio album I've heard so far. Though, truth be told, the bootleg rip of LCD Soundsystem's last show is by far my favorite music of the year, so if that ever gets an official release it will be that.

  3. OK Computer was 1997.

    I am a nitpicker.

  4. Damn. I was going by the years listed in my iTunes and I guess I mislabeled it back in the day. Updated with a new choice.

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