Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Turntable Gems

After doing the piece on Techno-Zombies, I started thinking about another bit of classic culture that seems like it’s on its last legs: the music album. Whether it comes on vinyl, CD, or even 8-track, the album still retains a sense of cohesiveness, but now that people are increasingly going online for their music, it’s becoming a vanishing breed.

Once again, our friend technology has served up a tasty double-edged sword. On the plus side, I don’t have to spend fifteen bucks to get one song anymore. On the negative, the likelihood of me listening to (let alone buying) an entire album is increasingly small. Which is too bad, because even though I love the ability to download songs individually, I do get the feeling that I’m missing a lot of hidden gems. Gems I can’t identify from their 30-second samples on iTunes.

Besides, a lot of great albums aren’t just made up of great songs. They’re made up of songs that go great together; the old “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” idea. In fact, most of my favorite “albums” don’t even contain my favorite songs; they just create some of my favorite moods. So here are a few recommended albums from the Josh catalog. Some you’ll recognize, some you won’t, but all worthy of a spin.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, The Beatles

Might as well start with the most clichéd of the bunch. The current trend is to point to “Revolver” as the greatest of the great Beatles albums, usually with the argument that “Sgt. Pepper” gets the press, but “Revolver” really laid the groundwork. That may be true, but “Sgt. Pepper” stands out more in my mind for being a cohesive work. Listening to it for the first time on my parent’s record player—it was the first album I ever bought—looking over the lyrics on the back and trying to identify all those people on the cover, there was a distinctive sound to the whole work. Songs like “Getting Better” may not have been as huge as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, but they still fit together sonically. Even the token Indian tune from George fits, though I usually hit skip when I’m listening to the whole CD. From the opening orchestra warm-up to the big bang at the end of “Day in the Life”, the album felt like a total experience; not just a collection of songs.

“Thriller”, Michael Jackson

Listening to this album is totally depressing. Depressing because it’s so good, and depressing because Michael had to go and get replaced by that alien two years later. I really miss jeri curl Michael. “Thriller” may not feature any of my all-time favorite songs, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the most cohesive and creative records ever put out. Even when you get beyond the big-name songs like “Beat it” and “Billie Jean”, you still have songs like “Human Nature” and “PYT” that would be flagship tracks on anyone else’s record. And for all the lousy production sounds that make a lot of 80’s music so corny, Jackson’s stuff really hits a unique quality level, Vincent Price monologues notwithstanding. All press and Jacko craziness aside, this is one fun album.

“Love, Power, Peace: Live at the Olympia in Paris, 1971”, James Brown

99 out of 100 people (or more) will tell you that the definitive James Brown live album is “Live at The Apollo”, and I agree that it’s a great record. But my personal favorite was recorded almost a decade later in Paris with the original JB’s and a bass player named Bootsy. The Olympia album is awesome, jumping out at you, grabbing you by the neck, and making it funky all night long, baby. It earns it’s keep on one moment alone: at the end of track 2 (“Brother Rapp”), JB and the boys go into an extended jam, then turn on a dime to jump into “Ain’t it Funky Now”, instantly changing tone, pace, rhythm, everything…completely in sync with each other. All in one super-funky instant. JB was truly one baaaaaad mutha.

“The Raw and the Cooked”, Fine Young Cannibals

I’m totally serious. Like most people, I bought “The Raw and the Cooked” to get “She Drives Me Crazy” and maybe “Good Thing”, but what I found was an album that had a lot more to offer. Aside from having one of the coolest band names ever, The Fine Young Cannibals had a great knack for bringing together different music styles in a fresh, fun and unique way. In spite of the obvious late 80’s synthesizers and production style, half the tracks on “Raw and the Cooked” sound like they were taken straight out of a 1950’s Doo-Wop act, and they sound great. They’re fun, kooky, and sincere all at once. People really need to hear this one.

“Pet Sounds”, The Beach Boys

Like John Milner in “American Graffiti”, I wasn’t a huge fan of the early Beach Boys surfing music. But this album isn’t about surfing. Legend has it that Brian Wilson was inspired to write this album by the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”, and that they in turn were inspired to do “Sgt. Pepper” by “Pet Sounds”. Regardless of who inspired who, this is the album that contains “God Only Knows”, and that should say enough on its own. But “God Only Knows” is far from the only quality track on here, and even the no-name songs rise above “filler” status and blend the whole work together into a sonic melancholy daydream.

“I’ve Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, Aretha Franklin

Unlike their more rock and roll counterparts, 60’s soul acts rarely seemed to be too concerned with the album concept. I think they were more into the single scene. But this album from Aretha Franklin is such a powerhouse that the record packs a huge punch in spite of itself. From originals like the title cut and “Respect” to lesser-known covers of classics like “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Drown in My Own Tears”, there is no doubt of Aretha’s status as Queen of Soul after you give this record a listen. There’s just something about that voice.

“Loaded”, The Velvet Underground

The Velvet’s had one whale of an identity problem. Their first album—the one with the bright yellow banana on it—spends half the time exploring the seedy New York underground (“Venus in Furs”), another part just playing stripped down rock and roll (“Waiting For the Man”), and the rest of the time spinning some of the most heartfelt and whimsical tunes I’ve ever heard (“Sunday Morning”). But as cool as the first album is, my favorite is probably “Loaded”, the last one they made right before the band blew up. “Loaded” is actually kind of a pop experiment; instead of do their usual far-out oddball artsy thing, the Velvets decided to see if they could write some pop songs. But even if they aren’t as “pure” as some fans might like, I still love “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll”, even if they inexplicably cut out the “Heavenly Wine and Roses” passage out of the former (you can get the full version on the “Fully Loaded Edition”).

“ZOSO”, Led Zeppelin

Yeah, I know…another gimme. Still, the memory of listening to this album on cassette while navigating the snow-covered Viewmont High parking lot the winter of my junior year is too firmly entrenched in my mind to blow it off as a cliché. “Whole Lotta Love” opened the Zeppelin door for me, and the fourth album blew it off the hinges. Chuck Klosterman says that every guy goes through a phase growing up where Zeppelin is the greatest band (if not the only band) in the universe. As much as I’d like to think I’m totally unique and unencumbered with the sentiments of regular folks, my experience supports his point.

“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”, David Bowie

Long after I converted from records to CD’s and joined the rush of the digital age, I picked up the Ziggy Stardust album on vinyl at Randy’s Records in Salt Lake for five bucks and listened to it in my parent’s basement. As I lay there on our orange and yellow shag carpet, I officially decided that I was a Bowie fan. I thought his later stuff was OK, even some of that funny “Labyrinth” stuff, but there was a totally different sound from the Ziggy days. That whole fuzzed-out guitar and moody glam thing really came through for some reason. Maybe it just resonates with the inner orange-haired oddball in all of us.

“War”, U2

I’m pretty sure that the first U2 album I got was “Achtung Baby”, or maybe “Joshua Tree”, but I’ve always held a fondness for the raw stripped down sound of “War”. The early-early stuff still had some New Wave in it, but I think U2 really hit their sonic stride with songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Years Day”. But here again, tracks like “Two Hearts Beat as One” and “Like a Song…” fill out the experience nicely. It doesn’t really have the trademark Edge Echo on the guitar, but it makes up for it with straightforward energy and passion. Almost like really good garage band rock by angry Irishmen.

“The Stranger”, Billy Joel

I listened to this album constantly as a kid, mostly on my parent’s car stereo as we’d go on the late night drives that were the foundation for the road trip passion that emerged later in life. People talk about how Billy Joel isn’t quite “cool” like most rock and rollers, while not quirky enough to have a Neil Diamond type of niche, but when it comes down to it, none of that crap really matters, cause if you like the music, you like the music. And I love “The Stranger”. Billy balances some great bar-band rock and roll with some genuine piano romance, and even manages to blend them both in a couple of songs (“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”). There are big songs (“Movin’ Out”) and unknowns (“Get it Right the First Time”) and sappy ballads (“Just the Way You Are”), and there’s one song that has haunted me for years (“Vienna”). So if that’s not enough to make Billy Joel cool, then whatever, man…whatever.

“Déjà vu”, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

The cover of this album looks like one of those old west shots from the 1800’s, and it suggests you will be hearing music that hearkens to simpler, perhaps more dangerous times. It’s the second album from three guys who left their pop-inclined bands (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Hollies, respectively) to link up for more sophisticated music. It’s also the first album to include fellow former-Buffalo Springfield alum Neil Young. “Déjà Vu” is every bit as cool an album as the cover would suggest, with a sound that hints of the old west without injecting all the phony twang that today’s country albums are saturated with. Of course, Crosby and Co. aren’t cowboys at all; they’re hippies. But them hippies can sure make some down-home tunes.

“Village Green Preservation Society”, The Kinks

If people have heard of the Kinks at all, it’s usually through primitive proto-punk rockers like “You Really Got Me” or maybe the greatest transvestite song of all-time (“Lola”). But on “Preservation Society”, Ray Davies sets aside all the raw guitar and writes a collection of songs about a simple fictional small town in Britain. Kind of an English Dandelion Wine, I guess. Sometimes its whimsical, sometimes it’s melancholy, but altogether it’s a cool album. I even used it in my graduate thesis.