This is something they were doing on Facebook — the ’10 albums 10 days’ challenge, where you were supposed to just post the album cover without comment. I’m terrible at following instructions though. I actually did 11, and I took a couple of weeks to finish it. I’m collecting them here as a more coherent way to archive them. No particular order implied.
Beatles “Rubber Soul”
This is the first record I bought with my own money, when I was 9 years old, at the Gemco in San Jose, California. I chose it over Revolver, which was the current record at the time, for reasons I don’t remember, but I still prefer RS to Revolver.
I bought the mono version because it was a buck cheaper, and hearing the stereo version still feels wrong.
This was the record where they hit their stride as a recording band, when their collaboration with George Martin elevated them from their status as pop phenomenon to something more. The quality of the sound on this record always felt mysterious to me, tied in my mind to the title “Norwegian Wood” — like dark wood, with a deeply figured grain. Ironically at the time and now, that song is probably the slightest one on the album; the groove of “The Word”, the melodic and lyrical depth of “In My Life,” the propulsive anger of “I’m Looking Through You” all surpass “Norwegian Wood.”
I had the American version, which followed Capitol’s practice of releasing records with fewer tracks than the original UK release. In this case only, I think the US version is superior, both for leaving off “Drive My Car” and “What Goes On” and for including “I’ve Just Seen A Face” which is a much superior song.
John McLaughlin is a polarizing artist, and kind of a difficult person from all reports. He claims to hate this record based on how it was mixed, which is silly, it has always sounded fantastic, and I have no idea what McLaughlin would do instead, and probably, neither does he.
This record is at an interesting intersection: the drummer, Buddy Miles toured with Jimi Hendrix in the Band of Gypsys. Larry Young, the organist had played with McLaughlin in the Tony Williams Lifetime, and they’d both played with Miles Davis. The bass player, Billy Rich was Buddy Miles’ bass player.
At any rate, this album is McLaughlin’s answer to Jimi Hendrix, with whom McLaughlin had jammed in New York. So there’s some of Hendrix’ blues influence, but combined with McLaughlin’s own compositional style, which is related to Jazz, but is rooted in his own odd chromatic exploratory style.
The key track is “Devotion”, which starts with an almost atonal riff, before opening up into a expansive modal chord progression. It is at once rocking, loud and meditative.
McLaughlin went on to be one of the seminal artists in the jazz rock fusion movement, with his group Mahavishnu Orchestra, but “Devotion” is everything great about his music with none of the annoying things he was prone to.
Wendy Carlos “Sonic Seasonings”
It’s frustrating that Wendy Carlos’ “Sonic Seasonings” is out of print and not available except as pricey second hand CDs. Partly it’s Carlos prickly fussiness about her own work, but I think mostly it’s that she’s always been a better artist than a manager of her own career; it’s quite difficult to find her stuff, aside from the millions of copies of “Switched On Bach” you can still find in thrift stores.
This was my study hour music in High School, though it was not really music by the standards of the day; it was a recreation of natural sounds with synthesizers, and had a curious feel to it. You could go to a rain forest and listen to your surroundings, and it would be like “Sonic Seasons” but it wouldn’t be the same; every second of this dual vinyl record is carefully and obsessively arranged. It was ambient music before Eno had the idea, and it’s still a great achievement of that genre.
The natural world can be engrossing and if you really pay attention, the sound of the natural world can be fantastic, but there’s something special about how a dedicated artist can start with nature and end up with something both artificial and authentic.
Joni Mitchell “For The Roses”
Again, while “Blue” is the obvious choice, this Joni Mitchell album is my favorite. “Blue” was a masterpiece of misery as art. By comparison, “For The Roses” was more an album of adult concerns. The opening song “Banquet” could have been written yesterday; it is always current and outside any moment: “Who let the greedy in/And who left the needy out/Who made this salty soup/Tell him we’re very hungry now/For a sweeter fare.”
Every song has arresting details, from the multitracked chorus of Jonis singing close harmonies in chords of her own invention, and the menace of ‘”Come with me I know the way” she says “It’s down, down, down the dark ladder'”, “when you dig down deep you lose good sleep.”
It continued where she left off with her piano-centric tunes on “Blue” but there’s some of her trademark guitar songs, like “For The Roses”: A meditation on fame that goes deeper than most songwriters go: “Just when you’re getting a taste for worship they start bringing out the hammers and the boards and the nails.”
And always her lyrics are conversational, and conversations with an implied other, “Did you get around rezoning for you way up here?”
I have a long difficult Joni Mitchell essay in my head, but I’ll try and boil down what gets me about her: She is what every artist should be, an observer off to the side, but her self-reflection is endless and uncomfortably sharp, so much so she seems as estranged from herself as she is from others. Her music makes you feel as though she’s shown you her inner self (and the album art includes a long shot of her naked next to the ocean), but this is an artistic construct.
You listen to her music and think you know her, but what you really know about her is her sharp eye for detail, the way she sees things in others, and herself, and the abiding emotion behind every song: loneliness, a yearning to connect that seems impossible to fulfill. She connects with us, her audience, in a way that it seems like her personality and intellect denies her in her own life…
Or maybe that’s a construct as well, but it’s fascinating to dwell in the cloud of uncertainty she creates.
My Bloody Valentine “Isn’t Anything”
“Loveless” is the obvious MBV choice, but I played the hell out of this (and the various EPs that came out pre-Loveless) at the time. It was the synthesis of contemporary influences (Jesus & Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr) but still sounded completely original.
If there’s a moment on this CD that still slays me, it’s that opening riff of “Feed Me With Your Kiss” that ends with a repeated hammer on the root note of the key. Each time it’s repeated they add another BAM on the tonic. I pointed this out to my kids once, and thence after when it came on the car stereo when we were driving, they’d count out the BAMs at the top of their lungs.
Basic Channel “BCD Vol. 1”
Like a lot of things I learned about Basic Channel from a mixtape by Aran aka DJ Teep, and playing that tape in the janky car stereo was the best way to get up on the music.
Also notable for the Metal Box packaging which invariably destroyed the CD after inserting and removing it a few times.
Now that this kind of music is such an institution it has it’s own category on the Boomkat website, it’s hard to express how odd and otherworldly this music sounded the first time I heard it. I’d heard a lot of techno before hearing this but this was something else. It was music that seemed to bring it’s own abandoned factory with it, barely lit, and filled with fog.
Brian Eno “Before And After Science”
Side one is more up tempo and reflects his antic ideas about lyrics: “Anna with her feelers moving round round round Is sharpening her needles on the wheel.” he sings in “Kurt’s Rejoinder,” an homage to Kurt Schwitter, the 20th Century avant-garde artist, whose “sound poetry” is is the background on this track.
But the authentic substance of this album is Side 2, particularly the sequence beginning with “Julie With” and ending with “Spider and I.” This is ambient music before Eno “invented” ambient music, and it’s slow quiet music built from layers and effects. It culminates with “Spider And I” which is what I want to hear while I’m dying.
Wishbone Ash “Pilgrimage”
Another one from back in the day: Wishbone Ash are a band with remarkable longevity. This album was their peak for me. It’s a player’s album — it was their second album after a lot of live shows, and they’re just plain hot. The album opener “Vas Dis” seems to be played at double speed, but it’s no problem, they an do that and make it look easy.
The peak for me is the second track “The Pilgrim” which starts out with a simple phrase repeated forever as echoey guitar floats in the grid created by repetition. This is eventually crossfaded into extended math-rock-esque riffing.
“Alone” follows a similar pattern, with a 4 measure repeated melodic pattern that transition into interlocking lead guitar solos, but the star is the bass, which defines the rhythmic pocket while still improving.
This kind of mostly-instrumental guitar-led music shows up again decades later with bands like Tortoise, but Wishbone Ash were there first.
An aside: They were on their first big US tour and played a show in Cedar Rapids, after which they invited Cedar Rapids police into their hotel room for some reason, having forgotten there was a suitcase open on the bed with a giant bag of weed sitting on top. They were arrested and sent home to England, and it was a long time before they were back touring in the US.
Gentle Giant “The Power And The Glory”
In this cavalcade of favorite albums, I’ve focused on things that were artifacts of my youth, because they’re the things I’ve live with the longest. In general I don’t feel nostalgic for being young, particularly the run from when I was 13 to about 25, because it was a period of untreated depression, family upheaval, and being completely unprepared for any of the normal growing up/adult business.
So what stands out for me isn’t nostalgia, but rather what music was the most effective escape from the buffeting winds of negativity and despair.
This Gentle Giant album I actually had to mail-order from an import company that advertised in the back of a music magazine. I’d sent something anyone born since about 1980 knows nothing about — a Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope (SASE) to the company, in order for them to mail me a paper catalog
I was intrigued by the album art and the brief description, and ordered it. For better or worse, it was music unlike anything I’d heard before.
These British beardos had this unbelievably ambitious idea for a concept album about political power and manipulation. They were the sort of hyper-technical musicians turned out by the British university system, who constructed herky-jerky jigsaw compositions. No melody too atonal, no rhythm too awkward. When they calmed down for a moment (listen to “Aspirations” in the comments) they could make really lovely, heartfelt music.
Mostly, though, they were the kings of making hyper-proggish girl repellant music, the sort of thing that got women to yell “take that shit off! Put on some Earth Wind & Fire!”
And no one did it better.
Sonic Youth “Daydream Nation”
But it can’t be denied, this is a seminal record that does what great art does: Take the the discarded things, the things thought of as ugly, ungainly, misshapen according to current conventions, and make them the center of a new kind of beauty. There are moments of dissonance and thrashing around that at the time this record was released were hard to take, but they serve as frames for sustained passages of great beauty and meditative calm.
They got extra points from me for the references to William Gibson novels. This is the sound equivalent of Gibson’s dead television channel sky.
XTC “Black Sea”
There’s several truly great XTC albums but this one stands out for me. Starting with the hilarious over the top skronk of “Respectable Street” that royally takes the piss out of the British middle class, this is subtle song writing beginning to end, fleshed out with a huge, rude rock production.by Steve Lillywhite.
1. “No Language In Our Lungs,” which is one of the few rock songs that addresses the inadequacy of language directly: “I would have made this instrumental but the words got in the way”
2. “Towers of London” That opening riff is purest XTC. Like “No Language …” it takes as its subject something unexpected. It’s a love song to London and the long dead people who built it: “Pavements of gold leading to the underground, Grenadier Guardsmen walking pretty ladies around, Fog is the sweat of the never never navvies who pound, pound, pound, pound, pound spikes in the rails to their very own heaven ”
The Beatles have much to answer for; XTC’s perfectly distilled British eccentricity is one thing they can be proud of.