Posts Tagged ‘Public Enemy’

Buried Treasure: Mixed Messages

14 October 2010

[Today: Sticking it to The Man...]

What if I told you that one of the best hip-hop albums of the 00’s was a limited edition promo that was heard by only a few thousand people? Zeph & Azeem’s Mixed Messages was created as a promotional vehicle for their 2007 album Rise Up, which was released on the San Francisco-based label Om Records. MC Azeem (real name, Ismail Azeem) is a former spoken-word poetry champ who is equally influenced by Jamaican toasters like Big Youth, poets like Langston Hughes, and traditional hip-hop MCs like Rakim Allah, while DJ Zeph (real name, Zephaniah White) is a master mixer of horn breaks pulled from the rarest salsa, reggae, jazz and funk albums.

Mixed Messages is a dynamic, creative enterprise that freely borrows from high profile and top secret sources alike, and completely outshines the release it was created to promote. But in Rise Up‘s defense, this album outshines almost every other hip-hop release of the last decade as well. It isn’t a perfect album, but bracketed between a handful of songs on its front and back ends is a perfect 13-song album that provides a hint of what a world without onerous copyright and sampling laws might sound like.

Once upon a time, DJs were free to borrow from whatever sources they chose, without much fear of litigation. But when Biz Markie was successfully sued in 1992 for willful infringement of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s song ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’, it sent a chill through the music industry that persists to this day. Markie reportedly sampled the song after being explicitly asked not to, and like a misbehaving kid at a birthday party, he ruined the fun for everyone else. Suddenly, sample-heavy albums like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and EPMD’s Strictly Business were a thing of the past. Anything approaching the vibrant texture of those records was suddenly a massively expensive proposition that wasn’t close to economically feasible.

Over the last two decades, artists like DJ Shadow, the Kleptones and Greg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) have found creative loopholes in sampling laws that allowed them to make the kind of unfettered musical collages that used to swim behind hip-hop albums during the genre’s golden age. But if Mixed Messages is a throwback to the stylistic possibilities of rap’s past, it also subverts the conventional subject matter of hip-hop. “That’s Small-ville, throw yourself in the air/Buy a plane ticket like you just don’t care/Don’t wonder ’bout Morocco, go there,” Azeem raps on ‘Live From The Future’, twisting a rap cliche while encouraging listeners to get out and see the world. ‘Don’t Quote Me’ wryly lifts lines from classic hip-hop tunes by the likes of Public Enemy, The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest and Snoop Dogg, and rearranges them into a completely new entity. ‘What If’ uses a killer Pink Floyd sample and looks beneath the skin of a country that tortures prisoners, fabricates reasons for war, and spies on its citizens, and will leave you wondering where the lies end and the truths begin.

The Catch-22 of Mixed Messages is that its intentionally microscopic audience is the only reason it was allowed to have such a monumental sound. The Man doesn’t want you to hear these songs – I recommend you download as many as possible while he’s still looking the other way…

Listen: What If (Exclusive Remix)

Listen: Don’t Quote Me

Listen: That Type Of Music

Listen: Live From The Future

Listen: Floorwax (featuring Raashan Ahmad)

Listen: The Get Down (featuring Lyrics Born)

Listen: Latin Revenge

Listen: Bronx Zulu

Listen: Here Comes The Judge

A Day At The Flea IX

3 May 2010

‘Twas a perfect weekend to hit the flea market, and The P and I took full advantage. Here are some of my highlights…


Charlie Musselwhite | Memphis, Tennessee


Steve Miller Band | Number 5


The Salsoul Orchestra | Greatest Disco Hits: Music For Non-Stop Dancing


Otis Redding | The Soul Album


Osibisa | Woyaya


Muhammad Ali | Ali and His Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay


Sandy Bull | Fantasias For Guitar & Banjo


Various Artists | Canada’s Finest: Solid Gold (K-Tel)


Rick Astley | Whenever You Need Somebody


Ali Akbar Khan | Sound Of The Sarod: Recorded In Concert


J.D. Crowe And The New South | J.D. Crowe And The New South


Oscar Peterson | The Oscar Peterson Quartet


Johnny Cash | His Greatest Hits, Volume II


Woody Guthrie | The Early Years


Jean-Luc Ponty | King Kong


Public Enemy | Fear Of A Black Planet


Public Enemy | It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Masterpiece: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

15 April 2010

[Today: Chuck D don't take no mess...]

During its first decade, Hip-Hop was mainly party music, and if it dipped into politics it was local level stuff that rarely rose above the ghetto-is-bad posture of songs like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s ‘The Message’. But in Public Enemy MC Chuck D, Hip-Hop finally got a frontman to channel the righteous political anger of figures like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. With their sophomore album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, PE evolved beyond the street-wise bragging of their debut and made music that sounded like it was aimed squarely at world domination.

Some critics got spun out on supposed anti-Semitic and gay-bashing lyrics, but Chuck D raps with a concentrated fury that simply overwhelms any textual nit-picking. Meanwhile, few critics have bothered to note that as angry as PE sounds, they are the rare Hip-Hop group that virtually abstains from cursing. The Bomb Squad’s super-dense production – complete with squealing sirens, kettle-whistle screams and relentless James Brown samples – provides a paranoid, claustrophobic ambience for Chuck D’s rapping. And from his first rhymes of the record (“Bass! How low can you go?/Death row. What a brother know” from ‘Bring The Noise’), it’s clear that he’s deadly serious. The song titles – ‘Prophets Of Rage’ ‘Louder Than A Bomb’ and ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ – provide crib notes for the temperature within. Fortunately, Flavor Flav adds comic relief by occasionally cold-lamping to release the pressure.

Nation Of Millions… reaches its apex midway through side two with ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’. This song positions Chuck D as a modern day Nat Turner who turns on a government that would imprison him for refusing military service. Busting his way out of the pen, along with “52 brothers, bruised, battered and scarred, but hard”, the song ends with Chuck D on the loose and looking for vengeance. Throughout this album, Chuck D provides the logical stepping stone between the ‘Papa Don’t Take No Mess’ strut of James Brown and the ‘Wrong Nigger To Fuck With’ rage of Ice Cube. In the years since this landmark release, he has continued to serve as a leading conscience of Hip-Hop, speaking out on everything from copyright infringement (against) to civil rights (for). Believe the hype…

Listen: Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos

Listen: Bring The Noise

Listen: Louder Than A Bomb

Doubleshot Tuesday: Just Outside Of Town/Apocalypse ’91… The Enemy Strikes Black

18 August 2009

[Today: Riffs, samples, and malt liquor...]

Mandrill | Just Outside Of Town
Public Enemy | Apocalypse '91... The Enemy Strikes Black

Mandrill was one of those colorful, percussion-heavy, shirt-optional funk ensembles that were all the rage in the 70’s. Part world music, part soul, part blues, but mostly good ol’ fashioned funk, the group was formed by the Wilson brothers, Ric (sax), Carlos (trombone) and Louis (trumpet). These beach boys were born in Panama, but raised in New York City, and the music they made evokes a funkier, grittier era. Their 1973 album Just Outside Of Town is hit and miss, but when it hits, it hits hard. Featuring sharp horns and lots of wah-wah, songs like ‘Mango Meat’ and ‘Fat City Strut’ are as juicy as their titles would indicate. Mandrill’s uptempo songs are so thick and hook-laden that they’ve become favorites of samplers the world over, and bits of their tunes have provided the thump for artists including Kanye West, the Jungle Brothers, and Public Enemy.

PE used the awesome bass/guitar figure from Mandrill’s ‘Two Sisters Of Mystery’ as the backbone for their political call-to-arms ‘By The Time I Get To Arizona’. This song – a reaction to the state of Arizona’s refusal to honor Martin Luther King Day – features Chuck D’s fantasy of traveling to the AZ to cap some racist politicians. Perhaps because this violent, controversial slice of protest was its first single, Apocalypse ’91 has never garnered anywhere near the merit it deserves. The album is a dense, funky exploration of the black condition in the America of the early 90’s, touching loudly on topics such as alcoholism (‘1 Million Bottlebags’), crime (‘More News At 11′) politics (‘Can’t Truss It’), and the media (‘How To Kill A Radio Consultant’). This is raging, paranoid political propaganda that’s brilliant in its fury. The album closes with Public Enemy’s greatest song, ‘Bring Tha Noize’ – a hardcore/rap tune that funnels Chuck D’s anger into a cloud of metal guitars and blaring sirens. The whole thing is heavy enough to blow the tweeters out of your prized JBL speakers – truss me.

Listen: Two Sisters Of Mystery [Mandrill]

Listen: By The Time I Get To Arizona [Public Enemy]

Listen: Mango Meat [Mandrill]

Listen: Bring Tha Noize (With Anthrax) [Public Enemy]

Doubleshot Tuesday: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back/Straight Outta Compton

20 January 2009

[Today: Who's the man?...]

Public Enemy | It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
N.W.A. | Straight Outta Compton

Barack Obama was inaugurated earlier today as the 44th President Of The United States. It’s a great moment in the history of this country, but the music geek in me can’t help but wonder if this amazing triumph of hope is the death knell for a certain strain of Hip-Hop music. After all, if you’re Chuck D, Ice Cube or any other of the legion of angry rappers out there, what do you do when the man is suddenly your man?

This quandry isn’t limited to just rappers. Democrats have spent the last eight years hurling F-bombs at the commander-in-chief, while becoming conditioned to cringe at his every inane utterance. But with Obama in the White House, there are no longer any evil scapegoats or easy excuses. Whether you’re a Democrat or a wicked MC, this moment represents a fundamental change in your relationship to the government.

On the militant track ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’, Chuck D growls “Picture me givin’ a damn I said never/Here is a land that never gave a damn/About a brother like me and myself.” Yesterday that proclamation sounded like a bold statement – today it sounds like a postcard from the past.

Obama got to the heart of this matter with one sentence in his inaugural speech today: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” One can only wonder if the rising tide of history will leave hip-hop’s militants all washed up.

Listen: Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos [Public Enemy]

Listen: Straight Outta Compton [N.W.A.]

A Dozen Artists Poorly-Served By Best-Of Compilations

21 July 2008

A few weeks back I took a look at some musicians who are well-served by Greatest Hits compilations. Here now are a dozen artists who fit the flip-side of that description…


Artist: Pink Floyd

Collection: A Collection Of Great Dance Songs

Problem: The Floyd’s albums are conceptual puzzles that are meant to be enjoyed whole, and not on some choc-a-bloc collection with an unfortunately ironic name.

Parliament - best of
Artist: Funkadelic/Parliament

Collection: Tear The Roof Off: 1974-1980

Problem: George Cllinton’s twin funk powerhouses cranked out more than a dozen albums from 1976 to 1980 alone. No one compilation could possibly capture even a fraction of the best stuff, and the collections out there tend to stress the well-known material at the expense of some red-hot, but lesser-known jams.

Radiohead - best of
Artist: Radiohead

Collection: The Best Of

Problem: Radiohead’s albums are all stylistically individual, so the idea of mixing their “hits” together into a big stew is kind of sonically nauseating. The fact that this compilation was released against the band’s wishes might also make you a little queasy.

Miles Davis - best of
Miles Davis - greatest hits
Artist: Miles Davis

Collection: Take your pick.

Problem: Miles Davis made artistic strokes so bold and large that they took several albums to flesh out – witness the second quintet albums of the mid-60’s or the fusion gems of the late 60’s/early 70’s. The idea of encapsulating his career in one collection is madness – every song he made was a greatest hit.

PE - greatest misses
Artist: Public Enemy

Collection: Greatest Misses

Problem: An uninspired collection of oddball non-hits and not-so-great re-mixes. Any of PE’s best albums (Fear Of A Black Planet, Nation Of Millions, and Apocalypse 91) lay claim to more great songs that this.

Dead - best of
Artist: Grateful Dead

Collection: Skeletons From The Closet

Problem: The Dead just aren’t this kind of band. Their studio albums are barely relevant to what makes them great, let alone some patchwork best of. This is the kind of collection that non-Dead fans point to and say “See?“.

Waits - best of
Artist: Tom Waits

Collection: Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years

Problem: Waits combines all the elements that make for a poor best-of: his albums are best consumed in full, he’s changed his sound wildly from one album to the next, and he hasn’t had any actual ‘hits’ to speak of. Naturally, his best collection isn’t Beautiful Maladies, but 2006’s Orphans, a scrapbook of B-sides and oddities.


Artist: Jimi Hendrix

Collection: The Essential Hendrix, Volumes I & II

Problem: These aren’t bad collections in and of themselves, but the fact that Jimi made just three studio albums in his abbreviated career makes any best-of seem superfluous.


Artist: Led Zeppelin

Collection: Mothership

Problem: Wait, isn’t that George Clinton’s thing? Zeppelin has several inadequate best-ofs on the market – Mothership just happens to be the latest and not-so-greatest. Do yourself a favor and get the studio albums – all of them are worth your time.

Dylan - greatest hits
Artist: Bob Dylan

Collection: Greatest Hits, Volumes I, II, & III

Problem: With so many great albums in the discography, why would anyone tread here? Blood On The Tracks, Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home Again, Time Out Of Mind – any of them are a better place to wade into the myth of Bob Dylan than his Greatest Hits.

Stones - hot rocks
Artist: The Rolling Stones

Collection: Hot Rocks

Problem: The best bits of the Stones’ catalogue go well beyond their established hits. In fact, many of their finest songs (‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ ‘Monkey Man’ and ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ to name but three) are tucked away in places where only the true fans can find and enjoy them.

Kiss - smashes, thrashes, and hits
Artist: KISS

Collection: Smashes, Thrashes, and Hits

Problem: KISS is larger than life, and this collection is not. ‘Let’s Put The X In Sex’ is just plain bad, and shows that the group had run out of musical ideas by the early 80’s. Good thing they’re so on top of merchandising…

The Fillmore, For Beginners

17 February 2008

Fillmore East & West - book

I picked up this snazzy little relic during a recent excursion through our local flea market. It’s a pretty lightweight book, and the Fillmore franchise is used here merely as a flimsy pretense to pimp the biographies of nine rock bands. Only the first and last chapters actually touch on Fillmores East & West, and even those aren’t worth much except unintentional humor. Here’s a sample describing the Fillmore East crowd, circa 1970:

“And what are they wearing to the Fillmore tonight? Surplus Army clothes are dropping off somewhat. Safari hats are making a comeback. Maxis are minimum in number. Shawls and ponchos are still in. Boots seem on the way out. Jeans will apparently always be with us. On and on the fashion models file into the Fillmore. Beards are bigger than ever – though John Lennon’s new haircut has had a startling effect on a few of the trendsetters. Outsize colored glasses, properly referred to as “shades,” have reached a new peak.”

Whew! For a minute there I thought my ponchos and shawls had slipped out of style…

The last chapter of the book – by far its most perversely interesting – recounts the author’s visit to Fillmore East for a tripleheader that included The Allman Brothers Band, Love, and the Grateful Dead. After spending considerable time explaining why the opening band rarely measures up to the groups that follow, the author reveals that the freakin’ Allman Brothers were the openers that night. But, having sipped extensively from his own cauldron of Kool Aid, he pans them mercilessly for playing too loud.

In short, this is a poor excuse for a book. But it’s an excellent excuse for me to pick up the baton where “James A. Hudson” (no doubt a PR pseudonym) dropped it, and recount some of my own Fillmore memories. While I never made it to Fillmore East (it closed its doors on June 27, 1971 with a concert headlined, coincidentally, by the Allman Brothers), I’ve enjoyed plenty of shows at The Fillmore in San Francisco. By chance, it reopened for business in April 1994 – after 5 years of seismic retrofitting – just a few weeks after I moved to the city. It quickly became one of my favorite places for a night out, and I’ve spent countless evenings in its cozy confines. Here are ten memorable shows I’ve seen in this shrine for music:

Johnny Cash [11/9/96] – This remains the single greatest concert I’ve ever attended, bar none. Memorable for a thousand reasons, though probably not so memorable for my ex-girlfriend, who passed out in the Ladies’ Room midway through the show. Cash had the crowd-of-all-ages in the palm of his hand, and delivered a legendary performance for the ages.

Primus [4/29/94] – My first trip to the Fillmore, a few weeks after I moved to SF, and the second concert put on at the reconstituted venue. I immediately fell in love with the place and its aura of rock god sweat and history. I was particularly thrilled by the upstairs lounge, which is covered wall-to-wall in vintage Fillmore posters, and stands as a veritable museum of rock history.

Blackalicious/Public Enemy [10/10/02] – Blackalicious opened, PE closed. Go ahead and believe the hype, because Public Enemy is every bit as good in concert as they are on disc. Chuck D growled and prowled, Flavor Flav cracked wise, and a whole room full of white people spent an evening shaking their collective arse to a bunch of songs about what a bunch of devils they are. Brilliant fun.

Iggy Pop [4/29/01] – My buddy Furr called me the the night of the show with an extra and I went along on a whim. Iggy immediately blew me away with his urgency and energy, repeatedly leaping into the crowd and slamming his mic stand to the ground. He and his band ripped through a greatest-hits-like set of classic Stooges and Iggy songs, culminating with an absolutely flammable version of ‘1969’. Awesome.

Steve Earle [3/13/01] – This was another fortunate last second Furr ride-along. I’d not heard of Earle at all before this 2001 show, but was quickly won over by his storyteller presence and liberal-minded monologues. He and his band capped an incredible performance with a blistering version of The Stones’ ‘Sweet Virginia’. Gracias, el senor Furr!

Femi Kuti [6/19/04] – Fela Kuti’s gifted son put on an amazing display of Afrobeat prowess, but this one is memorable because it was my first chance to take my Uncle Henry to The Fillmore. He lived in SF during the late 60’s and early 70’s and visited all of the rock ballrooms of the day, so it was especially cool for me to be able to take him out for a night of music. And so there was great music, and much dancing ensued…

The Strokes [10/16/01] – This show took place right after their first album was released. In fact, they played for just 35 minutes, going through every song on their debut, but with such energy that every person there got full money’s worth. The evening was summed up by lead singer Julian Casablancas flicking his lit cigarette at the velvet stage curtains – one way or another, this group was determined to burn the joint down.

P-Funk All-Stars [9/12/98] – Without a doubt the loudest show I’ve ever been through. This was like standing in the middle of a funk hurricane, as George Clinton and company pranced around in costumes and rocked the house to its ever-loving foundation. CAN I GET TO WHAT?!?

My Morning Jacket/M. Ward [5/9/04] – MMJ represents the best of Southern rock, reincarnate, and they never fail to put on a full-throttle evening of rock & roll. These guys are probably the closest thing to the vintage Allman Brothers that I’ll get to see in my lifetime. Take an evening of extended, red-hot guitar jams, throw in M. Ward as an opener, and what you’ve got is one incredible show.

Shuggie Otis [7/7/01] – Hands down the worst show I’ve ever seen. Shuggie was high on something other than life, and the Fillmore went from packed full to three-quarters empty in less than 30 minutes. Shuggie limp-wristed his way around the guitar and organ, slurred his vocals, and spewed the kind of weak, show-bizzy jive between songs that made you almost happy to watch him crash and burn so spectacularly. Hey, I said ‘memorable’, not ‘best’…

Bill Graham - Fillmore
Bill Graham surveys his domain.

A Dozen Great Band Logos

12 February 2008

A great band logo makes everybody happy. It gives music fans a ready symbol by which they can express their undying love, while providing bands with a logo they can plaster onto mountains of merchandise. The best logos become synonyms for the bands they represent, and often provide a visual representation of the sound of the band in question. Here are 12 that stand out from the crowd:

Stones - logo
The Rolling Stones - The Stones’ logo is the Nike Swoosh of Rock – it’s instantly identified with the group the world over. The fact that it resembles a certain lead singer doesn’t detract from its considerable charm.

Dead - logo
The Grateful Dead - The ‘steal your face’ design is just one of many signifiers the group has used throughout their long, strange trip. Dancing bears, skulls and roses, various turtles, and a cornucopia of other colorful images have covered their merchandise, but it’s the skull with the lightning bolt that instantly reads Dead.

Black Flag - logo
Black Flag – Using just four simple bars, Black Flag’s logo completely conveys the hardass, take-no-prisoners edge that runs through all their music. Artist Raymond Pettibon is the brother of group founder Greg Ginn.

Ramones - logo
Ramones - Da Brudders’ logo features a suspiciously Presidential-looking seal that features an eagle holding a baseball bat and a ribbon bearing the inscription ‘Hey Ho Let’s Go’. Perfect for the first family of punk…

KISS - logo
KISS - Disclaimer: my brother and I both marched in the KISS Army, so I’ve been under the sway of these four letters for decades. The band took this logo to the bank – literally, with one of the most aggressive and successful merchandising efforts in the history of music.

Public Enemy logo
Public Enemy – PE makes serious hip-hop about serious issues, so this logo works like a charm. Every element of the group – from their dancers’ fake Uzis to the Bomb Squad’s production to this emblem – screams revolution. If you’re not part of the solution, you better duck.

AC/DC logo
AC/DC - The lightning bolt and pronged type brilliantly and simply pay off the electrical theme of the band’s name. But the typeface is also imbued with a middle-ages, Latin gravitas that fits the band’s heavy sound.

DK - logo
Dead Kennedys - This logo owes more than a passing debt of inspiration to the scratched ‘A’ that stands as the symbol for anarchy. Which is just about right for any band fronted by funnyman and anarchist-wannabe Jello Biafra.

The Who - logo
The Who - The group’s sound is based in the mid-60’s mod movement, and so is this classic logo. The arrow pushing upward out of the ‘O’ gives this logo a feeling of motion and freedom (or at least that’s what I’d say if I were an art director).

Ween - logo
Ween - It’s hard to tell whether Ween’s logo (named ‘Boognish’) has been sniffing glue or is just rocking out. Either way, it’s an excellent expression of the fun that’s to be had from this band of would-be brothers.

Sex Pistols - logo
Sex Pistols - Artist Jamie Reid’s design work for the Sex Pistols provided the band with a graphically interesting look that would be become visually synonymous with an entire genre of music. The ransom-note style lettering conveys both the DIY philosophy of punk and the menace to be found within the music.

RHCP - logo
Red Hot Chili Peppers - The Chili Peppers’ asterik is a simple but strong design element that the group has employed in a variety of ways. Created on a whim by lead singer Anthony Keidis (who’d been asked for a logo by the group’s promotions team) it is often referred to as the “angel’s asshole”.

*****

Further reading:
IntuitiveDesigns.net runs down the Top 10 Rock Band Logos.
This blog is totally dedicated to band logos.

*****

There are a lot of great band logos out there. Which did I overlook??

Hidden In Plain Sight Too: 10 More Albums That Don’t Get Their Due

20 September 2007

Who knows why these things happen? Some albums just can’t catch a break, and for a variety of reasons, don’t get the amount of critical or popular respect that they deserve. Here are ten that I think are worth a second listen and some serious reappraisal. Once again, I’m keeping this list to artists that are generally well-known enough that your mom might recognize the names…

beck - album
Beck * Mutations

Why it gets shorted: It came right after Odelay, which is pretty much Beck’s benchmark album. The introspective, dour songs prefaced the gloom and doom of 2002’s Sea Change.

What’s great about it: A very strong crop of songs that are effectively avant garde and poetic. It’s the aural equivalent of listening to a Salvador Dali painting.

Better than: Everything he’s done except Odelay, Guero, and The Information.

Paul Simon - album
Paul Simon * Rhythm Of The Saints

Why it gets shorted: This album came after his landmark album (note a trend, besides me using adjectives that end in -mark?) Graceland. No real hit singles to hang your hat on here.

What’s great about it: On the whole, a much more satisfying realization of the sound of Simon’s infatuation with African music than this album’s more popular counterpart. It has held up extremely well over time, while the overplayed singles on Graceland seriously date that album. [PS - note the great 'cut bin' hole on the picture - which I pulled from Amazon.com!]

Better than: Everything else in his catalogue, in my opinion.

PE - album
Public Enemy * Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black

Why it gets shorted: Yet again, it came right after their strongest work – It Takes A Nation Of Millions… and Fear Of A Black Planet. On balance, this album is angrier and more political than either of its more well-known brethren.

What’s great about it: A steady succession of hard-hitting songs about slave ships, liquor dealers and bringin’ noise make this – like Paul Simon’s Rhythym Of The Saints – the more perfect realization of the group’s vision than its more celebrated counterparts. And please note – this is the only blog on earth that dares to compare Paul Simon and Public Enemy.

Better than: Not better than their best work, but certainly as good as anything else they’ve done.

Gaucho - album
Steely Dan * Gaucho

Why it gets shorted: Perhaps I should have named this column “albums that came after artists’ best albums” – this one came after Aja, which people spend an unnecessary amount of time drooling over. Also, ‘Glamour Profession’ and the title track are pretty silly, unless you’re stoned.

What’s great about it: ‘Babylon Sisters’ is epic, for one thing. Also, this was the album when the ironic glint in the Dan’s eye dimmed a bit, and it was obvious that they were a group on the edge, and the party of the 70’s was over. Many critics damn this album for that reason, but that’s what makes it great to me. [In fact this was one of my staple albums from '95 to '97 and I practically wore out the grooves on my dollar vinyl copy.]

Better than: Again, not better than – but as good as – their best stuff.

Joni Mitchell - album
Joni Mitchell * The Hissing Of Summer Lawns

Why it gets shorted: While this did come after her uber-celebrated Court & Spark, it was a huge left turn away from that sound. This was where Mitchell began losing traction with her audience, and she steadily retreated into ever more musically obtuse corners.

What’s great about it: ‘The Jungle Line’ is absolutely incredible. This lush, pounding song sampled African drums in 1975 (take that Paul Simon!) and is worth the price of admission alone. And give her credit, she could have spent 20 years cranking out Court & Spark clones, but decided to take some chances instead. And for major bonus points, this is reportedly Prince’s (the artist & symbol) favorite album of all-time.

Better than: Everything in her catalogue but Court & Spark.

One For The Road - album

Willie Nelson & Leon Russell * One For The Road

Why it gets shorted: Willie cranks out about two albums each year, so it’s pretty hard for any but his most devoted fans to even keep up with his current stuff – let alone go dipping 30 years into the past.

What’s great about it: Willie & Leon = two great voices that sound great together.

Better than: Anything he’s produced in the last two decades.

Little Feat - album
Little Feat * The Last Record Album

Why it gets shorted: The cover art on this album is a poor sister to some of Neon Park’s artwork that is so associated with the group. Also, there’s nothing here that has ever troubled any of their ‘greatest hits’ albums.

What’s great about it: This is the sound of Lowell George and company locked into a solid groove, start to finish. There’s nothing even remotely unlikable on this album.

Better than: Sailin’ Shoes, which seems strangely overrated to me.

Van Morrison - album
Van Morrison * Into The Music

Why it gets shorted: Van was pretty uneven – to say the least – from the mid-seventies until the mid-eighties.

What’s great about it: A knockout set that finds Van The Man sounding loose, confident, and swinging. This is truly one of those ‘why don’t I listen to this more often?’ albums.

Better than: Anything else from his late-70’s/early-80’s period.

Muswell Hillbillies - album
The Kinks * Muswell Hillbillies

Why it gets shorted: Not nearly as good as their mid-60’s work, but not nearly as bad as the 70’s work that this album generally gets lumped in with.

What’s great about it: Lots of great songs, and the ‘concept’ around this album was loose enough that it didn’t weigh the whole thing down like most of their 70’s output, such as Schoolboys In Disgrace and Soap Opera.

Better than: Anything that came after, if you get right down to it.

Surf's Up - album
The Beach Boys * Surf’s Up

Why it gets shorted: This couldn’t be further from the sunshine and surfin’ good times that the 60’s Beach Boys represented.

What’s great about it: Exactly what repelled people from it back in the day. This is the sound of the sixties dying in a murky, oily mixture of pollution, police sirens, and indifference. ‘Feel Flows’ would have been the perfect song to play at midnight on December 31st, 1969.

Better than: Everything in their catalogue except Pet Sounds.

1987: The Year In Music

11 July 2007

1987 was a big year for me personally. It was the year I graduated from high school, lost my virginity, enrolled in college, and did some other awesomely unmentionable stuff. 1987 was also huge for music, as a half dozen of the very best albums of the entire decade were released during this year. Additionally, a handful of bands created music that foreshadowed the sounds of the 90’s.

Here are the 20 best albums from a truly unforgettable year:

Prince - album
Sign O’ The Times * Prince

#1 Prince had already garnered critical and popular acclaim for 1999 and Purple Rain, so he didn’t have much to lose by the time he started to work on Sign O’ The Times. Those drawn to the album by the hit single (and its weakest track) ‘U Got The Look’ were surprised to discover a musician pushing the outer boundaries of his art form. Like a Funk and Soul version of the White Album, Sign O’ The Times is a glorious hodge-podge of sounds that run the gamut from jubilation (‘Play In The Sunshine’ and ‘Housequake’) to sexual innuendo (‘It’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’) to dour fatalism (the title track and ‘The Cross’).

Nearly every facet of Prince’s eclectically exciting and frustrating career can be found on this double album set. And while it didn’t sell in blockbuster numbers, it did manage three Top 10 hits. In hindsight it’s easy to see that this is Prince’s masterwork – an achievement that he hasn’t approached during the last 20 turbulent and uneven years. Fortunately, Sign O’ The Times is an album that can still take you places, nearly two decades on.

GnR - album
Guns N Roses * Appetite For Destruction

#2 Guns N Roses’ debut put nasty back in Rock music for the first time in nearly a decade. It’s an album filled with jug wine, cheap thrills, and unapologetic debauchery. Not surprisingly, it took a while to catch on, but once it did, it changed the face of hard rock, and set the stage for the grunge and alternative rock that ruled the 90’s. ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ ‘Paradise City’ and ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ are epic slices of the everyday lives of people who have fallen through the cracks, but more importantly, they’re first rate, ripping tunes of an ilk that hadn’t been in play since the early Stones and Faces. With all the melodrama and shenanigans that followed, it’s easy to forget what a powerful influence Appetite For Destruction had on those who heard it in the late 80’s. Fortunately, one listen quickly brings back every bit of its swagger and bile.

U2 - album
U2 * The Joshua Tree

#3 By trading hard line politics for a softer, more searching, philosophical side, U2 made the quantum leap from recording artists to superstars. A great deal of The Joshua Tree (including its name and cover art) owes a debt of influence to America and its sights and sounds. It’s an album about promise and potential, comfort and confusion, and if the overall sound is more hook-laden and laid back than previous efforts, the songs themselves retain an unsettled undercurrent. From the hits to lesser lights like ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ and ‘Trip Through Your Wires’, there isn’t a bum note here, and it’s an album as expansive, conflicted, and lovely as the country that inspired it.

Paid In Full - album
Eric B & Rakim * Paid In Full

#4 Perhaps the finest hip-hop album of all-time, Eric B & Rakim’s debut sounds as funky fresh today as the minute it dropped. Rakim’s style on the microphone became the standard by which all subsequent MCs were judged, and Eric B’s mixing and sampling were also hugely influential – ‘I Know You Got Soul’ is one of the first Hip-Hop tracks to sample James Brown. Paid In Full is so good, so revolutionary, and so unexpected that it is the natural dividing line between the Old and New School.

INXS - kick
INXS * Kick

#5 The zenith of these Australian rockers’ career, Kick was the last in a string of great albums (including Shabooh Shoobah, The Swing, and Listen Like Thieves) before they faded into irrelevance. Overflowing with great songs known (‘Need You Tonight’, ‘Devil Inside’) and less so (‘Mediate’, ‘Wild Life’), this is clearly one of the finest albums of the 80’s. A decade later, lead singer Michael Hutchence would accidentally hang himself, and INXS would belatedly be recognized as one of the best groups of their time (before finally becoming the punch line to a reality television program).

Cure - album
The Cure * Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

#6 The Cure’s finest hour (and eleven minutes) on tape, this sprawling double album gem brings guitars to the forefront and horns into the mix. It’s at once delicate and immense, and contains two of the group’s most enduring songs – ‘Just Like Heaven’ and ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me will leave you exhilarated, exhausted, and possibly frustrated, but it never bores.

Yello - album
Yello * One Second

#7 A glimpse into the electronica-filled future, One Second is a kaleidoscopic whirligig of styles, voices and sounds. Album opener ‘La Habanera’ paints a vivid picture of a spy double-crossed in Cuba, while the beats slip into a dark rhumba. It’s the kind of moment that Yello pulls off effortlessly, time and again, employing a montage of guests that includes diva Shirley Bassey. It’s an album that wasn’t hyped much in its day, but One Second has withstood the test of time.

PE - album
Public Enemy * Yo Bum Rush The Show

#8 Public Enemy’s debut put America on full alert that the revolutionary spirit of the Black Panthers was now a force within rap music. Chuck D barked his rhymes and left no doubt about his veracity or sincerity, and Flavor Flav provided much needed comic relief. Much more raw than the Bomb Squad production that would eventually make Fear Of A Black Planet and …Nation Of Millions… so sonically compelling, Yo Bum Rush The Show nonetheless has its share of great tracks, including ‘Public Enemy No 1’ ‘Raise The Roof’ and ‘You’re Gonna Get Yours’. An overlooked rap classic.

Faith - album
George Michael * Faith

#9 Faith parallels Thriller as the 80’s album you love to hate and hate to love. Like Michael Jackson’s epic, it contained a bounty of Top 10 hits, and signaled the multi-platinum highpoint of an artist who would produce increasingly minimal returns while staying within the public eye for exceedingly dubious reasons. But Faith is a pop masterpiece and uses every 80’s production cliché to best effect. It’s a reward for those brave (or dumb) enough to go out on a limb and have a good time.

Robbie Robertson - album
Robbie Robertson * Robbie Robertson

#10 More than 10 years after he broke up The Band to go solo, Robbie Robertson finally delivered an album to rival those of his former group. Laid out in big, vivid strokes, it’s infused with a dreamlike splendor that stretches the farthest corners of each song. Robertson wistfully pines for times past, lying in the back of an abandoned 59 Chevy with a girl, listening to Little Willie John, while the sounds of night settle in. Good times.

Tom Waits - album
Tom Waits * Franks Wild Years

#11 Franks Wild Years was a pivotal album for Tom Waits and the direction his music would take. Where he’d dabbled in madness on previous albums, here he jumped headlong into the void, reveling in pure insanity like a fat kid in a chocolate factory. The title track (which actually appears on 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, but sets the tone and provides the backstory for this album) is a spoken word monologue that is creepy not least for the sheer glee that shines through in Waits’ voice as he describes driving a nail through his wife’s forehead. This latent schizophrenia would never be far from his music again.

Pixies - album
Pixies * Come On Pilgrim

Jane's Addiction - album
Jane’s Addiction * Jane’s Addiction

#12 & #13 Pixies and Jane’s Addiction blasted two completely different and utterly original tunnels to alternative rock greatness. It’s not much of a stretch to say that (for better or worse) the music that dominated much of the 90’s has root in these two albums.

In hindsight, the Pixies’ loud-soft-loud song structure seems like Manifest Destiny of Rock. To be fair, they hardly invented the formula, but it was out of step with the prevailing music of the day. Their influence on Nirvana has been exaggerated out of convenience, but there’s no doubt that Pixies have had a massive influence on the sound of popular music.

Jane’s Addiction’s live debut is a remarkable blueprint of the sound that would make them Alternative darlings. Many of the songs that would show up on 1989’s landmark Nothing’s Shocking premiered here, along with excellent covers of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Rock & Roll’ and the Stones’ ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.

BAD - album
LL Cool J * Bigger And Deffer

#14 In 1984, LL Cool J’s single ‘I Need A Beat’ became the first release on Def Jam records. He was 16 years old. By 1987 he’d earned a gold album and was a veteran rapper. Bigger and Deffer finds Cool J exploring (with admittedly mixed results) the boundaries of his genre. ‘I Need Love’ was pure ballad, ‘Go Cut Creator’ rocks, and ‘The Do Wop’ is pretty self-explanatory. BAD sold triple platinum, but is a good-not-great example of 80’s hip-hop.

Depeche Mode - album
Depeche Mode * Music For The Masses

#15 An album of dour synth pop that channels the spirit of Ian Curtis, Music For The Masses was a major step in Depeche Mode’s conquest of America. The songs are enveloped in gothic darkness, but a few (most notably ‘Behind The Wheel’) pick up the pace and shake up the mood enough that it doesn’t descend into a spiral of self-pity. Still, this music was for teenage girls what heavy metal was to teenage boys – black celebrations of the tenuous nature of life.

Replacements - album
The Replacements * Pleased To Meet Me

#16 “Children by the millions wait for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round” sang Paul Westerberg, and on Pleased To Meet Me, he and his bandmates made a calculated effort to jump into the mainstream. The horns are a nice touch, but the ‘Mats were a group that thrived on chaos, and this tight, highly produced group of songs spelled the beginning of the end. Within three years, Westerberg would go solo (anyone care?) and they’d be history.

Peppers - album
Red Hot Chili Peppers * The Uplift Mofo Party Plan

#17 The Peppers’ third album was where they moved beyond novelty band status and realized the sound that would make them superstars. ‘Fight Like A Brave’ is a punk-funk anthem, ‘Behind The Sun’ is a shimmering ballad, and ‘Skinny Sweaty Man’ is manic fun. Lead guitarist Hillel Slovak would be dead within a year from a heroin overdose but the Peppers soldiered on, and by the early 90’s would find themselves selling out arenas all over the world.

BDP - album
Boogie Down Productions * Criminal Minded

#18 BDP’s debut album was an early hardcore rap classic that split the difference between political manifesto and tales of the street. Either way, this was one serious rap group on a self-appointed mission to bring learning to the game. DJ Scott LaRock would be murdered within the year while trying to break up a fight, but KRS-One carried on with the group’s agenda, and has become one of the most well-known ambassadors of education within the genre.

Poetic Champions - album
Van Morrison * Poetic Champions Compose

#19 After a dreadful run of early 80’s albums, this was the first glimmer that Van The Man had some juice left in his creative orange. Like many of his best albums, Poetic Champions Compose borders on Jazz, and contains many traditional Irish flourishes. This might not be his best-known record, but it’s certainly his best of the 80’s.

Hysteria - album
Def Leppard * Hysteria

#20 Can you smell the hair spray? Hysteria vividly evokes an age gone by: one of metal ballads, smoke machines, and leather pants. ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ ‘Armageddon It’ and ‘Animal’ aren’t artful, but they still rock. Three years in the making, it has been purchased more than 22 million times. From a decade that brought you plenty of guilty pleasures, this is one of the best.

************

10 More That Are Worth A Spin…

Pink Floyd * A Momentary Lapse Of Reason
Ice T * Rhyme Pays
The Smiths * Strangeways Here We Come
Slayer * Reign In Blood
Branford Marsalis * Random Abstract
Los Lobos * By The Light Of The Moon
Lee Perry * Time Boom X De Devil Dead
Terence Trent D’Arby * Introducing The Hardline, According To…
Front 242 * Official Version
Sting * Nothing Like The Sun


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