Posts Tagged ‘DJ Shadow’

Buried Treasure: Head

13 May 2011

[Today: The deconstruction of a manufactured band…]

The Monkees practically invented the idea of selling out. The group was assembled in 1966 for the sole purpose of being featured in a TV show that consisted of lots of cutesy clowning around. Anyone who saw it couldn’t have taken them very seriously as a band, but they did have a couple of serious musicians, most notably Michael Nesmith, who would go on to make a handful of landmark country rock albums with The First National Band in his post-Monkees career. With their sixth and final effort as a four-piece (Peter Tork would leave in 1969 and Nesmith in ’70), The Monkees made their best album by far – a piece of work that mocks their image, rips the music industry, and stands one of of the trippiest and most forward-looking albums in a decade full of them.

Head is the soundtrack to their 1968 movie of the same name. A disjointed, non-linear forerunner to films like Kentucky Fried Movie, it’s now considered a psychedelic treasure. The soundtrack contains only six proper songs, lots of weird snippets of dialogue from the film, and fragments of tunes. It was partly mixed by the actor Jack Nicholson, and anticipates the sample-happy DJs and mashup artists of the 00s. This album couldn’t have sounded like anything other than an audio mess to listeners in the 60s, but modern ears will process it just fine. In fact, a lot of Head has been sampled, most notably by The Kleptones on their mashup classic A Night At The Hip-Hopera.

The title alone is weird departure from the group’s previous work, and the album opens with a woman hypnotically chanting the word “head” to a collage of found sounds and dialogue. That leads into the tolling bells of ‘Porpoise Song’ a King/Goffin-penned tune that is sublimely rendered here. On ‘Ditty Diego-War Chant’, they lay into their carefully manicured image. “You say we’re manufactured/To that we all agree/So make your choice/And we’ll rejoice/At never being free,” sings Davy Jones. The song is sped up and slowed down, like a warped record being played at various RPMs on a turntable. It’s a truly surreal experience for anyone who thinks they know this group. “Hey, hey we are the Monkees/We’ve said it all before/The money’s in/We’re made of tin/We’re here to give you more.” Frank Zappa is an extra in the film (along with Sonny Liston, Carol Doda, Annette Funicello, and a cast of thousands) and his spirit is alive in the music as well.

‘Ditty Diego-War Chant’ ends with a woman screaming, like something out of a horror movie, which then segues into a huge crowd screaming “WE WANT THE MONKEES!!!!” ‘Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again’ is wry commentary on the endless takes that musicians are forced to go through in the studio. Anyone who thinks this band is a joke is advised to check out ‘Circle Sky’, a nice preview of what Nesmith would get up to after leaving The Monkees. ‘Gravy’ consists of a five-second snippet of Davy Jones saying “I’d like a cold glass of gravy with a hair in it,” while ‘Swami-With Strings’ sounds like something mixed by DJ Shadow. Head is a trip, and will leave you wondering just who those guys on TV really were…

Listen: Ditty Diego-War Chant

Listen: Circle Sky [Live Version]

Listen: Superstitious (LP Version)

Listen: Swami-Plus Strings (LP Version)

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

Weekend Playlist

14 December 2009

“Par is whatever I say it is. I’ve got one hole that’s a par 23 and yesterday I damn near birdied the sucker.” ~ Willie Nelson

The Doors | Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

LCD Soundsystem | LCD Soundsystem

Radiohead | Kid A

Dean Martin | For The Good Times

Dave Alvin | Public Domain: Songs From The Wild Land

Les Claypool & The Holy Mackeral | High Ball With The Devil

The Jimi Hendrix Experience | The Jimi Hendrix Experience [Box Set]

DJ Shadow | The Private Press

My Morning Jacket | It Still Moves

Willie Nelson | Stardust

Steely Dan | Gaucho

Elvis Presley | The Sun Sessions

Massive Attack | Protection

Los Lobos | Kiko

Neko Case | Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

Hank Williams | The Complete Hank Williams

Led Zeppelin | Physical Graffiti

Various Artists | Break N’ Bossa

Pixies | Complete ‘B’ Sides

Jerry Garcia Band | Jerry Garcia Band

Masterpiece: Endtroducing…

23 October 2009

[Today: Digging in the audio graveyard…]

DJ Shadow | Endtroducing...

DJ Shadow’s debut album was built entirely from samples that he scavenged from a basement full of forgotten LPs beneath his favorite record store. Using bits of R&B, Jazz, Classical Music, educational albums, commercial jingles, and much more, Shadow (aka Josh Davis) took nine months to sample, loop and process a staggering breadth of obscure noises, and then weave them into a dramatic soundscape that’s alternately soothing and menacing, and layered to the skies.

There are so many diverse genres represented here – the Chaffey College Jazz Ensemble, Metallica, Pigmeat Markham, Tangerine Dream, David Axelrod, Billy Cobham, and a cast of what seems like thousands – that this album crosses over into its own style. If an alien space probe hovered over Earth for a few minutes, gathered together a cornucopia of sounds, and turned them into a haunting audio collage of life on this planet, it might sound something like Endtroducing…

When this album was released in November of 1996, the art of the break beat was just entering its third decade. But there was still much debate about whether a turntable could really be considered an instrument, and if skillful sampling constituted original creation. Endtroducing… made mincemeat of the naysayers, and proved that in the right hands, a stack of old record albums could serve as a palette of sounds for the fabrication of completely new grooves.

But as much as Endtroducing… still seems like a blueprint for the future of music, it’s the kind of album that has proven extremely difficult to imitate. There have been a handful of sublime sample-centric albums over the last dozen years (The Avalanches and The Kleptones both do good work in this area), but none of them touch the moldering atmosphere that DJ Shadow dug out of his friendly neighborhood audio graveyard.

Listen: Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt

Listen: Mutual Slump

Listen: Changeling / Transmission 1

A Dozen Albums Influenced By Disco

12 July 2009

On the 30th anniversary of Disco Demolition Night, here are a dozen albums that owe at least part of their sound to the Disco revolution…

Kurtis Blow | Kurtis Blow
Kurtis Blow | Kurtis Blow (1980) – Except for an unfortunate cover of BTO’s ‘Taking Care Of Business’, rap’s first full length album has extended grooves that sound like they were swiped from Studio 54.

Listen: The Breaks

The Human League | Dare
The Human League | Dare (1981) – This has a colder edge than most Disco, but its driving synthesizers and metronomic precision make it Disco’s dour younger cousin.

Listen: Don’t You Want Me

Michael Jackson | Thriller
Michael Jackson | Thriller (1983) – MJ came of age in the disco era, and his Off The Wall is one of the classics of the genre. Hints of Disco flash through in many places on this blockbuster, most notably ‘Beat It’ and ‘P.Y.T.’.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood | Welcome To The Pleasuredome
Frankie Goes To Hollywood | Welcome To The Pleasuredome (1984) – Everything about this group and this album screams DISCO…

Depeche Mode | Catching Up With Depeche Mode
Depeche Mode | Catching Up With Depeche Mode (1985) – When they came around from the dark side (not often enough, in my opinion), Depeche Mode created some of the best post-Disco dance tunes. ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ is just one example of a DM song that has the bounce and message of the best Disco.

Listen: Just Can’t Get Enough

Beastie Boys | Paul's Boutique
Beastie Boys | Paul’s Boutique (1989) – Tracks like ‘To All The Girls’ and ‘Shake Your Rump’ mined the spirit, if not exactly the sound, of Disco, and the video for ‘Hey Ladies’ revealed the butterfly-collared influence behind this great album…

Listen: Hey Ladies

Deee-Lite | World Clique
Deee-Lite | World Clique (1990) – ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ fits seamlessly into any Disco compilation, and Deee-Lite looked like they’d been beamed right in from Paradise Garage. Music made after 1980 doesn’t get much more Disco than this.

Listen: Groove Is In The Heart

Happy Mondays | Pills 'N' Thrills and Bellyaches
Happy Mondays | Pills ‘N’ Thrills and Bellyaches (1990) – The attitude is Punk, the rhythms are Disco, the result is a glorious mess. This sounds like Disco on spacier drugs, which come to think of it…

Listen: Loose Fit

DJ Shadow | Endtroducing...
DJ Shadow | Endtroducing… (1996) – This album might not sound much like Disco, but the beat-splicing used here is an innovation introduced by Disco DJs in the early 70’s. Without the pioneering spirit of jocks like Francis Grasso, hip-hop would sound a whole lot different, and albums like Entroducing… might not be possible.

Listen: Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt

Royksopp | Melody A.M.
Royksopp | Melody A.M. (2001) – Electronica as a whole owes a major debt to Disco, but within that genre certain albums stand out as particularly retro in scope. Melody A.M. for example, is light as air, but driven by percolating beats that would have made John Travolta shake his groove thing.

Listen: Eple

Metro Area | Metro Area
Metro Area | Metro Area (2002) – Disco minus lyrics equals Metro Area.

Listen: Dance Reaction

Hercules And Love Affair | Hercules And Love Affair
Hercules And Love Affair | Hercules And Love Affair (2008) – Unapologetically wearing its disco influences on its sleeve, this is party music for a new century. The backbeat is strictly electronica, but the attitude is all Disco, minus the troublesome cliches.

Listen: Blind


And ten more…

Grandmaster Flash | The Official Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash
Various Artists | The Best Of Enjoy! Records
George Michael | Faith
Dead Or Alive | Youthquake
M/A/R/R/S | Pump Up The Volume (12″ single)
New Order | Technique
Primal Scream | Screamadelica
A3 | Exile On Coldharbour Lane
Mylo | Destroy Rock & Roll
LCD Soundsystem | LCD Soundsystem

Weekend Playlist

22 June 2009

Lazy weekend. Here’s the soundtrack…

Dion | Dion
Dion | Dion

Depeche Mode | Music For The Masses
Depeche Mode | Music For The Masses

Rodriguez | Coming From Reality
Rodriguez | Coming From Reality

The Headhunters | Survival Of The Fittest
The Headhunters | Survival Of The Fittest

Yo La Tengo | I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
Yo La Tengo | I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

Bob Dylan | Self Portrait
Bob Dylan | Self Portrait

Terry Callier | The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier
Terry Callier | The New Folk Sound Of Terry Callier

Afrika Bambaataa | Planet Rock: The Album
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force | Planet Rock: The Album

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
Various Artists | The Best Of Enjoy! Records
[Album cover not pictured]

Pearl Jam | Ten
Pearl Jam | Ten

U2 | Achtung Baby
U2 | Achtung Baby

The Black Crowes | Warpaint
The Black Crowes | Warpaint

Nick Lowe | Basher: The Best Of
Nick Lowe | Basher: The Best Of

Flatt & Scruggs | Foggy Mountain Banjo
Flatt & Scruggs | Foggy Mountain Breakdown

Jefferson Starship | Blows Against The Empire
Jefferson Starship | Blows Against The Empire

Todd Rundgren | A Wizard/A True Star
Todd Rundgren | A Wizard/A True Star

Various Artists | Nigeria Disco Funk Special: The Sound Of The Underground Lagos Dancefloor 1974-79
Various Artists | Nigeria Disco Funk Special: The Sound Of The Underground Lagos Dancefloor 1974-79

The Stooges | Raw Power
The Stooges | Raw Power

Various Artists | Egotrip's The Big Playback
Various Artists | Egotrip’s The Big Playback

DJ Shadow | Endtroducing...
DJ Shadow | Endtroducing…

John Coltrane | Blue Train
John Coltrane | Blue Train

Steve Goodman | Somebody Else's Troubles
Steve Goodman | Somebody Else’s Troubles

Grootna | Grootna
Grootna | Grootna

Sonny Boy Williamson | One Way Out
Sonny Boy Williamson | One Way Out

The 25 Greatest Albums Of The 90’s

21 June 2009

The 90’s were a tough decade for music, but by the time the odometer finally clicked over to Y2K, it was possible to look back on a whole bunch of fine albums released over the preceding ten years. Here are 25 of my favorites…

Kruder Dorfmeister | The K&D Sessions™
25) Kruder & Dorfmeister | The K&D Sessions (1998) – This big, beautiful sprawling album blurred the line between electronica, dub, and remixing, and proved that Chill Out music could be artistically satisfying.

Listen: Bug Powder Dust

Built To Spill | Keep It Like A Secret
24) Built To Spill | Keep It Like A Secret (1998) – BTS lead singer and guitarist Doug Martsch was an axe hero for the 90’s, and his stinging, squalling solos bring to mind Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the height of their feedback-fueled jams.

Listen: Carry The Zero

Primal Scream | Screamadelica
23) Primal Scream | Screamadelica (1991) – Primal Scream was a mixed-up band, in the best possible way. With a name that sounds like a punk outfit, this Glasgow group was the farthest thing from that, incorporating elements of gospel, electronica, and good old Rolling Stones-styled rock & roll. Screamadelica is an uplifting joy ride…

Listen: Movin’ On Up

PJ Harvey | Dry
22) PJ Harvey | Dry (1992) – Hell hath no fury like PJ Harvey’s debut album. Dry took on feminine issues, but served them up on a platter of snarling punk and squinching feedback, along with a healthy side of biting lyrics. Bruisingly good.

Listen: Dress

Wu Tang Clan | Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers)
21) Wu Tang Clan | Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) – With talents like Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, and GZA, the nine-headed Wu Tang Clan had superior parts that formed an even greater whole. Their debut drips with grease and grime in a way that only Exile On Main St. can match, and the album made stars out of the whole clan. Solo records were made, ODB OD’d, and The Wu never again reached this great height as a group. But Enter The Wu Tang remains one of the strongest – and greezyest – albums of all-time.

Listen: Method Man

Yo La Tengo | I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
20) Yo La Tengo | I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997) – A low-fi, low key ode to love, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One functioned as Yo La Tengo’s dissertation on the state of indie rock in the late-90’s. It’s full of buzzing guitars and swirling feedback, but this is a beautiful batch of songs that reflect the quiet anxiety that comes with any good love. Their sampling of crickets throughout ‘Green Arrow’ is but one of the typically clever and fantastically effective musical devices used here.

Listen: Green Arrow

Beastie Boys | Ill Communication
19) Beastie Boys | Ill Communication (1994) – This is the lynchpin between the smug, malevolent Beasties of the 80’s and the mature, world conscious group that they’ve become. ‘Sure Shot’ is one of the group’s best songs, but the Adam Yauch-penned ‘Bodhisattva Vow’ is a clear-eyed look at one man’s place in the world, and a tune that simply wouldn’t have fit in on earlier Beasties albums. From the punk fire of ‘Heart Attack Man’ and ‘Sabotage’ to the multiple dusty instrumental funk jams to the smooth raps ‘Root Down’ and ‘Get It Together’, Ill Communication has a little bit of everything that makes the Beasties great.

Listen: Sabotage

A3 | Exile On Coldharbour Lane
18) Alabama 3 | Exile On Coldharbour Lane (1997) – The Sopranos used ‘Woke Up This Morning’ as its opening theme song, but Exile On Coldharbour Lane represents a rollicking trip through electronica, country, and gospel, helmed by a sleazy/hilarious figure named Reverend D. Wayne Love. It looks like a disaster on paper, but this is a rolling musical carnival-slash-revival that has its tongue firmly in cheek and grooves firmly in pocket. Absolutely one of the great lost albums of the 90’s…

Listen: Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness

Massive Attack | Mezzanine
17) Massive Attack | Mezzanine (1998) – Many prefer their first two albums (both great), but this band really hit their dark stride with Mezzanine. Less trip-hop than shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere for urban decay, this album sets a mood within its first few seconds, and carries it to the bitter, lovely end. ‘Man Next Door’ casts a weary eye at constantly fighting neighbors, ‘Inertia Creeps’ is a slithering, intoxicating ode to doing nothing at all, and the whole of the record rides a slipstream of urban discord. But the darkness here is elegant enough that this became the soundtrack for every boutique, salon, and restaurant during the summer of ’98.

Listen: Man Next Door

The Stairs | Mexican R 'n' B
16) The Stairs | Mexican R-n-B (1992) – The Stairs suffered from nothing so much as an acute sense of bad timing. The lo-fi, psychedelic garage band ditties they were penning in the early 90’s had nowhere to go, but ten years later there would be a host of bands (White Stripes, Black Lips, et al) successfully mining the same vein. Mexican R-n-B meanwhile, is the lost album of the decade – a perfectly ripped garage album, rough around the edges and utterly timeless. It didn’t stand a chance in ’92.

Listen: Flying Machine

Smashing Pumpkins | Siamese Dream
15) Smashing Pumpkins | Siamese Dream (1993) – Smashing Pumpkins were considered part of the grunge movement, but mainly because they had a key track on the genre-defining Singles soundtrack, and Billy Corgan’s vocals are dripping with angst. The lyrics here reflect some of his personal issues at the time, and most of the songs center around phrases (“The killer in me is the killer in you” or “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”) that sound like fortune cookies for profoundly anxious people. Corgan and company perfectly combined the technical flatulence of Prog with the fire and brimstone of Metal and the confessional self-probing of a Singer/Songwriter, and the result was one of the best albums of the 90’s.

Listen: Today

Nas | Illmatic
14) Nas | Illmatic (1994) – Nasir Jones’ debut traces his rise as a rap prodigy in the Queensbridge section of Queens, NY and lends credence to the idea that rap is a document of the streets. The album builds up to its final song, ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’, when Nas releases the pressure over an extended Michael Jackson sample, and basks in the glow of his own verbal skills. Illmatic is the Martin Scorcese film of hip-hop albums – it appraises the mean streets with an honest eye, but captures the hard beauty that hangs in the rough and tumble alleyways of NYC.

Listen: It Ain’t Hard To Tell

Sublime | Sublime
13) Sublime | Sublime (1996) – Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell could rap with the best MCs, scream hardcore, sing in a soul-tinged rasp, and lay down some serious reggae. His freakish talent is all over Sublime, an album that bobs and weaves from punk to ska to rap and back, traces the branches of Nowell’s messed up life, and sounds joyously obnoxious the whole way. Nowell died from a heroin overdose in May of 1996, at age 26 – just before this star-making turn was released.

Listen: What I Got

Beck | Mutations
12) Beck | Mutations (1998) – Odelay would be the pick for many, and it’s a fine album, but this is the one that I keep coming back to. Mutations created a mood that Beck hasn’t reached since – boredom, sadness, and wonder, blended over a bed of psychedelic sounds, electronic whizzes and whirs, and simple acoustic guitar. From ‘Cold Brains’ to ‘Lazy Flies’ to ‘Dead Melodies’ the song titles themselves speak to the ennui within, but this music sounds better with each passing year.

Listen: Nobody’s Fault But My Own

Los Lobos | Kiko
11) Los Lobos | Kiko (1992) – Labeling this a ‘roots-rock album’ is like calling Diego Rivera’s art a mural – it’s true enough, but only hints at the depth of the artistic palette that’s involved. From South African Mbaqanga to New Orleans marches to angelic harp and beyond, the varying sounds and styles included here make this a veritable concept album about rural music. But Kiko plays like a latino version of Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life – its reach is ambitious but its ruminations on life fit together into a satisfying, cohesive whole. The music here has aged extremely well, and its melancholy air is mixed with enough loose joy to make it an album worth discovering over and over again.

Listen: Kiko And The Lavender Moon

DJ Shadow | Endtroducing...
10) DJ Shadow | Endtroducing… (1996) – Created from samples culled from hundreds of forgotten albums that Shadow found in the basement of a Davis, CA record store, Endtroducing… is like no other album made before or since. The original release of this album had a sticker on the shrink rap that compared Josh Davis (aka DJ Shadow) to Jimmy Page, and my first reaction that was a big fat BULLSHIT. I spun this album a time or two, and then put it away to gather dust. But a funny thing happened on the way to the vinyl slaughterhouse: I watched the documentary Scratch, and gained a new appreciation for where this was coming from, and each subsequent spin revealed a little more of its brilliance, until it’s become an album I can’t imagine living without. Like Star Trek and Star Wars, Entroducing… charts the waters of a cooler parallel universe, one where beats reign supreme, and no album stays forgotten.

Listen: Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt

Pearl Jam | Ten
9) Pearl Jam | Ten (1991) – During the course of researching this list, I was astounded to find plenty of Best Of The 90’s lists that dismissed Pearl Jam’s Ten out of hand, claiming it unworthy of discussion. I understand some of the reservations with this album – Eddie Vedder’s over-emotive vocal style here tends to grate after a few songs, and many of the tracks, including ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Black’ feel almost comically serious. But this album also has plenty of great moments, including the anthemic ‘Alive’ and hard grooving ‘Even Flow’. Like Little Richard, Sgt Pepper, and Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam so perfectly captured the essence of an era on their debut album, that even at its corniest, it’s still undeniably worthwhile.

Listen: Alive

Jeff Buckley | Grace
8) Jeff Buckley | Grace (1994) – On Grace, Jeff Buckley sings like a fallen angel, drawing notes out to excruciatingly fantastic lengths and ranging between highs and lows in the blink of an eye. Each track cuts to the quick about love lost (including the definitive reading of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’) and the entire album is nothing less than the sound of a human heart falling to pieces, one fragile, intricate piece at a time. “This is our last embrace. Must I dream and always see your face?” he sings, like a man who knows bloody goodbyes.

Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River the day before he was due to begin recording his second album. His untimely death at age 30 left us with only Grace, and ensured that his legacy would forever be tied to this one majestic, breathtaking, and tear-stained album.

Listen: Hallelujah

The Black Crowes | The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion
7) The Black Crowes | The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion (1992) – The cover of The Black Crowes’ second album features the band in an auto junkyard, among twisted heaps of metal, and that’s a pretty astute metaphor for the state of Southern Rock at the outset of the 90’s. Unless .38 Special was your cup of tea, you had to go back nearly 20 years to Lynyrd Skynyrd to find a true Southern Rock band at the time the Crowes blasted onto the scene. Their debut went multi-platinum, but The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion is their masterpiece, featuring ragged rockers, smokey blues rock, world weary ballads, and a sweet Bob Marley cover. It’s the sound of a band exhausted from both the pursuit of stardom and single-handedly resuscitating a long dead genre.

Listen: Remedy

Bob Dylan | Time Out Of Mind
6) Bob Dylan | Time Out Of Mind (1997) – This one felt like Moses coming down from the mountain. Dylan is and will always be artistically relevant to anyone who’s serious about music, but until Time Out Of Mind, he hadn’t released an album of new material for his second generation of fans. Dylan sounds every bit the dusty prophet here, riding in from the desert on songs like the indifferent ‘Love Sick’ (later used in a Victoria’s Secret ad) and the forlorn ‘Standing In The Doorway’ – songs that were as good as anything he’d done in his previous artistic lives, and sounded better than any Dylan fan could possibly have expected in 1997. This album might lack the wit and fire of Highway 61 Revisited or the pure autobiographical power of Blood On The Tracks, but it was a staggering artistic statement from a musician who continues to evolve and confound his critics and fans alike.

Listen: Love Sick

Soundgarden | Superunknown
5) Soundgarden | Superunknown (1994) – One of the great albums of the 90’s, Superunknown is a sonic masterpiece that transcended the toe-tag ‘grunge’ and heralded the arrival of Soundgarden as a serious musical force. Here they married the sludge of Black Sabbath to the craftsmanship of The Beatles, creating an album that topped the charts, sold more than 3 million copies, and earned the group a pair of Grammys. Few could have guessed that they would release only one more album (1996’s Down On The Upside) and then pack it in, just as they were achieving greatness.

Many bands have used the inner combustion of competing artistic ideas to create beautiful music, and the Lennon/McCartney roles were played here by lead singer Chris Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil. Cornell is an avowed Beatles and Jeff Buckley fan, while Thayil prefers the heavier sounds of Sabbath and their metal offspring. Much of Soundgarden’s earlier music is so dominated by the pulverizing, heavy riffs from Thayil’s guitar that ‘Slaves And Bulldozers’ could have been the name of almost every one of their songs. A tune like ‘Black Hole Sun’ – drenched as it is in psychedelic signifiers – simply wouldn’t have had a place on any of their first three albums. But with Superunknown, the group figured out how to balance their differing musical visions, before the friction finally tore them apart.

Listen: Black Hole Sun

Nirvana | Nevermind
4) Nirvana | Nevermind (1991) – For better or worse, Nevermind made alternative rock a viable commercial commodity. But the reason this album rates so high is down to the music. Forget ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – although it remains a wickedly effective anthem for Gen X – the rest of the songs here shine like intricately cut jewels. ‘Come As You Are’, ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Something In The Way’ were dark and deeply indebted to punk, but these were well-written, finely-honed tunes that betrayed Kurt Cobain’s love of The Beatles in general and John Lennon in particular. Cobain’s songwriting chops have been buried beneath an avalanche of hype and myth, but his songs connected to a generation of fans not because of the concomitant headlines, but because they were honest – and sometimes painful and loud – examinations of a soul at odds with itself. Like its namesake, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, the true brilliance of Nirvana’s second album remains obscured behind a barrage of adjectives.

Listen: Come As You Are

U2 | Achtung Baby
3) U2 | Achtung Baby (1991) – With the release of the 1987 blockbuster The Joshua Tree, U2 became international superstars of the first order. That album found its groove in the highways and bi-ways of America, but with their 1991 follow up (forget Rattle & Hum, it was essentially Joshua Tree 2.0) Achtung Baby, the group left America far behind and made an album that was rooted in Middle Eastern mysticism and filled with mediations on love gone wrong. The Edge’s guitar still rings out, but here it’s joined with electronic beats and sludgy effects.

But the key difference is lead singer Bono, who had matured from a two-tone, new wave belter on Boy and War to a supple, nuanced singer who caressed his vocals like a long lost lover. He has referred to this album as “”four men chopping down the Joshua Tree” but by reinventing their sound U2 only enhanced their standing in the world of music. Achtung Baby spent just one week at the top of the Billboard charts, but it contained five hit singles and went on to sell more than 18,000,000 copies. It was also the last time U2 reached the top of the mountain artistically.

Listen: Mysterious Ways

Johnny Cash | American Recordings
2) Johnny Cash | American Recordings (1994) – Before this album, Johnny Cash was a has-been, a man from another era who hadn’t had a record contract in years. But producer Rick Rubin had a plan for Cash, and the stark simplicity of Rubin’s production – just Cash, a guitar, and a mic – was brilliant, and miraculously restored Cash to his rightful place as one of the most powerful singers in music. American Recordings contains a variety of material. Cash re-imagines two songs he’d recorded in the 60’s, including a haunting ‘Delia’s Gone’ that blows the doors off his original. It had a few well-chosen covers, including Nick Lowe’s ‘The Beast In Me’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird On A Wire’. And he nailed a couple of songs written specifically for him – Glenn Danzig’s ‘Thirteen’ and Tom Waits’ ‘Down There By The Train’. Cash was alternately a killer, a cowboy, a drunk, a preacher, a wife-beater, a comedian. Throughout the album he used his granite voice to make each song his own – a spellbinding performance that earned him a new generation of fans.

Listen: Delia’s Gone

Radiohead | OK Computer
1) Radiohead | OK Computer (1997) – In the mid-90’s, aliens touched down near Oxford, England, and – displeased with the ascendence of grunge music – brainwashed the band Radiohead so that within a few years the group would recreate the symphonies of the universe, as channeled through the motion and humdrum of life on earth.

How else to explain OK Computer? This 1997 album was so out of its time and ahead of the curve that it was often referred to as the Dark Side Of The Moon for the 90’s, and in its haunting exploration of the human condition, that’s exactly what it was. But comparing Radiohead to anyone – even Pink Floyd – is a disservice to a band that embraced the possibilities of electronic, computer-enhanced sounds at a time when every other band on the planet was trying to sound like Black Sabbath Jr.

Symphonic and elegant yet paranoid and claustrophobic, the tunes on OK Computer interlock to form a picture of a world at odds with itself and the technology driving it. Radiohead understood what Aldous Huxley was getting at when he wrote that civilization is sterilization, and the music here sees the cold edge of reason triumph over emotion time and again. ‘The Tourist’ sonically recreates the feeling of seconds-lasting-minutes that occurs just before an automobile crash, and serves as the 21st century answer to The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’. ‘Karma Police’ burrows deep inside the beauty of a world gone mad at itself. ‘Paranoid Android’ updates a British nursery rhyme, and sounds like the alienation that comes with too much technology and not enough time.

Thom Yorke sings throughout like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, his falsetto stretching a reedy, membrane-thin wall between sanity and madness. His vocals are generally buried beneath the murk and burble of electronic tape-loop noise and Jonny Greenwood’s itchy guitars. The compositions come off as a mad grafting of Kraftwerk and The Beatles, as the brilliance of the arrangements vie against the detached mood of the lyrics and music.

In the same way that Nirvana’s Nevermind changed music in the first half of the 1990’s, OK Computer had an instant and noticeable influence on the way albums were constructed – an influence that continues to the present. And somewhere far, far away, the aliens are extremely pleased…

Listen: Karma Police


25 (or so) more that merit a spin…

A Tribe Called Quest | The Low End Theory
Rage Against The Machine | Evil Empire
Ice Cube | The Predator
Steve Earle | El Corazon
Primus | Sailing The Seas Of Cheese
Queens Of The Stone Age | Queens Of The Stone Age
Beta Band | The 3 EPs
Red Hot Chili Peppers | Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Tool | Undertow
Temple Of The Dog | Temple Of The Dog
Snoop Doggy Dogg | Doggystyle
Alice In Chains | Dirt
Various Artists | Singles Soundtrack
Public Enemy | Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black
G. Love & Special Sauce | G. Love & Special Sauce
Wilco | Summer Teeth
Liz Phair | Exile In Guyville
Neutral Milk Hotel | In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Outkast | Aquemini
Jane’s Addiction | Ritual de lo Habitulo
Dr. Dre | The Chronic
Metallica | Metallica
Slint | Tweez
Radiohead | The Bends
Beck | Odelay
Black Crowes | Amorica
Massive Attack | Blue Lines
Soundgarden | Badmotorfinger

Doubleshot Tuesday: Old School Vs. New School/Verve Remixed

14 April 2009

[Today: Everything old is new again…]

Various Artists | Old School Vs. New School
Various Artists | Verve Remixed

Music is an endlessly recyclable commodity, and the music industry has come up with innumerable ingenious ways to repackage the same songs and sell them over and over again. The cover song is the simplest form of musical recycling, but even this has taken on elaborate angles over the years. Witness Booker T. & The MGs’ McLemore Avenue, a funky re-vamping of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, or, more recently, Bossa n’ Stones, which re-cast a number of Rolling Stones classics as swinging Bossa grooves.

Beyond the cover (and beyond the grave), Biggie and 2Pac continue to churn out new releases at a rate that even living artists could envy. Natalie Cole cut a Grammy award-winning duet with her long-dead father Nat, and the Grateful Dead are embarking on a tour even though their lead guitarist is… erm, dead. Death used to slow musicians down, but even this has become a growth industry, as evidenced by the impressive sales behind Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, et al. Even short-lived cult faves like Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake continue to turn out new product.

Neil Young’s recent Chrome Dreams II was the sequel to an album Young didn’t release during the 70s, featuring songs he didn’t release during the 80s. Van Morrison is getting rave reviews for touring behind a 40 year old album, and Brian Wilson revived his career by dusting off and reassembling his unfinished, long-lost “masterpiece” Smile. Ozzy Osborne recently re-recorded the backing tracks on his 80’s albums with studio musicians to avoid having to pay further royalties on those recordings. Fleet Foxes channeled Handel’s Messiah to release the most celebrated album of 2008. Re-mastered Beatles anyone?

Greg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) figured out that 70s/80s pop tunes and 80s/90s hip-hop were meant to be together, and DJ Shadow created entirely new soundscapes out of records he pillaged from a record store basement. Danger Mouse combined The Beatles’ White Album and Jay Z’s Black Album, came up with the Grey Album, and made a name for himself. To stretch their late-60s dollar, Jamaican producers Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and King Tubby began manipulating and elongating the instrumental tracks to their artists’ tunes, creating new songs – and Dub – in the process. Dub begat re-mixing, which has become an industry unto itself.

The 1999 compilation Old School Vs. New School sees vintage hip-hop get the re-mix treatment. Whodini, A Tribe Called Quest, Boogie Down Productions, Kool Moe Dee and others get re-worked to fine effect by late-90s DJs. The Verve Remixed series pulls the same trick, with vintage Jazz and current DJ pairings such as Astrud Gilberto and Thievery Corporation, Billie Holiday and Dzihan & Kamien, and Willie Bobo and Richard Dorfmeister. These tastefully chilled out remixes should please several generations of fans. In spite of a fair bit of competition, the classics never sounded so contemporary.

Listen: I Go To Work (Kool Moe Dee Vs. Bad Boy Bill) [Old School Vs. New School]

Listen: Spanish Grease (Willie Bobo Vs. Richard Dorfmeister) [Verve Remixed]

Listen: 1nce Again (A Tribe Called Quest Vs. Aphrodite) [Old School Vs. New School]

Listen: Who Needs Forever? (Astrud Gilberto Vs. Thievery Corporation) [Verve Remixed]

Magic Moment: DJ Shadow Digs

9 March 2009

One of my favorite scenes in all of cinema comes late in the 2001 documentary Scratch, when DJ Shadow allows the cameras to follow him into the basement of his favorite record store. The space is crammed with literally hundreds of thousands of records, and as Shadow squeezes his way through the stacks, he speaks eloquently about what the room means to him and reflects on the impermanence of music itself…

Weekend Playlist

9 March 2009

The sun was shining all weekend, but it rained music inside the dk presents… world headquarters. Here’s a wee sampling of the albums that made us sit up and take note…

Bob Dylan | Nashville Skyline
Bob Dylan | Nashville Skyline

Ween | The Mollusk
Ween | The Mollusk

Black Keys | Attack & Release
The Black Keys | Attack & Release

The JB's | Funky Good Time: The Anthology
The JB’s | Funky Good Time: The Anthology

Frank Zappa | Strictly Commercial: The Best Of Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa | Strictly Commercial: The Best Of FZ

Blackalicious | Nia
Blackalicious | Nia

Queens Of The Stone Age | Queens Of The Stone Age
Queens Of The Stone Age | Queens Of The Stone Age

Devo | Greatest Hits
Devo | Greatest Hits

Seu Jorge | Cru
Seu Jorge | Cru

A Mighty Wind
A Mighty Wind | Soundtrack

KC & The Sunshine Band | Part 3
KC & The Sunshine Band | Part 3

Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros | Streetcore
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros | Streetcore

Funkadelic | America Eats Its Young
Funkadelic | America Eats Its Young

Zabriskie Point | Soundtrack
Zabriskie Point | Soundtrack

Pearl Jam | Lost Dogs
Pearl Jam | Lost Dogs

The Gun Club | Fire Of Love
The Gun Club | Fire Of Love

Steve Miller Band | Anthology
Steve Miller Band | Anthology

The National | Alligator
The National | Alligator

DJ Shadow | Endtroducing...
DJ Shadow | Endtroducing…