Long time no see everybody. Life’s been busy but I can finally get back to my true calling in life: having very strong opinions about records. So here are some of those.
1. Mayo Thompson – Corky’s Debt To His Father (1970)
Most people, if they know of Mayo Thompson at all, know him from his work with The Red Krayola. But the crown jewel of his very unusual career was released under his own name. This is a hard one to describe; Thompson’s voice is very unpolished. The band is loose but in a good way. There are some vibes shared with the early Grateful Dead but Thompson is, for lack of a better word, much hornier. The melodies worm their way into your brain, the lyrics give a lot to chew on, and the band can rock the $&#@ out when they want to-see “Nice Brisk Blues” and “Worried Worried” towards the album’s conclusion. There is not a weak song on here and no one else has ever quite made another LP like it, including Mayo Thompson. Essential but also criminally underrated due to its initial mail-order-only distribution.
2. Big Star – Radio City (1974)
The best rock guitar production ever put down on reel to reel tape, bar none. This is what The Beatles probably wanted the guitars on Rubber Soul to sound like, but didn’t quite achieve. Alex Chilton’s masterpiece. He captures what rock n roll is really about-youthful exuberance, heartbreak and the paranoia implied in those. He does a Beatles knock off better than anything The Beatles ever recorded in “She’s A Mover”. He tosses off a Rolling Stones knock off better than anything the Stones ever recorded in “Mod Lang” and even has the chutzpah to make the first line “I can’t be satisfied.” Opener “O My Soul” never fails to put a smile on my face. Jody Stephens’ drumming throughout is just ever so slightly off, giving the record the dynamism of a soul or funk crew while still being pure rock n roll through and through. If this record had been distributed properly…
3. Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)
Is this the hardest rap album ever made? It’s definitely up there. I think back to what I was doing when I was 19 and then hear Prodigy and Havoc rap and it’s clear we lived in very different worlds. But when this album plays, this alien world becomes horrifyingly vivid, because they could also write a lot better than I could when I was 19. The fallout of Ronald Reagan flooding the black community with crack cocaine in order to fund the Nicaraguan Contras (RIP Gary Webb) is the order of the day here. Death is obsessed over; sex and dating is mostly portrayed as a way to get yourself murdered by rival gangs (“Trife Life”). Havoc’s production matches the nightmarish stories told to a t. There are so many classic tracks on here that if I tried to highlight standouts I would just type out the tracklist, but I have to point out that the immortal “Shook Ones Pt. II” is a strong contender for best rap song ever recorded.
And on top of all that it’ll probably scare your parents, which is always fun.
4. John Fahey – Days Have Gone By (1967)
It’s weird to think this was released within months of Sgt. Pepper and VU and Nico; it seems as removed from either as you could get. Most of this record, as was the case with most of Fahey’s albums, is just the man and his guitar, playing it like a piano and merging disparate elements of delta blues and 20th century classical music into something wholly his own. While later “American primitive” style pickers may have been more technically proficient, none of them had Fahey’s singular ability to convey concrete feelings through what is inherently a pretty abstract medium. Leo Kottke is playing the guitar at me, John Fahey is telling me stories. Some of these stories are sad, some of them are angry, some are nostalgic, but they’re all beautiful. One of very few 60s “folk revival” albums that could hold its own with the 78s that inspired it. Of course America chose Peter, Paul and Mary.
5. Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance (1978)
While London and NYC got all the attention when punk rock exploded in the late 1970s, a lot of the best stuff was coming from places like Cleveland, Ohio. London sounded angry, NYC often sounded pretentious, but Cleveland, at least here, comes out unhinged. And god bless em for it. Starting with more than 15 seconds of just ear piercing feedback, the band goes into one of the best garage rock songs ever (“Non-Alignment Pact”) and never loses steam for the next 40 minutes. Elements of Ascension era Coltrane, Bowie’s glam period, Captain Beefheart, and Sam the Sham walk through a hall of funhouse mirrors. Dave Thomas screams like a man possessed. They can play their instruments when they want to but it’s just as fun when they don’t want to. And any shoutout to Alfred Jarry is a good one.
“My baby says if the devil comes, shoot him with a gun”
6: Karen Dalton – In My Own Time (1971)
Karen Dalton was maybe the best English language vocal interpreter of songs of the 20th century, but was so forgotten people can’t even agree on the exact time she died. She takes a number of famous songs here and makes them her own to the point they don’t even seem like the same song. Percy Sledge sings “When A Man Loves A Woman” and it’s a great record. Karen Dalton sings “When A Man Loves A Woman” and she seems to be channeling whatever version of unrequited love exists in Plato’s world of forms. She conveys heartbreak so effectively I have to schedule when I listen to this LP to be sure I don’t act weird afterwards. It’s not melodramatic but rather weary and resigned. It is still capable of a certain sweetness. Life isn’t fair, and she’s come to some sort of zen peace with that fact. While her banjo playing is also quite distinctive, I think the more full production and arrangements on display here highlight her vocals better than on her first (and only other) album. I recommend both highly though.
7. Sly and the Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin On (1971)
The birth of hard funk coinciding with the beginning of the end of the US postwar boom and whatever genuine optimism fueled the hippie movement. While The Family Stone is credited, most of this album was recorded by Sly alone in his addicted seclusion. And Sly isolating himself mirrors the shift in perspective here. The original Family Stone was supposed to be a utopian multi-racial view of what America could be. But by the time of their greatest statement, it reflected what America really was-excessive, isolated, paranoid, nostalgic in ways that weren’t helpful. Stone seems to possess precognition of his later complete descent into full time addict and manages to articulate with a painful clarity one last time before completely losing his way. References to this are everywhere starting with the opening track “Luv n Haight”: “Feels so good, don’t wanna move”. The grooves are reflective of this but still dancey in their own scruffy way. The best English language LP of the 1970s.
8. Randy Newman – 12 Songs (1970)
While many know Randy Newman now as the guy who wrote the Toy Story theme song or as a Family Guy joke, his first 4 albums are some of the most twisted statements to come from the California singer-songwriter movement. 12 Songs, his 2nd LP, is the best of the bunch by a narrow margin. Newman, usually a tasteful arbiter of string arrangements, decides to stick to a 3 piece band here with excellent results. It also doesn’t hurt that either this or Good Old Boys constituted the best batch of songs he ever clumped on a single LP (more on that album later in the series.) His melodies are simple but infectious, his lyrics are equal parts funny, scary, and profound. He plays the piano and sings like if Fats Domino were perpetually drunk. Contains my favorite verse in a song…ever?
“I say please don’t talk to strangers baby,
But she always do,
She say I’ll talk to strangers if I want,
Cuz I’m a stranger too”
What’s not to love on a record with lines like “Let’s burn down the cornfield and I’ll make love to you while it burns”?
9. Camp Lo – Uptown Saturday Night (1997)
Recorded concurrently with Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and featuring production primarily from Reasonable Doubt mastermind Ski, this is an entirely different beast. I’m not going to pretend Reasonable Doubt is a bad album, it’s probably the best album length thing Jay-Z ever did. But USN is an album I feel much closer to. Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede rap in dense opaque thickets of frequently outdated slang and cultural references to rival Thomas Pynchon. The fact that two rappers so similar to each other but so removed from anything else at the time found each other boggles the mind. The production is uniformly excellent but interestingly not very similar to Reasonable Doubt. It’s not gangsta, it’s not underground, it’s not Native Tongues, it’s not pop, it just…is. The first four tracks are a murderers row of bangers and if you want to introduce yourself to the singular pleasures of Camp Lo, you can’t really go wrong with any of them.
10. The Exploding Hearts – Guitar Romantic (2003)
Primarily known now for most of their members dying in a van accident shortly after the release of their only album, The Exploding Hearts deserved much more than they got. This is the best album of the entire early 00s garage rock revival. It’s youthful, bratty, pulsing with energy and hooks. The lead guitar is deceptively simple but catchy and hits that goldilocks sweet spot-not too much, not too little. There is no pretense here, just a few young guys possessed by the geist of rock n roll. I never got to see them live but they give that vibe that once you saw them you probably were convinced they were the greatest rock n roll band in the world for at least 24 hours. There are no bad songs on here but my personal favorites are Modern Kicks, Thorns In Roses, and Still Crazy.