Thursday, October 12, 2017

#450: Eels - Beautiful Freak (1996)

Zack: We seem to have hit a run of really, really good albums lately, and Beautiful Freak is no exception. Seriously, I should say right up front that I absolutely adored this album after a single listen. I don’t really know why, precisely. But this album just seemed to have such…vision. Each song sounds like it is exactly as it was meant to, and it all comes together to form a project that feels exactly as intended. It doesn’t sound terribly different than a lot of alternative and indie albums from that era. But Beautiful Freak was pretty much a perfect example of everything those genres have to offer. Seriously, I loved this album. I immediately started playing it again from the top once it had finished, and only partially to drown out the episode of Below Deck that Emily was watching at the time. I am definitely going to be listening to this album a lot for the next week, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it in my top 5 for albums 400-500 when we get to that point.
Favorite Tracks: Guest List; Mental; Novocaine for the Soul

Emily: Honestly, I only picked this album because I thought Eels was a funny name for a band. I had no idea how it would sound; frankly, I thought it would be one of those obscure albums that make me wonder how they made it on the list at all. Although Beautiful Freak is somewhat obscure, after a listen I definitely understand how it earned its place on the list. As Zack said, it's an excellent embodiment of the mid-'90s, post-grunge alternative-pop-rock sound. The music is deceptively catchy, and each song tells a story. It's also a remarkably consistent album, although I found the back half to be stronger. Overall, Eels exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations, and I hope to encounter more of them, or others like them, in the future.
Favorite Tracks: Mental; Your Lucky Day in Hell; Flower

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

#449: Bob Marley & The Wailers - Natty Dread (1974)

Emily: In September, Zack and I spent 10 days in Jamaica. It was supposed to be a week, but then Hurricane Irma happened and our flights got cancelled and we couldn't rebook until three days later. Definitely worse places in the world to get stuck than a beautiful beach resort right on a cove in Runaway Bay. Anyway, as soon as we arrived in the country, Bob Marley was everywhere. Our bus ride from the airport to the resort had a steady soundtrack of Bob Marley classics. The daily soundtrack on the beach or by the pool had tons of Bob Marley, interspersed with other reggae songs and American Top 40 music. The chef at the resort hibachi restaurant sang variations on Bob Marley tunes about fried rice. One of the resort's signature cocktails was called a Bob Marley (layers of strawberry daiquiri, mango daiquiri, and mango mixed with blue curacao - delicious). And then, at the airport heading home, there was an entire Bob Marley-themed store for all of your souvenir needs. Clearly, Bob Marley is very important to Jamaica, or at least to the version of Jamaica the country wants to present to millions of foreign tourists. While the constant repetition of the music did get a bit tiresome, I can't deny that the music is the perfect backdrop to the island. The lyrics embody the spirit of revolution throughout the cities, but the reggae vibes fit the laid-back beauty of the beaches, where you can watch the ocean all day and never get bored. After this vacation, I think I'm a bit Bob Marley-ed out, but though we have many more places to visit in the world, I won't be surprised if we end up back in Jamaica someday, listening to Natty Dread on the way there.
Favorite Tracks: No Woman, No Cry; So Jah Seh; Natty Dread

Zack: We’re back to nostalgia! I actually did look up when we listened to this one, mostly because I knew it was one of the first ones we did. Turns out it was number 13 that we listened to, and number 22 overall (when we started there were 9 albums that Emily and I had both already listened to so we just bulk-wrote those posts; I want to say those were 3 Nirvana albums, 2 Green Day albums, a Muse album, a RHCP album, a Killers album, and…one I’m missing….ah….Arctic Monkeys…why was that on this list at all….never mind…also we went with Flaming Lips for the first “new” listen and that’s a thing I didn’t remember but is pretty cool because I still love that album.) I vaguely remember that. I think I had just finished my personal project of breaking the list down by genre. I then printed out all these sheets and taped them to the corner of my dorm room wall. Emily would come over and we’d haggle over what type of music we wanted to listen to. It was a lot less formalized of a process then. We just hung out on my bed, listening to Catch a Fire and being lazy sophomores. Honestly, my feelings about Bob Marley have only slightly changed since then. I now know about the powerful political and social messages in his music, at least I’m much more aware of them than I was back then. But I still primarily listen to Bob Marley for the relaxing island vibes, not the social commentary. I do feel like I’m missing out on a huge part of the appeal. But the soothing reggae is just so overpowering and alluring. Natty Dread was exactly like that for me. I really enjoyed the album. It was a great listen on our couch while coding, and I imagine I’ll have to throw it on my iPhone and play it next time I’m on a beach. It just feels so good. I know I should be paying more attention to what he’s saying, but it’s hard when he’s saying it so well that the content of the words doesn’t even seem to matter.
Favorite Tracks: No Woman, No Cry; Rebel Music; Talkin’ Blues

Thursday, October 5, 2017

#448: Aimee Mann - Whatever (1993)

Zack: I had this album classified as folk, but given the fact that it came out in the 90s and the album title is basically a disaffected and angst-y shrug, I kind of guessed I was off. Sure enough, this album has much more in common with Tori Amos or Jeff Buckley than Joni Mitchell or Cat Stevens. But what really stands out from Whatever isn’t anything about genre but the songwriting. It was sort of Costello-ish in that regard. Everything seemed direct and personal and wry. I didn’t really notice the lyrics until about halfway through the album, which was about when my interest perked up. I’m definitely going to have to block off time to go back and investigate how witty she is in the first half.

Favorite Tracks: Say Anything; Jacob Marley’s Chain; I Could’ve Hurt You Now

Emily: In the midst of a '90s nostalgia boom, where there's seriously a show on MTV called '90s House in which a bunch of clueless millennials complete cheesy challenges only with access to '90s-era technology (and outfits), Aimee Mann's debut album fits right in. Whatever really embodies that early-'90s alt-rock-pop sound that invaded albums and airwaves after Nevermind. The lyrics are where it really shines, though, with clever riffs and conversational confessions. I really enjoyed both the sound and the songwriting of this album, and as with most lyric-heavy albums, it will definitely be worth delving deeper into it in the future.
Favorite Tracks: Say Anything; 4th of July; Stupid Thing

Monday, September 18, 2017

#447: Japan - Quiet Life (1979)

Zack: I’ve been spending some time each morning teaching myself a different statistical software language than the one I have typically used. It is a continuously frustrating process. I have spent 5-10 minutes starting at lines of code, trying to figure out why they won’t work, with error messages talking about misplaced parentheses, only to find out that the sole problem was a missing comma. I could be using that time to listen to albums, but I’ve been worried that I need to pay a little too much attention to what I’m doing (I tried putting on the TV while I work and I either would pay 0 attention to whatever was on or I would pay too much attention and get nothing done) and that my frustration would unfairly bleed over to my impression of the music. But when I saw that the next album was some '80s new wave bullshit, I figured it was probably safe to give it a shot. The music typically doesn’t require too much attention, since it’s mostly dumb, and a lot of this genre is so cloyingly upbeat that maybe it would dull my simmering frustration. Quiet Life didn’t really do much on the latter point, but it did hit that sweet spot of attention that I frequently praise albums for accomplishing. It was there in the background, but it was subtle. Just what I needed for that particular task. I didn’t really like the album, but at least it didn’t get in the way.
Favorite Tracks: Despair; Alien; Quiet Life

Emily: I 100% picked this album because the band is called Japan, and I thought I'd get to talk about some Japanese influences and tie in my vacation to Tokyo from earlier this year. Alas, those ideas went out the window as soon as I started listening to the album. Turns out the band called itself Japan as a place filler before their first show, and they never got around to changing it. So there's really nothing Japanese about Japan. I did like their take on new wave/synth-pop, though. It's not quite as shiny and bouncy as many of their contemporaries, which works to their benefit. Quiet Life is more contemplative than your average new wave album, making it a pleasant companion for my late-afternoon internet browsing but not necessarily something I would return to again.
Favorite Tracks: Fall in Love with Me; Alien; Quiet Life

Monday, September 4, 2017

#446: Suede - Dog Man Star (1994)

Zack: I don’t really have much to say about this album, so I’m mostly just going to list facts and random thoughts. Suede are a 90s Britpop band. They were considered part of the “Big 4” Britpop bands, along with Oasis, Blur, and Pulp. Those four bands have 9 combined albums on the list, with Blur at 3 and everyone else with 2 each. We’ve now reviewed one albums by each, and none have really stood out. Of those four bands, Suede is the only one that I had never heard of before. So I think that makes Blur the Kevin Durant of this Big 4, Oasis the Steph Curry, Suede the Klay Thompson, and Pulp the Draymond Green. I just came up with that comparison on the fly and with very little thought, but I am not prepared to defend it with my life. Next time I see Emily’s friend Matt, I’m going to ask him his thoughts on the band Suede because I already am sure he has very strong opinions on this matter. Anyway, considering how often I have bemoaned the gross overrepresentation of Britpop on the list and considering I’d never even heard of the band, I found this album to be not terrible. It was kind of a fun listen, which is good enough to make it one of the least egregious Britpop album inclusions. So I guess I’m going to have to hammer Pulp whenever we get around back around to them to even things out a bit.
Favorite Tracks: The Asphalt World; The Wild Ones; This Hollywood Life

Emily: Once again, I don't understand why the creators of this list love mid-'90s Britpop so much. I had never heard of Suede before today, but apparently they were important enough to merit two albums on this list. Dog Man Star, the first Suede album we've tackled, was fine. A bit too long, but melodious and varied enough to hold my attention for the almost hour-long runtime. I sincerely doubt that this album will stick in mind, though, much past the time I hit "Publish" on this post. Perhaps I'll come back to this review when we encounter the next Suede album in a few hundred entries, but until then, Dog Man Star will be but a wisp in my memory.
Favorite Tracks: Still Life; The Wild Ones; New Generation

#445: Neu! - Neu! '75 (1975)

Zack: We’ve come across krautrock before: first by Holger Czukay and second by the band Faust, although you might want to include Kraftwerk in that list as well. With the half-exception of Kraftwerk which I remember thinking was okay, none of those times left a particularly positive memory. I went back and reread what I’d written about Faust and Czukay, and one thing I had noted was that krautrock’s main defining feature is that it pays almost no dues to the universal elements of US/UK music. Certain rules of the game were developed by the folk artists, delta blues players, and early jazz musicians that inform how just about every modern musician – from metalheads to hip-hop artists to country singers to indie bands – performs their craft. A lot of krautrock is built around different rules entirely, so it sounds kind of jarring and uncomfortable. But Neu! was the first band where it kind of made sense. The album is split, with the first half being dedicated to the more ambient-based elements of krautrock and the second half being more rock-oriented. Doing so highlights both the similarities and differences, while showing how the two styles really complement each other. Comparing and contrasting the two allows the listener to see how rock tends to prioritize repetition and attention-grabbing, while krautrock focuses more on building rich and evolving soundscapes. And while I preferred the rock half more, having them both there heightened my appreciation for both.
Favorite Tracks: Hero; Seeland; After Eight

Emily: Wikipedia describes Neu! '75 as "a split record, subtly melodic in the first half and boldly unconventional in the second." Respectfully, I must disagree with this internet-curated description. While the first three tracks of the album combines subtle melodies with hypnotic krautrock sensibilities, the latter three tracks are bold in their rhythms but rooted in rock music. I didn't find the result unconventional, but rather took the then-conventional sounds of rock & roll and psychedelic rock and infused them krautrock ambiance. Unconventional or not, these three songs take krautrock a few steps further than what we've encountered before, merging the German genre with familiar ideas to great, enjoyable effect.
Favorite Tracks: Hero; Seeland; After Eight

Saturday, September 2, 2017

#444: Miles Davis - Kind of Blue (1959)

Emily: There is a certain melancholy in Kind of Blue that's not quite as present in Birth of the Cool, the other Miles Davis album we've listened to for this list and one that I've listened to many times over. It got me thinking about my days listening to Miles Davis in the museum gift shop. I know I've written about that experience several times here, but today it's at the forefront of my mind. The reason we had the Birth of the Cool CD in the gift shop, along with John Coltrane, Rodrigo y Gabriela, and a few other jazz and instrumental staples, was because a coworker burned these CDs specifically for the shop so we could have something new to listen to while we spent hours organizing the toy section and dusting glass sculptures. I learned a few days ago that this coworker passed away last week, unexpectedly and far too soon. I hadn't spoken to him in a few years, since the last time I volunteered for a museum event before I moved away from Philadelphia. But seeing that news spurred several memories - waiting for tour groups outside on spring days, the time he insisted that we walked together to the El after a meeting in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and, of course, the music that he shared with all of us in the gift shop. The creativity and emotion of Miles Davis was a perfect fit to remember him by.
Favorite Tracks: So What; Flamenco Sketches; Freddie Freeloader

Zack: And the nostalgia tour continues! We last listened to Miles Davis winter break of sophomore year, so probably January 2011. And Birth of the Cool has remained my favorite jazz album this entire time (2nd place: Kamasi Washington’s The Epic; 3rd place; John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme). Being really forced to listen to jazz is one of the elements of this endeavor I’m most happy about. I think I always wanted to listen to more jazz. But it can be very intimidating. The Wikipedia page for Kind of Blue talks a lot about music theory and tonality and modality and I think if I had tried to discover it on my own I would have backed away in a panic. Now, I know that I don’t care about any of that stuff. I just know that Kind of Blue was really great to listen to. The songs were longer than Birth of the Cool, but I think they did a better job of conveying emotions and ideas. The songs on Kind of Blue carried a lot of weight. And I look forward to reexperiencing that weightiness every time I need something subtle in the background while I edit or code.
Favorite Tracks: Blue in Green; Flamenco Sketches; So What