Sunday, December 3, 2017

#457: Ray Charles - The Genius of Ray Charles (1959)

Zack: How it has taken us almost 7 years to get to a Ray Charles album defies explanation, but here we are. Ray Charles is a titan of music, and it’s not hard to see…er…hear why. On this album, Ray Charles relies on a bigger sound than many of the singles he’s more well known for, utilizing big band and swing to create stronger horn and string sections underlying his always brilliant piano playing and singing. I thought they complimented him well, and I found something to like about every song on this album.
Favorite Tracks: It Had to Be You; Come Rain or Come Shine; Let the Good Times Roll

Emily: The other day I started watching the new Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I've watched four of the eight episodes in season one, and it is just delightful. It takes place in 1958 in New York City, where the titular Midge Maisel is starting out as a stand-up comedian after her husband leaves her for his secretary. The Genius of Ray Charles is of the same era, and listening to it I could just imagine Midge with her stand-up manager or a fellow comedian taking in a Ray Charles show at one of the smoky downtown jazz clubs that populate the show's imagination. Well, by that time I imagine Ray was playing much bigger (but still smoky) venues, but the classic-R&B-and-jazz sound that permeates this album would fit right in alongside Midge's quips and fabulous hats.
Favorite Tracks: It Had to Be You; Let the Good Times Roll; Just for a Thrill

#456: The Beach Boys - Surf's Up (1971)

Emily: For the uninitiated (i.e., me), one might think that Surf's Up is a classic Beach Boys album of the Surfin' Safari, going-to-the-beach-with-pretty-girls variety. The fact that the album is from 1971, though, should give you a heads-up that this isn't actually a frothy pop Americana album about surfing. It's nearly ten years after the group started, and a few years after they started to move into more complex and psychedelic sound. So, as the music and album art make abundantly clear, the title Surf's Up is an ironic nod to the band's surf-rock roots, while the music delves further into psychedelia while maintaining some pop roots. The result was the Beach Boys' strongest commercial success in several years, and it's easy to see why. The album combines lush harmonies and soundscapes with socially-conscious and inventive lyrics, creating a sound that is both innovative and approachable that leaves you wanting to know where the Beach Boys would take their sound next.
Favorite Tracks: Surf's Up; Long Promised Road; Student Demonstration Time

Zack: I would have liked to get nostalgic about the Beach Boys, but apparently I didn’t do a great job of remembering the time we listened to Pet Sounds. I thought it was summer 2011, but couldn’t remember if it was June or July. Turns out I was way off. We listened to Pet Sounds December of 2010, making it the 34th album we reviewed (including the 9 to start). Whoops. My excuse is that Pet Sounds is such a perfect summer album that it temporarily transported me forward in time when I listened to it. I love Pet Sounds. It’s just such a great pop treat. And a result is that when I put it on again in the summer of 2012, I decided I wanted to broaden my Beach Boys horizons. So I totally legally went about totally legally obtaining the Beach Boys entire discography through totally legal means. I remember initiating this totally legal process and then going to get a sandwich from the Grilled Cheese truck on Norris St. in front of what I want to say was Boyer Hall. I made my way through a lot of that totally legal discography over the next few weeks, and I do remember doing that. I skipped over Surf’s Up and Today! because they were both on the list, but I was familiar with their positions in the discography and both of their legacies. So I knew that the title Surf’s Up is ironic, and I knew about the frankly awesome cover art. Still, Surf’s Up caught me a little off-guard. It’s just so far removed from the poppy sound of Pet Sounds. There are elements of psychedelic rock and prog rock and lots else blended in. And it’s all really good. I was, frankly, quite impressed that the same band that made Pet Sounds could make something equally good but so dramatically different. Surf’s Up is easily a classic album, and I’m glad I got to listen to it actually during the summer for a change (although this one will probably also get posted in December).
Favorite Tracks: Surf’s Up; Student Demonstration Time; A Day in the Life of a Tree

Sunday, November 19, 2017

#455: Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties!! (1977)

Zack: I have been nominating this album every time we have a punk album due for like a year and a half at this point. There are two reasons. One, the album title is great. Two, it’s one of the earliest albums in the punk section, which basically means it’s either a garage rock album (I merged those genres together some time ago since there were like 10 garage rock albums total) and I have loved like all of the garage rock albums we’ve listened to (shoutout The Sonics forevah) or an early punk album a la The Ramones, Sex Pistols, etc., which also have a history of being dope. All that had me really hyped to start listening to it…right until I hit play. The first 70% of this album was kind of slow and very British. I found Ian Dury’s voice to be pretty annoying and I was just not into it at all. The last 3 tracks are much more punkish, and they were easily my favorites. But they couldn’t quite make up for the 7 songs beforehand which frustrated me to no end.
Favorite Tracks: Blockheads; Blackmail Man; Plainstow Patricia

Emily: I do love the name of this album, as well as its cheeky origin story (that boots and underwear are the only articles of clothing that Ian Dury wouldn't buy secondhand). The music itself, though, was mostly just weird. Ian Dury is VERY British (from Essex specifically), and his accented voice snakes and snarls through his lyrics and the protopunk music that for some reason also sounds like funk and oompahs. There are glimmers of punk here and there (particularly in the last three tracks), but otherwise the sound is kind of disorienting and just not all that fun.
Favorite Tracks: Plainstow Patricia; Blackmail Man; Sweet Gene Vincent

Saturday, November 18, 2017

#454: Dwight Yoakam - Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room (1988)

Zack: While I have learned to appreciate some aspects of country music, others just rub me the wrong way. Dwight Yoakam was in that category. Musically, Buenas Noches wasn’t overly twangy, but I wouldn’t describe it as overly appealing. But what really ruined this album for me was the lyrics and singing. Recently, there was an episode of the Malcolm Gladwell podcast Revisionist History were he talks about his “theory” (to the extent you could call it that) that country musicians are better songwriters than rock musicians (those are the only two genres of music apparently) because they are more emotional and open to discussing it directly and in vivid detail rather than vague allusion. I think that’s mostly bullshit, but there might be something about the directness aspect. Dwight Yoakam is very direct, but I didn’t like a lot of what I heard. The song What I Don’t Know is predicated on him threatening a lover, saying that if he finds out that he is being cheated on then he will murder her. Am I supposed to be moved by the threat of domestic violence? Am I supposed to find that relatable? The titular track, Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room, was easily my favorite song on the album. And yet it too ends with him murdering a former lover (and the mother of his child) who ran away from him with another man. There are plenty of songs about heartbreak on here, and that’s fine of course, but it’s hard to rally behind many of the conclusions. Besides the murder fantasies, I noticed another theme going on: What we might refer to today as the rural-urban divide. On I Sang Dixie (my second favorite song, by the way, to show that I am trying to separate my more analytical thoughts from my evaluations of the songs) Yoakam tells a story of meeting a dying southern man in Los Angeles and trying to comfort him while everyone just goes on by. The man’s dying words are telling him to go back to the south and away from these California weirdos (my words, not his). Streets of Bakersfield was similar. There, it’s people in San Francisco though, and it’s mostly just about how he’s tired to being judged by a bunch of people who don’t know the first thing about where he’s from. The theme of these songs really rubbed me the wrong way. That is probably a specific temporal anomaly. I’m writing this a couple days out from the Charlottesville protests, where a bunch of white supremacists/Neo-Nazis were protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. I just watched a video of another Confederacy statue in North Carolina being torn down and kicked by anti-white supremacist protestors. There was a massive march in our adoptive city of D.C. last night protesting a statue of Albert Pike, a Confederate general. I’m pretty revved up on this issue at the moment. And I’m pretty fucking tired of hearing a bunch of southern, “Oh we’re such victims why don’t other people understand us.” Boo fucking hoo. Southern culture is distinct and has lots of really awesome elements to it that denizens of the region should absolutely be allowed to celebrate. The food, the culture of sports and competition, (some of) the music. There’s a lot of great stuff, for sure. But I’m from New Jersey. You don’t think that when I introduce myself to someone and they ask where I’m from, I catch a ton of shit? I have a good friend from Kansas. Flyover country. You don’t think we bust his balls about that every chance we get. People make fun of where other people are from. That’s a thing they do. Hell, both of these songs are predicated on stereotypes of Californians. But I am supposed to weep for the poor, misjudged southerner. Fuck you. Grow the fuck up. Think about another goddamn person for one fucking second. And with that, I’ll rage-quit this post/screed.
Favorite Tracks: Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room (She Wore Red Dresses); I Sang Dixie; Floyd County

Emily: Zack had a lot to say, so I'll keep this brief. Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room is a very old-school country album. It has some twang, a lot of Southern pride, and several Jesus references. I had to do a double-take when I was writing in the date, because it honestly sounds like some of the country music we've listened to from the '50s and '60s. But nope, this is from 1988. I guess there was still a market for old-school country for some old-school people, and that market probably still exists now. But all I can say is that it's definitely not for this decidedly un-Southern girl.
Favorite Tracks: Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room (She Wore Red Dresses); I Got You; I Hear You Knockin'

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

#453: U2 - Achtung Baby (1991)

Zack: There are four U2 albums on the list, and this is the second one for us. I distinctly remembered listening to the first one on a train ride to see Emily, so I guessed summer of 2011. But I wasn’t super confident in that (it could just as easily have been 2012) and I couldn’t even remember which album it was. Turns out I was right about the time and it was The Joshua Tree. I know I didn’t like that album (and, after re-reading my review from back them, I’m not sure if I outright hated it that much or was just trying to be Edge-y and cool…see what I did there?), but that’s about it. Back then, I would take an hour-long train from rural NJ to Philly, wait for the next train, then take a 45-minute train from Philly to Emily’s hometown. I would normally try and knock out like three albums each way, and I’d inevitably be reading or playing Fire Emblem on my laptop while I did it. They’d all kind of blur together. Now, for Achtung Baby, I tried to give it a little more attention. I listened to it on a Saturday morning, other than the last few songs from Off the Wall that I had to finish up, it was the first thing I was doing that day, so I wasn’t super burned out when I got to it, and instead of playing video games I was just giving issue codes to speeches I’d already read before. I was in a little bit of a less divided headspace. And I think I appreciated the album more than I otherwise would as a result. I wouldn’t say that I had a “come to Jesus” moment or anything. In fact, my scores for this album were hyper polarized. I gave most songs either 5 stars (my equivalent of super good; if I’m just throwing on tracks and not listening to an album straight through, these are the ones I’ll play) or 3 stars (my equivalent of meh meh meh meh meh). But the songs that popped out, I really liked. They were alternative rock with a bit more complexity to it. I noticed traces of Bowie in the formula, which really perked me up. Overall, Achtung Baby showed me flashes of what real U2 fans adore, and those flashes were pretty impressive.
Favorite Tracks: One; Acrobat; Ultraviolet (Light My Way)

Emily: Based on the limited information I have (i.e. Phoebe Robinson from 2 Dope Queens and my friend's freshman year roommate), if you're a U2 person, then you are wholeheartedly a U2 person. I, however, am not a U2 person. I just don't get the appeal. I'm not opposed to alternative rock growing to stadium proportions as a general matter - the Foo Fighters are great! - but U2 always comes off more preachy and self-righteous than fun and freewheeling. To me, the result is just kinda boring. Achtung Baby fit right in to that impression. There were a few very good songs that made me take notice - the kind that you can definitely hear as a stadium sing-a-long, but otherwise I just found it dull. U2 just isn't my thing, and based on my impressions of this album I don't think it ever really will be.
Favorite Tracks: One; Ultraviolet (Light My Way); Until the End of the World

Monday, October 23, 2017

#452: Michael Jackson - Off the Wall (1979)

Zack: After a short, two-album detour, we are once again boarding the Nostalgia Express. This is the second Michael Jackson album we’ve listened to. The first was Thriller, which we listened to on vinyl in Emily’s parents’ basement, I want to say after a riveting game of Mario Kart (but don’t quote me on that last part.) That was super early on, and if we were at Emily’s parents’ house, it would probably be December 2010 or January 2011. So…I’m guessing like 6 and a half years ago. Thriller is unassailable, so of course Off the Wall doesn’t quite compare. But it’s still an excellent album filled with timeless goodies. Michael Jackson truly was a singular talent, and Off the Wall is just further proof of what we all already knew.
Favorite Tracks: Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough; I Can’t Help It; Rock With You

Emily: Off the Wall was Michael Jackson's first album post-Jackson 5 and post-Motown. It was the first time he had some modicum of creative freedom to develop his own sound, and he used that freedom to explore pop ballads, up-tempo funk and disco, and now-classic R&B and soul. The album succeeds across all of these genres, all of which are tied together by Michael's one-of-a-kind voice. Off the Wall has some classics in its own right, and even more importantly serves as a starting point for the even-greater pop excellence of Thriller and Bad.
Favorite Tracks: Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough; Rock With You; She's Out of My Life

#451: Ice-T - O.G. Original Gangster (1991)

Zack: I had mixed feelings going into this album. On one hand, it’s pretty rare that we listen to a rap album I haven’t heard before, so there was an excited sense of discovery. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say I was particularly eager to dive into Ice-T. Everything I knew about Ice-T going in was very early West Coast rap, almost proto-horrorcore in how gratuitous and almost laughable the violence is, and he also had a metal band that he did crossover tracks with. None were particularly great selling points. But I was pleasantly surprised by just how solid this album is. It really has its moments. When Ice-T dives into those horrorcore vibes (namely on Midnight), I tended to roll my eyes, but there was plenty of other things going that were really interesting. Ice-T is a much more talented rapper than I had anticipated. There are moments where he just goes IN. And Ice-T is very, very smart and insightful. He speaks a lot about power and the prison industrial complex and closes the album with an early critique on the first Gulf War and I didn’t even make that last one up. He has a lot to say and is very good at saying it. The beats were…acceptable. They were a mix of those early West Coast styles before Dr. Dre wove more funk threads into the fabric (less jazz-y than the East Coast contemporaries, but the horn samples are just replaced with more repetitive drum machines) and proto-horrorcore beats with their creeeeeepy and spoooooky synth sounds. But he made it work. Even the one hardcore track (Body Count) wasn’t too bad, although that drum solo…woof. Overall, I did enjoy O.G. and can see how it is important for the development of the West Coast sound overall and several rap subgenres specifically. It was definitely worth listening to, and I’m glad it was included.
Favorite Tracks: Pulse of the Rhyme; Escape from the Killing Fields; O.G.: Original Gangster (but also check out Mic Contract, New Jack Hustler, Fly By, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous…it was a long album)

Emily: It seems like Ice-T is better known these days for his role on Law & Order: SVU, his appearance in Geico commercials hawking lemonade, and for his long-standing marriage to Coco Austin (and its accompanying E! reality show). He's still rapping today, but he definitely has a friendlier image now than he did 26 years ago when O.G. was first released. It's a raw and intense album, with graphic and sometimes violent lyrics. Ice-T also occasionally fuses this gangsta rap aesthetic with heavy metal, a combo that doesn't always work but is intriguing as a crossover between two genres that were much maligned by so-called "cultural" critics at the time. I wasn't a huge fan of this album overall, but I can understand its significance in the rap chronology and pantheon as gangsta rap evolved throughout the early 90s. And somehow, for all his talk of cop killing, Ice-T has played a cop on television for over 15 years. I'm sure no one would've guessed that in 1991.
Favorite Tracks: Mind Over Matter; O.G. Original Gangster; The Tower