Sunday, March 26, 2017

#423: Talking Heads - More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)

Zack: Just about 6 years later, we finally got around to listening to our second Talking Heads album. It’s hard to explain how powerfully deflating that sentence was to type. Anyway, last time I found Talking Heads to be pretty interesting but remarkably pretentious. I didn’t pick up on the pretentiousness this time around (and Wikipedia did not have as an-depth of a discussion about it), but I also didn’t find the music as compelling. I frequently forgot that the album was even playing, and I can’t say I was doing anything terrible exciting while I listened to it. The album had a few songs that I started tapping my feet to, but beyond that it just sounded pretty conventional, which was kind of a downer coming from a band that once wrote a protest song aimed at the atmosphere.
Favorite Tracks: Take Me to the River; With Our Love; I’m Not In Love

Emily: As a fan of both buildings and food, I liked this album based on its title alone. It's kinda goofy and has immense parody potential, provided the songs live up to the promise of the title. I don't really think they did. I didn't pick up on any overt discussions of either food or buildings, but perhaps they were going for something more subtle than silly. The album itself was perfectly pleasant, with a few fun and upbeat songs and an especially good Al Green cover. But I feel like it could have done something more, even though I'm not exactly sure what that "more" is.
Favorite Tracks: Take Me to the River; Thank You for Sending Me an Angel; I'm Not in Love

#422: Gang Starr - Step In the Arena (1990)

Zack: This is one of the semi-rare hip-hop albums on the list that I haven’t heard before. And I have especially been eagerly awaiting this one. I only started listening to Gang Starr a couple years ago (most notably their 1998 album Moment of Truth), but I’ve held off on listening to Step in the Arena for blog-related purposes only. Luckily, Emily and I semi-recently watched Luke Cage, where the episodes are named after Gang Starr songs, which probably led her to picking this album. Step in the Arena has the same jazzy sound as the other Gang Starr albums I’ve listened to, but there’s something about the album that is distinctly dated. It sounds like an album that someone would make A.R. (after Rakim) but B.W.T. (before Wu Tang). It has the same sort of complex lyrical patterns that Rakim pioneered, but these technically demanding lyrics are primarily used for bragging. Guru hasn’t been inspired to try his hand at the sort of emotional, vicious deliveries or lyrical content that the Wu-Tang Clan elevated. The best way I can say it is, from the various Gang Starr projects I’ve listened to, they always sound like a product of their eras rather than shapers of them. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! DJ Premier is a top-10 producer for sure and probably in the top 5 (I’d have to think about it some more). Guru is a talented rapper. And they take what others are doing around them and really polish it up well. Gang Starr is a great way to sum up an era of rap, but it doesn’t sound like they do much to explain the trajectory it took.
Favorite Tracks: The Meaning of the Name; Lovesick; Step in the Arena

Emily: First, a disclaimer: I listened to this album on a flight home from vacation in Tokyo. It was a fun, interesting vacation, but certainly not a relaxing one. Therefore, on this flight, I was super tired and not necessarily in top focusing form. However, I did find myself drawn to Gang Starr's style. I didn't remember the Luke Cage connection when I picked the album; rather, I remembered Zack mentioning that he was excited to listen to it. That probably happened while we were watching Luke Cage, but either way I'm glad I picked it. As Zack notes, they definitely embody the sounds and style of their time. I liked the old-school nature of the beats, which were largely repetitive and lent to a focus on the lyrics. And Guru's rhyming skill certainly shines through. As with many rap albums, the lyrics probably merit a further listen to get a full grasp on both the sound and the story. However, on a first, tired listen, I was intrigued enough to want to check out Step In the Arena again.
Favorite Tracks: Form of Intellect; Who's Gonna Take the Weight; Beyond Comprehension

#421: Steely Dan - Can't Buy A Thrill (1972)

Emily: Right off the bat, I was surprised that I recognized multiple songs on this album. Steely Dan is a fixture of both classic rock and adult contemporary radio, and therefore a fixture of long drives with my family after I ceded control of the CD buttons and radio knobs. These songs weren't my preferred road trip soundtrack, but they're not particularly objectionable. The rest of this album, though, has plenty to object to. Steely Dan has an over-the-top theatrical quality that makes this album sound like the soundtrack to a musical. That musical is hard to follow and doesn't make much sense. The recognizable singles are solid performance pieces. The other songs are just filler that would usually serve to explain the plot of the musical, but here they really don't. The result is jumbled and confusing, but with a few bright spots.
Favorite Tracks: Do It Again; Reelin' In the Years; Dirty Work

Zack: We listened to Aja by Steely Dan long ago, before the world ended, and I loved it. I relisten to it every once in a while and it is still just very good. Can’t Buy a Thrill was not quite as great, but it was still a very good approximation. It was also Steely Dan’s first album, and they hadn’t yet decided to work in the jazz elements that really popped out on Aja. Still, the same smoothness and polish were there, and those elements are crucial to the groove found on Aja. A number of years ago, I was drinking with a friend who told a story to me about another time she was drinking with some people and sheepishly confessed that she liked Steely Dan. Everyone around the table made similar confessions. After listening to Aja and Can’t Buy a Thrill, I don’t think there’s any reason to be embarrassed to like this particular brand of classic rock.
Favorite Tracks: Dirty Work; Reelin’ in the Years; Kings

Sunday, March 12, 2017

#420: Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque (1991)

Zack: First off, great album name. Second off, if you get a second, go read the Wikipedia page for this album. It doesn’t tell you much about the album itself, but it does confirm a lot of the things you think about other stuff. For instance, Spin picked this as the album of the year over Nevermind, because of course Spin would do that. And of course Gene Simmons has trademarked the image of a bag with a dollar sign on it, because only a total tool would do that. And Jimmy Eat World would of course cover an obscure Scottish alt rock band. It all just makes too much sense. Anyway, Bandwagonesque is a pretty good album. It’s very lush and polished and vaguely upbeat. I would have guessed that it came out in 1997, not 1991, which is slightly impressive. There’s not much else to say, really. It was pretty good, but I can’t imagine it blowing anyone away. Unless you write for Spin, that is.
Favorite Tracks: Star Sign; Alcoholiday; The Concept

Emily: I agree with Zack that this album has a great name (and the band's name is pretty good too). But I can't agree with his evaluation. I thought this album was a total bore. The lyrics of multiple songs was just the repetition of their titles over and over and over again. The music itself was repetitious as well, from song to song and within the songs themselves. While I guess that music was pleasant enough, it didn't offer any interest. To me, this album was a pale imitation of a bunch of music I've heard before. So many deserving albums have been left off this list, and they certainly could take the place of this uninteresting, snoozeworthy way to spend 45 minutes.
Favorite Tracks: I Don't Know; Pet Rock; The Concept

Saturday, March 11, 2017

#419: Loretta Lynn - Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind) (1967)

Zack: My slowly growing appreciation for some types of country music has been an occasional refrain on this sonic driveway. Loretta Lynn really captures a great deal of what I have come to like about the genre on this album. Growing up, my exposure to country music was whatever crap the bus driver would play every morning. It was terrible. But what I’ve learned is that some artists have used country music as a means of telling really interesting and engrossing stories. That’s what’s drawn me to artists like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, and a few others. On Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’, Loretta Lynn tells 12 brief, but captivating, stories right from the precipice of heartbreak. Some are angry. Some are regretful. Some are guilt-laden. And most, it turns out, are covers. But even if the words aren’t originally hers, she makes those songs sound almost as deeply personal as the three she did write (which happen to be the tracks that stood out to me the most anyway). It’s all album filled with poignant and beautiful lyrics over simple, if a bit twangy, music. It’s great to see the storytelling carrying the day.
Favorite Tracks: Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’; I Got Caught; Get What‘cha Got and Go

Emily: Spurned-lover country music could be a genre unto itself, especially spurned-woman-lover country. From Dolly Parton's Jolene to Carrie Underwood's Before He Cheats, the women of Nashville and beyond have been pouring the sadness, guilt, regret, anger, and relief caused by men who screwed them over into classic anthems of heartbreak. Many of the songs on Loretta Lynn's Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind) fall squarely into that category. She plaintively tells stories of a man (or men) who spurned her with little fuss or embellishment. The music may be simple, but she delivers the stories in the lyrics with weighty emotion. I think that this sort of storytelling really embodies the heart and spirit of country music, and Loretta Lynn proves herself to be one of the finest of the spurned-lover storytellers. 
Favorite Tracks: Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'; There Goes My Everything; I Really Don't Want to Know

Saturday, March 4, 2017

#418: Little Richard - Here's Little Richard (1957)

Zack: It’s sort of embarrassing that it took us over 6 years to get to listening to the only Little Richard album on this list. The man is an absolute icon on a level that very, very few other musicians or just people in general have been able to hit. And this right here was the album that started it all, with the song that really started it all as the lead-off track. Tutti Frutti is pretty much one of the first rock and roll songs. It apparently was also originally an ode to gay sex, before going through some very 1950s rewrites to change lines about “good booty” to “aw rooty” which was slang for “all right.” The song is so incredibly catchy and energetic that it hardly matters how sanitized the lyrics had to be. The first time you hear it, you know it’s a perfect song. The rest of the album is pretty stellar as well. It’s a blazing-fast 28 minutes, but it’s jam-packed with good music.
Favorite Tracks: Tutti Frutti; Jenny Jenny; Slippin’ and Slidin’

Emily: Rock & roll from the '50s may evoke corniness, poodle skirts, and Back to the Future today, but Little Richard was a real pioneer. He took influences from blues and R&B but made them high-energy and irresistibly catchy and fun with his unstoppable showmanship. And, who doesn't love a good rhyming title (clearly I do, if you look at my favorite tracks from this album)? Here's Little Richard has all of those things, laying the groundwork not just for his own career, but for the evolution of countless musicians to come.
Favorite Tracks: Tutti Frutti; Ready Teddy; Jenny Jenny

Monday, February 20, 2017

#417: The Jam - All Mod Cons (1978)

Zack: I think this album was more interesting than it was good. It sounds like a remaking of the British music scene of the 1960s, just with some slight updates. It’s sort of like taking The Birds and reproducing it beat-for-beat but with better graphics (which is, shockingly, a thing that is possibly happening). Sure, I get why you might do that, and it’s cool to introduce the sound to a younger audience who might not encounter the original source or would find it dated. But there isn’t anything terribly original there (I’m trying real hard not to mention The Force Awakens right now, and apparently failing.). And I don’t really find the original source all the interesting to begin with, so without a substantial unique contribution I was predestined to find this album to be lacking. As is, All Mod Cons exists mostly as a thought experiment of what would happen if the bands of 1960s London actually came out in the late 70s. And that just wasn’t enough for me.
Favorite Tracks: English Rose; Mr. Clean; Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

Emily: Everything old can be new again if you wait long enough. Fashion, food, TV, movies, music - if you loved something in pop culture 20+ years ago, you can be that a revival is imminent. Sometimes it takes even less time, before nostalgia can even set in (looking at you, Spiderman movies). The best revivals are those that take the old trend and update it for a new era, changing it just enough to still be familiar while still having a new impact. The worst ones, though, merely repeat the same beats without an understanding of why those beats are there. The late-70s Mod revival attempted by The Jam on All Mod Cons fell into the latter category for me. For one, this revival came less than 15 years after the original mod movement, while its revolution remained relatively fresh in the minds of pop music and culture consumers. And even with this in mind, the band doesn't really do anything to revive or reinvent the sound of that era. The result sounds more like a cover band than a fully realized revival - it's something everyone has already heard, but hasn't had enough time to forget. They would've been better off moving forward, like many of their punk-minded peers, than sounding stuck in their not-so-distant past.
Favorite Tracks: In the Crowd; All Mod Cons; Fly