Monday, June 24, 2019

100 Albums: "Dookie" by Green Day

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Green Day
Title: Dookie
Released: 1994
Genre: punk pop


Green Day was one of the standard bearers for the second wave of grunge, playing music that wasn't technically grunge and completely eschewing all of the movement's faux sophistication. (Remember when Smashing Pumpkins came out against moshing? Yeah, that was a thing!) Instead, Green Day broke with a dry punk aesthetic, a lead single about masturbation, and an album named after poop. Green Day got major label interest after their second album Kerplunk made waves in the indie scene. The demo for Dookie landed on the desk of producer Rick Cavallo who immediately recognized that it had potential to be huge. Supposedly (read as: I read this somewhere and can't remember where) he recorded most of the album during the band's rehearsals and tracked all of singer Billie Joe Armstrong's vocals in two days.

Dookie has one of the great rock-and-roll opening tracks in Burnout, which opens with a rapid-fire drum roll and Armstrong belting out "I declare I don't care no more!" The entire thing is only forty minutes, but I can't help but think that if it had been recorded even ten years later, a few of the back-end tracks might have gotten cut, as the disc does flag a bit towards the end. All though the closer F.O.D. is a pretty strong song, followed by two minutes of silence and then drummer Tré Cool singing another song about masturbation. The album spawned five radio singles, and they all still get play to this day.

I really like how rough-and-tumble this album feels. It's practically bursting with youthful energy. The vocals are extremely dry--they're not even doubled on most of the songs. The band wanted this record to sound like Sex Pistols. Mike Dirnt's bass sound is exactly how I like a rock bass guitar to sound: lots of attack, lots of movement, with some room scooped out for the kick drums. Cool's psychotic tom-slapping drumming keeps everything moving at an insane clip--the typical song is under two minutes long--and for most of those songs you get the impression that band is playing as fast as everyone can keep up. You can definitely hear the tempo slipping around a bit in songs like Longview. The whole affair is sparse and dry and dirty and I love it.

Further Listening: Green Day followed up Dookie with Insomnia, which was a disappointment. It has some great songs, but it starts weak and Armstrong's vocals feel off. After that, their sound fell much more in line with mainstream second-wave grunge. Their catalog is pretty deep, and while nothing comes close to being as good as Dookie, they have a few records that are extremely listenable. I recommend Warning most of all, and it's definitely one of their poppier ones. I haven't listened to Nimrod back to front, but it produced the band's most enduring single: Good Riddance (The Time Of Your Life) which became the soundtrack to every commencement ceremony in the country for about five years. There are a lot of fans of American Idiot, and while it's got some great singles, the operettas really don't work for me. After that they did a series of "garage rock" albums called ¡Uno!¡Dos!, and ¡Tré! that I rather enjoy, even if they are lesser works. ¡Uno! has my favorite Green Day song that doesn't sound like a Green Day song: Kill The DJ.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

100 Albums: "Crimes Of Passion" by Crocodiles

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Crocodiles
Title: Crimes Of Passion
Released: 2013
Genre: lo-fi indie rock


Crocodiles was born out of the mid-aughts punk movement, tied to bands like Some Girls, Dum Dum Girls, and The Plot To Blow Up The Eiffel Tower. They got some buzz in late 2010 with an instrumental song called Kill Joe Arpaio, which drew the ire of the actual Joe Arpaio, who thought he would show them by tweeting his disdain at them. You know, like an idiot. (He also misattributed the song to Alligators. You know, like an idiot.)

Crimes Of Passion is a breezy thirty-four minute jaunt through lo-fi noise pop. The songs are a soup of guitars and horns, held together by catchy guitar leads and staticky vocals slathered in reverb and delay. In the garage rock tradition, the writing has just the tiniest hint of surf-rock in it, enough to give it a little bit of old-timey shimmer that belies the stylistically rough production values. The best song is Heavy Metal Clouds, and it's a pretty good indicator of what you can expect from this album. I Like It In The Dark is a rollicking piano-driven opener. Teardrop Guitar is delightful (even if the guitar hook feels a bit borrowed from R.E.M.'s Pop Song 89). And Me And My Machine Gun makes for an excellent late-album mope, because you need just a tinge of depressed angst twenty minutes in to a thirty minute record. All in all, this is just well-constructed noise pop. Fun, accessible, and inoffensive despite trying to feel just the teensiest bit dangerous.

Further Listening: I don't know any other Crocodiles records, but I suppose I need to check some out. They've got seven (!) albums out now.

Monday, June 17, 2019

100 Albums: "Seal (1994)" by Seal

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Seal
Title: Seal
Released: 1994
Genre: adult contemporary


Seal came to international prominence in 1991 with the song Crazy off his self-titled debut. He followed it up with another self-title album three years later, one that propelled him to superstardom, featuring Kiss From A Rose, his best-known song that was also features on the Batman Forever soundtrack and promoted alongside the movie. Seal is almost the textbook definition of adult contemporary. If you scaled back the R&B influence, this could almost be a Sting album (Sting being the actual textbook definition of "adult contemporary music"). It's got a lot of inventiveness buried under a ton of polish, but if you don't mind a record with some gloss on it, this one is solid.

Seal's got an incredible voice and puts together some very strong music here. The best tracks are the singles, and if you like them, you're going to like the rest. Kiss From A Rose is, of course, fairly iconic by now, and the version on this album is slightly longer (and also slightly better) than the one from Batman Forever. Don't Cry and Prayer For The Dying are soft-rock radio staples and also very good, if you like passionately sung tunes about sadness. My other favorite from this album is Newborn Friend (embedded above) because it's a little more upbeat and complex than the singles. The opener Bring It On is a lot of fun, and I also enjoy Fast Changes, which is an oddly sparse arrangement for an uptempo song that's not guitar-centric.

It's the kind of album that you get to the end of and think "Oh, well, that was pleasant." It was also a tricky one to buy. When I bought it, I was purchasing mostly used CDs on eBay, and the word "Seal" used to be a popular keyword meaning "unopened" in addition to being the name of the artist, the album, and another of his albums.

Further Listening: The 1991 album is pretty good too, and for my money, Crazy is Seal's best song.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

100 Albums: "Playland" by Johnny Marr

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Johnny Marr
Title: Playland
Released: 2014
Genre: post-punk britpop


Best known as a guitarist and co-writer for the Smiths, a band that broke up in 1987, Johnny Marr has had a long career in the background of rock-and-roll. He was briefly in the Pretenders and Modest Mouse. He did a lot of session work. He produced a few albums, did a stint with the Cribs. And then in 2011, he started putting out solo albums. And... this is one of them. And it's really quite good.

Playland is the sort of album that gets written by a rhythm guitarist. The leads are slow and thick and melodic. The rhythm parts are densely layered but still pop and jangle. There's a definitely britpop sheen to the whole thing: solid hooks, simple structures with lots of tiny variations over the course of a song, a bit of the old post-punk jangle, and a healthy dose of reverb on everything. Although, for as atmospheric as its musical elements are, it's got a real sense of movement. The single Easy Money is the standout song and the clear radio track. The opener Back In The Box is excellent. 25 Hours is a bass-forward chunky, almost punk track. I love the chorus on The Trap and Candidate, two of the slower songs.

But really, what's most enjoyable about this record is how well put together it is. Yes, the songs are catchy and impressive and all of the instruments sound good, but you also have to take a step back to appreciate the craftsmanship on display. Marr has been playing in bands for over four decades now. He's really quite good at this.

Further Listening: Marr has two other solo albums that I haven't listened to, although I've liked the snippets I've heard. But if you just want to revel in some rhythm guitar awesomeness, then there's nothing better from him than How Soon Is Now?

Monday, June 10, 2019

100 Albums: "Third Eye Blind" by Third Eye Blind

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Third Eye Blind
Title: Third Eye Blind
Released: 1997
Genre: post-grunge power pop


The late 90s were a weird time for rock and roll. The second wave of grunge was on the ebb, the pop renaissance was just around the corner--the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys had their first commercial hits in 1996, although bubblegum wouldn't completely dominate until Britney Spears' debut in 1999. All around there was less appetite for self-serious angsty music, and the rock acts that broke during this era embraced their fun side. Two bands in particular stand out to me, Third Eye Blind and Incubus. Both broke around the same time and constructed their sound from a lot of the same component parts, even though the end result was quite different. The both wrote up-tempo pop songs that were infused with punk and hip-hop influences. They both wrote lyrics that specifically de-glamorized the culture of partying and drug abuse that surrounded rock and roll. Of the two, Incubus was the more sophisticated, pursuing an experimental and complex sound. Third Eye Blind wrote popcorn, but it was some tasty popcorn. Third Eye Blind wasn't a huge-selling album, but it produced some very successful singles: Semi-Charmed LifeGraduate, How's It Going To Be, and Jumper, which all got heavy radio play.

I remember being completely, er... charmed... by the lead single Semi-Charmed Life. It was fast and bouncy and very high-energy, while somehow seeming to be about junkies who weren't enjoying getting high anymore, or something like that.  It was also very easy to play on the guitar, so double-bonus. I loved that they sang about sex and drugs with candor and earnest, if not nuance, but even then I didn't really get it. I owned the cassingle with the radio edit, and mostly bought the whole album because I loved that song but hated the way the radio edit garbled with phrase "crystal meth." The rest of the album followed suit: catchy, high-energy songs about subjects that sounded cool even though I didn't really understand the narrative. I mean, I understand them better now. Now that I've been through a rough break-up or two, I have a better handle on the opener Losing A Whole Year and its opening line "I remember you and me used to spend the whole goddamn day in bed." Back then I assumed they were just tired all the time--the next track was called Narcolepsy, so I guess that made sense. Or maybe it was a drug thing?

Oh, 1997 Kurt, you sweet summer child.

I listened to this album constantly. It was just under an hour long, the perfect length to put on a 60-minute blank tape and listen to in the car on repeat. Again, this is not high art, it's pop art, but it's really compelling pop art. Some of the non-radio tracks are still in my sing-a-long playlists. (How, for example, was Graduate a single but not the far superior London?) And there are little lyrical flourishes that I still enjoy. Like "The clothes she wears mis-fit" from Thanks A Lot or "I've never been so alone and I've never been so alive" from Motorcycle Drive By. The couple of down-tempo numbers like The Background and God Of Wine have drive and purpose. The only songs that haven't aged well are Good For You, which feels like such a throwback to second wave four-chord grunge, and I Want You, which is aggressively sappy, but neither of those are bad, by any stretch.

Further Listening: The follow-up Blue was pretty underwhelming, and I haven't heard any of their other albums (although apparently they have a lot of them). Alas. Sometimes, you only have one hit record in you.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

100 Albums: "Even Worse" by "Weird Al" Yankovic

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: "Weird Al" Yankovic
Title: Even Worse
Released: 1988
Genre: comedy


I first heard Weird Al's song Dare To Be Stupid when I was maybe seven years old and it was a revelation. For a kid like me--coming from a very conservative background but with an off-beat sense of humor--this was eye-opening. He was subversive, but in a family-friendly way; Yankovic identifies as Christian and has always kept his material PG and free of swearing. He makes fun of people, but only after getting their permission. His whole MO is to take everything you think is "cool" and shift the context just a little in order to make it silly. He's a virtuoso musician, a comic craftsman, a consummate goofball, and beloved the world over. He's supposed to be a first-rate showman (I haven't seen him in concert yet, although that is going to be remedied later this month) and, by all accounts I've heard, one of the nicest human beings you could ever interact with. I've been a fan of his for basically my entire life. As I've gotten older and musical landscapes have shifted, I don't find myself enjoying the newer material as much, but I go back a lot to this era of his work and this disc specifically--not because it's one of my favorite novelty albums, but because it's one of my favorite album albums. I enjoy the performance and craftsmanship on display here, and it doesn't even matter than what's being crafted and performed is a joke.

Even Worse is best known for Fat, a parody of the song Bad Yankovic's second go at spoofing Michael Jackson. As a rule, comedy doesn't age very well, but Fat has fared worse than most of Yankovic's material due to shifting attitudes about body-shaming and.. well... not to put too fine a point on it, shifting attitudes about Michael Jackson. Yankovic is most famous for his parodies of specific songs, even though that makes up less than half of his oeuvre. The song parodies here are good, but they're also the least interesting thing going on. Aside from Bad, all of the songs being parodied are 1980s covers of songs that were originally written in the 50s or 60s. There's I Think I'm A Clone Now, parodying Tiffany's cover of I Think We're Alone NowLasagna, parodying Los Lobos' version of La Bamba, and Alimony, which specifically satirizes Billy Idol's live cover of Mony Mony. But by far the best song parody is (This Song's Just) Six Words Long, a skewering satire of George Harrison's take on Got My Mind Set On You. Because while Harrison's hit is a bona fide classic, we all have to admit that it's a little weak in the lyrics department.

But the real meat of this album is the style parodies. Velvet Elvis is a spot-on riff on The Police. You Make Me is a fantastic Oingo Boingo spoof. Twister is not only a pitch-perfect imitation of the Beastie Boys, but it also takes the form of a product jingle (The Beastie Boys have famously never allowed their music to be used in commercials). Good Old Days is supposed to be play on James Taylor, but what really sells it is that it's a gentle ballad being sung by a psychopath. It's one of Yankovic's darkest songs. And Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White, while not specifically parodying any artist, is an early example of Yankovic's here's-a-bunch-of-funny-nonsense songs. It's also remarkable for being the only studio album after his debut to not feature a polka medley of some sort, but it doesn't suffer for the lack. And since it's still early on, there's the energy and willingness to push that you get from a hungry young artist still trying to figure things out. I still enjoy this one immensely.

Further Listening: Yankovic's catalog is huge, but if I had to pick other favorites... Dare To Be Stupid has some of his best work. The title track is a Devo style parody that is so spot-on that Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo) has gone on record saying that he wished he'd written it. It also has Yoda, a parody of The Kinks' Lola which is noteworthy because Lola is itself a comedy song, and Yoda is so much funnier. Off The Deep End is probably the first album of his that I owned, and it holds up pretty well. I also have a tremendous amount of affection for the UHF soundtrack, which has parodies of R.E.M. and Dire Straits, plus an entire polka medley of Rolling Stones songs. Finally, I'll recommend Alapalooza, which opens with a parody of Richard Harris's MacArthur Park re-written to be about Jurassic Park and closes with a polka rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.

Monday, June 3, 2019

100 Albums: "The Dark Side Of The Moon" by Pink Floyd

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Pink Floyd
Title: The Dark Side Of The Moon
Released: 1973
Genre: psychedelic rock


Pink Floyd was always a deeply experimental band. It wasn't always successful, but even their older weird stuff that doesn't quite work (I'm looking at YOU, Ummagumma) is still at least interesting. They were able to evolve their sound over several years, and DSotM is where all the pieces come together in just the right way to form something magical. And by "magical" I mean one of the greatest-selling albums of all time. As Floyd albums go, it's fairly straightforward. It runs a little over forty minutes and has eight-to-ten tracks (depending on whether you separate Speak To Me/Breathe and Brain Damage/Eclipse), all of which have run-times that are under seven minutes. The tracks with vocals run a little long and the instrumental interstitials run a little short, but that's pretty standard for 70s rock. I mean, compare this to 1971's Meddle, whose closing track Echoes is over 23 minutes long and takes up the entire second side of the LP. (This is even more impressive when you realize that standard tape reals used in recording run out at 16 minutes.)

Rather than experimenting with form and breadth, Pink Floyd use this album to play around with depth. This thing is densely layered. The topmost layer is 5 glossy psychedelic pop songs built on classic rock fundamentals but working in some jazz and blues. But when you dig into the lyrics you start to find stories about drugs and desperation and mental illness. And then those interstitial tracks have voices on them, people talking casually about death and fear. And then if you really crank it up, during the quieter moments you discover these lush soundscapes sitting under everything. And then you get the shit scared out of you for listening at high volume because Time opens with a sound collage of alarm clocks going off. It's a moody, atmospheric masterpiece that really defines its era of music. The craftsmanship is superb. Floyd were masters of sounding like Pink Floyd. No one else really comes close, and if that's your jam, then you've already bought this record and listened to it a dozen times.

Further Listening: I haven't consumed the entire Floyd catalog, but of all I've heard, DSotM is the stand-out. That said, I have a lot of affection for Meddle--in which the band was starting down that path--and Wish You Were Here, a concept album delivered because their record company was begging them for a follow-up to DSotM. So it's mostly about how record execs are douchebags. For all of its accolades, I don't particularly enjoy The Wall. It has a few epic tracks on it, but it feels like mostly filler to me--a reach-exceeds-grasp situation.

And yes, I'm aware of the Wizard Of Oz thing and no, I don't think it actually works or is all that interesting. But, to be fair, I kind of hate that movie.