Thursday, April 25, 2019

100 Albums: "Untitled (IV/Zoso)" by Led Zeppelin

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

Artist: Led Zeppelin
Title: untitled
Released: 1971
Genre: classic rock


Is there a more epic album opening than Black Dog? Plant screaming "Hey, Hey, Mama..." and a trio of musicians exploding into that proto-metal riff behind him? There's a reason Led Zeppelin is always included in discussions of who might be the greatest rock band of all time: Plant's bluesy wail, Bonham's impossibly huge drum sound, Page's guitar work--and tone, when people talk about "vintage guitar tone" they're talking about Jimmy Page--and Jones's bass and keys (bassists are the unsung heroes of rock, and Jones's bass work here is low-key phenomenal). They're an iconic band, and this is their most iconic album.

Officially untitled, but commonly referred to as either Zoso or IV, this record is not only their best-selling, but it contains their most well-known song, Stairway To Heaven, also known as the song you're not allowed to play in a guitar store. It includes references to Tolkien and visual elements taken from the occult. Of it's eight tracks, seven of them are absolutely brilliant and one of them is Four Sticks. Which is fine. Perfectly serviceable. Solid little tune. Anyway.

Even if you've never listened to it front-to-back, you've almost certainly heard most of it in commercials or on your dad's radio station. The opening drum line from Rock 'n' Roll is instantly recognizable. I've already mentioned Black Dog, but for fun some time try to count along with the drum line. It's crazy complex the way the guitar and drum interact, but you wouldn't notice unless you're listening for it. Stairway features one of the greatest rock guitar solos of all time and it was completely improvised on the first take. Misty Mountain Hop is delightfully psychedelic. Going To California is haunting. All told, it's one of the great rock records, an influential masterpiece.

Further listening: I mean, take your pick. It's Zeppelin--their entire catalog is rich. So to mix things up, I will recommend some off-beat covers of songs from this album. There's The Lovemongers' take on Battle Of Evermore from the Singles soundtrack, A Perfect Circle's dreamy atmospheric reinterpretation of When The Levee Breaks, or Dread Zeppelin giving Misty Mountain Hop the ska + Elvis treatment.

Monday, April 22, 2019

100 Albums Supplemental: Video Game Soundtracks

So far on this list I've had two broadway soundtracks, one movie soundtrack (two if you count Help!, which isn't really one but...), and one season of a score from a television show. I like soundtracks. One thing that is not going to show up on this list but is very much represented in my music collection is soundtracks to video games. They're usually available for a couple dollars as DLC, if you don't mind hunting through system folders to find them. I love video game music, but the soundtrack albums tend to not make very good albums. Invariably, some of the music is really more about setting a soundscape, which is really cool in a game and hard to listen to on its own. But it does mean that even the best ones are hit-or-miss. And some of them are really shoddily put together. But they can also be incredible in their own weird way. So here's a smattering of video game soundtracks that I don't really listen to, but definitely have a couple tracks mixed into my favorite playlists.

Darren Korb - Bastion

Swampy steel guitars and a low-key country vibe under light-industrial drums. It reminds me of Firefly a little. The best song: Spike In A Rail.

Aperture Science Psychoacoustic Laboratories - Portal 2: Song To Test By

It's four freaking discs long. And it includes the soundtrack for the entire first game as well, because of course it does. It generally blips along pleasantly (or darkly) enough, but there are some great high points. Robots ftw has a bouncy, dissonant party vibe. Furthering The Cause Of Science does a good job of capturing the awe-and-wonder side of the game. And of course there's the brilliant Still Alive penned by Jonathan Coulton that plays under the closing credits of the first game.

Markus Captain Kaarlonen - Rochard

A game about space junkers with a bluesy theme song, the album is surprisingly made mostly of ambient tracks with big shimmery orchestral swells. Aliens & Indians is worth your time.

The Adjective Plural Noun - Full Boar

Actually this album is terrible. It was pretty clearly put together by a multi-instrumentalist who could play anything but didn't really know much about tracking. The crazy-impressive guitar work is all out of sync with itself. But I included it anyway because it is one of my favorite band names.

Mike O.K. - Windforge

Steampunk RPG that's... not well-received. The soundtrack mostly builds itself around one particular theme, but it's a huge theme, almost on the scale of Lux Aeterna from Requiem For A Dream. It churns relentlessly but has a gorgeous melodic resolve in the fourth bar. It's best exemplified in the track At The Top Of The World.

Jean-Marc Giffin - Sentinels of the Multiverse

There are currently seven volumes with an eighth on the way--one for each of the expansions. Since this is an adaptation of a tabletop game, it doesn't have levels or the kind of narrative progression you see in most video games. Instead, the tracks are all musical themes tied to either a location or a character, and these characters and environments are riffs on traditional comic book settings. So you have the crime-ridden urban noir theme, or the theme for Wager-Master, an impish villain who wants to put the heroes through a life-or-death game show. These can get weirdly specific in very entertaining ways. Omnitron is a villain from the base game who comes back as an environment later, so its environment theme is an expansion and deconstruction of its villain theme. The Time Cataclysm theme is based on the idea that the deck of cards it represents is a mash-up of environments from all the previous games, so the song for it is a seventeen-minute series of mash-ups of previous themes. There are fifteen "team" villains that you fight not individually but in groups of three to five, and all of them have the same melody for their themes but with different arrangements, because when you hear that theme in the game, it's built of threads of all the individual villains, meaning you get a different arrangement depending on which villains you fought and what order you had them standing in. Honestly, it's all kind of amazing.

Nobuo Uematsu - Final Fantasy VI

The music in Final Fantasy is generally well regarded, but FFVI is definitely the highlight, and I'm not just saying that because it's my favorite video game of all time. But seriously, just listen to this theme that you walk around the world-map to! The music is gorgeously composed and doesn't fall into the some-of-it's-just-a-creepy-soundscape trap. On the other hand, it's three hours of chiptunes, none of which have an actual ending because they're made to loop indefinitely in the game. So for each track you hear the theme looped through twice and then fade out.

And you can't talk about Final Fantasy VI without mentioning...

Overclocked ReMix - Final Fantasy VI: Balance And Ruin

This is a fan reinterpretation of the music from FFVI and you can download all six insane hours of it for free! Every single track was recorded by a different artist, so you wind up with fingerstyle-guitar, rag time, and dubstep--all on the same disc! There's a gorgeous classical rendition of the evil Emperor's theme. The iconic-if-clunky opera (yes, this is a 16-bit game with a major story arc surrounding an opera) is given a 9-minute treatment by someone who, methinks, is a big fan of the song Bohemian Rhapsody. If you're a fan of the game, you need to have checked this one out.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

100 Albums: "Seeing Sounds" by N.E.R.D.

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

Artist: N.E.R.D.
Title: Seeing Sounds
Released: 2008
Genre: funk rock with hip hop


Pharrell Williams is probably most famous for his contributions to 2013's most highly anticipated summer single (Daft Punk's Get Lucky) as well as its most controversial one (Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines). But in the late 90s and early 00s, he was the public face of The Neptunes, a production duo consisting of Williams and Chad Hugo, which made waves producing huge hits for Britney Spears, N'Sync, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Kelis, etc. Around that same time, they recruited Shay Haley, a friend they'd jammed with in high school, for a side project called N.E.R.D., a "side project" that has put out five albums. Seeing Sounds' title is a reference to the fact that Williams has synesthesia, a condition in which input processing signals in the brain bleed across senses, and a common manifestation is for sound to produce a visual sensation like a color. It's part of what contributes to the unique sound of Williams' music, since he's not just trying to make things sound cool, but to look cool as well.

Seeing Sounds is adventurous. It's got the punchy drum loops you associate with Neptunes tunes and the hip-hop keyboards, but the guitar and bass are straight out of alt-rock, and the lyrics are just damned witty. The lead single was Everyone Nose (All The Girls Standing In The Line For The Bathroom) about girls at a club doing cocaine in the bathroom, and the line "a hundred dollar bill, look atchoo, atchoo" cracks me up every single time. The song Windows manages to use Bill Gates and Microsoft as puns. Anti-Matter's chorus hook is "You so anti, it does not matter".

Puns!

My favorite song, if not Everyone Nose, is Sooner Or Later, whose music video features the 2008 financial crisis. Close behind that is You Know What. The song Happy is pretty good as well, although not as good as the other song called Happy that Williams recorded for Despicable Me 2.

Further Listening: Fly Or Die is pretty decent. And, of course, Happy.

Monday, April 15, 2019

100 Album: "Game Of Thrones Season 3 Soundtrack" by Ramin Djawadi

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

Artist: Ramin Djawadi
Title: Game Of Thrones, Season 3 Soundtrack
Released: 2013
Genre: DAH duh, duh-duh-DAH duh, duh-duh-DAH duh


He's not as big a name as Hans Zimmer or John Williams or the various Newmans out there, but Ramin Djawadi is easily the most interesting composer working in television right now (with due respect to Bear McCreary). Soundtracks, especially television soundtracks because they're produced so quickly, have a tendency to serve more as a wall of atmosphere than anything else. But Djawadi's work here and on Westworld has generated some amazing musical themes. There's a strong undercurrent of leitmotif informing the way the music flows together and the themes those motifs are built around are damned catchy--which you know if you got the joke in the genre description above.

While all of the soundtracks for GoT are very listenable, this is my favorite. It has A Lannister Always Pays His Debts, which is probably the best extant version of the Lannister House theme Rains of Castamere. Chaos Is A Ladder is the "intrigue" theme for the show. You Know Nothing is a gorgeous love theme. Mhysa is a triumphal--and seriously great--version of the Daenarys theme that morphs into the main theme of the show. The main theme also gets a lighter treatment in Dark Wings Dark Words, a dark thrum in White Walkers, and a beautiful finger-style guitar arrangement of it closes out the album called For The Realm.

The two guest songs on here aren't that interesting, The Bear And The Maiden Fair by The Hold Steady and Kerry Ingram singing It's Always Summer Under The Sea (Shereen's Song). And while strains of them pop up, this album doesn't have a good version of the Stark, Greyjoy, or Baratheon themes, if those are more your jam.

Further Listening: Seasons 1, 2, and 6 are also excellent, but for very different reasons. 2 has The National's rendition of Rains Of Castamere and Winterfell, the second half of which is the best version of the Stark theme. 1 has the definitive version of the Baratheon theme in The King's Arrival. 6 has the nearly 10-minute epic Light Of The Seven that plays during the big event that season at the Sept of Baelor. 4 is a bit of a jumble, but it includes Two Swords, which plays under the Season 4 cold open: where the sword Ice is being melted and reforged into the swords Oathkeeper and Widow's Wail. The song starts with the Stark theme, but deconstructs and morphs it into the Lannister theme as the scene plays out. It's really, expertly crafted.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

100 Albums: "Light Grenades" by Incubus

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

Artist: Incubus
Title: Light Grenades
Released: 2006
Genre: mathy alt-rock with just a soupçon of hardcore punk



Incubus reminds me of Radiohead in everything but how the music actually sounds. They're nerdy in a very musician way, artful without being artsy, edgy without being completely cynical, and their songwriting is just strange enough to make you wonder how they ever made it into the mainstream in the first place. Arrangements are complex, built around unorthodox chord voicings and time signatures. Their lyrics aren't about your usual rock staples of sex and drugs (or angst, or self-destruction, or being abused by your parents--this album came out in the 00's after all) but are more introspective, metaphorical, and overall possessing of that whiff of a B.A. in Literature. In fact, most of the time when Incubus songs don't work for me, it's because they lean too hard on the intellectualism and fail to distill a song down to its emotional core.

Light Grenades manages to walk that line, delivering complex, brainy music that also has solid hooks and a ton of heart. There's a tendency with this band to try and fill a song up with lyrics, but here singer Brandon Boyd is willing to give the important moments a little space. I particularly love Oil And Water which has sparsely-lyricked verses. Here's all of the lyrics from the first forty seconds of a less-than-four-minute song: "You and I are like oil and water, and we've been trying, trying, trying to mix it up." It's a simple, clever, and resonant in a song about a relationship that just isn't working no matter what they do. And it flows nicely into the next song Diamonds And Coal which is about a rough relationship that could work out if they'd just "give us time to shine." The big single was Anna Molly which is a great radio tune, but my favorite from the album is Dig, which is just one of the great rock love songs. Paper Shoes is another favorite. It doesn't completely work, but I find it endearing. Hell, even the weaker tracks on this album, Pendulus Threads and Light Grenades--the ones that harken back the most to Incubus's early days as a hardcore punk band--are at least fun and quick. But they're also the exception. While it frequently rocks out, the album is altogether thoughtful and emotional, willing to be mellow, and able to find the simple meaning behind the complexity.

Further Listening: A Crow Left Of The Murder is nice and angsty, and Make Yourself has their most enduring hits, but--alas--nothing out of the Incubus catalog holds up quite as well as Light Grenades does.

Monday, April 8, 2019

100 Albums: "The Colour And The Shape" by Foo Fighters

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

Artist: Foo Fighters
Title: The Colour And The Shape
Released: 1996
Genre: post-grunge hard rock



After Kurt Cobain died in 1993, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl shut himself up in a studio for a week to record a project called Foo Fighters, a collection of songs he had personally penned some years prior. He ran from instrument to instrument recording almost the entire thing himself. It was an unexpected hit, driven by singles Big Me, This is a Call, and , but the worry with these sort of projects is that they're ephemeral. Would Grohl have more than one album in him? Turns out he did, and in 1996 the band Foo Fighters released a follow-up The Colour And The Shape, which would be the band's best selling record.

One great thing about Foo Fighters is that it sounds absolutely nothing like Nirvana. Nirvana was punk, but slower. Foo Fighters inherits more from the classic hard rock of the 70s: The Knack, Tom Petty, and so forth. Grohl cites Black Flag and Bay City Rollers as influences, as well as Nirvana-frontman Kurt Cobain. It has an American vibe. TCatS was written after Grohl went through a divorce, so unlike the self-titled debut--which Grohl went to great lengths to make the songs be not about anything--it has more introspective and personal lyrics, even if they remain vague and obscure. I don't know what "For a song that's indelible like manimal" from Wind Up is supposed to mean, but I believe that he means it. The music is more assured and complex. There are some huge hooks. Monkey Wrench and My Hero were in constant radio rotation when the album came out. The biggest hit was Everlong, and it's a phenomenal song, but there are some great deep cuts. Hey Johnny Park is one of my favorites. Walking After You would be a single from the X-Files movie soundtrack, but the original mix is here. That and the mid-album diversion See You are two incredibly fun songs to play on guitar, and sport some bizarre chord fingerings--unexpected after the power chord riff-rock that dominated the debut album.

But if I had to pick one favorite, it would be New Way Home, the album closer. It progresses like a typical rock anthem for two minutes and then just drops down to nothing. It then spends nearly two full minutes slowly building up in speed and volume before exploding right around the 4 minute mark. It's an incredible way to end a record.

Further Listening: If not for my one-album-per-artist rule, There Is Nothing Left To Lose would definitely be on this list. It produced the singles Learn To Fly, Stacked Actors, and Breakout, as well as what may be my all-time favorite Foo Fighters song Gimme Stitches. My wife and I have debated at length about which actually is actually the better album, and I usually come down on that the side of that one over The Colour And The Shape, since it's poppier and bit more accessible. But just going by density of great songs, I guess I have to admit that she was right.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

100 Albums: "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John

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

Artist: Elton John
Title: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Released: 1973
Genre: classic piano-pop rock


Released at the height of his stardom in 1973, recorded on a farm in France, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a monster record. Though the CD manages to fit the entire album on a single disc, it was originally released as a double-LP. Bennie And The Jets, Candle In The Wind, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting are to this day staples of classic rock radio.

For me, this was a car album. I grew up in Houston, but my extended family lived in St. Louis, so every summer we would pile into the van and make the seventeen-hour drive between the two cities (it's shorter now that they've raised the speed limits to 70 on the highways) with a box of tapes that my dad had made of his records--all of them immaculately lettered in calligraphy because that's how Dad writes. He doesn't print. He calligraphs. I'm so used to that version of the album that I instinctively anticipate the moment where the record skips at the start of the second chorus of the title track. I would run out of steam somewhere after Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting, which the album kind of does as well. But still, this was not just a record that I listened to a lot, it was formative for me. After growing up on fare like this, a lot of "normal" rock records start to feel pretty pedestrian.

Because like much of John's oeuvre, it's an odd duck of a record. The recording process was basically thus: Bernie Taupin would write poetry and then give it to John over breakfast. John would spend the morning turning poetry into a song on the piano and then in the afternoon the rest of the band would sort out the arrangements and lay it all down on tape. But Taupin doesn't write straight-forward love songs. He tells stories. So you have an ode to Marylyn Monroe (Candle In The Wind), a song about finding fame after growing up on a farm (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road--and it's worth pointing out that this is pure Taupin; Elton John was a city boy), abstract nonsense (This Song's Got No Title), an obituary for a fictional Prohibition-era gangster (The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-34)), a song about lesbians in Catholic school (All The Girls Love Alice), an ode to silver-screen cowboys (Roy Rogers), a faux-live performance of a song about a rock band that doesn't actually exist (Bennie And The Jets), a pulpy noir dirge (I've Seen That Movie Too), and so forth. And all of this is set to John's bouncy, poppy melodies. It takes a certain type of character to sing a two-tone-flavored song called Jamaica Jerk-Off with earnestness, and that character is Sir Elton Hercules John.

Further Listening: John's catalog is substantial, so it may be easier to start with one of the several greatest hits collections he's put out. But if you want another album, Madman Across The Water is worth a listen. It drags a bit on the second half, but it's the album that gave us Tiny Dancer, John's most popular song, and also the only song that is over six minutes long and also acceptable to perform at karaoke. That album also has Levon and Goodbye, which are excellent songs. It kicked off a string of records that would produce John's most memorable hits: Honky Cat and Rocket Man from the follow-up Honky Château and Crocodile Rock and Daniel from Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player.

Also, the BBC Documentary series Classic Albums did an episode on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road which is worth watching, if notably shorter than the record it details.

Monday, April 1, 2019

100 Albums: "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" by Sarah McLachlan

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

Artist: Sarah McLachlan
Title: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
Released: 1993
Genre: adult contemporary


Before Angel, before she was the patron sainte of sadness and puppy dogs, Sarah McLachlan was known as the woman who turned a letter from a stalker into one of the most seductive pop songs of its era. The true story there is somewhat more complicated--the lyrics to Possession were inspired by mail from obsessed fans, one of whom had the sheer audacity to sue her for "stealing" his work--but the fact that the song was composed from a place of fear rather than lust is wild. Suffice it to say, lines like "I would be the one to hold you down" read very differently in a man-speaking-to-a-woman capacity than vice-versa. Whatever that has to say about gender dynamics in 1993, I leave to the listener.

I seem to recall hearing Possession on rock stations, not just Top 40 stations, but Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is in no way an alt-rock album. It's pure singer-songwriter music, constructed (as opposed to band songs, when tend to be "discovered" more than written) with arrangements that vary a lot in instrumentation despite being similarly textured. The Vm-IV-I piano pattern under the verse of Possession, trilling the suspended 4th, is the kind of progression you arrive at very naturally when composing on an acoustic guitar. Similarly the sway of a song like Ice Cream evokes strumming, even though the final version is dominated by piano and drums. The lyrics are generally pretty abstract and imagist, but they're poetic and graceful.

Possession is the clear standout on the album--a piano-only version was included as a hidden track on the CD--and I don't think anything else in her extensive catalog is quite as good as that. But McLachlan certainly knows her way around a hook, and a number of songs will have you humming along. I'm particularly a fan of PlentyGood Enough, Ice, and the title track. Apart from the opener that threatens so [checks notes] "kiss you so hard I'll take your breath away," it's a remarkably chill record.

Further Listening: I don't have any of her other albums, but I've enjoyed some of her other singles, particularly her more driving and uptempo songs like Sweet Surrender or Stupid. She also contributed When She Loved Me to Toy Story 2 (although the song was written by Randy Newman) and you cried, I cried, we all cried during that montage.