Staff Picks: Music
Do you have a list of songs that simply remind you of summer or that you dust off from their Winter hibernation to crank out on your car stereo or I-pod? I like to have a couple of compact disc mixes in my car that feature some of my go-to tracks as I trek to the lake or head to the backyard cookout. What are your favorite summertime anthems?
Pavement's Cut Your Hair
The Faces' Ooh La La
The Chi-lites' Oh Girl
Michael Jackson's I Wanna Be Where You Are
The Descendents' Silly Girl
Big Star's Thirteen
Stevie Wonder's My Cherie Amor
Seals and Croft's Summer Breeze
Wilco's She's a Jar
Best Coast's Our Deal
Neil Young's Out on the Weekend
Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over
Hall and Oates' Kiss on My List
Santo and Johnny's Blue Moon, Teardrop and Sleepwalking
In the spring of 1967, rock and roll’s primary medium was the 45 RPM single. On the first of June, the Beatles changed all that with the highly anticipated release of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP. Though no contemporary single releases were culled from the album, its songs were given heavy AM radio airplay, at a time when FM stations were few, far between, and “underground”. Through the airwaves, those songs – including “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, “When I’m Sixty-four”, and “With a Little Help From my Friends” - burrowed their way into the collective memories of all who recall those heady first days of the “summer of love”.
Touted as rock’s first “concept” LP (though I’d give that nod to the Flamingos’ 1959 magnum opus, Flamingo Serenade), the record is presented as a concert program, featuring the imaginary band for which the album’s named. The program encompasses all varieties of music – take in the symphonic grandeur of “She’s Leaving Home”, the loopy circus march of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and the Indian classicism of “Within You Without You”, among them. The band begins and ends the program with its own theme, leaving the audience with the mind-altering encore that is “A Day in the Life”. The broad stylistic brush with which the Beatles (and producer George Martin) crafted the LP may be the reason it received near-unanimous praise from “serious” music critics who’d previously disdained rock and roll’s perceived juvenilia. This critical success ensured the band even greater listenership, and ushered in the era when “rock and roll” morphed into “rock”.
Even without a 45 release (or due to the lack of one?), the LP sold strongly, placing it at number one on the Billboard 200 LP chart for 15 weeks in a row. The album it knocked out of the top slot - the Monkees' Headquarters – also contained no 45 sides. Though the “Prefab Four”’s third LP was recorded without the benefit of backing tracks crafted by session men - in partial response to charges against the band's phoniness - its intimate construct was no match for the epic studio production ascribed to the Beatles’ alter-egos.
Sgt. Pepper regularly tops “best albums of the ‘60’s” or “best albums of all-time” lists, if not always ranking at the top of Beatles’ fans' LP lists. (My own fave is Revolver.) Peter Blake’s legendary LP cover has inspired homage and parody countless times. Celebrations of (and attacks on) the LP can be found in numerous books, articles, and blog posts. What really counts is the music included. If you haven’t yet discovered Sgt. Pepper for yourself, check it out… it may become the soundtrack to your own “new summer of love”.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
My friend Chad is as fanatical about music as I am, and he and I recently began a tradition where every time we meet, we bring an album from our own collection that we think the other person should give a listen. Then the next time we're together we talk about what we heard, how we felt about it, and exchange a new CD. [EDITOR'S NOTE: If you were born in the last decade or so, a "CD" or "compact disc" is something on which old people bought music before the Internet made purchasing tangible objects uncool.] Swapping music allows us to introduce each other to certain artists or albums that might be of interest to the other, and sometimes it offers insight into our own personal experiences. Often it sparks great discussions about particular eras of music, as it did recently when we each began trying to assemble a list of the best albums of the 1990s. [EDITOR'S NOTE: If you recently learned what a "compact disc" is, then you'll probably need to know that the "1990s" was a decade that happened a reeeeally long time ago. Just Google "Hammer pants."]
The 90s was a big decade for Chad and I - it's when we "came of age." [EDITOR'S NOTE: "Coming of age" means the period of time during which a person matures from being a child into young adult. Often this involves going off into the woods with your childhood friends to find a dead body and poke it with a stick.] It was the halcyon days of Gen-X, witness to the birth of grunge, and it introduced to the world to the term "alternative" as a genre (which very quickly became a misnomer). Music is a crucial part of both our lives, and while I don't have a completed list to show - I'm still working on it - I thought I'd reveal some of the albums that will be making my list. Perhaps if any of them are ones with which you're not familiar, you could check them out, give 'em a few spins, and let me know what you think.
To start, you can't talk about the 90s without mentioning the highly influential artists who shaped the grunge and alternative scenes. Of course the poster boys for grunge were Nirvana; Nevermind will definitely hold a high spot on my list, and In Utero will probably be on there somewhere as well. Pearl Jam were also alt-rock trailblazers; Ten will likely rank higher than its name and Vs. will probably crack the top twenty. Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream will be highly ranked; Chad's also fond of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness. Live's Throwing Copper is a classic, as is Stone Temple Pilots' Purple. I have a hard time choosing whether I like Alice in Chains' Facelift or Dirt more.
Other popular rock albums that are likely to make my best-of list are Radiohead's OK Computer, Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, Blues Traveler's Four, U2's Achtung Baby, Collective Soul's Dosage, and the Indigo Girls' Rites of Passage. Jeff Buckley's Grace blows my mind every time I hear it. On the heavier side, there's Metallica's self-titled "black" album, Megadeth's Rust in Peace, Queensryche's Empire, and Monster Magnet's Powertrip.
Some of my favorite artists had their best albums in the 90s. Tori Amos gave us Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink; Our Lady Peace put out Naveed and Clumsy; Toad the Wet Sprocket had Fear and Dulcinea. Let's not forget the Counting Crows, who had the one-two punch of August and Everything After and Recovering the Satellites. I can't even begin to figure out how to rank the Dave Matthews Band's Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash, and Before These Crowded Streets. And, of course, giving them all competition for a top slot is the genius that is Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral.
There are plenty more I haven't mentioned, but if you're not familiar with any of them, I suggest checking them out. They will be a good starting point for either a trip down memory lane or a music history lesson-depending on whether or not you're from the generation that was born attached to a smartphone. [EDITOR'S NOTE: If you don't know what a "smartphone" is, chances are you've wandered away from the home and the nurses are worried sick because you're overdue for your medicine. How on Earth did you figure out how to use this computer?] Meanwhile, please use the comments section below to share some of your favorite albums from the 90s. Chad and I are always looking for exciting music to discuss.
When Adam “MCA” Yauch of the Beastie Boys died of cancer at the age of 47 on May 4, I immediately remembered when I first heard the band’s breakthrough release Licensed to Ill. I was working at a small town record store in a commuter town just outside of Detroit and it was standard practice for record companies to send music for in store promotion. When I unboxed that week’s offerings, I was immediately drawn not only to the iconic image of an airplane, but also the band’s name. Immediately I tore off the shrink wrap and dropped the needle on the vinyl. Until that moment I had no interest in rap or hip-hop, but the Beastie Boys’ rhymes instantly stole away my 15 year-old disdain for this style of music. MCA’s gruff atypical rap style on the record specifically drew me into Licensed to Ill. When he raps “That hypocrite smokes two packs a day…” on “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party),” MCA was letting me know that he sympathized with the mixed messages adults often dispense. There is really not a weak track on this record and for years the cassette was a constant companion as I traversed the hell that was adolescence. “Paul Revere,” “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “Girls” were all played at high volumes that year. After hearing of Yauch’s death I celebrated his contribution to both music and my teen years by driving down Westnedge Ave., “Brass Monkey” blasting from my car.
The two-piece band from Baltimore, Beach House, just gets better and better with each new album. Their newest release (May), the hypnotic Bloom, possesses a poise and astuteness that builds upon their previous work but that now also exhibits a fully realized sound of their own without any trace of trepidation or pandering. The songs on Bloom are sweetly coated with a luster of shimmering reverb, beautiful melodies and thoughtfully crafted lyrics that shift from the abstract image to the wistful. Beach House’s sonic pallet mixes the indulgence of despair and sadness with heartening melodies that allow for songs to flower from a place of murky, melancholic stasis to an enchanted dreamland of unique splendor. Fans of the Cocteau Twins, The Cure, and My Bloody Valentine will appreciate Bloom’s woozy exquisiteness. Check out the entire album for a limited time at NPR.org or reserve it now through the KPL catalog. Author Search: Beach House.
I stumbled upon Gary Clark Jr., and his new EP Bright Lights, by chance one night, in the midst of viewing clips from one of the recent Crossroads guitar festivals (hosted by Eric Clapton). In all honesty, I’m not easily impressed by most young blues and blues-rock guitarists. They have a nasty habit of sounding very rehashed and generic to me, lacking authenticity and individuality in their sound. Gary, however, blew me over immediately with all the right vibes.
The sound is something like a swirl of R&B meets Hendrix, with even a little bit of Hip-Hop flair thrown in occasionally for good measure. The riffs also aren’t afraid to dance into the territory of Midwest rock bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys. The man and his music have some serious “swag”; there’s no denying that. It’s the kind of sound that just oozes with credibility and legitimacy.
Gary’s clearly not trying to be anyone other than himself, and it shows. As a result, I’ve come to realize that Gary is now one of my favorite electric guitarists in the “young-gun”, 40 and under age bracket (one of my bandmates being my other main favorite, but I’m going to just say he doesn’t count…for now).
In short: Gary's definitely worth checking out if you're into something unique, soulful, and all types of awesome!
The bright lights EP
The Sleigh Bells have a very simplistic, musical formula: borrow heavily from the metal school of big, catchy guitar riffs (see: Slayer), loop in some heavy, pre-recorded beats and synthesizers for a rhythmic foundation, and finish things off with a not-as-good-as-Karen O vocalist, who goes back in forth between cooing and singing and you have their first two albums (Treats and Reign of Terror). I suspect that a third record of similar songs constructed with this formula will likely lose its short-term, hipster fizz but for now, if you’re looking for catchy, vacuous, Summertime anthems that meet today's zeitgeist requirements, then check out this buzzed about two-piece from Brooklyn. Best song—End of the Line.
Reign of terror
It was the Library & Information Sciences that set me on the path to becoming a massive fan of the progressive metal band Mastodon. While I was getting my graduate degree, I did an audiovisual purchasing project that involved selecting and budgeting for materials that would be desirable to add to a library’s collection based on such factors as expected demographical popularity, cultural significance, and critical acclaim. This involved a lot of research and reading of reviews for recent movies and music, and one of the items that kept popping up on my radar was an album called Crack the Skye by the aforementioned sludge rockers. Feedback for the release was phenomenal, and it was carrying an impressively high average score at critical aggregator site Metacritic. So when I saw the CD at Target for ten bucks, I snapped it up, figuring my metal-loving ears would investigate the buzz for themselves.
And love it I did. Skye is a concept album with seven songs, a couple of which run over ten minutes, and its story has something to do with astral projection, wormholes, Tsarist Russia, and a paraplegic who ends up in the body of Rasputin—exactly the kind of bizarrely ridiculous plot that makes prog rock so wonderfully enjoyable. I was hooked from the very first opening track, “Oblivion,” through the last note of the last song called “The Last Baron.” I had heard one or two songs of Mastodon’s before—I think an older single called “Colony of Birchmen” was on Rock Band—but from what I could tell, Skye represented a leap forward in maturity, accessibility, and ambition. The songwriting was intricate, the guitar work masterful, and each song was a uniquely memorable piece of the overall puzzle.
Mastodon followed up Skye with last year’s The Hunter, an album that I listed as one of the best albums of 2011 right here on KPL’s website. I’ve been listening to it consistently since it came out, and the more time I spend with it, the more I’m convinced it’s one of the best metal albums in a decade. The sound is more stripped down than on previous releases and the songwriting is more nuanced. There’s not a moment of filler on the album, as each track has a distinct ferocity, powerful lyrics, and a rich hook. My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing Mastodon perform at the Intersection in Grand Rapids this past Saturday night where they played all but one track off the album. They blew the roof off the place and I was a happy, happy headbanger.
So if you’re a metal fan (or like your alternative rock on the heavy side), check out The Hunter and Crack the Skye. I’m starting to work my way through their older material now—and loving every minute of it!
The Monkees’ first chart hit featuring Davy Jones as lead singer, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”, was also the last of its kind. Featuring no musical input from any of the band members other than its vocalist’s, the single’s pre-fabricated nature was at odds with the group’s growing interest in having more creative input, as writers and musicians, on their own recordings.
Assembled in 1966 to star in a TV series about the fictional exploits of a struggling rock combo, the Monkees were considered actors first and foremost, despite their musical credentials. Music biz veteran Don Kirshner provided the music for the first season’s episodes and related record releases. Working under his supervision, Brill Building tunesmiths crafted pop confections honed to perfection in the recording studio by a who’s who of ace session musicians. With few exceptions, the Monkees’ only contributions to these tracks – distinctly appealing as they are – were their vocal tracks.
The formula proved so successful, demand for live appearances by the band grew, and the fictional band found themselves becoming an active performing unit by the start of the new year. Prepared to record their songs as their own instrumental accompanists, the band was surprised to discover that Kirshner had released his production of the Neil Diamond-penned “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” as a 45 without their permission. This move led to Kirshner’s dismissal as musical supervisor of the Monkees project, and paved the way for the band’s first recordings on their own.
This behind-the-scenes drama went unnoticed at the time, and Monkees fans sent the single up the charts by mid-spring of 1967. While the band’s next recordings didn’t abandon the sunshine pop sounds that helped establish them, a wider range of styles and experimentation would begin to appear on their records, especially once their TV series ended after its second season. Pre-fab or homegrown, the consistency of the band’s recordings defines a true “Monkees sound”, and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” is one of its best examples.
I'm a Believer and Other Hits
I was thrilled to finally check out the newest CD from electronic music legend Thomas Dolby, A Map of the Floating City, but not because I wanted to hear his new music. The reason was the album cover because it was designed by local artist and award-winning comic creator, Paul Sizer. Dolby could not have selected a better designer than Sizer to create a cover that conveyed his feeling of a “dystopian vision of the 1940s that might have existed had WWII turned out a lot differently.” Sizer has a strong history of crafting books like Little White Mouse and Moped Army, with bleak futures that contain strong characters not only struggling for survival, but also fighting for what is right. His “steampunk” style of art works extremely well with Dolby’s theme for the CD. It will remind you classic pulp fiction that Sizer has expertly updated for today’s fan. Paul can now add awesome album cover designer to his resume. I will now go listen to the CD.
A Map of the Floating City