Thursday, February 23, 2012



Lou Reed has created a diverse body of work and opened the door to a more literary form of song writing that is framed by a rock sound that is powerful, influential, and still revolutionary today. Reed left the Velvet Underground in 1970 and recorded his first solo album simply titled Lou Reed. The album contains I Can't Stand It and Lisa Says, and a beautiful version of Ocean. Transformer was released in 1972. David Bowie and Mick Ronson co-produced the album and introduced Reed to a wider audience. The hit single Walk On The Wild Side was both a salute and critique of misfits, hustlers, and transvestites in Warhol's Factory. The album's sound was a change for Reed as Perfect Day used delicate strings and soaring dynamics. In 1973, Reed released Berlin which was one of his most powerful and moving recordings. It is a tragic rock opera about two junkies in love and details their disintegration with stories of domestic abuse, drug addiction, adultery, prostitution, and suicide. Berlin differs greatly from most Reed albums as it uses orchestral arrangements, horns, and top session musicians, with Reed only playing acoustic guitar and providing the dark vocals. This is my favorite Lou Reed solo album as it produces a strong emotional experience. Anyone who has ever had a relationship gone wrong should be able to relate to this album. Listening to it is like experiencing the pain and anguish of a bitter breakup. In 1974, Reed went a different direction and put out an excellent live album, Rock 'n' Roll Animal. This record contained seminal versions of Sweet Jane, Rock and Roll, and Heroin with a hard rock band complete with blistering guitar solos. Over the years Lou Reed has continued to make interesting and experimental music and some other excellent albums include Street Hassle, The Blue Mask, Songs For Drella, and Magic and Loss. 


One critic described Tom Waits voice as sounding like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car. His style is certainly distinctive as he incorporates blues, jazz, vaudeville, and experimental industrial sounds into his music. He has also worked as a composer for movies and musical plays and has acted in numerous films. His songs often present a portrait of grotesque, down-and-out characters in carnival-like and junkyard settings. Waits is influenced by Jack Kerouac, Louis Armstrong, Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, and Charles Bukowski and used elements from all of these artists in creating his idiosyncratic sound. The first Tom Waits album that had a huge impact on me was Small Change that came out in 1976. The album was an attempt at a resolution of the cocktail lounge, down-and-out drunk persona that Waits had projected. The mood is more pessimistic and cynical, but still heavily influenced by jazz. There are many excellent songs on this record including Tom Traubert's Blues, Step Right Up/The Piano Has Been Drinking, and Invitation to the Blues. Blue Valentine (1978) puts more focus on electric guitar and keyboards. The album has a dark, smoky, blues sound and is full of great instrumental performances and Waits' trademark growl. Swordfishtrombones came out in 1983, and marked a sharp turn in Waits' musical direction. Up to this point he had played guitar and piano, but now started gravitating towards less common instruments, including bagpipes, the basson, the waterphone, the marimba, pump organs, and various percussion instruments. He was now including primal blues, cabaret, rumbas, tango, early country, Tin Pan Alley, and more theatrical elements into his work. This experiment with a new sound continued with one of his greatest albums Rain Dogs (1985). It was a sprawling collection of 19 songs and included guitar work by Marc Ribot, Robert Quine, and Keith Richards.There are several great tunes on this record including Singapore, Clap Hands, Jockey Full of Bourbon, Time, Gun Street Girl,  and Downtown Train. All of his records are interesting and they include Frank's Wild Years, Bone Machine, The Mule Variations, Orphans, Real Gone, and the recent Bad As Me. Tom Waits has composed a body of work that is a sensitive and sympathetic chronicler of the adrift and downtrodden. He creates three-dimensional characters who, even in their confusion and despair, are capable of insight and startling points of view. This is combined with a musical experimentation that creates sonic works of art that are totally unique.


Brian Eno is a musician, composer, music producer, and visual artist and is one of the principle innovators of ambient music. He was an original member of the art rock band Roxy Music, playing keyboards and synthesizers. He appears on their first two excellent albums which were influential towards a more experimental and sophisticated sound known as glam, and would also be influential on the punk scene to come. In 1973, Eno started his solo career and made the art rock albums Here Come The Warm Jets (1973) and Taking Tiger Mountain (1974). Here Come The Warm Jets was even more quirky and experimental than the Roxy Music albums and featured Robert Fripp of King Crimson. The song Baby's On Fire became a staple of the glam movement. During this period Eno also collaborated with Fripp on No Pussyfooting (1973), which was a record of long, electronic, experimental, sonic beauty, and totally instrumental. It paved the way for Eno's ambient works to come. He produced several works in 1975 including Another Green World, which fused the ambient elements with art rock, Discreet Music which was totally ambient, and second collaboration with Fripp called Evening Star that continued their experiments. Before and After Science (1977) would be his last rock oriented album of the 70s, as his ambient sonic landscapes started consuming more of his time and he produced a series of records beginning with Ambient 1: Music For Airports in 1978. The music was designed to be continuously looped as a sound installation, with the intent to diffuse the tense atmosphere of the terminal. Eno conceived the idea after getting stuck in the Cologne airport for several hours and became extremely annoyed by the uninspired sound atmosphere. Next came the beautiful album Music For Films (1978), which was a conceptual work intended as a soundtrack for imaginary films. Now that the ground was broken for ambient music, Eno would go on to create many other works often in collaboration. The people he worked with included Harold Budd, John Hassle, John Cale, Cluster, and David Byrne of Talking Heads. Their collaboration My Life In The Bush of Ghosts (1981) produced a totally unique work of musical art. Eno saw himself as a non-musician and coined the term "treatments" to describe his modification of the sounds of instruments. His skill in using the studio as a compositional tool led him to become a sought after producer, and he worked on several albums for Talking Heads, David Bowie, and U2, among many others. Eno is also a visual artist producing conceptual works and video art. 77 Million Paintings was first released in 2006, and is a program of gererative video and music made specifically for the personal computer. It uses video slides in random combinations, and the music is programmed so the viewer/listener will probably never hear the same thing twice. Brian Eno is one of the most influential artists of all time, and altered the ways in which music is approached, composed, performed, and perceived, and several forms of music including rock, punk, techno, electronic, and new age were all influenced by his ideas and approaches.


Kraftwerk is an influential electronic music band from Dusseldorf, Germany. Kraftwerk means power plant or power station and the band was formed by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider in 1970. Their sound combines driving, repetitive rhythms with catchy melodies, mainly following a Western Classical style of harmony, with minimalistic and strictly electronic instrumentation. Their simplified lyrics are often sung through a vocoder or generated by computer-speech software. When they emerged their sound made them revolutionary pioneers of electronic music and had a huge influence on modern music to come. Their first two records Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2 were mostly exploratory jam music using audio-tape manipulation and multiple dubbings and other modifications. Ralf und Florian came out in 1973, and the band moved closer to their signature sound, relying more on synthesizers and drum machines. The album was mostly instrumental but featured their first use of the vocoder. Konrad Plank was highly significant in the early period with his input as a studio engineer. He also worked with other German electronic pioneers including Can, Neu!, Cluster, and Harmonia. Their breakthrough album was Autobahn which came out in 1974. It is not a completely electronic album as it uses violin, flute, and guitar along with the synthesizers. The title track uses both untreated and vocoded vocals and is intended to capture the feeling of driving on the Autobahn. The piece captures the feeling of travelling through the landscape, moving at high speeds, tuning the radio, and experiencing the monotony of a long trip. They used a Minimoog, an ARP Odyssey, and an EMS Synthi AKS, along with other devices of the group's own design. After the success of Autobahn, each subsequent album would have a central theme and because the band members had a shared interest in radio communication they came out with Radio-Activity in 1975. It was the first album to use the Vako Orchestron keyboard which produced choir, string, and organ sounds. Trans-Europe Express came out in 1977 and Man-Machine in 1978 and the band's sound had changed somewhat by putting more focus on electronic mechanized rhythms, minimalism, and manipulated vocals. Computer World came out in 1981 and dealt with the rise of computers within society and produced the beautiful Computer Love that was released as a single with The Model (from Man-Machine) on the other side. The sequencing and beats on this album would influence music in many genres including hip hop. In April, Kraftwerk will perform 8 albums in their entirety on different nights starting with Autobahn, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


There were several bands to emerge with a new sound in the mid to late 70s including Patti Smith, The Ramones, and Television in New York, and The Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, and The Clash in England, but my favorite group that came out at this time was Talking Heads. From 1974-1978, I hardly even listened to rock music, as I had become obsessed with jazz. A friend turned me on to the album More Songs About Buildings and Food and I was hooked. Talking Heads combined elements of punk, art rock, avant-garde, pop, funk, world into a unique musical art. David Byrne was the frontman and songwriter and contributed whimsical and esoteric lyrics to the band's songs. Even though they achieved commercial success, they maintained their artistic integrity. Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth had all gone to The Rhode Island School of Design and formed the band, eventually moving to New York and sharing a communal loft. Weymouth learned to play bass and they started playing at CBGB in 1975. They signed with Sire records in 1977 and their first single was Love > Building On Fire. They added Jerry Harrison who played keyboards and guitar, and who had formerly played with Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers. Their debut album was Talking Heads 77, and contained several odd and ironic songs including Don't Worry About The Government and Psycho Killer. Brian Eno produced their second album More Songs About Buildings and Food which came out in 1978, and his ideas meshed with the artistic sensibilities of the band. More Songs combined a funky bass, bubblegum, country, reggae, and punk into a record that was unique and addictive. The Talking Heads also sung about things that  would not normally be found in pop/rock music. I was in art school at the time and related to the song Artist's Only. You Can't See It, Till It's Finished! Another song Found A Job, was about a couple who scout movie locations, and The Big Country is told by Byrne as he flies across the American landscape. The one hit from the album was a cover of Al Green's soul, gospel tune Take Me To The River, but done with a totally unique approach. More Songs is one of my favorite rock albums of all time. Next came Fear of Music which had a darker edge and had subliminal references to geopolitical instability. There were several excellent songs on the album including Life During Wartime, Cities, and the dark dirge-like Drugs. Remain In Light came out in 1980, and was influenced by funk and the afrobeat of the Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti. The music incorporated African polyrythms, Arabic elements, disco funk, and found voices into the songs. It was a very unique and dynamic album and produced the hit, Once In A Lifetime. In order to play the more complex arrangements the band toured with an expanded group, that included the guitarist Adrian Belew, the keyboardist Bernie Worrell, plus additional backup singers and percussionists. The band would make four more studio albums which included Speaking In Tongues, Little Creatures, True Stories, and Naked which would all explore a variety of new influences. Talking Heads became quite prominent with the concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), directed by Jonathan Demme. Talking Heads disbanded after Naked in 1988, but David Byrne still produces recordings as a solo artist, and Frantz and Weymouth make records as Tom Tom Club. Jerry Harrison has produced albums for several other artists. 


Joy Division came together in 1976 in Manchester, England and consisted of Ian Curtis on vocals and guitar, Bernard Sumner on guitar and keyboards, Peter Hook on bass and backing vocals, and Stephen Morris on drums and percussion. Their name came from the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel The House of Dolls. They evolved from the punk inflected hard rock of the Sex Pistols to a sound that pioneered the post-punk movement of the late 70s that emphasized mood and expression and pointed the way to a more melancholy alternative music. Their originality came from slowing the songs down giving it a more sparse quality. Hook's bass carried the melody, Sumner's guitar left space instead of filling up the sound with density, and Morris' drums seemed to circle the rim of a crater. Ian Curtis' voice was full and deep and isolated in the middle of the music. This created a sound that still contained the darkness of punk, but also produced a spacious haunting atmosphere where each instrument was distinct. Curtis was the main force behind the lyrics and content of Joy Division. While the songs and sounds point towards the goth movement, they are not fantasies, but come from the drab realism and industrial grime of Manchester and are about a working-class young man trying to make sense out of the world in which he lives. Musically he was influenced by Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, and the punk movement. He was also interested in literature and even some songs were titled after books - Interzone (William Burroughs), Atrocity Exhibition (JG Ballard), Dead Souls (Gogol), and Colony (Franz Kafka). Unknown Pleasures was released in 1979. The album is dark, angry, and aggressive at times, with slower dirges at others, but with a hypnotic rhythm throughout. All ten songs are stone cold and the album is a monument to passion and cathartic despair. Songs fade in and out from electronic noises and sound effects of motion and activity. There is a sense of doom and the feeling of a coming disaster. New Dawn Fades starts off with Hook's deep warm bass and is an emotional powerhouse foreshadowing Curtis' suicide. Curtis sings throughout with fear, desire, and a need to connect, yet lost in a storm of loneliness. She's Lost Control was inspired by Curtis witnessing a young woman have an epileptic seizure of which he was also afflicted and with Sumner's repetitive guitar creating a trance-like death dance. Hook' s bass again leads us into the romance in hell of Shadowplay with the beautiful guitar architecture of Sumner and the driving force of Morris' drumming. Even though Joy Division was starting to gain success, Curtis was spiraling downward. He was suffering from epilepsy, a failing marriage and bouts of depression. On stage he would sometimes dance in an epileptic fashion and even passed out on stage at times. He committed suicide by hanging himself on May 18, 1980. Closer came out in July 1980. It's hard to believe an album could be darker than Unknown Pleasures but Closer was like a resignation to life, depicting a disintegrating world. Musically it was more diverse and sprawling with keyboards and sound effects taking a more prominent role than on Unknown Pleasures. The songs sound more chopped up and fragmented and Sumner added teeth-grinding guitar riffs. It starts off with Atrocity Exhibition, followed by Isolation, Passover, Colony, and Means To An End. The introductory bass of Hooks leads into the darkness of Heart and Soul. Curtis seems to be retreating deeper into the mix. Twenty Four Hours is a final demonstration of tension/release or soft/loud appoach with Curtis in his final resignation as he is starting to slip away. A buzzing synth with a slow bass march and piano open The Eternal. You can see the funeral procession moving through the streets to the cemetery in the voice and lyrics of Curtis. The album ends with Decades with a funeral-like organ and bone-like drums and evokes an after-life quality. The last four songs on Closer are some of the most emotionally powerful songs in rock music.


Pere Ubu is an underground, experimental rock band that emerged in the mid-70s in Cleveland. They are named for the protagonist of Ubu Roi, a play by the French writer Alfred Jarry. They have never been widely popular, but have a devoted following and have always been critically acclaimed. Once described as the world's only expressionist rock band, Pere Ubu described themselves with the term avant-garage. They were influenced by experimental avant-garde music and by raw, blues influenced garage rock. They were interested in mood, drama, energy, subtlety, and imagination, not rock cliche. The singer and leader of the group is David Thomas, but the band has gone through many changes over the years. The original line-up was Thomas (vocals), Peter Laughner (Guitar), Tim Wright (bass), Scott Krauss (drums), and Alen Ravenstine (synthesizer). Their early work in monumental and like no other rock music ever. Their first singles were 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, Heart of Darkness, Final Solution, and Cloud 149. They used a rhythmic  pulse that was similar to Krautrock, but Thomas' yelping, howling, and desperate singing was unique and peculiar compared to other rock singers. Their songs mixed garage rock and surf music as if they were being distorted in a funhouse mirror, and the lyrics emphasized angst, loneliness, and paranoia. The music had a strange demented quality and was overlayed by Ravenstine's ominous EML synthesizer effects and tape loops of various found sounds. While most synthesizer players tended to play the instrument like a piano or organ, Ravenstine was totally original and opted to make sounds that were like spooky sound effects from science fiction films, as he was influenced by electronic music and music concrete. Tom Herman replaced Laughner on guitar, and Tony Maimone had come aboard for Wright on bass, and their first album The Modern Dance came out in 1978, which continued their experimental style meshed with solid noisy guitar rock. The Modern Dance, Real World, and Humor Me are standouts, with Sentimental Journey being the most experimental song on the album. Their next record was Dub Housing (1979), which was even darker and more difficult than The Modern Dance. There were bleak soundscapes such as Codex and Caligari's Mirror, bouncy art-rock songs like Navvy, and the surreal big beat of Pa Ubu Dance Party. Pere Ubu indulged in arty dissonance and experimented with song structures, but were still a rock and roll band. Herman's guitar work is strong and polished as it moves from assertive riffing to assaultive noise. Ravenstine colors the sound with ominous whooshes and distortions. David Thomas' singing is front and center as he his part comic foil and part raging madman. He expresses himself with hiccups, yodels, and screeches. The Modern Dance and Dub Housing along with the early singles are classic slices of art-punk and great recordings. Pere Ubu is still producing work today and some of the excellent albums they have made include New Picnic Time, The Art of Walking, The Tenement Year, and Story of My LIfe.


The Residents are an art collective known for their avant-garde music and multimedia works. Throughout the group's existence the members have attempted to operate under anonymity, so attention will be focused on their art and music. In concert they appear costumed, often wearing eyeball helmets, top hats, and tuxedos to cover their identity. They create a music of complex conceptual pieces, composed around a theme, a theory, or plot, and in other works they deconstruct Western popular music. Their music is not conventional as they use surrealistic lyrics and sound, and over the top, theatrical spectacle in their live performances. Because of their desire to remain cryptic and obscure its difficult to know how the band originated. Supposedly, they hail from Shreveport, LA, but somehow ended up in San Francisco where they experimented with tape machines and photography. In 1972, they formed Ralph Records and started making albums. Ralph Records also produced the music of Tuxedomoon and Snakefinger. They released Meet The Residents, Not Available, The Third Reich 'n Roll, and Fingerprince throughout the 70s and all of these recordings were based on different themes. Not Available was based on N. Senada's Theory of Obscurity, and Third Reich 'n Roll took recordings of classic rock songs and spliced, overdubbed, and added new vocals and tape noises to the music. Next came the excellent Duck Stab/Buster and Glen which contained shorter, more accessible, yet still bizarre songs such as Constantinople, Bach Is Dead, and Hello Skinny and featured Phil "Snakefinger" Lithman on guitar. Eskimo was a return to the conceptual work where The Residents create an aural history of the Inuit, even though the work is made up of gibberish and sound effects made on homemade instruments. In 1980, they released Diskomo which is a hilarious disco version of Eskimo. In the same year they released my personal favorite, The Commercial Album. The original version consists of 40 one minute pop songs and they are minimal, beautiful, and strange. The album has contributions from Chris Cutler, Snakefinger, Fred Frith, Lene Lovich, and Andy Partridge. One song is title Red Rider, and simply describes a woman with red hair passing on a red bicycle. The songs are like snapshots or little slices of life. The Residents are still producing unique music and visual art today and can occasionally still be seen live in their cryptic costumes. Some other excellent works include God In Three Persons, Freak Show, Wormwood: Curious Stories From The Bible, and Icky Flix.


U2 formed in Ireland in the late 70s, and their early sound was rooted in post-punk but eventually grew to incorporate influences from many genres of popular music. Over time they became one of the world's most popular bands and have always had the same members which include Paul Hewson (Bono) on vocals, Dave Evans (The Edge) on guitar, Adam Clayton on bass, and Larry Mullen, Jr. on drums. They have maintained a sound based on melodic instrumentals, highlighted by The Edge's textural guitar playing and Bono's expressive vocals. Their songs contain references to spiritual imagery, and focus on personal themes and sociopolitical concerns. There first record Boy came out in 1980 and contained the single I Will Follow. October (1981) placed an emphasis on spirituality and religion as seen with the song Gloria. Their third record War (1982) focused on politics and dealt with the physical aspects of warfare, and its emotional after-effects. Sunday Bloody Sunday and New Year's Day were dynamic and moving songs and became staples of the band's repertoire. U2 took a huge leap in 1984, with the release of The Unforgettable Fire. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois had been brought in to produce the album and it added ambient and more abstract elements to their rock structures. The album had a rich and orchestrated sound and the rhythm section flowed in support of the songs. It is a beautiful and emotional album and contains the songs Bad and Pride (In The Name of Love) which is about Martin Luther King. The next record The Joshua Tree (1987) built on the experiments of The Unforgettable Fire, but also had a connection to American and Irish roots music. Another excellent album it contained the songs The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, and With or Without You, plus the powerful and intense Bullet The Blue Sky. Rattle and Hum continued U2's interest in American music and had both live and studio songs and contained a collaboration with BB King called When Love Comes To Town. U2 now felt they were at a crossroads and they made another stylistic change with Achtung Baby which was inspired by living in Berlin at the time of The Wall coming down. Eno and Lanois were again producing and The Edge and Bono were inspired by European industrial music and electronic dance music and wanted to move the new material in that direction. Clayton and Mullen were not so sure, but the writing and recording of the song One became a breakthrough in the sessions. Achtung Baby is an excellent album that redirected the band and the songs were more personal and introspective. It contained the great songs The Fly, Mysterious Ways, One, Even Better Than The Real Thing, and Until The End of the World, and established U2 as one of the world's greatest rock bands. U2 has gone on to make excellent and interesting music and there are great songs on any of their albums. They also often did offbeat collaborations like The Wanderer which was done with Johnny Cash and included on Zooropa. Another interesting work, was a collaboration with Luciano Pavarotti which produced the song Miss Sarajevo at the time of the war in Bosnia. Since the turn of the century they have produced three studio albums all full of excellent and interesting songs. U2 has a signature sound fueled by The Edge's unique guitar style and the voice of Bono, which produces a music of high emotional impact.


Nick Cave is an Australian singer/songwriter who is also an author, screenwriter, composer, and occasional actor. His music with the bands The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds is known for its gothic, challenging lyrics and violent sound influenced by jazz, blues, and post-punk, and characterised by emotional intensity and obsessions with religion, death, love and violence. The Birthday Party moved to London and then West Berlin in the early 80s and became notorious for their provocative live performances which featured Cave shreiking and throwing himself about the stage, backed by harsh pounding rock laced with guitar feedback. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds formed in 1983, and included the multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey and the guitarist Blixa Bargeld. Their early work - From Here To Eternity (1984), The Firstborn Is Dead (1985), Your Funeral, My Trial (1986), and Tender Prey (1988) had primarily a post-punk sound, but as time progressed, they begin to incorporate more refined singer-songwriter elements into the music. There are some great songs on the early records including a cover of Leonard Cohen's Avalanche, Saint Huck, From Here To Eternity, The Carney, Hard On For Love, and The Mercy Seat. With The Good Son (1990) Cave started experimenting with piano-driven ballads. The album was seeped in sorrow and longing and was more refined and understated and contained the excellent songs The Weeping Song and The Ship Song. Henry's Dream (1992) and Let Love In (1994) balanced hard vicious angry rock with graceful restraint. My favorite record by Cave is the monumental Murder Ballads which came out in 1996. All of the songs center around the theme of murder and include two dark, gorgeous ballads - one, Henry Lee with PJ Harvey, and the other, Where The Wild Roses Grow with Kylie Minogue. There are also the shocking and sizzling narratives Stagger Lee and O'Malley's Bar, and the beautiful Song of Joy and Death Is Not The End. Nick Cave continues to create music and has also published two novels and contributed the soundtrack music to the films The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Road.


Sonic Youth was part of the first wave of noise rock groups that emerged in the post-punk era, that also included Swans and Live Skull. They expressed a wide variety of influences, ranging from Patti Smith and hardcore punk, Iggy Pop, Joni Mitchell, to the composers John Cage and Glenn Branca. They used a wide-variety of unorthodox guitar tunings, and prepared their guitars with objects like drumsticks and screwdrivers to alter the timbre of the instrument. Sonic Youth are considered by many as pivotal in the rise of  alternative rock and indie rock. The band members are Thurston Moore (guitar and vocals), Kim Gordon (bass, vocals, guitar), Lee Renaldo (guitar and vocals), and after a handful of drummers that included Richard Edson and Bob Bert, Steve Shelley took over on the drums. Jim O'Rourke and Mark Ibold have played with them on their later work. After a couple of recordings Sonic Youth and Confusion Is Sex, Sonic Youth released Bad Moon Rising in 1984. It was a self-described Americana album that served as a reaction to the state of the nation at the time. The record is full of pounding rhythms and walls of feedback and featured Lydia Lunch on the killer Death Valley 69, which references Charles Manson. Bad Moon Rising was at times more conventional than their more atonal and abrasive work, but still powerful and intense. Sonic Youth signed with SST Records and released EVOL in 1986, which contained the monster song Expressway To Yr Skull, and was positively referred to as the aural equivalent of a toxic waste dump. Sister came out in 1987, and was a continuation of refining their blend of pop song structures with an uncompromising experimentalism. Sister is in part inspired by the science fiction writer Philip K Dick who's fraternal twin sister died shortly after her birth, and whose memory haunted Dick his entire life. On Sister, the collage of noise, distortion, and alternative tunings are used to provide texture and depth to the music, which is complex and original. Their next album Daydream Nation (1988) is considered their masterpiece and gained them accolades and brought them into the limelight. The double album alternates between tense, hypnotic instrumentals and furious noise explosions. The record has a large range of emotions and textures, and is like one single piece of shifting dynamics. There are several remarkable songs including Teen Age Riot, Silver Rocket, Eric's Trip, and Providence. The cover features a painting by Gerhard Richter. The success of Daydream Nation led to a major label deal with Geffen Records and in 1990, they released Goo which had the single Kool Thing featuring Chuck D from the rap/hip hop group Public Enemy. Their next two albums were Dirty (1992) that included the song Youth Against Fascism, and Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994) which featured the song Bull In The Heather. They also released a cover version of the song Superstar, that was a hit for The Carpenters in 1971. Washing Machine came out in 1995, and includes the song The Diamond Sea, which is one of my favorite pieces by Sonic Youth. At over 19 minutes in length, it is a microcosm of the groups sound, and uses dissonance in a beautiful and powerful way. Sonic Youth continues to make excellent music in their own idiosyncratic way. Their later albums include A Thousand Leaves, NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, Rather Ripped, and The Eternal. They have also released many recordings on their own SYR label that are even more experimental than their Sonic Youth recordings. 


I can't say I'm an expert or heavily into rap and hip hop, but Public Enemy has always impressed me with their dynamic layered sound and politically charged lyrics that create a musical art of great emotional power. The main members are Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and Professor Griff, and they released their debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987, which was mean and minimalist and contained a throbbing pulse that was accented by the scratching of DJ Terminator X. The music was raw and confrontational and established them as the voice of a community that distilled black anger and resistance. Next came one of the most important rap/hip hop records ever, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, which came out in 1988. The album was like a molotov cocktail. The content of their lyrics was still social, political, and surreal, but the sound created by the production team, The Bomb Squad, was developed into a dense and chaotic production style that relied on found sounds and avant-garde noise as well as old-school funk. The album used droning feedback, shards of rock guitar, James Brown horn samples, and the free jazz elements of Coltrane and Coleman. The music integrated lyrical content, vocal tone, sample density and layering, and scratch deconstruction into a sound that moved at a high velocity. Chuck D was a powerful rapper and Hank Shocklee, who directed The Bomb Squad, wanted a sound that could sonically stand up to him. The album was mixed without automation, instead it was recorded on analog tape and later mixed by hand. Chuck D's deep baritone voice delivers narratives of black nationalist rhetoric, self-empowerment, critiques of white supremacy, and challenges exploitation in the music industry. This was punctuated with Flavor Flav's stream of consciousness ad-libs. There was one killer song after another including Bring The Noise, Don't Believe The Hype, Night of The Living Baseheads, Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos, and Rebel Without A Pause. The next record was Fear of A Black Planet (1989) and contained one of the most popular and influential songs in rap/hip hop history, Fight The Power. The song was used as the theme for Spike Lee's film, Do The Right Thing, that came out the same year. The album also contained the songs Welcome To The Terrordome and 911 Is A Joke. Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black came out in 1991 and contained the songs Can't Truss It, Shut Em Down, and By The Time I Get To Arizona, that was a critique of the only state that wouldn't recognize the national holiday for Martin Luther King. They have collaborated with others including sampling Buffalo Springfield on He Got Game, working with Paris and Dead Prez on Freedom, and Moby on Make Love Fuck War. Public Enemy has continued to make music that is a powerful critique and a call to stand up in the face of hypocrisy and injustice in America and around the world. 


Nirvana was part of the Seattle grunge scene and developed a sound that relied on dynamic contrasts between quiet verses and loud, heavy choruses. Their success led to the popularity of alternative rock and they were the flagship band of Generation X, or the slacker generation. The main members of the band were Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar), Kris Novoselic (bass), and after several drummers, Dave Grohl became a permanent fixture. Their first album Bleach was released by the independent label Sub Pop in 1989. The album was influenced by the heavy dirge-rock of The Melvins and Mudhoney, punk rock, and heavy metal of Black Sabbath, and the rock of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. Cobain felt the album had to conform to the grunge sound and it was negative and bleak, as he suppressed the arty and pop elements that would find its way onto their next recordings. The next album was the monumental Nevermind (1991) that was recorded for the major label DGC Records and was produced by Butch Vig. Cobain wanted to make music that expanded the grunge esthetic and was influenced by The Pixies and their use of song volume dynamics. They moved between spare bass and drum grooves and shrill bursts of screaming guitar and vocals. Considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time, Nevermind opened the door for the alternative and indie rock movement and was highly influential and spawned many imitators. Nevermind had melodic hooks, but used dissonant guitar rhythms to give the songs a dark, angry edge. Cobain used distortion and chorus pedals to generate a watery sound on his Fender guitars, and Novoselic tuned down his bass one and a half steps to get a fat-ass sound. Grohl's powerful drumming brought the band to a new level of intensity. The lyrics on Nevermind were more personal and taken from two years of poetry that Cobain had written. He cut up the words and chose lines he preferred and relied on juxtapositions of contradictory images to convey emotions and ideas. The album cover had the image of a baby swimming underwater towards a dollar bill on a hook. Almost every song on the album was memorable with Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come As You Are, Lithium, and In Bloom becoming huge hits. In 1992, Nirvana headlined England's Reading Festival and it is regarded as one of their finest live performances. A compilation album of their earlier unreleased songs called Incesticide also came out in 1992. In Utero came out in 1993, and was more experimental than Nevermind but still expressed their trademark sound. There were several excellent songs including Heart Shaped Box, Rape Me, and All Apologies. Nirvana did an MTV Unplugged performance, where they added Pat Smear on guitar, and Lori Goldston on cello, and they stayed away from playing their most recognizable songs and did several covers. Nirvana came to an end in 1994, when Kurt Cobain committed suicide after struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, and a troubled marriage to Courtney Love. Other recordings have come out over the years including the MTV Unplugged performance, Live at Reading, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, and the box set With the Lights Out. Dave Grohl went on to form the excellent band Foo Fighters, who are still going strong today.


The National is the one band since the turn of the century who has created innovative and emotional music, and has produced two excellent albums in Boxer and High Violet. They started in Cincinnati and eventually moved to Brooklyn where they settled on a line-up of Matt Berninger on vocals, the twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars, and a rhythm section of the brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf. When I first heard their music and the deep baritone voice of Berninger, I thought of Leonard Cohen. Upon further listening, I could hear various influences including Lou Reed, Joy Division, The Cure, Tuxedomoon, U2, and Sonic Youth, but these sources were integrated into a sound that was still their own. Their earlier work had folk and country elements with occasional bursts of noise rock. Their first album The National came out in 2001, and had several nice songs including Beautiful Head and Cold Girl Fever. Their second record Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers came out in 2003, and was the first record in which they worked with the producer Peter Katis. The songs Murder Me Rachael and Available are standouts. The EP Cherry Tree was released in 2004 and contained the live favorite About Today. The album Alligator (2005) gained them critical acclaim and included the excellent and more intense songs Lit Up, Abel, and Mr. November as well as quieter folk-rock ballads. The National's sound was evolving with each record and it all came together with the great album Boxer that was released in 2007. Comprised of 14 excellent songs starting with the beautiful Fake Empire and continuing with the powerful Mistaken for Strangers, and followed by one great tune after another including Brainy, Squalor Victoria, Slow Show, Start A War, Racing Like A Pro, and Ada. Overall, Boxer has  a dark, melancholic quality with an element of hope, and produces a powerful emotional effect. The record also expanded the band's instrumentation using piano, horns, and strings, at times, to add to the counterpoint guitar work, driving rhythms, and dark deep beauty of Berninger's voice. The Virgina EP came out in 2008, and contained other songs in the same vein as Boxer and also live versions of Fake Empire, Slow Show, About Today, and a live cover of Springsteen's Mansion On The Hill. Boxer would be a hard act to follow, but High Violet took their sound even farther and again increased the band's palette producing another record of high emotional impact. It starts with the dirge-like Terrible Love which sets a dark mood for the album, but is then followed by five monumental songs Sorrow, Anyone's Ghost, Little Faith, the frightening I'm Afraid of Everyone, and the more upbeat Bloodbuzz Ohio. Each song is different and layers vocals, guitar rhythms, distinct drum and bass, and electronic sounds into the songs that are beautiful, dark, and powerful at the same time. I would recommend the extended version just for the excellent song Wake Up Your Saints. It also has live versions of Bloodbuzz Ohio, Anyone's Ghost, and England. Other wonderful songs are Think You Can Wait that was written for a soundtrack, and  Exile Vilify that was created for a computer game. I saw them perform at the Beacon Theater in New York in December 2011, and listening to their music helped me deal with the death of my mother that happened at the end of the year. The National produce beautiful, interesting and emotionally moving music.

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