Wednesday, April 1, 2009

MY Greatest Albums List- Take it for What it is Worth Since No List is Definitive, Part 1: 200-191

Everyone and every publication will once in a while push their "definitive" best albums list on you. They're never as set in stone as they'd have you believe, even when several fans, critics and experts are contacted for their votes. And my own favourites are not supposed to break the mould for Top whatever "Greatest album" lists. But if it generates debate, discussion and intrigue then it's all I could really hope or ask for. Now, the LP itself doesn't really figure into the best pop music had to offer us until the 1950s when it first became a viable forum for artistic expression and the single began its slow descent into second-class status. My own list is up the rock idiom avenue which includes anything in a musical genre developed after 1950, therefore I leave my best-of jazz lists separate and my jazz knowledge isn't strong enough for me to do much, although I know enough to say that studio albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come, The Black Saint and Sinner Lady, Bird with Strings, Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, A Love Supreme and Jazz at Massey Hall are among the greatest jazz records ever produced. But I will gradually build up my top 200 until we hit #1 finally. Let's just say, 10 albums per blog posting. Now, I go for studio albums preferably but live albums can work, so can albums featuring treasures unearthed from the vaults. As for collections, I feel personally that including best-ofs or greatest hits compilations should be off-limits in most cases, because cluttering a top 200 list with compilations would end up cheapening the list a bit. Only if the collection is a career overview or an overview of their active period or a collection of songs from an artist who never got to release any LP will I include it. 

Multiple-disc, boxed set compilations can be essential works and stand alone from a mere hits collection/compilation. Singles collections are just too narrow a focus to be in my top 200 as well, unless they are expansive and overview a significant phase of an artist's career (sorry, the differing Eagles of Their Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 isn't my idea of contrasting dichotomies at work... that and the Eagles kinda suck). Any album from a genre outside the rock idiom, such as country or hip-hop (jazz never truly crossed into the rock market outside Miles Davis' forays into jazz-rock/fusion), can be included if it crossed over and made waves on the pop scene. Anything purely outside of the rock/pop world or something that wasn't essential in affecting rock- whether it's country, folk, blues or jazz- loses points in this type of top 200 just to make it simple. With that in mind, one can't whine when they don't see the Beatles' Past Masters, Vol. 1 or 2 or Time Peace: The Best of the Rascals. The Beatles' Past Masters Vol. 1 and 2 were difficult to omit from my top 200 because although they collect all the British non-LP work for CD, they read off like a veritable hits package anyway. Such was the Beatles majestic brilliance. Victimized by that brilliance, the Past Masters releases are definitely two of the finest compilation CDs you'll ever want, though if you're solely into the classics then their 1962-66 and 1967-70 collections will do fine (Note: Unless you're a casual Beatlemaniac, forget 2000's album 1, an incredibly prosperous, profit-taking release that borrows from the afformentioned four compilation CDs and tosses them in the melting pot so we get one lengthy disc that was put out under the usual excuse of "We need another collection to remind people of the Beatles greatness" plus the excuse of "This was compiled by George Martin and mastered using 24-bit digital encoding." 

Well, I suppose it's true that a single disc set of the Beatles best work was badly needed because their previous definitive hit collections- still the best if you ask me- were both double disc releases, plus their previous career spanning collection, 20 Greatest Hits, was 7 songs fewer. And 1 was the best selling album of 2000 in the world despite being put out in November!). And what it boils down to is that, combined, the Past Masters disc come out to 33 songs, a mere shade of what the Beatles pumped out in their busy, heady days- somewhere over 200 tracks between 1962-70 plus several other unreleased ones from the vaults added over the years. That's just my case study for why I can't really include certain collections. It usually depends on the length of an artist's career and the output: A high output in a short time necessitates a true anthology of large proportions. A long career requires the same but in the case of a Bob Dylan a certain portion will do considering the huge catalogue to cover. Lastly, a short career with a low output will be easier to cover of course and in some cases (The Jam, Robert Johnson to name a few) that's where I feel OK about compilations. However, if the collection focuses on songs one can find on great albums that deserve to be bough on their own merits, fuggedaboudit! This is why Dylan's tremendous 1985 triple-album set Biograph is ommitted: Amidst the rarities are tracks easily available on his studio albums and the same process hurts his strong 1971 release Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, preventing it from inclusion in my top 200). Certain great artists don't get in here often either because they were primarily defined by their singles or they were consistent yet never had many knockout albums. So any album collecting the excellent singles of an artist who either put out disappointing albums or no albums at all, can find its criteria for inclusion loosened up. If the list were top 200 albums you should own, I'd put in compilations of any kind. But it's not, so like it or lump it. One day, if I ever get more extensive understanding- and I already do have a large grasp, but not enough to be an expert- of the true classic works of country, blues, jazz, classical and standard pop. Thanks for bearing with me on all that jargon and rhetoric. The list all kicks off with albums 200-191 on my list, with explanations given, lengthy ones for some I feel like elaborating on.....

200. Super Black Market Clash-The Clash (1980, expanded 1994): This is one of those compilations that gets an exemption. This is no hits package as it culls non-LP singles, B-sides, rarities and EP tracks but unlike most bands where such material scrapes the bottom of the barrel, this is even more essential work to be heard from the great Clash. For completists, this isn't the be-all, end-all because a handful of tracks are still not here, even when the original release was augmented by adding 11 tracks and retitled from Black Market Clash, a 1980 10" EP. This collection shows the rise of the Clash from outspoken three-chord punk dynamos to (still outspoken) revivalists of old styles of American music, just channeled into the fury of the punk era. In under 3 years, they went from punk rockers to vital enthusiasts of the old wave plus 70s developments like reggae, funk and dance music (their endorsement of hip-hop was to come). The album tends to follow along chronologically, kicking off with the vicious "1977," a call-to-arms for change in the UK- the proclaiming of a new guard- as Joe Strummer and Mick Jones bellow, "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones, in 1977!" Punks had grown sick of the 60s counterculture now becoming the norm in rock music and the saturating of the market with introspection, self-indulgence and a utopian view of the world, so they set out to make their message heard loud and clear and "1977," first unleashed as the B-side to "White Riot," is the definitive "Out with the old, in with the new" statement of punk at its zenith. 

"Listen" is a previously shelved instrumental that displays the power chord prowess of the guitarists and sustains itself as a compelling tune despite offering no vocals. Starting with "Jail Guitar Doors," Topper Headon is the permanent drummer, replacing Terry Chimes after recording their debut LP. "Jail Guitar Doors" features lead guitar man Mick Jones on lead vocals, was available on UK pressings of The Clash but not US versions and therefore in 1980 it was chosen for Black Market Clash. It's a riveting little number about violence and drug arrests in the typical chaotic city landscape the Clash loved to describe, with amusing "Clang-clang" and "Bang-Bang" onomatopoeia thrown in to express the sounds of jail doors closing and things crashing to the floor. It may a song be inspired by the cocaine trafficking incarceration of Wayne Kramer, guitarist of late 60s proto-punk radicals from Detroit the MC5 who would clean up when he left jail in 1977, coincidentally. Nonetheless, "Jail Guitar Doors" is another example of how the Clash were willing to discuss the dark, seedier things in life. The Clash, even early on, were willing to bring in unorthodox tactics for punk, and one is on display with "The City of the Dead" where riffs in the preludes to the verse are played by sax. 

Afterward, the relatively minor, but ferociously exciting "The Prisoner," B-side to 1978's "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" gets an appearance in. The Clash had displayed a love for reggae with "Police and Thieves," a Junior Marvin tune, included on their debut LP but they also acknowledged the legendary Toots (Hibbert) & the Maytals with their cover of the reggae classic "Pressure Drop," the B-side to their 1978 single of "English Civil War." Eschewing the organ, percussion and high harmonies of the original, the Clash do it their own way, with locomotive-type rhythm guitar, Mick Jones' youthful, cheeky vocal harmonies and Strummer's raspy working class drawl (though, as many know, Strummer had an upper middle class upbringing which included moving all around the world with his diplomat father and attending boarding school). Some out there might be familiar with this cover, only because of hearing it in a car commercial that used to air recently. Hearing it the whole way through reveals it to be a superb little knock-off transposing reggae to rock. Also from 1978 is "Tommy Gun"'s B-side, the ska and Stones-inspired "1-2 Crush on You," a more melodic, less bellicose side of the punk rocking Clash that uses searing saxophone just like "The City of the Dead." Three of four tracks from their brilliant 1979 EP The Cost of Living get included here, the odd man out being their unforgettably superb cover of the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law," more commonly reserved for hits compilations which could explain its absence from Super Black Market Clash

The first of these EP selections, "Groovy Times," is an indication of the Clash's ever expanding abilities to craft tuneful, mesmerizing rock that could feel at home on radio as well as in the clubs. "Groovy Times" brings chiming acoustic guitars and harmonica into the fold and manages to meld Strummer's street wise singing and lyrics with Jones' pop sensibilities as he provides some tasteful, flamenco-ish guitar soloing on acoustic, and breathy backing vocals to boot. It's a vital listen that even punk detesters can enjoy, sort of like a Beatles song if they had discovered power chords and stayed true to their working class roots. Even better and epically momentous is "Gates of the West," a sort of politically motivated writing job by Jones-Strummer that takes off with cool precision thanks to a fine arrangement and a catchy blend of rock and pop that recalls power pop stylists like Big Star or glam rock luminaries like David Bowie or T. Rex. It's a breakthrough for the Clash that, while it doesn't carry the fearsome impact of their 1977-78 work nor the rootsy wisdom of what was to come, no doubt leaves a lasting effect on a listener- who'd eventually be a fan because come on, who could resist the Clash after repeated listens? They grow on you quite rapidly. More grounded in their original hard rocking desires is "Capital Radio Two," that, although it starts with an intro of quaint and pretty acoustic guitar picking, is a pulverizing, brain basher of a song that includes gut-wrenching lead guitar and explosion sound effects to add to the chaos. 

It's a re-recording of "Capital Radio" which was released as an EP in 1978 and became such a a rarity that the group felt like updating it, especially when they uncovered the fact that the Capital Radio EP was selling for higher prices than they would have liked, because the Clash had the balls- and this is waaaay before Pearl Jam v. Ticketmaster- to keep their records affordable and reasonable for fans to buy. "Capital Radio Two" features a cameo on drums by former sticksman Terry Chimes and it is also a rather hilarious, bare-bones commentary on the vanity of radio and the pop charts and their refusal to acknowledge new sounds in rock. It has Strummer conversing spoken word with Mick Jones about how "We'll never get on the radio like this/You know that!?" Strummer vows to find a way to hit the bank, envisioning "The drummer's in the box office/And he's counting all the money!" which gives way to the "KAB-LAM!" explosion and Strummer humourously demanding to hear a change in pace "On the count of four... FOUR!" That cheeky joke shifts the song into a funkier, new wave beat as Strummer boasts "Have you seen me dance?/I'm the one that I want!" which obviously references the popularity of the movie Grease and its hit song "You're the One That I Want." Also from 1979 is the previously unreleased "Time is Tight," a sunny sort of surf-rocker that is a new wave take on a Booker T. & the MGs instrumental. Moving past the enormous success of London Calling into 1980 sees the Clash become immersed in emulating their idols of ska, rocksteady and most particularly dub reggae. This is shown through a cover of Willie Williams-Jackie Mittoo composed reggae cool called "Justice Tonight/Kick it Over," eight minutes of grooving, heavy on active drumming, bass and echo like all dub music is. 

There are smatterings of vocals from Strummer, awash in echo of course, as the formerly foreign (to anyone in punk) piano and organ play roles in the tune. There are also interesting instrumental dub remixes of the Clash classics "Bankrobber" ("Robber Dub," originally supposed to be a part of a "12 single for "Bankrobber" that the Clash's label refused to release) and "The Call Up," renamed "The Cool Out," and first unveiled as the B-side of the US version of the 1981 single of "The Call Up." The UK B-side is the confusing, demented, carnival-esque dub "Stop the World," the next track on this collection and perhaps the only truly mediocre track. It's an unfocused, blurry affair that sounds as if it was conjured up on drugs and probably was. The Clash amazingly manage to make the instrumental dub versions invigorating, especially with "The Magnificent Seven," re-titled in its instrumental dub form "The Magnificent Dance," and it comes from a maxi-single released in 1981 that, paired with "The Cool Out," was released to capitalize on the new danceability of the Clash's recordings. It shows how unexpectedly diverse and funky the Clash became after London Calling. They became world-conquering ambitious, which as it turned out was maybe just a bit too ambitious for keeping the band at a high creative pace and from falling apart. The Clash's next release came in the fall of 1981, the EP Radio Clash, which features the military funk of "This is Radio Clash," a wild, sound effect-drenched piece with manic laughing from Strummer and one of his more electrifying vocal performances, a part singing, part political rant song. Jones contributes some incredibly funky guitar reminiscent of James Brown's tightest ensembles, the Meters or Parliament-Funkadelic. 

The R&B influences are everywhere as Strummer seems to be almost rapping at times while there's a beefy, processed sax providing some melody lines. "First Night in London" is a rare B-side that is a menacing, lurking new wave affair reminiscent of the Police but crossed with hip-hop beats to make it a unique inclusion and a sign of where the Clash were heading in 1981-82. "Long Time Jerk" is a B-side from the 1982 single of "Rock the Casbah," a sort of goofy country stomper with elements of reggae tossed in. Despite this, it's forgettable, but "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" was included as a neat dub reggae, semi-rapped B-side in the form of "Cool Confusion," another slice of how the Clash were using studio effects much more intently than ever. The final track is "Mustapha Dance," a remixed "Rock the Casbah" sans most of its vocal part that shows the lowdown dance groove inherent in the song. It was the B-side to the actual "Rock the Casbah" single too, released also in 1982 off their final original line-up album Combat Rock. Despite some underwhelming tracks, there is enough brilliance in here to make it one of my top 200 essential albums because the Clash's quality runs deeper than many think and Super Black Market Clash is a good place to go once one has heard their essential first four albums, because while Combat Rock was decent, it was their worst LP to that point. 1982 is a good cut-off point by the way, because unfortunately 1985's terrible Cut the Crap made Combat Rock look like the greatest album ever made. 

Cut the Crap was lambasted upon release and turned the public and critics against the Mick Jones-less Clash, and as it happens his new group Big Audio Dynamite was lapping up the praise at the same time. Cut the Crap is a dismal, limp misfire of colossal proportions, muddied up by dreadful production, poor songs and a murky, completely unrealized vision as some brawny hip-hop/hard rock outfit with a ridiculous series of choruses sung like the crowd at a football (that's soccer for us North Americanophiles) and a band dynamic like that of a punk parody. It showcases a Strummer and manager Bernard Rhodes-dominated Clash, though with Paul Simonon still hanging around and three newer members in to replace the much missed Topper Headon, sacked to deal with his heroin addiction in 1982, and Mick Jones, dismissed in a power struggle in 1983 that left him to eventually form B.A.D. a year later. And needless to say, everyone involved with the LP also regrets it.... Phew, glad I got that out of my system. But I digress. So while the real Clash died around '83, their spirit lives on and the band is as relevant as ever. Several releases and documentaries hit in the late 90s as the fact the Clash were extraordinary, perhaps rock's last real superstar band that meant something, began to sink in. Of course, this revision high praise was getting the band back closer together until Strummer's untimely passing snuffed out any hopes. 1994's expanded Super Black Market Clash shows how much great stuff they left out on the table, or tucked away in hard-to-find locations, and how it stood up with some of their easy-to-find material: Very well, if you couldn't tell.

199. Time Fades Away (Live)-Neil Young (1973)Despite its muddy production, ragged performances and the very strained vocals of Neil, this is as essential to a legendary artist's canon as any live album can be, save for maybe live releases like Live at Leeds or the Allmans' Live at the Fillmore East. The tour surrounding this album was fraught with problems, as Neil's audiences were unreceptive to his harsh, madcap new material which signaled his desire to return to the underground and shy away from the spotlight of big time fame. Also his band, dubbed the Stray Gators, continually demanded pay raises as the tour progressed which led to the particularly persistent Kenny Buttrey being sacked for John Barbarata, formerly of the Turtles. He performs on the cuts that made it here. On top of this, Danny Whitten had died of a heroin overdose before the tour, just days after Neil had sent him home to L.A. from rehearsals because his deepening drug addiction had ruined his ability to perform. Neil felt helpless over Whitten, yet guilty when his musical soul mate finally lost his battle with addiction. To make matters worse, Neil lost his voice part way through this lengthy 1972-73 tour which results in some of the cracked, anguished vocals heard here. The next two years would see Neil's voice in bad shape as he continually had difficult with his high register, though this made the despair and depression behind his music all the more palpable. 

As of this time, Neil took to drowning his sorrows in tequila, which obviously affected his stage demeanour and behaviour, turning him from light-hearted and insightful to grumpy and withdrawn. With these 8 previously unheard songs, Neil retreats from the introspective singer-songwriter approach of his past two LPs in favour of a nakedly stark and frank look on life, including his childhood experiences during his parents' divorce on the sensational "Don't Be Denied." It's nakedly autobiographical as he recounts what his mother told him when the split occurred. His three piano pieces are all beautiful and tremendously riveting too, as "Bridge,"  (like a more homey, less metaphorical version of "Birds"), the ruminating "Love in Mind" and the nostalgic pean "Journey Through the Past" convey yearning for love and home in such a tender, real way that it's hard to pass them off as cheesy. His new appreciation for the bluesy bar band sound results in the boogie of "Time Fades Away," "Yonder Stands the Sinner" and the disenchanted country of "L.A," which labels Los Angeles "city in the smog," then wrly, tongue-in-cheek asks "Don't you wish that you could be here too?" His disenfranchisement with the established mainstream is quite evident in the lyrics alone for these three humdingers. The final cut is the insanely gripping "Last Dance," a sweeping, lumbering rocker that stretches over 8 minutes. 

Singing of daily struggles for rock fans to get tickets as well as the often frustrating routine of touring, Neil has hardly ever sounded as wound up as he did here. The arrangement is powerful, with many rhythmic tricks to it, the most interesting being the end where Neil wails "No, no, no" constantly, over walls of feedback until the band kicks back in. Young is supported by Crosby and Nash's harmony vocals, they being enlisted to buttress his weakened vocals at the end of the tour. "Last Dance" is a perfect encapsulation of the transition Neil was undergoing in the wake of Harvest's massive success. Surrounded by such glory, one thinks he would be able to translate that into happiness. But with Neil's sensitivity to attention, all this spotlight did was irritate him. He rebelled in the only way he knew how: musically. He was uncomfortable with the attention indeed, so he turned his muse in an uncommercial direction that put the emphasis on real live band interaction and capturing raw emotion, warts and all. It offended many of the fans he'd made since 1969 but caught the allure of the rock press and certain fans who found his new edgy irritableness a welcome change from the tired phony optimism of many of rock's biggest acts of the time, Neil's compadres in CSNY included. "Last Dance" is a captivating number that ends this underrated, forgotten masterful live work, which has still yet to see the light of day on CD. This makes it well worth tracking down.

198. (What's the Story) Morning Glory?-Oasis (1995): Find Oasis pompous, self-centered Liverpudlian wankers? Think they're just a glorified, arrogant Beatle tribute act with half the talent and none of the ingenuity? You may think what you want, but in the mid-90s these guys were the nazz in England, put up on a pedestal as the future Kings of Britpop and the next ones in a long line of UK rock God units like the Beatles, Stones, Led Zep, (in some circles) Queen and the Clash. It's true this group's core, the feuding brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher- the only founding members still around-, have been more notorious for their media tirades since 1996 than for their music. However, the first two Oasis records are the nadir of quality rock crafted for the radio in the mid-90s. They were Gods in England, merely hot shit overseas, but still propped up as elite in the absence of an everyman people's champion like Nirvana and the decline of grunge as an artistic force. This second album is a testament to why. The hits were both tremendous retro 60s classic rock slices and catchy as hell. Oasis was formed in 1991 by Noel Gallagher, still considered the force behind the band and its all-time leader. Eventually, his little bro Liam found a role as the cocky, commanding frontman and their snotty attitude resulted in a bountiful amount of sound clips for the media over the years.

This output of snot-nosed remarks by the Gallaghers made other members Tony McCaroll (drums, bounced in favour of Alan White before they recorded What's the Story?), Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs (rhythm guitar) and Paul McGuigan (bass) seem like irrelevant sidekicks. After a few ever-popular singles in 1994 that set the stage for their debut album, Oasis exploded onto the "Britpop" scene with Definitely MaybeWhile Definitely Maybe was certainly a revival of guitar-dominated rock that recalled the best of 60s and 70s rock, the similarities to the Beatles were plenty and Oasis themselves let that emulation be known to the public. The album, along with grunge's death, signaled a new dominance on the rock charts for the forthcoming years and was also one of those prototypical releases that the UK rock media overhypes to the point of hyperbole. Before their massive success imploded, Oasis seemed like a second coming of the Beatles and an even greater hope for rock in the face of vapid pop than previous champs like the Smiths and the Stone Roses. The Britpop movement never took huge flight in America as many of its notable bands struggled to land smash hits (oddly enough in 1997 when it all seemed done for Britpop, Blur hit with "Song 2," and the Verve enjoyed the popularity of Urban Hymns) and some- such as Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, Ocean Colour Scene and Supergrass- were all but unknown. 

Oasis's flurry of fame petered out in the US. The Spice Girls, both home and abroad, seemed to put a candy-coloured commercialist end to "Cool Britannia" and by 1998, British artists were almost nonexistent on North American charts and it would stay that way until Coldplay. but produced a scene reminiscent of when bands like Led Zeppelin dominated the album charts. It was also just as drug-fuelled, egocentric and chaotic as that time was. Oasis made headlines through a supposed feud with Blur, their drunken, cocaine-influenced insolence and constant boasts and putdowns of others. After the record-breaking Definitely Maybe, Oasis was poised to climb to even further height and Noel Gallagher's writing took a prominence almost unparalleled among his peers. The Beatle influence is always there of course. To summarize, there's the very Sgt. Pepper-like "Wonderwall" (named after the 1968 soundtrack of moog synthesizer sampling by George Harrison) which became the biggest hit, adorned by strings and plaint piano. The closing track is a very psychedelic rumination, the anthemic "Champagne Supernova" which features Paul Weller on guitar and backing vocals. It's a seven minute dynamite recording with flashy guitars, big production and strong vocals. Then there's their all-time masterpiece anthem "Don't Look Back in Anger," featuring the identical two opening chords on piano as John Lennon's "Imagine." 

But the fuzzy, hard-edged guitar work on the album is shown with the revved-up, title track which goes for some of that sound collage stuff of helicopters, water lapping up onshore and the same radio noise that permeates the album. "Morning Glory" also sounds very much like R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" but only chord-wise and with the guitar lick in the chorus. Another excellent number is "Cast No Shadow," a more country-rock thing than a 60s British pop piece, featuring strings too. Apparently a tribute to the Verve's Richard Ashcroft, it deserves the praise "Don't Look" gets. Even more minor tracks are enjoyable filler, take for instance "She's Electric," the faux-introspective "Hello" and the rather downcast rocker "Hey Now." Not quite in the league with the best, yet still deserving of some kudos are tracks like the more serious-minded, sing-a-long "Some Might Say" and the arena-pleaser "Roll with it," which is a song more along the lines of the "Cool Britannia"-defining music displayed on their debut from the year before. Either way you slice it, Oasis was at their peak in 1995 for their second release and since their prime, few true rock bands have ruled the charts in the UK but especially the US. Oasis squandered their paradise (no pun intended) with the rather overblown Be Here Now in 1997 (would it have killed them to not have had half the tracks extend past 6 minutes?) but will always be best remembered for their first two albums, especially this sophomore delivery.

197. Street Survivors-Lynyrd Skynyrd (1977): Easily the class of Southern Rock, especially after the Allmans lost their best asset in Duane Allman in 1971, Lynyrd Skynyrd weathered lineup changes to once again be a strong collective by 1976, as proven by their excellent double live document from that very year, One from the Road. Since debuting in 1973 they had provided many classic albums and songs but this LP was certainly near the top of their 5 studio releases + 1 live album + 2 from the vaults. It was also sadly the last from the classic lineup. Losing Ronnie Van Zant as one of three who died in their infamous plane crash along with Steve and Cassie Gaines, just three days after this album's release in October 1977, made this LP an unintentional memorial. Skynyrd seemed destined to move gracefully into the disco age, without sacrificing any of their gravitas or honest workmanlike attitude. The triple guitar attack takes on its finest form again on Street Survivors, with Gaines joining original members Allen Collins and Gary Rossington. The album cover originally featured the band standing in front of the flames of some hellish inferno. After the tragic crash, the flames were removed but the foreshadowing to doom inside the album remained, the haunting "That Smell" for example. Now resembling the Stones circa 1972, what with the female chorus and the country influences, Skynyrd wins over any critics on this triumphant set. Aside from the guitars and vocals, one must give credit to the late Billy Powell's honky-tonk piano expertise. It always was a key component in what was essentially a guitar-themed band (who can forget his rolls in "Sweet Home Alabam"?) He is in that zone for "What's Your Name," a vintage piece of Southern boogie that doesn't sound macho or sexist despite it being a provocative come-on to a little T&A out on the road. 

"What's Your Name" shows how R&B was not off-limits for Skynyrd as it's the beefy horns that really take the starring role. "One More Time" is an ominous, countryish rocker with delicately beautiful guitar interplay and the usual twang and storytelling vocal style of Van Zant. The excellent, country-rock flash of "You Got That Right," the blues shuffle "I Know a Little," the ragged Southern-fried, almost Band-like "I Never Dreamed" and the Gaines-sung blues extraordinaire "Ain't No Good Life" demonstrate not only the newest member Steve Gaines' underrated guitar work but also his songwriting (he was responsible for all three). He made no one miss founding member Ed King, which was a damn good achievement (not because Ed King wrote the Strawberry Alarm Clock's cheesy psychedelic hit "Incense and Peppermints but because King was a fine guitarist in his own right... just clarifying). "Honky Tonk Night Man" continues the country-blues workouts with style. When you hear this LP, it sounds just like mainstream Nashville today, proving how Skynyrd reached across barriers. Truly, you can trace Skynyrd's impact to the future chart-topping country musicians, who today sing in country accents with fiddles, pedal steel guitar and honky-tonk pianos over what was generally the Southern Rock sound of the 70s. That is considered country music today, but was only to be found in hillbilly bars back in the day. 

Certainly though, country outlaws like Steve Earle could have appreciated what Skynyrd did to mix Southern style with rock and roll to bring it back to where its roots were. Indeed, much of the outlaw country of the last 25 years owes some gratitude to Skynyrd. Most of these "Hat acts" of today's country scene echo Skynyrd more than the actual popular late 70s country artists like Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty or Alabama. Despite no anthem like "Saturday Night Special," "Freebird," "Tuesday's Gone," "Sweet Home Alabama" or "Gimme Back My Bullets,"Street Survivors actually outclasses the albums those tunes are derived from. The morbidly ironic title aside, Street Survivors is a true testament to Skynyrd's legend. After losing Van Zant, the group decided to split up though many of its members were reunited in the Rossington-Collins Band. After Allen Collins died in 1990 from pneumonia, as a sad, lost paraplegic from a car accident in 1983 that claimed the life of his girlfriend (not the first time a member of the band had been loaded and decided to crash his vehicle), the group reunited with Ronnie's little bro Johnnie as singer- not Donnie who had his own fame with .38 Special. No word on whether Lonnie, Bonnie, Connie or Yanni Van Zant were available. Today such reunions can no longer happen thanks to Artimus Pyle, their second drummer, being out of favour with de facto leader Gary Rossington, not to mention the passings of second bassist Leon Wilkenson and Billy Powell, the heart and soul of the band. So cherish whatever Skynyrd you have because the touring won't be happening often anymore.

196. Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome-Parliament (1978): George Clinton was just your average promoter of vocal group R&B, originating out of Detroit himself and forming a group with schoolmates in the late 50s, the Parliaments. They mostly recorded local hits before 1967 saw their "I Wanna (Testify)" strike the Billboard chart nationally. But seeing how the world of music, especially R&B, was altering around him, Clinton and his band began experimenting and soon a permanent ensemble of musicians was being brought in, younger musicians who reflected the times of Sly & the Family Stone, Norman Whitfield's Motown material and Jimi Hendrix. Influenced by hallucinogens, Clinton veered the group toward a much funkier, risque and underground style. It was like hearing Memphis Soul or the Temptations on acid. Due to legal disputes, the band changed its name in 1968 to Funkadelic and became heavier, edgier and more out in the abyss than any R&B band had ever been. Clinton got the smart idea to market what was essentially the same band as two separate entities when Parliament got signed to Invictus records and released a 1970 album entitled Osmium. 

But soon the Funkadelic work became the focus and the band, signed on to Westbound Records, stayed under that moniker for 1970's trippy, captivating but ultimately psychedelically flawed Funkadelic and Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow. Their releases were ahead of the pack, but often bogged down by socio-political overtness and too many guitar adventures into Hendrix-land. Still, there are many high moments worth recommending on Maggot Brain (1971), America Eats its Young (1972) and Cosmic Slop (1973). However, Funkadelic improved when Clinton decided to revive the Parliament name and provide a smoother, sloppier, comedic equivalent to Funkadelic that involved a comic book-like universe built around the group to make its messages heard in a more inviting, hilarious format. At this point, both bands were nearly the same but more and more new members were ushered in until there were nearly 20 people associated with Clinton's P-Funk empire by the late 70s. Bernie Worrell arrived in the late 60s as keyboardist and his classical training proved a priceless attache for the Parliament-Funkadelic juggernaut. Clinton would later purge James Brown's JBs backup group in 1972 to get Fred Wesley and Bootsy Collins among others. 

Other famous names to pass through these annals of funkdom included Eddie Hazel, Michael Hampton, Maceo Parker and Phillipe Wynne. All this influx of new members prompted the old Parliaments to feel phased out and after some mounting financial and managerial disputes with Clinton, the original Parliaments Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon and Grady Thomsa departed. Ray Davis, the late bass singer of the group, stayed on since Clinton could likely not find a suitable replacement to sing so low anyway. Clinton had the P-Funk tightrope working to a tee as an average of three albums a year overall was being pulled off after 1974 when Parliament signed to Warner Bros. Records and Funkadelic to Casablanca Records. There was no secret about it. The word was out that they were the same bands but essentially their styles differed as Funkadelic involved more of the freakout blues-rock aspects, though this dissipated over time and became a lot more like Parliament's mainstream, bottom-heavy, percussive funk featuring pioneering use of synthesizers from Worrell. Clinton's empire also included solo records from group members plus side projects like the Horny Horns, Quazar, Godmoma, Zapp or albums for the female backup singers Brides of Funkenstein and Parlet. 

When Clinton had to resort to breaking up the huge stable in the early 80s, he would frequently release albums under the title "George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars" which just demonstrated how many freaking ex-members he amassed over the previous 15 years. Parliament became the ultimate party band and likely the single most important funk band in terms of setting the stage for hip-hop and 80s industrial R&B. In addition, P-Funk has been perhaps the most sampled group of all-time, arguably only second to James Brown. Their music is unmistakable, identifiable right away before R&B and funk contemporaries tried to cop their style. After the 1974 de-merging of the outfit, Funkadelic continued to get more interesting with their releases Standing on the Verge of Getting it on (1974), Let's Take it to the Stage (1975),  Tales of Kidd Funkadelic (1976) and Hardcore Jollies (1976). Meanwhile, 1974's Parliament comeback Up for the Down Stroke was their best LP yet and though 1975's Chocolate City was a disappointing, they tapped into something truly fantastic on Mothership Connection (1975) and The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (1976). Through the years, Parliament-Funkadelic tackled old Parliaments songs of course in a much different way than they had originally been presented. 1977 was a busy year by anyone else's standards but a curiously quiet year for P-Funk with the album of review being the only thing thrown on the market. But what a stupendous inclusion it was. 

Featuring more of the mythical P-Funk zen on life, Funkentelechy... is an album directing its disdain toward crappy disco and consumerism ("The Placebo Syndrome" according to P-Funk doctrine). Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome is a mere six tracks, which as you may suspect means there are some lengthy tracks to be found on this LP. Indeed, the average song run time on Funkentelechy (another play on words involving the word funk from Clinton's self-created P-funk world, this time for the philosophical concept of entelechy, an Artistotlean concept about a state reached by someone or something where they reach their full essence, or in modern terms the motivating force that guides one to self-fulfillment. Indeed, Parliament espouses their own variation on that theme throughout the album, namely on the title cut) is over seven minutes. "Bop Gun (Endangered Species)" is the down n' dirty opener, an 8.5 minute party time slow groove that features the expanding traits and characteristics of a P-Funk jam: sassy, jive-talking backing vocal interplay, funky yet soul-influenced lead singing often reaching falsetto screams, sheets of keyboard noodlings (Worrell acting as the P-Funk equivalent of what Garth Hudson was to the band), a dead funk groove from the rhythm section and high-end horn chart. 

If that wasn't enough, there are a lot of metaphors that ultimately refer to dancing, partying, self-empowerment and, above all, sex- indeed, the P-Funkers were the best subtly naughty, bawdy, sleazy group of their era and also the best explicitly naughty, bawdy, sleazy group of their era too. "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk" is a ten minute-plus journey that introduces us to Sir Nose, another character invented to play a part in the P-Funk mythology, representing the enemy of the Starchild, a character created to represent the pure, unencumbered spirit of funk which under Clinton's watch was not just a subgenre of R&B but a way of life. Sir Nose doesn't believe in funk and finds it a waste of time, much to the chagrin of Starchild and their argument is captured within song. Call it drug-induced gobbledygook if you will, but Clinton's varispeed ramblings, doctored with space age effects and interstellar funk makes "Sir Nose" a sweet helping of spacey, loose funk. Clinton sometimes sings but mostly raps in his own way, taking on both the Sir Nose and Starchild characters. It's tough to explain without having read the 8-page comic that explained the concept behind the album, an insert that accompanied the album along with a 22 by 33" poster of Sir Nose. But I'll try. 

Basically, Starchild made his debut on Mothership Connection as an alien who promised to bring the principles of funk to humankind, insisting he had worked with intergalactic master of Funk (with a capital F for its holy emphasis), Dr. Funkenstein, to one day unleash the holy funk on Earth. He hopes to achieve his goal of having all humans reach Funkentelechy. Sir Nose is an enemy of funk, master of The Placebo Syndrome (which seems to promote no dancing and being stupid) and detractor of dance, which he believes he is too cool to lower himself to. Sir Nose D'voidoffunk looks to enslave humans in a "Zone of Zero Funkativity" state of mind, but Starchild has a plan to counter that, using a "Bop Gun" that I can only guess was designed for him by- who else?- Dr. Funkenstein. Starchild eventually zaps Sir Nose with it and causes him to finally dance and enjoy himself all night long, though when the effect wears off on subsequent albums, Sir Nose recuperates to plot his revenge with evil allies like Rumpofsteelskin. And hey, wouldn't you know it he actually gets it on 1979's Gloryhallistoopid when he turns Starchild into a mule but then on "The Big Bang Theory" discovers Funk is what created the universe in the first place. In concert, these events would be acted out in a lavish presentation worthy of Broadway featuring zany costumes, glittering and glowing all over, state-of-the-art stage pyrotechnics and special effects as well as elaborate props. 

So when you kiddies see Kanye West drop in on a spaceship, think of George Clinton and give P-Funk a listen. Whew, now I'm breathless... ok my fingers are, metaphorically speaking. As for the songs themselves, track numero tres, "Wizards of Finance," gets to the heart of the matter to blast the money-craving nightmare envisioned by P-Funk. It's a moderately-tempoed slice of easygoing funk spiced up with Worrell's lasery snyth noises that's decent enough, though not one of the album's high spots. "Funkentelechy" is like a hyped-up, fiendishly fun take on the kind of funk James Brown bestowed upon audiences earlier in the decade. "The Placebo Syndrome" attacks the mechanical, soullessness of disco as well as the blind pursuit of money involved in consumerism, all part of the evil plan of Sir Nose D'voidoffunk. It's the softest, cushiest track here, almost at a ballad pace but its seductive leanings give way to the sixth and final track, the legendary "Flashlight." Now listen to this tune and tell me this doesn't sound like the perfect basis for an 80s hip-hop jam. Alas, many rappers sampled "Flashlight," which musically belongs to Bernie Worrell for his synthesizer stylings, featuring many strange and exciting noises not usually heard on a pop record. The coup de gras of this is a splendid riff from keyboard bass that replicates the wobbly sound a whammy bar can give a guitar, only way more wobbly. 

On "Flashlight," there is no bass guitar because Worrell provided such a fine substitute, so Bootsy switches his role to drums. The synthesizer bass comes off like some kind of deep, rumbling laser beam and it's downright wicked and sampled multiple times. The song itself is even less lyrically cohesive than other tracks, mostly striking the listener as a semi-improvised workout with "Flashlight" chanted by the many singers before other kinds of lights are listed (ie. neon light, spotlight, stop light, green light, etc.). Some of the only consistent lines we get are simple mantras such as "Most of all get funky" and "Everybody's got a little light under the sun," sung in harmony like some sort of gospel-cum-seance at the end of the song (after a lengthy fadeout tricks the listener into thinking the tune is done). "Flashlight" is supposed to be a conclusion to the album's narrative where the Bop Gun is being used, taking its intended positive effect on people. It's one of those great pop songs that's outright fun, pure getting down and nasty fun. It sounds very much ahead of its time in 1977 and makes the 95% of disco that did suck look like child's play. 12" mixes of the song proved popular but not as popular as other records were, which is no surprise since "Flashlight" makes no compromises to be more appealing to white bred audiences and radio stations. It's almost too black for radio of the day, as callous as that sounds, but today could very well be a #1 smash considering the commercial hegemony club-geared concoctions are experiencing today. They could have their Bee Gees, but funk fans of any colour still had Parliament-Funkadelic to feel proud about. And rarely has P-Funk given us better albums than this 1977 classic.

195. Grievous Angel-Gram Parsons (1974): After being a driving force in bringing country to the forefront of the rock audience with his short stint in the Flying Burrito Bros. and his even shorter stint in the Byrds, Gram Parsons set out to do it all on his own terms. Beset by drug addiction now affecting his behaviour, Parsons was still in his mid-20s when his solo debut GP came out. It was a decent try but there were hardly any gems and it seemed a bit ragged and drowsy, a bit of a letdown considering expectations. On his followup, expectations were met if not surpassed. Released after his September 1973 death due to a drug and alcohol overdose (really a death by overtoxification from binge drinking whiskey and tequila and overestimating his tolerance for morphine), Parsons achieved the ideal synthesis of what he called "Cosmic American Music," by melding rock and country together in a way that puts those phony Eagles to shame. Parsons apparently stayed clean and sober during the sessions and intended for the album to be a joint collaboration with Emmylou Harris, with her name credited on the record too. Of course those wishes weren't met but at least his corpse was disposed of the way he intended. His corpse, you ask? Well to make a long story short: His road manager Phil Kauffman, originally hired to prevent drugs from being smuggled on tour by Gram and/or his cronies, was told by Gram after the funeral of guitar picking comrade Clarence White- a former Byrd himself- that he would rather have his body exhumed at Joshua Tree, California and his ashes spread out at Cap Rock than have a traditional burial. 

Of course, Parsons' step father balked at this wish when Gram died and requested his body be flown back to New Orleans for a private ceremony excluding his rock star buddies and then a burial. So Kauffman and a pal got seriously drunk, posed as the mortician officials and stole the casket for LAX Airport. They went out into the Mojave Desert to Joshua Tree, the place where Gram had died and a favoured hippie hangout because of the area's supposed mystical, shaman power connections with the supernatural. Kauffman opened the casket, doused it with five gallons of gasoline then lit it aflame- not exactly a standard cremation. The fireball attracted phone calls to police who chased the pair off and later Parsons' half-charred emains were flown back to New Orleans and interred there where they remain to this day). Parsons cut Grievous Angel in L.A., where country music had only become natural to play thanks to efforts like his back when country was considered extremely unhip. Parsons arrived in Los Angeles after years of playing music in his native Georgia, Florida and up the Eastern seaboard during his brief time as a Harvard student. Gram Parsons was a figure of dionysian proportions in his heyday who made an indelible mark on rock by fusing it with country and then just as quickly burnt out in a spectacular decay from drugs and alcohol. 

With the International Submarine Band, 1967-68 found Parsons exploring his love of country, a musical form considered backward, hillbilly and redneck by rock and roll longhairs and folkie intellectuals. He was then enlisted for the Byrds who, along with the enthusiastic prompting of Chris Hillman, cut a country-rock landmark Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Parsons on board. Though the crossover attempt wasn't much commercially and Parsons vocals were wiped out due to a dispute lodged by Lee Hazelwood (manager of the International Submarine Band that Parsons somewhat casually and callously quit on), it was a progressive step backward (if that makes any sense) that followed the natural direction pointed to by Bob Dylan on John Wesley Harding months earlier (P.S. CD reissues of Sweetheart have featured Gram's vocals reinstated in their originally intended form). It was only a six month stay though, as Parsons quit to protest a tour of apartheid South Africa. Months later, Chris Hillman finally had enough and quit, leaving the two to collaborate freely from band leader Roger McGuinn. In late 1968, they formed the Flying Burrito Bros. (see entry at #130 for Gilded Palace of Sin), cut one great album and then never seemed to meet their potential again, though they brought the first fully realized country-rock sound to tape. 

Gram became dead set on rock stardom independent of a band and his songwriting output became rather ordinary before being kicked out amicably in April 1970. Parsons had long idolized figures like Elvis Presley before gravitating toward folk and then becoming transfixed by the hurtin' songs of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and the Louvin Brothers. Before a meteoric crash into a drug addicted demise, Parsons story was a Greek tragedy anyway. The Shakespearean rule of thumb in tragedies says that by the end, there has to be a purging of characters until by the end very few are left standing and the stage is littered with bodies. So it was with the fortune of the Snively empire that Gram stood to inherit. You see, he was raised amidst a tangled, dysfunctional family of vast wealth- his grandfather John A. Snively built a Florida orange grove empire (owning 1/3 of all the groves in the state and branching out into developing orange juice concentrate) to turn his family into one of the richest in all of America. Parsons' cozy inheritance meant money was never his motivation to become a star as he could bankroll his ambitions and, by the late 60s, his drug habits too. There was enough tragedy in his upbringing to fill the cup of three country singers as Parsons, born Ingram Cecil Connor III in 1946, underwent the loss of his father Cecil "Coon Dog" Connor, a former star fighter pilot in WWII who was also an alcoholic prone to depression. 

"Coon Dog" committed suicide when Gram was 12 while his mother Avis Snively, herself a serious alcoholic, died of cirrhosis in 1965 on the day Gram graduated high school. Parsons felt a kinship to the moaning perils sung about in country and combined his musical loves into a prosperous stew he called "Cosmic American Music." He was left without anything in the world but his ambition, as his only possible father figure, stepdad Bob Parsons, was also a raging alcoholic. Members of the Snively family have despised Parsons and accused him of feeding Avis's alcoholism when she clearly needed help, even insinuating that he provided her with booze when she was hospitalized. So as you can see, the family history seemed to doom Gram. To cap the high body count, the sword of Damocles also struck Robert Parsons, who died of cirrhosis in 1975 himself, and Gram's sister (Little) Avis who was killed alongside her daughter in a 1991 boating accident. An empire left in shambles indeed. But the music will always speak for the legacy of Gram Parsons, however imperfect a man he was or however sordid a life he led. After his dismissal from the Burritos, Gram struggled to fight through the drug dependencies, taking part in unproductive sessions with similarly gung-ho drug user Terry Melcher. Melcher was by now drowning his sorrows after Charles Manson committed his heinous murder of Sharon Tate and her party guests at a house Melcher had owned and sold to Tate's beau, famed director Roman Polanski. 

To boot, even though it is claimed Manson knew Melcher wasn't there, Manson instigated the killings to send a message to Melcher as revenge for Melcher not being fully supportive of Manson's fledgling music career. To make matters more strenuous for Gram, he had left his girlfriend (who gave birth to his only child, daughter Polly, in 1967) and married failed actress Gretchen Burrell, a relationship that nearly everyone around him describes as tumultuous, with jealousy, neediness, pettiness and drug use marring the affair. By the time of his death, Parsons was separated from Burrell. After finally getting his act together well enough to sign to Reprise Records and churn out GP, Parsons decided to take back a hold of his artistic life. Now looking chubby, 30 pounds heavier than his days with the Burritos, Gram sought to turn his life around. It wasn't always easy but reports are that he was mostly sober making Grievous Angel. But he must have believed his own fate was inevitable when he drunkenly told Phil Kauffman his post-mortem wishes after Clarence White's funeral, where Parsons decided to liven up the boring and unfitting ceremony by touchingly leading everyone in a singalong of the old spiritual "Farther Along." 

While playing a bill with Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young, Parsons even had an infamous encounter with Young and his trusty sideman of the time, Jack Nitszche, that prompted Nitszche too look Gram over then quip, in relation to Neil's old junkie OD friend Danny Whitten, "You look like Danny.... and Danny's dead." Certainly he had an accurate premonition but Parsons was able to soldier on with his touring, though the loss of his house in a fire was a devastating blow that caused another rift with his partner Burrell, who was there when it happened and reportedly caused it because of a wayward cigarette. With Emmylou contributing harmonies, plus a roster of excellent sidemen like pedal steel guitarist Al Perkins, James Burton, fiddler Byron Berline and Bernie Leadon (a former Burrito, at this point in the Eagles), Parsons had the right supporting cast to soar with on Grievous Angel. Here is where for one final time he showed all aspiring country-rockers how to do it, yet so few could even come close to getting it right. Years later many figures, from Elvis Costello to Dwight Yoakham to the various alt-country bands, credited Parsons as a major influence. Gram penned or co-penned most of the tracks for Grievous Angel but also selected excellent tunes to cover such as his lovelorn cover of "Hearts on Fire" and a weary, country heartbreaker version of "Love Hurts," better known today for the tough guy, hard rock, pained version by Nazareth. 

For his own material, Parsons gives "Return of the Grievous Angel" a sensational hillbilly country mood with Harris's silky accompaniment giving it a jamboree flavour. Overall, the weary, languid vocals of Parsons show his lifestyle was taking its toll but it's affecting nonetheless. Another fine cover is of Tom T. Hall's "I Can't Dance" gives his country knack a rock tilt with rollicking drums and a boogieing bottom. "Brass Buttons" is a melancholy, lazy sunny day type of track that is still full of the emotional punch Parsons is capable of in his best up-tempo stuff. The barroom of "$1000 Wedding" gives way to the shuffling country-rock of a Louvin Brothers cover paired with a new rendition of a Parsons Byrds-era composition: "Medley Live from Northern Quebec: A. Cash on the Barrelhead, B. Hickory Wind." With a crowd gathered in the studio, Parsons takes on the guise of it actually being recorded live from said location. A similarly rockabilly-slanted track is the jubilant "Ooh Las Vegas" while the harmony-rich "In My Hour of Darkness" is one of the more rustic, reflective tracks on the album, a nice choice to round out the album because it comes off as a farewell for the deceased Parsons, an artist who still had far more to bring to the table than he was able to present in his short life.

194. Daydream Nation-Sonic Youth (1988): Years of cutting their teeth on their odd sort of post-punk, avant-garde noise rock resulted in more widespread critical praise, and a tiny bit of a sales increase. They had become experts at strange, alternate tunings and had a D.I.Y. ethic in a time where recording artists were continually leaning on improving technology like a crutch. Though lacking instrumental virtuosity, a quality vocalist, melodic skill or high-fi production, Sonic Youth began rounding into form after years of sketchy indie releases. On Geffen Records by 1986, they put out the fine album Sister in 1987 before this double LP came out, attracting an increase in attention all-round while also allaying fears they would sell out (though some of their earlier fans might have been aghast that their Geffen songs actually had structure, melody and focus and later MTV-friendly efforts like "Kool Thing" did lead some to worry). The tremendous opener "Teenage Riot" was the high-water mark and rightfully leads off the album. Starting off with a meditative, dreamy tribal thump, it eventually speeds up into a heavenly wall of distortion, riffage and drums that sock with authority. But it's variety made this their first truly excellent record. 

From the occasionally dissonant, hypnotic fury of "Hey Joni," "Candle" and "Rain King" to the punky "Silver Rocket" and "'Cross the Breeze" to the sludge of "Eric's Trip" to the Kim Gordon-sung Velvet Underground-styled freakouts "The Sprawl" and "Kissability," Daydream Nation is a real journey through the unknown, well summarized by the final trilogy ("The Wonder," "Hyperstation," "Eliminator Jr."). Despite being a double set, there are only 14 tracks so have patience because few of these songs aren't long and winding. That said, it's a thrilling, rewarding winding road. I'm not sure what else to say since Sonic Youth is a band that doesn't do much but let their stirringly weird music do the talking. Pick up Daydream Nation and you'll know. That said, they are an acquired taste that even this reviewer has had trouble getting into and this album is the only one I can tolerate near 100%. Other fine Sonic Youth LPs stumble too much for me to include anything else of theirs in the top 200. Yeah, it's a short review but it's a tough band and album to categorize. All I know is that it's vital, pivotal music for the era of noise rock, grunge and alternative that was to come.

193. Songs of Leonard Cohen-Leonard Cohen (1967): Previously renowned and highly visible as a poet in his native Canada (yeah, poets were once renowned and highly visible in our pop culture), Mr. Cohen put his wordsmithery (not a word but it sounds fancy) toward music. Gravitating toward an angelic sort of folk in his early career, Cohen was a fine songwriter even if his guitar playing was nothing out of the ordinary and his voice was as tuneful as those speech processors on a PC. But this debut was like a more calming, more Eurocentric (in taste), more cultured Bob Dylan... if he got his start at age 33 like Leonard that is- because maturity and experience made Bob a different artist at 33 too (example being that he did an album about his crumbling marriage at that age). The hypnotically vivid "Suzanne" seems to lilt along on a cloud with Cohen's eloquent lyrics and a heavenly set of female backing singers giving it a stirring calm like nothing heard in folk or rock at the time. Originally, Cohen preferred his acoustic guitar to be his only accompaniment but strings were later added to give the album a more ethereal, bright atmosphere. 

"Master Song" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" are staples of the Cohen songbook too but are only highlights on a superb, consistent album. At times, the album can be monotonous thanks to the musical sparseness and Cohen's flat vocals, but the mood is lightened up for some tunes, including "Winter Lady," "Stories from the Street," "Teach us" and the Elizabethan-like "So Long, Marianne." The final tune is nearly quieter than the Arctic circle at night, the peaceful "One of us Cannot Be Wrong." Not uniformly immaculate but still a unique, sparkling debut that unleashed one of rock's most pivotal cult artists (though he's considered much more than that in Canada and Europe where his music and words are seen as first-class art), Songs of Leonard Cohen got Leonard Cohen rolling in his mid-30s for a surprisingly fertile career as a poet/singer. Cohen proved right off the bat that if musical artists could now be considered as singer-poets, why couldn't poets themselves be considered poet-singers? Cohen got the best of both worlds but hey, he earned that luxury starting with this album.

192. Snap!-The Jam (1983): Usually I'm adverse to compiling singles collections or greatest hits, unless they represent a significant portion of a band's music. If the album is full of good music, it's not going to matter whether or not that album divides the wheat from the chaff for an artist who never made a studio LP worth calling indispensable. Such is my sentiment on The Jam. Here you have a band that is still celebrated in its native England, albeit much of that is reserved for guitarist, lead singer and songwriter Paul Weller- coined the "Modfather." The Jam gave some mainstream, 60s overtones to punk rock in their own way, leading the new wave in the UK but also becoming looked up to for their stance on politics in England during a chaotic time when mass unemployment, unions and politicians were going at it tooth and nail. Weller and the boys (bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler) made their Britishness a distinct feature, Weller singing about English values, dreams and ambitions while wearing his accent on his sleeve. This served to make them even bigger than they probably should have been, because I can think of several acts in the post-punk era that outclassed them. Picking up where Ray Davies left off, the Jam sang about issues close to the lives of their listeners. This of course damned them to forever be obscure to rock fans across the Atlantic. 

Essentially, they were a terrific singles group, whether their supporters want to hear that said or not. All Mod Cons, Sound Affects and In the City are the closest they come to greatness in LP form, but their filler is not as interesting as the filler of the greats and if you ask me, the Clash (though many love to rag on them being phonies of some kind, which shouldn't automatically mean their music sucks) had album tracks that were better than the majority of the Jam's singles. Their other three studio LPs were anywhere from ordinary to decent. I could listen to half of London Calling before I want to hear a Jam song if you want to now the truth. That said, the Jam were still very good, just paling in comparison to the sizzling Clash in my estimation. Their albums just never bowl me over the way everyone says they will. Now, I have given their LPs the same chance as I gave other albums in the past- heck, at one point I thought Astral Weeks, Blonde on Blonde and Layla weren't all they were cracked up to be but repeated listens changed my mind- but I just don't feel it from the Jam. I have come to the conclusions that these minor punk rockers can only be best enjoyed if one is British. There's something innately British about them and I guess I can't get into their football-chant styled melodies and heavily accented protests about life on the dole, etc. 

And as it turned out, in the US they were most certainly overlooked but it wasn't a shock since the songs, good as they were, could hardly be adapted to fit American tastes. The Clash managed it, but never shied away from an internationalist approach or American roots rock influences, whereas the Jam's sound owed a lot to British Invasion music. Even when they settled into a Northern soul niche and began channeling Motown, Weller still conveyed European viewpoints, attitudes and that reedy, Woking class accented (I just made a pun on his birthplace! Oh how very clever) singing voice blurted it out. The Jam were formed in high school by Paul Weller and when the eventual trio was settled upon, they shot to prominence in 1977. Managed by Paul's father John, their debut album In the City made a big impact on critics and record buyers when it came out in April, amidst a blitzkrieg of punk hitting the selves. This debut is, in my opinion, their best studio album by a hair and a definitive postcard as to what the Jam were and always have represented. Right away, Weller emerged as the leader, though barely 19 when they debuted and the youngest member by a couple years. A gift for melody didn't arrive until his latter day work with the Jam and early Style Council, but he worked within his limitations early on- now sure it's slick but his Style Council songwriting on early highlights like "Speak Like a Child," "My Ever Changing Moods," "Shout to the Top," and "Walls Tumbling Down" is tasteful, urbanely soulful, commendable pop. 

Of course, this shift would not bring Weller a ton of chart success in the US and as the experimentation of Style Council crossed over into the pale, boring territory and often sounded like a pretentious soundalike of either light jazz, adult contemporary and UK pop (George Michael or Culture Club) his chart power dwindled. But before all that souring of reputation, Weller was known as the impressive mind behind the much loved Jam. Around 1977, the Jam thought they could write tuneful pop while rocking hard and the results, while good, were not consistent or above average on deep album cuts. It was only when the "Oy!" youthful, reckless energy was traded for musicality and black soul overtones that the Jam made truly professional pop but by then their days were waning and it was over beore you could blink. Plus it wasn't necessarily better just because it was more expertly composed. Now calm down if you're from the UK and outraged that I dare state the Jam are not even in the top 1o bands Britain ever graced the world with (I do think they beat out every 90s group including the Stones Roses, Oasis, Blur and the Verve but those bands weren't distinguished hitmakers in the vein of the Jam). I still say that after New Order, no British group I can think of really stands head and shoulders above the Jam but before and during the Jam's heyday there were countless amazing bands out of the UK. 

Nonetheless, after continuing their rule over the charts in 1982, Weller stunned many by announcing the group would disband at the close of the year. They went out with flair- great singles like "Town Called Malice" and "Beat Surrender" waving goodbye with infectious, energetic class. Weller knew there could be more money made (as his father urged him to keep in mind when making his final decision) but was terrified of becoming a dinosaur act, as all youthful and hungry groups do- namely Weller's heroes the Who, a group whose early Mod fashion sense and taste for American R&B rubbed off on The Jam, who dressed in Mod clothing at a time when most were in tattered wife beaters, leather, chains, piercings and ripped jeans. Scared of enduring what Pete Townshend had been undergoing since his late 20s, a still 23-year old Weller wanted to end the Jam at the height of their fortune. Rather than become "like them" (not the Who but a general compliment of once-great bands who ran out of relevant things to say musically and lyrically), Weller split up The Jam, much to the dislike of Foxton and Buckler, fans everywhere and much to the gain of keyboardist Mick Talbot who was the other fellow in Style Council (though they carried back-up musicians, they used whoever they felt like and were a creative duo, therefore like a more stage-active Steely Dan). 

In their 1989 hit "Sowing the Seeds of Love," Tears for Fears singer Roland Orazabal summed up widely held feelings when he proclaimed "Kick out the style, bring back the Jam!" A year later, Style Council was done and Weller embarked on what would be a spotty but reputation-rescucitating solo career that has been almost fully ignored outside his UK homeland. But he'll always be best remembered for his work in the Jam. Upon their demise, a compilation was in order and the double album Snap! was the result (two years later a CD version pared down to fewer tracks came out, Compact Snap!). Delivered in 1983 to patch up any holes with their non-LP singles, plus offer up the easily available gems, it was a smash hit while Weller was carousing about in fancy tuxedos singing smooth, often rather antiseptic pop with the Style Council- a phase in his career where his pro-Labour, anti-Thatcher beliefs became very boisterous yet simultaneously he began to dress like some reincarnation of David Bowie in the mid-70s and find high society/culture so interesting after years of spitting at it). Snap! goes chronologically, which tells the story of the band so well and shows just how they went from the rough-and-tumble youth observing snottiness of "In the City" to the super giddy, encouraging soul-pop of "Beat Surrender" in less than six years. 

"In the City" is a lot more embracing and light than the typical mean and angry punk of 1977 but that doesn't mean its punk for pussies or soft fare. It's opening descending bass line foreshadows the Sex Pistols' "Holidays in the Sun" which emerged a few months later. It's determined, snarling in its own way as Weller shows us his pre-80s vocals, a burly, husky, throaty drawl that betrays his teenage status. He uses that, with a hint of Elvis Costello, on "Away from the Numbers," a song very reminiscent of mid-60s Who and one of the other standouts off of In the City. "All Around the World" is also very Who-like, one of their earliest hook-savvy singles. The Jam's second album, This is the Modern World, came later in 1977 and though it wasn't as strong or exuberant as their debut it did have a caustically performed title track that "bashes and pops" like Nick Lowe would say. "The Modern World" is a rolling, tumbling, riff-heavy song where Weller mentions all the things society and school teaches that are really not like the modern world is or should be at all. "News of the World" is an aggressive, Clash type of track that was not one of their great singles but a solid effort overall thanks to Bruce Foxton, who sings and pens the track. It is one of the only singles the Jam ever put out that wasn't written by Weller. 1978 saw the Jam branch out to more serious work, striving for higher musical expectations and ore overt socio-political commentaries. From All Mod Cons, we get the (previous to Snap!, unavailable in the US) "Billy Hunt," is an ok rocker that recalls their 1977 youthful panache but it's the ethereal, mannered "English Rose," an acoustic delicacy, that had critics likening Weller to Ray Davies of the Kinks. 

Specifically, Weller was compared to Davies in his late 60s period where he was in the zone when it came to writing somewhat tongue-in-cheek, somewhat longingly about a domesticated, tranquil, traditional England that was rapidly changing because of economy, immigration and social trends. Of course, Davis all saw it from his perch in sturdy, peaceful and simple suburbia, halfway between rural life and the bustle of the city. The bluesy, new wavish pop of "Mr. Clean" is also a minor pleasure to hear and it was another of All Mod Cons' highlights. Another non-Weller single came in the form of their frantic "David Watts," which is actually a 1967 Kinks tune, thus feeding into critics' willingness to compare the two bands and their principle songwriters. It was backed by another All Mod Cons track, the showy finale "'A' Bomb in Wardour Street." The second single taken from the seminal album was the gleeful-sounding "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" which actually describes the not-so-gleeful scenario of a man travelling the London Underground subway with his take-away meal for him and his wife when thugs accost him as he buys a ticket. They whoop his ass, take all his belongings and the narrator of our story ruefully looks up at all the walls' travel posters while coming to the realization that a couple thugs have the keys to his house now. 

This song was Weller's way of juxtaposing the safe haven of domestic life with the danger and terror of urban life in all its decay and violence, a reality of late 70s London. Early 1979 saw the Jam unleash a new single, which until Snap! did not find a spot on a studio LP. "Strange Town," the A-side, is more New York new wave than England punk rock, though the vocals are unmistakably English. Its B-side, "The Butterfly Collector," went even more new wave and post-punk than their earlier material, accentuating thundering drums, processed vocals and a more relaxed rhythm than what the Jam commonly performed at. Another non-LP single came out in the summer of '79, the frenzied, beat-heavy "When You're Young," which finds the Jam beefing up their sound with guitar licks and solos as well as more prominent, harmonic vocal parts. Its B-side was Bruce Foxton's best writing job in the Jam, the very R&B/reggae-rock inspired "Smithers-Jones," another wry commentary on class in England (you'll find that as opposed to a lot of left-leaning, socially relevant music America has put out, class is much more an issue than race with UK artists perhaps puzzling American listeners a little over the years just the same way any socially relevant Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or John Mellencamp song wouldn't translate as well to British ears). 

"Smithers-Jones," unlike its A-side, found a home on their 1979 album Setting Sons but in a radically different version featuring strings in a heavy role. Setting Sons isn't fully adhered to, but does contain, a concept about three boyhood friends who come home after a war to realize they've grown up and grown apart. It was a lofty album that wasn't quite the equal of All Mod Cons, mainly due to some nitpicking most critics, including myself, take with throwaways such as the cover of "Heat Wave" (paying homage to the Who's rendition rather than the superior original by Motown's Martha Reeves & the Vandellas from 1963). From that album, Snap culls "Thick as Thieves," a good song that unfortunately begins to show the monotony of the band and that they were growing rather stale and out of ideas musically. That would change over the course of the next three years, and Setting Sons' "The Eton Rifles" is one of the first songs to point a new direction. A viciously thumping number, "Eton Rifles" was written by Weller based on a news story he read about when marching "Right to Work" unionists, organized by the Social Workers' Party, turned physical on nearby students from "posh" institute Eton Public School when they came by to jeer. Of course, this resulted in the Eton boys pummeling the marchers when it became clear they outnumbered them in the many, thus giving Weller ammunition for attacking socialists that only cared about inciting support through belligerence and intolerance of their enemies instead of laying the groundwork for real, thoughtful, intelligent grassroots change. 

Though "Eton Rifles" is not a pro-Conservative soapbox, the Jam, on the questionable advice of management (claiming it was savvy marketing to go against the grain of other punk era bands who were vocally left-wing) showed support for the Conservative agenda in the media around this time, a real polar opposite of what Weller came to represent in the mid-80s). "Eton Rifles" became the Jam's first top 10 single in the UK, hitting #3 and setting up what would be a fruitful charting bonanza for the Jam. This concluded LP1 of the original double set Snap from 1983. There became a new sense of confidence and purpose in the band going into the 1980s and their first #1, 1980's "Going Underground," makes this clear. The band is by now a tightly, sound ship that can make a lot of noise for a trio and Weller spews his words out with more vibrancy than ever. "Going Underground" is a scathing critique on the government's zeal for improving weaponry and strengthening the military at the expense of more socially important causes like health care (ie. "It's the kidney machines that pay for rockets and guns"). Weller then pledges to reject all the crap and head underground, not literally but you know what "underground" refers to doncha? Originally slated as the A-side to the single was "The Dreams of Children" but a mixup at the processing plant reversed the intended order. However, DJs preferred the accidental A-side anyway and the single charted as a Double A-side (which is what typically happened in the UK when a single had two sides worthy of airplay). 

"Going Underground" is pure, unadulterated fun and a brisk, arena rock delight that recalls the Clash's breakthrough to writing perfect pop-rock in 1979. "The Dreams of Children" isn't a bad one either, a more ambitious studio creation with the new wave element of the bass being chunkier and more up front in the mix. It also features very royal-like trumpet and signals that the Jam were no punk rocking amateurs anymore. On their stellar 1980 LP Sound Affects, there is a creeping influence from post-punk pioneers like Wire, Gang of Four, Joy Division and XTC while a more conscious effort to meld funkier styles into what had always a plain old I-IV-II chord, 4/4 time kind of group. "That's Entertainment!" is one of those acoustic guitar affairs but on Snap! we're given the (some would say) superior demo version of the song, rather than the fuller single and album version. Indeed, stripping away the song gives it more resonance as we hear Weller on all instruments except drums. "That's Entertainment!" is a lovely snapshot of the pressures of working class life while comparing it to the entertainment world that feeds them the TV and film the working class can live vicariously through. Weller's vocals hit his falsetto range wonderfully, tapping into what became a warm, hearty, soulful voice within a year or two, as opposed to his bellicose holler in the Jam's punkier days. Amazingly, the Jam managed to get this song to #21 on the charts as an import single, it having been released in some European countries but not the UK. 

On top of that, are some psychedelic twists to Sound Affects, well-represented on the album's ultimate track, the #1 hit "Start!" which recalls mid-60s psychedelia, primarily the Beatles' Revolver. And indeed, this track comes dangerously close to outright copying the Fab Four's "Taxman" from that quintessential album (which I'll say- and here's a spoiler- comes dangerously close to something itself, saaay the top 5 of my top 200 list... There, now calm yourselves before you all hyperventilate to death!). It even tosses in the odd percussive noise just like on "Taxman" though here we get maracas instead of tambourine. Plus, they recreate the warped solo from "Taxman" but do so without resorting to backward masking like on the Beatles song, thus giving it a different feel. "Start!" employs both the studio's realm of technology for dryness (that rhythm guitar is as up close and personal as it gets) and echo (the bells, guitar arpeggios and soaring vocals of the middle eighth- "If I never ever see you..."). Weller's knack for melodicism begins to show its face around this point. The lyrics are disjointed at times (what the hell does "Knowing there's someone in this world/Who loves with a passion called hate/And what you give is what you get?" mean?) but it still works within the stop time, rhythmic innovation of the song.

The pleading, reserved yet tense "Man in the Corner Shop" should have been a single too, but instead remains an essential album cut that made the grade for Snap! Later, in summer 1981, came the single "Funeral Pyre," a scintillating piece that has Rick Buckler smashing his kit with authority. At this point, top 10 hits were the norm for the Jam. With their skill and dedication at such an honest, fearless level, it's no wonder the UK embraced the Jam but such values don't always translate into success in the US and the Jam would continue to languish in obscurity there but resist the temptation to market their music for overseas appeal. But Paul Weller, maturing ever so under the microscope at 22 years old by this point, became interested in tackling R&B in a more direct way than just liking it because the Who did. The 80s brought us a pop style, fermented in the outburst of Britons loving all musical styles Jamaican during the 70s, that came to be known as "Britfunk." It drew upon those Jamaican sounds but also Northern Soul (England's own in-house R&B) and funk, and the Jam latched on with "Absolute Beginners," a danceable, infectious fall single in 1981. For some reason, Britfunk always had those meek, cheesy, peppy horns that were a cross between mariachi, elementary school, early reggae and the band Chicago. Britfunk provided many a sunny memory for nostalgic British folks today, but ultimately was turned vapid, slick and just plain annoying (although I contest those horns had always been rather puny- where was the excellent UK horn expertise of the Rumour Horns- Graham Parker's blowers and guests on other artists' albums like the Clash- or the Average White Band when you needed it?). 

Brass in the baritone or bass ranges had been used by some bands during the Glam era, but now shrill trumpets, trombones and saxes were preferred (just listen to stuff like Elvis Costello's 1983-84 work, Level 42, Heatwave, Style Council and Spandau Ballet to see what I mean, then try some Wham! to see how it all went so horribly wrong and out of order by the mid-80s). "Absolute Beginners" has an excellent B-side that gets inclusion here, the very Kink(s)y "Tales from the Riverbank." Anyway, all seemed peachy but the sudden rush of fame and adulation made Weller a bit disturbed, almost hesitant to move on with the Jam. Early in 1982, an album arrived that indicated the Jam were trying new things and perhaps moving away from their pub rocking nature, much to the chagrin of the guys in the Jam not named Paul Weller. It was an album bluntly called The Gift, a rather weighty and declamatory thing to call an LP for a band with previously witty puns and/or observances for their album titles. The Gift met with mixed reviews and for the first time, The Jam were questioned and criticized. For all its ambition and growth, it's bogged down by excesses, too much derivativeness and weakly fleshed out songs in the Northern Soul mode. Still, it's got a few moments of spot-on terrific goodness, namely "A Town Called Malice." Motown sung with British accents, it describes the downsides of living in a small town in England- or the dowdy suburbs since Weller admits he wrote it based on experiences in his hometown of Woking, Surrey, London. 

But with the great handclaps, organ, vocal lines and Weller's ever-improving ways with a melody, "A Town Called Malice" is one of the Jam's top 5 recordings. It was a double A-side early in 1982 with another standout from The Gift, the new wave rocking "Precious," which infuses the horns with ease, without straying far from classic Jam. After the somewhat chilly reception for The Gift, the Jam regained a bit of approval with their deserved #2 hit "The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow)," a rare ballad that features the advent of strings and piano plus Weller's newfound soul vocal stylings, now backed with female accompaniment instead of Bruce Foxton. It's a moody, catchy little piece with a softer edge than anything the Jam had ever tried but it works out very well in a Motown-ish mid-60s way. Weller moving in this direction could have been part of his artistic muse, but maybe he realized guitar bands were being phased out on the charts in favour of danceable, techno-bubbly pop dominated by keyboards. But the knowledge that the Jam were wrapping it up after their 1982-83 tour had many swallowing a bitter pill indeed, and perhaps that was the sentiment behind "The Bitterest Pill." On the surface, it's a tune about a guy who watches his former love wed someone else and how it's tough to swallow, etc. But it could be construed, rightly or wrongly, as Weller's dilemma over ending the Jam. After all, it was a pill he wanted to swallow but as he sings "The bitterest pill is mine to take" (assuming responsibility?). Coincidence or not, "The Bitterest Pill" speaks to the dissolution of the group more than any other song. All the same elements musically are rolled into their farewell single "Beat Surrender," a fast-paced, action-packed 3.5 minutes of breathless exuberance that's more sweet than bitter. Weller makes the case for the "beat surrender" being the ultimate pull for him as he gives lines such as "All the things that I care about are packed into one punch/All the things that I'm not sure about are sorted out at once." He castigates the music biz leaches still ("My doubt is cast aside/Watch phonies run to hide/The dignified don't even enter in the game") then declares "That bullshit is bullshit, it just goes by different names." 

The song's chord progression is the trickiest the Jam ever produced, veering between major and minor modes. There's an impassioned middle eighth where Weller urges the young to make their voices heard, addressing them with "And if you feel there is no passion/No quality sensation/Seize the young determination/Show the fakers you ain't foolin'" and pledging to be there all the time to stand for what's good and right in music and life. This gives way to a propulsive final stanza where Weller at one point jives over the refrain "Come on boy, come on girl/Succumb-uh to the beat surrender!" Some accused Weller of getting full of himself and overproducing the last batch of Jam recordings, but "Beat Surrender" is just fine if you ask me with its peppy horns, driving piano, the dexterous bass of Bruce Foxton, manic drumming of Rick Buckler and wonderful vocal arrangement. On "Beat Surrender," Weller in particular is in top form, delivering one of the most magnificent performances of his career and making it matter. It's like twisted Motown or the Clash pilled-up to the hilt. Or it's just the Jam, and that's one of the nicest compliments an artist can offer. It's a fitting denouement to the Jam's career as well as this double-disc compilation, a wonderful testament to one of the more interesting, hard-working British groups of the punk and new wave era. Through the winter of 82-83, the Jam went on the UK's prestigious Top of the Pops to perform "Beat Surrender," made a farewell tour and then faded away with Weller's ever-increasing excesses in Style Council met with rolling of the eyes for the next seven years to come.

191. Mott-Mott the Hoople (1972): After an inconspicuous start as your average hard rock group, Mott the Hoople later began racking up some hits but mostly the approval of critics. Early albums found them steeped in Dylan, hard Stonesy rock and a taste for American R&B plus good-natured humour that stemmed from key member Ian Hunter's unglamorous self-deprecation and understanding of how rock stardom is a silly game. Mott the Hoople eventually won fans in the industry and when David Bowie became their pal, they got the boost their career needed and deserved. They combined influences from all around to become a lovable garage band, enamored by soul and R&B before pub rock became huge yet distinctly themselves. Mott the Hoople were above the pomp and posing of glam, a sub-genre they got tied in with somewhat unfairly, mainly thanks to David Bowie lending them "All the Young Dudes,"their biggest hit. When that song crashed into the top 10, it seemed a downhill path toward eventual breakup like all rock bands did. Well Mott couldn't escape that and seemed to know it, chronicling their career in song as it went to the bitter end, losing original members and finding the business a tough go. Their non-Bowie classics would say otherwise to the claim they were a glam band but Mott, their third and best album, attempted to downplay the glam connotations and the stereotyping of the band being gay because of the lyrical matter of "All the Young Dudes." It worked to a degree. 

Their decidedly goofy, yet never campy, English take on R&B was replicated by many acts over the years. That Paul Weller-Adam & the Ants deal of giving R&B anglo sensibilities from thousands of miles across the ocean where the music of inspiration was created? Well, Mott the Hoople did it all beforehand. The band was just a whole load of fun and Mott is your best bet for good times. Its first track is the chugging "All the Way from Memphis" which begins sardonically enough one on Hunter's piano chord pounded out over and over till the rest kick in. It's an ironic, sly take on R&B that only Dylan-esque, wry vocalist Ian Hunter and the boys could muster. Perfectly British yet sensible to American ears with its southern boogie and winning dedication. Same goes for the more arena-flashy "Honaloochie Boogie" while the closer "I Wish I Was Your Mother" adds in mandolin for a down home, bluegrass touch. All three of these mentioned tracks are stone classics of the early 70s rock world. Eat your heart out, Slade! The more hard rocking tunes don't disappoint either, whether it's "Violence" or "Drivin' Sister," they hit you like the Stones ugly kid bastard younger brother. But the slower, more contemplative stuff is even better than "Violence" or "Drivin' Sister." Take for example "Whizz Kid," "Hymn for the Dudes" and "Ballad of Mott the Hoople," a decidedly realistic take on how rock bands struggle and/or fade away. 

Mott the Hoople was such a good band because they could sing the truth about rock and roll with a head square on their shoulders. For the usual business of breaking up, squabbling and financial travails that Mott the Hoople sang of, the group splintered. In 1973, important founding member lead guitarist Mick Ralphs left to form Bad Company, a band who, as it turned out, rocked even harder, sounded catchier, had a real accomplished frontman (Paul Rodgers of Free) and made memorable rock radio staples (you'll hear way less Mott on classic rock radio than you'll hear the inferior "Can't Get Enough," "Rock n' Roll Fantasy," "Feel Like Makin' Love," "Good Lovin' Gone Bad" and others. But for all their traits, Bad Company was never as essential or likable as Mott, more formulaic and less up front. Mott inspired a lot of punks with their carefree approach to stardom as they claimed to be just the same as the people that paid to see them, intermingling with them as much as possible until of course fame brought its clamps down. With the loss of Ralphs, a songwriting and instrumental force in the group, they never recovered and Hunter abandoned Mott for a solo career in 1975, effectively ending what should have been a longer run that produced more masterpieces like the album Mott was. It was not to be, but Mott the Hoople eventually received their due credit and when punk arrived, they were one of the few of the early 70s giants not to be labelled "dinosaurs" and to be actually commended. Mick Jones of the Clash was a big fan and one can hear his Mott inspirations in plenty of Clash recordings. Such was Mott the Hoople's unpretentious, humble power.

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