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Last updated: January 4th, 2017

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Rolling Stones – Five by Five EP

Year: 1965
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 12


This is their final EP comprised entirely of studio material (their third EP is made up of some live tracks taken from various UK shows) and while it's not "unquestionably the first and last great EP", as British critic Roy Carr put it, it's certainly a mild improvement over their first EP in my ears. However, it is my understanding that the majority of non-paid critics – most of whom know these tracks only from their appearance on the US-only LP 12 X 5 – think only two of the tracks are worthwhile, comparing the rest to weaker versions of similar songs from their first album.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Beach Boys – All Summer Long

Year: 1964
Record Rating = 8
Overall Rating = 12


By 1964, the British Invasion was already in full flight, and Brian Wilson must have been aware of this (and I suppose, since he's co-credited on most of the originals, Mike Love as well), because the songwriting here is a hell of a lot more consistent, and the choice of covers is definitely worth complimenting as well, making this their best LP since Surfer Girl (I really like Shut Down, Vol. 2, mind you, but the smell of filler is still rather persistent), their first LP I could call great, and their first nearly-filler free record.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Kinks – Kinks

Year: 1964
Record Rating = 5
Overall Rating = 10


In the early days, the Kinks suffered from hit-single-itis. This is a medical condition where you release a single, be it your first, your second, your third or your sixteenth, that somehow (either because it deserved it or their was just nothing else of merit around or people missed out on some great stuff in favor of it) became a hit, so you need to record a full album to promote the damn thing, and fast. If you ask me, the notion of quickly recording an album of songs that might not resemble the single should hardly seem like a good way to profit on your success, but the 1960s were a crazy time where anything went, including such sudden changes from go-nowhere third-rate pop band to chart-topping superstars.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Beatles – A Hard Day's Night

Year: 1964
Record Rating = 9
Overall Rating = 14


If Please Please Me introduced the Beatles' songwriting abilities, and With the Beatles showed them fine-tuning it, then their third album shows them take British Invasion pop to its limits. Coupled with the fact that the album cleverly combines the happy ways of their debut and the newfound dark aura of its follow-up, it's easy to see why this is considered to be the peak of the early Beatles era. Making this album a success could have been tricky. Having just broken big in the States on the heels of "I Want to Hold Your Hand", some of their time – otherwise dedicated to writing and recording – would be consumed by touring on the other side of Atlantic (as well as facing crowds of groupies after their asses; with minimal reluctance, probably). Fortunately, we have the gift of retrospect to tell us that the Beatles were geniuses, so the seven months between the release of With the Beatles and this one's final recording sessions were ample to come up with, not only something worthy of our attention, but also containing nothing but Lennon/McCartney originals.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones

Year: 1964
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 12

Best Song: I'M A KING BEE

At its birth, rock 'n' roll was dubbed as "the Devil's music", an epithet that I find actually quite confusing. What, pray tell, is so demonic about Chuck Berry singing about his preference of this style of music over classical or jazz or Elvis Presley warning us not to step on his brand new blue suede shoes, which probably cost him a pretty penny? No, in the late-'50s, there was nothing majorly "evil" about rock 'n' roll (as for their lifestyles, well, that's a different story all together), and certainly no evil music was going on in the early-'60s, where these guys either died in a freak accident (Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran), were busy preaching (Little Richard) or were caught in some sort of scandal (Jerry Lee Lewis' marriage to his 13-year old cousin), so their music's impact was being diluted by easy-going pop hits of the day.

If anything should have been called "Devil's music", it should have been the blues, what with the theories behind Robert Johnson selling his soul for his guitar talent only to be poisoned to death at age 27 (the first of such young deaths in 20th century music, I believe). Yes, rock 'n' roll was musically based on the blues, but blues musicians were always fascinated in making references to both God and His evil counterpart. Thus, for rock 'n' roll to be truly evil, it needed to take its drive and mix it with the mystical aura around the blues. That, my dear friends, is exactly what the Rolling Stones did.

Obviously, the Stones weren't the only ones to combine the two genres. The Yardbirds were another blues-based rock combo, and the Pretty Things (whose guitar player was the original bassist to the Stones) would eventually follow suite. The problem is, in the early days with Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds would play extremely professionally, but also extremely safe. As for the Pretty Things, the issue was quite the opposite; they played with plenty of energy all right, but most of the time, they couldn't keep up with each other, let alone the bigger names in the business. This is where the Rolling Stones come in, finding the golden middle. The same could be said about the Beatles, actually, on the pop side of things, hence the whole yin-to-their-yang relationship between the two groups.

Talent and sound are one thing, of course, but having good songs is another. Fortunately, on their debut, the Rolling Stones deliver. There's only 12 songs, two blues jams credited to the entire group, and only one Jagger/Richards composition; the rest are covers varying from Chuck Berry to Muddy Waters to Bo Diddley to Jimmy Reed, even some Motown numbers make it to the proceedings. One pretty clear advantage is that they rarely make the most obvious choices (not that this would always be the case for the Yardbirds and the Pretty Things), and besides, there's hardly any filler in sight.

Now, I say hardly, because there is a small amount of filler present, so I'll get through that first. The two easiest accused are the two Motown-style numbers; one, "You Can Make It from You Try", written by country-soul fella Ted Jarrett, shows Mick Jagger's ineptitude at the time to tackle this sort of soulful material (in fact, that's always been the Stones' most noticeable flaw, not that it would always be a flaw, of course), and another, Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness?" just doesn't quite fit the group's persona, even if I usually can't get enough of that simple boogie-based riff. A third song, "Honest I Do", sounds sort of Motown-ish, but it's actually a Jimmy Reed tune, just with the cavernous echo making the ringing guitars sound more ballad-like than bluesy; said echo has a wonderful effect on the harmonica, though. Deep and mysterious, that one is, which explains why this one rarely gets lumped together with the rest of the filler tunes.

The rest of the covers are all terrific blues-rock. Their opening rendition of Bobby Troup's "Route 66", which the band probably got from the Chuck Berry cover, along with Berry's actual hit "Carol", shows just how well Keith Richards has mastered and even improved upon those Chuck Berry licks, to inspire future rockers, ranging from Aerosmith to AC/DC. As the Stones themselves would continue to play this kind of material, they could only get better at it, even when it came time to write their own variations. As for the second track, "I Just Want to Make Love to You", it was originally a slow, moody, Willie Dixon-penned tune for Muddy Waters, but here it's revved-up and blasphemed, perhaps the quintessential example of the "beauty" of the marriage between rock and blues. It's sloppy enough to get your heart pumping but professional enough to sound like a real blues band, only all hopped up instead of doped down.

For their U.S. debut, the Bo Diddley-influenced Buddy Holly number "Not Fade Away" opens the record, but opted to remove the actual Bo Diddley number on here, "Mona (I Need You Baby)". It's a damn shame, really; I consider this to be one of the best British covers of a Bo Diddley classic. Not that "Not Fade Away" isn't played well. It was their third top 40 hit, after all, as well as their first to hit American charts. But the way they sink into the groove of Bo's beat on "Mona" is simply unbeatable; Bill's hypnotic, yet simple, bass, Charlie's pounding drum rhythm, the muddy tremolo guitars, and of course, Mick's sneering growl, as deeply effective as Bo's original. This might be the one track where Mick sounds less like a talented British kid with an affinity for black music, but one who can do a spot-on impression of a black vocalist.

If "Mona" has Mick's most impressive outgoing vocal performance, than "I'm a King Bee", the record's best tune, has his most impressive sly vocal. The Rolling Stones were always about sleaze, after all, and whenever they did it subtly, they really came out on top. So when you combine Mick whispering out the song's innuendos with low-range guitar slides buzzing around and stinging leads over it (and no, the choice of adjectives there were anything but accidental, don't you know?), not to mention a dirty ol' harmonica solo, you get something that Slim Harpo would never really achieve, as excellent a bluesman he may be. It's no wonder that the second best Harpo cover, one of his "Shake Your Hips", is the work of the Stones as well.

The final cover, one of Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog", is a great recording too, and not just because it corrects the mistake of "Witness" and "You Can Make It" by closing the record instead of the them. It's another great blue groove, with gruff guitars and gruffer backing vocals; I don't know who does them, but they almost sound like someone barking out the words. Add the hilarious whistling in between verses, and you've got an excellent cover. And I've yet to mention the "original" numbers. "Little By Little", while not a highlight by any means (nor a real original in the strictest sense of the word), is a groovy blues stomper, which gives the band plenty of space to jam in between the minimal amount of lyrics (and that sly harmonica line is pretty nifty too).

That's not the only reason why I used quotation marks around the word "original", because "Now I've Got a Witness" is basically an instrumental version of "Can I Get a Witness?" Well, call me crazy, but this instrumental is way better than the actual tune (that is, the Stones' rendition; I'm not one to dismiss Marvin for no reason). Ian Stewart, the "sixth" Stone, contributes some excellent organ, especially that pulsating bass part, which matches Bill Wyman's actually bassline – simpler, but more menacing – just great, and is the perfect tune to jam to, or so it would seem anyway. Some more excellent harmonica and a sharp guitar solo ensue, as if Brian or Mick (I don't know who's playing harmonica on here) is competing with Keith to see who the real leader is. If you ask me, it's a tie, but it's fun to here the "fight" go on.

The only actual original (that is, a Jagger/Richards-penned composition) sounds like nothing else on the LP. It's a Mersey-style pop song, so it sticks out like a sore thumb (or rather, like a perfectly healthy thumb on an otherwise rough, bruised, and callused hand), but it's a fine composition, taking inspiration by Lennon/McCartney without ripping them off. As they would prove later on, Jagger and Richards had their own nose for these sorts of pop hooks, and that hypnotic ringing acoustic guitar and those crooning backup vocals from Richards are hard to dismiss. It's a bit primitive, for sure, but it's one step closer to writing something as brilliant as "Ruby Tuesday", so I sure as hell don't mind.

Anyways, for an album that consists mostly of covers, this is quite excellent; revolutionary, energetic, professional, what more could you ask for? Yes, the Rolling Stones would only get better from here, but if it weren't for this album, there would be no blues-rock, only blues-based rock. Hell, even the Animals, who made one of the most innovative singles of 1964, had to bow down to their importance – even before the release of this record – in their pseudo-composition recounting the tale of rock 'n' roll's first decade. Besides, no other mid-'60s band could make jams this engaging, nor place a pop ballad in such an album with such ease and nonchalance. The only thing we've got to wait for is for them to be more sincere on this sort of material, but that didn't take too long.

Read more Rolling Stones reviews here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones EP

Year: 1964
Record Rating = 6
Overall Rating = 11


With the top 20-chart success of "I Wanna Be Your Man" in late 1963, the Stones' manager/producer, Andrew Loog Oldham, decided they needed to capitalize on this. Their label still weren't too sure about it – they were probably afraid that the band were as evil as Oldham was trying to market them; it's amazing they wouldn't drop them reading some of the suspicious comments he would write in the liner notes of their US releases – so it was decided that they would test the waters to the LP world with a brief, four-song EP.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Stevie Wonder – Stevie at the Beach

Year: 1964
Record Rating = 5
Overall Rating = 9


Instrumental jazz didn't work. Capitalizing on his blindness didn't work. Lounge music didn't work (this really shouldn't have been their idea of a good album for a 13-year old to make for more than two seconds, but they did it anyways). It was time Motown took a look around to see exactly what it was kids Stevie's age were listening to, and make him record something in that vain. They did just that, and decided that surf music was the word of the day, so for Stevie's fourth studio album, they were going surf.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Beach Boys – Shut Down, Vol. 2

Year: 1964
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 11


Before I get on with the review, please do not call me stupid for the lack of a Shut Down, Vol. 1. There is one, of course, but it was a multi-artist compilation of car songs (taking the concept of Little Deuce Coupe and sharing it with the Beach Boys' peers), which of course had the Beach Boys' "Shut Down" on it, as well as their other car classic, "409". For some reason, it was decided that the next full-fledged Beach Boys LP should be considered the second volume to the compilation, despite the fact that car songs do not form a clear majority of the tracks on here; I suppose it could have something to do with an instrumental called "Shut Down, Part II", but that could have easily been written only after the album title had been chosen.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Bob Dylan – The Times They Are a-Changin'

Year: 1964
Record Rating = 6
Overall Rating = 11


Following up an album as brilliant as Freewheelin' would be quite a difficult task. Instead of making a proper follow-up, Bob Dylan decided it was time to make a full-blown album of protest folk, in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, etc. Deviating from the obvious track was always something Bob loved doing, as he would prove time and time again. Occasionally, you get a winner out of it: John Wesley Harding is a masterpiece, the country-era albums are for the most part fun to listen to, but this is just kind of a bore.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Stevie Wonder – With a Song in My Heart

Year: 1963
Record Rating = 3
Overall Rating = 7

Best Song: I give up…

For Stevie's first album without the "Little" prefix, Motown decided it would be a good idea to market him as a standards kind of guy (a similar move was made with Marvin Gaye around this time as well). Apparently, the success of "Fingertips" did not make the message clear that R&B is the way to go, or the label's greater success with the style in question when it came to other, more consistently successful artists on the still somewhat nascent label. At this point, they just seem to be wasting our time and Stevie's talent. But please, do not get the impression I don't like this kind of music. In fact, I hold Ray Charles albums of similar nature (like The Genius Hits the Road and the two volumes of Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, even if these albums alternate the ballads with more upbeat material) in high regard, and Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours has quickly become a favorite of mine since I first discovered it. But this album is just a big bore.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Beatles – With the Beatles

Year: 1963
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 12


Same year, same formula (8 originals, 6 covers), and already the Beatles show progress on their second British LP. I can't be quite sure, but something tells me it's due to the record's slightly darker aura (and I'm not referring to the album cover – although it is quite suitable). Before, the majority of the covers were sappy little love songs ("but what's wrong with that?", to paraphrase a then-future Paul McCartney single) and danceable rock 'n' roll numbers, but now, there are at least three quasi-operatic readings of Motown numbers, a similar non-Motown track and only two covers that could be called "lightweight" and "faithful to their originals" (and even this term stretches the truth). Even the originals are a change of pace, with only a re-recorded outtake from the Please Please Me sessions counting as real teenybopper stuff.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Beach Boys – Little Deuce Coupe

Year: 1963
Record Rating = 5
Overall Rating = 9


No wonder Brian Wilson went insane; by the time the SMiLE project began, he had already been overworked for 5 years. If you don't believe me, just take a look at the 1963-1965 period. In that time, the Beach Boys released 10 albums, whilst the Beatles, for example, only released six (although it should be noted that, in this time frame, the Beatles also released ten LPs in the States, but considering they had the same label there, it could be assumed it was Capitol's fault all along). The most explicit example of them attempting to overwork the group, aside from releasing 4 of those LPs in 1964, is that Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe were only released a month apart.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Beach Boys – Surfer Girl

Year: 1963
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 11

Best Song: IN MY ROOM

This is the third Beach Boys album in a row with the word "surf" in the title, and ultimately, it would be their last, except in 8 years from then with Surf's Up, although its content has little to do with the maritime sport. To commemorate the end of an era, most of the songs are about surfing, and a grand total of five have the word "surf" somewhere in the title, with another having the word "wave", another's title is a slang term for surfboard, and a final one references a place known for its tremendously oversized waves. In short, the Beach Boys' last surf album has the most surf-related songs they've ever made. The thematic of the Beach Boys' LP would be far narrower next time around, though, as on Surfer Girl there are also two car songs, a ballad about summer romance, and another ballad that I'd rather not summarize in such a manner.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Little Stevie Wonder – Recorded Live: The 12-Year Old Genius

Year: 1963
Record Rating = 5
Overall Rating = 9


Some sources claim this album came out before Tribute to Uncle Ray, giving them release dates of May and June 1963, respectively; of course, I went with the source that said Tribute was released in October '62. If the brief moment where The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie is referred simply to as "[his] album" during the stage patter, you should keep in mind that this set was performed shortly after the release of his debut LP. Whatever the case may be, most of the material here is what appears on Tribute, with the two opening performances being culled from Jazz Soul (and fortunately, they're two of its highlights) and the third track wasn't even released on a non-compilation LP (it was released a b-side though; Stevie had a lot of non-album singles, which is not to be unexpected for a performer in the early 1960s).

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Year: 1963
Record Rating = 10
Overall Rating = 15


It's hard to exactly pinpoint when the singer-songwriter genre became one of the ultimate goals to achieve, the pinnacle of self-expression in music. Not being a huge expert on folk music of the XVIIth-XIXth centuries or the folk revival spurred on by the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, what I'm saying here is purely speculation, but considering that folk music is basically like some kind of club where everybody borrows from each other, it doesn't really matter what I say, since there's a possibility of being at least partially right. So, taking into consideration all the singer-songwriters whose music I'm familiar with, ranging from John Lennon to Neil Young to Van Morrison to Joni Mitchell, it's safe to say that The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was an influence to all of these artists, and a great deal many more.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Beatles – Please Please Me

Year: 1963
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 12


When compared to other pop records from the early '60s, Please Please Me stands out like a brilliant gem. Considering that 10 of the 14 tracks were recorded in a matter of 13 hours, in one day's worth of sessions no less, it would seem like this LP is nothing short of miraculous. And it's not exactly like the Fab Four set out to make some kind of artistic triumph. The six covers were essentially culled from their live setlist (in fact, the original intention was to record the LP live at the Cavern Club, but George Martin, their producer and probably the best candidate for legendary "fifth Beatle" title, deemed the acoustics feeble at best), and one or two of the four non-single originals were also performed live in their club days.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Odds & Sods #32

As Safe As Yesterday Is (1969)

Like with any other supergroup at the time, I imagine expectations for Humble Pie's debut were quite high (not quite as high as expectations set for Cream, Blind Faith and Derek & the Dominoes; as well known as the Pie's members' origins were by 1969, there's no doubt in my mind that any Eric Clapton-related project would be even better known by the British music-listening public at large). After all, the Small Faces had only a year earlier released Ogden's Nut Gone Flake; what would have been the band's Tommy ended up being their Abbey Road. With Steve Marriott at the helm of this new outfit, perhaps we might have continued on that path.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Odds & Sods #31

Vincebus Eruptum (1968)

As a general rule, I don't like referring to styles of music that I listen to as "metal"'; to me, the word is too close in association with all kinds of talentless hacks who think a whole lot of distortion makes a song. Only for historical reasons do I ever refer to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple as "heavy metal". I make one clear exception when it comes to one of the biggest influencing factors on these acts, Blue Cheer, probably as derivative as the metal I shun, but also a hell of a lot more fun.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Odds & Sods #30

T.N.T. (1975)

This is where AC/DC really come crashing through the walls – thanks to the help of some dynamite, I suppose – and come up with an album where, surprisingly, four songs would go on to become live standards, three of which would be joined by a different fourth song as staples of classic rock radio. Obviously, these accolades wouldn't mean anything if the songs weren't any good, but that's certainly not a problem. Usually, if an AC/DC song makes it to the airwaves, it's because it's got rocking power and accessibility rolled into one.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Odds & Sods #29

High Voltage (1975)

In the beginning, AC/DC were a progressive-folk band whose focus was their ancestral Scottish melodies played on bagpipes and electric guitars… Okay, scrap that, it was a bad joke (although they would give the bagpipes a shot anyway). AC/DC were always AC/DC, whether their lead singer is Brian Johnson, Bon Scott or their lesser-known predecessor Dave Evans. Hell, they could suddenly recruit Barry Manilow as lead singer and not a whole lot would change.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Odds & Sods #28

13th Floor Madness (1983)

Imagine my surprise when I put on this record thinking I was going to hear 999's worst album (this in spite of the fact that the AllMusic Guide rates it a star more than its predecessor, but the lack of review for the latter only added to my usual scepticism towards their integrity, accuracy and credibility) and ended up getting a perversely enjoyable listening experience? I believe the biggest complaint among the band's fans is that they "sold out" with this album, what with the significant presence of synthesizers and electronic drums, but their presence is nowhere near as exacerbating as they make it out to be. They're used in a slightly Prince-ish way, so it's easy to call this their "groove" album.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Odds & Sods #27

Live and Let Live (1977)

What do you do when, after the departure of two of your band's founding members and songwriters, you're still insecure about your ability to maintain a solid fanbase, concluding that a single studio album is not enough to rectify the situation? Why, it's quite simple; you follow it up with a double-live album with a newly assembled touring band and play a selection of your hits and latest album tracks. That's exactly what 10cc try to do with this album, released fairly shortly after Deceptive Bends, a time-gap that wouldn't be such a big deal if not for the fact that 8 of the 9 songs from their then-recent LP are found in live performances here, although I guess that's simply a matter of them needing to promote the album.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Odds & Sods #26

Deceptive Bends (1977)

With Godley & Creme's departure to work on their un-10cc-like Consequences project, Gouldman and Stewart were left to carry the 10cc name on their own; of course, they had the help of touring drummer Paul Burgess, but he wasn't really going to be a major help in terms of songwriting, but I guess it could have helped them keep a connection to their golden years with G&C. Anyways, with their first LP as a duo, they had a lot to prove, that they could make an album worthy of the 10cc name. In my ears, it's a success, and is most definitely worth of a 4/5, and it's pretty close to a 4 and a half, too.