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Last updated: January 4th, 2017

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Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Beatles (1968)

by the Beatles
Overall Rating =
15

Best Song: WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS

After Sgt. Pepper, the question on everybody's minds was "what can the Beatles possibly do next?" Indeed, the Beatles themselves hardly knew how to follow up their album lauded as an innovative masterpiece, recording new songs in similar styles for soundtrack albums – the late '67 Magical Mystery Tour and the held-back Yellow Submarine – in the interim. By 1968, they were still at a loss, but their planned trip to India to learn Transcendental Meditation from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi would change all of that. While they were focused on the meditation, a lot of their time was occupied with writing music, made easier with the relaxed atmosphere, the presence of other musicians – most notably Donovan and the Beach Boys' Mike Love – and the overall change of perspective brought on by the events of the seminar. They ended up writing so much that, when they recorded their new material upon returning to England, they couldn't possibly cut the amount down to a single disc and decided to release a double album.

The irony behind making this their eponymous album is that, in some ways, this is hardly a Beatles album at all. The Lennon–McCartney tag prevails, naturally, but how many of these songs are really collaborations between the two? Plus, a whole smattering of tunes are recorded by non-quartet variations of the group: Paul and Ringo, John and Ringo, Paul and George and Ringo, John and George and Ringo, George and Paul, just Paul, just John… well, you get the idea. At the end of the day, only 16 of the 30 tracks have all four members playing on them, which says a lot about the band's short future at the time. And yet, I still say this collective solo album nature of the album's constitution, the double-LP length and of course the order the songs are played out they make this album better than any possible single disc divisions fans rave about. They couldn't possibly top Sgt. Pepper in innovation without going off the avant-garde deep-end, and the competition from bands formed around this time – the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Nice and Procol Harum on the experimental side, Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Band on the revivalist side – meant that the only way to compete was through an expansion, a Beatles' crusade if you will. And like the real crusades, some people may have been converted, and some may not, but those who have been (such as myself, a former Beatles hater, mind you) are more than willing to try and spread the message.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Live Peace in Toronto 1969 (1969)

by the Plastic Ono Band
Overall Rating =
7

Best Song: COLD TURKEY

What's this? A non-Beatles album focusing on Lennon that has actual music on it? It can't be! Funny enough, this album is not only an interesting release, it's even quite historically important, despite its importance having been ignored for many years. For starters, it's the first official live release of any of the four Beatles, and the first real live performance from any of them since the end of touring in '66. Secondly, it was on the flight to the gig – a rock 'n' roll revival show mostly featuring '50s rockers but being headlined by John – that Lennon decided to leave the Beatles upon returning to England. Thirdly, the band was more than a supergroup, but a mega-group, with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, session bassist and album art designer extraordinaire Klaus Voormann, and future Yes drummer Alan White… oh, and an unknown Japanese artist by the name of Yoko Ono.

Now, in terms of content, the album can easily be split into two: heavy blues-rock, contained on the first side, and unfortunate Yoko-fests, on the second side. Considering the minimal rehearsals (one which took place on the flight and the other backstage before the show), it's amazing that the first half of the show turned out as decently as it did. Of course, three of the six side-one tunes are covers that any serious rock musician in the '60s would have known by heart by that point, so it's really no surprise that they pulled them off all right.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Wedding Album (1969)

by John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Overall Rating =
5

Best Song: WHO HAS SEEN THE WIND? is decent, I guess…

Can someone please tell me why John insisted on making the world suffer through Yoko? I have nothing personal against her, but she literally has NO artistic talent. None whatsoever. I don't care if what she has to offer "breaks barriers" or "displays emotion"; it's sonically disturbing beyond reproach, when plenty of other avant-garde barrier-breakers could make something far more intriguing (Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Brian Eno, John Cale, Lou Reed are among some whose avant-garde experiments actually capture my attention without completely deafening me), and if there really is any emotion in her ear-splitting, headache-inducing shrieking, than perhaps "emotion" is something I don't understand. But clearly it wasn't hunger I experienced listening to Bob Dylan's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", or Pete Townshend's "Slit Skirts", or hell, even John's own stuff. About the only worthwhile thing Yoko ever did was contribute to "Revolution 9", which is actually an effective avant-garde piece, in terms of creating some sort of image that is not of me blowing my brains out…

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Saturday, May 09, 2015

Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions (1969)

by John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Overall Rating =
4

Best Song: TWO MINUTES SILENCE

MAKE IT STOP! MAKE IT STOP!! FOR THE LOVE OF DEAR GOD, MAKE IT STOOOOOPPPPPPPP!!!!!!!!!!!!1!!!!1!!!!1!!!!1!!!!!11!!! Once again, limited listens are necessary to show that John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Unfinished Music – in which I've subjected myself to its second volume, whose title a parody on a BBC radio show called Life With the Lyons as well as a joke on the media attention the couple were attracting – is, as Edmund O. Ward for Rolling Stone put it, "utter bullshit" and "in poor taste". This time around, I have a bit more "respect" for the "album" than Two Virgins. No, it's not because of the lack of nudity on the cover (besides, I have a censored version of the cover). No, it's not because I feel sorry for them because their child miscarried (I do, but that has little to do with the… er… "music"). It's that this one is a more intentional "fuck you" to his audience that its almost evil of John to release it (though I doubt many of the people targeted would have even approached the record in a record shop if they had previously heard Two Virgins).

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Friday, May 08, 2015

The Beach Boys – 20/20

Year: 1969
Record Rating = 8
Overall Rating = 12

Best Song: I CAN HEAR MUSIC or OUR PRAYER or CABINESSENCE

If ever you've wondered about this LP's name, it's supposed to refer to the Beach Boys' original contract stipulating that they owed Capitol Records 20 albums, including compilations, from the dubious (Little Deuce Coupe or Stack-O-Tracks) to the more "sincere" (three single-disc volumes of The Best of the Beach Boys sets). This LP marks both a beginning and an end for the band. The end is recordings for Capitol, of course, and the beginning is of a democratic version of the band: yeah, Friends had contributions from most of them, but Brian's strange meditative pieces dominated anyhow (or influenced them tremendously), and Wild Honey technically had Carl as unofficial leader, but this one has everyone pitching in pretty evenly, including a song by touring member/extra studio vocalist Bruce Johnston, and while Carl didn't write anything exactly, he did come up with a self-arranged cover. In short, the album is a mess, but it's a fun, often well-written mess, so I'll be the last to complain about it.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Ballad of Easy Rider (1969)

by the Byrds
Overall Rating =
12

Best Song: BALLAD OF EASY RIDER

After the lukewarm reception of Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, the new Byrds/Roger McGuinn Experience had to do something to restore the reputation of the name that once held such glory. In the mean time, late '60s subculture was booming in many ways: festivals (Woodstock in the States, Isle of Wight in the UK), lots of new innovative bands (Led Zeppelin, Yes, King Crimson), and even films. In particular was Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, whose summary you can read in about a hundred different places, on the Web or in books about '60s subculture. Now, Hopper wanted Bob Dylan – a major countercultural figure in his own right – to write the main theme for the film, but whatever his reasons may have been, he just wasn't interested. As compensation, he quickly jotted down a first verse on a napkin, handed it to Hopper and said "give this to McGuinn"… And who better but Dylan's first set of disciples (as opposed to the Band, whose association with Dylan, while more direct, came a bit later) to finish things for him?

With Easy Rider being a big success, it was inevitable that its theme would become one too (although the one in the film isn't performed by the Byrds, but a solo McGuinn), and so the album, titled after the song, quickly followed suite. Strangely, McGuinn's participation in terms of songwriting was limited to the title track, and eight tunes were covers or rearranged trad folk/country, leaving room for another two originals. Despite the oddity of the album's composition, its surprisingly quite strong, though I'm guessing the fact that three originals meant that each songwriter would give his song his all, and the choice of covers meant that the melodies would already be set – not to mention better than the likes of "Child of the Universe" – so they would only have to focus on coming up with the right instrumentation, making this their best album since The Notorious Byrd Brothers, even if the focus is the exact opposite. Heck, its focus is even more cover-oriented than their first two actual folk-rock albums, yet that doesn't take away from the album but a minimal amount from originality, in that it's not innovative, but at the very least cleverly arranged.

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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969)

by the Byrds
Overall Rating =
9

Best Song: THIS WHEEL'S ON FIRE or DRUG STORE TRUCK DRIVIN' MAN

For the all the flaws Sweetheart of the Rodeo might have – and there aren't many, but they are fairly present – one thing you can't deny is the care and sincerity put into it, one that can solely be attributed to the authenticity of the music, although when it came time to making an actual country/rock hybrid, including a brief return to McGuinn's favored space-rock, things suddenly seemed a lot worse. For starters, Parsons had left the band – either due to supposed anti-Apartheid beliefs that made him not want to perform with the group in South Africa, although McGuinn and Hillman suspected that it had to do with him wanting to hang out with the Rolling Stones. When they're long-time session player Clarence White took his place, cousin Kevin Kelley was ousted in favor of White's former bandmate Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram), though soon after Hillman left to rejoin the previous Parsons and form the Flying Burrito Brothers, to be replaced by noted session bassist John York. If all of that wasn't enough, their producer Gary Usher was fired from Columbia for having overspent on an album by Chad & Jeremy, to be replaced by Bob Dylan's producer Bob Johnston.

In short, it's no less a mess in the band's line-up than ever before, yet this time it proved to be the most impactful, because only one familiar face/voice remained in Roger, leaving him as the de facto leader. Now, part of the charm behind the Byrds was the democratic flavor, which was particularly intriguing when his partners were terrific songwriters like Hillman, Crosby or Clark, or personalities like hippie Crosby and enthusiastically traditional Gram Parsons. Unfortunately, the record execs concluded that for things to work out commercially, McGuinn would be in charge, though I guess they failed to consider the group's artistic integrity. And with McGuinn being convinced that the best thing to do would be merge their new love for standard country-&-western with their astral past, in particular the psycho-production-laden The Notorious Byrd Brothers, things went far, far too wrong.

It's pretty indicative that, of the 10 tunes – the smallest number of tracks on a Byrds album, though ironically it's the longest of their LPs in the '60s – there are a whole three that I just don't like, and one whose clumsiness is hard to tolerate (though it's achievable, to be fair).

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