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Last updated: January 4th, 2017

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline

Year: 1969
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 12

Best Song: LAY LADY LAY

I may not know what people think, but I can probably think of something they never thought: "Hey, those two simplistic country ditties at the end of John Wesley Harding are better than any of the 19th century country/folk masterpieces that the rest of the LP is made up of, maybe Dylan should just rewrite those for an entire LP!" Well, since the shift that his 1967 LP represented wasn't nearly as strong enough to rid him of his fans, this reverse thought process must have been exactly what inspired Nashville Skyline. Ten songs, only 27 minutes long (around half the length of his LPs from 1963-1966), recorded in about a week in Nashville with an extension to the trio that backed him on JWH and with simplistic lyrics about relationships where, most shockingly enough, Bob feels sorry for the girl! This is the same Bob that made the bitter "Ballad in Plain D" five years prior? Sometimes I have my doubts.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Genesis – From Genesis to Revelation

by Genesis
Overall Rating =
11

Best Song: IN THE WILDERNESS (or THAT'S ME of the bonus tracks)

In the beginning… in a far-off time where Genesis were neither an incredibly popular synth-pop band led by a balding drummer nor a cult-ish progressive rock group surprisingly popular in Italy, they were hardly even a band at all. The core of the original band were what remained for their second real prog album, that is to say, Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, with the former two from a band called Garden Wall (along with drummer Chris Stewart) recruiting the remains of Anon – another band in their boarding school – consisting of the third member of the group's nucleus and Anthony Phillips, whose late '70s solo career was pretty interesting as far as classical guitar-oriented folk-prog goes. Anyways, this new five-piece of impressionable, wimpy prep school kids didn't even have a name when, due to attending his alma mater, managed to recruit the now infamous Jonathan King as producer.

This is where trouble starts for most people: the group members' youth and naivety coupled with Jonathan King's admiration for the orchestrated pop of the Bee Gees could only spell disaster, and it could only have been worse when, after switching out Chris Stewart for John Silver, King decided that the group should make a concept album based on the parts of the Bible that would justify their name. In an ironic twist, that problematic naivety is a sort of saving grace, at least as far as pretention is concerned: the very fact that the songs don't take themselves very seriously, nor the performers, is a far more "realistic" approach to portraying the Bible's Adam (who seems to be the center of focus in the song's loose concept), since the first human would not be an arrogant, self-proclaimed royal but a humble, awed, starry-eyed man bewildered by the very nature of this new world created by God. Or something.

Concept or no concept, the reason why I think this album is worthy is because the music is actually good. Yes, King's orchestration is more often than not a little clumsy. The group's debt to the early Bee Gees brand of schmaltzy baroque-pop, as well as their debt to the Bee Gees' most probable influences, i.e. the Beatles, the Moody Blues, the Hollies, the Zombies, is extremely obvious. But the music is calm, pretty, and unassuming, with prominent piano from Banks, felt-rather-than-heard acoustic guitars from Phillips and/or Rutherford and a low-key rhythm section. And Peter Gabriel proving just how great his smoky voice can be when the efforts are made, which as a bunch of young kids hoping to make it big, then I can definitely say that effort had been made. I'm glad they didn't pursue this particular path, but it's hardly that much weaker than the Bee Gees' late '60s offerings (which, come to think of it, I place relatively highly, as in the 10-13 range), even if, after a while, the songs start to sound the same.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Beatles – Yellow Submarine

by the Beatles
Overall Rating =
11

Best Song: HEY BULLDOG or IT'S ALL TOO MUCH

This album only gets a relatively low grade for extremely technical reasons. See, Magical Mystery Tour wasn't the only Beatles film in the works; the cartoon adventure Yellow Submarine was also being made, and required a number of new songs to fill out a soundtrack – mostly consisting of existing Beatles' songs from 1965-1967, with a number of George Martin-orchestrated compositions thrown in for good measure – and, not being particularly interested in the project, they opted to make the material equally throwaway-ish in nature: two George outtakes, one from each of the 1967 albums, a song from the "Lady Madonna" roots revival period, and only one track recorded specifically with the film's childlike nature in mind. This wouldn't have seemed particularly anachronistic, had the soundtrack been released in the spring of 1968, where psychedelia was still mildly relevant, and the Beatles were in India where their eventual self-titled album was instilling itself into their minds. Instead, it came out early 1969, around the same time they began the Get Back project, and we all know how far away from childlike camaraderie that was.

But no one ever complains about this album because of its timing. I don't think repeated tracks are much of a problem either. Of the 11 repeated Beatles tunes from the film, only two were used for the soundtrack: "Yellow Submarine", which is forgivable because it's the title track, and "All You Need Is Love", which was on the yet-to-be canonized US version of Magical Mystery Tour, not at all redundant a choice on the group's side of the Atlantic. I have a strong suspicion that the album's negative reputation has more to do with the fact that the second side has hardly anything to do with the Beatles at all. It's seven orchestral tunes written and arranged by George Martin (no wait, only six; the last is a re-arrangement of the title track), which aside from being stylistically out of most Beatles' fans comfort zones (despite my belief that Beatles fans shouldn't have one single musical comfort zone), was the reason for the delay of the album release that can be seen as just plain bizarre.

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Sunday, June 07, 2015

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin

by Led Zeppelin
Overall Rating =
14

Best Song: Anything off the first side

Before I get things started, I'd like to address the whole hard rock vs. heavy metal debate that plagues any album with a heavy guitar-bass-drums sound. Like many fans of rock from the '60s/'70s, I used to abide to the law that heavy music I do like is to be called hard rock, and heavy music I don't like to be called heavy metal, but as my music collection has grown (still mostly within that period, but a smattering of knowledge of the music on either chronological side has affected my opinions), the more I realized how false it is to assume this. Black Sabbath, for one, with their detuned guitars, spooky/gory lyrics, use of the Tritone, and slow tempos, are definitely heavy metal. Deep Purple might have steered clear of any occult influences, but when they shifted from psycho-pop band to heavy guitar-based band, they played in a heavy and fast way that could predict the thrash metal movement (which I've since grown to respect). But before these two, there was Led Zeppelin.

Led Zeppelin were not the first band to play "heavy". Blue Cheer, the year before, released an album chock-full of distorted wailing guitars, pounding drums and a screaming vocalist in some sort of lumped sonic roar. Jimi Hendrix pioneered a new kind of guitar playing that would definitely be an influence on any future heavy acts. Heck, distortion itself wasn't entirely new, with Link Wray having introduced it well enough with just a two-chord riff in the late '50s. So then what the hell did Led Zeppelin do? Well, much as the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and the Who's "I Can't Explain" were more like templates of future hard rock records, you could say that Led Zeppelin's debut is a template of future heavy metal records. You have to admit that some of these guitar tones are almost as frightful as Sabbath's, some of the drums pound and thrash louder and faster than Deep Purple's. The only major difference is that there's a bit more blues running through this heavy beast's veins, but for someone who likes the blues, like I do, or is smart enough to respect it for its influence on rock and subsequent genres, it only makes for a more tasteful display of heaviness.

[Read on...]

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bayou Country

by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Overall Rating =
11

Best Song: BORN ON THE BAYOU or PROUD MARY

1969 was a particularly productive year for CCR. They released three full albums, although full might not be the best choice of word, considering none of them go over 35 minutes when, by the late '60s, 40 to 45 minute LPs were far more the norm than shorter albums. One problem with the number of albums is that, as great as Fogerty is, he's not exactly the Beatles: hell, those guys had three songwriters, and usually stuck to two LPs a year. John is all by his lonesome in the songwriting department (which is technically his own fault, being a self-appointed leader despite older brother Tom's objections, but whatever). And sure, Motown artists usually had a shit-ton of LPs released in the early '60s, but these barely went over 30 minutes, and usually had three or four songwriting teams to craft hit-ready pop singles.

Still, I'm surprised this LP, somewhat rushed out for early 1969, managed to be as good as it is. There are usually only two songs people gripe about, the two lengthy side-closers, one which approached the eight-minute mark, and the other that passes it by nearly a minute, and both of which attempt to recreate the jamming success of "Suzie Q". Did it work? Well, unlike others, I'm a bit on the fence with these two.

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Thursday, June 04, 2015

Stevie Wonder – For Once in My Life

Year: 1968
Record Rating = 8
Overall Rating = 12

Best Song: I DON'T KNOW WHY (I LOVE YOU)

While the mid-late '60s are generally a better period for teenage Stevie (despite being ignored in favor of his '70s classics as an adult), at least in terms of development, his late '68 offering is probably his first real album since 1966's Down to Earth. The last two were filler-ish to the bone, being a Christmas album and an Easy Listening instrumental album, which I somehow found decent enough, and even I Was Made to Love Her, which I preferred over Stevie's two 1966 records, was basically a single-encompassing cash-in that accidentally happened to be great. But with this, his penultimate album of the '60s, greatness must have been the intention all along. The label was certainly biding their time on releasing something aside from marking-time releases. Collecting a number of chart-rising hits, culminating in the eventual title track peaking at no. 2 on Billboard's pop and R&B charts, and allowing not only Stevie and his collaborators' originals to have greater presence amongst his recordings, but to even let Stevie himself produce a couple of tracks!

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Beggars' Banquet (1968)

by the Rolling Stones
Overall Rating =
15

Best Song: SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (but many more qualify)

With all the praise I've heaped on the Stones' early work and their pop period, you'd probably think I'd have little need for their "classic" albums from 1968-1972. There are probably some people who take that stance, but rest assured that I'm far from doing so. See, great as they were with pop music, it wasn't what came naturally. Three albums and a handful of singles was about as much as they could come up with; had they attempted it anymore, they would have probably faltered and made more stuff along the lines of "What to Do" and "Gomper" rather than "Paint It, Black" and "Dandelion". That's not to say they abandoned what they learned and went straight back to what they did from their inception through late 1965. No, the melodic tendencies, the diverse instrumentation, and the amped up emotional values (which, then again, were never absent in those early days, but were almost always in the misogynistic department) would all be merged with their love of roots music to make some of the best roots rock around.

One thing that could have plagued the band is the start of Brian Jones' newly developed erratic behavior: he would miss quite a few sessions, and the ones he would go to he would bring an opposing instrument from what he was asked to, like lugging a sitar in when he was supposed to bring a slide. Thankfully, his strange decisions would actually contribute to the success of Beggars' Banquet, because first it permitted the diverse instrumentation mentioned above, and secondly because his absences would often require the rest of the band, especially Keith, and a few session players and friends to make more creative contributions than they would with a slightly more stable line-up. In short, like Aftermath owes its creativeness to his increased presence, Beggars' Banquet owes its lack of genericness as a roots rock album to his diminished presence. Funny, huh?

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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968)

by the Kinks
Overall Rating =
15

Best Song: VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY

Like Pet Sounds to Brian Wilson or… er… The Wall to Roger Waters… Village Green Preservation Society is considered a solo album of its writer's, but with his band's name and the help of their performing talents. The only difference is that this LP – originally with the abbreviated Village Green epithet, as opposed to the monolithic name above – actually was planned as a Ray Davies solo album as early as 1966 (then again, Roger Waters offered Pink Floyd either The Wall or another concept, with one to be chosen for the group and the other for solo… but then I doubt the rest of Floyd would have picked the other more dubious suggestion). Anyways, eventually it metamorphosed into a real Kinks album, but it definitely has Ray's mark all over it: basically, it's an entire LP's worth of songs of praise to the simple living of rural England and relevant childhood memories as well as the "evils" of busy city life and the limelight from being a rock musician. In other words, this album is the definitive Kinks/Ray Davies album in terms of overall message, one that would be pursued from here on out (hinted as it was in the last two or three albums).

Now, as you can tell from the high grade (the highest, even), this is a pretty fantastic album, though it's not completely flawless either, but then, most of these flaws are part of its charms. Most seem to complain that the LP is a bit monotonous, and even a look at some of the titles might give that impression as well (the title track vs. "Village Green", "Picture Book" vs. "People Take Pictures of Each Other"), but it's mostly because its simple, acoustic-based sound does not make for a truly emotionally devastating monotony, like the previously mentioned Pet Sounds, or even George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Yet the album still manages to hit some kind of nerve centers – Ray's nostalgia is too sincere to be unimpactful – and is more than adequate in proving its point, in relaying Ray's beliefs. I suppose this is an album that gets better as the listener grows older – and even the fact that it only really acquired its noble critical reputation nearly 30 years after its release backs that up – but pick a sunny spring/summer afternoon with your family and friends and revel in its homey, happy feel.

[Read on...]