Review: You Want It Darker – Leonard Cohen

Another tablet of grim mortality and haunting beauty from the master

Continuing a late-career renaissance that began with his return to the concert stage in 2008, Leonard Cohen is redefining the creative life span of the singer-songwriter. At 82, Cohen has just released his latest album You Want It Darker, a collection teeming with poetic, bittersweet power.  Following 2012’s excellent Old Ideas and 2014’s solid Popular Problems, Cohen continues to delve deeper into his obsessions (spirituality, mortality, relationships gone wrong) with the unwavering eyes of a man who knows his time is running out.

The album opens with the title track, an instantly classic Cohen meditation that manages to sound atmospheric, sinister, and sensual all at once. Cohen’s voice is now far removed from the one that was featured quite meekly on 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen.  His gravelly baritone now carries the weight of deep authority and hard-earned wisdom. It is not for everyone and certainly not a Top 40 staple, but it’s become a distinctive signature that fully compliments his writing style. When he sings “I’m ready my Lord,” with the gravity and resignation so clear in his delivery, it is like the encapsulation of his entire body of work and personal quest.

Produced by his son Adam, along with longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard, You Want It Darker benefits from simple, tasteful arrangements that wisely place Cohen’s voice and poetry front-and-center. Each song is ruminative in a way only Cohen can pull off: the sacred and the suffering all delivered with biting wit as on “Leaving the Table,” where he bids adieu to his infamous ladies’ man persona with the words “I don’t need a lover/The wretched beast is tame.” On “Treaty,” he owns up to the existential angst of his years by admitting “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time.”  This is not easy listening, but that is not what the Cohen faithful seek.

Along with the pervasive gloom (or simply the mood of mortality now fully felt and expressed), Cohen also writes with characteristically heartbreaking beauty: “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” may be about a lover or about God (or both), but the haunting images of desolation and darkness only serve to underscore how lost the singer would be “if I didn’t have your love to make it real.” As on the album cover, Cohen might be ready to step into the light, but he still has one arm draped over the darkness. If You Want It Darker is Cohen’s final artistic statement, it is a faithful and uncompromising summation of all that has come before and a shining inspiration to any artist in search of longevity and relevance well into seniority.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week

Beatles 101 for the post-Anthology generation

The story never gets old: four talented working-class boys jump on a nascent musical movement and ride off on a world-conquering hero’s journey filled with joy, brotherhood, tragedy and triumph. For over 50 years, the details of this story have been forensically sifted through by fans, critics, scholars and detractors to the point where seemingly nothing new could be said about the Beatles and their music. So what is the point of a Beatles documentary in 2016, aside from presenting a fresh take by a first-rate director? Aside from educating a new generation on the genius and integrity of the band, Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week turns out to be as fun and affecting as its subject matter.

Featuring candid and affectionate new interviews with surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (as well as miscellaneous historians, musicians, and celebrities), the film focuses mainly on their hectic and often chaotic touring life from the early to mid-‘60s, before Beatlemania turned sour and led the foursome to an inspired, but insulated studio existence.

While worthy of a documentary of its own, the formative Hamburg/Cavern years are fast-forwarded through in order to get to Howard’s real focus: the Beatles’ impact on American culture, beginning with their arrival at JFK International Airport in February of 1964 amidst fan and press hysteria before taking the stage for their legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Unbeknownst to most of the 73 million viewers who tuned in to the performance, the Beatles were already polished and road-hardened veterans of their craft, as capable and charming in press conferences as on stage. Along with their unique appearance, this gave them an otherworldly aura before their true legend as first-rank artists even took root.

From there, the documentary speeds through its 2 hours and 18 minutes in a blur of energetic performances (many unearthed for the first time), had-to-be-there-to-understand fandom, and warmhearted commentary. Howard places this in proper context, with many of the tumultuous cultural shifts of the ‘60s (the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement) providing a tense backdrop for the escapism of Beatlemania. The band not only shaped the times, but were very much shaped by the times, which goes a long way in explaining why their impact has never been fully replicated since.

It’s almost incomprehensible how much artistic growth and life experience the Beatles managed to compress in the short amount of time covered by this documentary. In the span of 7 years, the music went from innocent, joyful pop to avant-garde surrealism, just as the group morphed from cheeky, suited-up mop tops to world-weary hippie wise men. If you were to write it as fiction, no one would believe it. As it stands, it did happen and this film is concrete proof (in addition to all of the other luck that surrounded the band throughout its journey, they were the most well-documented entertainers of their time). There is still nothing comparable to the phenomenon of Beatlemania at its peak. Their value as artists and entertainers is largely unquestioned. As we learn in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, the human beings behind the myth were equally worthy of the adoration.

 

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week is currently streaming on Hulu and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on November 18.

Arrested Development – The Troubled Legacy of The Police

[The following piece was first published in 2009]

I had a very odd reading experience recently. As a fan of rock history, I try to keep up with any decent biographies that crop up, especially of favorite artists.  While at Borders a month or so ago, I came across Chris Campion’s Walking on the Moon: The Untold Story of the Police and the Rise of New Wave Rock. Being a huge Police fan, I eagerly grabbed the first serious bio written about the band (outside of the principal players) in ages, forked over the money, and headed home expecting a fun and insightful look at the blond trio’s compelling story.  At the book’s conclusion about 270 pages later, I found myself a bit depressed by Campion’s thoroughly clinical and joyless take on the subject matter.  While well-written and detailed in its research, the book is startlingly imbalanced.

While not an Albert Goldman-level hatchet job, Campion’s book is more a damnation than a celebration of the band. Not every rock bio has to be fawning in its approach or devoid of journalistic integrity, but with most of the best ones you at least get a sense that they were written by fans.  While detailed in recounting the group’s calculated and meteoric rise, Campion has virtually nothing positive to say about the band and offers no additional insights about the music itself. There is no real acknowledgment of their incredible talent as players and no appreciation for the songs or albums. The book is really about the group’s cunning management via the equally legendary Miles Copeland, with the implication being that it was clever strategy and not the songs themselves that drove the Police to world domination in the early ‘80s.

The book is symptomatic of a larger problem that faces the Police: history has not been kind to the band.  By 1983, there was no doubt that the trio had secured a place in rock history among the greats. The group released their fifth album Synchronicity, which catapulted straight to no# 1 along with what has since become their signature single “Every Breath You Take,” a deceptively seductive song about a stalker.  They were already being written about as heirs to the tradition of intelligent and crafty pop once staked out by the Beatles, and with their similar upward trajectory as well as their own Shea Stadium moment on record, there was no denying the similarities. They straddled that fine line of being a pop group (girls loved them), while having rock cred as players with chops (guys loved them too).  And by this point most critics, once resistant to the band’s lack of punk credibility, photogenic looks and unavoidable presence, had come around. Synchronicity and the world tour that followed, was largely greeted with enthusiastic praise. And the group topped Rolling Stone magazine’s annual reader’s poll that same year. From that point on, the group was minted and poised for greater and greater things.

Perhaps it was the decision, largely driven by chief songwriter/bassist Sting, to call it quits while at the very top, another Beatlesque move calculated to leave the audience wanting more. Or maybe it has to do with Sting’s largely MOR solo output since disbanding the group. One way or another, time has robbed the band of its once-omnipotent aura.  Their legacy has not grown in stature in the way that, for example, Led Zeppelin’s or Pink Floyd’s has.  They no longer crack the top 10 of any 100 best album, song, or band-of-all-time polls. Though songs such as “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” and the indomitable “Every Breath You Take” have withstood the test of time, the Police have not fully transcended their era like most of the elite, classic-rock greats have. They have not joined “The Canon” as once expected, which is a shame as, based on talent alone, they are certainly worthy.

While not doing himself any favors with the guardians of rock history as a solo artist, particularly with his lute and “winter” music (not to mention bragging about his tantric sex practices), Sting is a uniquely talented and complicated figure. Most songwriters are either gifted with a strong sense of melody or a unique way with words. Sting was one of the few in rock history gifted with both. His Police songs have pop hooks that would’ve made Lennon and McCartney envious and his best lyrics (when he stepped away from the rhyming dictionary) dealt with power, control, and twisted love in a way far removed from most pop song conventions. Long before Live Aid, Sting was writing about the plight of the Third World in “Driven to Tears” (from 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta).  And from his dark, but spiritual meditations on 1982’s Ghost in the Machine to the more personal and psychologically troubled songs on 1983’s Synchronicity such as “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” Sting rose to the level of first-rank songwriters (all this without mentioning his keening, signature tenor and melodic bass playing). Though rife with intellectual pretensions, his best Police songs (and loose album concepts) were all the better for the scope of his ambition. The ‘80s really needed him, but he certainly would not have made it to true superstar status alone.

The Police is drummer Stewart Copeland’s band and without his initial drive and vision, Sting most likely would’ve ended up an unknown jazz wannabe or fringe songwriter at best.  He dragged Sting along on the crest of 1976’s punk rock movement in England, added muscle and firepower to his singing/bass playing, had the concept and name for the band, and contributed a completely unique (to rock) polyrhythmic drumming style that would become a key signature of all great Police music. He was also the most interesting member of the band to watch in a live setting with his manic energy and long, flailing limbs seemingly all over the kit at once.  While by no means a songwriter’s drummer (he completely lacked the restraint and humility), he was the last of the truly great stickmen before the plague of the infamous gated drum sound of the mid-‘80s took over. He was also the perfect foil for Sting’s more introspective personality.

By his own admission, Sting would not have been able to fully flourish as a songwriter without Andy Summers’ equally unique guitar playing.  With his long history in the music business (he was a contemporary of Beck, Page, and Clapton), Summers was probably the furthest thing from punk possible. But his sophisticated extended chords and use of space, textures, and echo effects were also very far removed from the self-indulgent and pointless guitar solos coming from the lazy dinosaur acts at the time. In that sense, he was the perfect guitar hero for the New Wave era, as well as the ideal third element needed to fully alchemize the Police magic. For all of his subsequent success as a major solo star, Sting has never worked with better players; guys who were in a position to challenge his lesser ideas and toughen up his songs.

In 2007, 30 years after “Roxanne” first charted, the Police finally bowed to inevitable and gave fans the official swan song tour. One of the last major holdouts of the big bucks reunion lure, the band hit the road for a world tour that extended well into 2008, eventually becoming one of the most commercially successful of all time.  This spoke volumes about their enduring popularity, at least with first-generation fans of the band that had waited 23 years since the final Synchronicity show in Sydney, Australia to see them perform live once again. But did they deliver on the (too) high expectations? Reviews were largely positive across the board (if you discount Stewart Copeland’s infamous blog entry ripping on the tour’s debut in Vancouver). While the performances lacked the coked-up intensity of the early ‘80s, the reunion was a huge gamble that paid off more than it didn’t. No one was screaming “fiasco” and none of the band members embarrassed themselves. Sting still had the voice and ripped physique, Stewart still had the hyperkinetic chops and wowed audiences with his star turn on “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” and Andy was the overall MVP of the tour, nailing impressive solos on “When the World is Running Down…” and “Driven to Tears.”  While the early performances never fully gelled, by the time they returned to the states in early 2008 they were as tight and muscular as they’d ever been (taking into account several key and tempo changes in the material). Once again, the future held promise. And once again, the band made the same decision: to walk away at the top. Or perhaps the decision was to walk away from potentially killing one another in the studio.

In some ways, the Police deserve credit for sidestepping the typical rock and roll pitfalls. There were no drug casualties. There was no poor reunion album to tarnish their recorded legacy (they are 5 for 5 there).  They never overstayed their welcome (something U2 missed the boat on ages ago). They’ve wrapped up the loose ends with one another and with their fans. And the songs have lasted. They still sound crisp, particularly on the first three albums, due to the tasteful three piece power-pop aesthetic.  As with the perfect instrumental combination of guitar, bass, and drums, the artful blend of existential lyrics and upbeat, catchy hooks will always work in rock and roll. The Police were masters of the form. They started as pseudo-punks, but eventually created their own unique sound, which is something very few acts in rock history have accomplished.  They are Hall of Famers, but deserve much more credit than they’ve been given and they certainly deserve a better book than Chris Campion’s disheartening work.

A Good Time Victory Lap

Here they come and they are not monkeying around

Fifty years (!) past the original wave of Monkeemania comes a new album from 1966’s made-for-TV pop group the Monkees. Having slowly gained more and more credibility with the passage of time and excellent touring work, the surviving members of the group (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork) and custodians of the brand are marking this milestone anniversary with an onslaught of Monkee product. While reissues of the TV show and classic back catalog of albums are a no-brainer, there was genuine risk involved in putting together a new studio album. Past attempts at doing this (1987’s Pool It! and 1996’s Justus) have produced greatly mixed results. Considering how most people engage with vintage acts today, there really is no need to even do so. It is much easier for an act like the Monkees to simply trot out their old hits, of which there are many. The only reason to produce a new record would be to add to an already significant legacy, which in the case of the Monkees is a pretty Herculean task.

Thankfully, the brain trust at Rhino Records including John Hughes, Mark Pinkus and the ever-reliable archivist Andrew Sandoval came up with the perfect strategy: go back to the Brill Building formula of the early records while aiming for the high-water mark of 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. This involved digging up unfinished recordings from the group’s heyday along with enlisting a new crop of tunesmiths simpatico with the Monkees’ aesthetic. Another key decision was paring the surviving members with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne as their producer. His sensibilities along with his multi-instrumental and songwriting talent prove to be a perfect fit for gently guiding the Monkees into 2016. Each member of the Monkees also contributes strong original material (and instrumental support) to Good Times!

 So the big question here is did they pull it off? As a longtime follower of the group (being a child of the ‘70s re-runs of the show) and more than familiar with all of the larger-than-life, bizarre twists and turns in their history together, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Good Times! is far better than could reasonably be expected and a true gift to fans. Perfectly conceived and beautifully executed, it arrives as an effervescent time capsule of the ‘60s and more than achieves its lofty goal of standing tall with their best work.

The album opens with the title track “Good Times,” salvaged from a surviving demo by the late songwriter Harry Nilsson who posthumously gets to sing along with old friend Micky Dolenz (much like the Beatles created “Free as a Bird,” but done here with a more seamless vocal mix). It’s a rollicking start, reminiscent of a Ray Charles R&B groove and a nice showcase for both singers. In fact, Dolenz sounds great throughout the entire record, whether singing lead as he does on most tracks or providing some of his signature harmony parts. Though his voice has a slightly more mature timbre to it, his range is still incredibly strong and he sounds vibrant (and youthful) on tracks like Andy Partridge’s “You Bring the Summer” and the stomping “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)”. With Davy Jones now gone, Dolenz lives on as the voice of the Monkees.

Speaking of Davy Jones, he is thoughtfully (and effectively) included on Good Times! in the form of a vintage recording of Neil Diamond’s “Love to Love”. Tastefully completed, the song is Jones through and through, providing the requisite corny (but welcome) love song that was his stock-in-trade on all Monkees albums. It’s a real treat hearing his boyish vocals once again. Peter Tork, the group’s soul and multi-instrumentalist is also perfectly showcased on this album. On both “Little Girl” (originally written by Tork as a song for Davy) and Goffin & King original “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” his voice sounds the best it ever has, warm and supple. His banjo prowess also makes a few key appearances as well.

This brings us to the wild card of any Monkees reunion: the appearance of Michael Nesmith. The once-ornery Texan has always hovered as a big question mark over any attempts to re-kindle the brand since they originally disbanded in 1970. Having made significant contributions to music since going solo and well worthy of inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his own, never mind as being a member of the Monkees (his genre-defining work with the First National Band and coming up with the concept that would later morph into MTV), Nez has always had a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to any reunion projects. He did spearhead the spiritual follow-up to Headquarters, 1996’s Justus, but has kept his touring participation minimal. That said, any serious attempt at a new Monkees record needed his voice in the mix. His Monkees songs have always been among their best, providing the deep cuts in the catalog that bear repeated listening. On Good Times!, Nesmith again provides the gravitas: “Me & Magdalena” is easily one of the best things the Monkees have ever recorded. Written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, the song is wistful, breezy and bittersweet with the classic Mike and Micky vocal harmonies front and center. The Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller-penned “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” is Head-trippy, with Mike’s spacey vocals sounding straight out of ’67/’68. Nesmith also contributes “I Know What I Know,” a plaintive piano ballad that is a real departure from the rest of the material here (as well as their entire canon). The song starts off quite naked and gives way to fuller orchestration. It’s unlike anything in the Monkees discography and makes for an effective penultimate track on the album.

Everyone involved in this project deserves major kudos. There is a lot of heart and soul behind Good Times! and if it proves to be the group’s swan song on record, it is a more-than-worthy one. Faithfully retro without being kitschy, it covers the group’s entire trajectory, from the innocence of the first two albums and the psychedelia of the middle period, straight through to the roots sound of the Nesmith-led late ’60s work. It’s a thoroughly satisfying listening experience. As promised, you’ll have a good time.

 

P.S. The iTunes version of Good Times! includes two bonus tracks that are equally notable: Zach Rogue’s “Terrifying” is worthy of inclusion on the album proper and the melody and harmonies of “Me & Magdalena” work nearly as well in the up-tempo second version. Worth seeking out.

Reign of Disdain

He looks like a million dollars, is a three-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion with only three-and-a-half years on the main roster, and is poised to be a main eventer for as long as he remains healthy. So what the hell is the problem with Roman Reigns and why is the so-called “WWE Universe” so openly hostile towards him? I mean, this guy is getting some of the greatest heel heat since John Cena. The problem is, again like Cena, he’s another polarizing babyface (good guy in pro-wrestling parlance). It’s all pretty simple really and could’ve easily been avoided by anyone who is even halfway familiar with Wrestling 101, which excludes most of the current WWE writing staff.

Roman Reigns has been very poorly served by WWE booking (basically, those in charge of charting the pre-scripted course all WWE talent follow). This comes from the top down, so ultimately it falls on owner Vince McMahon’s lap. It has nothing to do with Roman Reigns, who is a much better athlete and performer than he needs to be and is still a young talent learning the game. Reigns could easily coast on his looks and size much like Kevin Nash did for his entire career, but Reigns has much more heart for the business than that. The real shame is that Reigns, originally a cool villain, was organically gaining traction with the fans before Vince decided Roman was “THE guy” and proceeded to force him down the everyone’s throat as a fan-favorite waaay ahead of schedule. Now Reigns gets the same dueling chants that follow Cena to this day: woman and children love him; men and smart marks (knowledgeable fans), not so much.

Reigns made his main roster debut in November 2012 as part of a super-cool heel group of young talent called The Shield. Decked out in S.W.A.T. gear, it was a great gimmick and the right balance of talent with Dean Ambrose as the brains and mouthpiece, Seth Rollins as the Shawn Michaels-like wunderkind worker, and Reigns as the silent, but deadly muscle. All three were genuinely over with the WWE audience and could’ve ridden the wave of this gimmick (and merchandise sales) for at least another two-to-three more years than they did. Instead, they were disbanded in June 2014 to allow for each member to become an individual star, with a top spot specially earmarked for Reigns. He had the right size, the right hair, and the right pedigree (being part of the same Anoa’i dynasty that produced Yokozuna, Rikishi and, in a roundabout way, The Rock). His key weakness, not being particularly dynamic on the microphone, was actually a plus while part of The Shield, creating an aura of mystery around him. So there was no way this could not work, right??

Wrong. It was too clear and simple for the WWE not to mess up. They turned Dean Ambrose into the second coming of Brian Pillman, gave Rollins the heel spot, and tried making Roman the fan favorite. What happened? Ambrose gets over with his goofy shtick, Rollins gets over with his unbelievable athleticism, and Reigns gets rejected by the majority of fans who see through the backstage machinations and pandering. Had Reigns been allowed to remain a villain for at least another year or two, and been aligned with a brilliant mouthpiece like Paul Heyman while building up a great highlight reel as the company’s top bad guy, fans would’ve naturally clamored for him to emerge as a hero down the line, as they have for all great company heels dating back to “Superstar” Billy Graham. Heyman managing both Reigns and Brock Lesnar (another heavyweight superstar weak on the mic, but nonetheless super-over due to intelligent booking) could’ve been epic, filled with great teases until the time was right to present Reigns vs. Lesnar as the climax of a long-term, well-thought-out storyline – and finally the beginning of Roman’s face turn.

All of that aside, the truth is that whether fans like it or not Reigns is still money. As the company learned with Cena, the polarized audience reaction still translates into cash. The kids who snatch up the t-shirts and dolls are with Roman. And the “smart” fans continue to buy tickets to root against him. As in any form of entertainment, the worst reaction is no reaction. Passionate dislike can be unbelievably profitable, just ask Floyd “Money” Mayweather. But it’s also a bit jarring when it is obviously not the kind of reaction the WWE or Reigns had in mind. In the long run, the brand name supersedes the individual stars of the WWE anyway. As CM Punk once said in his infamous “pipe bomb” promo, the wheel keeps spinning regardless.

So where do Reigns and the WWE go from here? He is undoubtedly a star and we seem to be stuck with him in this current role for quite a while (WWE can be quite obstinate that way). Right now, he is embroiled in the early stages of a feud with A.J. Styles, probably the best possible opponent for him, both athletically and storyline wise, until Seth Rollins returns from his untimely injury. So far, both Reigns and Styles are “good guys,” but the seeds have been planted for several interesting possibilities. As we saw in their match at Payback last weekend in Chicago, Reigns was nearly booed out of the building in his first title defense as champ, while Styles definitely ascended to the next level as a believable main eventer. The match itself, while almost comically overbooked, succeeded in sustaining fan interest in their feud. But now a clear-cut villain must emerge in order to take this rivalry to the next level. Will it be A.J. Styles and his New Japan posse the Bullet Club or will WWE go with an Attitude-era swerve and give us an unexpected, dramatically-effective heel turn from Roman Reigns? Though I wouldn’t bet on the latter, only time will tell.

My Super-Deluxe Top 10 Music List…Volume 1

A fellow music-lover recently asked me via Facebook to compile a Top 12 list of most influential albums in my life. The rules were simple: do not overthink the process or take too much time. Of course, I did neither. While I did spare him my endless annotations and explanations for each choice, I definitely overthought the whole thing. My basic list was simple enough to put together. Each was a clear enough milestone in my life and musical education. But a funny thing happens when you put together lists like this for public view, especially as a self-professed music historian: a bit of self-consciousness enters the fray. Each of the artists I chose has such a diverse, wide-spanning catalog of music I love. How do I best represent that? Do I go with the albums that helped me discover each artist (and thus, the most personally influential)? Do I go with the cooler entries in the catalog to show off my insight and “superior” taste? Or do I simply go with what I believe to be the best albums made by each?

The critic in me finds these distinctions interesting.  Most Influential Albums is a very personal list tied to specific life experiences and might not always have the same resonance for others. Coolest Albums is a list I’d put together for inside and hardcore fans. And Best Albums is a list of the records I’d throw in a time capsule for posterity. The choices were pretty tough. Categorization of any kind is often hazy.  I honestly believe that if you ask most people to compile a Top 10 list of anything, there would be a substantial difference in the response depending on the intended audience. I’m certain that writers for Rolling Stone or Mojo often put together contrarian lists filled with underground obscurities just to be hipper-than-thou. My list is filled with artists firmly planted in the mainstream (no Velvet Underground or Big Star anywhere to be found, though I respect each). I make no apologies for that. While I love many undiscovered artists, a large part of being truly impactful as a musician is world domination, which is how I was exposed to most of them in the first place. For this blog entry, I have put together a Top 10 Most Influential Albums list identical to the one I sent my friend, but have also included the highly nebulous “coolest” and “best” albums by each artist as well (there is occasional overlap for each act represented). Again, keep in mind that this list represents most personally influential, not most influential of all time.  I’m still waiting for “all time” to come and go so I can put that list together. Might be a while.

My Top 10 Most Influential Albums (in order of release date)

513F9H755QL

1. The Monkees by The Monkees

This is the first album I ever owned, passed down from relatives, and set the template for much of what I still look for in music: well-crafted melodies, sunny pop harmonies, and concise songwriting all delivered in tasteful analogue production. The early Monkees albums were the product of a Tin Pan Alley mindset. Later albums (from Headquarters on) only benefitted from the Monkees asserting their independence and taking more control of the music. Probably the coolest album they ever did was the soundtrack to their totally freeform movie Head. It has a loose cut-and-paste quality much like the film itself and was well ahead of its time. But without a doubt, their best album is 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., a combination of the Brill Building approach (the use of professional outside songwriters) and the greater hands-on musical involvement of Headquarters. They were a misunderstood pop phenomenon from the very beginning. Thankfully, time and hindsight have placed them in a better light.

Beatles_-_Abbey_Road

2. Abbey Road – The Beatles

I’ve been a Beatles fan since early childhood. There are pictures of me at 3 years old listening to the White Album on headphones. What can I say, I’ve always had excellent taste in music. Abbey Road is the first album I actually went out and bought as a pre-teen and is still my favorite Beatles album.  You can’t go wrong with any Beatle record, but something about Abbey Road hooked me early. It has pretty much everything that made them great: catchy songs, great vocals, tight ensemble playing, and clever production. Abbey Road has the advantage of maturity and Ringo’s one and only drum solo on record. There is whimsy, silliness, joy and deep heartache on this record. Perhaps the greatest swan song ever committed to vinyl. If you’re looking for the coolest Beatle records, the common choices are Revolver or The Beatles (aka the White Album). In my opinion, their best records are A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, and my desert island choice Abbey Road.

 

PinkFloydWallCoverOriginalNoText

3. The Wall – Pink Floyd

I casually discovered Pink Floyd on classic rock radio as a teenager, but never put together the vast catalog of great songs until a neighbor threw a Saturday afternoon yard sale where I picked up Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, and The Final Cut on vinyl. The former two already had legendary reputations, so I bought them to satiate my curiosity and was blown away. At their peak (the ‘70s run from Meddle to The Wall) Pink Floyd were as great as any band that’s ever existed, each album loaded with classic songs on par with the Beatles. I was 16 when I first heard The Wall all the way through and it was the perfect soundtrack to that angst-ridden period of my life. The music had space and beauty to it, but it was Roger Waters’ lyric-writing that took me on the deepest ride. In terms of cool Pink Floyd albums, hipster types might opt for The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, if for no other reason than to pretend that they know who Syd Barrett is. Musos might opt for Animals or Meddle. I love all of their work and they’ve since become one of the seminal bands of my life, so choosing their best is tough. It’s a toss-up between The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon, with Dark Side getting a slight nod due to a tighter narrative (a single disc versus the four sides of The Wall) and greater cohesion.

 

Led_Zeppelin_-_In_Through_the_Out_Door

4. In Through the Out Door – Led Zeppelin

Zep purists would find this choice abominable. It’s not my fault that this, not Led Zeppelin IV, was the first Zeppelin album I was exposed to. With punk and New Wave having shaken up the music industry at the time, the mighty Zep now represented the old guard and were the target of snotty derision (along with other ‘70s institutions like Floyd and Yes). They responded by incorporating new sonic textures onto their heavy blues and hard rock palette. Synth-heavy and a bit proggier than anything in their prior catalog, this album still rocked. Some have noted that it’s the album where bassist John Paul Jones got to shine most, relying heavily on his keyboard arrangements and production ideas. To my ears, it has the same epic, symphonic scope as Abbey Road. I still rate it highly and listen to it more often than the others. If I had to choose their coolest record, I’d have to go with Led Zeppelin I. If you take that and III, you have everything they ever were distilled to its very essence: a heavy new form of blues on one hand and beautiful English folk textures on the other. And if I had to choose the best album by Led Zeppelin, first I would cry at having to make such a cruel decision and then I would put on the man pants and go with Physical Graffiti, probably the greatest and most listenable double-album in the history of rock and roll.

 

police synchro

5. Synchronicity – The Police

The biggest and best band on earth in 1983. This album was omnipresent and the single “Every Breath You Take” was inescapable. The band’s good fortune was having the release of Synchronicity dovetail perfectly with the explosion of MTV. As a then 14 year-old, the ballad “Every Breath You Take” did not set me on fire (the sinister stalker subtext flew completely over my head at the time), but the industrial aggression of “Synchronicity II” certainly did. The Synchronicity tour was my first concert experience and as far as concert initiations go, it’s hard to top this band at the peak of its powers on what looked to be their final tour until 2007’s highly-successful reunion. As with Zep, Floyd, and the Beatles, I soon snatched up everything else in their back catalog. Looking back, the coolest Police album is probably the first, Outlandos d’Amour. It has the spiky pseudo-punk energy and passion. Their best is Regatta de Blanc, where all the elements came together to create their classic, signature sound. It has the best balance of energy between all three members before Sting grew too domineering.

 

Gabriel So

6. So – Peter Gabriel

By the mid ‘80s, Peter Gabriel had managed to make a successful transition from prog god in Genesis to edgy and credible  solo star. Beneath the genial, photogenic façade was a slightly twisted mind (just revisit the video for “Shock the Monkey”). After releasing several solid solo albums and signature singles (“Solsbury Hill,” “Games without Frontiers”), So was the album that finally made him a superstar. For the time, the production was state-of-the-art with a polish that gleamed brighter than a new Ferrari. This was adult pop that would set the tone for many grown-up artists, including the solo work of Sting and Don Henley. Overall it has aged pretty well too, with many of its biggest hits still staples of classic rock and pop radio such as “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” “That Voice Again” and “Red Rain”. Still, his coolest and best album is Peter Gabriel 3, aka “Melt”. It’s not as polished and for that particular set of songs, that’s a plus. The album has space to breathe. It pulses along with menace and ultimately, in album-closer “Biko,” catharsis.

NirvanaNevermindalbumcover

7. Nevermind – Nirvana

The perfect marriage between the energy of punk and Beatlesque pop hooks. This was Cobain’s musical ethos in a nutshell, polished to a perfect diamond. He would later grow self-conscious about the slick production work and rebel with the low-fi In Utero, but in reality Cobain’s songwriting and Nirvana’s raw power were never better showcased than on Nevermind. The album still plays like a greatest hits compilation (“Smells like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come as You Are,” “Breed,” “Lithium,” “Polly,” etc.), though its culture-shifting success would ultimately have very dark ramifications. Nirvana’s coolest album is Bleach and their best is Nevermind, non-punk production and all.

 

Achtung Baby cover

8. Achtung Baby – U2

A Sgt. Pepper –sized reinvention by the world’s most popular band at the time. U2 hit a slump with critics and some fans with the overly-earnest Rattle and Hum project (following the mega-triumph of The Joshua Tree in 1987). Achtung Baby finds them on the verge of a breakup, with the tidal wave of grunge firmly approaching. The album sessions were turning into a Let it Be nightmare until Edge came up with the signature riff of “One,” which gave them the courage to soldier on. From album opener “Zoo Station” to funereal denouement “Love Is Blindness,” Achtung Baby soars along with great power and genuine risk-taking. They laid everything on the table and came up aces. Their coolest record is Boy, brimming with idealism, punk-influenced song structure, Edge’s echo-laden chime and Bono’s then pubescent-sounding voice. Their best is a toss-up between Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree.

 

The_Eminem_Show

9. The Eminem Show – Eminem

Following the post-grunge fallout of the music industry in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, where everything devolved to teen pop, Disney starlets and American Idol, pop-culture was devoid of the all-important lightening rod rebel figure. Out of this apathetic scene emerged a young white rapper so gifted with words and cursed with anger that the world couldn’t help but take notice. Like most everyone in rock and pop music, he benefitted greatly from cleverly appropriating an African-American art form. But he did so with reverence for the bedrock. I would put Eminem’s first three albums up against anything in the classic rock, pop, or R&B canon for sheer creativity. For me, his personal peak was The Eminem Show before substance abuse temporarily derailed his focus and talent (he would powerfully rebound with 2010’s Recovery). His coolest album is The Slim Shady LP. His best is The Eminem Show, though he will probably be most remembered for The Marshall Mathers LP.

 

RnG cover 2

10. Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo y Gabriela

As someone weaned on rock guitar, I’ve also always loved nylon-string playing, whether it be classical, flamenco, etc. Rodrigo y Gabriela are the perfect synthesis of both styles, having started as metalheads in their native Mexico before evolving into a fierce, brilliantly synchronized nylon-string duo while busking in the streets of Ireland. Rodrigo y Gabriela captures them at an early peak, with fiery, passionate and sexy playing throughout (the male/female energy exchange is subtle, but powerful), as well as classic covers of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Metallica’s “Orion”. The concept behind their brand was too ingenious not to work. Rodrigo y Gabriela is their coolest record as well. Their best is probably 11:11, though 9 Dead Alive is not too far behind.

 

Bonus Cuts:

Pretty Hate Machine – Nine Inch Nails: This looked to be the natural heir to grunge – hook-filled songwriting couched in Industrial music soundscapes and revitalized synth and drum programming.

What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? – Oasis: Shamelessly “borrowing” from the Beatles, Stones, the Who, etc., these cheeky Manchester brothers still had a genuine sibling swagger all their own. And it felt damn good to hear these familiar sounds again in the mid ‘90s.

Lonerism – Tame Impala: For someone constantly bemoaning the state of today’s music scene, discovering this album was a godsend, like coming back full-circle to something you love. Essentially a one-man band on record, Kevin Parker channels the psychedelic ‘60s, plays bass like McCartney and sings like Revolver-era Lennon, all while sounding fresh and relevant (e.g. “Elephant”). Catnip to these ears.

 

My thanks to Andy Pulliam for the initial inspiration for this piece.

2 Prince: Eye Remember U

I’m not a woman, I’m not a man

I am something that you’ll never understand

– Prince

It still seems surreal. Like the passing of Michael Jackson before him, it’s the unexpectedness of Prince’s death that still feels so gutting. With his magical and mysterious aura, Prince actually seemed immortal. He was 57 years old at the time of his death, yet looked like he’d barely aged a day from the cover of his debut album For You (especially having come full circle with the same full, soulful Afro). Tons has already been written, said, and speculated about this regal genius and with a life shrouded in privacy much more will follow, but I just wanted to share some of my own favorite memories of Prince and what he’s meant to me throughout my life. I’ll leave the canonization and gossip to others.

Prince is definitely one of those rare entertainers you grew with. He wasn’t just an artifact of your teenage fandom. His was a talent of such depth that he easily stood up to more sophisticated scrutiny as you got older. There was a lot behind the curtain. There still is. But none of that mattered in 1983 when I was first exposed to Prince via this new cable channel called MTV. This was the beginning of the golden age of music videos and MTV, a 24-hour music channel, was a godsend to teenage music fans like me. While waiting for my fix of Police videos, I was exposed to this funky alien from another dimension in the form of the video for “1999” (the title track from his 1982 album). The song was undeniably catchy, using then-modern synth and drum machine sounds in a kind of minimalist-funk approach, but the video itself challenged my limited 14-year-old perspective. Contradiction ran rampant in Prince World. He had both a hyper-macho African-American swagger as well as a feminine sensuality in his face and stage movements. He had a showman’s aim-to-please extroversion as well as a dark, slightly menacing energy. As a performer, you could not take your eyes off of him.

Basically, the “1999” video exposed me to modern soul music. As a teen, I loved rock and pop, but this had an unmistakably urban edge. Even the Jackson 5, who I loved as a kid and were grounded in many of the same influences as Prince, were more of a pop phenomenon. Prince’s back-up band (a stage necessity, though he was known to play all instruments on his records) was mixed both racially and gender-wise. The two females stationed at the keyboards swayed together VERY closely and suggestively, feeding right into newly discovered teenage fantasies. And the lyrics, while seemingly a straight-up party anthem, also had a doomsday aspect that did not fly over my head. All of my sensibilities and biases were shaken for life and I don’t think I ever turned the dial whenever “1999” was re-played, which was countless times back in ’83.

This was soon followed by the equally popular “Little Red Corvette,” another performance-based video that showcased Prince the kick-ass dancer who could do the splits even better than James Brown. In an age of colorful New Wave performers on the air like A Flock of Seagulls and The Eurythmics, Prince still stood out from the pack. He already had great critical buzz and was on the cusp of something big. That came in the summer of 1984 with the release of the Purple Rain film and soundtrack. The lead single “When Doves Cry” was all over the radio and was so different from anything else at the time. The opening guitar line was sexy and serpentine, and revealed more of the Hendrix influence, while the rest of the song was stripped bare: again, minimal synth and drum patterns, with multi-layered vocals carrying the rest. No bass anywhere to be found, which was said to be the mark of death on an urban record. Prince knew better. It was everywhere that year and the movie was a genuine pop culture touchstone for a generation. I didn’t get to see it in theaters, but I did on home video soon after and all of my initial impressions of Prince were only amplified.

In my opinion, Purple Rain is still one of only three movies built around a musical act that completely works (the other two being A Hard Day’s Night and 8 Mile).  And the soundtrack! This was the first Prince record I owned on vinyl. From start-to-finish, Purple Rain was pop perfection. Not one weak track to be found anywhere. Just look at a partial list: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me with U,” “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Purple Rain” etc. Even the deeper album cuts are legendary, such as the haunting “The Beautiful Ones” (one of Prince’s greatest vocal performances on record) and “Darling Nikki” which caught the attention of Tipper Gore and eventually led to the use of “Parental Advisory” stickers on album covers, a marketing gift to all hip-hop artists to follow. There were five official singles, though every song is well-known thanks to the quality of the music as well as the accompanying visuals in the movie.  The project as a whole remains his defining moment – it’s the Prince we all remember.

Considering what a successful and long run Purple Rain had on the charts, the next album came out quickly after in the spring of 1985. As with anyone trying to follow-up a world-beating smash (the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper or Nirvana with Nevermind), reaction was mixed. I remember being a bit nonplussed with the “Raspberry Beret” single and video (everything was a musical and visual event in the ‘80s). Though a big and enduring hit song, it seemed slight to me then and it looked like he was paying homage to the psychedelia of Pepper with the visuals and his slightly mop-toppish new hairdo. Around the World in a Day did have some quality songs like “Pop Life” and “America,” but none with the same potency as anything on Purple Rain for me. I skipped it.

I did buy 1986’s Parade, the soundtrack to his next film Under the Cherry Moon. The first single “Kiss” again had the spark of simplicity and the lush second single “Mountains” hooked me in. But it was 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times that became his artistic high-water mark. His first double-album since “1999,” it was Prince as all-out musical mad scientist, using every trick up his sleeve and somehow digging even deeper. Sprawling, ambitious, avant-garde and strange, it remains the Prince album of choice for the hipper fan. Conventional wisdom would’ve said to wait a while before following up this masterpiece, but Prince’s musical output has been a constant torrent throughout his life and he would pretty much release an album a year for the rest of his career.

The cover for 1988’s LoveSexy was asking a lot of a young, straight male fan to accept much less buy, featuring a strategically nude Prince posing as Michelangelo subject or something. The first single “Alphabet St.” was also an odd first listen, though I now think it’s one of his better ones with another minimal, but super-funky arrangement. The video was also minimalist pop-art and stood out from the increasingly high-budget and high-concept videos circulating at the time.

In 1989, he got the nod from parent company Warner Bros. to do the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman. Both the soundtrack and movie were very odd and experimental for being such mainstream releases. Prince got to channel more alter-egos, and there were still cool new songs like “Electric Chair” and one of his best ballads in “Scandalous!”.  This would end his ‘80s run of music, an incredible output by any standard. It would also spell the end of the great vinyl era, with CD’s becoming the more dominant (but much less fun) format for music releases. Music-listening would never again be the immersive, all-consuming experience it had once been for me, though I would remain a Prince fan for life.

I bought the Diamonds and Pearls album in 1991 (one of the cooler covers of the CD age), as I enjoyed Prince’s return to accessible pop songcraft. The title track, “Cream,” “Thunder,” “Gett Off,” “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” and “Live 4 Love” all worked for me. He made some great TV appearances, including a memorable turn on the Arsenio Hall Show. But it was with 1992’s concept-heavy Love Symbol Album and accompanying ’93 tour, 10 years after I first caught him on MTV, where I finally got to see Prince live.  Thankfully it was during a brief window of his career in between playing large arenas where he was performing in more intimate venues. So it was at the Chicago Theatre where I experienced Prince live and it was ridiculous how good he was. There’s just something about our best musicians and artists – they are actually even better than you think and you don’t fully realize this until you see them play live. Without fail, all the best are even more impressive in a concert setting. Prince was even more so. It was everything he did best, rolled up into one overwhelming (and humbling if you are an aspiring musician) experience: the vocal acrobatics of Little Richard, the moves and band leadership of James Brown, the psychedelic guitar-playing of Jimi Hendrix, all filtered through his own unique genius. I sat up front and center on the first balcony with a clear view of all the proceedings and it was unparalleled. I happened to bring my younger brother along who was around the same age that year as I was when I first discovered Prince in 1983 and he loved it just as much as I did.

The rest of the ‘90s and early 2000’s spelled a slight decline from the artistic and commercial apex of the ‘80s, but that’s a natural trajectory for any commercial artist. If you’re lucky, you hit a genius peak, but it’s never sustainable no matter who you are. Talent is, but not optimum genius. Part of his weakened output seemed due to his increasingly bitter battle with Warner Bros., apparently over royalties and publishing. It split his focus. Another part could have been the tragic death of his only child Boy Gregory, lost to Pfeiffer Syndrome a mere week after birth. There seemed to be a dark cloud hovering over his work and it wasn’t until 2004 when the magic finally returned. First was his killer Grammy Award appearance with Beyoncé which is still part of his highlight reel. This was followed by his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where he participated in a tribute to deceased fellow inductee George Harrison. Led by Tom Petty on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Prince took center stage three-and-a-half minutes in and owned the entire night. Once a gifted young prodigy, he now had the aura of a master as he took the lead on a guitar solo originally made famous by Eric Clapton, making both the solo and song his very own. With his profile the highest it had been since his Purple Rain heyday, he returned to playing large-scale arenas once again. Unfortunately I missed him on this tour, something I still deeply regret, but I do have a video bootleg of his Staples Center appearance in Los Angeles and he was as dynamic and versatile as he’d ever been. The musicianship was still off the charts, as the world-at-large would see in 2007 when he headlined the Super Bowl halftime show.

Prince’s Super Bowl appearance has now become one of his defining moments as a live performer. If you’ve ever watched any footage of Prince live, you know this was someone who never faltered or hit a bum note, something that used to amaze even the super-demanding jazz legend Miles Davis. He always delivered in a live setting and this would be no exception. Benefiting greatly from the NFL’s production budget (the show was beautifully shot and staged), Prince came up with a set that delivered signature hits, but also unexpected musical surprises. He threw in Dylan via Hendrix with a short cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” Creedence via Ike and Tina with “Proud Mary,” and a reciprocal cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You” (they had covered his own “Darling Nikki,” apparently to significant approval), all while showcasing his greatly underrated guitar-playing. The theatricality of the performance was only heightened by the heavy downpour of rain throughout his set. By the time he got to “Purple Rain,” all of the elements came together to create one of those magical TV moments like Michael Jackson on Motown 25 or the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I watched the show in amazement, proud to still be a Prince fan.

For the rest of his career, Prince would remain as hardworking and prolific as ever. He’d drop out of the spotlight for a bit, but always knew how to make his presence known whenever he had something new to promote. While newer albums continued to be patchy, there were always cool little surprises like “Black Sweat,” a great throwback to his early-‘80s work (the video was stylish and hot too) or “Guitar” from 2007. He made many great live appearances on TV, notably on SNL and his concerts remained the best way to experience his inexhaustible talent right up to his final Piano & a Microphone tour this year. While reportedly struggling with some yet-unknown demons, the final live footage we have of Prince floating around the internet shows him alone at the piano playing an intimate and poignant version of “Purple Rain,” the fortunate audience in attendance blissfully singing along, totally unaware that this would be his final performance ever. It serves as a heartbreaking memorial.

Later this evening, my dearly beloved and I will gather here today to celebrate this still-enigmatic superstar and legend by doing something I didn’t get the chance to as a teen: catching a theatrical screening of Purple Rain. It will be a very bittersweet, full-circle moment for me. While Prince the human being was not immortal after all, his creative output certainly is. He has left us a treasure trove of material to sift through, cherish, and pass along to successive generations. There is also a more private legacy of great philanthropic work that will improve the quality of life for many underprivileged children. He cared greatly throughout his life about equality, spirituality, and love. Music just happened to be the most natural vehicle to express his ideas with. Regardless of what emerges as the cause of his sudden departure from this earth, his personal and creative journey here showed us endless new possibilities and elevated all of humanity a notch in our slow upward climb towards nirvana. He only wanted to see us laughing in the purple rain.