Saturday, April 5, 2014

Music That Matters

Music That Matters

I usually write about film, but one of my other great passions is music. I recently came across a list of my Top 50 favorite bands that I had written almost 15 years ago. I discovered that I could barely write back then and that my taste in music hasn't changed much.

So I decided to spend some time writing about my Top 25 favorite bands (quite a lengthy project). I hope it will be interesting and revealing, but it would be even better if you discover a new band that you like from this chaos.

For the purposes of this list, I have omitted all compilations and live albums from consideration. Also, there's a limit of one album per artist, unless a band member formed a separate band.

One thing I have always wondered is why so few people like the kind of music I listen to. Whenever I go to a concert, it's filled with people, but I rarely encounter them in other situations. Is my taste really that out there? I don't think so. Anyway, let's get on with it.

1. Dirty - Sonic Youth

Many Sonic Youth fans would say that Daydream Nation is the best in the band's impressive catalog. While I obviously love it, Dirty works better for me. It's such a hard choice because I would imagine that at least 10 Sonic Youth albums would make my Top 100, with three or four in contention for the Top 10.

Dirty has a little bit of everything. Thurston and Kim share vocal duties for the most part, but Lee's Wish Fulfillment sounds magical and is a vital component. There are so many great moments in 59 minutes that it's hard to keep count. The only weaknesses are the throwaway Untouchables cover, Nic Fit, which lasts 59 seconds, and the closing Créme Brûlèe.

Chapel Hill is a strong contender for my favorite song from any band. You can check it out here:

Theresa's Sound-World is a masterpiece, and it builds wonderfully. Sugar Kane reminds me a bit of the Rolling Stones, but it blows away anything they ever produced. Kim is well represented, with Drunken Butterfly, Swimsuit Issue and JC among the best songs she has sung. Just when you think all of the highlights are over, Purr kicks in. It's only a fraction behind Chapel Hill in brilliance.

This is Sonic Youth at their best. Nothing too self-indulgent, and so many sweeping guitar songs. I would happily listen to it at any time. The 2-disc deluxe edition is the version to own if you are buying it for the first time.

Full Track Listing:

Swimsuit Issue
Theresa's Sound-World
Drunken Butterfly
Wish Fulfillment
Sugar Kane
Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit
Youth Against Fascism
Nic Fit
On the Strip
Chapel Hill
Créme Brûlèe

2. Marquee Moon - Television

Television are always mentioned in the same breath as Talking Heads, The Ramones and Blondie because they all used to play at CBGB in New York in the 70s. I own plenty of albums from those other three bands, but Marquee Moon is the one I always return to. For some reason, it's a bit of a cult record. I only really got into it completely around 15 years ago, but I mention it at every opportunity.

What makes Television unique is the guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. I'm not a musician, so it's hard to describe some of the sounds. I just know that no other band ever did this.

The lyrics are clever and the musical structure is complex. See No Evil is so accessible that it's almost pop, but pop with a raw edge. It's followed by Venus, which continues in the same vein, if a little darker. Friction kicks in with a cascade of guitar notes, and then starts spiraling into madness. The lyrics fit perfectly, and it's hard not to smile every time I hear "You complain of my dic-tion."

Even if the first three tracks don't capture your interest, it's hard to ignore what comes next. The title track is absolute perfection. Hey, it may even be better than Chapel Hill. Most fans would agree that Marquee Moon is the best song Television ever recorded, and it's even better live. The opening vocals are eerie and set the scene.

"I remember how the darkness doubled"
"I recall, lightning struck itself"
"I was listening, listening to the rain"
"I was hearing, hearing something else"

No need to take my word for it, listen for yourself:

Make no mistake, this is a song that transports you to another world. Verlaine's vocals are more like David Byrne than a rock artist, but his limitations don't ruin the delivery. If you make it through this list, you'll notice that few of the bands can really sing. I like things a bit messed up. Just when you think the song has weaved its spell and can't possibly do any more, it returns to the opening verse. It absolutely has to be there to make the song feel complete.

Marquee Moon does not contain a weak song. Make sure you buy the remastered version or you'll miss out on Little Johnny Jewel. Television may also have been responsible for the best live album ever recorded, Live at the Old Waldorf.

Full Track Listing:

See No Evil
Marquee Moon
Guiding Light
Prove It
Torn Curtain
Little Johnny Jewel ( on the 2003 remastered version)

3. Doolittle - Pixies

It's almost impossible to choose just one Pixies album. It eventually came down to Surfer Rosa or Doolittle. If I counted CDs rather than albums, I would have gone for Surfer Rosa/Come On Pilgrim, but Doolittle has the edge if we are sticking to the one album rule.

I'm always surprised at how few people have listened to the Pixies. Kurt Cobain freely admitted that he was a fan of the band and their loud quiet loud approach. Doolittle is a combination of punk, pop, and haunting melodies. It's exciting and action packed, but the songs are much more than rants or ballads. There's so much going on in the rhythm section.

Black Francis is into space, UFOs, and thinks that music is like math. He's absolutely right. The seemingly chaotic sound of the Pixies still has a precise structure.

Like Marquee Moon, the first three songs grab you immediately. Debaser starts with Kim Deal's base, and that's a big part of the Pixies' sound. Francis delivers the lyrics with venom, and it's intensified on Track 2, Tame, which is contention for the title of the band's best track. Here it is:

Wave of Mutilation completely changes the mood and allows you to catch your breath, and Francis switches to atmospheric mode. Such a versatile vocalist. Monkey Gone to Heaven is perhaps the most famous Pixies song, and it's full of harmonies and epic guitar.

Many of the songs sound mystical, as if they are reaching toward something important. They simply soar. How can you not love the vocals on No. 13 Baby, or Hey, or the haunting (there's that word again) closer, Gouge Away. Yep, Doolittle is a brilliant album. The only weak track is La La Love You, sung by drummer David Lovering, but I'll forgive him because of his work on the remainder of the album.

Full Track Listing:

Wave of Mutilation
I Bleed
Here Comes Your Man
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Mr. Grieves
Crackity Jones
La La Love You
No. 13 Baby
There Goes My Gun
Gouge Away

4. Wowee Zowee - Pavement

It took me a while to truly get Pavement. Their style is sloppy and almost lazy, but it works. Vocals are shared by Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg and occasional rants from Bob Nastanovich, but Malkmus is the magic ingredient and takes on most of the vocal duties.

The thing is, Malkmus can't really sing. He'll change key and try to hit notes any way that he can, and it can be almost funny. I can sing that well, so I often join in. That said, I love his vocals. He's quirky and funny, and he doesn't take himself seriously. That sense of fun is what makes Pavement a great band to listen to. When Malkmus plays guitar, it just flows, and it can be just as quirky as his vocals. Sometimes I think the guitar is speaking to me or dropping one-liners.

Despite recognizing all of the limitations of the band, I will never forget the concerts I attended. I'll never tire of listening to their music either, but Wowee Zowee is my clear favorite. We Dance is a slow opener, and uses the word "castration" in the opening line, but that's the most uncomfortable thing about it. The lyrics are almost nonsensical, but it sets the mood. What follows is my favorite Pavement track, Rattled by the Rush. This just demands to be heard, so here it is:

The album is a complete mess, consisting of a variety of styles, and refusing to adhere to any one of them. Black Out is so relaxing that it's almost a lullaby, Grounded contains a wonderful intro and builds majestically, Serpentine Pad is a rant, and then Motion Suggests Itself returns to the laid back vibe. I love the line "Captivate your senses like a ginger ale rain."

Father to a Sister of Thought contains actual hooks, and is as catchy as hell. Grave Architecture and AT&T are other highlights, before fans of 70s rock and psychedelia get their fix with Half a Canyon.

Wowee Zowee is quite a departure from the more accessible Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Slanted and Enchanted, but it eventually takes hold of you if you listen often enough. The slack structure seems to take shape and the album really comes to life. Yes, it's Pavement's best, and that's saying a lot. Make sure you buy the Sordid Sentinels Edition if you're new to the album.

Full Track Listing:

We Dance
Rattled by the Rush
Black Out
Brinx Job
Serpentine Pad
Motion Suggests Itself
Father to a Sister of Thought
Best Friend’s Arm
Grave Architecture
Flux = Rad
Fight This Generation
Kennel District
Half a Canyon
Western Homes

5. Unknown Pleasures - Joy Division

I remember the first time I heard this album. A friend at school gave me the tape in 1979 and I played it that night. I have to admit that only a few songs grabbed me on the first listen. Some were too slow and dreary to excite me in the way that most of my favorite music did. However, repeat listens enabled me to see the beauty in this majestic music.

Most new bands at the end of the 70s were young and enthusiastic, and it was more about the style and delivery than the content. Joy Division did not fall into that category. If you have ever seen Anton Corbijn's movie, Control, you'll understand what Ian Curtis went through. He was a young man, in love with two women, trying to come to terms with epilepsy. Like most of my favorite vocalists, he had his limitations.

What separated Joy Division from the pack was the passion. Curtis lived and breathed those songs. His delivery was real in the true sense of the word. You'll never see a singer mean it like Curtis if you only watch American Idol or The Voice.

Joy Division were more than just one man though. The music had a depth to it, with each component a vital part of the sound. Peter Hook's bass was extremely prominent. Sumner's lead guitar dominated a few tracks, while the drums ranged from driving to sparse, with Morris adding to the desolation when appropriate. Insight, New Dawn Fades, and She's Lost Control formed the heart of the album. The ever-present bass added weight to the sound, and it's incredible how much beauty was present. Listen to the slow burn of New Dawn Fades and you'll begin to understand Joy Division.

If I had to pick a favorite track, it would probably be Shadowplay. Here's a live version from their first TV appearance:

The album begins with Disorder, which gives you a good idea of the importance of each instrument as they are gradually introduced to the mix. These guys could really play. Day of the Lords sounds sinister and ominous, but there is so much feeling. Candidate is a good example of a song that sounds too desolate to be enjoyable, but it becomes meaningful and almost uplifting once you know it well enough.

If you missed seeing Joy Division more than 30 years ago, it's worth checking out Peter Hook and the Light if they are playing Unknown Pleasures or Closer in your town. The sound is surprisingly close to the original.

Unknown Pleasures is a must-own album, but is too difficult for the casual listener. I would recommend the Heart and Soul box set, which includes all of the albums and singles, plus the Warsaw tracks. The fourth live disc seems to have been recorded at the wrong speed, but the first three discs capture Joy Division brilliantly. It might take a little time, but it's worth getting to know the music of Joy Division. The potential rewards are huge.

Full Track Listing:

Day of the Lords
New Dawn Fades
She's Lost Control
I Remember Nothing

6. The Lonesome Crowded West - Modest Mouse

Choosing between The Moon & Antarctica and The Lonesome Crowded West was an agonizing decision, and I might make a different choice on another day. I discovered Modest Mouse relatively late, but they have become one of my favorite bands. The thing is, I'm not sure why.

Like Pavement and Sonic Youth, the arrangements are unconventional and seemingly all over the place. It took me a while to see some kind of pattern in the chaos, but it was worth the effort.

The album opens with Teeth Like God's Shoeshine, and it's fairly typical of what is to follow. The song seems like three or four different tunes blended together. It's out of tune and a bit of a rant to begin with, but then it builds into something more. Heart Cooks Brain employs a totally different style, creating an atmosphere that's both eerie and compelling. Convenient Parking is repetitive as it bores its way into your brain, and you might find yourself humming it a few hours later.

Three tracks in and the album already feels like the start of a weird and wonderful journey. Lounge is a strange creature, opening with a funky beat before Isaac Brock rants over the top. Like so many Modest Mouse songs, it has a lot of recognizable phases, and it's never predictable or boring. My favorite track has to be Doin' the Cockroach. It builds slowly, with Brock making some interesting observations before the chorus kicks in.

"I was in heaven"
"I was in hell"
"Believe in neither"
"But fear them as well"

Then the track really takes off and it becomes extremely addictive. Here it is (with lyrics):

I could praise every track, but it's best if you check out the album for yourself. Notice the structure of the songs and how they employ space. Some songs, like Shit Luck, are outright rants; others, such as Truckers Atlas, take plenty of time to develop into arty jams.

Modest Mouse are not an easy band to get into initially, but it will happen if you give it a chance. When your brain learns the intricate patterns, you'll find yourself eagerly anticipating every song. Unlike some bands, the 15 tracks cover a variety of styles. The Lonesome Crowded West is a great place to visit for 74 minutes. You might find yourself spending a lot of time there.

Full Track Listing:

Teeth Like God's Shoeshine
Heart Cooks Brain
Convenient Parking
Lounge (Closing Time)
Jesus Christ Was an Only Child
Doin' the Cockroach
Cowboy Dan
Trailer Trash
Out of Gas
Long Distance Drunk
Shit Luck
Truckers Atlas
Polar Opposites
Bankrupt on Selling
Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice on Ice, Alright

7. Real Emotional Trash - Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks

Yes, Stephen Malkmus is responsible for two albums in my Top 10. His fourth album with The Jicks is probably the most conventional thing he has ever done, but that's not a criticism. The 10 tracks average more than 5 minutes each, and all have recognizable hooks. Some develop into outright jams and could appeal to fans of more traditional rock. Despite that, Malkmus includes plenty of whimsical moments, and songs that are easy to fall in love with.

This might be sacrilegious, but I like Real Emotional Trash more than some of Pavement's albums, and I love all of those.

Dragonfly Pie is a big and bold opener, and it's followed by Hopscotch Willie, which contains lyrics that Bob Dylan wouldn't be ashamed of. Check it out for yourself:

Cold Son changes the mood and has a more quirky structure than the previous tracks, but the 10-minute Real Emotional Trash slowly builds into an epic jam. Malkmus uses his guitar to great effect throughout the album, but it's extremely prominent on this title track.

I completely relate to the powerful lyrics of Out of Reaches, which appears heartfelt and real. Baltimore and Elmo Delmo are longer jams that wouldn't be too out of place on a 70s album, with the poppy Gardenia sandwiched between them.

Real Emotional Trash is easily my favorite Jicks album, and I like them all. I played Wig Out at Jagbags every day last week and love every track, but Real Emotional Trash is unlikely to be replaced as my favorite Malkmus effort since Pavement. If the vocal style doesn't put you off, it's one of the best alternative rock albums out there.

Full Track Listing:

Dragonfly Pie
Hopscotch Willie
Cold Son
Real Emotional Trash
Out of Reaches
Elmo Delmo
We Can't Help You
Wicked Wanda

8. The Holy Bible - Manic Street Preachers

The Manic Street Preachers have produced a few good albums, but only one of them deserves to be called great. The Holy Bible is full of venom, profanity, and controversy, but almost every track is a highlight. I originally thought that James Dean Bradfield's voice was too bland to appeal to my eccentric taste, but it definitely works here.

The album opens with Yes, which is indication of things to come. Just read the lyrics and you'll get a good idea of the tone of this album. Some of the topics include anorexia, white America, evil, pain, and all kinds of darkness. I can't begin to imagine what Richey Edwards was going through when he wrote these songs, but the Manics never produced such darkness on subsequent albums.

The biggest reason I return so often to this album is the style of the songs. The best tracks owe their origins to punk, and some of the delivery contains a wall of sound that would be expected from bands such as Nine Inch Nails, The Clash, or The Jesus and Mary Chain. However, while a lot of punk is forgettable, these songs will stay with you. They have substance and power.

The one weak track is This Is Yesterday, which feels as if it belongs on a different album. Along with Yes, the real gems include Of Walking Abortion, Archives of Pain, 4st 7lbs, Mausoleum, Faster and Revol. It's best to experience the album as a whole, rather than selecting individual tracks, but P.C.P. is one that I hope you'll listen to. Here it is (with lyrics):

If ever a closing track left you wanting more, that has to be it.

If you like The Holy Bible, check out Everything Must Go and Generation Terrorists. I'm surprised that the band didn't have more success outside the UK.

Full Track Listing:

Of Walking Abortion
Archives of Pain
4st 7lb
This Is Yesterday
Die in the Summertime
The Intense Humming of Evil

9. Turn on the Bright Lights - Interpol

With Joy Division in my Top 5, you knew that Interpol would appear somewhere on this list. But despite those obvious comparisons, Interpol produce a sound that is so much more than that of a copycat band. There's not a single weak track on the album and most of them shine brightly.

Untitled opens the album and immediately creates a mood. It's optimistic, atmospheric and masterfully structured. The vocals slowly build and you quickly realize that all the essential components are there for the album to be one that leaves an impact. These tracks have depth.

Obstacle 1 does sound like something Joy Division might have produced; at least in terms of structure. The bass and the vocals channel Hook and Curtis without any doubt. NYC is a slower song that has a certain beauty to it, before PDA kicks in with its irresistible assault on your senses. Here's the video:

Turn on the Bright Lights sounds like albums released 20 years before for the most part, but at times offers songs that could be on a Strokes album. Roland is one of the highlights, with Leif Erikson a great choice to close the album. I love bands that produce layers of sound because there's always something new to discover on repeat listens.

Interpol's other three albums all have something to offer, but nothing quite matches the consistent excellence found on their debut.

Full Track Listing:

Obstacle 1
Say Hello to the Angels
Hands Away
Obstacle 2
Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down
The New
Leif Erikson

10. Red Heaven - Throwing Muses

I knew nothing about Throwing Muses when I saw Bright Yellow Gun performed on TV in 1994, but that quickly changed. I remember buying concert tickets soon after to see Belly, P.J. Harvey, and Throwing Muses. I fully expected the Muses to be the weakest of the three, but I ended up playing all of their albums every day for about a month in preparation. It took three or four listens before Red Heaven really started to make sense, but then I became totally hooked. As a result, the Muses concert turned out to be one of the best I have ever attended.

Furious is an opener which demands your attention, and Firepile doesn't let up. What's immediately clear is how tight the band sounds, despite the complicated layers present on most of the tracks. The full sound is also present on Dio and Dirty Water, but the best track on the album has to be Pearl. It has a few phases and highlights both the fury and sweetness of Kristin Hersh's voice. Here it is:

The Throwing Muses are complicated, layered, real, and often raw. However, the chaos has definite patterns, and the music can be sweeping and majestic at times.  Kristin's guitar style is very distinctive, but every component is vital to the sound. This was my favorite band for over ten years, and I'll never tire of hearing their music. It was such a pleasant surprise to discover 32 new Muses tracks in the recently released Purgatory/Paradise. If you do check out Red Heaven for yourself, try to give it at least three listens. You might just find something you love. I once flew 3,000 miles just to see this band.

Full Track Listing:

Dirty Water
Summer St.
The Visit
Rosetta Stone
Carnival Wig

11. Nevermind - Nirvana

When people ask me what kind of music I like, I often mention Nirvana. For those who were raised on a diet of pop or classic rock, it's the easiest way to make them understand what alternative rock sounds like. Let's face it, just about everyone has heard of this band. My introduction was through MTV when I first saw Smells Like Teen Spirit. I knew I had to own that song and whatever album it was from.  

Kurt Cobain freely admitted that Nirvana ripped off the Pixies, who sit comfortably at number three in this list. Unlike the Pixies, Nirvana were huge in the early 90s. MTV brought the music to the masses, even though Bleach had been around since 1989.

The album has been identified as one which changed music. While I disagree about the level of its impact, it certainly made alternative music more accessible to mainstream audiences. The album is exciting, and still stands up well today, despite most fans playing it to death. I doubt any other album on my list has sold anywhere close to the 30 million that Nevermind managed throughout the world.

Teen Spirit opens the album, but the band will be remembered for a lot more than that one song. In Bloom is catchy, but in a cool kind of way. What first made me think that Nirvana would be more than a one album band was the third song, Come As You Are. Here it is:

The structure of the song is what suggested to me that Nirvana might produce music that was lasting, and more than just a fleeting ripple on the alternative music pond. The way it slowly builds and becomes something powerful. Cobain, like most of my favorite vocalists, had a flawed raspy delivery, but there was passion and meaning in the songs.

Nevermind doesn't have a song that you'll want to skip. What I really like is the variety present across the 12 tracks. Sure, they had a formula, but there was a depth that is lacking from most bands. In Utero was a stunning final album from a band that could have developed into an even more interesting phenomenon over the years. That said, I'm glad we have what Kurt Cobain left behind.

Full Track Listing:

Smells Like Teen Spirit
In Bloom
Come as You Are
Territorial Pissings
Drain You
Lounge Act
Stay Away
On a Plain
Something in the Way

12. Animals - Pink Floyd

Here's the first band that doesn't fall into the Alternative Rock category. My tastes have changed considerably over the past 40 years, but Pink Floyd were once my favorite band. I've owned their albums on vinyl, cassette tape and CD, and even bought remastered and special editions of some of them. I only ever saw them in concert twice, both on the Division Bell tour. As a spectacle, they are the best shows I have ever been to.

Most Pink Floyd fans will claim that Dark Side of the Moon is the band's best album, and most of those who don't agree will mention The Wall. I prefer Animals because it has a harder edge to it. With the exception of the brief starting and ending tracks, Animals consists of three main songs: Dogs, Sheep and Pigs. I would rank Dogs and Sheep as the best two tracks Pink Floyd ever produced, with Pigs also in the Top 10.

Don't get me wrong, I love Dark Side of the Moon. It's one of the best concept albums I've ever heard. There's just something more appealing about Animals for me. Dogs dominates side one of the original album, weighing in at  over 17 minutes. It's the only track not written solely by Roger Waters (Gilmour co-wrote), and it's probably the strongest in terms of lyrics. The opening two verses set the scene:

You gotta be crazy, you gotta have a real need.
You gotta sleep on your toes, and when you're on the street,
You gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed.
And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight,
You gotta strike when the moment is right without thinking.

And after a while, you can work on points for style.
Like the club tie, and the firm handshake,
A certain look in the eye and an easy smile.
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to,
So that when they turn their backs on you,
You'll get the chance to put the knife in.

Dogs is a superb song, and never feels too long because of the different feel of the various segments.

Sheep features great guitar work from Gilmour and that gets my vote for best Pink Floyd song (most days). Here it is:

For some reason, Animals is rarely recognized as the band's best album. Perhaps it's due to the length of the tracks? They are not exactly suited for radio play. I own everything Pink Floyd ever released, and there has never been a moment where I thought any one of their other albums was better than this one. Give it a few listens and maybe you will change your mind.

Full Track Listing:

Pigs on the Wing (Part 1)
Pigs on the Wing (Part 2)

13. Grotesque - The Fall

Here's a choice that will alienate a lot of people, and have others enthusiastically nodding in agreement. The Fall are most certainly an acquired taste. I discovered the band through listening to the John Peel show, and then by exploring a friend's record collection.

The first time I heard the band, I was not impressed. Mark E. Smith can't sing, and often forgets lyrics when he's drunk during a show. However, the supporting cast more than made up for Smith's shortcomings as a vocalist. Grotesque features Marc Riley (guitar, keyboards), Stephen Hanley (bass), Craig Scanlon (guitar), Paul Hanley (drums) and Kay Carroll (additional vocals).

It's hard to say exactly why I love The Fall. They definitely had an impressive engine room, and Hanley's bass was a key component. It's one of those occasions where repeated plays caused something to suddenly click. Take a listen to New Face in Hell and you'll probably see how it influenced Pavement's Conduit for Sale:

Yep, it uses kazoos. Like many of Smith's lyrics, there's quite a lot going on. He throws information and narrative at you for fun. You can see what I mean about his vocal style. The Fall are definitely a love them or hate them band. I love them.

With the exception of W.M.C. - Blob 59, Grotesque shows The Fall at their best. The rhythm section shines, and there's an edge and originality to their sound. Other highlights include Pay Your Rates, In the Park, and Gramme Friday. For anyone interested in discovering this very English band, Grotesque is a good place to start.

I've attended about 500 concerts over the course of my life, and The Fall may be responsible for as many as 30-50 of them. My first ever gig was to see The Fall, so it's easy to appreciate why they were my favorite band for around 15 years. Unfortunately, Smith fired the entire band in the 90s and things were never the same. Fond memories though.

Full Track Listing:

Pay Your Rates
English Scheme
New Face in Hell
C'n'C-S Mithering
The Container Drivers
Impression of J. Temperance
In the Park
W.M.C. – Blob 59
Gramme Friday
The N.W.R.A.

14. Let Love In - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

If you're keeping score, there are nine American and four British bands on my list thus far. Time to add something from Australia. I knew that I would include an album involving Nick Cave, but the choice was extremely difficult as I'm also extremely fond of Murder Ballads, Henry's Dream and Dig Lazarus, Dig!!!

Let Love In gets the nod because it's so varied, and features one of my favorite Nick Cave songs. If you prefer his crooning ballad style, there are five or six tracks to choose from. For those who like the harder, almost punk delivery (that he used so successfully while a member of The Birthday Party), you have Jangling Jack and Thirsty Dog. If you enjoy powerful rants, listen to Loverman. Perhaps the best track Cave has ever produced (although The Mercy Seat is in the running) is Red Right Hand. Here it is:

Such an atmospheric and menacing song. It was used to good effect during an X-Files episode after Chris Carter heard it and had to find a way to use it.

The Bad Seeds give amazing depth to Nick Cave's music. It's more noticeable on other tracks, so I urge you to check out the entire album and a few others if you have the time.

I always think of Nick Cave as the musical equivalent of Quentin Tarantino. There's violence, murder, menace and vitriol, but it's delivered in such a tongue-in-cheek way that it's funny and almost friendly. Cave is an extremely humorous character. Here's a verse from Thirsty Dog:

Forgive me, baby but don't worry
Love is always having to say you're sorry
And I am, from my head down to my shoes
I'm sorry that I'm always pissed
I'm sorry that I exist
And when I look into your eyes
I can see you're sorry too

Full Track Listing:

Do You Love Me?
Nobody's Baby Now
Jangling Jack
Red Right Hand
I Let Love In
Thirsty Dog
Ain't Gonna Rain Anymore
Lay Me Low
Do You Love Me? (Part 2)

15. Rid of Me - PJ Harvey

Here is one of the most ferocious albums I have ever heard. It fades in quietly, almost deceptively, before unleashing Polly Harvey's fury. I love the stark simplicity of this album, in which the space between the notes is like an instrument in itself. The ever-present bass and meandering guitar mesh perfectly, and many of the songs feature moments when all of the instruments explode together in a powerful crescendo. I'll stop describing the sound now before I start sounding really pretentious.

Harvey's voice is raw, emotional, and occasionally jarring, but it is always real. It's obvious that she feels everything she is singing, and I imagine that some of the tracks are exorcising the various demons that have plagued her existence.

Let's talk about some of the songs. The first four tracks are filled with pain. Ian Curtis would surely identify with what she was feeling. Rid of Me is the perfect track to open this journey, fading in before delivering a few crushing blows. Hook changes the mood somewhat, assaulting the senses right from the start. It's easily one of the best songs on the album.

There can't be many better Bob Dylan covers than Harvey's version of Highway '61 Revisited, while 50ft Queenie appropriately squeezes a lot of excitement into 2 minutes 23 seconds. There are so many highlights during the 48-minute running time, but my favorite track has to be Man-Size. Here it is:

Hard to believe that Rid of Me is more than 20 years old. Where did my life go? Hearing these songs reminds me of a time, a place, and a few of the friends I left behind when I moved from England to Canada.

PJ Harvey delivers something interesting with every album and they are all worth your time, but Rid of Me is comfortably my favorite. That's saying quite a lot.

Full Track Listing:

Rid of Me
Rub 'til It Bleeds
Man-Size Sextet
Highway 61 Revisited
50ft Queenie

16. Seamonsters - Wedding Present

It's been a long time since I first saw the Wedding Present play live at Windsor Old Trout. That was in the 90s, but I had been a fan since the release of George Best in 1987. I have much to thank John Peel for and this is certainly one of those bands.

It's difficult to choose just one album from a superb body of work, but I think that Seamonsters contains the best overall mix of the things that make the Wedding Present great. While choosing the album was difficult, the choice of favorite song was a lot easier. Dalliance is superb in every way, slowly building and telling a story before exploding into action two-and-a-half minutes into the track. Here it is:

Dare and Suck continue in a similar vein, each featuring moments of sweeping guitar-driven rock, interspersed with David Gedge's earnest delivery. Gedge has to be one of the nicest musicians around, he's so down to earth. If you are familiar with the Wedding Present, you'll know that Gedge's lyrics cover just about every heartbreaking aspect of love and relationships. This makes every song sound authentic, but it's the delivery that makes it great. To really appreciate the band's sound, you just have to see them live. It's somehow a fuller sound and more intense than the album versions are able to deliver. Gedge's strumming seems to have no limitations when he's performing live.

I mentioned that Seamonsters showcases a variety of styles. Blonde and Rotterdam are slower than the three opening songs, relying on a stark vocal delivery and heartfelt lyrics. Lovenest and Corduroy pick up the pace again and are two of the best songs on the album. If you like Dalliance or Seamonsters in general, be sure to check out George Best, Bizarro, and anything else you can get your hands on. This is a band that deserves a bigger audience.

Full Track Listing:


17. Fear of Music - Talking Heads

Here's another almost impossible decision. At least four of the band's first five studio albums could have been my final choice. In the end, it came down to Speaking in Tongues or Fear of Music, and I chose the latter because it was the first Talking Heads album that I really connected with. In truth, the best representation of the band's work is the excellent live double album, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (but the rules state no live albums).

So why is Fear of Music so good?  Well, the opening bars of the first track, I Zimbra, instantly establish a mood. It's complicated, rhythmical, nonsensical, funky, eerie and compelling, all at the same time. The layers and intricate detail were present on most of the band's songs.

Tracks two through five are the heart of the album, and the songs that make it a true masterpiece in my opinion. Mind, Paper, Cities and Life During Wartime all have claims as my favorite track from Fear of Music. If pressed, I would have to single out Life During Wartime. Here it is:

Although David Byrne's vocals are the most distinctive thing about the band, it wouldn't work without the fantastic rhythm section of Tina Weymouth (bass), Chris Frantz (drums) and Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitars). Their albums and concerts frequently featured special guest appearances from other musicians. Television are my favorite band from the New York scene in the 70s, but Talking Heads are right behind them.

Fear of Music had a slightly weaker side two for those of you who remember vinyl, but the five songs were still pretty incredible. Air and Animals stand out. 

The British magazine NME (New Musical Express) voted the album as the best release of 1979. I guess they hadn't heard Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. That minor quibble aside, Fear of Music deserved such high praise, and it would still enhance any musical collection today.

Full Track Listing:

I Zimbra
Life During Wartime
Memories Can't Wait
Electric Guitar

18. All Mod Cons - The Jam

I never connected with other Jam albums to the same degree that I did with All Mod Cons, and I've never completely understood why. I remember owning the first two albums on vinyl, but I didn't listen to either one very much. While I like songs such as Eton Rifles and Start from later releases, it's All Mod Cons that I return to most often.

The album opens with the title track, which sets the scene, before To Be Someone kicks in. I never considered the Jam punks or mods, but there's definitely an urgency to the songs which is close to punk. This is heightened by the abbreviated spiky guitar and the energy present in the (mostly) short songs. Mr. Clean has a message not too dissimilar to Dylan's Positively 4th Street, but the style and delivery are obviously totally different.

The cover of David Watts is more power pop than punk, with the cheery backing vocals. It's a great treatment though. Weller's voice is often raw and vulnerable, and that's easier to spot on the quieter tracks such as English Rose and Fly. What makes All Mod Cons great are the last two tracks. 'A' Bomb in Wardour Street is a rousing effort which perfectly leads into the Jam's best track, Down in the Tube Station at Midnight. If I was ever in the mood to make a "best of" tape (or YouTube list as time progressed), Tube Station had to be on it. The structure and narrative are spot on throughout, and I'll never tire of it. Have a listen:

The Jam were one of the best bands to emerge from the English alternative scene in the late 70s. If you only know Paul Weller from The Style Council, you would probably be surprised by how different he sounds when compared to his early career.

Full Track Listing:

All Mod Cons
To Be Someone (Didn't We Have a Nice Time)
Mr. Clean
David Watts
English Rose
In the Crowd
Billy Hunt
It's Too Bad
The Place I Love
'A' Bomb in Wardour Street
Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

19. Rust Never Sleeps - Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Here's an album that I first heard while I was in high school. My copy arrived on a BASF tape with a red label. I then upgraded to the vinyl, and later to the CD, but it's the tape which got me into Neil Young.

Rust Never Sleeps consists of five acoustic songs on Side One (for those of you who understand what I mean by sides) and four electric songs on Side Two.

My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) is a simple song, melding Young's guitar, harmonica, and unique voice, and throwing in a Johnny Rotten lyric for good measure.

Art is weird. Why do we like what we like? Part of my brain logically informs me that Neil Young can't really sing, and that simple acoustic songs don't fit what I tend to like. None of that matters though. I just know that the songs work. There's something compelling about Young's passion and enthusiasm when he performs. I remember attending a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young show, and it was clear that he was itching to burst into action and shake things up while his band mates were laboriously working through their back catalog. Neil Young is possessed, and I will be delighted if I have that same enthusiasm when I'm in my sixties.

Pocahontos is probably my favorite of the tracks on Side One, but I'm a primarily Neil Young fan because of the fantastic sound that he produces when Crazy Horse are heavily involved. The electric tracks hint at what the band would go on to produce later in their career. If I could choose just one Neil Young album to hear for the rest of my life, it would be something live with the full group, such as Weld. However, the rules state that only studio albums qualify for this list.

As for my favorite track on Rust Never Sleeps, it's easily Powderfinger. Here it is:

Yes, it still sounds good, a quarter of a century later. Side Two also features the excellent Sedan Delivery and the electric companion piece to the opening track. Rust Never Sleeps still holds a place in my heart. It's not often that I embrace stadium rock, but Neil Young and Crazy Horse are an exception. There are at least 10 albums worth owning, and maybe double or triple that number if Young is your cup of tea.

The first time I heard the band live was a wonderful experience. They headlined a festival and played a set twice as long as they were supposed to. The 18-minute version of Like a Hurricane was the highlight, but the whole two-and-a-half hours was unforgettable.

Full Track Listing:

My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
Ride My Llama
Sail Away
Welfare Mothers
Sedan Delivery
Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)

20. Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby - Girls Against Boys

It wasn't easy choosing between Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, Cruise Yourself, and You Can't Fight What You Can't See. In fact, it's worth owning everything by Girls Against Boys if you can handle Scott McCloud's murky vocal style. I have to admit that I made a last minute decision to switch from Cruise Yourself in favor of Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby.

What's immediately apparent about Girls Against Boys is that there's a lot going on in the rhythm section. The use of two bass guitars gives the blend a lot of depth, but this isn't just noise. Each instrument has a purpose, and the overall result is an addictive sound. These songs work their way into your brain and become embedded.

The opening track, In Like Flynn, is a good indication of what's to come. The sound is dense and messy, so you'll need to listen two or three times before you appreciate all that is happening. As I listen to this album now, to pick out the highlights, I'm left wondering why Girls Against Boys never had a bigger following. I'll probably work my way through their entire catalog in the coming days.

Rockets Are Red is a great track, and works even better live, but I've chosen Let Me Come Back to showcase the band. Have a listen:

Did it leave you wanting more, or was it too dense to penetrate? The bouncy bass is present on many of the band's tracks, but McCloud's vocals aren't always as difficult to decipher. Like The Fall, Girls Against Boys are an acquired taste.

The final track, Bug House, slows everything down. It's like a cool down period after working out for 30 minutes. They repeated this pattern on the next album, Cruise Yourself. If you have never seen the band play live, you might still have the chance as they have toured recently. It's an intense experience, not to be missed.

Full Track Listing:

In Like Flynn
Go Be Delighted
Rockets Are Red
Satin Down
Let Me Come Back
Learned It
Get Down
Bullet Proof Cupid
Seven Seas
Billy's One Stop
Bug House

21. Call the Doctor - Sleater-Kinney

Remember punk, when albums used to last around 30 minutes? Call the Doctor reminds me of those days. The twelve tracks are short and to the point, with just two lasting three minutes or more. Songs don't need to meander on for 10 minutes in order to mean something.

The first time I saw Sleater-Kinney was by accident. I was actually there to see Catpower, but came away excited by Sleater-Kinney's raw energy. The band has a special place in my heart because I first saw them in London, bought All Hands on the Bad One in Boston on release day, and saw them again in Toronto, for my first concert on Canadian soil. You needed to know that.

The opening title track assaults you with vocals that are more of a scream, and the tracks follow in rapid succession. The Ramones would be proud. Little Mouth is about exciting as it gets, with Corin Tucker's vocal screams delivered at fever pitch. I love that sound when I'm in the right mood. Have a listen:

It's probably a good thing that the album is as short as it is, because it doesn't let up in terms of intensity. Call the Doctor and Anonymous are highlights, but I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone could well be the best track on the album.

Sleater-Kinney produced plenty of good music over the years, and have never let me down. The live shows are always fun, and I know I'll be playing their music for the rest of my life.

Full Track Listing:

Call the Doctor
Little Mouth
Stay Where You Are
Good Things
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone
Taking Me Home
Taste Test
My Stuff
I'm Not Waiting
Heart Attack

22. The White Stripes - The White Stripes

Most of the bands on my list could be accused of sounding the same on almost every song, but The White Stripes always delivered an eclectic mix. I shouldn't like this band as much as I do. The sound is too traditional for my usual tastes, and I'm not really a fan of the styles which influence their sound. However, the final blend offers something pleasing to my ears.

Jack White sounds like a man born 40 years too late at times. Is he Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix, or one of several blues artists from an earlier age? Maybe he's the musical equivalent of Quentin Tarantino, borrowing heavily from things we know so well, but producing something all his own?

The other member of the band is Meg White on drums. She doesn't do anything special, but provides the framework so that Jack can improvise around the main rhythm. With just two members, there's no room for a bass player, but the sound doesn't seem to suffer.

I like that Jack White embraces old technology in the recording studio. It gives the music a more organic quality than most modern bands. If you ever get the chance to see him play live, make sure you take it. He's a complete maniac with a guitar in his hands in front of an audience.

In truth, I could have chosen any of the band's first three albums for this list. This debut consists of 17 tracks and lasts for just 44 minutes, but a lot happens during the journey. Jimmy the Exploder is a fine way to open the album, but the best track is either The Big Three Killed My Baby or Screwdriver. Here's a video of the latter:

Other highlights include Cannon, Astro and Broken Bricks.

I think Jack White will be remembered as an important figure in rock. He arrived on the scene at a time when the industry badly needed to be shaken up. Most of the music I have listened to over the past 15 years came from well-established bands, but The White Stripes offered an urgency that had been missing for a while. This is a band that can appeal to fans of genres from alternative rock, to classic rock and blues.

Full Track Listing:

Jimmy the Exploder
Stop Breaking Down
The Big Three Killed My Baby
Suzy Lee
Sugar Never Tasted So Good
Wasting My Time
Broken Bricks
When I Hear My Name
One More Cup of Coffee
Little People
Slicker Drips
St. James Infirmary Blues
I Fought Piranhas

23. Electric Ladyland - Jimi Hendrix Experience

While I love Are You Experienced, I think Electric Ladyland is the best studio album Hendrix ever released. That said, I would probably choose Live at Woodstock over both of them if live albums qualified for this list.

A few of the songs sound dated, and they should after 45 years. However, I think that Hendrix produced a lot of music that is timeless. Some of the songs on Electric Ladyland could have been made this year. Hendrix is probably the best musician on my list, and while he's not my favorite artist, I respect the hell out of what he managed to do in just a few years. I often wonder what he would have gone on to produce had he lived.

Crosstown Traffic is an early highlight, leading into the incredible Voodoo Chile. I can't pass up the opportunity to link to the latter:

So good it's ridiculous. Where did he get that sound from? It's quite difficult to write while listening to something so awe inspiring. We're just through Side One of four.

House Burning Down, Gypsy Eyes, Burning of the Midnight Lamp, and Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) are other highlights, along with one of the best covers of all time, Dylan's All Along the Watchtower.

Genius is a word that is overused, but it definitely applies to Hendrix (musically).

Full Track Listing:

...And the Gods Made Love
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)
Crosstown Traffic
Voodoo Chile
Little Miss Strange
Long Hot Summer Night
Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)
Gypsy Eyes
Burning of the Midnight Lamp
Rainy Day, Dream Away
1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)
Moon, Turn the Tides... Gently Gently Away
Still Raining, Still Dreaming
House Burning Down
All Along the Watchtower
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

24. Real Life - Magazine

Here's another band that I discovered in high school, but I no longer have the tape. Although Magazine were categorized with the other punk and alternative bands of the 70s, their sound wasn't as simple as the majority of their peers. These songs are varied, and have unusual depth. Some take plenty of time to develop, while others are closer to punk.

The band members could really play and the presence of Dave Formula's keyboards added a lot to the sound. John McGeoch's guitar was also important, and fans of Visage or Siouxsie and the Banshees will know all about him. Bassist Barry Adamson had a solo career and was a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. By far the most important member was vocalist Howard Devoto, who had a distinctive style and was responsible for lyrics far more intelligent than the average punk band. I still have his lyric book somewhere. My favorite is probably "I have a good face for memories", which makes more sense when you know what he looks like.

My favorite Magazine track without any doubt is Shot by Both Sides. Here it is:

Other highlights include the sprawling Motorcade, My Tulpa, and the rant, Recoil. If you like Real Life, be sure to check out Secondhand Daylight as well.

Full Track Listing:

Definitive Gaze
My Tulpa
Shot by Both Sides
The Great Beautician in the Sky
The Light Pours Out of Me

25. The Man Who Sold the World - David Bowie

I know, I know, you're not surprised that I chose a Bowie album, but why not Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust? David Bowie was the first 'proper' artist that I liked, once I was over the initial charm of glam rock. My neighbor introduced me to Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane, and I was hooked. I remember my grandmother reading the lyric sheet from Hunky Dory and she was impressed. Her favorite song was Kooks.

Despite that initial introduction, I've chosen The Man Who Sold the World as my favorite Bowie album. It wasn't an easy decision to rule out Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, Low or Heroes, and my choice might be different if I ever make a list like this again. Despite the release of the excellent Outside album, I think Bowie was at his best in the 70s. His output was astounding.

So why have I chosen The Man Who Sold the World over those other gems? It's brilliant, that's why. The opening track, The Width of a Circle, sets the mood by transporting you to a mystical place. I'm glad he didn't call it diameter. In fact, it might well be my favorite Bowie track, although that's saying a lot. Here it is:

The various phases of The Width of a Circle remind me a little of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, although it rarely gets any acclaim. All the Madmen is the perfect way to follow the opener, with its eerie vocals. Then we are assaulted by Black Country Rock. By this point, you'll have started to realize that this is probably Bowie's heaviest-sounding rock album. After All closes Side One gently and puts you in a more reflective mood, before the craziness of Running Gun Blues returns to that heavier sound.

The most atmospheric song that Bowie ever wrote is either the magnificent title track, or Sons of the Silent Age from Heroes. I lean toward The Man Who Sold the World. This is a far superior version than the reworked effort on the Outside tour.

Yes, the more I think about it, the more certain I am that I have chosen the right album. It mystifies me that it's so rarely mentioned when people talk about Bowie's impressive catalog. I applaud him for his willingness to experiment with different styles. The collaborations with Eno were incredible, and while some of the other styles were not to my liking, it was a brave move to refuse to stick to a proven formula. Bowie is without doubt one of the most interesting performers in the history of music.

Full Track Listing:

The Width of a Circle
All the Madmen
Black Country Rock
After All
Running Gun Blues
Saviour Machine
She Shook Me Cold
The Man Who Sold the World
The Supermen

If you made it this far, congratulations. I'm sure this is the longest and most time consuming project I have attempted on my blog. It has brought back a lot of memories for me, as I attach so many people and events in my life to the music that I love. That probably explains why live concerts are high on my list when I think of the most enjoyable days of my life. I hope that by working your way through the bands I have learned to love over the course of my life, you found something new to explore and enjoy.

It wasn't easy reducing this list to just 25 artists, and a number of wonderful performers didn't quite make the cut. It was also difficult choosing just one album from the 25 performers on the final list. If I ever did a Top 100 without limitations, it would be dominated by bands such as Sonic Youth, who deserve to have at least 10 entries in such a list.

In case you are curious, here are the other performers that just missed the Top 25. I'll list them alphabetically so that I can rest my overworked brain:

50 Foot Wave – Golden Ocean
Beatles – White Album
Beck – Mellow Gold
Björk – Post
Breeders – The Last Splash
Frank Black – Frank Black
Gang of Four – Entertainment
Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy
Jonathan Richman – I, Jonathan
Kristin Hersh – Hips and Makers
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti
Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine
Sugarcubes – Life’s Too Good


  1. Nice blog Steve. Hadn't heard any Television before, quite liked that song. I look forwards to your top picks.

  2. Thanks Paul. Marquee Moon is really worth getting to know if you like alternative rock. It's worked its way up my list of favorites over the years. I'm seeing them play on May 10th in Toronto (my fourth Television concert).

  3. Nice to know your taste, Steve! I admit I don't know most of your picks, aside Manic Street Preachers, Nirvana, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and White Stripes. I love music as well, but it's hard to pick my top 20 bands, as I tend to listen just everything I like to listen.

    1. Thanks for reading, Andina. I hope you found something new to like.