Thursday, December 01, 2011

Remember the album?

I abandoned albums for individual downloaded songs some time ago. Now on my iPod and PlayBook, there is a hodge-podge of music. Some songs I love and don't even know the artist.

But the album used to be King, back when CD's, and tapes before them, were an art form. There were albums that affected me because they were so textured, song after song, to create a coherent whole. It was the collection of songs that was the sound, not the individual pushed money-maker pop hits.

This is not a list of the "best" albums of all time, because really I could go on about Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and Stevie Wonder, Moby, or others, for ages. And don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing that there aren't great artists out there today. I'm simply saying that the album does not rule any more, and in a way that's a shame because it has left pop grasping for talent (or lack thereof), and indy artists fighting for attention.

So in memory of the album, I thought I would post about the few albums that changed me, the ones that became so essential to my listening that they were the standard to which all others are judged. I recently rediscovered the self-titled Stone Roses from 1989, and remembered those nights in high school playing it as loud as I could handle in those huge headphones that came from my Dad's high-fi set, with the cushy vinyl covered donuts over my ears, and the layers ... goddamn layers of sound. That was when I could put it on and get lost in it for hours. Now, well, I'm lucky to hear a whole song over the sound of the kids.

Here are a few of them:

1987 - U2 - The Joshua Tree
Before I found the Smiths in Grade 10, I think this was the first album that showed me what was possible.  After the metal music that had surrounded me in Havelock: Motley Crue, Ratt, Def Leppard, AC/DC, and the pop was no better. I was still ducking and covering from the abyss that was the 80's.

The Joshua tree came out and shattered that with a richness of sound and brilliant stories. 'Where the Streets Have No Name', 'Helter Skelter', 'Bullet in the Blue Sky', I don't even have to list the songs they have become so ubiquitous. Even so, it was some of the lesser known songs on the album that were brilliant. I still sing 'Running to Stand Still' in the shower, (where my voice doesn't scare anyone). The rooftop concert in Los Angeles was brilliant. I still get shivers to the bass line of 'With or Without You'

1986 - The Smiths - The Queen is Dead
I was introduced to the Smiths in High School after moving from relatively monotone (60's and 70's rock) Havelock Ontario to 'near-Toronto' Whitby, and a whole range of music taste. I remember one cute girl in my class, Anne, listening to Morrissey on her walkman, sharing one headphone with me for just a moment when I asked about it. I remember thinking I had to find out who they were. My introduction was The Queen is Dead, and it's bizarre 'Cemetery Gates', and the title track, and its cheekiness and lyrics I had to look up to understand, all of which fueled my love of odd music. The album propelled me into Bauhaus, Joy Division, New Order, the Cure, Madness, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and a whole new range of angst and frustration. I loved every minute of it.

1989 - The Stone Roses (self-titled)
Mentioned above. I had listened to the Charlatans UK, The Farm, Happy Mondays and some other groups who were toying with that Manchester sound, and when I first heard 'Fools Gold' on the radio (CFNY pre-corporate schlock) I had to buy the album the very next day. I was not disappointed. From 'Waterfall' to that excellent drum intro on 'Elephant Stone' to 'This is the One', to the brilliant outtro on 'I am the Resurrection' that lasts a full four minutes, I was mesmerized.

1991 - The Pixies - Trompe Le Monde
Being an ardent Jesus and Mary Chain listener at this point, it only took one listen of the Pixies version of 'Head On' before I was hooked. My disappointment to find out that they were on their fourth album, and I had been missing out for three years was bittersweet. I think when they opened for U2 at Maple Leaf Gardens, it was the Pixies who stole the show. They broke up soon after that, and became the Breeders, and Frank Black, separately. I always thought the Breeders ran from that split with all the talent.

1991 - Nirvana - Nevermind

I remember the first I knew of Nirvana was a wall of covers in the record store in the food court at the Oshawa centre, and I remember thinking 'what kind of crap are they trying to push this time' ... little did I know I'd be listening to it obsessively about three years later. I even had a chance to see Nirvana in concert in about 1993 out in Vancouver, before my conversion to the Nirvana fold, and didn't. It would have been an easy trip from Van, but I was working in a video store at the time, and didn't fully appreciate the band. You know what they say about hindsight.

1993 - The Breeders - Last Splash
This album, from the newly broken apart Pixies, was by far a vast step forward for their sound. The sisters Deal have a way of layering the guitar and leaving it raw at the same time, and using the drums as more than just a metronome, but an entire section of percussion, that still resonates as what a rock band should sound like. 

1994 - The Beastie Boys - Ill Communication
Out west, and visiting my friend in Victoria, and he put this on. My first thought was "What the hell is this?" followed by, a few short minutes later "Where do I get it?" This was the album that took the Beastie Boys from rappers to musicians, a respected and vast soundscape that tells a story like many albums before, but few since.

1994 - Beck - Mellow Gold
Tree planting, listened to this over and over and over. Highly addictive.

1995 - Elastica

This album of pure, raw, unadultered fun, and raunchy innuendo was a favourite from first listen while I lived in Vancouver in 95 and 96. My girlfriend at the time would put it on in the apartment and we would dance around like idiots. I always thought Justine Frieschmann was cute.

1997 - Portishead - Dummy
I was living in Montreal when Portishead released its album Dummy, and its fusion of electronic, haunting vamp-beat sounds, and heroin addict undertones. In the Second Cup on St. Laurent they played it over and over where I often wrote, and put down the first raw material that would become squeakyclean. I think the murky undertones of my writing were a subconscious absorption of the odd feeling of murkiness that came from this album.

1997 - Radiohead OK Computer
It was probably about 1998 that I actually discovered Radiohead, which has led to an on again off again infatuation with their sound that often leads me to question my taste, but then roars back with another listening to 'Subterranean Homesick Alien', or 'Electioneering'. Arguably the best rock band in history.

My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
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