Album of the Week: #157 “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”

#157: “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”, Oasis, 1995

Any dissection of Oasis’s work starts with a reference to The Beatles. “The best British band since The Beatles” was the devotee’s refrain, while the critic said they rode the Beatles coattails to mediocrity.

What this reduction misses is that everyone who made music over the past fifty years was influenced, directly or indirectly, by The Beatles. What pop music doesn’t sound a little like “Love Me Do” or “She Loves You”? Heavy metal took tips from “Helter Skelter” and “I Want You.” Hip-hop was built around the way George Martin used the studio as an instrument on “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper”.

Through this lens, perhaps the highest praise a band can receive is that they’re the most authentic interpretation of the founders’ vision. That may very well be Oasis, who peaked with their second release, “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”.

Almost 25 years out, these songs are hard to evaluate without nostalgia playing a powerful role. “Definitely Maybe” made Oasis an overnight sensation in the UK, but it was “Morning Glory” that blew them up in the US. There was no escaping “Wonderwall”, “Don’t Look Back in Anger”, and “Champagne Supernova” in ’95, and by 2000, they may have been even more omnipresent. That’s a testament to the greatness of the music.

Everyone with an acoustic guitar in their living room has played “Wonderwall” and everyone in their vicinity sung along. “Champagne Supernova” might be the most radio-friendly 7 1/2-minute song ever recorded, justifying every second of its running time. “Cast No Shadow” and “Hey Now” are as strong as the singles and stand up today as well as they did in the ’90s.

If Oasis are just interpreting The Beatles, they’re spanning the entire catalog. Straightforward pop-rockers “Roll With It” and “She’s Electric” would fit on “Beatles For Sale”. “Don’t Look Back in Anger” is simple-but-slick “Rubber Soul” fare. “Morning Glory” and “Champagne Supernova” take enough chances to fit on the white album. “Cast No Shadow” is a more mature statement, worthy of “Let It Be”.

Of course, Oasis were more than Beatles mimicry. These songs are intricate but brash, street-tough but melodic. Liam Gallagher is a punk, but the band add beautiful backing vocals at times. Two guitars play off each other, adding drama and force, but rarely steal the show from the songs themselves. Two untitled instrumentals remind us the band members can play, but Liam won’t let them steal the show.

America’s obsession with British culture ebbs and flows. It may be that it’s peaked twice in the past century: once in the ’60s when The Beatles ruled the world and once in the ’90s when Oasis did.

That’s my 157th-favorite album.

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Album of the Week: #418 “Ride the Lightning”

#418: “Ride the Lightning”, Metallica, 1984

There’s a moment at the end of “Fade to Black”, right in the middle of Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning”, where Kirk Hammett rips into a guitar solo that sounds an awful lot like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. Just attempting to mock “Free Bird”, one of the most ambitious guitar workouts ever recorded, is a bold choice, but Hammett doesn’t stop there. After the brief homage, he raises the stakes, showcasing his signature speed and dexterity by opening “Trapped Under Ice” with an absurd solo and launching into another one after a brief first verse.

While certainly owing to Black Sabbath and gleaning from Judas Priest, Metallica had few forbears and no peers in the trash metal genre. Many have imitated, but few have lived up to the band’s fury and virtuosity. As such, it’s a challenge to compare “Ride the Lightning” (or the band’s other mid-’80s masterpieces) to other music. The genre most ripe for comparison may actually be opera.

I’ve often called Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” the greatest guitar album of all time. Multiple guitar legends (including Eric Clapton and Duane Allman) tear through 14 blues-rock songs tied together by themes of love and loss, dueling with each other and writing a coda to a period of ingenuity and ambition we now know as classic rock.

I can’t imagine Clapton or Allman accomplishing what Hammett does on “Ride the Lightning”. They wrote better music, sure, and could jam with a rock band like few who ever lived. But Hammett’s hands are enchanted with such ridiculous dexterity that I’m not sure they’ve been matched since, and they never did better work than on “Ride the Lightning”.

These songs are ridiculous. Here’s one chorus:

Fight fire with fire
Ending is near
Fight fire with fire
Bursting with fear
We all shall die

Here’s another:

Flash before my eyes
Now it’s time to die

Burning in my brain
I can feel the flame

Taken as a sum of its parts- songwriting, singing, and playing- “Ride the Lightning” doesn’t measure up against the Laylas of the world. But if we’re willing to focus only on the musicians- Hammett’s and James Hetfield’s guitars, Lars Ulrich’s bombastic drums, even Cliff Burton’s almost-lead-worthy bass- this is a classic.

This is where the opera comparison comes in. A Metallica album, more than most rock albums, is a celebration of skill. “Fade to Black” may be the only song on the album with any sense of melody, but who needs melody when the band can conjure every sound you’ve ever heard and some you never imagined you’d hear with their instruments? Hammett is the lead soprano, sharing her innate gift with the world. The songs are written not to be studied, interpreted, and covered, but to give Hammett and the band a chance to showcase their powerful tools.

You may prefer the even rawer fury of “Kill ‘Em All” or the more fully-realized “Master of Puppets”. All three are classics in the same vein. Give me “Ride the Lightning”, if only for those few minutes in the middle when Kirk Hammett announces to the greatest guitarists in rock history that he can do it better.

That’s my 418th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #355: “No Other”

#355: “No Other”, Gene Clark, 1974

One wonderful thing about music criticism, or, perhaps more accurately, music exploration, is that, given the breadth of music available, one man’s deep dive is another man’s dip in the mainstream. I listened to so much music in compiling this project that, at times, it felt like I’d listened to everything, but there was always more to hear.

Now, when I say “everything”, I can’t possibly mean everything. There are probably tens of millions of albums I’ve never heard and never will hear. I never intended to explore everything. Rather, I hoped to empower this project with resources that would guide me toward all of the critically and/or popularly acclaimed music within the many genres I typically enjoy.

I cut out classical music entirely- that’s a different project. I only listened to the electronica that critics and fans tend to agree is best, because I could spend years diving through that genre, maybe enjoying one of every five records, and barely scraping the surface. I probably listened to fewer than 100 country albums, but I was strategic in my choices.

Sometime in 2017, as I first entertained thoughts about the project becoming a book, I heard about Gene Clark. I’d heard many Byrds albums, including all three from the period during which Clark was their lead singer, but at the time, I couldn’t have identified him as that singer.

A real audiophile may read this and wonder how committed I am to exploring popular music. In the right circles, Gene Clark was pretty well-known. While “No Other” failed to sell upon its 1974 debut, music historians know it well and seem to hold it in high regard. Some of the twenty-plus musicians who contributed to the album were coveted musicians- country stars, members of The Allman Brothers Band and The Byrds, and Bob Dylan’s ’70s backup singers among them.

Perhaps my lack of exposure to Gene Clark’s solo work until this point stems from his steadfast refusal to conform to any genre. He has a country singer’s voice, and these songs aren’t lacking twang, but the arrangements to too rich and textured to be country songs. He had folk roots, but what folk artist recorded under his own name with twenty musicians in the studio? Much of the playing is jazz-caliber, but there’s far more string than brass here. It’s a rock album, I suppose, in that only rock’s tent is wide enough to incorporate all these other styles, but this is not your father’s- or your son’s- rock record.

“No Other”, Some Misunderstanding”, and “Lady of the North” employ melodies so warmly familiar that, on first listen, you might think you’ve been hearing them for years. All three songs, though, seem to occupy multiple genres minute-by-minute, dodging from Peter-Paul-and-Mary melodies to Steely-Dan solos to gospel singalongs employing Phil Spector’s wall of sound treatment. “Strength of Strings” is the centerpiece and strongest track, an epic blues lament with power and humility.

These eight tracks showcase songs that would still be great in the hands of lesser musicians, performed by musicians capable of recording great music written by lesser songwriters. If it’s a country album, I might be a country fan. If it’s a folk album, take me to Newport.

If you’re a top-40 fan, Gene Clark may feel beyond obscure to you. If you’re an American of a certain age with a turntable and a love for rock and roll, you may recognize him as canon. Whatever boundaries you put around your definition of great music, there’s room for “No Other” inside.

That’s my 355th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #100 “The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators”

#100: “The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators”, The 13th Floor Elevators, 1966

13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson died this weekend. Any death is tragic, and much of Erickson’s life was tragic, but for listeners of the Elevators’ stunning debut, it may be hard to believe Roky ever occupied physical space on this planet in the first place.

Strip out Tommy Hall’s electric jug and the Elevators might sound like other music you’ve heard. Jefferson Airplane seemed to strive for a similar sound. Moby Grape had a lot in common. More than three decades later, Clinic paid homage to “Reverberations” on the wonderfully reverent “Internal Wrangler”. None of these bands, though, captured the chaos of “Psychedelic Sounds”.

It’s that electric jug that sets the scene, one bound by neither time nor place, perhaps from a dream or, more likely, a trip. If this music does recall a time, it’s almost certainly later in the ’60s than 1966, when the Elevators burst on the scene, invented a genre, and promoted a lifestyle. That lifestyle, detached from reality by LSD, would wreak havoc on the band and jeopardize each member’s future, but the document they left behind is a singular achievement.

Opening tracks “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Roller Coaster” are simply arresting. This is stop-whatever-you’re-doing-and-try-to-figure-out-how-these-sounds-are-coming-through-your-speakers territory. “Splash 1” descends into balladry, setting the jug aside to give Erickson’s voice and Stacy Sutherand’s guitar some room to breathe, briefly hinting that humans might be behind the instruments. But “Reverberations” brings the jug back in full effect, and it plays some role on the rest of the album, even when Sutherland’s guitar takes center stage on tracks like “Fire Engine”.

These same songs recorded by a different band may not have been a classic. These same songs recorded by the same band without the electric jug might still stand out as an early landmark for psychedelic rock. With the jug, this is required listening, a document so central to the story of rock and roll that every record store should put a copy at the check-out counter next to “Are You Experienced?” and “Revolver”.

That’s my 100th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #175 “High Violet”

#175: “High Violet”, The National, 2010

I don’t really care about lyrics.

That’s an exaggeration, I suppose. Matching words and images with sounds is a key criterion in the way I rate music. I’ve written about Kendrick Lamar and Kacey Musgraves recently, and while both make great music, their lyrics are central to their appeal. Let’s start this essay another way:

I have no idea what The National are singing about most of the time, but I can’t get enough of them.

Let’s take a look at some lyrics from “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, the centerpiece of The National’s best album, 2010’s “High Violet”:

Stand up straight at the foot of your love
I lift my shirt up

I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees
I’ll never marry but Ohio don’t remember me

I’m on a bloodbuzz
God I am
I’m on a blood, buzz

The National aren’t alone in writing lyrics that may seem obtuse to many listeners. Most art walks a fine line between recounting one’s personal experiences and sharing universal concepts in a relatable way. Much of popular music is externalizing the internal and deciding how much to tell the listener and how much to let her interpret on her own. Let’s try something a little more straightforward from “Conversation 16”:

I was afraid, I’d eat your brains
I was afraid, I’d eat your brains
‘Cause I’m evil
‘Cause I’m evil

Ok then.

Why, if I don’t know or care what they’re talking about, is “High Violet” one of my 20 favorite albums of the current decade? It’s those same songs. Not the words, but the sounds.

Try listening to the nonsense above in Matt Berninger’s rich baritone and not singing along. Try listening to Bryan Devendorf’s slow-build drum frenzies without feeling your own bloodbuzz (whatever that is). Let Bryce Dessner’s arrangements wash over you and you’ll be so transfixed that the balderdash coming out of Berninger’s mouth might as well be your personal diary.

In anyone else’s hands, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” would be rubbish. In The National’s hands, it’s a strangely poignant anthem, worthy of closing one of the great albums of this era. But enough about the end. This album starts strong too. “Terrible Love” doesn’t quite match “Fake Empire”, the opener of the band’s previous album (#176 on my list), but it shares that song’s winning start-subdued-and-wake-us-up-with-drums aesthetic. “Anyone’s Ghost” and “Afraid of Everyone” are songs that get stuck in your head even if you don’t know any of the lyrics (or titles).

Some albums draw you in with lyrics. Others, like “High Violet”, wrap you up in sounds and let the lyrics burrow under your skin. Me and your sister do live in a lemonworld. I am walking with spiders as a result of some terrible love. I am afraid I’ll eat your brains.

That’s my 175th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #146: “Let It Be”

#146: “Let It Be”, The Beatles, 1970

Every Beatles album between “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Abbey Road” is canon. Universally known, roundly praised, generally loved. To bring a critic’s ear to any of these albums in the 21st century is to acquiesce to popular sentiment or to try to contradict that sentiment and look like a fool.

Those albums are rock and roll, not because they sound like the rock and roll that came before, but because they defined the rock and roll that came after. The Beatles hit on 20 every time and drew an ace every time.

If one can have a personal relationship with a Beatles album, it has to be from the beginning or the end. To claim to be a fan of “Revolver” or “Abbey Road” is akin to claiming a personal relationship with sunshine or chocolate. Tell me “Please Please Me” is your favorite, though, and I’m genuinely curious as to why.

My book states my preference for four Beatles albums, all straight from the canon, that I believe are better than “Let It Be”. That said, I relate to “Let It Be” differently than the other records. From the goofy opening “I dig a pygmy” speech and the throwback drum thump of “Two of Us”, it’s clear that this is not the natural progression from the White Album or “Abbey Road”. It’s no edict on the direction of rock. It’s just four guys jamming in the studio and celebrating each other’s idiosyncrasies. And it’s awesome.

Some of my adoration for “Let It Be” may be the result of the way it entered my life. I grew up with mid-sixties Beatles. My mom was playing “Rubber Soul” and “Beatles For Sale” before I had any opinions (nor interest in forming any opinions) about music. Classic rock radio played the hits from late-sixties Beatles an endless loop. I knew and loved The Beatles before I even cared about the music of my own generation.

“Let It Be”, on the other hand, came to me later. I heard Fiona Apple sing “Across the Universe” in the closing credits of “Pleasantville” before I ever heard John Lennon sing it. It’s a Beatles-caliber song, but not a Beatles-typical song. That’s true of so much of “Let It Be”. A first listen feels more like uncovering a lost gem by Monks or 13th Floor Elevators than adding one more Beatles record to your collection.

It’s quite an anomaly that an album with three classic-rock radio staples is full of moments that feel like intimate conversations between artist and listener. Even the well-known title track is preceded on the album by the strange and playful “Dig It”. Side two is filled with genre exercises like the rockabilly “One After 909″, the blues of For You Blue”, and the neoclassical “The Long and Winding Road”. Quirks abound, but the music is as slick and deft as anything else in the group’s unparalleled catalog.

I may be one of millions who feel this way, but “Let It Be” is my Beatles album.

That’s my 146th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #654 “Jolene”

#654: “Jolene”, Dolly Parton, 1974

Just after I wrote the last entry, in which I praised Kacey Musgraves as a breath of progressive, fresh air in the smog of conservative country music, I read Allison Glock’s essay about Dolly Parton in “Here She Comes Now: Women in Music Who Have Changed Our Lives”.

Glock bestows very similar praise upon Dolly, painting her as the benevolent rebel I credit Kacey with being, only with a forty-year head start. Did I underrate Dolly by missing that context? I took the morning to investigate, checking out five of Parton’s records, culminating with multiple spins of her masterpiece (and one of two of her albums I already new well), “Jolene”.

I think the difference between Dolly’s progressiveness and Kacey’s is that Dolly doesn’t flaunt it with her lyrics- she proves it just by showing up. Dolly’s persona was a revolution in itself. An empowered woman who broke free of her personal songwriter right before recording “Jolene” to start writing her own songs and sharing her truth with a vast audience. Kacey arrived after the revolution, using the platform offered to her by Dolly and the other pioneers to further advance the rights of her LGBT listeners and young people who still felt constrained by cultures that hadn’t pushed forward as much as others had in the years since Dolly paved the way.

“Jolene” is a great album largely on the strengths of two classic songs- the hard-charging but weary title track and the move-you-to-tears “I Will Always Love You”. Both songs are so ubiquitous as a result of copious cover versions that hearing the original recordings here arouses a nostalgia that’s hard to pin to a time or place. As great as these two songs are, five minutes of bliss don’t make a top-1,00 album. The rest of these tracks are worthy filler, songs that fit like a sequin dress over Dolly’s honey-sweet voice and the down-home pep of her backing band. Closer “It Must Be You” is the best of the rest, its sweet sincerity matching the tone of the hits.

“Jolene” isn’t the consistent tour-de-force “Same Trailer, Different Park” is, but Musgraves hasn’t written an anthem as Texas-sized as “Jolene” or “I Will Always Love You”. That Kacey was able to carry the torch to such heights is largely a testament to the trail Dolly blazed. “Jolene” is the most worthy landmark along that trail.

That’s my 654th-favorite album.