One of the most unique, strangest & horniest records I’ve ever heard. “Nelson” is a 30 minute song cycle about a middle age man’s lust for a teenage girl and it’s sung entirely in French. For those who don’t know French (me among them) you’ll have little trouble detecting the depravity. By 1971 Gainsbourg was already a legend in his native France and in most of Europe. He had recorded several famous duets in the 60’s with sexy starlets Brigette Bardot and Jane Birkin. Though aside from “Nelson” and a compilation of his 60’s material, I don’t own anything else by Gainsbourg. Gainsbourg genre-hops between jazz, light pop, French vocal music and even (later) reggae- anything that strikes his fancy at the time. His early 70’s offering, like “Melody Nelson” are his most rock oriented. “Melody” also is funky as hell- besides the lascivious vocals the bass lines are the most prominent feature on the album. The mood of the album is dark, seductive & often sleazy and filled with mystery and intrigue.
It’s cinematic and is much a concept album as any other rock album I can fathom.
Before “Headhunters” Herbie Hancock was already one of the most revered figures in the history of Jazz, a fixture in the legendary Miles Davis Quintet throughout the early and mid sixties and a successful songwriter and solo performer in his own right. “Headhunters”, in a sign of the times was a full on electro jazz fusion album- much more funk-oriented than anything even Miles Davis had attempted. It through the jazz world for a loop while at the same time becoming his best selling album and the best in the history of jazz for a time. “Headhunters” also paved the way for the hip hop influenced early 80’s music of “Rockit” which is how most Gen-Xers know him best. It’s pure groove music with all of the funkiness of James Brown or Parliament but it’s basic structure and sense of improvisation still bends it closer to jazz. The obvious influences on “Headhunters” were early fusion-jazz, funk music & soul but what it influenced later may be more surprising- hip-hop and electro-funk for sure but also trance music. I’ve never heard another album like this one.
Crosby, Stills & Nash is probably the best known and one of the best ‘supergroups’ of all time. Davis Crosby was a standout vocalist with the Byrds, Stephen Stills a guitarist & singers in the Buffalo Springfield & Graham Nash the main vocalist in the Hollies. Each of those bands were huge in their own right. With their self-titled debut in 1969, CSN took the world by storm and became for a short time, the biggest band in rock music, particurly after the breakup of the Beatles. For their highly anticipated follow-up they added Stills’ former bandmate in the Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, who was also busy establishing a brilliant solo career. Though both of the group’s first two albums are near perfect, I think Déjà vu” may even be a notch better than the debut, and mostly because of the addition of Young. Unlike the first album, which was filled with the group’s harmonies and had a real sense of collaboration, with “Déjà vu” CSNY was much more about the four individuals in the band, like the Beatles “White Album”. Each member contributed their own songs and collaborated with whatever of their musician friends happened to be in the studio at the time- an impressive list for sure. Classic songs like Stills “Carry On”, Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair”, Young’s “Helpless” and Nash’s “Our House” and “Teach Your Children” along with the group’s amazing cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” make the album nothing short of a tour de force. The four members would never again release another relevant studio album (the two late 80’s/early 90’s albums certainly don’t count) and the original three would only record sporadically throughout the next few decades never even coming close to reaching the heights of the first two albums. This amazing group was done in by drugs and egos. Cocaine is a helluva drug unfortunately.
The Specials, still very underappreciated in America, are a great and important band who started the U.K. Ska revival by combining the original Ska and Rock Steady Jamaican music of the 60’s with late 70’s British punk. Chief songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers also started the Two-Tone record label which practically defined the new-Ska genre by itself. The label contained all of the genres best bands- the Specials, Madness, Selector and the (English) Beat. The self-titled debut is the Specials best record. Produced by Elvis Costello, the record mixes originals with ska covers like the classic “A Message to You Rudy” which the Specials both bettered and made more famous. The album is a blast from start to finish. Though every track qualifies as a deep cut to Americans save “Rudy”, tracks like “Nite Klub”, “Little Bitch”, “Too Much Too Young”, “Concrete Jungle” and “(Dawning Of A) New Era are all British classics as well. Few bands could combine heavy messages and political statements with pure unadulterated fun like the Specials. I think it’s about time to have a ska revival-revival so that more people can get hip to these guys.
Perhaps more than any other figure in music, Gram Parsons is the godfather of what we now call alternative country music. Many also give him credit with starting country-rock in general with his original albums with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, but “Grievous Angel” along with his debut solo album “GP” released a year prior were significantly different than his past albums done with the Byrds, International Submarine Band and Flying Burrito Brothers, who are all considered godfathers of alt-country. His solo stuff was more stripped down and Gram was accompanied vocally by then unknown female vocalist Emmylou Harris who complemented him beautifully. Parsons was largely unknown to the general public during his lifetime, but was hugely appreciated within the music community. He even became best buds with Keith Richards of the Stones and any country influence heard in the Stones late 60’s/early 70’s stuff is mostly Gram’s doing. Gram gives extremely thoughful readings to every track on “Grievous Angel”, whether they are originals or cover songs. Parsons died of a drug overdose shortly after finishing recording “Grievous Angel”. The last song on the album “In My Hour of Darkness” was the perfect epitaph for his life and music and maybe the best track he ever wrote.
The Ramones first four albums are all gems and a necessary part of anyone’s punk, or for that matter rock n’ roll, collection. Aside from their perfect debut, their third album “Rocket to Russia” is my favorite Signature Ramones songs like “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”, “Teenage Lobotomy”, “Rockaway Beach” & “Cretin Hop” are all here as well as two totally ace covers- “Do You Wanna Dance” and “Surfin’ Bird”. The production is cleaner and more pop oriented than either of their first two albums, which was perfect for a pop-punk band like the Ramones. But alas it wasn’t meant to be and the album never blew up- punk music wouldn’t go pop until decades later with Green Day and the Offspring, but “Rocket to Russia” furthered the band’s cause as punk legends and ensured that they wouldn’t be relegated to one or two hit wonder status- even if those hits would all happen in retrospect. The Ramones were meant to be before their time- it’s hard not to see this record as being huge if it was released even ten years later. Sometimes it takes the public awhile to catch up.
Speaking of ahead of their time New York City punk rockers, the New York Dolls were even far less commercially successful than the Ramones but arguably just as influential. The Stooges, MC5 and the Velvet Underground were the Dolls only precedents but the Dolls sounded unlike any of them They combined punks aggressiveness with the Rolling Stones swagger and some of the melodies and the theatrical camp of early sixties girl-group pop. Their drag queen look set the table for KISS, Twisted Sister and nearly every eighties hair band. The Dolls never came near a hit single, but tracks like “Trash”, “Looking for a Kiss”, “Personality Crisis” and “Subway Train” are all pre punk classics. Singer David Johansen (later known as Buster Pointdexter of “Hot Hot Hot” and “Zat You Santa Claus” fame) delivered the tracks with strut and bravado and guitarist Johnny Thunders was a tour de force- as close to a guitar god as the 70’s punk movement spit out. Unfortunately after 1974’s follow-up album the aptly titled “Too Much Too Soon” the band flamed out due to band disharmony, creative differences and lots of drugs- both Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan would later die of overdoses. Though the band would get back together in the oughts the magic wasn’t the same but the Dolls remain a pre-punk and pre-metal touchstone.
“Pink Flag” is the smart-boy art school answer to “Never Mind the Bollocks…Here’s the Sex Pistols”. Wire’s sound on “Flag” is punk boiled down to it’s absolute essence- no wasted notes, no solos, sometimes no choruses. They say what they have to say and then get out. “Pink Flag” is 21 tracks in 36 minutes. It’s easy to see how much this album influenced the early 80’s hardcore scene but unlike hardcore the playing and musicianship on “Pink Flag” is professional rather than sloppy and off the rails. None of the songs followed the verse chorus verse structure skirting the traditional rules of rock n’ roll songwriting. Despite this, there are earworms all over the album- bands like Elastica even stole whole riffs from Wire and had hits in the 90’s. Wire declined to repeat themselves issuing two more nearly as great albums in the latter 70’s which had more of a post-punk and krautrock bent respectively. They are a band never content to sit still and got back together in the last decade, still making challenging music together.
Almost completely unknown during his brief lifetime, British singer songwriter recorded three perfect, yet disparate albums in the late 60’s and early 70’s, died of an overdose of antidepressants two years after releasing his final album & then became a cult figure whose fandom gradually increased with each passing year. Never having any commercial traction during his lifetime, his stardom was ironically at its peak after the title track to this album was used in a Volkswagon car commercial in the early 00’s. Though each of Drake’s albums was solidly in the British folk/singer songwriter tradition of Van Morrison- quiet, soulful with lots of acoustic strumming, the “Pink Moon” album was his most spare (and depressing!) to date. There was almost no musical accompaniment- just Drake and his guitar. But Drake was a hell of a guitarist and though the lack of additional instrumentation added to the pain and isolation conveyed in Drake’s lyrics the album was never dull- Drake’s strumming often sounded like two or three guitarists playing at once. “Pink Moon” and Drake are beloved by tender hearted, poetic people who find beauty in sadness. It’s a shame we lost this amazing musician while he was so young but at least he left us with a treasure trove of music.
“Another Green World” is Brian Eno’s third album, and his masterpiece- the album that bridged the gap between the more song oriented fare of his first two albums and his early work in Roxy Music and the ambient music he would develop in the latter part of the seventies. The album was divided up between more traditional- yet totally unique and often bizarre songs and ethereal instrumental pieces. “Green World” was an obvious precedent to Bowie’s work on his “Low” and “Heroes” album which were produced by Eno as well. Eno & “Green World” would become enormous influences on not only future ambient music but on all downbeat techno and trance music Even the pop stuff on “Another Green World” is very ethereal and the surreal lyrics help give the album a dream like quality. The two songs listed below especially, “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “I’ll Come Running” are Eno masterpieces, but despite their more pop bent they fit seemlessly into the rest of the album.