After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.
Maybe it's because I was young and clueless myself at the time, but when I was growing up in the '80s, the decade seemed somehow… softer than what had gone before. I'd heard all about the libertine, activist atmosphere of the '60s and '70s, and when I looked around at the decade I was stuck in—the decade of AIDS and "Just Say No"—I felt like I'd been cheated. As the '80s progressed, popular music grew increasingly synthesized and frivolous, movies aimed more and more for spectacle and low comedy, and few seemed interested in delving too deeply into politics. Consider the difference between Saturday Night Live in the '70s and '80s. When the show started, it was the hippest thing on TV, alternating druggie surrealism with wise-ass satire, operating under the presumption that its audience knew and cared about what was going on in the world. But watch any given installment of Weekend Update in the mid-'80s and the height of subversion is Tim Kazurinsky saying "orgasm."
Still, there were signs of life that flashed intermittently throughout the decade. The corner video store stocked films by David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and the Coen brothers. The local comic book shop occasionally had a copy of Weirdo or Love & Rockets stashed on a dusty, inaccessible shelf. And while the musical heroes of the '60s and '70s—even the early punk legends—were making records ever-more indebted to the lead-footed sound popularized by producers Trevor Horn and Arthur Baker, we received periodic dispatches from Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere, from bands trying to carve out their own niche, away from the bombast and bluster. Among those bands was R.E.M., serving as a reassuring constant and a bellwether of change.
I first heard R.E.M. in the summer of 1984, while spending a couple of days with relatives in Maryland. During the evenings, my uncle took my stepfather and me to Orioles games and harness racing, but during the days, my cousin drove me to Georgetown to eat pizza and browse record stores. Then we'd head back to his house to watch videos, read rock magazines and listen to music. He put Murmur on at one point, and about a minute into the record, when Michael Stipe sang "straight off the boat" in that high, nasal whine, I was hooked. Nothing in the classic rock or new wave I'd been listening to sounded quite like this strange mix of tight, punchy rhythms, jangly guitar, vocal mumble, and melodies that built ever upward.
Coincidentally, when I got back to Nashville, I caught a repeat of Late Night With David Letterman that featured R.E.M. performing "Radio Free Europe" and "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)." This was back in the days when Stipe was painfully shy, so he retreated to the wings while Letterman came out to chat with Mike Mills and Peter Buck between songs—which only added to the band's curious blend of otherworldly mystique and "just plain folks." (Aside: Speaking of signs of life in the '80s, the Letterman show was definitely among them, though because Letterman's smirky take on TV conventions featured more glib goofing-off than toothy satire, in some ways he contributed to the "nothing matters" vibe that made the decade so frustrating at times; Bret Easton Ellis wrote back then that "the voice of my generation is the voice of David Letterman," and he didn't intend it as a compliment.)
I wasn't old enough to get a job the summer I discovered R.E.M., and my allowance wasn't big enough for me to afford the price of an album, but I had to get my hands on an R.E.M. record, and since none of my friends were fans (yet) and the band wasn't being played on the radio stations I listened to (yet), I fell back on my emergency plan: My grandfather's coin collection, which I'd come into possession of after he died. It wasn't a big collection—just a starter kit, really—but in straight currency terms, it contained about fifteen bucks in coins. (I don't want to think about what they were actually worth.) I rode my bike down to Wal-Mart and bought the only R.E.M. album they had in stock, which was the recently released Reckoning. While pedaling home, a sudden summer storm blew in, and I had to hustle to take refuge in the first shelter I could find: the doorway of a church. I was convinced I had angered The Almighty by spending the coin collection. But then the storm passed, I headed home, I played Reckoning, and I forgot all about my immortal soul. Reckoning was totally worth it.
In the years to come I would read a lot about R.E.M., and by following the bands they cited in interviews—and through my own deeper explorations into rock history—I got a clearer sense of where they were coming from. What was refreshing about R.E.M. in the '80s was their self-awareness. They openly acknowledged their debts to The Byrds, Pylon, The Velvet Underground, The Everly Brothers, Patti Smith, The Soft Boys and The Feelies; and Buck in particular always seemed to have a sense of the band's strengths and weaknesses. Early on, he boasted that R.E.M. could never be U2 or The Clash—"They're a newspaper, we're not," he once said in an interview—but as R.E.M. drew a wider audience and developed the sonic oomph to play bigger rooms, politics did begin to creep into their songs, along with a certain measure of wit and personality that was absent back on the beguilingly aloof Murmur. I remember the first time Nashville's album-rock station played an R.E.M. song, and I remember how their popularity gradually seeped down from the college level to the high school level, and soon to the Billboard charts. No one I knew accused R.E.M, of "selling out" (probably because the band wasn't really part of the punk scene, which obsessed over such things). Instead, the band's success felt like a validation.
Of course I didn't know any of that was imminent during the summer I heard Murmur and bought Reckoning. I had no idea what was coming on the day before 9th grade, when I borrowed a laundry marker from my mom and carefully inked "R.E.M." in tall thin letters on the front of an old blue T-shirt. I just knew that I'd found something new that I loved, and that I wanted to share. For me, allying myself to R.E.M.—or any of the dozens of alt-rock bands I'd devote myself to over the next several years—wasn't about trying to set myself apart from my peers. I wanted them to like R.E.M. too. They had their Van Halen and Journey Ts. I thought of myself as a walking advertisement for something better.
One afternoon, about a year later, I was spending a weekend with my dad in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he was attending seminary at The University Of The South. I took a walk through the quiet campus on a temperate fall day, and perched myself on a big rock under a tall tree that was quickly losing the last of its leaves. A light breeze carrying the sound from an open window in one of the dorms, where some students were listening to Reckoning, so I sat a while and listened along with them, about 30 feet below and a hundred yards away. I imagined myself at college in a few years, away from the get-along throng, making my own choices, studying what I wanted, preparing to usher in the '90s and what I hoped would be a decade of changes both personal and cultural. And one thought crossed my mind:
I like it here.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1980-present
Fits Between The Feelies and The Soft Boys
Personal Correspondence I'm always eager to read anything my colleague Steve Hyden writes, because I like the way he challenges conventional wisdom without burning bridges just for the sake of it. But Steve's post about R.E.M. last year struck me as wrong-headed on a couple of counts. First off, I don't agree that when it comes to R.E.M. albums "if you own one, you own them all." If anything, I think each album takes a decidedly different approach to the core principles of jangle and obfuscation that the band introduced back on their first single. Sometimes R.E.M. comes out raging, as on Monster. Sometimes they play it softer, or experiment with electronics, or hire a big-name rock producer, or record a whole album at sound check. Each record sounds wholly unique. (Not that they're all masterpieces. R.E.M. certainly has a fair share of duds, though in some ways that's a function of their longevity and productivity, which I find far more inherently commendable than Steve does. But that's a subject for another essay.) I've seen R.E.M. in concert four times—once on the Fables Of The Reconstruction tour, once for Life's Rich Pageant, and twice for Green—and each show was different too, from the rough-hewn Vanderbilt University gig they did for Fables to the massive, coke-fueled arena tour for Green. I also disagree with Steve's contention that no one would punch up R.E.M. on their favorite jukebox when drunk at a bar at 2 a.m. Maybe it's a generational thing, but I know a lot of my friends from college still consider themselves R.E.M. fans, and we'd definitely bellow along to "Can't Get There From Here" or "These Days" or "Disturbance At The Heron House" if we were knocking back a few in the wee hours. (Of course, we all went to school in Athens. Also, we probably wouldn't be drinking at 2 a.m., because we're very, very old.) I've also heard it said by some—not by Steve—that R.E.M. doesn't matter because their influence hasn't endured much beyond the first half of the '90s. But that's a dicey argument to make too. Ten years ago, you could've said that Gang Of Four didn't matter much, because so few bands aped their style. Then, suddenly, seemingly every new band was all about Gang Of Four. I'm confident that R.E.M.'s best albums—and there are a lot of them, albeit none since 1996—will endure, and the decade of hit-and-miss work they've recently generated won't count against them, any more than Voodoo Lounge diminishes the achievement of Exile On Main St.
Enduring presence? The two songs above—the same song, recorded a decade apart—gives two looks at R.E.M., showing a clear evolution of sound. Given a choice, I'll take the former, but more out of nostalgia than aesthetic superiority. And now, having written plenty about R.E.M., I'll spare you the story of how I once spilled a drink on Michael Stipe. Maybe some other day.
Years Of Operation 1991-present
Fits Between Oasis and Pink Floyd
Personal Correspondence I've had a rocky relationship with Radiohead, largely due to my own cussedness. I bought Pablo Honey shortly after it was released in 1993, prompted by great reviews and the not-bad single "Creep." But I found the album as a whole too detached and subdued, mirroring an irritating trend toward affectlessness in British rock. When The Bends came out in 1995, I got a promo copy, played it once, then got rid of it, convinced that Radiohead's time had passed. But I kept hearing the radio "hits" from the record—"Fake Plastic Trees" and "High and Dry"—and they began to grow on me, such that when OK Computer appeared in 1997 to a tidal wave of critical praise, I picked it up, determined to love Radiohead if it killed me. Well, it didn't take. The draggy pace, vaporous melodies, and strained vocals of Thom Yorke all left me cold, and the "alienation through technology" theme that was supposed to be so brilliant struck me as too oblique to connect. I much preferred the direct spiritual inquiry and soul-stirring guitar solos of Built to Spill's Perfect From Now On that year, and I again filed Radiohead away in my "close but not quite" file. If I'm being honest though, I think a lot of my Radiohead-resistance was due to a feeling that I'd missed something by not being on board from the start; and since I felt left out, I decided that I didn't want to be a Radiohead fan, because they really weren't so great. Ah, but then came Kid A. A few days after I heard that record the first time, I was left grappling—somewhat uneasily—with the notion that Radiohead had made an album that I really, honestly liked. So I wrote the following: "Kid A is definitely a more experimental-minded rock record, given that the first electric guitar doesn't appear until deep into the third track, and given that many of the songs seem deliberately designed to unsettle—especially the opening number, 'Everything In It's Right Place,' which undercuts the standard Radiohead numb-mantra style with a decidedly creepy choir of electronically speeded-up and manipulated voices. As is often the case with the edgier extremes of rock music, the corrosion only serves to make the traces of beauty more priceless. The chopped-up vibes and strings on the title track are oddly moving, the vigorous 'Idioteque' evokes the pleasure and horror of the future more profoundly than anything on OK Computer, and the rich sorrow behind 'How to Disappear Completely' and the U2-ish "Optimistic" shows what virtue comes from Thom Yorke making an attempt to emote. When the album strikes a chord, the damn thing resonates. That said, there's a naggingly unfinished feel to Kid A. It's only 10 songs long (11 if you count the unlisted instrumental snippet buried at the end), and a couple of those are the sort of throwaway mood pieces that usually pop up in a longer work. It's as if the band has chosen to respond to the massive expectations for this record by shortchanging their audience and themselves. Afraid to make another grand statement, they fritter around in the lab, stripping down pop music to minimalist forms and rebuilding it as a Frankenstein monster of techno, jazz, and rock, just to see if it'll terrorize the countryside or capture the imagination. It does more of the latter than the former, but only because it's not quite terrific enough."
Enduring presence? I've since revised my opinion of Kid A upward, and I've gone back and fallen in love with The Bends too, though I'm still hot-and-cold on OK Computer and neutral to Pablo Honey, and I wasn't as wowed by Amnesiac or Hail To The Thief. But if you pressed me to name one Radiohead album that rules them all, I'd have to go with In Rainbows, which synthesizes their arena-rock side and their experimental side magnificently, and is the only record of theirs that I think works from the first note to the last. I'm now a Radiohead fan. I'm on the team.
Years Of Operation 1974-96
Fits Between The Shangri-Las and The New York Dolls
Personal Correspondence Earlier this year, while listening to a "Best Of Sire Records" compilation, I started thinking about the sound of the Ramones. As seminal as they were—and as important to the development of punk rock as a genre and an ideal—the Ramones' classic early albums are also very easy to listen to, and easy to like. For such a groundbreaking band, with such an air of "danger" (at least in the early going), the Ramones never really tried to put listeners off. They liked their songs simple and singable. And on those first couple of albums they buried the fuzzy, grating guitars in the mix, and put the vocals way up front, so no one could miss the catchy parts. I watched a collection of Ramones concert footage and TV appearances recently, and the incarnation of the band that played CBGB's in 1974—when Joey Ramone gyrated more than he bounced—was so much rawer than the still-tight but more family-friendly version that emerged towards the end of the Ramones' run. It's an odd thing to witness an ear-splitting Ramones performance at Max's Kansas City in 1976 one minute, and then see them clowning around with Sha Na Na on a syndicated variety show the next. But then that's what made the band so lovable, that they were willing to amplify the parts of their musical personality that made them iconic, in order to give potential fans something to latch onto. Consciously or not, the Ramones were pop art of the most sublime kind.
Enduring presence? On the other hand, in their oddball cuddliness, the Ramones became a kind of theme-park version of punk, and in a way that was doubly sad, since they could've been—and should've been—Top 40 perennials. Instead they spent decades on the global touring circuit, charitably providing millions of punkers and ex-punkers the chance to say, "I once saw the Ramones…"
Years Of Operation 1991-present
Fits Between The Clash and All
Personal Correspondence A couple of weeks ago (man, this project has been moving fast lately), I wrote in reference to Operation Ivy that I missed their whole wave of punk as it was happening, primarily because it wasn't on my radar screen. My friends weren't listening to it; my local college radio station wasn't playing it; the national music magazines weren't writing about it; and they weren't touring anywhere near where I lived. So I didn't catch up with Tim Armstrong until Rancid, and didn't catch up with Rancid until …And Out Come The Wolves started pulling down Clash comparisons from major rock critics. Personally, I think stacking Rancid up against The Clash is unfair to both, despite the obvious influence. The Clash was a band of its time, who in six years and five albums expanded the nascent vocabulary of punk rock to encompass reggae, dub, rockabilly, Tin Pan Alley, soul shouting, and, most importantly, politicized anger. Rancid is a tightly wound band of rock history buffs who produce a credible copy of The Clash's core sound, which they combine with winning melodies and with lyrics about their friends and their hangouts, mixed with just a little politics. That's not intended as a slam; rock has a great tradition of street vignettes dating back at least to Lou Reed. And Rancid does know how to make a joyful noise. On Wolves and Life Won't Wait—their two best albums—Rancid assayed their usual blend of raw stompers and danceable ska, which, at 60 minutes of music each, can be a bit much. Still, when the sound comes together on tracks like the soaring "Leicester Square," complaints about Rancid's "authenticity" seem petty. Yes, the band's stabs at rabble-rousing sometimes sound shallow and cartoonish, and yes, they wear their influences on their sleeves rather than revealing them in inspired new configurations. But unlike the other gimmicky ska-punkers that emerged around the same time, Rancid put the accent on high-energy rave-ups, not pale imitations. They were, for a short time, one of the most entertaining bands around.
Enduring presence? Some people want to dislike Rancid far more than they deserve, in part because a lot of their best songs sound derivative, and in part because they sold well. Perhaps stung by the criticism from their tribe, Rancid retreated to straight-up, hookless hardcore on their eponymous 2000 LP, then returned to softening their hard edges with touches of ska, gospel and rockabilly on 2003's Indestructible. But their work as Rancid over the past decade (which excludes their often engaging side projects) mostly lacks the charge of inspired discovery that accompanied the band's '90s records. Though Armstrong's songwriting has always drawn comparisons to Joe Strummer, his voice is more like The Pogues' Shane MacGowan, and as with MacGowan, Armstrong's raspy slur has become increasingly indistinct. And so have Rancid's songs. There's a new album due later this year though, so we'll see; maybe they're due for a turnaround.
Red House Painters
Years Of Operation 1989-2001
Fits Between American Music Club and Neil Young
Personal Correspondence Sometimes when I reflect on my first year of adulthood after graduating college—in those halcyon days when the Braves were winning, gas was cheap, my favorite bands were on the radio, and I could spend a whole Friday theater-hopping at the local multiplex before going out for wings and beer with my friends—I miss the blissful nothingness. Then I recall that in between all the drinking and baseball and movies, I was also working three jobs, writing for peanuts for whomever would publish me, and also spending a lot of time driving around in the rain, listening to Red House Painters, and wishing I had a girlfriend. Granted, those long wallows—themselves the kind of self-indulgence that only a 22-year-old living in a comfortable country can afford, no matter how broke he is—were part of my overall time-wasting. And submerging myself in Mark Kozelek's epic mope-outs was a way of romanticizing my existence more than it merited. I still love those early RHP records, which were largely about being a lost soul tripping through the end of youth, and when I spin something like "Down Colorful Hill" or "Katy Song," I fall back into the mood I used to savor more than I'd like to admit. But I'm also glad that on albums like the sprawling, magnificent Songs For A Blue Guitar and Old Ramon, Kozelek found that he could use both his instruments—his voice and his guitar—to do more than just moan with regret. He started mixing in more color, adding notes of hope and joy, and he started looking beyond himself to tackle topics drawn from history, sports and other people's lives. He grew up, basically.
Enduring presence? It's immensely gratifying to me that Kozelek hasn't disappeared from the scene, which seemed like a distinct possibility in the mid-'90s, when Red House Painters records weren't selling and sometimes even went unreleased. Kozelek rebounded with the sublime Sun Kil Moon, and has become an even bigger part of the modern alt-rock scene than the man who "discovered" him, Mark Eitzel. It felt very lonely being an RHP fan a decade ago; not so now.
Years Of Operation 2001-present
Fits Between The Detroit Cobras and The Hives
Personal Correspondence I've been writing about Greg Cartwright projects off and on throughout Popless, but Reigning Sound is the band that I think will represent his major recorded legacy—if anyone ever pays him proper attention. I wrote up the brilliant, beautiful Time Bomb High School for our Permanent Records column, praising it for the way "Cartwright's stinging country-soul ballads gain authority beyond their Paul Westerberg-ian sense of sorrow and pithiness … They demonstrate the command of an artist who knows exactly what he's doing, who can sing 'you're the thing that's caught my eye' with the specific proportion of sincerity and sleaze, and can apply rippling piano, quavery organ and cooing background vocals without the least bit of irony or rip-off." But in some ways, Cartwright's masterpiece may be the record that followed, Too Much Guitar, a far less accessible but largely more impactful set of songs. Reviewing that, I wrote: "There's no pose to Reigning Sound's neo-garage racket—no Johnny-Come-Lately-ism. Bandleader Greg Cartwright has been in the retro scene since the early '90s, when the only people listening to fuzzy, reverb-drenched primitivism were genre cultists. Starting with Oblivians, then The Compulsive Gamblers, then Reigning Sound, Cartwright has stripped blues, country, gospel, R&B; and rock to its drunken-sing-along roots, but with an appealingly natural shape that only an actual Memphis denizen could trace. Too Much Guitar returns to the ear-splitting noise of Cartwright's Oblivians days, defying easy access. Cartwright obscures anxious, Stones-styled rockers behind painfully trebly guitar, and delivers catchy tunes that can sound like The Rascals as heard on a scratchy old 45, or like The Beatles reborn as desperate, dirt-poor psychobilly rockers. Even the relatively hushed ballads degenerate into a fuzzy mess when they're not maintaining an echo-y, Animals-like spookiness. Beneath the shrill distortion though, the songs on Too Much Guitar are every bit as smart and snappy as those on Time Bomb High School, packed with propulsive rhythms, unforced melodies and bright arrangements. They contains entire little worlds, submerged in scrape and static. Because of its harsh overtones, Too Much Guitar doesn't work well in small doses. It takes the full 36 minutes for the album's fractured, chaotic sensibility to really play out and develop a meaning. Too Much Guitar is neo-garage re-imagined as an extended, uncivilized howl of frustration and carnal gratification."
Enduring presence? Look, just buy Reigning Sound records, okay? And Cartwright, go make another one as soon as you can. Force people to care about one of the most unjustly unsung bands of the '00s.
Years Of Operation 1979-1991
Fits Between Big Star and Brownsville Station
Personal Correspondence I had read a little about The Replacements before my first exposure to them, but I can't imagine a more appropriate introduction than seeing them on Saturday Night Live, on a 1986 episode that featured Harry Dean Stanton as the host and a lengthy stand-up routine by Sam Kinison. I knew the band had a reputation for being bratty drunks, and they lived up (or down) to it that night, stumbling their way through two electrifying performances: a roaring "Bastards Of Young" and a surprisingly sweet "Kiss Me On The Bus." For some reason, I taped the show, and I'm glad I did, because I don't think it's ever been repeated in any of the SNL syndication packages—at least not in its original form. I must've watched that tape about 20 times over the years, chuckling at the way the band swaps clothes between the two songs (perhaps under network order, since Bob Stinson's outfit during "Bastards Of Young" consisted of a singlet with a neckline cut down to his pubes) and marveling at the way Stinson hits the right note at the climactic moment of "Kiss Me On The Bus," and gets a little smile of satisfaction on his face. I've also seen The Replacements in concert twice—both post-Stinson—but neither was as stirring as that SNL appearance, though both sets were solid. I arrived late the second time I saw The Replacements, and reportedly missed Paul Westerberg diving into the audience to take a sock at a heckler during the first song. I also missed their much-remarked-upon Nashville outdoor amphitheater show, opening for Tom Petty, during which they came out wearing dresses and began their set with a sloppy cover of "Breakdown." But even though I never really caught the band live at their most legendary, they left their mark via the records, which I pretty well wore out. I could just as easily have dedicated this week's opening essay to The Replacements as to R.E.M., since the 'Mats dominated my high school music-listening as much as any other band. (Every 16 year old should be gifted with a copy of Let It Be; it'll help their world make much more sense.) At one point, Rolling Stone called The Replacements "The Last Best Band Of The '80s," giving them their belated due, but I don't really think of them as tied to the decade the way I think of R.E.M. The Replacements seemed locked away in their own place, somewhat out time—half-passed-out and irritable.
Enduring presence? I have a theory about rock bands that I may explore in another essay someday, though The Replacements are really the band the theory hinges on. The theory has to do with the peculiar chemistry that makes a great band, and how much of that chemistry involves the most talented member being forced to work around the weaknesses of the least talented. In The Replacements' case, Paul Westerberg often used the impossible Bob Stinson as a scapegoat, letting Bob's liabilities give him an excuse to be a fuck-up himself, and to write songs simple and direct enough that Bob could play them. After Bob got booted, The Replacements' music became cleaner and fussier, as Westerberg made his last big push at genuine rock stardom. I'm not as down on those later albums as some; even though All Shook Down is practically a Westerberg solo album, to my ears it's better than any of his actual solo albums, and full of catchy, clever songs. Still, it says something that when I went to Amazon to download a track from Tim (because my copy has disappeared), the "people who bought this also bought" list at the bottom of the page included The Clash's London Calling, Big Star's Radio City, the Pixies' Surfer Rosa and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. In other words: "If you're interested in this album, you'll probably also be interested in some of the best rock albums of all time. Right this way, sir. Always happy to welcome a man of taste."
Years Of Operation 1976-present (solo)
Fits Between Iggy Pop and The Strokes
Personal Correspondence Whenever I hit a new vein of rock/pop/soul history, I tend to stick with it a while, mining it as fully as I can. (It's the same impulse that leads me to buy the complete discographies of bands I've just discovered.) In my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I was infatuated with "pre-punk," inspired by reading up on New York in the mid-'70s, and by the reissue of some of the era's classics, like Richard Hell & The Voidoids' Blank Generation. I'd have a tough time picking between Blank Generation Patti Smith's Horses and Television's Marquee Moon as that era's quintessential album, but Blank Generation may be the one that's the most transitional, moving away from the romantic bohemian gestures of his peers (and former bandmates) and towards something ruder. The Voidoids could make a beautiful noise, but their chief asset was Hell's hilariously contradictory personality: part poet, part brat, part peacock, part loser. Hell may have created a lightly fictionalized, larger-than-life version of himself, but his character wasn't one-dimensional. He was as funny and pathetic as he was venal and swaggering. He was a fun guy to get to know.
Enduring presence? The weird thing about being a Richard Hell fan back in 1988 (or a fan of Television or Patti Smith for that matter) was that I had almost no one to share him with. The musicians of the era (aside from Minutemen, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth) rarely referenced the pre-punk crowd, and most of my friends didn't venture much beyond than The Sex Pistols and Suicidal Tendencies in their journey through punk's back catalogue. The bands and fans that rose to prominence in the '90s seemed better-versed in such things, though I still wonder whether people treat Blank Generation with its proper respect. It's a canonical rock record in my book—one of the best of its decade.
Years Of Operation 1972-present (solo)
Fits Between Bob Dylan and Bob Mould
Personal Correspondence Thompson was sort of a sign of life in the '80s, in the sense that he and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Linda started the decade with one of its best albums, Shoot Out The Lights. (That record's presence on Rolling Stone's "Best Of The '80s" list is what first got me into Thompson… that and my brother putting "When The Spell Is Broken" on a mixtape I listened to quite a bit in high school.) To some extent though, Thompson has always been one of those singular performers who's too been eager to go with any given era's sonic flow, even if it means putting himself in the hands of producers who like to show off. Maybe that's because Thompson knows that no matter how much sonic clutter or cavernous atmosphere some board-jockey forces on him, his core strengths will survive: memorable songs, a honeyed voice, and crystalline guitar picking. Thompson has written and recorded some of the best songs of the rock era—deep, multi-faceted confessionals that draw on the storytelling tradition of ancient folklore—but like a top-flight jazz man, he gives his work a different spin each time he picks up his instrument, which means the original recordings are often more a blueprint than a finished product. His songs tend not to be overly complex, but on stage, he improvises around their basic themes, finding new interpretations that express his mood at the moment. And those moods shift too—sometimes he's a miserable bastard, sometimes he's hilariously funny.
Enduring presence? I don't know if my dad ever paid much attention to Thompson, but in a lot of ways he's my dad's kind of artist: virtuosic, traditionalist, and improvisatory. (Just like Chet Atkins.) But maybe Thompson would've been too grim for my dad. The "Shoot Out The Lights" heard here, for example, is staggering, with Thompson strangling his guitar for several tense minutes before returning to the descending power chords that reverberate throughout the song like a death knell.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
Radio Birdman, "Aloha Steve & Danno"
A lot of the fun of listening to college radio in the '80s had to do with the strong possibility that one of the jocks would rip out a punk chestnut like this Aussie salute to Hawaii 5-0. Songs like "Aloha Steve & Danno" made the whole punk and alternative scenes seem so much more plugged-in and entertaining than anything on mainstream radio at the time. I've still got homemade tapes filled with hard-to-find and forgotten songs I duped off college radio when I was in high school. "Aloha Steve & Danno"—and Radio Birdman as a whole—is too well-known to qualify as "hard to find" or "forgotten," but it's in that same spirit of quirky, catchy songs that build a little fire on a remote stretch of beach and let it burn hot and bright.
Rage Against The Machine, "Testify"
I was never a big enough fan of Rage to call their relatively short initial run one of the great lost opportunities of The Alt-Rock Age, but certainly they had the musical skill and the smarts to accomplish more than they did. Too often, Zack de la Rocha leaned so hard on his political sloganeering that the band came off (to me at least) as one-note and humorless. And while Rage's slack was picked up to a great degree by guitarist Tom Morello and his explosive, creative riffing, the band as a whole often seemed (to me at least) to be a little haphazard about turning all these slogans and riffs into, y'know, songs. When they did, though… well, as "Testify" will testify, Rage could be incredibly exciting.
Railroad Jerk, "The Ballad Of Railroad Jerk"
These indie-rockers never quite made it into the '90s pantheon, but for a brief moment in time—after the rollicking records One Track Mind and The Third Rail came out in '95 and '96—Railroad Jerk seemed like heroes in the making, whipping up a sound that set aside the meaningless clank of their earlier work for something halfway between vintage Rolling Stones and a carnival barker. This self-mythologizing anthem offers a fair representation of what the band could do when they really got rolling. It's also amusingly tongue-in-cheek. How's this for a bad-ass boast: "My friends all have credit cards / But I have been denied."
Rainer Maria, "Hell And High Water"
This Wisconsin-born, Brooklyn-bound indie-rock band excelled at draping songs in atmospheric echo while maintaining an unsteady, urgent beat—all providing a stage for lead singer Caithlin De Marrais' earnest, fully engaged voice. Rainer Maria had a fair run, but their sound was in some ways about 10 years out of date; they might've been more at home touring with the likes of Eleventh Dream Day in the late '80s than trying to compete with the neo-new-wavers of the early '00s. Still, they left behind a healthy stack of engaging songs, like this moody burner, in which De Marrais always seems to be just ahead of or just behind the pace. Hers is a healing sound, full of apologies and confessions, designed to tell sensitive misfits everywhere that someone knows how they feel.
Ram Jam, "Black Betty"
Did you know that the mastermind behind this late-'70s boogie blowout—based loosely on an unfinished Leadbelly song—was also the guy behind The Lemon Pipers, the band that hit the charts in 1968 with the bubblegum psych-pop smash "Green Tambourine?" If there's a connection between the songs, it's that they're both stripped-down to the point of being shallow, and they both—quite simply—kick ass. How much of our pop history is made up of songs like this, cranked out by faceless pros who take a short, fast ride, then fade into the horizon?
Randy Newman, "Rednecks"
Because of Greil Marcus' Mystery Train—which I read for the first time at age 15, before I was really ready to grapple with a lot of the musicians Marcus wrote about—I've always felt that I should like Randy Newman more than I do. I think Newman's run of albums in the '70s is uniformly brilliant, but I find several aspects of them bothersome, like Newman's snide, superior tone, and the way his infatuation with ragtime and old-fashioned saloon songs makes so much of his work sound similar. On the upside, the songs on Newman's two best albums, Sail Away and Good Old Boys, are blessedly concise, diminishing the effect of repetition. And I can't help but marvel at the devilish construction of a song like "Rednecks," which asks listeners to get into the head of a racist while simultaneously mocking the character's small-mindedness.
Randy VanWarmer, "Just When I Needed You Most"
I loved this song when I was 8 years old, and I'm not sure I could tell you why. Someone with a more analytical bent might note that my parents split up the year before VanWarmer hit the charts, but the divorce wasn't really a traumatic experience for me, so I don't think that's it. My theory? I've always been kind of a wimp. (Fun facts about VanWarmer: After this one-hit wonder, he moved to Nashville and became a successful contributor to acts like Alabama and The Oak Ridge Boys. Also, according to Wikipedia—though this lacks a citation—he had his ashes scattered in outer space.)
The Rapture, "Heaven"
The parade of angular, abstractly funky postpunk bands coming out of New York in the early '00s quickly shifted from exciting to suspicious, and while the cycle of rock revolutions is such that an intense back-to-basics period usually clears away the clutter and enables the music to head in new directions, that never really happened with this bunch. Still, the era popped out some good records, like The Rapture's Echoes, with its pastiche-like approach to early '80s Anglophilia. With a few exceptions, the album maintains a steady pattern of disco thump, guitar slash and call-and-response choruses, expressing a faith in straight lines and inexorability. It's where the pattern breaks that Echoes is strongest—like in the slow drum-roll and dissonant sax break of "Heaven," which aids the band's shifting, conceptual take on how the hip sounds of two decades ago described a world of frenzied decadence and self-pity.
The Raveonettes, "Remember"
Danish gutter-punks The Raveonettes garnered notice right away for their debut EP Whip It On, which featured eight tracks, each under three minutes, each written in B-flat minor, and each an uncanny synthesis of The Cramps' spookiness, Sonic Youth's disaffection, and The Jesus & Mary Chain's marrow-scraped beach party music. The knock against them ever since has been that they've shown only minimal progression, though when listening to The Raveonettes' discography again this week, I noted a lot more growth from record to record—and not just because they've learned how to change keys. I have a feeling that when the band's run is done, they're going to have a killer compilation to show for their efforts. Suggested album-opener: "Remember," with its "Be My Baby" backbeat and its simple, stirring staircase guitar riff.
Ray Charles, "One Mint Julep/Busted"
As with Walk The Line—and just about every other biopic ever made about a musician—Ray dwelled overmuch on Ray Charles' drug addiction and womanizing and shortchanged the things he did which would make us care that he was an addict and a cad. If you relied on Ray exclusively for your understanding of Charles, you'd have no idea how he managed to create such an enduring body of work, or just how eclectic his output was, ranging from gritty roadhouse rockers to slick big band music to re-imagined country-and-western. Put through his special filter, it all came out as Ray Charles music: casually accomplished and attractively brassy.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Good Time Boys"
"We want Chilly Willy! We want Chilly Willy!" (Obligatory music-related comment: I was a Chili Peppers fan right after Mother's Milk came out, but that was about it for me and RHCP. I thought the early records were too thin and the later ones too bloated, but I found Mother's Milk just muscular enough and loose enough to be as fun as the band's reputation. Or maybe I was just persuaded by the opening track, which paid homage to two of my faves: Fishbone and fIREHOSE.)
Refused, "Liberation Frequency"
This defunct Swedish hardcore act saved their best for last, disbanding after delivering their most cohesive LP, The Shape Of Punk To Come. I'm not well-versed enough in hardcore to distinguish what sets that album apart from so many other punk contenders, but I enjoy the turn-on-a-dime tempo shifts and arty textures, which in combination holds the constant promise of something breathtaking.
Regina Spektor, "Ode To Divorce"
Usually I have little use for pixie-ish piano-playing chanteuses (aside from the one who had their heydays in the '70s), but I was so thoroughly charmed by Spektor's big crossover album Soviet Kitsch that she immediately became one of my favorite artists of the '00s. I was pleased to hear that the Russian-born, classically trained musician's fourth album Begin To Hope showed her continuing to grow, reaching beyond the conventional troubadour clichés for a set of songs that sounded radio-ready yet subversively puckish, though now that I've spent time with both albums again, I think I prefer the lower-key Kitsch. I think what I respond to in Spektor's music is the effortless combination of art and pop, old world and new world, as well as the way she seems to be singing things she earnestly believes.
The Remains, "Don't Look Back"
This Boston band was pegged by some in the mid-'60s as an American answer to The Beatles, though they had more in common with The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Zombies. Ultimately, a song like "Don't Look Back" speaks to what sets The Remains apart, and what kept them from ever becoming huge: The elastic song structure, wide-open arrangement and oddball gospel interlude makes The Remains sound unlike any other kind of music being made at the time.
Rex Harrison, "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face"
I've loved My Fair Lady since seeing a regional theater performance of the show when I was 14. I saw the movie for the first time when I went on an Audrey Hepburn kick shortly after graduating college, then I saw it again on the big-screen, newly restored, during the Virginia Film Festival, exactly one year after I started dating the woman who'd become my wife. For all its regressive gender politics and underlined emotions, I'm reduced to rubble by My Fair Lady's ending nearly every time. The way the final song weaves in nearly all of the show's other musical themes is impressive just from a compositional perspective, and the way Henry Higgins finally confesses (to himself at least) that he likes having Eliza around is profoundly moving, especially when accompanied by the final swell of strings. I do so love The Big Finish.
Rhett Miller, "Help Me, Suzanne"
Rhett Miller's 2002 solo album The Instigator was sharper, wittier, catchier and rockier than the work he'd been doing around that time with his band Old 97's, but I worried when he followed it up with yet another hit-and-miss Old 97's effort; and the first couple of spins through his overly fussy second solo album The Believer didn't really quiet my fears that Miller is, at best, streaky. Given time though, The Believer blooms. Producer George Drakoulias' Beatle-esque approach—adding strings, piano and guitar effects—robs some songs of their immediacy, but Drakoulias' fillips can't muffle the timeless hooks and seamless wordplay of something like "Help Me, Suzanne." More importantly, the starry sparkle serves a purpose, connecting a set of songs about how the petty concerns of lovers still matter, even when the world's in turmoil. Miller seems to have retreated to Old 97's for the time being, but I'm hoping he hasn't abandoned his solo self for good, because I think he gives himself a little more space to explore when he's on his own. I'd like to hear what else he can come up with.
Rhymefest, "Devil's Pie"
I'm not as gung-ho for Rhymefest as my Chicago compadres—who have a little hometown pride mixed in with their fandom—but I think about half of Blue Collar is spot-on, and I have a hard time resisting any hip-hop song that samples The Strokes, even though I realize that to some extent this song is sampling The Strokes because that makes it more immediately appealing to a pasty white hipster type like me. (It's a savvy marketing movie, really.) I ask the same question of Rhymefest that I asked about Rhett Miller though: What's next?
Richard Buckner, "Goner w/Souvenir"
Alt-country stalwart Richard Buckner has been spinning his wheels some since mastering the art of low growl and brusque rock on his first three albums—a cycle that peaked with 1998's Since, the source of this song. Buckner tends to force every song into the same tumbling cadence, but close listening reveals some nice variations on his usual theme, and as always, it's striking the way he weaves his voice through the hanging chords.
Richard Davies, "Why Not Bomb The Movies?"
After splitting with Eric Matthews and breaking up the short-lived, somewhat ill-conceived (but wonderful) Cardinal, Richard Davies released a trio of catchy, off-beat solo albums. This songs is from the first one, and it's typical of Davies' free-roaming style, in which he sets off in one direction, gets distracted, then fumbles to remember why he entered this room in the first place. Davies hasn't released anything since 2000—though Cardinal briefly reunited a couple of years ago—so I ask Davies the same question I asked of Rhett Miller and Rhymefest: What's next?
Richard Pryor, "Niggas"
When I was a kid, I wasn't allowed to see Richard Pryor's movies in theaters; I caught most of them when they ran on TV, expurgated. So it was a complete revelation to me when during my freshman year of college, the student union screened Richard Pryor: Live In Concert, quite simply one of the funniest movies ever made, one of the greatest one-man performances ever recorded, and one of the rare cultural artifacts worthy of its exalted reputation. As Pryor freely cycled through frank, hilarious commentary on race, death, parenting, sex, boxing and monkeys—adopting about a dozen different personae, and disarming the audience with his quick wit and unflinching honesty—I felt like I'd wandered into someplace I wasn't supposed to be, hearing things I wasn't supposed to hear. It was liberating, tantamount to hearing Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions for the first time. As my colleague Nathan has astutely pointed out, Richard Pryor wasn't always put to his best use by the show business industry, especially in the '80s. But hand him a microphone and set him loose in front of an audience—no matter the size—and he'd paint a picture of black life in a white America that was more complicated, human and true than a hundred well-meaning Hollywood "race dramas."
Regrettably unremarked upon: R.L. Burnside, Rachel Portman, The Raconteurs, Radar Bros., Radney Foster, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ralph Stanley, Randy Travis, Ray Davies, Ray Stevens, Rebecca Gates, REO Speedwagon, The Residents, Richard Ashcroft and Richard Fariña
Also listened to: Ra Ra Riot, The Race,
Rachid Taha, The Radiants, Radical Face, Radio 4, Radio Citizen, The Radio Dept., Radioinactive, Rafter, Raging Slab, Rah Bras, The Rain Parade, Rainbow Band, Raising The Fawn, Ralph Myers, Ralph Soul Jackson, RAM, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Ramsey Kearney, Ramsey Lewis, Rance Allen Group, Randall Bramblett, Randy Crawford, Randy Watson Experience, Randy Weeks, Randy Winburn, Ranking, The Rare Breed, Rasputina, Ratatat, The Ratchets, Raul Midon, The Raw Herbs, Ray Anthony, Ray Barretto, The Ray Camacho Band, Ray Coniff, Ray Obiedo, Razorcuts, Razorlight, Razzle, Readymade, Real Life, The Rebirth, Reckless Kelly, Red & Gold, The Red Fox Chasers, Red Rockers, The Red Stick Ramblers, Rednex, Reef, Reel Big Fish, Regina Hexaphone, The Reindeer Section, The Relatives, The Rembrandts, Renaldo Domino, Renato Braz, Rene & Angela, The Rentals, The Reputations, Res, Resource, retin.IT, Retisonic, Reverend Glasseye, Reverend Horton Heat, The Revillos, Revis, The Revolving Paint Dream, The Rewinds, Rex, Rex Hobart, The Rezillos, rhinoceros, Rhythm, Rhythm Heritage, Rich Creamy Paint, Rich Kids, Rich Schroder, Richard Hawley, Richard Lloyd, Richard Reagh and Richard Shindell
Next week: From Rickie Lee Jones to Ryan Adams, plus a few words on appropriation and adulteration