Category: Features


pj-harvey

Whenever an artist goes on tour, every fan is coming up with her or his own personal wishlist of what songs they want to hear. There are the expected hits and the new album tracks, but what else will be performed? Will there be a live debut of an old album track? Will a b-side be brushed off for the first time in a decade? These are the songs that deserve a comeback. This is “Play It Live!”

With her new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey is set to embark on her first tour in four years. Now on her ninth album, there are tons of songs that are due for a resurgence. Given the heavier and rougher vibe found on her latest LP, some of her older, blues and punk-inspired tracks may fit better with the new material than Let England Shake. With her tour set to kick off in France on June 1, here are 10 songs that I hope will make an appearance.

A Perfect Day Elise
Last Played In: 2004
Is This Desire? is one of Harvey’s most underrated works and A Perfect Day Elise is one of the record’s masterpieces. With an almost beatbox rhythm and shimmering guitar, it signaled an evolution from the in-your-face blues of To Bring You My Love. When Harvey rises above the claustrophobic musical atmosphere for the chorus, it’s an instantly memorable moment. Many casual fans may not be familiar with this song or this record. A comeback here would give Harvey a chance to fix that.

Good Fortune
Last Played In: 2010
It’s no surprise to anyone going to a PJ Harvey show that it can get a bit intense, particularly given the lyrical source of the last two albums. So, what better way to add a sense of relief than with this pop-rock song that is one of the catchiest Harvey has ever written. With lines about Chinatown, Little Italy and the like, it should at least make an appearance when she plays New York City.

Legs
Last Played In: 2003
A weird, distorted mess that’s insanely captivating. That’s the best way to describe this Rid of Me track. There’s a reason it kept popping up in Harvey’s live show for 10 years. The vocal, which has her screaming, crying, yodeling and ripping her voice apart, may be tough for Harvey to pull off nowadays, but in the right spot, it could be a devastating throwback to her early days.

Long Snake Moan
Last Played In: 1995
How has this song been missing from Harvey’s set for so long? To put it simply, it fucking rocks. With an incredibly-fuzzed out groove and a leathery vocal, it’s easily one of the most overlooked pieces in her catalog. Given that Harvey brought the distorted guitars back for her latest album, there’s no reason why this song shouldn’t return with them. Did I mention that it fucking rocks?

Shame
Last Played In: 2010
This Uh Huh Her track is all about Harvey’s delivery, jumping from a deep growl to a high-pitched, panicked yelp. In the meantime, guitar chords form a taut rhythm and a harmonica jitters along. This would be a great, quick pick to slow things down while keeping a crowd’s rapt attention.

Who the Fuck?
Last Played In: 2010
The Hope Six Demolition Project contains some of the heaviest and most aggressive songs she’s written since Uh Huh Her. So what better time to revive the kiss-off of Who the Fuck? With a squawking guitar riff that almost sounds out-of-tune and Harvey’s curse-laden rant, it’s a fan favorite that will get anyone’s blood pressure rising. Her last two albums deal some weighty themes. Give the crowd and band a chance to shake the spectre off.

The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore
Last Played In: 2010
While much of The Hope Six Demolition Project focuses on war-torn locations like Kosovo and Afghanistan, a good portion of the record looks at the social strife found in Washington D.C. Given that most of Harvey’s discography focuses more on the personal and has only recently swung political, let’s split the difference with this abrasive track from Stories From The City, Stories From The City. Among violence, drug abuse and greed, Harvey reaches out for a human connection. The message fits her new album, and would fit a current setlist, perfectly.

The Wind
Last Played In: 1998
This single from Is This Desire? hasn’t appeared since it’s initial run. That’s a shame, as it has a palpable tension, driven by Harvey’s whispering throughout the song. The vocal matches the chapel imagery, as if she’s almost alone in a church and knows anything above a whisper will reveal her confession to strangers. This track would fit right alongside the spiritual hymn of River Anacostia from her last LP.

Working for the Man
Last Played In: 2004
With a slinking, shaking bass line and a creepy guitar melody, this is definitely one of Harvey’s creepiest numbers. Her half-whispered, half-moaned vocals only add to sense of foreboding, like she’s trying to get you to lean in and listen, but you’re scared of what will happen if you do. Maybe such a quiet, offputting piece won’t work for a festival. But for a club? All Harvey needs to do is turn out the lights, play the song and let the crowd’s imagination do the rest.

You Come Through
Last Played In: 2004
With a clattering, naturalistic rhythm and an accordion humming in the background, this is one of Uh Huh Her’s most unexpected treasures. It truly sounds unique in Harvey’s catalog. With so many songs to choose from for a live set, it makes sense to bring back one that truly stands alone in instrumentation and vibe.

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5. Grimes – Art Angels

GRIMES-ART-ANGELS-COVER-ART

While I enjoyed Visions, I thought it had a few good songs and a lot of alright filler tunes. I was expecting something similar from Grimes this year, but I was blown away by the quality of this album. Besides the poor inclusion of Scream, every other song offers something to enjoy, with a few out-and-out classics. The run from Flesh Without Blood through Artangels is utterly fantastic. It really feels like Grimes came out with both arms swinging after all the bullshit she dealt with over the last couple of years. She’s somehow made an album that’s stranger and more accessible than her previous work. Either way, it’s definitely her best release so far.

Highlights: Flesh Without Blood, Kill v Maim, Artangels

4. Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

SW

This is Steven Wilson’s best release since Insurgentes. This album does what Wilson does best, by combining his various influences and interests into songs that range from prog-epics to pop-rock songs. Even though this is a concept album, the themes aren’t heavy-handed in the lyrics, instead relying on relatable lyrics and memorable segments, such as those found on the lovely title track. There’s hardly any guitar noodling or flute interludes on this record and the only song that veers close to The Raven That Refused to Sing, Ancestral, is better than nearly everything on that previous effort. I hope this year’s EP gives us something similar and Wilson keeps his gift for melody at the forefront of his work from now on.

Highlights: Hand Cannot Erase, Home Invasion, Happy Returns

3. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

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This may be the best band reunion album ever released. I know Sleater-Kinney said it was a hiatus in 2005, but it really felt like a split in the intervening years. This is an explosive comeback, tightly wound into 10 furious songs. The way the opening riff of Price Tag weaves its way throughout the whole track, the harmonies on the title track and the grungy guitar riff that kicks off No Anthems are just a few moments that capture this band at the height of its powers. I can’t think of one filler track on this record and it’s quickly risen in my ranking for Sleater-Kinney’s discography.

Highlights: A New Wave, No Cities to Love, Bury Our Friends

2. Florence and the Machine – How Big How Blue How Beautiful

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After Ceremonials, I was left disappointed with Florence. That album lost much of the attitude and variety I got when listening to Lungs. But I think HBHBHB is her best album yet. I love how much What Kind of Man rocks, the R.E.M. jangle in Ship to Wreck and the groove of Delilah. Plus, while Florence still shows off her pipes, I like that she draws back for subtle, restrained performances on a few tracks like St. Jude as well.

Highlights: What Kind of Man, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, Mother

1. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Just Sit And Think and Sometimes I Just Sit

CourtneyBarnett

What an incredible album. It’s rare that an artist’s debut is so fully realized. Every song here had something that grabbed my attention, whether it was a turn of phrase, Barnett’s shredding or just melodies that get trapped in your head. Some of my favorite lyricists of recent years have been those who use their wit to get to the core of a character. Gareth Campesinos is a master at this, but Barnett does it to humorous and devastating effect in equal measure. Everyone talks about the storytelling in Depreston, which is incredible, but she seems to put the same effort into the quick numbers like Aqua Profunda! I haven’t listened to any other album more this year. It is a stunningly good record.

Highlights: Pedestrian at Best, Depreston, Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party

 

10. Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool

Wolf_Alice_-_My_Love_Is_Cool

Wolf Alice is cool. Everything about the four-piece makes them likable, from their name to their ability to kick it up several notches any moment. But what may be the most noticeable on their debut is how effortlessly they switch up their style from one track to the next. Going from the serene Turn to Dust to the highway rock of Bros to the heavy reverb-laden riffs of Your Loves Whore shouldn’t work at all. But Wolf Alice expresses such grace and confidence that you’re willing to follow them down any musical paths they’re willing to take. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with songs like the face-melting, anthem-ready Moaning Lisa Smile. And that’s just the first four songs. It doesn’t let up from there. Say hello to this year’s best new band.

Highlights: Moaning Lisa Smile, Fluffy, Bros

9. Laura Marling – Short Movie

ShortMovie

When you record an album as beloved as Once I Was An Eagle, it looms like a mountain over whatever you do next. For a follow-up, you can either try to replicate that previous record’s success or you can do something new. Laura Marling, not one for sequels, went for the latter, crafting an expressive addition to her body of work with Short Movie. To do so, she stepped outside the traditional musical language of folk music, bringing in electric guitars for the first time. It doesn’t seem like a huge step, but for the reinvigorated Marling, she had a new set of songwriting tools. The results are songs like the electrifying False Hope, about Hurricane Sandy’s impact on New York, the door slam of Don’t Let Me Bring You Down and the dusty Howl. Five albums in, and she’s as brilliant as ever.

Highlights: False Hope, I Feel Your Love, Strange

8. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper – After

after

Like her debut, Ripely Pine, Lady Lamb’s gift for melody, her odd and sticky lyrics and her conversational voice are intriguing throughout nearly every song. Her homemade, casual approach, combined with her off-kilter way with words and melodies, make her one of the most original voices to come out of this decade. After isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly an album that sounds as strong and mysterious the first time and 10th time you listen to it.

Highlights: Billions of Eyes, Heretic, Milk Duds

7. Torres – Sprinter

Sprinter

Mackenzie Scott doesn’t know what to do with her demons. Over the course of the beautifully raw, wrenching Sprinter, the woman known as Torres screams her lungs out on Strange Hellos, smirks her way through Cowboy Guilt and embraces denial on Ferris Wheel. “I am a tired woman/In January I will just be 23,” Scott sings mournfully on New Skin, her fingers picking away at the fretboard. While Scott turns the mirror to herself for her sophomore effort, everyone is shaped by their environment. No one leaves here unscathed. Over the title track’s guitar crunch, she blames the flaws in her church as a reason to leave her life in Georgia behind, both running away and running towards something. This introspection reaches a devastating peak on Son, You Are No Island, a harrowing maelstrom of betrayal from God’s perspective, and on The Exchange, detailing an adoptive parent and slowly diving into the topic of suicide. “I’m underwater,” Scott breathes, barely managing to get the words out. It’s a captivating end to an album that mixes the personal and the spiritual, where Scott pours out her secrets, loathing and love. When it’s all said and done though, there’s one word that fits Sprinter best: revelation.

Highlights: Strange Hellos, Son You Are No Island, Sprinter

6. The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

the-decemberists-what-a-terrible-world-what-a-beautiful-world

I’m not a huge Decemberists fan. I often feel their cleverness can too often slide into pretentiousness, with unrelatable characters and needlessly complex vocabulary. I liked The Hazards of Love, but I think the simplicity of this year’s release makes it a true standout. While Colin Meloy’s lyrical tendencies are still here, they come with a sly wink and are closer to real emotions than any work they’ve done before. I can empathize and identify with what he’s saying for the first time. Combine that with some of the most melodic work the band’s ever done and you have a winner.

Highlights: Cavalry Captain, Make You Better, Better Not Wake The Baby

05. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Jenny_Lewis_The_Voyager

With her first release in six year, the return of Jenny Lewis is like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in years. From the first watery piano chord of Head Underwater to the climactic peak of the title track, The Voyager catches us up on her life and all the ups and downs she has gone through. But even in the darker moments, she sings with a wink, a light touch that suggests that everything will be alright in the end. The music is just as warm and inviting, with sun-soaked chords and strings permeating the record. There may be better albums that came out this year, but there are none that feel as comforting as The Voyager.

Highlights: Late Bloomer, You Can’t Outrun ‘Em, The Voyager

04. TV On The Radio – Seeds

Seeds

How do you deal with loss? If you’re TV On The Radio, you write a funky, celebratory record about life. The band’s first album since the death of bassist Gerard Smith finds them abandoning their apocalyptic vibes for an introspective journey of love, no matter what form that love takes. It’s easily their most accessible release, with the Beatles-esque guitar work popping up on Could You, the R&B jam of Test Pilot and the propulsive punk of Lazerray. Livelier than Nine Types of Light, Seeds takes the best of TV On The Radio’s past work and shines it through a hopeful prism. The message is clear: love transcends all.

Highlights: Could You, Lazerray, Trouble

03. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

St_Vincent

All hail our new queen, St. Vincent. 2014 was her year from beginning to end. And it all came out of her fourth, self-titled album, where she sits perched in a throne with a shock of grey hair. The music on the record is just as confident, off-kilter and challenging as her stare and smirk on the cover. While she has always melded harshness and beauty, the lines have blurred to become indistinguishable from each other. Every gentle lyric is delivered with a hint of danger and every nasty, warped guitar riff is as catchy and memorable as anything else she’s done. St. Vincent is the sound of an alien taking human music, writing her own version and sending it back to us. Who knew we could sound so lovely, threatening, accessible and weird at the same time?

Highlights: Rattlesnake, Huey Newton, Every Tear Disappears

02. EMA – The Future’s Void

EMA

On her second album, EMA has done the impossible: written an album about the Internet and the digital age that doesn’t cause eyerolls. Instead, The Future’s Void grabs you by neck and forces you to pay attention. EMA’s lyrics don’t come off as a lecture, but rather a warning about what the Information Superhighway could be doing to our brains. Recalling William Gibson’s concerns on the same subject, the words are carried by music that’s abrasive, but also melodic. Satellites moves from static to an industrial banger, So Blonde is a smash hit from 1994 and Solace builds off a jerky riff that feels like an electric current. It is one of the darker albums of the year, but just like debut, one that’s impossible to resist.

Highlights: Satellites, Neuromancer, Solace

01. U2 – Songs of Innocence

Songs_of_Innocence

What’s the best way for a band that’s seen and done it all to move forward? Look back. That’s exactly what U2 did for Songs of Innocence. After the last couple of disappointing records, the Irish four-piece dug into their history, exploring life in Dublin in the 1970s. No rock is left unturned here. Both the good and bad of that formative time is laid out for all to see.

The highs create ecstatic songs like California (There Is No End to Love) and This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now, the latter combining sharp, subtle guitar riffs with one of the best rhythm segments from the band in years. Every Breaking Wave is an absolutely gorgeous ballad and instant U2 classic.

Some of the best songs though come from the lows in the band’s past. Raised By Wolves is a tense retelling of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974. Sleep Like A Baby Tonight uses pulpy synths and a stuttering guitar line to tell the story of a pedophile priest. The Troubles, about an abusive relationship, features a perfect melding of vocals by Bono and guest singer Lykke Li. It’s another number that deserves high placement in the U2 lexicon.

Forget about the Apple nonsense and focus on the songs. Similarly to how this album reminded Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry of why they became a band, it will remind you of what makes U2 one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

Highlights: Every Breaking Wave, Raised By Wolves, The Troubles

It’s that time again. With hundreds of releases and dozens of favorites, it’s a near-impossible task to narrow down my picks for the 10 best albums of the 2014. Still, these are the records that stuck with me the most, the ones I kept going back to over and over. If an album sticks in your head for several months after you first hear it, that artist is doing something right. These are the picks that stayed with me the most.

10. Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything

Elbow-Take-Off-Landing-Everything

After the arena-ready anthems of Elbow’s last three albums, the five-piece goes intimate on The Take Off and Landing of Everything. Well, as intimate as such a worldly, ambitious band can go. While the title track is a seven-minute blast of ecstatic energy and celebration, Fly Boy Blue / Lunette is a drunken swagger jam, Charge simmers rather than boils, My Sad Captains is anchored by majestic horns and New York Morning finds the gentle moments in the bustling city. Elbow has enough chest-beating, boisterous epics. This year, the band moved forward and found new colors and vibes to explore. They are better off for it.

Highlights: Fly Boy Blue / Lunette, New York Morning, The Take Off and Landing of Everything

09. Brody Dalle – Diploid Love

Brody_Dalle_Diploid_Love

Every years, there’s an unexpected record that blows away expectations. For 2014, that honor goes to Diploid Love, which finds Brody Dalle in a much better place in her life. Now past the drug addiction and abusive relationships that colored her earlier work, Dalle makes a comeback with roaring guitars and shredded vocals. She successfully marries punk to experimentation in a way that few other artists have managed. Listen to the mariachi guitar on Underworld, the electronic beat of Carry On or the parade horns of Rat Race. Her lyrics and performance are as inspiring as they are vicious. This is the sound of Dalle beating down her demons, and what an exhilarating sound it is.

Highlights: Don’t Mess With Me, Dressed in Dreams, Blood in Gutters

08. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

Damon-albarn-everyday-robots

Damon Albarn has always been wary of technology, ever since he dismissed sitting around and playing computer games on Blur’s Jubilee. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he would dedicate an album to this theme. While the title track and Lonely Press Play is full of heady questions on the digital age, Everyday Robots is also a look back at Albarn’s own life. Whether he’s singing about the elephant he met on Mr. Tembo or going over key years in his history on Hollow Ponds, Albarn brings a delicate balance of world-weariness and hope. The music is mostly understated, but beautifully layered. Not bad for his solo “debut.”

Highlights: Lonely Press Play, Mr. Tembo, Heavy Seas of Love

07. The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

NewP

For the first time in a decade, The New Pornographers are throwing a party. The introspective mood and low-key songs of the last two records are gone, replaced by an electro-pop celebration. The whole crew is back and bringing their best vibes to Brill Bruisers. From the burst of synchronized singing on the title track to the sparkling harmonies of You Tell Me Where, this record will rouse anyone out of their seats and onto the dance floor. This is the New Pornographers: the electric version.

Highlights: Champions of Red Wine, Backstairs, Dancehall Domine

06. Beck – Morning Phase

Beck_Morning_Phase

The idea of following up Sea Change more than a decade later seems questionable on paper at best. But we should have known better than to doubt Beck’s ability. This West Coast-soaked record is a mirrored reflection of that album’s brilliance. Rather than sounding despondent, Beck now looks forward to each day, welcoming the Waking Light of Morning. Copying the style of one of your most acclaimed albums is a challenge to say the least. The fact that Beck could create 13 more beautiful, magical songs that match up with the best of Sea Change is a testament to his abilities as a songwriter. If all mornings were like this, maybe I wouldn’t be such a night owl.

Highlights: Morning, Blue Moon, Waking Light

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on Oct. 1, 2014.

u2_unforgettable_fire

Last month, U2’s released their latest album, Songs of Innocence. The record saw the band looking back towards their early days and the experiences that shaped them. Now, just a few weeks later , we mark the30th anniversary of U2’s first push forward with The Unforgettable Fire.
After the post-punk trilogy of Boy, October and War, U2 felt that it had to move forward and explore new ideas, lest they get stuck in a rut. To help them find their way forward with innovative sounds and textures, the band hired Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as co-producers. Arguably their most successful collaborators,Eno and Lanois brought a careful balance of experimentation and craftsmanship to the Irish four-piece. And the results definitely paid off.
It only takes a minute or two into the opening track, A Sort of Homecoming, to see how the band had stepped up its game. Larry Mullen Jr.’s intricate drum pattern gives way to The Edge’s sharp, expansive tone, the famous echo effect made widescreen. Bono’s in full command of his vocals for the first time in his career, moving from sing-speaking to a full-blown scream as the song progresses. Any worries about U2’s commercial success was also put to rest with Pride (In The Name Of Love), one of their all-time classics with an instantly memorable riff and one of Bono’s most passionate vocal performances.
The Unforgettable Fire also finds U2 learning how to slow down and give songs space to breathe. While they had a couple of successful ballads before this record (Drowning Man, Tomorrow), this is where they truly start to excel. Bad is one of, if not the, most exhilarating things the band ever recorded. Tackling the topic of drug abuse, the song slowly, subtly grows, with Bono in the driver’s seat, sounding possessed, desperate, inflamed and finally ecstatic, with the shout of someone breaking free of their own addiction. Lyrically, it’s magnificent, as Bono gets the song’s message across without beating you over the head.“True colours fly in blue and black / Blue silken sky and burning flag / Colours crash, collide in blood shot eyes,” he sings, conjuring vivid, creative imagery.
The title track is another highlight, lyrically and musically. A spacious guitar in the verses giving away to pounding piano keys, mixing The Edge’s two instrumental talents even better than in New Year’s Day. “And if the mountains should crumble / Or disappear into the sea / Not a tear, no not I,” Bono passionately sings, before belting out the chorus.
Although U2 was readily exploring new soundscapes, they were still able to write some incredible rockers, taking their early sound and enhancing it. Wire moves from guitar pinpricks to scratches, while Adam Clayton bursts forward with a funky, frantic bass line. Indian Summer Sky is similar, though more grounded than Wire, which is so chaotic that it threatens to veer off the track. It’s a lack of control that U2 has rarely allowed itself to experience in recent years.
By the time the record ends, with the synth hymn of MLK, U2 had completed its first major transformation. The post-punk days were firmly in the band’s rearview mirror and they were ready to see what was next. Of course, what came after this album was The Joshua Tree. But that masterpiece, along with other future classics, would not have been reached without this first step into the unknown. The Unforgettable Fire is exactly that; a gorgeous, invigorating record that showed, better than any before it, why U2 would become a band for the ages.

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on July 28, 2014.

Metallica_-_Ride_the_Lightning_cover

Some albums show a band evolve leaps and bounds beyond what came before. It’s on these types of records that a group can go from an underground act or from being part of the pack, to head and shoulders above all others in the genre. For Metallica, that ascension really kicked off with Ride The Lightning.

Released one year after Metallica’s debut, Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning showed a level of complexity and experimentation that went far beyond what thrash metal had been up to that point. Besides all the added tricks in its belt, Metallica simply wrote classic song after classic song to fill this album. All eight tracks grab you and slam you against the wall with a punishing feel that is among the genre’s best.

Fight Fire With Fire begins unusually light, with a clean guitar melody that sounds more at home on a harpsichord than as the opening salvo for a metal record. After the first forty seconds though, a furious riff rips out of the speakers, guiding James Hetfield along as he growls about the folly of an eye-for-an-eye world. At no point during its run does the song let up, promising the aggressiveness of Kill ‘Em All once again.

For several songs, it definitely seems like that will be the case, though Metallica has certainly refined its sound. Ride The Lightning strikes with a sharp, cutting riff and Lars Ulrich’s heavy-footed beat that reenacts the horrifying walk to the electric chair. Cliff Burton’s bass leads the way on For Whom The Bells Tolls, giving the song a sinister groove. Combine that pattern with one of the catchiest choruses in the Metallica catalog and it’s easy to see why the song is such a live favorite.
Creeping Death and Trapped Under Ice also belong among thrash metal’s finest. The former, about the Death of the Firstborn from Exodus in The Bible, has one of the band’s most recognizable riffs, as well as a great solo that drops into an attacking bridge with a rhythm that fans chant “Die!” along to in concerts. The latter is the fastest and most relentless song on the album, with solos and lyrics blowing by with neck-breaking speed.

Then there’s Fade To Black, one of best and most complex songs Metallica ever worked on. It starts with an intricate acoustic arrangement, a practically unheard of move in heavy metal at the time. This isn’t Metallica-lite though. The song gradually gets heavier as it goes on, breaking into a stuttering bridge riff that is an absolute classic. Kirk Hammett plays one of his best extended solos to end the song in a truly memorable fashion.
Is Ride The Lightning Metallica’s magnum opus? No, that honor belongs with Master of Puppets. However, it is one of the band’s best, exemplifying thrash metal at its strongest, even while it breaks the rules on a couple of tracks. It was this record that set Metallica on the trajectory that would take them through the rest of the 1980s. Since that path includes Battery, Master of Puppets, Harvester of Sorrow and One, there is plenty to thank Ride The Lightning for on its 30th anniversary.

This article first appeared at No Ripcord on March 7, 2014.

blur-parklife

Every movement in music has a seminal album that leads the way. Psychedelia has Sgt. Pepper’s, grunge has Nevermind, and Britpop has Parklife. While there were many, many fantastic albums from legendary bands from the 90s subgenre, Parklife is the best.

Blur’s third album is one of those magical moments where the stars all seemed to align. After the relative cult success of Modern Life Is Rubbish, the band looked poised for a breakthrough. They rushed back into the studio with producer Stephen Street and soon enough, they had the sixteen tracks that would make up Parklife. Each of those songs in unique, fantastic and joyous in their own way. A band making a statement with a capital S and a period at the end.

It’s nearly impossible to not be drawn in from the first bouncy note of synth-pop hit Girls & Boys. “Love in the 90s is paranoid” sings Damon Albarn as the guitar kicks and rides the song straight into the nearly nonsensical chorus that you can’t help but jump along to. The same buoyancy can be found in Alex James’ bass in London Loves and the punk rock of Bank Holiday that goes by almost as quickly as a day off from work does.

Of course, even though calling Parklife a landmark album of Britpop seems to suggest a limitation on its sound, Blur finds many ways to shimmer and stretch out of any type of comfort zone. To The End is lovingly string-swept, with snatches of French lyrics, courtesy of Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, adding to the romantic feel. Clover Over Dover is built around a classically-tinged harpsichord that sounds more at home in a period piece than it does on a rock record. The Debt Collector is basically fairground music. Far Out is… just weird in the best way that something can be weird.

Many of Albarn’s best characters can be found strewn across Parklife‘s landscape. There’s Tracy Jacks, who has a midlife crisis and bulldozes the house he lives in, realizing that normal is”just so overrated.” You also have Jubilee‘s laggard who feels like doing nothing but “watching 24 hours of rubbish,” even as Blur blasts through one of their most high-octane songs. And of course, there’s Phil Daniels from Parklife itself, who speaks over the instantly recognizable, choppy riff from Graham Coxon about getting “rudely awakened by the dustmen” on Wednesdays, having a cup of tea and feeding the pigeons.

Looking back from the perspective of twenty years hindsight, many of Albarn’s lyrics fit perfectly into today’s chaotic world. The end of a century really was “nothing special.” “Avoiding all work / ‘Cause there’s none available,” he sings on Girls & Boys. As for those who do have jobs, their “thoughts are just pissing away” in Trouble In The Message Centre.

But when the album reaches its spiritual end with penultimate track This Is A Low, the moment is a triumphant shout of catharsis, because”it won’t hurt you.” At the end of the day, Parklife is celebratory, despite all the characters and craziness life throws at you. Maybe that’s why it’s still a favorite two decades later. It’s certainly why I love it.

This article first appeared at No Ripcord  on March 7, 2014.

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The Downward Spiral is an anomaly. It is the success that doesn’t make sense, no matter which angle you tackle it from. How did an industrial metal concept album, whose main character is on a mission of self-destruction and whose most famous single has an f-bomb in the middle of the chorus, sell more than four million copies? How does it become one of, if not the defining album of the year, and one of the best of the decade?

While there were likely many outside factors that contributed to its success (the band’s growing fanbase and live reputation, the dark experimentalism that was prevalent and popular in the early 90s, Closer‘s freaky-but-can’t-look-away music video), the simple truth is that The Downward Spiral is a masterful album from beginning to end. It seems that every year or two, there is an album that demands the world’s attention. Sometimes it gets it, sometimes it doesn’t. This one did.

The story of a rock star’s journey through self-destruction, burning everything and everyone in his life, is a motif that had previously been touched on by other artists, but never explored to such an extent. It pushes Trent Reznor and ourselves further into the abyss than we would want to go, but never goes too far (well, okay, maybe Big Man With A Gun was a little much). Instead, the album is a rabbit hole that we can’t help but go down.

The main reason we choose to follow Reznor down is the music. The Downward Spiral is brimming from top to bottom with fantastic songs that don’t abide by any audible rules or cues. Between its uses of distortion, sampling and off-beat time signatures, the record somehow crafts chaos into melodies and rhythms. The Becoming rides a manipulated piano line to a sample of screams from the movie Robot Jox. The track keeps building until it fades into a gentle acoustic guitar, only to build back into an explosive, screeched outro. March of the Pigs is probably the most popular song in music history with a 29/8 time signature and takes the loud/soft dynamic to its extreme. The mechanical percussion of Ruiner slams into a deafening synth chorus, followed by the most fuzzed-out guitar solo this side of the 70s.

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The further down the album you go, the more difficult the songs seem to get. But by this point, any listener is either hooked or left sometime around the first “God is dead” scream on HeresyA Warm Place is nearly an ambient track, with only touches of piano to latch onto in a wave of sound. Eraser is a buildup of buzzing synths, needling guitars and pounding drums to one of the most destructive minutes put on record. Reptile is a mix of industrial noises, grungy guitars and what sounds like a swarm of insects scrambling over each other, a spine-tingling moment and not in a good way.

And we haven’t even gotten to Closer. What can really be said about that song? Starting with the heartbeat drum sample from Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing, the warped keyboard pattern sounds like it’s being played underwater. For the chorus, it’s joined by another riff that’s jumping out of its own skin. Layer after layer of percussion and synths are stacked for the extended outro, ending on a simple piano line known as the “Downward Spiral” motif.

“If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way,” Reznor sings as the fragile classic Hurt bursts and fades away into white noise. Now, 20 years later, the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails is basically a million miles away from where he was when he made The Downward Spiral. While arguments are made all the time as to whether he ever topped it, he never tried to repeat it. This is one of those “lightning in a bottle” albums, where Reznor took every negative emotion he felt and used it to craft of the most definitive albums of his generation. Unlike its ending, the record will never fade away. No matter how dark it may seem from the outside, this is one album that keeps drawing us back in to spiral down again.

I’ll be honest. Before this year, David Bowie wasn’t really on my radar. I loved the hits and some of his albums like Ziggy Stardust, but he wasn’t someone I really looked at as a currently-active artist. The only song I knew past “Let’s Dance” was “I’m Afraid of Americans,” due to its association with Trent Reznor. But when Bowie announced The Next Day, I was really excited at the opportunity to appreciate a new release from him. I liked “Where Are We Now?” and loved “The Stars Are Out Tonight.” I couldn’t wait to see what the rest of the album was like.

Bowie did not disappoint. I love every single song on this album. The title track’s foreboding atmosphere, building to a triumphant chorus that I never get sick of. Every guitar riff feels like a classic as soon as you hear it, like on “Boss of Me,” “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” and “Valentine’s Day.” I love the stories he creates on so many of the tracks too, such as the teenage soldier on “I’d Rather Be High,” another favorite of mine. I also enjoy how the album is reflective on his own past, but rarely obvious in its throwbacks. It reminds me most of another dark Bowie masterpiece, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, which is my favorite of his albums. This album far exceeded all of my expectations and showed that Bowie putting out his strongest work in three decades. For those reasons, it’s my album of the year.

Best Moments: All of the title track, the drunk horns in “Dirty Boys,” the lyrics in “I’d Rather Be High,” the opening female vocal on “If You Can See Me,” the mix of synths and guitars of “Love Is Lost” and of course, the “Five Years” tease.