Thursday, March 22, 2018

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #63 - Cluster - Zuckerzeit (1974)

Before they were Cluster, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius were Kluster, a German experimental band that churned out three albums of noisy, metallic, experimental music full of tape loops and cacophony before the name change. C is inherently more gentle than K, and the new Cluster reflected that, although their first album was still mostly spacey drones and electronic swoops with little resemblance to what most people consider music (they didn't even bother with song titles, simple using the track lengths as identifiers).

By the time they got around to Zuckerzeit, which translates as "Sugar Time", the duo had started leaning more towards traditional song structures and actual melodies. They ditched Krautrock legend Conny Plank as producer and brought on board Michael Rother, another Krautrock legend famous for his work with Neu!, and the difference is immediately apparent.

None of this is to say that Zuckerzeit is in any way normal. The music is still wildly experimental and sounds distinctly homemade, constructed as it is from clunky analogue synthesizers that are charming in their own way, but not exactly built for slick, highly produced pop singles. Still, the gang gives it their best attempt.

The songwriting duties are split evenly here between Moebius and Roedelius, and there is an immediately evident difference in their styles. Roedelius has a gift for melody, and embraces the chugging Motorik rythms Michael Rother is known for. His compositions like Hollywood, Marzipan, and Heisse Lippen sound almost radio-friendly.

By contrast, Moebius is obviously the more experimental of the two. His tracks seem to focus on playing around with loops and rhythms. This makes them less immediately accessible to modern listeners, but I find them a fascinating counterpart to the honey-sweet electro-pop of Roedlius. Although Zuckerzeit is a distinctly electronic record, the Moebius track James is mainly built from guitar loops.

The albums longest track, Rota Riki, is a Moebius composition that I find particularly interesting.  It sounds an awful lot like the early sequencer experiments done by Raymond Scott in the 1950s. It's an abstract study in synthesized rhythms and changes in tape speed, and while Scott's work was used for sound effects in advertisements, here the same style of music is presented for active listening.

Zuckerzeit is undeniably crude by today's standards, but that doesn't make it any less fun or charming. Additionally, its influence on later electronic music is pretty clearly felt. I would be hard to imagine modern IDM or ambient electronica without pioneers like Cluster.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #64 - Iggy Pop - Lust for Life (1977)

Where Iggy Pop's solo debut, The Idiot, was nocturnal, brooding, reserved, experimental, and Germanic, Lust for Life released less than a year later, is almost the complete opposite. And where the Idiot felt like a David Bowie album with Pop on lead vocals, this one feels more true to Iggy's real personality, despite the continued presence of Bowie as major collaborator.

While not exactly sunny, the songs on Lust for Life are certainly more upbeat and energetic. It's a record for the day rather than the night. Starting with the title track opener, it's clear that what we're in for is a celebration, if a somewhat twisted and cynical one.

The record also feels much more American, where the Idiot was decidedly European in its approach. Iggy was born in Michigan, and perhaps this is another sign of his wresting creative control from the very English Bowie. The material here feels a lot more similar to his work with the Stooges than to Bowie's contemporaneous Low or Heroes albums.

This is echoed on the track Success in which Iggy confidently declares "Here comes success!" and on tonight the line "everything will be all right tonight" rather eclipses the rest of the song's lyrics about death. I'm not sure whether the irony is lost, or whether it just exists on multiple levels, but one can't help feeling that every will in fact be all right, in spite of all of life's darkness.

As with the last outing, the lyrics and vocals are handled by Pop, and the instrumental duties are largely left to Bowie and a couple of other musicians. Of particular note is guitarist Ricky Gardiner, who write the music for The Passenger, although he rarely gets acknowledged for it.

The song is, of course, an absolute classic. One of those rare hits like Werewolves of London which manages to sustain its energy over a repeated four-bar chord progression that stays the same during verse and chorus alike. The lyrics are apparently about the drifting, nomadic life style of a rock star, alays on the move, never in the same place for more than a little while. I guess Iggy felt thta in a sense, he was just along for the ride. A little bit sad, I suppose, but you'd never know it from that iconic "la la la" chorus.

At this point in the seventies, Iggy Pop was a total wreck, ravaged by substance abuse and even institutionalized for a while. Maybe it's reading too much into his lyrics, but I feel like Lust for Life, in part, is about his determination to pass through the darkest parts of his life and come out the other side a survivor. Whether it was intended or not, that's what he eventually did, having left behind some great records for the rest of us to enjoy.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Top 100 Albums of the 19702 - #65 - Neil Young - On The Beach (1974)

I wasn't a Neil Young fan when I started this list. I found his voice too high-pitched and his songs too folky for my liking. But the more I listen to, the more I consider myself a convert. In particular, Young's simple yet inventive approach to guitar solos is inspiring. One of the things I always loved about Keith Richards was his ability to do great things with just a handful of notes. Young takes it a step further, sometimes soloing on just one or two notes, yet managing to wring emotion and creativity out of his guitar nevertheless.

On The Beach achieved something of a mythical status due to two decades of unavailability. For reasons as opaque as his lyrics, Young refused to issue the album on CD until 2003, when a massive petition by fans finally convinced him. Most "lost" albums fail to live up to the imaginations of fans, but it must be admitted thta this one is pretty good. A tight, bluesy seven songs that blend rock, country, and the bitter invective of Young's lyrics. Like Elvis Costello, he manages to be nasty will style sounding pleasant, which is really the trick to this kind of music.

The opener, Walk On, has hit single written all over it, with its catchy chorus and bouncy bass guitar part. The rootsy, banjo-driven For The Turnstiles would sound out of place on most rock albums, but works great here in spite of, or because of, the fact that it sounds like it could have been recorded sometime around the 1920s.

Throughout, the band is excellent, particularly the rhythm section consisting of multiple players on bass and drums. They know how to compliment Young's soloing without overpowering it. Sure, this band is not Crazy Horse, but I'm not sure their aggressive style would have worked well with these songs anyway.

Like the cover art, the title track plays around with the juxtaposition of opposites. It would be easy to think that a record called On The Beach would be a fun-in-the-sun party album. Instead, we get associations that are less frequently made, but no less apt. Words like "windy", "stranded", "exposed" and "bleak" come to mind. The fact that three of the song titles contain the word "blues" is surely no accident. This is not a happy Neil Young

Young originally wanted the two sides of the record reversed, making Vampire Blues the record's closer, and the title track its opener.} I think the running order as released is more powerful, however, as it moves from the almost happy Walk On through various levels of depression, through the mournful harmonica and clip-clop drums of Motion Pictures that sound like an actual farewell.

Finally, the album concludes with the 8-minute dirge of Ambulance Blues. This running order presents a more linear progression that takes the listener on a journey rather than just being a collection of songs. On The Beach is a melancholy album to be sure, but there's something not altogether hopeless about it too. As other reviewers have pointed out, this was Neil Young saying goodbye to despair and choosing to Walk On to more cheerful pastures.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Top 100 ALbums of the 1970s - #66 - Big Star - Third/Sister Lovers (1978)

I sometimes think of post-punk as the third stage in the classic "5 Stages of Grieving" paradigm. Punk is anger. Kids with guitars were lashing out at the system, making a lot of noise and having no small amount of fun while they did it. It didn't matter if they couldn't play. It didn't matter if their recordings were coated in a layer of distortion or white noise. That was all part of the honesty of it all.

But as the 70s progressed, that level of anger simply wasn't sustainable, and so punk rockers began to burn out, slipping into the third stage, depression. The aesthetics were still there. The amateur singing/playing, the lo-fi recordings, the simple song structures, but gloom and melancholy were now inescapable. The fact that this album is called "Third" ties into this theory a little bit. What doesn't help is that fact that Third was actually recorded in 1974, before punk proper even had a chance to get going. Like so many of the albums on this list, I guess it was ahead of its time.

Third/Sister Lovers marks the final album from Alex Chilton's Big Star, as well as his own personal breakdown. The recordings were such a mess that they didn't find an official release until years later, and even then no one couldn't agree on an "official" track listing. 

There's a lot of tragedy here, which is an odd juxtaposition with the music itself. On song after song, Chilton manages to conjure up lovely, sweet melodies, arranged simply for maximum pop appeal. But there's something wrong. Most bands would be thrilled to come up with songs like "Thank You, Friends", "O, Dana", and "Jesus Christ" but Chilton sounds downright miserable as he sighs and grumbles his way through the lyrics.

Perhaps the inclusion of a Velvet Underground cover, "Femme Fatale", is a clue to how the band was really feeling at the time. The Velvets were always the best at barely cloaking disfunction behind well-crafted, but inexpertly performed pop gems. It seems like Big Star owes a debt to them in more ways than one.

One of the things I like about this, and other albums on the list by Nick Drake and the Modern Lovers, is how raw, honest, and personal the music is. Hemingway once said that, to be a writer, all you had to do was sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. I feel like these albums are embracing that sentiment in musical form.

There were a lot of leftover outtakes from these sessions that didn't make the original release, although subsequent reissues have restored most or all of them. Most fun are covers of "Nature Boy" and the Kinks' "Till the End of the Day." The truth is, little details like the inclusion of extra songs, or even the track order, make little difference. It's a solid album, no matter how you listen to it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #67 - Pink Floyd - Meddle (1971)

Psychologists speak of the Primacy Effect and the Recency Effect to describe how our brains tend to remember experience that come first, and come last respectively, with less attention paid to those in between. This may explain why people remember Meddle as being a better album than it is. As an album, it's bookended by two blindingly good tracks, with relatively unremarkable filler sandwiched in the middle.

Meddle is unquestionably a transitional album, bridging the gap between the band's early psychedelic experimentalism and the polished art rock productions of their classic period. Coming just before their breakthrough Dark Side of the Moon, Meddle finds the band pushing boundaries while not quite abandoning their roots just yet. The results are at times awe-inspiring.

Side one opens with One of These Days, a largely instrumental piece that features Roger Waters' bass guitar run through a delay effect and surrounded by wind sound effects and increasingly intense guitar patterns from David Gilmour. As simple as the concept is, it really delivers, playing with rhythmic drive as a vehicle for textural exploration and atmosphere. Towards the end, a distorted vocal proclaims "One of these days, I'm going to tear you into little pieces!" It's not clear where this hostility is coming from or where it's directed, but it's certainly effective. A brilliant start to the record.

Next, A Pillow of Winds is a pastoral psychedelic ballad, leading into Fearless, which follows in the same vein. These songs feel like the remnants of an earlier band being shaken off to make way for the new sound. They are not bad, but they don't really live up to what we would come to expect from Pink Floyd in the near future.

The album then reaches it's nadir, with the two songs, San Tropez and Seamus. The former is a playful, tropical throwaway that really doesn't fit with the otherwise gloomy and watery feeling of the record, and the later is a regrettable, low fidelity twelve-bar blues about a dog, complete with howling and whining sound effects. Besides being actively annoying to listen to, it is beneath the band's talents.

Side two is comprised entirely of the 21-minute epic Echoes, and here we see the strongest hints of what Pink Floyd was about to become. Beginning with a distinctive sonar beep and morphing into an inspired jam session, Echoes showcases how well the individual band members play together, and how inventive they can be. The song's main riff was ripped off by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the title track to Phantom of the Opera, but that does nothing to lessen its power here. Though the track runs for over twenty minutes, I could honestly listen to it for an hour. It's arguably an even more effective use of the long-form piece than even Shine On You Crazy Diamond, and if anything its more primitive nature just adds to its atmosphere.

The lyrics from Echoes state that "everything is green and submarine", and thta would be an apt description of Meddle as a whole, from the cover art to the watery sound of the production. In that respect, it's a success as a quasi-concept album, even though the majority of the individual tracks are not too memorable. While I don't think it lives up to the very best of Pink Floyd, it certainly has its moments, and is notable for the direction it pointed in the band's forard trajectory.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #68 - Herbie Hancock - Head Hunters (1973)

Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters is one of the best selling jazz records of al time, and with good reason. It's catchy, it's fun, it's exciting, and it broke important new ground in updating jazz to fit in with the changing times. Along with Miles Davis, Hancock can be regarded as one of the great innovators, not content to fall back on previous structures and textures that had long since been worn into the ground.

Talking about his inspiration for Head Hunters, Hancock said that he felt like the music his band had been making was getting too lofty and ethereal. He wanted something more down and dirty, more earthbound. With this instinct in hand, it's not surprising that he found his way towards funk, the dirtiest, earthiest music around.

In the early 70s, a lot of Prog groups were inspired by jazz, and were experimenting with working it into a rock context. Their efforts led to a whole genre of jazz/rock fusion, but none of those records approaches what Herbie did in transforming jazz into a truly electric medium. Armed with electric pianos, clavinets, and most importantly, the distinctively searing Arp synthesizer, Hancock and his sextet sank their teeth into funk grooves in a way that was anything but academic, while maintaining the spontaneity and virtuosity of high-octane jazz. Over the course of just four tracks, he crafted an album that remains thrilling more than four decades later.

Side one is dominated by Chameleon, a fifteen minute piece built around a syncopated bass ostinato, with plenty of room for soloing. The way the instruments gradually build up, one on top of the other, is a blueprint for many a funk or electronica tune, and it allows the listener to gradually get used to simple things before moving into the wilder reaches of virtuoso musicianship. 

The second track, Watermelon Man, is a rerecording of a tune first done on Hancock's debut album, but this time arranged in a way that imitates African Pygmy music, with a rhythm section build around blowing air across the top of a beer bottle.

Side two kicks off with Sly, an uptempo workout for the band complete with brain-melting solos. In fact, the final track, Vein Melter, seems like it would have been a better title for this one. Instead, the last nine minutes of the record are taken up by a psychedelic cooldown, perhaps suggesting that the title is alluding to narcotics.

I'm not the biggest fan of jazz in general, but I have to confess that Head Hunters is great. It combines catchy tunes, infectious rhythms, astounding musicianship, and an electric funkiness that I just love. It certainly stands the test of time better than a lot of fusion records from this period.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #69 - Faust - Faust IV (1973)

Ah, Krautrock. That weird, wonderful, and ephemeral genre of experimental rock music from Germany that was big in the 80s, and then suddenly seemed to go away. It takes a certain kind of mindset to appreciate it, but when it's good, it's really really good.

Faust were one of the three major bands of the genre, sharing the limelight with their monosyllabic brethren Can and Neu!. Actually, there were hundreds of Krautrock bands kicking around back then, and lots of good ones, but these are the three that got the most airplay and recognition for being innovative and unique.

With their debut a couple of years earlier, Faust had put together a dense slab of Teutonic sound collage and rock pastiche, focusing on lengthy pieces and abstract structures. Here, on their fourth record, they've mellowed out a bit, and have started writing actual songs, albeit not without the same penchant for experimentalism and a wacky sense of humor. In fact, it's hard to know whether the first track is meant to be a joke.

Simply titled "Krautrock", the album's opener could well be a sarcastic comment on the British perception of the band and its contemporaries. The song is eleven minutes of chugging, droning, rock groove that sounds more like Neu! than anything Faust has done previously. It's repetitive in the extreme, and could be a gentle jibe at the style of their contemporaries. Regardless, it's a fun listen.

"Krautrock" leads abruptly into The Sad Skinhead, which is a bizarre (and  not entirely successful) attempt at reggae, for some reason. Far better as an example of the band's songwriting abilities is Jennifer, which is pretty and dreamy, and would later inspire a similar track by the Eurythmics. (I can't confirm that the two songs are related, but they both have the same name, refer to refer to red hair, and share a slow, hypnotic quality, so I choose to believe it.)

The second half of the album is more abstract, featuring studio experiments, instrumentals, and callbacks to the band's second album. The last track, It's a Bit of a Pain, intentionally interrupts a lovely acoustic melody with an annoying squeak sound, once more showcasing the band's warped sense of humor. 

I'll be honest: although I love Krautrock, Faust IV is far from my favorite album in the genre. I like their first two better, as well as many works by Can, Neu!, Ash Ra Tempel, Floh De Cologne, Cluster, Harmonia, La Dusseldorf, Popol Vuh, early Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk and... well, you get the idea. Faust IV is a fine record, but not what I would have chosen to represent the genre at #69. But never fear! There's still several Krautrock albums that appear later on this list, so stay tuned!