Read entries 40-31 here.
You still there? Good. Starting this project I was unsure how these entries would fall into place, and frankly I was worried I would be casting off certain albums too soon, or letting others lingers too long. There are a few instances of that throughout, but overall as I look at these final 30 albums I am truly content with what remains.
Miles Davis – Dark Magus
Let’s conduct an experiment. Without looking at the release year I want you to load up the first song on this marathon of an album (clocking in at about 100 minutes) and take a guess when this album was released and how old Miles was at the time. If you are unfamiliar with Miles it would be fair to guess sometime in the 90’s or even the 00’s and he was some young up and comer. Those who know who have more casual knowledge of Miles may experience some cognitive dissonance vaguely recalling his cool jazz releases of the 50’s, but not being familiar with his more alienating electric period. Miles was already 47 when this live performance was recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1974. Miles at this point was far gone from the spacey Bitches Brew or hip Kind of Blue. This, his electric period, was often maligned by jazz critics as an affront to the genre, desecrating the sanctity of jazz with electric guitars, effect pedals, and sounding, gasp, exciting. Dark Magus is not dingy basement jazz club jazz, it is savage and grueling, more intense than your collection of Nordic metal albums with indecipherable text. Dark Magus is a massive middle finger to the old, yet as exciting and futuristic as the sound was, it never was picked up by his peers. Instead, jazz began to take a painful descent into its worst years starting with the questionable jazz fusion and dying a painful death in smooth jazz during the 80’s. I can see why this happened too. Dark Magus barely lets the musicians get their chance to solo and stretch their legs. It lacks the opportunities for egos to flourish and talents to be spotlighted. The typical jazz structure which normally let each player showcase their talents is mostly absent. Instead, the emphasis is on the groove, often multi-layered and poly-rhythmic. This gives the songs a slightly convoluted but driving feeling, running at a rapid pace with all nine members trying to keep up. This also means Miles is very far from the star of the show, often playing more of a conducting role than a performing one. He guides the band with gestures, only hopping in sporadically as needed. The rest of the band then operates as one ear-drum smashing unit, unrelenting, visceral, and sadistic. The back story to this album is pretty wild as well. The concert allegedly started an hour late despite Miles living fifteen minutes from the venue and started with him walking on stage and just launching right into the music without any fanfare, addressing the audience, or preparing a setlist with his band. In addition, he brought two new musicians the rest of the band had never played with before. The material itself was mostly unrehearsed grooves with little planning involved. To consider this and hear the result is a testament to the caliber of musicians Miles was keeping around him. A tad chaotic at times, but it does not require a keen ear to hear the through-line that goes throughout. There are a plethora of Miles Davis albums I could have picked for this list, like the previously mentioned Bitches Brew or On The Corner, Jack Johnson, In A Silent Way or Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet. In fact, Dark Magus is a peculiar choice, not often noted when discussing the best of Miles Davis, but I think this is also unfair to the album. Yes it is a scosche unfocused as if you can hear Miles’ cocaine addiction through the speakers, but it is a landmark album for a multitude of reasons. Miles was pushing in bold new directions with Dark Magus, taking jazz in new directions by bravely blending it with rock and funk. It would also carries its own legacy of being a major influence on the noise rock, drum ‘n bass, and jungle genres. It did not particularly influence jazz, but it influenced so many other styles of music and that speaks volumes. Crank this one to full volume, slam the gas pedal and let Dark Magus be the soundtrack to your high speed car chase with the police. It is how Miles would have wanted it.
Soft Machine – The Soft Machine
Soft Machine is a band where you have to be quite clear which era you are referring to when discussing them. When you have a Wikipedia article dedicated to past members you know things have gone a little overboard. Are discussing the Original era with Kevin Ayers? The lauded era with Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper? Post Robert Wyatt? Post Mike Ratledge? The last one is a joke because who would discuss Soft Machine post Mike Ratledge, I mean c’mon! Soft Machine is a group that unfortunately existed for so long and through so many iterations it really has no core foundation. Playing two of their albums will yield little resemblance as they shifted from psychedelic rock, to jazz rock, jazz fusion, straight up garbage, incidental music, and even something bordering on smooth jazz. Let us focus on the first stable line-up of Robert Wyatt on drums, Mike Ratledge on keys, and Kevin Ayers on the bass (I will spare the history lesson, but if you want to be pedantic there were some incredibly short lived four person versions as well). This line-up lasted about only a year from 1967-1968, but that one year was explosive, leading to one studio album, a few live bootlegs, and a tour supporting The Jimi Hendrix Experience. How is that for notoriety, you peaked at opening for Jimi Hendrix. Before they mutated into a jazz rock or jazz fusion group, Soft Machine were a continuation of the psychedelic, mod, and progressive rock genres that were burgeoning in England. They never neatly fell into any one category during this era, which may also explain their lack of identity in later years. You have the musicianship of progressive rock, but you also have that screeching keyboard of mod rock, and the dada inspired moments of the psychedelic era. Quite a balancing act, but on Volume 1 Soft Machine manage this juggling act with aplomb. Want a spot of flashy virtuoso playing? This is no problem because you can just hop into the three part Why Am I So Short, So Boot if At All, and A Certain Kind for a marathon of flashy keyboard solos and varying drum hooks. Are you saying you came here for the grimy Hammond organ tones? That is ok too, because you can listen to Save Yourself, Priscilla, and Lullabye Letter which have so much grit it can sand down stained woods. Wait, are you saying none of this works and you wanted to drop some acid and watch colored acetate sheets be projected on a wall? Soft Machine has you covered with the monotonous and meditative We Did It Again and the pseudo intellectual Why Are We Sleeping. The three styles are a natural pairing all having the same spawning pool of the hip London scene, just not played by Londoners (The Canterbury Scene is its own saga for a more educated person to explain). Ayers more simplistic bass lines work as a perfect backbone for the seemingly more talented Ratledge who seems to never stop soloing and Wyatt who pulls double duty as drummer and singer. Wyatt’s voice is always raspy and slightly off-key. Considering the frenetic music, you are hard-pressed to care, not to mention there are long periods where he does not sing at all, specifically when he is ripping it on his drum kit. Soft Machine never had the same success as some of the same bands of the era, only having a semi-hit with Memories, which was recorded before the first album. They often were too smart for the rockers, and not smart enough for the jazzers making them a point of celebration for those in the know, but alien to the casual listener. Stuck in a no-win middle ground they struggled with endless line-up changes before dying without any of the original members left. Volume 1 is a window into their most primordial time, when they had not dared to venture too far into any one direction and were perfectly content with blending a multitude of styles into something truly unique to them. Unfortunately, Volume 1 and a few live recordings is all we have, but those precious pieces are enough to ensure this line-up is highly regarded for their time.
Frank Zappa – Hot Rats
Hot Rats is a unique Zappa album in which the frequent criticism regarding his satirical and often juvenile lyrics does not stick, because the few lyrics that are present are written and recorded by avant-garde master Captain Beefheart. Instead of condemning flower children, railing against the government, or making a deal with the devil so you can have titties and beer Zappa opts for wordless jazz. Zappa loyalists, myself included, often have an uphill battle when discussing his music. There are so many ‘yea buts’ or ‘if you disregard this’s’ that by the time you get a chance to actually explain how remarkably involved his song-writing is you have already lost your audience. Ok, I know Camarillo Brillo is just one of many songs about having sex with a groupie, but the music underneath is incredibly ornate is just one of the many no-win situations we are left in. Hot Rats is that safe bet for Zappa lovers that want to dunk on their debate opponent because there is no need to have to defend his incessant toilet humor. You get to cut the crap and just relish in the complex and driving arrangements he has engendered. The band varies throughout, emphasizing different voices and unique moments throughout meaning Jean Luc-Ponty’s violin sounds distinct from Don Hariss’ and the three drummers each add their own unique flare. While this is a jazz record there is a lot of classic rock baked in as well, meaning jazz novices will feel relatively at home on songs like Peaches En Regalia, Willie the Pimp, and The Gumbo Variation. They all still have jazz structures, swirling around opportunities for the musicians to flex their soloing chops, but there are enough rock elements to welcome the less experienced. The Zappa critical will also be glad to know he avoids some of his worst tendencies, like aggressive tape editing, musique concrète, and extensive use of triplets and sextuplets. For example, Willie the Pimp relishes in a fuzzed out melody which Captain Beefheart first gets a swing at before the rest of the band get a shot at playing with. Whether it is that crunchy melody or the ornate soloing you choose to focus on is your decision. The music flows unlike most Zappa albums, not bogged down by his go to tricks. It also means the music is less complicated than some of his most absurd works like The Black Page and G-Spot Tornado, Proving Zappa could create great music that was more pared down. The jazz grooves here are also bolstered by curious studio trickery, making Zappa’s guitar shift from traditional sounding guitar to something violin adjacent or a mutant banjo. It is Zappa at his least Zappa which is probably why it is often regarded as his best release. I adore Zappa even when he is delving into obscene vulgarities, but the three-ring circus he commanded often turned into a distraction rather than any sort of benefit. Virtuosic playing will get disregarded when you write a song like Bobby Brown Goes Down. All of that is stripped away on Hot Rats. It was finally Zappa’s chance to prove he was more than a joke or a gimmick. He did not disappoint.
Baby Huey – The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend
The majesty of Baby Huey is that this is an amazing record despite Baby Huey himself being absent from half of it. This is because Baby Huey AKA James Ramey died of a drug related heart attack before recording was finished. Producer, Curtis Mayfield, would eventually cobble together the leftover pieces, record some additional instrumentals and release it to little fanfare in 1971. The Living Legend was initially a bit of a flop, and considering it was impossible to support the release with a tour as they had no front man it is not surprising. The Baby Huey Story’s status as an iconic cult classic would happen later, as the album would be sampled aggressively by the newly burgeoning hip-hop scene. Songs like Hard times and Listen to Me would be used excessively which would give a proper spotlight to this lesser known gem. It is a bit of a disjointed album, which is not shocking considering the recording process, a mix of James Ramey originals, Curtis Mayfield songs, other covers, and instrumentals where it is not clear if The Babysitters or sessions musicians from Curtom Records are performing. Despite it being slightly unfocused, the end result is a sublime funk soul release that takes on a variety of styles, from a wildly psychedelic cover of A Change Is Going to Come, to the groovy Listen to Me, a sharp instrumental take on California Dreamin’ or the slightly gritty Mighty Mighty which appears to be a live recording. Baby Huey, despite his waning health (he was about 400 pounds and addicted to heroin at the time of his death), has a tremendously powerful voice. His playful demeanor on Mighty Mighty (bonus points for calling out Thunderbird) and his wild shrieks on A Change is Going to Come demonstrate his range and commanding presence. He shifts from melodic talking to soulful belting and space piercing cries at rapid clip. The transitions are remarkable and shocking, grabbing a hold of you and not letting go. The two James Ramey written instrumentals, Mama Get Yourself Together, and One Dragon Two Dragon demonstrate his song writing chops, and both songs are a pleasure even if he is not present on the recordings themselves. Listening to The Living Legend may be a joyous romp, but it does have that tinge of bittersweet to it as well. You know this is all there is, unless Curtis Mayfield’s vault has some unfinished takes sitting around or there are live bootlegs sitting somewhere, and it is a shame that this brief wonderful funk treat is the only 40 some odd minutes we will ever experience of Baby Huey.
Spiritualized – Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Somewhere in the 10 or so minutes of dissonant noise in album closer Cop Shoot Cop this whole album begins to finally click. The cacophony of sound that completely buries you suddenly makes sense and you begin to think you understand Jason Pierce’s drug-fueled agony. The clashing feelings of beauty and chaos that swirl throughout Ladies and Gentlemen pull you in opposite directions, demanding your attention. In that complete breakdown of Cop Shoot Cop you have a mix of layers of guitar amp feedback, squelching horns, disoriented drums fighting against an anchored bass groove and a cooing back-up chorus. It is in that moment you accept that these two polarizing forces are one in the same as opposed to being in competition with each other. It all collapses in on itself like a black hole absorbing everything in its orbit. Jason Pierce is pretty open in his lyrics, a man in love with not only a woman but also the needle. The lyrics are clear as day about his drug use as “The tracks of time, those tracks of mine” or “Hey man, there’s a hole in my arm where all my money goes” or “and I’m drinking all the time” do not ring of subtlety. His break-up with keyboardist Kate Radley apparently was not a contributing factor to the lyrics of Broken Heart and Cool Waves, two songs that are very apparent about the pains of losing your love, although it is hard to imagine that the intensity of this break-up did not fuel their intensity. Everything about Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is a gut punch, it operates in extremes. Spiritualized throw everything and the kitchen sink at the listener, with big orchestral accompaniments, a massive runtime, long noise interludes, and deeply personal and transparent lyrics. The combination of which, in lesser hands, would result in a completely embarrassing collection of self-pity anthems done in an epic style, but fortunately the push and pull of psychedelic rock, noise, audio experimentation, and symphonic accompaniment makes for an exhausting but majestic listen that shifts effortlessly from these styles of music. Jason Pierce may not be the best singer, but his gritty pained voice is a perfect complement to this music, where a more melodic singer would have sounded over the top. It is an impeccable balance of beauty and destruction, slowly blending into a soup of pandemonium, and I firmly believe it is the best album of the 90’s. It is a celebration of excess that came with the advent of the CD, a burying of the knuckle dragging alternative rock of earlier in the decade, and an ideal launching pad for the future of indie rock artists that would be coming up fast.
Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um
Mingus may have been notorious for being a musical authoritarian, a perfectionist with little tolerance for anything except flawlessness, but to his credit his output is some of the best in jazz history. His notoriety is eclipsed by his albums and lets you breathe a sigh of relief that you merely get to enjoy his music as opposed to having to perform in his band. Released in 1959, Mingus Ah Um is the pinnacle of jazz for its time, the zenith of the genre. Mingus frequently demonstrated how he was a master composer throughout his life, creating specifically constructed songs instead of loosely defined grooves, and Ah Um is no different. From the initial bass plucks on the opener Better Git In Your Soul you are quickly launched into the world of Mingus’s no compromise music with ornate horn melodies that would collapse if treated casually. Better Git In Your Soul also begins the showcase of the varying styles demonstrated throughout, with the aforementioned opener giving us a gospel vibe complete with clap along interlude in the middle. The rest of the album shifts from slower, post-bop to completely frenetic albeit coherent. There is an intense vacillation from songs like Self Portrait in Three Colors which oozes out of the speakers like the saxophones have melted and Bird Calls which rockets away as if it were shot out of a cannon. The changes throughout reflect the history of small band jazz to this point and also opening the doors for what will come. You get tinges of the formlessness of free jazz and post-bop while also playing in classic styles like on Pussy Cat Dues which has that quintessential swing. I am especially smitten by Boogie Stop Shuffle which sounds like the soundtrack to a 1940’s chase scene featuring mob-bosses and a tommy-gun shootout at the end. I also love the waltzing end to the original closer Jelly Roll, sounding like its telling you thanks for coming but please get the hell out. Mingus Ah Um is a pivotal moment in jazz. It is the perfection of the old and the launchpad of the new. 1960’s jazz would get far stranger, free form, experimental, and alienating. Mingus Ah Um never falls off into those pits, instead playing it a tinge safe so listeners are not disaffected. For the slightly more experienced, and I emphasize the world slightly here for my sake, there is a lot to dig into and explore. Sometimes being a perfectionist asshole has its perks.
Neu! – Neu! ’75
Oh hi Michael Rother we meet again. We have not talked Krautrock in a minute on this list and we never have gotten a chance to talk about one of its greatest contributions to music, the Motorik Beat. The Motorik Beat emphasizes the bass drum far more than your traditional rock beat, kicking three times before the next snare hit as opposed to once or twice in traditional western rock. That is an incredibly reduced explanation, but the main take away is that instead of giving the song a head-bobbing or swinging pulse like traditional rock drums if gives it a driving and propulsive feeling. The near constant thumping of the Motorik Beat gives an eagerness and push that is absent in traditional western rock. Neu! drummer Klaus Dinger goes wild with the Motorik Beat on Neu! ’75 giving much of the album this forceful power. Do not fear, as Neu! ’75 is not all breakneck speed mania. The first half is quite mellow and pleasing to the ears, akin to their first two albums. Album opener, Isi, is about as intense as it gets on the first side of this LP, which is to say not at all. You do have the Motorik pulse, but Michael Rother’s guitar and keyboard work is rather mild with an almost toy like tone. Seeland and Leb Wohl are progressively more relaxed, with Leb Wohl being almost ambient or soundscape in nature. Before flipping your vinyl you would not be out of line assuming this is some mellow chill-out Krautrock. Then you get to side two and the dog is off the chain. Hero kicks things off with Klaus Dinger also now picking up guitar and recruiting his brothers to play the drums creating a fuller more biting tone. Hero is a legendary song, having inspired countless artists, even being used to title David Bowie’s second album of his Berlin Trilogy “Heroes”. Klaus’s voice comes off as unhinged, screaming in a disjointed English that is pulled apart at the seams with various effects on top. Musically it is entirely berserk as well, with squealing lead guitar, a breakneck speed Motorik beat, and Rother’s own twitchy guitar work hiding in the background. The same style is replicated on album closer, After Eight, sounding highly antithetical to typical Kraturock. Krautrock is definitely less defined compared to rock music from the states, but it often operates at a more methodical pace, allowing for space and openness to take hold. Neu! ’75 opts to throw that all out of the window in the backend, slamming the gas pedal and not stopped even if a few walls are crashed into. E-Musik, which breaks up Hero and After Eight is 10 minutes of aggressively filtered out jamming in a similar style. Slower, but due to the drenching of effect it sounds just as irrational. The dichotomy of Neu! ’75 is astounding, starting off like friendly neighbor Krautrock before devolving into amphetamine induced madness. This was a band on the verge of collapse, with Rother looking to continue the more ambient and formless works he created with Harmonia and Dinger looking to make foaming at the mouth rock music that is on side two. They are two different visions of the future of German music. Neu! ’75 is the finale of a powerful musical pairing and a massive point of inspiration for underground musicians. It is both a bookish album and a driving at 100 miles per hour album. Is it the best album of the era? That is hard to decide, but its impact colossal.
Cake – Comfort Eagle
Smirk all you want, but Cake’s Comfort Eagle was a perfectly sardonic worldview of the pre-9/11 world, a dry but scathing view of America in the earliest days of W. Bush’s presidency. John McCrea’s voice is one of the most unique in popular music, bitter and apathetic, as if he really does not want to be recording the album he is appearing on. The music of Cake had not evolved much from its earlier albums, sounding more like a fine tuning of the formula than anything. Cake’s 18-wheeler trucker rock has a dirty desert vibe to it, and with the addition of Vince DiFiore’s trumpet there is a bit of a spring the step as well. Perhaps their main evolution was the implementing quirky synth tones into their songs as well, giving a somewhat whimsical sound to them when paired with the 1950’s inspired guitar tones. These accentuating instruments provide a point/counter-point sense to the music, with the dirty southwestern rock being contradicted by the sound of the trumpet or synthesizer. The contrasting visions for the music pull Cake out of alternative rock mediocrity and into something far more interesting. Take the iconic radio hit Short Skirt / Long Jacket, which starts with pretty boiler plate dirty rockabilly tones, but is juxtaposed with Vince’s trumpet which cuts through the dirt. The inclusion of a variety of percussion components work in tandem with the dancing bass line to create a flourish rhythm line. The result is taking what could be a fine song and making it a exceptional song. This is the Cake formula at its best, from playful drum machine based Opera Singer, to the biting Comfort Eagle with its wickedly cynical lyrics. Cake envisions a world where alternative rock does not have to be hammering guitar chords in 4/4. Instead that is only the basics, and the bells and whistles stacked on top create lush rock songs with a variety of ideas happening at once. It creates for a far more exciting and engaging style of rock music that while miserably dry and sarcastic, is wonderfully appealing to dig into.
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Run The Jewels first two releases were purely about braggadocio and arrogance; aggressive and in your face declarations of their excellence with a complete absence of regard for decency or decorum. Their brashness would come across as gauche and sophomoric if it were not so well executed. Lucky for us, Run The Jewels balance their dick-swinging with actual musical chops. El-P’s production is once again front and center, exceptionally brutal, but not suffocating. Songs like Blockbuster Night Part 1 have a thick layer of grime on them but are not overwhelming or unapproachable riding the line of terms like alternative or experimental without ever falling into them. Since his solo career he has cut back on his more psychedelic and experimental tendencies and has channeled them into something more listener friendly. These songs still have a tendency to make you wonder what he is sampling to create such alien tones, like on Love Again which seems to make you feel drunk just by listening to it with its warbling bass tone. If El-P is the technical wizard than Killer Mike is the verbal hero of this album, his bellowing voice rapid firing verbal bullets like a World War 2 machine gun. Killer Mike feels far more intense on this album, where on their first album it seemed he was still finding his footing in this new unholy alliance. Here, he is situated, as noted by his shouting “I’m finna bang this bitch the fuck out!” in the opening seconds of the album. If that does not set the tone I am not sure what will. Run The Jewels 2 is not all self-congratulating, as they get deeply political throughout the album, whether on Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck) where Mike, El-P, and guest Zack De La Rocha send a verbal barrage against the police, prisons, and the justice system as a whole, or the far more slow building Early where El-P and Mike explore racial discrimination and PTSD. Their willingness to declare their excellence is also the reason they are so willing and able to discuss uncomfortable topics without fear. Everything is raw and exposed with no metaphor or veiling of topic. No topic is off the table for Run The Jewels. Run The Jewels 2 therefore does two things brilliantly, it touches on social issues, rather shoves them in your face, in an unavoidable manner, and also reminds you why these two are some of the best in the business right now. It is still shocking how two talented musicians floundered for so many years until they finally found each other and created one of the most massive hip-hop duos in modern history.
Antonin Dvorak – Symphony No. 9 From The New World Op. 95
Classic music aficionados I humbly welcome your eye rolls. I am well aware Dvorak’s symphony No. 9 is looked at with a level of utter contempt as it seems to be one of the only symphonies to ever enter the popular sphere of knowledge. It is even worse because it is not really the symphony that people know, but rather that last movement, that last 11 minutes of epic bombast that makes Carl Orff look like he composed polite whistling noises. It is overplayed, it is hammy, but it is also hard to deny that its bombast is a welcome spiking of the punchbowl in what is often a far too restrained genre of music. Seeing it live a few years back being performed by the Fort Worth Symphony really made it click for me. The conductor was not afraid to let the music become a forceful punch to the temple, and it needs to be. Dvorak had traveled the United States and was struck by unique musical melodies of African Americans and Native Americans, which as a Czech native must have felt like another planet in the late 1800’s. He took his reactions to America and formed them into this symphony. While he did not necessarily use those musical themes in this symphony (he did describe them as the future of music which….he was right), his internal response to these sounds fueled this new symphony. You get that throughout, there is a certain “holy shit what is that?” to the music of Symphony No. 9, that moment where you witness something for the very first time that is so beyond your normal comprehension. When you look at Symphony No. 9 like that, it starts to make a little more sense, and it is more difficulty to hold such contempt for it. From the slow winding up of the first movement to the celebration of waving planes of nothingness in the second movement, Dvorak captures that gut reaction we all experience when we first get to witness something new and spectacular. Of course, we must talk about the final movement, Allegro con Fuoco, the frequently used, and mired finale. When I saw this performed in Texas I anticipated a nice long breath between the third and forth movements. Everyone knew what was coming and I figured the conductor would give audience a moment to get geeked up, as if to say “here it is you knuckle-dragging slobs, here is the thing you have been waiting for all night”. Instead, perhaps as a fuck you or perhaps as a way to avoid that pensive build-up he just launched right into it. He could not have provided more than a half measure of rest after the third movement ended before he let it rip. The, dare I say, epic wind up of the strings before the horns blast off into outer space could be perceived as mildly ridiculous, but I cannot see how one could deny its impact. I had feared witnessing the end of this symphony in person, as I could not imagine it would live up to my expectation, and would lead me to realize it was not the majestic movement I still adored. I was wrong, dead wrong. That aggressive tinge given to this movement drove it home, making sure the audience left confused, exhausted, but also content. Sneer all you want, but for a symphony celebrating uncharted waters the fourth movement has few peers. It stands alone in its awe of the unknown ‘New’ world. There is a reason they took the damn symphony to the moon because what other piece could really capture the majesty of the unknown world like this.
Read entries 20-11 here.