Read entries 60-51 here.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Live at WOMAD 1985
It would be easy enough for me to say “just listen to Allah Ho Allah Ho and thank me later” and end this entry. I would not be wrong to do so either. Live at WOMAD 1985 was the single greatest new thing (despite being recorded in 1985) I heard in 2019, and was my introduction to Nusrate Fateh Ali Khan and Suffi and Qawwali music in general. The concept is rather simple, a group of people sit on the floor, clap, chant, play some hand drums and something that appears to be a mix of an accordion and a squeeze box, and oh yes, bring your audience into a complete frenzy. Ali Khan has one of the most powerful voices I have ever heard, barely amplified by microphones he rips the air into with frenzied chanting and singing. The call and response nature of the music along with the marathon run times of the songs is unbelievably intoxicating and pulls the listener into an inescapable trance. There is no western equivalent, not even remotely close. Live at WOMAD is often praised as one of Fateh’s strongest concerts ever recorded along with one of his most important, as like Shankar decades before, this was this style of music’s entry into the western lexicon. Fateh’s entourage of a wall of sitting men, some doing nothing more than clapping and passing around sheet music and water, are an accompanying force of nature, creating a torrent of callback chanting for him to work from. The sinking feeling of Qawwali is forceful, beautiful, and due to its repetitive tendency, it detaches you from time, making sure you do not realize it has been twenty minutes of straight music. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is an unsung treasure here in the west, not just for bringing this style of music here, but also because he was one of the best at what he did while he was alive; a soaring voice that could unite both an army of accompanists as well as audiences. I can not recommend his music enough, and Live at WOMAD 1985 is the perfect starting point.
Simon & Garfunkel – The Sounds of Silence
Simon and Garfunkel’s contentious relationship has provided decades of bitter sniping to our amusement, but as it might be hard to recall 50 some odd years ago they were also in a band. Considering the rickety, meek and uncertain nature of their first album, Wednesday Morning 3 AM, it is noteworthy that they were able to recompose themselves and produce a complete knockout of a second album. The Sounds of Silence‘s folky nature is buoyed by a mild mannered, but integral electric band in the supporting role. It helps give the album a fuller sound, but never overpowers the titular stars. The band at times pulls back into calmer waters with simple acoustic guitar and vocal pairings like on Kathy’s Song. Of course, we must discuss the titular song, a beautiful number that has unfortunately had its carcass devoured and its bones picked apart by terrible cover versions and shoe-horned inclusions in movie trailers. For some reason no one is including I Am A Rock in their new superhero trailer, strange as it may seem. The Sounds of Silence, the song, is remarkably simple, heck I can play it on guitar and that is a skill I would never brag about. Yet despite its simplicity it is a harrowing punch to the soul, with haunted guitar tones and thorned lyrics, only lessened so by its negligent overuse. The rest of the songs vary from jovial and playful numbers like We’ve Got a Groovy Thing Goin‘, optimistic sing a-longs like I Am Rock, and previously mentioned soulful stripped down numbers like Kathy’s Song. The challenge of folk inspired music is its over reliance on one style or sound; the bludgeoning of the listener with the same groaning voice and acoustic guitar or poorly executed banjo plucking. Simon & Garfunkel fortunately avoid this by both being willing to expand their sonic palate as well as taking turns singing. Paul is far more avoidant and shy compared to Garfunkel’s lighter more welcoming tone. The contrast creates a tension in their harmonies that provokes attention. Fortunately, each stand strongly on their own individually too. Simon & Garfunkel’s endless bickering and Garfunkel being the butt of a multitude jokes is unfortunately the lasting legacy of Simon & Garfunkel, but ask an older soul and they will dutifully remind you of the gorgeous music they once created, and also to get off their lawn.
A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders
There are endless examples of me complaining about classic hip-hop on our website. It is no surprise that I have little appreciation for the rap spawning pool. I love Funky Drummer, but I do not love 500 songs that sample Funky Drummer. I also do not love that due to Hip-Hop maturing during the advent of the CD, many classic albums are 80 minutes long, much of which feels like filler that takes away from the stronger moments. A Tribe Called Quest was consistently an outlier, mostly thanks to the production work of Q-Tip, who refused to allow a song to ever go bland. Instead of murdering the same three or four samples Q-Tip composed intricate productions, blending multiple samples and songs into one song, pulling from 70’s jazz, funk, and R&B. Q-Tip is not afraid to even get mildly experimental such as on the track Lyrics To Go where there is a constant sampled drone of Minie Riperton throughout. The end result is production which is remarkably varied for a 1993. The vocal presentations are no slouch either. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip are in full force, engaging in social commentary, sports commentary, and some silly slice of life anecdotes as well. The vocal presentation is relaxed, almost conversational at times, like your grandfather telling a story in his rocking chair. The lyrics themselves certainly have a bite to them, but the relaxing yet engaging presentation disarms you, welcoming their prose. Midnight Marauders was futuristic, pushing the genre in bolder directions that would be imitated for years to come. A Tribe Called Quest was relatively consistent throughout their career with Midnight Marauders being their highest point. The production is creative, with the right amount of teeth, the lyrics are engaging, and their presentation is hospitable, but never boring. It is a textbook example of how advanced hip-hop could be even in its earlier years, even if the popular artists in the genre did not want to always be so bold.
Harmonia – Musik Von Harmonia
Legendary German guitarist Michael Rother ventured to the village of Forst in 1973 in order to ask the band Cluster (remember them from earlier?) if they would be the backing band for Neu! concerts. While that arrangement never happened, Rother decided to stick around the small German village and form a new band with the Cluster duo called Harmonia. Cluster’s simplicity mixed with Rother’s more daring direction made for a vibrant pairing, even gaining the attention of Brian Eno who would call the band one of the most important in history (he says while producing Coldplay albums). Musik Von Harmonia was their first release of three studio outputs, and while I adore the soundtrack to a sunrise that is their second album, there is something about the rawness of Musik Von Harmonia that is so compelling. The blending of Cluster’s pulsating electronic gizmos and Rother’s sizzling guitar is blissful, giving a soulful injection into Cluster’s often daunting walls of atonal drone. There is also an innocent feeling of the group still figuring themselves out, trying new ideas, and feeling around for what works. There are moments that feel spontaneous, as if they were generated while goofing around and were too good to pass up. Harmonia is curious for striking a poignant balance of engaged and disengaged listening. While there are tracks, you do not particularly notice songs as much as you do moments. You notice moments of tension between the tortured guitar and phasing electronic drone on Ohrwurm or that hobbling drunk synthesizer pulsations on Watussi. It is an album you can both tune out and sink into. When a critical moment strikes you want to be ready, but you can also easily let it slip comfortably into the background. Rother’s bolder guitar-oriented statements command your attention compared to Moebius or Roedelius, who instead create textured auditory quilts to be wrapped up in. Harmonia is a rare supergroup where the dynamic forces are complimentary to each other rather than vying for attention. Each of the three members brings their own unique presence to the project, creating a tense, yet unassuming album that is simultaneously unassuming and also willing to grab you by the tie and take control of your ears.
Igor Stravinksy – The Rite of Spring
Tension and unease permeate throughout The Rite of Spring, a ballet that legend has it sent the audience witnessing its debut into a full-on riot. Stravinsky was never afraid to challenge his audience, and although the early 20th century was prime time for western classical composers to do so, it did not mean the old guard was ready to relinquish its hold on the genre. While the world of symphonies was not quite in the flimsy fluffy nature of the baroque era it still had a deep tradition of safety and adhering to a white upper class audience. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a direct challenge to the old world, with sharp twists and shifts in tone and tenor. Violins shout aggressively at the audience, before collapsing into hushed silence. Phrases bounce back and forth with a near disregard for time signature. Put another way, think of it as the prototype for math rock and even post rock. Perhaps that feels like a stretch, but the slow burn of Introduction: Largo and Mystical Circles of the Young Girls feels much like the slow build of an Explosions In The Sky song while the vacillating tenor of Glorification of the Chosen Victim is reminiscent of Nick Reinhart stomping on the latest Earthquaker pedal to turn his guitar into a shrieking harpy, before turning it off and playing a melodic dance of triads. While there are not distorted amps pumping it out, it still has that type of intensity. The whiplash effect of The Rite of Spring is its focal point, shifting aggressively in despairing build and righteous culmination. If you find yourself curious about classical music, but exhausted by the prospect of 50 minute symphonies, bored by string quartets, or disengaged from sonatas then The Rite of Spring is the perfect entry point. A typical arrangement is only about 36 minutes and will continuously shake you violently until its bone crunchingly tense finale, Sacrificial Dance. Even without the dancers in front of you it is apparent someone is going to die (aside from the title giving it away). There is a desperate anxiety permeating, a pending doom that someone is failing to escape which is capstoned by a period pacing timpani. It is a gateway to this world for the lovers of the strange and brutal. It is guttural and stressful. It deserved to have chairs thrown at it, but its audience also deserves to have chairs thrown back at them.
Björk – Homogenic
I remember a rather peculiar classmate of mine in a psychology class in college gave me all of Björk’s albums on an old ratty thumb drive after discussing music and philosophy after class. He also gave me his own album, which I still own to this day (it is not on this list). I think I gave him some Can albums in reciprocity, a pretty good trade I would argue. He eventually started talking about how he was attending Tea Party rallies and our friendship fizzled not long after. Fortunately, Björk has never betrayed me in the 12 years since. Homogenic was the first album of hers I chose to listen, the title and album cover catching my eye. Every Björk album is vastly unique, but still undeniably Björk, a blending of new age nuances, electronic experiments, and Icelandic quirk. The varying degrees and emphasis of each varies from album to album whether it is an album made entirely out of her vocals being looped on each other, something more poppy, or even an album with a near complete disregard for verse-chorus-verse. Homogenic is the best blend of these ideas, crunchy drum machine patterns dance on string arrangements and synthesizer accompaniments. Björk’s voice is powerful, yearning, eccentric, but approachable. Her stereotypes are not on full force and she has not flown off into any alienating peculiarities. The songs are undoubtedly Björk, but they are also grounded, and inviting. It is also timeless in sound, the blend of organic and digital feels right at home in 2020, which means it must have felt completely alien in 1997. It sounds a bit like Angel Olsen, but 15 years early, and on a mild ketamine bender. Björk also has a remarkable knack, kind of like Harmonia, to create a slow plodding song that feels incredibly anxious, like on All Neon Like or 5 Years which move at lackadaisical pace, but with the accompaniment of their punchy drum parts and Björk’s unearthly singing feel like we are moments away from something bad happening. Björk’s lyrics are often irrelevant in my ears, more an instrumental accompaniment than a statement worth parsing apart, but here she does have a few choice lines that resonate with me even while taking a long break from the music, such as her growling of “I’m so bored of cowards” on 5 Years or “Excuse me but I just have to explode” on Pluto, which is easily the most intense of the songs on this album, a number that would be welcome in an underground dancehall. Björk is far more than her eccentricities, her swan dresses, or peculiar vocal delivery and Homogenic is a strong argument for that. Yes, of course, because it is Björk after all, it has a level of Nordic peculiarity you have to get through, but beneath it are wonderfully creative songs that meld the past and the future of music into one gorgeous bath of sonic fusion.
Mobley – Fresh Lies, Vol. 1
Mobley is not only remarkable for his one man show where he plays drums, keys, guitar, and some homemade clapping invention, he is astonishing for his incredible songwriting skills. Mobley’s brand of what I like to call post-pop is leagues ahead of the mainstream, creating catchy rhythms and hooks with familiar and unfamiliar tones. Opener Hound the World sets the precedent with a grimy as a sewer bass and modulated and pitch shifted vocals as the melody. His voice is layered and slowly mutates throughout the song as well. All of this sounds pretty out there on paper, but in your ears, it is incredibly straight forward and catchy. As mere parts a Mobley song does seem like it will be a car crash of strange tones , but as a whole they are bubbly and cohesive sing and dance-alongs. Take Torch for example where you are waiting for the balloon drop as you bop along to this seemingly happy go lucky song with slightly morose lyrics and a background high-pitched vocal ambiance that sounds like a slaughter at the Keebler Elf village. Again, as pieces it sounds strange, but as a whole it would feel right at home on the radio. Mobley knows also how to pull heart strings as well like on Taste of Gold or throw a real gut punch like on Tell You where he painfully declares “You won’t believe me if I tell you”. Mobley is still an up and comer, a much smaller name among some of the heavy weights on this list. I assure you he is worth your attention and when artists can tour again make sure to catch him. He also did a myriad of livestreams during the pandemic a few of which are still available to view, and I strongly recommend you do. Mobley has a clever ear and is willing to push pop into clever directions. I suspect he will be leading trends in the future.
Les Savy Fav – Let’s Stay Friends
I don’t recall ever hearing quite the musical switcheroo as the opening two songs of Les Savy Fav. The first, an art-rock type number with mild feedback, cooing lyrics, and a serene haunting that would be welcome opening for The Shins. The second is the musical equivalent of a 2×4 to the back of the head with jittery guitar strums and chunky bass riffs and is also about horses. Les Savy Fav have no interest in committing to one idea on Let’s Stay Friends, and also love to remind you they can operate at full throttle whenever they are keen to do so. Songs like the previously mentioned The Equestrian, Raging in the Plaque Age, and Slugs in The Shrubs raucously throw punches to the face with hardcore influences with fuzzy and chunky bass tones and cutting guitars, while milder numbers like opener Pots & Pans, Comes & Goes, and Patty Lee give you a moment to breathe between the shrieking guitars and Tim Harrington’s boisterous vocals. Les Savy Fav always seem to be operating in excess, even in its milder moments it feels like a dog on a leash ready to snap its collar and run after a passing car. This is not say they aggressive, no, because even in their most intense songs I struggle to find them aggressive. There is a more carefree carnage to these songs, a juvenile ambivalence to the chaos ensuing. Hardcore influenced, absolutely, but without the hardcore execution. There is both a boyish charm to these songs and a level of maturity. I am thankful they do not seem to take themselves too seriously, and also do not go into a beserker frenzy of screaming vocals and thrashing instruments. It is a curious balance done exceptionally well to give an album you want to smash a vase to, but also want to glue it back together when you are done.
The Roots – Game Theory
The Roots have no problem creating fun, heartwarming, jovial and partying music when they want to. There are endless examples of that, almost none of which are on Game Theory. Game Theory is dark, bristly, and snarling, showing its teeth at anyone who dare approach it. Politically and socially charged, Game Theory’s focus is on more serious matters like the war in the Iraq, complacency, and violence. Black Thought has venom in his voice, verbally fast and intense, and lyrically direct and confrontational. Even for myself as someone who puts little stock in vocals I commend Black Thought airing his grievances like Frank Costanza on an especially bad Festivus. Questlove is, of course, a treat to listen to with crisp and focused drum patterns. There is little flair in his playing, but this album does not require any, just punctual chops, like on Long Time and Here I Come where the crack of the snare sends shockwaves through your speakers. Game Theory musically is far more focused, laser-like in its instrumentals. There is little fluff throughout the album, the message is clear, the raps punctual, and the music poignant. Game Theory is also a major eulogy to J Dilla who died the year Game Theory was released with both the opener and closer playing as tributes to him. The closer especially pays deep tribute to J Dilla which plays a piece Time: The Donut of the Heart from J Dilla’s Donuts album along with about three minutes of heartfelt messages about him to close out the album. I love The Roots when they are having fun, who does not love seeing a hip-hop group with a sousaphone afterall, but Game Theory’s dark and focused take on the band is remarkable for all the reasons we love The Roots on the other days. This parallel universe bizzaro The Roots are just as good, and I appreciate the focused and sharp nature they bring.
Yes – Close To The Edge
We reviewed this album a few weeks ago for Music Talk (which of these posts will be out first is really a dice roll) so I encourage you to listen our episode featuring it. To summarize what I said in the episode, Close To The Edge is the pinnacle of big dumb prog epics. Let me also emphasize that I adore big dumb prog epics. There is something about the 20 minute everything and the kitchen sink bombast of the big dumb prog epic. They usually are so over the top and ridiculous it is hard not to love them like your dog after having rolled in a big mud pit. Even at their worst they can be an absolute blast due to their sheer nonsensical nature. Close To The Edge is the perfection of the big dumb prob epic, to the point you forget there are two very serviceable songs on this album as well. Yes would have been just fine releasing this song as a single EP and saving the remainder for a different album. Close To The Edge, the song, completely eclipses the rest of the material with its completely bonkers bass runs from Chris Squire, preposterous keyboard work from Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe’s surprisingly restrained guitar work (for Steve Howe that is), Bill Bruford’s anchoring drum work, and Jon Anderson’s stereotypical of the era’s high range singing. It is grand, it is epic, and completely silly, which is the perfect balance for the big dumb prog epic. It would be unfair to acknowledged And You and I and Siberian Khatru which are both fantastic Yes songs in their own right as well, and also mini-marathons too. And You and I is a 10 minute folk-prog number, the come down from the big dumb prog epic that is so common place on these late 60s early 70s progressive rock albums. Unlike those, this is not littered with pan flutes and lyrics about knight and dragons and lasts only 3 minutes. Rather it still has a bit of punch, with some funky synthesizer work, and a long runtime to stretch its legs. Siberian Khatru is classic Yes, a long number with virtuoso level playing that also knows how to pay respect to pop music with catchy hooks and rhythms you can easily bounce your head to. That is always what put Yes above its peers, knowing how to pay respect to popular genres and not getting too far up itself. The right blending of pop structures and melodies keep Yes songs from being eye rolling slogs that alienate all except for the dedicated few. Close To The Edge was the perfection of that formula, and really the best representation of the genre as a whole. Sure, other outliers may be better, but if I want to explain the charm of classic progressive rock Close To The Edge is the only correct answer. All of which validates Bill Bruford’s decision to jump ship at its conclusion. Really, where else could this band go besides down? Well, I guess if he had slogged out a few more bad albums he could have gotten his payday for Owner of a Lonely Heart, but that is a different story for a different day.
Read entries 40-31 here.