Read entries 70-61 here.
El Grupo Nuevo de Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – Cryptomnesia
This was an incredibly tough call as there are a plethora of Omar albums that could be slotted in from Old Money to Se Dice Bisonte No Bufalo, The Apocalypse Inside of an Orange, and even dark horse Minor Cuts and Scrapes in the Bushes Ahead. Instead I went with the album which had the most plays out of any album I owned on my original iPod classic (2009 was a strange time). Cryptomnesia is a blow to the head, a clown car of violence careening off the cliffs of sanity while on fire. Its line-up is an all-star amalgam of The Mars Volta and Hella which sadly only produced one record. To say produced one record is a bit of stretch, however, and that is where the magic of Cryptomnesia begins to become apparent. None of these songs were planned, organized, thought-out, or even played in remotely the manner in which they exist on the album. Cryptomnesia instead is the dissecting and reassembling of a jam session into something modestly resembling music and songs. To be fair, when you put Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Zach Hill and two two bassists in Juan Alderete and Jonathon Hischke it is unlikely you are going to create anything remotely coherent. Instead, Omar took his tapes of musical clusterfuckery and began to glue the chunks together to form riffs, verses, and choruses which would culminate in songs that are an orgy of math rock, progressive, punk, hardcore, and pure dicking around. When you know this the cuts become increasingly apparently, tiny 5-10 second chunks are looped with Guitar overdubs covering up some of the more egregious edits, but the fact that he made anything out of these sessions is a miracle unto itself. While there is wanton disregard for time signature, rhyme or reason the music itself is certainly curious and at times catchy. Songs like Half Kleptos have a dingey basement dwelling vibe to them, and the trio of Paper Cunts, Elderly Pair Beaten With Hammer, and Noir is ripping marathon of chunky bass riffs and wily guitar solos. You are left wondering what actually came next in the jam before Omar committed to slicing the tape, and you will definitely be wondering how you exactly tap along to some of these numbers, especially the whiplashing Puny Humans and Shake is for 8th Graders. Cedric Bixler-Zavala also appears on the record, discarding his typical 5 metaphor deep lyrics and replacing them with crass juvenile antics which are a perfect fit for the music. That is to say that this album seems deeply self-aware, slipping in random and comical intermissions between songs and within them as well. The ending track Fuck Your Mouth has the opening to Mio Mao playing in the background which helps remind the listener to have a laugh at what just transpired. I have mentioned before, but I love a good aggressive album that will turn to the listener periodically and go “guys, chill we are all having a laugh now” and Cryptomnesia is that idea cranked to maximum. This album, while short on runtime is relentlessly excessive in every other capacity; it is boorish, juvenile, buried in layers of sounds and notes, and it is all the better for it. It is truly the musical equivalent of indulgence.
James Brown – In The Jungle Groove
Before anyone responds with hearty “akqkqtuwallly”, I am aware In The Jungle Groove is a compilation release, covering his early 70’s line-ups one featuring Bootsy Collins and the other after Bootsy had been removed for engaging in too many LSD induced on-stage antics. In The Jungle Groove is pure unfiltered straight to your veins funk grooves. Not only that, its historical significance makes up for the fact that it is not a “proper” release. The clothe of hip-hop comes from many different threads, whether it be Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Riots in Lagos or the poets of 70’s New York, but undoubtedly James Brown’s 70’s funk era is a significance piece of this. I could write a whole separate piece on the cultural and historical significance of Funky Drummer, one of the most sampled songs in all of history, but that is an article better served by more eloquent writers. Just in case you need the lesson, go to about 5:20 in the song and realize you have heard this section about a million times in your life. The legendary drum break is the backbone of much of early hip-hop and it is hard to say where we would be without it. The rest of the album is similar in vibe; long 7-9 minute long funk grooves that never feel stale despite their deep runtimes. Brown’s power here is clear, in that despite the long runs of somewhat repetitive funk grooves you are no doubt keen to what is happening. Brown was long out of the charts at this point in his career; his big hits having already come and gone giving him a bit of freedom to go in bolder directions. Brown is relatively sparse in this album, mostly residing to periodic shouts, howls, and ramblings which I have no doubt were cocaine induced. Brown’s strength here is in leading his band, obviously an impressive performer, but more remarkable in how he could direct his band. Various little solos pop in and out during these grooves, keeping the listener tied to the music, but the real star continues to be the rhythm section which is hermetically sealed, constantly in unison and laser focused on creating a perfect groove. Like other albums on this list, it is impossible to not get lost in the rhythm, like on Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved with its hand percussion, and bouncy rhythm guitar. The pace is always frenetic, but never out of control. Brown was notorious for how he ran his bands with an iron fist, even going so far as to charge his band members for mistakes they made. His draconian nature pays off here though as it is just about the best form of funk that could ever be generated.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
I’ll concede that The Wu-Tang Clan has more talented members such as RZA, GZA, and Ghostface Killah, but Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s contribution to the group and to hip-hop itself superseded talent. To be fair part of this contribution was his ongoing mental degradation that played out in front of the world. ODB’s on record antics made for wild and curious recordings, sounding something like a hip-hop album recorded within the psych ward in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s nest. His verbal flow has a meandering cadence, wavering in and out of sync with the music. At its tightest, like on Shimmy Shimmy Ya, he has a concentrated energy and slick delivery of lyrics but rich in his own style. On the other hand, other tracks like Raw Hide sound like a man slowly melting into the earth, with stream of consciousness lyrics like “I came out my momma pussy I’m on welfare / Twenty-six years old still on welfare / So I gotta get paid fully / Whether it’s truthfully or untruthfully / With my boston bloodthirsty process” or in the intro which is cavalcade of nonsense including a recollection of catching gonorrhea, a shout out to James Browns’ PCP years, and the simulation of getting a blow job (dedicated to Blowfly of all people). It is this balance of raw menace and borderline psychosis that makes Return to the 36 Chambers a dangerous, vulgar, but superb balancing act of technical skill and off the rails madness. ODB shifts at a moment’s notice from comic relief to villain, often within the same song. Ol’ Dirty was the human equivalent of the Wild Card, which had results ranging from humorous to dangerous. The Dirty Version is that personified, a truly unique soul in hip-hop with no real peers, perhaps the precursor to MC Ride’s unhinged id, but truly a unique spirit. Character analysis aside, this album is musically robust, with curious and creative samples that help illustrate the surreal world ODB is offering. That is the cleverness of ODB, as you can chastise him for his antics, his inconsistency, and recklessness, but regardless he was immensely talented, and when he was on he was full throttle, although his trajectory was sometimes suspect. I often am amazed this album came out in 1995 as it sounds like something a more experimental producer would have generated in the early to mid aughts, incongruent with the times and outright refusing to play by the rules, like JPEGMAFIA but years earlier. Compare it to GZA’s legendary Liquid Swords which came out the same year, a masterpiece of classic hip-hop, but still coloring within the lines, and you can see how outside the norm he was playing. This is the right blend of his eccentricities all playing at once, before he would degrade beyond hope in the early 00’s. In a way it is a precursor to experimental hip-hop, a sledgehammer to the rules of rap and a middle finger to its rigid format at the time. It showed that hip-hop could operate in strange worlds, wander off in random tangents, and also bear the darkest parts of your soul, because above all else this is an autobiography of a man struggling with himself, and ultimately losing.
Daft Punk – Alive 2007
This was a tough decision as Discovery is truly magnificent and deserves praise as it does double duty as a sublime house album and the soundtrack to Interstella 5555. Alive 2007 has a lot of work to do as it there is no new music to be had, meaning its relevance exists in its execution. This has been the dilemma of live albums throughout time with only a few having remained in the cultural spotlight outside of the most hardcore of fans like The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, and Frampton Comes Alive. Two of those only remain relevant because of the film they are attached to. Alive 2007 would have made for a curious movie in 2007 and one dated and quaint in 2020. This is because Alive 2007 really is a marker in time. As a tour, it has not aged elegantly, the once iconic pyramid in which they played feels antiquated by modern standards; the lights and visuals it displayed are now easy to replicate, although not to scale. The light-up suits, also remarkable in 2007, seem almost silly now. The music, however, is where Alive 2007 remains relevant and I would argue increasingly so. Live DJ sets existed long before, but I am hard-pressed to recall one with so much hype and attention and lasting power. Like I stated, Alive 207 has no new music, but is instead a mash-up of their three albums up to that point, effortless flowing from one song to the next, sliced apart, rearranged, and then interwoven within each other in order to make a strange musical quilt. The result is effectively one massive mixtape of your favorite Daft Punk songs. That alone is remarkable, and challenges you to reconsider their discography in this new mutated context. More important is the cultural significance of this show. Again, this was not the first of its kind, but it definitely set in motion the popularity of mainstage DJ sets at festivals, destroying and rebuilding studio material in a live setting, and helping bring back the spectacle in live shows. It is easy to smugly scoff at Alive 2007 as two Frenchmen hitting play and playing with some lights, but their ability to reconsider their entire discography and willingness to blow up their old songs and glue them back together in new and inventive ways is astounding. Alive 2007 also helped open my eyes to the world of mixtapes and musical mash-ups. I learned to appreciate songs in recontextualized manners whether that meant in a completely chopped way like on Justice’s two live albums, or in a marathon mix of thematically cohesive songs like on Andy Votel’s various mixtapes. Alive 2007 survives the pitfalls of a typical live album by maintaining cultural relevance in the modern age and being a massively forward-thinking performance that continues to be mimicked today.
Echo & The Bunnymen – Heaven Up Here
Echo & The Bunnymen’s first four albums are all remarkable blends of post-punk, goth, and with the mildest tinges of dub and psychedelia. Their second album Heaven Up Here is the right balance of these qualities, less gritty and jagged than Crocodiles, nowhere near as slick as Ocean Rain, and far more distinct than Porcupine. Heaven Up Here is brave from the beginning; ready to go all in from the jump. The gothic, thunderous, but mildly plodding Show of Strength starts with soaring but dysphoric guitar tones, echoey drums, punching bass, and pained calling out by singer Ian McCulloch before taking a plunging dive into the coda. The cracking snare drum with a doom laden bass line at the end helps launch the band into With A Hip, one of the most driven Echo songs to ever exist with sneering vocals, charging bass, and more distinct but amorphous guitar. The album continues to twist and turn with the drunk-on reverb All My Colors or the tragic The Disease. Heaven Up Here is not set on one way of making you feel despair, but approaching it from every angle, grabbing the listener through a relentless ride of brooding bass grooves, cracking drums, and screeching guitar. Ian McCulloch’s voice is mid-ranged, neither bellowing or shrieking, making him a fitting accompaniment to the music as the caustic observer of destruction and despair. Heaven Up Here is constantly taxed with balancing between musical themes of sorrow, rage, and anhedonia, precariously ensuring it never falls too far into any direction and risking becoming a parody of itself. Considering the album seems to have no sense of humor it is very mindful of juggling these ideas and not jumping too far into any direction compared to some of their peers like Joy Division or The Cure. Echo refuses to commit to one musical direction and demands to not being locked down or anchored. It insists in displaying its misery in a variety of ways giving it a breadth that many other albums of the time do not have.
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Coloring Book, I must admit, is the first Chance album I ever heard, not listening to Acid Rap or 10 Day until later on. I was floored by Chance’s blending of gospel and hip-hop, a marriage of ideas that I had not considered previously, but upon listening realized made perfect sense. Throughout he chooses to ditch conventional musical ideas, with instrumentals having a fluid and formless feel. Sure, you can find hi-hats, snares, and bass kicks throughout to keep things somewhat organized, but often those are just breakers for the waves. No Problem, for example, may have the bass and snare on the 2 and 4, but it is also attempting to chorale a boundless gospel choir that feels like it has no relation to what is going on. No Problem also emphasizes the revolving door of guest artists on this tape. Chance figured out how to get a wide range of artists from Bon Iver to Justin Bieber to Lil Wayne to express their uniqueness, but also fit into his paradigm. There are no spotlight thieves to be found or misfires. In listening to his earlier work afterwards I realized these are all ideas that had been juggled by Chance The Rapper in the lead-up to Coloring book, but this was the perfection of them. Chance is also not afraid to push these ideas to the limits with almost church like songs in Blessings (both of them) to party anthems like All Night, and grounded comedowns like Summer Friends. Coloring Book has a breadth of ideas at its disposal, but all the ideas are amplified to max volume, and assertive in their presentation. Everything is full-throated, borderline audacious, but never vulgar. Chance himself adds to it, often howling to the rafters with glee and jubilation from the moment go on opener All We Got. In a decade of winking irony and deliberate half-assedness it was reassuring to hear intense and passionate creations of art. Coloring Book was certainly one of those, a glowing example of putting your heart into something full stop.
Hawkwind – Space Ritual
Hawkwind is a hushed name over here in the Unite States, a curiosity rather than a known entity. For one reason or another the band never made an impact here. I can see why in the grand scope of history, as the band’s significant period is rather brief, from 1971 to 1975 at the latest. That brief run, however is pretty damn amazing, a blitz of some of the most visceral psychedelic punk to exist to this date. The 1960’s psychedelic period often was awash with slow flowing drone, metaphysical gibberish poetry, swelling phasers, and eastern instruments played terribly. Hawkwind had a bold idea, what if they took those ideas, sans sitars, cranked it to 200 BPM and had naked dancers and bubble machines on stage with them. Ladies and gentlemen I give you Hawkwind. Space Ritual is the apex of this period for the band, breakneck fast, gritty, fuzzy, swooshing, and joyfully ridiculous. A live album true, but it ends up being a best-of playlist up to that point, aside from the lack of You Shouldn’t Do That (although it was later inserted in a repressing). This is quintessential Hawkwind, chugging riffs, whooshing psychedelic drone, and some of the most asinine vocals imaginable. Eight minute songs are split up by nonsense skits about having orgasms to prevent being killed by “Sonic Attack“, space transmissions, and entering wormholes. All of this is played with a straight face, which normally would be a bit of deal-breaker, but I firmly believe somewhere in their LSD addled minds they thought they were really nailing it and for that I give them credit. Of course I must mention that future Motorhead frontman Lemmy is in this line-up as well, providing as melodic of basslines possible for this thunderous rendition of Hawkwind. It is quite audacious and silly, but it works despite it. This was a band that seems uncompromising, unafraid to blend Alice Cooper metal with Circle Jerks speed, and 13th Floor Elevators psychedelics. The result is pretty outrageous, but worth the lengthy runtime. It sounds like a barrage of bricks laced with psilocybin, has the lyrics of a third rate sci-fi movie, and has the tact of your drunk uncle and it is all the better for it. Sadly Hawkwind would descend into mediocrity from this point on, putting out a few more decent releases until Lemmy left the band in 1975. There are a few curious moments after, but for the most part it is a band desperately trying to recreate a spark that had gone out, to the point of doing a live performance of their live performance which is just as ridiculous as it sounds. For that brief period, however, Hawkwind was a force to be reckoned with, one with no peers, because they all had been turned into goo by Sonic Attack.
Jay-Z – The Black Album
Remember in 2003 when Jay-Z was going to retire? Looking at his post-Black Album output you have to wonder if it would have been smart for him to do so. We may not have gotten 4:44 and Watch the Throne, but we also would not have to have Magna Carta or Blueprint 3 either. If Mr. Carter would have decided to hang it up back then he would have certainly been lauded for going out on a high note. Jay-Z’s braggadocio infused rap may have already had its influential moment, but The Black Album is the perfection of that craft; a sublime blend of ego-swinging bangers like 99 Problems and Dirt Off Your Shoulder along with some more reflective biographical moments in December 4th and Moment of Clarity. There is a logic to this being a final album. Jay-Z at this point had already made his mark, proved his worth, and made his cultural impact. There is credit due for bowing out when it is time. It is a mainstream rap album with a deep bench of history and up and comers. Kanye and Pharrell Williams had not quite erupted at that point but make their production talents well-known. Despite the wide use of producer’s each of whom have a clear distinct marker on the album, there remains a cohesive nature. This is despite the fact that Kanye West’s production is so deliberately him on Lucifer and Encore with gospel and soul song samplings or that Rick Rubin is so obnoxiously over the top with 99 Problems (He certainly is crazy for this one!). The fact that there is so much harmony among these songs is a miracle onto itself. Sean Carter himself matches each song, shifting from ruthlessly climbing a mountain of second placers to sharing stories of his early life (including a cameo from his mom as well). This would have been a perfect bowing out moment for Jay-Z, a rare exiting at the top like George Costanza telling the perfect joke. His follow-up releases would have occasional bespoke moments, but rarely the cohesive strength of his earlier works. If his earlier albums are essays The Black Album is his dissertation, the culmination of all his past work up until this point. The thing is, after you publish your dissertation you never need to write again.
Mono – Hymn To The Immortal Wind
Post-rock’s 13 minutes of reverb and delay pedal drenched build-up into 2 minutes of slow burn triumphant parading is a test of human patience. Rarely are the slowly guitar strings and cymbal rolls with mallets worth your time, instead just being an excuse for lazy song writing; if you can not write a good 4 minute song then do not write one that is 4 times as long that barely does anything for the first three fourths. While most entries in the world of post-rock are a similar type of bore, foisted upon us by history majors in college dorms trying to look sophisticated there are a few scant examples of the genre actually being done justice. Mono is relatively consistent in their execution of the style, mostly because they are not afraid to get bold and gritty. This is mostly thanks to guitarists Takaakira “Taka” Goto and Hideki “Yoda” Suematsu who welcome a stern departure from the clean glisten the post-rock normally forces upon its listeners are not afraid to drown their songs in distortion, amp feedback, and a suffocating amount of echo. Hymn To The Immortal Wind Mono is relentless, far more forceful than their peers, and very willing to bite the listener. Songs like The Battle to Heaven are not just one slow climb to the top, but a myriad of peaks and valleys, each with a blend of orchestral accompaniment and gristly feedback. It is the suffocating sound that Mono exudes which makes the slow moments where you can catch your breath all the more savored. Instead of tolerating the ethereal build you welcome it after your ears have been singed with static noise. Normally, the string accompanied Silent Flight, Sleeping Dawn would be a slog, another dull interlude among marathon snooze fests, but after the suffocating nature of Ashes in the Snow and Burial at Sea you welcome its more relaxed nature. It also helps that there is a cohesive concept going on in this album, despite it being purely instrumental. Buy the vinyl (and seriously buy the vinyl) and you are treated to a brief story that ties these songs together, and even more compelling is that even if you have not read this brief story you will be able to imagine a world in your mind that is soundtracked to these haunting compositions. It sounds like a pained world, with the wincing screech of feedback during the last 90 seconds of Pure As Snow, but also one that can be calming and silent with the easing Follow the Map, and triumphant and joyous with the concluding Everlasting Light. This is Mono’s apex, and further attempts to match it have always come up a hair short. That is not a discrediting of the other works, but rather a testament to how composed and balanced Hymn is; the flawless balance of grit, broken frequencies, beautiful string arrangements, and haunting beauty.
Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters
I can play you the first five seconds off of Head Hunters and I promise you are going to recoil in a declaration of “woah damn what is this?”. I could spend this whole entry gushing on that 12 note sequence as it is without a doubt one of the greatest bass parts in modern music. Not only is that bass run just sweet (Dorian mode baybee!) its construction on an ARP Odyssey gives it this sound that is beyond comprehension, a funky sawtoothed, bopping vibe that is punctual in sound, but lingering in the mind. The other fifteen minutes and thirty nine seconds of Chameleon is worth discussing as well I suppose, which blends a boppy jazz kind of feel with more of a funk groove. Head Hunters has less of the underground smoky jazz club vibe and instead is cruising in a convertible, it feels open, relaxed, fresh, and also fantastically futuristic in 1973. Jazz Fusion had not quite yet overtaken the narrative of jazz and there is a vibe the genre was feeling around in the dark to find its next footing. Hancock, off the heels of three pretty out there albums, needed a new direction which led to this jazz meets funk meets synthesizers line-up. There are some traditional moments, like Benny Maupin’s contributions on various horned instruments, a waving to the old world, but then Hancock is there pull you into the future with a mix of synthesizers and quirky rhythm ideas like the intro to Watermelon Man which sounds like a colliding of people blowing bottles and recorders. Not long after the song launches into a funk jazz medley, heavy on the interplay of rhythm and less shoving soloists into the forefront. This is the tendency for Head Hunters, more of a cohesive unit and less the masturbatory solos of the aforementioned smoke filled clubs. The album is better for it, despite its sonic quirk and the epic runtimes of the songs, it feels far more approachable than the iconic albums of the 60’s which often felt very highbrow and unapproachable. That is not to say Head Hunters is simple, far from it, but it knows how to make its complexities engaging and exciting. Hancock has always been clever about pushing boundaries in jazz and making it just a bit more listener friendly. Head Hunters is the prize example of that, gloriously futuristic, danceably funky, and surprisingly user friendly.
Read entries 50-41 here.