Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s “Trout Mask Replica”

Album cover for Trout Mask Replica

This week, I’ve been listening to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s double-LP “Trout Mask Replica” from 1969. This album challenges the listener’s sensibilities and understanding of musical conventions. From the start of the first track, “Frownland,” the first-time listener will question the judgement of those who consider this to be one of the greatest albums of all time. My first encounter with this album came from a girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. It was awful and offensive. Either I was an idiot or she was putting one over one me. I gave it a couple more tries and gave up. So here I am, two decades later, devoting time to it because it is a great album. Do I love it now? No, but I do appreciate it and even enjoy parts of it in doses.

The verb “experiment” means to try something for the purpose of discovery. This generally implies doing something in some way different from what one normally does. The outcome is unknown. A question beginning with “What would happen if…” prompts an experiment. Then depending on the outcome, you might alter the act for future experiments. As the outcome becomes less unknown, the act becomes less of an experiment and more of a practice. This album is the result of experiments with breaking the conventions of rock music. Living together in California, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) ruthlessly led his band of musicians like a cult leader. His methods challenged the established rules of rock as well the ethics of management. That’s another topic though.

Dachau Blues

The third track “Dachau Blues” grabbed my interest first. Yes, the song does follow some blues structure, but it’d be a stretch to call it a blues song. Beefheart’s vocals stand out in front, with the band mixed relatively low. The guitars and dry drums create a near chaotic background for the anti-war lyrics. They choose the location of Nazi concentration camp from World War II to tell how frightened children look up to the adults to not repeat the horrors of war.

The song demonstrates little relationship between accompaniment and vocals. Even though the guitars start with a jagged rhythm for the first chorus, they seem to dissolve into apparently improvised melodic riffs. The percussion and guitars fall in and out of rhythm with each other. Then a saxophone screams in competition with the spoken lyrics. There’s a mixture of intention and accident throughout the album. These glimpses into the process remind us of the importance of the process. I’m also reminded of the Beatnik notion that the unedited thought is more pure and loses something through revision. Yet, we know that Captain Beefheart and his magic band practiced and practiced these songs. The loose chaos didn’t come easy.

Pachuco Cadaver

Before the music starts, the Captain shares some nonsensical wisdom: “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?” There’s some underlying logical to the nonsense written by Captain Beefheart, perhaps. He has a great taste for the vocabulary of unusual, using these words to paint a surreal story world. Elements of this world are returned to throughout the album, feeling more like consistency than repetition. The lyrics of “Pachuco Cadaver” present the vignette of an attractive Latina-American woman, like a bizarre version of The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.

“Pachuco Cadaver” stands out on the album as being one of the few songs with a stand-out guitar riff that repeats in different parts of the song. The accompaniment even builds up to it as it evolves out of a primordial groove. At times, it is hinted at, muted, then devolves into arhythmic strumming. Then it appears, nearly rocking, as the Captains says, “her lovin’ makes me so happy…”

When she walks, flowers surround her
Let their nectar come in to the air around her
She loves her love sticks out like stars
Her lovin’ stick out like stars

Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”

Album cover for Screamadelica

This week, I’ve been listening to Primal Scream’s third album “Screamadelica” from 1991. At the end of the 80s, critics speculated that grebo-baggy music were going to be the sound of the 90s. These genres found new energy in combining psychedelic alternative rock with dance rhythms of acid house. British bands like EMF, Jesus Jones, and the Escape Club brought these sounds to American MTV. This was right before Nirvana’sSmell Like Teen Spirit” grabbed everybody’s attention and changed things. While I liked some of it, grunge didn’t really catch me as hard as it did others. Had I heard “Screamadelica” when it came out, I probably would’ve loved it. I had the same difficulty with it now that I have with the band Muse, several of the songs sound like direct combinations of two or three other songs. More derivative than inspired.

Movin’ On Up

So, that brings us to the opening track “Movin’ On Up.” It’s a good song on its own; However, to me it sounds like The Rolling Stone’sSympathy for the Devil” played like The Who’s “Magic Bus” after listening to George Michael’s “Faith.” The first verse opens with “I was blind, now I can see, you made a believer out of me.” This verse makes an allusion to “Amazing Grace,” where the chorus’s “I’m movin’ on up now, getting out of the darkness; My light shines on.” recalls both The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” and the gospel anthem “This Little Light of Mine.” Screamadelica decidely wrote a rock n roll gospel anthem. I’m not sure what they’re believing in: perhaps it’s rock n roll and perhaps it was ecstasy.

The verses follow a I-I-I-I-V-IV-I-I chord progression, over which lay a gospel-blues melody. A female choir joins for the chorus, with a V-V-IV-IV-ii-IV-I-I progression. This jump up to the fifth for the chorus provides the feel of a key change without actually entering one. In addition to the Who-Stones inspired acoustic guitar riff, piano and choir support the gospel feel of the recording. Then an electric guitar provides an excellent solo that sounds more than a little like the solo in Sympathy for the Devil without the danger and edge.

Primal Scream’s love of The Rolling Stones stands out through much of the album. I definitely cannot blame them; my past few years of listening to the Rolling Stones have had a tremendous influence on my work as well. But sometimes I kept being reminded of specific songs by other artists strongly. The song “Damaged” kept making me want to listen to the much better “Moonlight Mile.” I think most of us as musicians try to avoid that. We might say, “I want to make a song like this one,” but our intentions are to emulate what we like about that song without copying the song itself.

Don’t Fight It, Feel It

After the opening track that blends gospel with 60s rock n roll, band jumps into acid-house track “Slip Inside This House.” This cover of a 13th Floor Elevators song from 1967 provides their sideways step into a seemingly disparate genre. Then they make full plunge into house with the third track “Don’t Fight It, Feel It.” Apparently, their intention was the produce a modern verse of Northern Soul music. Music about dancing, for dancing, with groove and soul.

It’s definitely modern (as of 1991) and makes you dance. It has the house synthetic piano chords that comes and go. It has layered soulful lyrics about getting high and dancing. It has a great bassline and house drums. It has an annoying chirping synth. It goes on and on for seven minutes that I would only find bearable if I was dancing to it in a club, and even then I wouldn’t be sad when it was over.

Loaded

The band update their earlier song “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Had” on the epic middle track “Loaded.” The earlier song, from their 1989 self-titled second album. I prefer the earlier version, of course, with its more guitar-rock sound and “Sympathy For The Devil” inspired bridge.

“Loaded” opens with a sample from the movie “The Wild Angels” with Peter Fonda declaring they “want to be free.. get loaded and have a good time.” This freedom sample is appropriate, considering the song’s strong resemblance to George Michael’s “Freedom 90” from the previous year. Like much of the synth drum patterns of the early 90s, this one dances with the extra hops during the third beat. The synth piano also plays the jazz-inspired chord rhythm patterns heard in a lot of house music of the period. Guitars come and go riffing in a distinctly rock style.

Primal Scream most succeeded in combining house with rock on this track. It proceeds through a journey, with different phases. This keeps the song interesting. While they use house’s tendency towards drawn-out repetition, they’ve found a compromise between what’s appropriate for listening vs. dancing. A dance-club audience thrives on that lengthy repetition, whereas a listener needs variety.

The Clash’s “The Clash”

Cover for the The Clash's debut album

This week, I’ve been listening to the Clash‘s 1977 self-titled debut album. I spent a week with their double-LP “London Calling,” making this the second time I’ve spent a week with one of the Clash’s albums for this project. I knew some of that one, but with this album I am very value.

My new group of friends in Athens, OH introduced me to punk rock in 1994; This one immediately caught my interest. I didn’t realize that this was the same band that did “Rock the Casbah,” a favorite song from my childhood. With a year, I bought this debut album and played it frequently. It’s part of the soundtrack of my youth, as well as an album I’ve continued to love as an adult.

Janie Jones

The rocker “Janie Jones” opened the original UK LP release of the Clash’s debut album. The drums start the song with a rapid steady beat like a speeding train. Then Mick Jones’s sharp overdriven guitar cuts in with a burst of a single chord. Joe Strummer’s distinctive raspy vocals jump right into the chorus “He’s in love with rock n’ roll, whoa.” The guitar stabs with the same chord at the start of the next bar, “He’s in love with getting stoned, whoa.” And the same for the next two lines, “He’s in love with Janie Jones, whoa. He don’t like his boring job, no.” And with those simple lines they probably embraced half of their audience. Then they repeat the chorus, this time joined by a simple, but energetic bassline.

This is not a complex song; Rather much of its success comes from it’s direct and simple approach. There’s only one chord to the chorus, with the guitar only providing a stab at the beginning of each bar and resting throughout. The verses follow a V-I-IV-V chord progression, with each chord lasting a full two bars. Topper Headon relentlessly beats a near consistent pattern, with basic fills at the end of every two bars. The instrumentation is sparse. We have the drums, bass guitar, a buzz-saw electric guitar, and vocals, but the Clash delivers plenty of energy and attitude that drives this song through its short 2 minute length.

Police & Thieves

In the middle of the second side, The Clash perform a cover of reggae artist Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” This is both the only cover song and the longest song on the album, at six minutes. Murvin’s song had been release just the previous year and The Clash frequently performed the song as a warm-up during recording sessions. Reggae had a big influence on punk rock, and especially the Clash. These 70s punks, like Joe Strummer and gang, would’ve spent their teenage years hearing songs like “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker during the late 1960s. A teenager’s appreciation for reggae in England at the time would’ve been a rebellious act of opposition of the racism of older generations.

I love the interplay of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’s guitars across the stereo field. One is panned hard left, the other hard right. Their overdriven short chord bursts go back and forth. First with one playing a chord that slides up to the next, then rests while the other bursts the chord in response. The bass plays a bouncy little riff at the beginning of each bar, preceded by a lead-in at at the end of the previous bar. All of these elements demonstrate how the Clash translated the sound and rhythms of reggae into their own music.

White Man in Hammersmith Palais

Since the first time I heard this album, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” stands consistently as my favorite Clash song. The melody and singing are outstanding, showing off Strummer’s excellent ability to mix sonorous melodic singing, reggae influence, and British punk attitude. The melody, backing harmonies, and lyrics grabbed me immediately as a teenager. It’s an epic song, aware of its scope. There’s reggae rhythms through out, little percussive taps and ticks. The guitars scratches and bursts chords on the upbeat. It’s an absolutely perfect and essential track.

I think the line that got me first was “You think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money.” in response to rock bands and corporations capitalizing on youth. In a later verse he sings “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway,” which I wonder may’ve been in partially in response to David Bowie’s comment the previous year that “Adolf Hitler one of the first rock stars.” WIth Bowie being a huge influence on the group and punk rock in general, that and other statements Bowie made about fascism may’ve been troubling for the punks.

Importantly, I think, Stummer acknowledges his own lack of credibility, “I’m the all-night drug-prowling wolf, who looks so sick in the sun. I’m the white man in the Palais, just looking for fun.”

Portishead’s “Dummy”

Album cover for Portishead's Dummy

This week, I’ve been listening to Portishead’s debut album “Dummy” from 1994. I remember how excitingly unusual and new this album sounded when I was 17 years old. This combination of goth, hip hop and jazz came from another world; that dark alien digital world was filled with the smoke and fog of human emotion. In this world, Nine Inch Nails were the rock n roll and Portishead were the jazz-soul. This was my and much of the world’s introduction to the trip-hop genre, though I don’t think the name existed yet. While I spent more time listening to Nine Inch Nails, I definitely enjoyed Portishead as well. I seem to have lost touch with most of these songs over time, only really remember a few of them; It was good to spend a week revisiting, even though I didn’t love it as much as I used to.

Sour Times

The second track, “Sour Times,” provides a great example of what Portishead is about. They built the accompaniment around samples of a late 1960s crime-noir jazz piece “Danube Incident” by Lalo Schifrin. Over of this, they have layered organic instruments and synths emphasizing elements of the original score. Beth Gibbons sings about longing for a former lover who has since gotten married to another.

Cause nobody loves me, it’s true
Not like you do

There’s an unusual instrument rises and falls from the back to the front. More percussive than melodic. ; it makes me think of Tibetan prayer wheels, even though they sound nothing like this. It’s quite possibly a cimbalom, which they’ve played in a jangly sinister way. There was something similar in the Schifrin song that sounds more like a plucked violin, or piano strings. It gives the track an non-specific ethnic feel, like some far away culture.

Numb

I love the scratching of Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got a Woman” throughout Portishead’s “Numb.” The track showcases some very good performance and songwriting, but it’s the use of a turntable that pushes the song into something fantastic. They use some traditional hip-hop techniques in a more languid broken-hearted way. The original melody gets chopped up slowly, pitches descend, as the heart gives out. This produces a far-off and lonely atmosphere with an instrument normally used for excitement and energy.

Glory Box

The greatest track on the album is definitely “Glory Box.” It rightly closes out the album, sounding like the end-credits of a sci-fi noir film. Portishead built the backing music mostly from “Ike’s Rap 2” by Isaac Hayes. As with other songs, they add their own instrumentation to emphasize or change elements of the original song.

An unfortunate thing that happens throughout this album becomes most apparent to me in this song: the use of samples locks them into a key and especially with a chord progression. Where this has always bother me is the end of “Glory Box.” There’s a bridge where the character of the song changes, a break-down. Then the song returns back to where it was. Had they been using all original instruments, I suspect they would’ve opted for a key-change at the end.

Give me a reason to love you
Give me a reason to be a woman
I just wanna be a woman

Elvis Presley’s “The Sun Sessions”

Album cover for The Sun Sessions

I’ve been listening to Elvis Presley’s “The Sun Sessions” this week. This 1976 album presents a collection of recordings of Presley from 1954 and 1955. Sun released ten of these songs as singles in the mid 50s; His debut album from 1956 on RCA Victor collected some of the others. This is a great collection, even with the less than stellar environment and recording equipment at Sun at the time. Of course, I’ve heard all of these songs in some form or another; If not these Sun recordings, I’ve heard later recordings of the same songs by Elvis and/or cover versions by other artists.

What we hear on this album is some early rock n roll in its youth. The genre did not start with an one single recording, but rather evolved naturally as combination of blues, jazz, swing, gospel, and folk music. Throughout this album, Presley gives us rock n roll versions of songs from the previous decades, further pushing that evolution. Among those is Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” from 1947, which combined blues and swing in a way that definitely sounds like rock n roll with jazz instrumentation.

Presley was a great singer, guitar, and performer, he was not a songwriter. Depending on who you ask, he only wrote one song: “Love Me Tender.” However, Elvis did not write the music, and the song sounds a lot like the Civil War song “Aura Lee.” He is listed as co-writer on a few other songs, but his actual contribution was probably very little. Still, what he’s done is brought these songs together and played them in this new style, or emphasized that style, in an exciting way. While Presley was an important part of this evolution, he unfortunately gets a lot of credit at the expense of those he drew influence and also worked with. I believe that Presley deserves great recognition, but so do others who were denied the same attention because of their race.

That’s All Right

The album opens with Elvis’s first single, a cover of Arthur Crudup’s rhythm and blues song “That’s All Right Mama” from 1946. Crudup potentially got his chorus from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s country blues song “Black Snake Moan.” Presley’s cover introduced him to much of the world, as it was his first single. I love it, but now that I hear Crudup’s, I think I prefer the original.

Presley’s version opens with strummed acoustic guitar, joined by an acoustic bass. Elvis then sings with energy, “Well, that’s all right, mama, that’s all right for you.” The chord progression repeats I-I-I-I7 for the verses, and then the refrain has IV-IV-V7-I. The bass guitar mostly bounces between the first and up to the fifth note of each chord.

A clean electric guitar plays single note leads during the verses in a country style. However, the electric guitar plays two-notes to open the guitar-solo bridge. There’s not really any intentional bending of strings here, just straight-played notes.

Blue Moon of Kentucky

Probably one of my favorite recordings by Elvis Presley, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was the b-side of “That’s All Right.” This recording reworks Bill Monroe’s bluegrass waltz of the same name from 1946 as a rockabilly track. I love the sound of the slap-back echo on the vocals, especially the energetic way that he sings them. Again, there’s minimal percussion, just a shuffling of sticks on a surface, with the slap of the upright bass providing additional percussion. The acoustic guitar strums chords emphasizing the a swinging syncopated rhythm.

Presley and the other musicians performed this in the same key, with nearly the same chords, as “That’s All Right.” Here was have I-I7-IV-iv-I-I7-V-I-I7-IV-iv-I-V-V7-I. That’s a few more sevenths, plus a shift to minor for the fourth at the end of the 1st and 3rd line of each verse.

The guitarist plays a solo on a clean electric guitar during the bridge. The solo combines single notes and two notes played on adjacent strings. Again, these are played without bends. There are two bars of playing quick staccato notes on the beat, followed by two bars of syncopated notes.

Mystery Train

I really enjoyed Presley’s cover of Junior Parker’s 1953 song “Mystery Train,” which had also been recorded at Sun. While Elvis’s rockabilly version certain rocks more, it loses the emotion of Parker’s electric Memphis blues style. The lyrics of Parker’s song build on a verse of the Carter Family’s folk country “Worried Man Blues.”

The band play a variation of the 12-bar blues progression with a driving railroad rhythm: I-IV-I-I-I-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I. The bass hits every note, acoustic guitar plays constant rhythm in the background, rising at the end of the bars between vocals. Electric guitar shuffles and swings between the bass adding an urgent syncopated triplet groove.

Train, train, coming ’round the bend
Train, train, coming ’round the bend
Well, it took my baby, but it never will again
No, not again

Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”

Neil Young "After the Gold Rush" album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Neil Young’s album “After the Gold Rush” from 1970. Other than the title track, this album was new to me. Growing up, I heard his earlier album “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” from my parent’s CD collection. I loved his hard guitar playing style and still do. I remember seeing him play with Pearl Jam on the 1993 MTV Music Awards. I was excited by this mad man that looked like Stephen King’s cousin taking a break from tilling the garden to beat the shit out of a guitar on stage. I still love that wild vibrato-bar abusing solo. The chorus of “Rockin’ In the Free World” repeated in my head for weeks.

“Southern Man” grew on me the fastest, probably because it’s the more rocking track. The song takes the Southern United States to task for the age of slavery and the continued gap between white and black; Even if slavery has ended, the “white mansions” still stand in contrast to the “little shacks.” This because wealthy white families were still living on benefits of the slavery that left black families with a poor start.

The two verses each consist of three rhyming lines, the middle line being a slant rhyme, followed by a non-rhyming two line refrain. The chorus has four lines, two couplets. All of the rhymes consist of monosyllabic words: head/said, last/fast, black/shacks/back, brown/round/down. The voice of the song is that of an outside observer, calling out debts unpaid and hypocrisy.

Southern man better keep your head
Don’t forget what your good book said
Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burning fast

“Oh Lonesome Me” is actually a cover of a Don Gibson song. Presumably audiences in 1970 would recognize this country song. Neil Young certainly played it much slower, giving it a more lonesome feel. He certainly wasn’t the first or the last to cover it. Elements of Young’s song reminded me of a much later song “Truck On” by Simple Kid from 2003.

The song has a very slow country-blues feel, coming from the acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar, and especially the harmonica. I just really love the sound of this song. It rolls and hangs, pulling itself a long. The piano here, as on much of the album, is used a rhythm instrument playing chords. The chord progression also brings that lonesome blues feel: I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-v-I-IV-iv-VII♭-IV-I-I-IV. It’s interesting how that I-V-I-IV section uses a minor v and the IV falls to a minor iv; This makes the typically strong blues progression sound meek and worn, that is.. lonesome. Young’s version feels more raw and vulnerably emotion making the earlier versions seem cautiously upbeat and jaunty.

The title track, “After the Gold Rush,” seems to tell of deterioration of the planet leading to mankind evacuating. Though, it seems more like either a poorly planned escape or an involuntary eviction, since their new home is in the sun. The track opens with tender piano, with a gently bouncing left-hand bassline and syncopated chords on the right. Except for a vocals and eerily sorrowful french-horn solo, the piano is the only instrument on the track. The piano even takes rests, making the accompaniment sparse. This enhances the dreamlike narrative of the lyrics, by allowing focus to fall solely on the vocals.

The middle-verse reminds me of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, especially “Five Years“. Bowie started recording that album a year after Young released “After the Gold Rush.” When Bowie wrote, “News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying; Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying,” was he listening to Young?

I was lying in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst though the sky
There was a band playing in my head
And I felt like getting high
I was thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie

Radiohead’s “The Bends”

Album cover for Radiohead's "The Bends"

I spent this week with Radiohead’s second album “The Bends” from 1995. This album came out when my senior year of high school was coming to a close. It seems like I heard the song “High and Dry” a bit, but I don’t recall being too aware of this album until the following year. Several of the songs, especially “Just” and “Fake Plastic Trees” became part of the regular soundtrack of my life. It wasn’t so much my choice, though I did love the song. Both Mtv and my friends played “Fake Plastic Trees” with some frequency. Somehow, I managed to not get to know much of this album until this week.

It’s funny how you don’t realize how “of its time” some recordings can be until you listen to them a couple decades later. This album is definitely within the 90s guitar alt-rock genre. Listening to this album made me really realize how influential the Pixies had been on the sound of 90s alternative. I found this especially noticeable in the way the bass is used in these songs. There will be louder sections with drums, guitars, bass, vocals, etc.. and then these will pull back for quieter sections with crispy bass guitar grooves. Anyway…

The song I most know from this album is undoubtedly “Fake Plastic Trees”. In the video, you’ll see singer Thom Yorke riding around the grocery store in the shopping cart. I guess this was just a thing in the 90s, as Jarvis Cocker did it the year before in Pulp’s video for “Common People.” I know there were others, but all I can remember now is an early publicity shot of Marilyn Manson.

Thom Yorke’s quietly strummed acoustic guitar opens the song. Yorke sings sonorously, wet with deep reverb. The lyrics deal with capitalism and artificiality in contemporary society and culture. A sense of humor runs through the lyrics, while they express an emotional mix of disillusionment, emptiness and longing.

A green plastic watering can
For a fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

The first chorus repeats the line “It wears her out.” This gets modified to “It wears him out.” in the second chorus and finally “It wears me out” for the third and final verse. I like this use of the chorus as a refrain for verses, altered slightly to match the subject of the verse.

The personal turn the songs takes for the final verse, comes even more raw at the end. Yorke closes “Fake Plastic Trees” wistfully singing “If I could be who you wanted all the time.” This reminds me of the chorus “You’re so fuckin’ special; I wish I was special” in their song “Creep.” He gritted his teeth to sardonically deliver that line in the earlier song, spitting it out more as an insult. But in “Fake Plastic Trees” the line comes out as a painful apology for not being enough.

I came to really enjoy the song “Bones,” which follows “Fake Plastic Trees” on the album. It’s probably the most rock n’ roll track. I really like the use of deep tremolo on the overdriven guitar. With each strum in each verse, they drop the speed of the effect as the chord naturally fades out. They disable the effect for chorus. Still, I’ve found with the Rolling Stones and now Radiohead that I really enjoy guitars through tremolo and rotating speaker. It’s particularly exciting when the rhythm of the strumming is in a fight against the tremolo. This can be heard in “Bones” just before each chorus when they they have the speed up.

My favorite track on the album remains “Just.” The song opens with a particularly 90s acoustic guitar riff, much like we would hear later the same year from Oasis. This style of rhythmic strumming was heard a lot during the decade, probably coming from the Pixies and Boston by way of Nirvana.  Radiohead crafted an excellent song here, but what really gets me is the bridge starting halfway into the song. At about 2:28, we hear electric guitar draw the song back in with string noise through tremolo! I would argue that the bridge of “Just” unusually includes another chorus. This comes to a tense climax when Greenwood’s frantically picked ascending lead guitar peaks.. holding a distorted note threatened by impending feedback. The other instruments pull back giving a floating weightless feeling to the moment. Just before feedback overrides the note, Greenwood slides it back and mutes the guitar. A clean guitar brings back the beat of the song with staccato pronunciations. The the band slams us with one last chorus before closing the song by sudden cutting out.

To My Ear: First 50 Albums

I’ve now listened to fifty of the greatest albums of all time, devoting a full week to each. I revisited albums I’ve loved for years, spent time getting to know I only knew a little, and became acquainted with some that I’d never heard before. What did I think personally and what did I learn over all?

As a songwriter, I learned that there the basic standards of songwriting provide the basis for crafting good songs. Still, there are no hard-fast rules. As long as there’s something the listener can hang unto, rules and standards can be broken, ignored, or turned upside down.

Those basics of pop songwriting include the blocks of Verse, Chorus, Bridge and the common arrangements of those blocks (Intro-Verse-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Coda). There’s no shame in using this tried-and-true song structure or typical variations thereof.  It’s not too unlike the structures of plays, movies, novels, or even lectures; You can better engage the listener if the story you tell is built on a structure they know how to follow.

In this way, the structure becomes invisible to most listeners and deviations become visible. In this way, use of an uncommon song structure becomes a part of the narrative, and therefore should support the story in a meaningful way. It doesn’t have to, but it helps.

On chord progressions, I learned something similar.  The most common  progressions possess a lot of strength. That’s why they are so frequently used. They generally provide a good sense of movement and emotion or drive. Again, there’s no shame in using these. Some of the greatest songs from the greatest albums use some sort of I-IV-V chord progression with the exact song structure described above.

Still, I learned that using 7th chords can add tension or emotion to a song. In addition, some very good songs use some strange chord progressions. Borrowed chords particularly give an emotional change to a song without necessary using a full key-change. The further songs get from typical cadences (like V-I or IV-I), the more they can seem to drift along aimless. This can be used effectively as well.

Regarding lyrics, there are two main things I learned. Of course, these are not all I learned, but I think these are the most important for me at this point. First, I confirmed that narrative songwriting best captures my interest. It doesn’t necessarily have to a full tale, it could just be a vignette of somebody making a sandwich. But through these little stories, some sort of emotional conflict can be expressed. Also, the story need not be even coherent or concrete; rather, ambiguity can add a little mystery as well as more room for the listener to move in. I think this narrative element also relates to the concept of “show-don’t-tell” that was taught in writing classes. Don’t say “she is sad,” but rather show how she moves around slowly with her head down. Don’t tell the audience how to feel, let them empathize with the character.

Secondly, I learned to not be afraid of rhyme, but rather to expand my rhyming vocabulary. Bob Dylan in particular is a master of crafting rhymes. Sometimes he’ll use a typical rhyme, but more often his inventiveness allows the story to be told without drawing attention to the rhyme.

In addition to rhyming vocabulary, it’s good to study poetry and old ballads. As a songwriter, I’m writing words I write are meant to be sung with the accompaniment of music. While it is true that lyrics and poetry are not the same thing, there’s a strong relationship between them. And I think that many of these albums prove that a songwriter wielding the tools of the poet can craft better lyrics. This is not writing to sound poetic, but rather, getting a grasp of how poets use meter, rhyme schemes, line structure, stanzas, refrains, etc. And beyond those physical materials of poetry, how do they use things like narrative, visuals, symbolism, metaphors, and allusions.

First 50 Albums Ranked

So, having listened to fifty albums from a composite ranked list inevitably gives one the desire to give their own personal rankings. So, I did it. I point out that my intention was to mostly rank them based on how much I enjoyed and appreciated them. So, this is a very subjective list. That’s always true, but I’m consciously ignoring how great an album was beyond my own tastes. This is very difficult to do, and I don’t necessarily think it’s that important. Still.. if I ranked these same albums again in a month, the order would be a little different here and there.

  1. Beach Boys: Pet Sounds
  2. Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks
  3. Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.
  4. Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde
  5. Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet
  6. Beatles: Abbey Road
  7. Beatles: The Beatles (White Album)
  8. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run
  9. Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed
  10. Beatles: Rubber Soul
  11. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
  12. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited
  13. Patti Smith: Horses
  14. Prince and Revolution: Purple Rain
  15. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
  16. Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland
  17. Smiths: The Queen is Dead
  18. Television: Marquee Moon
  19. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You
  20. Doors: The Doors
  21. Radiohead: OK Computer
  22. Beatles: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
  23. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions
  24. Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen
  25. Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon
  26. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
  27. Clash: London Calling
  28. David Bowie: Hunky Dory
  29. Sex Pistols: Nevermind the Bollocks
  30. Who: Who’s Next
  31. Johnny Cash: Live at Folsom Prison
  32. Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground & Nico
  33. Pixies: Doolittle
  34. Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced
  35. David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
  36. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV
  37. Joni Mitchell: Blue
  38. Beatles: Revolver
  39. Paul Simon: Graceland
  40. Michael Jackson: Thriller
  41. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
  42. Ramones: Ramones
  43. Nirvana: Nevermind
  44. Prince: Sign O The Times
  45. Carole King: Tapestry
  46. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back
  47. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless
  48. Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On
  49. Massive Attack: Blue Lines
  50. Radiohead: Kid A