Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”

Album Cover for "Funeral" by Arcade Fire

This week, I’ve been listening to Arcade Fire’s debut album “Funeral” from 2004. I loved this band from the first time I heard them. I believe Yahoo Music introduced them to me; it was probably the song “Rebellions (Lies).”

“Funeral” consists of individual songs, a suite of songs, that form a unified whole. There’s some repetition of musical ideas, especially the rhythms used to convey driving emotion. With a few brief rests in the twilight, a driving rhythm marches throughout these songs.

The music and lyrics elevate the troubled restless thoughts of our more meek moments; Arcade Fire gave voice to these emotions and filled them with a triumphant sense of purpose, even if that purpose was just to carry on. With universal lines like “Our bodies get bigger, but our hearts get torn up,” it’s no wonder this album resonated with so many. The message is affirming by recognizing the fragility of life and emotions.

Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

Arcade Fire open the “Funeral” with the “Neighborhood” suite of four songs, with an additional track between Neighborhood #2 and #3. I don’t know if this is an interlude or part of the suite. I suspect the band grouped the songs more out of acknowledgement that they loosely shared the theme of neighborhoods more than an intentional concept. The song “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” begins the suite.

Arcade Fire emphasizes every beat throughout much of the album. We’ll hear a lot of four-on-the-floor rhythms. This starts immediately with the first track with pizzicato strings, which then become staccato bowed on the beat. Piano tinkles and then plays a six note motif that will be repeated after stanzas of the verses. At 35 seconds, the vocals and kick drums join simultaneously, with the kick on every beat 1-2-3-4. This is how that march happens. Instruments one by one join in, adding to that continuous rhythm, combined with the rising intensity of Win Butler’s vocals.

The lyrics present a scenario where there’s so much snow that it buries the neighborhood. The (presumably teenage) speaker makes plans to meet their beloved when their parents begin to cry. The song offers some visuals like a wondrous children’s book that’s magical yet vaguely sad. The grown-up plans they make are remotely childlike, frightening and playful. The lyrics make use of repetition, sometimes just a word or two, like a stutter, or pulling back to explain; Occasionally there’s rhyme of the last two lines of each stanza, but not always.

And if the snow buries my, my neighborhood
And if my parents are crying then I’ll dig a tunnel
From my window to yours
Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours


You climb out the chimney and meet me in the middle, the middle of the town
And since there’s no one else around, we let our hair grow long
And forget all we used to know
Then our skin gets thicker from living out in the snow

Une année sans lumière

One of my favorite songs has always been “Une Annee Sans Lumiere,” even though I’ve had no idea what the French lyrics means. So today, I finally looked them up. So, the lyrics are about a young couple; the girl’s father either can’t see or understand their love. I like the sound of the vocals; In addition being half in French, they are also sung more softly and carefully than on other songs. While there’s still a driving rhythm, they break from the four on the floor pounding that happens elsewhere. It’s gently pretty and I’m bobbing my head to it.

The verses follow a I-IV-V-iv-I-IV-V-I-VIb-VI-V-I chord progression. The I-IV-V sections have a strong movement (“Hey, the streetlights all burnt out” ; the sections between the I-IV-Vs are played as an aside (”
Une annee sans lumieres”) with the male vocals joined by Regine Chassagne’s female vocals. I especially like the way the rhythm relaxes for the chorus, where we hear a I-VIb-IV-iv-I-V#-V-I chord progression. The use of borrowed chords, combined with the lack of drums gives the chorus a suspenseful yet weak feeling; It’s somewhat haunting.CBbF Hey, your old man should know FmC If you see a shadow G#GC there’s something there

Hey, your old man should know
If you see a shadow
There’s something there

Rebellion (Lies)

I like to consider “Rebellion (Lies)” as the last song, becuase I don’t like the actual last song. Immediately, the kick drum pounds in on the four-to-the-floor beat. A piano drives along hitting at a constant eighth note rhythm. This song ends the album on an uplifting anthemic march, strengthened by the repetition of a I-IV-I-vi chord progression and a few upward key changes. Again, as with other songs, instruments join one at a time at the beginning of bars. And as the song progresses, those instruments intensify their emphasis of the beat.

The lyrics deal with slightly-dark universal themes of the cultural deception and mythology, ending with an affirmation that things will be alright anyway. At a surface level, it’s a rebellion against the parental commandment to get sleep: “People say that you’ll die faster than without water, But we know it’s just a lie to scare your son and scare your daughter.” Further, it’s a proclamation that maybe we don’t need to hide our selves in the darkness of night, under the covers, under the control of society and our parents.

Now here’s the sun, it’s alright!
Now here’s the moon, it’s alright!
But every time you close your eyes, lies!

Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”

album cover for "Songs in the Key of Life"

I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-LP “Songs in the Key of Life” this week. After spending a time with his 1973 album “Innervisions” back in August, I was looking forward to this one. Overall, this proved to be another great album by Wonder, serving up more of his unique blend of funk, soul, pop, and jazz. That said, I liked “Innervisions” more. My main complaint is that there’s too many songs and many of them are too long. This could’ve been two fantastic albums, but instead it is one overly long album. Many of the tracks have unnecessarily long codas. Still, I had difficulty picking just three tracks to dive into here, because there’s so much good stuff to choose from.

Sir Duke

I’ve known the song “Sir Duke” for a long time now. Several years ago, I got curious about the source material for the song “Let’s Get Busy Baby” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Of course, I also first heard “Pastime Paradise,” because of Coolio’sGangsta’s Paradise.” “Sir Duke” begins with a dry kick drum hitting on every beat, with horns on the the first, second and third beat.. and just before the fourth. Then the next few bars mix horns on beat and syncopation. This mixture of percussive hops on the beat and then grooves on the upbeat is on the main ingredients of funk. Wonder users it expertly throughout the album.

Very dry bass and drums in the center channel emphasis the downbeat, while providing additional rhythm interest at the end of each measure. A clean electric guitar bounces in the right channel. An electric piano plays chords and syncopated arpeggios through a slowly rotating speaker on the left half of the stereo field. The chorus and break feature horns playing rhythmic melodic blasts in unison.

I especially like the rhythm of the pre-chorus, with instruments stacked in staccato eight notes, with a little hop during the 4th beat of each measure. This section, perhaps, pays the most musical tribute to the song’s name sake, jazz legend Duke Ellington. In a broader sense, Wonder sings in praise of swing. He mentions Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in the second pre-chorus:

For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all, Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose

Summer Soft

“Summer Soft” follows the winter and summer out-of-touch with each other. Summer is represented by a female character that leaves in October, while the male October leaves in April. I’m not sure I understand what he’s trying to do with the lyrics with the two characts/seasons always leaving. It reminds me of 14th century poetry with its combination of simplicity and metaphor. The music is relatively upbeat, but the focus seems to be on confusion and loss.

The track combines pop-soul with jazz. The generous use of seventh chords contribute to the jazz-feel. Except for the intro, a swirling mixture of instruments play throughout. They contribute to a general sense of atmosphere, mostly padding out the background during the verses. However, during the chorus and the outro, these instruments all come alive. They pick up in energy, brightening and moving forward in the mix. I particularly enjoy the parts where subtle synths play smooth pulses like Morse-code echoing across the left and right channels.

I Wish

The side two opener “I Wish” quickly became my favorite song on the album. I found the song lends itself well for walking on the sidewalk. It has a forward-driving bounce and a city heartbeat that feels good. On the show “Classic Albums,” Stevie Wonder gave an informative demonstration on how he wrote and recorded the song. He played the majority of the instruments, including drums, keyboards and vocals. The bass in the song is also keyboard, played by Wonder.

Wonder is a very capable drummer, and he demonstrates that in this song with its amazing percussive groove. There’s no flash, he’s not showing off on the drums. The kick drum mostly hits on the down beats, with occasional hops on the upbeat. The 2nd and 4th beat of each measure usually has a snare drum, sometimes accompanied or replaced by handclaps. The hi-hat taps along keeping the tempo, a cymbal crash introduces the start of each section of the song. During the chorus he opens the hat giving some funk the drum groove. Then for the post-chorus, the hat opens giving a forward-pull to the upbeats.

Plucky bass synths dance in the left and right channels. This is fairly unusual, because producers, especially in the 70s, would keep the bass in the center. This is because having bass panned off-center could didn’t always work well with the needle of record players. But here, he has two basses, that will balance each other out. There’s also a bass guitar that usually mimics the bass synths, but draws attention to itself by adding some funky slides up and down the neck. During the chorus, the 2nd and 4th beats are strongly emphasized by the horns shouting out between Wonder’s single-syllable vocals on the downbeat. Man, this song really makes you want to dance. It’s impossible to sit still.

Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light”

Talking Heads Remain in Light album cover.

I’ve been listening to the Talking Heads’ fourth album “Remain in Light” from 1980. I first loved the video for “Once in Lifetime” as child seeing it on Mtv. My love and of the song and video have continued ever since. And also the amazing performance of the song in the concert film “Stop Making Sense.” Somehow I managed to never really hear the rest of this album. I looked forward to this week of getting to know the rest of the album. I heard most of these tracks for the first time, which was exciting.

Unfortunately, I lied when I said it was exciting. With the first listen, I kind of liked this album. After seven days, I didn’t care for it much at all. Overall, I was glad that the week was over. The Talking Heads and crew do some innovative things here, but I fail to find the results interesting enough; there’s a lot of repetition without much variation, making the 4½ – 6 minute songs feel very long.

Born Under Punches

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” kicks off the album with two percussion hits followed by Byrne’s exclamation “hah!” Immediately, we’re brought into a very textural layering of rhythms. Like Paul Simon some years later, Brian Eno and the Talking Heads were drawing influence from African rhythms. In contrast to Simon, they seem to be playing with possibilities encountered in African music rather than copying what they heard.

This song is full of layers of hand percussion and drum kits, looped and manipulated. Synth bleeps and bloops provide unique rhythm elements rather than pads and melodies. The bass comes and goes ,bouncing to signal openings of bars with sharp plucks providing off-beat movement.. clean electric guitar blips and chops hyperactively, adding to the fractal-like texture of the music. What’s happening musically is very fascinating, even if it wears thin in the listening.

While I talk below about chord progressions, the Talking Heads don’t overtly play chords in most of these songs. The individual instruments focus more rhythm and melodic riffing; yet they work together to form chords over bars, often strengthened by the bass and pad synths.

Listening Wind

Towards the end of the album “Listening Wind” provides a bit of a break from the frantic skittering rhythms of the album. As far as the chord progression, the song follows a basic i-VII. This fragile progression feels less like a chord progression and more like it sinks down to the VII and returns to the minor tonic. With the slow pace and rhythmic delay, the sound is of a slow and determined approach. This movement and emotion suits the lyrics about an African terrorist responding to Western imperialism.

Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses
He thinks of days that he can still remember…now.
Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands
Mojique sends the package to the American man
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover
He feels the time is surely now or never…more.

The overall sound and use of synths in this song reminds me a lot of David Bowie’s album “Outside” from fifteen years later. Of cours, i love those marimba sounds, which are undoubtedly synthesizer here. Coincidentally, Brian Eno worked on that album as well. I like the undulating delay with echos of the filtered squelches and plucks drifting into the dreamy distance. The song creates a cloudy haze, as the main character responds to the listening wind, from without and within.

Once in a Lifetime

I’m not surprised that they chose “Once in a Lifetime” to promote as the single. With this track, they created the most approachable and enjoyable song. They made use of much of the same experimental techniques and rhythms, but within a more traditional song structure. There distinctive verses and choruses, with a bridge.

The verses follow an unusual chord progression of V-iii-V-iii. The bass emphasizes the change from one chord to the next, with two quick beats in on the first chord and then one on the new chord. The chorus then repeats V-I-iii-IV. This chord progression tricks us, because it never truly resolves; yet, it provides an undeniable forward movement.

Many of the lyrics on this album seem impenetrable nonsense. However, I suspect they are much like the lyrics here. Given enough time, we can fill them with meaning. For me, this song speaks of how time can progress on us when we’re not paying attention. By playing the game idly with obedient sleepwalking, we will wake one day not recognizing the life we’ve made for ourselves.

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Love’s “Forever Changes”

Album cover for Love's "Forever Changes"

This week, I’ve been listening to Love’s masterpiece LP “Forever Changes” from 1967. I first became aware of this band, and this album, through the Wes Anderson’sBottle Rocket” in 1997. Once I’d heard “Alone Again Or” in that movie, I had to find out more about the song and who did it. Within a few months, I purchased a copy of this album on CD. The whole thing blew me away. This is one of the most amazing musical works I’d ever heard. Each song brilliantly combines musical flavors into a unified whole. There’s elements of psychedelic rock, folk rock, latin rock, and baroque pop.

This was the same year as the “Sgt. Pepper“, “Piper at the Gate of Dawn“, “Surrealistic Pillow“, “Are You Experienced“, “Satanic Majesties“,”Incense and Peppermints.” Rock bands were exploring new sounds, ways of writing lyrics and music, as well as performance and visuals. Much of this music definitely sounds of its time and “Forever Changes” is no exception. However, there’s something about “Forever Changes” the feels more independent of time and location. I think it could be the unique combination of genres as well as the presence of air between the instruments and notes.

Love play the traditional rock instruments: drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. They richly enhanced this core band with a group of session musicians on strings, piano, trumpet, trombones, and additional horns, bass, and drums.

The album has some frightful lyrics, in contrast to the summer of love. One of my favorite tracks “A House Is Not a Motel” begins by offering a heavenly home to take refuge; By the third and final verse, the song paints a world overrun by war.

By the time that I’m through singing
The bells from the schools and walls will be ringing
More confusions, blood transfusions.
The news today will be the movies for tomorrow.
And the water’s turned to blood, and if
You don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray
And you can call my name.

The verses of this minor key song follows a progression of i-III-ii-VI twice, followed by ii-VI-ii-VII-ii-VII-i-i. That’s four lines of melody, followed by two, and then a rest. The first pair line two lines start with the tonic chord, establishing the key. It’s an unusual progression to go from III-ii-VI, resulting in a fragile chord progression. This progression contains no IV or V. The second part of the verse almost feels like a key change shifting up on step to ii, but we are still in the same key. Again, there’s no IV of V, and we actually stay raised away from the tonic until the end, which gives this section a continuing sense of suspense. The vocals enhance this feeling with longer pauses between each line.

Something that I really love about this track is the unusually loud guitar solo. Normally, I would feel like this was a bad decision, but it works so perfectly in this track. After the third verse, two electric guitars play a menacing lead riff in unison. They spread across the stereo field with one hard left and the other hard right. To my ear, You could achieve this guitar sound with a treble boost (or open wah) played through either fuzz or overdrive. I’m leaning towards fuzz. After playing this line six times with little variation, the two guitars break off into wildly different solos.

“The Red Telephone” provides a great example of that openness I mentioned earlier. There’s lots of empty space in this track; in time, there’s space between the vocals lines. There’s space between the instruments on the frequency band. There’s also great space between sounds on the stereo field. They panned Things hard left and hard right. To increase this space, we sometimes hear the room reverb on the right for something on the left. I like the way this ties the ears together, making the hard panning feel more natural.

As with many songs of the late 60s, the song opens with an acoustic guitar panned hard right. After an opening riff, the drums and bass join in the left channel. In this case, the vocals begin the first verse at the same time in the center change. This song also delivers lyrics non-stereotypical of the hippy-dippy summer of love, “Sitting on a hillside, watching all the people die.” The words are a general indictment of war, violence, race relations, and police state. Each verse ends with an eerie harpsichord line that suggests dark forebodings.

The end of lines sometimes go into a IV-IV♯7 which gives them an eerie sense of foreboding. Musicians frequently add the seventh to a chord for suspense, depending on the genre. The seventh can also draw a chord towards a more jazzy feel, as jazz makes great use of sevenths, sixths, and ninths. Borrowed chords, like the sharpened seventh, don’t get used too often in rock music. When they do, they provide either an a rise or drop in emotion. Using a sharpened chord right after playing the chord gives a sense of movement, adding the seventh makes it uncomfortable. That happens here. Arthur Lee and Love play up the haunting atmosphere with these unusual chord progressions.

The track ends with a prolonged arpeggio on the vi and VI. They rise from the minor vi to the major VI at the end of each phrase, suggesting we’re going to move on to another chord. However, the progression returns right back to the minor vi. There’s not resolution here, supporting the feeling of the chanted vocals:

They’re locking them up today
They’re throwing away the key
I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?

Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis”

Album cover for Dusty in Memphis

This week, I’ve been listening to Dusty Springfield’s 1969 album “Dusty in Memphis.” Previous to this week, I really only knew “Son of a Preacher Man” and “The Windmills of Your Mind.” from this album and her earlier hit “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Springfield was British performer who started off in a girl group, before going solo. The music of Motown captured her heart. She championed those American groups in the UK as well as recording music in a similar style. “Dusty in Memphis” was recorded with producers that had worked with some of those Motown artists she loved.

Possibly Springfield’s most famous track, “Son of a Preacher Man” is a great soul pop song. It had originally been written for Aretha Franklin, who did record it but actually passed on it. Franklin’s recording had a little more R&B feel where Springfield’s is a bit more pop. Springfield’s voice and the lyrics are narrative in style, her singing casually expressive and a little sultry.

The verses of the song follow a I-IV-I-V chord progression. The first chord lasts a full measure, the next measure has the IV-I, the third continues the I, then the V lasts a full four measures. The melody falls in pitch during those four measures This softens the tension that would often be created by an extended V chord. There’s still a sense that the story is building up to something, but it’s conversational.

After the second chorus, there’s a key change to the subdominant (the IV chord becomes the tonic). Springfield’s voice rises in pitch and amplitude, supported by the backing brass. This gives the sense that the narrative has changed perspective or that the story takes a turn. Actually, neither of these happens; it’s rather that the story-telling continues. Perhaps the key change is to emphasize the emotion nature of the memory.

How well I remember
The look that was in his eyes
Stealing kisses from me on the sly
Taking time to make time
Telling me that he’s all mine
Learning from each other’s knowing
Looking to see how much we’ve grown

The rhythm section consists of a woody electric bass and a drumkit. The drums present a punch driving rock beat, with a snare on the second and fourth beat. Interestingly, the kick often rests on the first beat, tapping instead an eight note later on the upbeat. This gives the song a little hop at the beginning of each measure. The bass guitar often fidgets, moving up and down the scale dancing. This adds energy. Plus, the bass is in the back enough that it doesn’t overpower the song.

Another favorite from the week was “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore.” This was a new song to me, and I first noticed the wonderful story telling technique. The song is about a woman discovering that her husband is unfaithful. However, the lyrics focus on the speaker’s desire to pretend its not happening. She overhears the neighbors talking about it, which she tries to ignore. I only just learned that this song was written by Randy Newman, one of my favorite songwriters. It was also recorded around the same time by Scott Walker, who is another of my favorites.

I don’t want to hear it anymore
I don’t want to hear it anymore
Because the talk just never ends
And the heartache soon begins
The talk is so loud
And the walls are much too thin

This slow tempo song rolls along with the compressed mono drums in the left channel. They are probably going through a reverb chamber, or at least the compression is pushing forward the natural sound of the room. Bass balances out the rhythm on the right channel. Again, like “Son of a Preach Man,” the bass plays intricate rhythms giving texture to the bottom, only letting up for sections that require rest.

Tremendous reverb gives atmosphere to Springfield’s voice, especially audible during the choruses when the other instruments let their notes ring out. Lush strings pad the sound, again with reverb, giving the song a feel of heartbreaking nostalgia. I do not know if the sound felt nostalgic at the time, but it certainly does in 2018. Horns provide counterpoint to the melody, especially at the end of verses.

I also loved “The Windmills of Your Mind” from this album. I’ve known about the song for a very long time, though. Originally, through an instrumental Moog version by Electronic Concept Orchestra. I liked the haunting chamber pop feel of their recording. Then I also heard another instrument version by Peter Nero, which was more upbeat but still haunting. Then I saw the amusing Muppets treatment.

It was still some years before I heard the Dusty Springfield version. I’m really backwards on these things sometimes. And this week, I learned that the song was originally performed by Noel Harrison for the movie The Thomas Crown Affair. His version is a little more jaunty with the melody becoming almost Scottish in a Donovan sort of way.

I like the building intensity of the melody and music that exactly expresses and emphasizes the meaning of the lyrics. The lyrics are a poem, and the music does what the words describe. Never mind that I’m not sure what the analogy of an “apple whirling silently in space” is supposed to convey.

Round like a circle in a spiral,
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain,
Or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning
Running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind!

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

Carole King’s “Tapestry”

Carole King Tapestry album cover

For the past week, I’ve been listening to Carole King’s 1971 album “Tapestry” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. I’ve been more than aware of this album for years. From basement sales, I’ve managed to pick up two copies of it based on the feeling that I should appreciate it. And each time I’ve tried it, I would be disappointed. 

The songwriting is there, but these feel more like demo recordings to me. The musicians are surely capable, but generally play these songs straight. I feel they could use more playfulness and invention that may’ve come from working and reworking the songs. The vocals are adequate and often expressively intimate, but too frequently they feel thin and lacking in confidence. I know that Carole King had written a great many songs for other performers. Frequently, I feel that her performances here are an example of how the song could be sung rather than actually being a performance.

The songwriting is there, but these feel more like demo recordings to me. The musicians are surely capable, but generally play these songs straight. I feel they could use more playfulness and invention that may’ve come from working and reworking the songs. The vocals are adequate and often expressively intimate, but too frequently they feel thin and lacking in confidence. I know that Carole King had written a great many songs for other performers. Frequently, I feel that her performances here are an example of how the song could be sung rather than actually being a performance.

One of the best songs on the album, “It’s too Late,” has a wonderful vocal performance and accompaniment. I contradict my previous assessment of the album’s weaknesses by then talking about this track. However, I do want to talk about what I liked. On this song, poet Toni Stern wrote the lyrics with Carole King writing the music. King’s piano provides the main rhythm and chords for the song, with bass guitar, drums and congas further filling in the chord progression and rhythm. An electric guitar panned left and an electric piano panned right interact with each other across the centered piano chords. The syncopated rhythms of the melody and upbeat tempo of this minor key ballad seem to encourage King to sing with wonderful energy and confidence. 

With “Way Over Yonder,” King provides a soulful track performed with a gospel sentiment. Melody drives the song, carried well by King’s vocals. This is also one of the looser performances on the album; The loose performance, with the piano coming in and out of swing and syncopated time, lends the song a greater human emotional feeling. The slow pace along with three steps leading to each chord change gives the song soul.

The lyrics focus on a life of happiness and sweetness as a goal in life. This vision is presented like a gospel hymn on the promise of heaven. “I know when I get there, the first things I’ll see, is the sun shining golden. Shining right down on me.” Whereas those hymns have an overall optimistic sense of hope; I appreciate that this song has more a sense of longing.

King provides her own take on her song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” which was originally famously performed by the Shirelles. The Shirelles version, I believe, is featured in one of my favorite movies, “Big Wednesday.” Both versions are performed like a doo-wop ballad. However, the chord progression is not the 50s doo-wop progression, but rather a I-IV-V-I-V-IV♭-IV-iv for the verses. I love the sound of the V-IV♭-IV-iv. The use of the borrowed IV♭ feels like we’re going into a key change, but then we’re brought back to the IV, which gets dropped to a minor at the end of the line. The chord progression is emotionally very effective. 

Overall, I’m still not a fan of this album.  Martika did a great high-energy pop version of “I Feel the Earth Move” in 1989. Having grown up hearing that cover, I find Carole King’s more straight-forward performance to be a lackluster start of the album. So, the album was actually more enjoyable for me if I skipped the first track. However, most of the songs I would love to hear as performed by other musicians, with the exception of “It’s too late” which I love as is.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Electric Ladyland”

This week, I’ve been listening to the 1968 album “Electric Ladyland” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. About six months ago, I spent time with their first album “Are you Experienced?” That album was released just 17 months before this, their third and final album.

They certainly evolved over this short period of time. While I truly enjoyed their debut album, I absolutely loved this one. The first album was more of a psychedelic blues rock. This album takes that sound and launches into the stratosphere, pushing the experimental psychedelic elements. They’ve also folded in some ingredient of soul and funk.

The album opens with intro track  “And the Gods Made Love” which is some slowed down stuff. It’s kind of neat the first couple times and then I found it annoying. I wanted to talk here about the first real song 
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland),” but I like to include a video link of the songs here and it’s not available on YouTube. Anyway, it is a great track and from the first thirty seconds, I knew I was going to love the album. It’s opens as a rather soulful funk-aware R&B song. Strange things are happening with the rhythms as the song seems to swirl upon itself. Experimental yet immediately accessible.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded a fantastic cover of Bob Dylan‘s song “All Along the Watchtower” for this album. From what I’ve read, Hendrix got ahold of Dylan recording pretty early and liked this song immediately. The Experience worked on their cover for a few months and it was released within a year of Dylan’s original.  As great as Dylan’s lyrics are, the incredible soundscape of Hendrix’s version towers above the words. I know many of the words, but don’t really know what the song is about because what’s happening musically is so amazing. The verses serve more as passing narrative between the real action: Jimi’s lead guitar. 

A twelve-string acoustic guitar strums the chords throughout the song simply.  The lead guitar gives the track much of its psychedelic blues rock flavor. Jimi’s plays his stratocaster through a chorus and fuzz, with expressive filter modulation provided by a wah pedal. This sound of this combination of guitar and effects is all over the album. To see how the wah pedal is used to create these sounds, check out this excellent video by fuzzfaceexp. Some additional use of delay provides depth to the leads as well.

Another great song is “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” towards the end of the album. Again, the track mostly provides a space for Jimi’s chorus-fuzz-wah lead guitar to soar into wildly expressive explorations of sound. This starts with the opening measures, one of the Hendrix’s most famous riffs. One that I, unfortunately must admit, first hear in middle school as sampled in a 2 Live Crew song. The Hendrix track has a marvelously live jam quality to it; Even though it features use of overdubbing additional tracks, it was initially created as a jam.

I continue my complaint about the Jimi Hendrix Experience and overuse of stereo panning as an effect. Sometimes it adds something to a song, but mostly I find it annoying and distracting. Better, I feel to use panning of a delay effect, but that may not have been as readily an option as it is today.

Overall, I loved the album “Electric Ladyland.” There’s more playful experimentation than found on “Are You Experienced?” as well as a greater sense of skill and experience with their direction and recording.  Great album.