Oh what a difficult start to a list-making process. 1991, the year I was born, one filled with landmark releases and a general air of pop-cultural upheaval. The alleged death of hair metal, the rise of grunge and what the A&R suits would sooner or later pigeonhole as “alt rock,” the commercialization of what DIY punk bands had pioneered long before the term “indie” became the latest signifier of hipness — so many goings on and so many albums to choose from, to the point that selecting a favorite among them required a take-no-prisoners mentality and a great deal of arbitrary flip-flopping on the basis of some pretty nebulous criteria.
So what did I end up with? Continue reading “A FAVORITE ALBUM FOR EVERY YEAR OF MY LIFE”
Not to start off on a tangent, but I find it almost impossible to talk about American songwriting from the latter half of the 20th century without mentioning a certain album not written by an American musician: Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s 1968 masterwork and the first of several records that would elevate the mercurial Irishman to the status of an icon, a work that’s been variously described as “impressionistic” and “modernist” and a litany of other inscrutable terms that are meant only to connote inscrutability. Continue reading “BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: Bruce Springsteen”
In 1967, when everyone from the Beatles to the Velvet Underground was going psychedelic, Bob Dylan went the opposite direction. He headed straight to Nashville, where he would make such inoffensively traditional country music that it managed to offend even those who had stuck by his side through his prior conversion to rock ’n’ roll. And while the songs of Nashville Skyline (1969) remain worthy entries in his canon — especially “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” one of the most straightforwardly satisfying songs the man ever wrote — its merits seem to be largely aesthetic rather than substantive. A more textually rich example of Dylan’s return to traditionalism is John Wesley Harding, released two years earlier, an album that sounds folksier than anything Dylan has done post-‘64 and yet, behind its stripped-down veneer, contains new depths of meaning; in fact, it’s one of Dylan’s most tightly structured and thematically disciplined pieces of work. Continue reading “BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: John Wesley Harding // Nashville Skyline”
In October of 1961, Columbia Records signed a 20-year-old college dropout from Hibbing, Minnesota who had begun to make a name for himself in the coffeehouses and nightclubs around Greenwich Village. Six months later, the label put out his first album, a collection of folk standards that barely sold enough copies to cover the recording costs. A second album came out the following year, this time featuring almost entirely original material (eleven of thirteen tracks), and went on to sell over a million copies in the U.S. alone. The kid who wrote those songs was born Robert Zimmerman but the artist he became through writing and performing them was Bob Dylan — as in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — and the impact of his work on popular music as a whole was positively seismic. Continue reading “BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”
According to most historians, rock & roll — both the genre and the cultural movement — was born in 1954, when Elvis Presley recorded his career-making rendition of “That’s All Right.” Even the late great Bon Scott of AC/DC (one of the most underrated lyricists in mainstream rock, but we’ll get to that later) kicks off the first verse of “Let There Be Rock” with the immortal line: “And in the beginning, back in 1955, man didn’t know ‘bout the rock & roll show and all that jive.” Of course, Bon was probably jumping past ’54 for the sake of the rhyme — or maybe he just preferred Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” an equally monumental track released in ’55 — but you get the point: to a whole generation of aspiring rock musicians, Elvis was IT, man. And I’m not disagreeing. It just so happens that the first song to embody rock & roll as a genre actually predates the cultural movement itself… Continue reading “THIS ONE DUDE’S HISTORY OF ROCK, Chapter 1: “In the Beginning””
To the uninitiated, the body of music that bridged the gap between the first wave of rock & roll and heavy metal proper — popularized during the 1970s and later canonized as “hard rock” — can often seem as generic as its description. Surely any genre whose sole distinction is its “hardness” must be a one-note affair, totally uniform in terms of aesthetics and devoid of the stylistic experimentation that elevates most genres beyond their ostensible limits (i.e. Gershwin introducing jazz and pop to classical music, Miles Davis fusing jazz with rock, Ray Charles approaching country from an R&B angle, etc). And while hard rock did start out as an aggressive update of the blues — British Invasion bands like the Who and the Yardbirds following their musical roots into more dangerous waters — critics and average listeners alike tend to dismiss the artists that followed as no more than an arena-friendly repackaging of those same roots.
But a closer examination of the genre’s canon will prove this a cursory appraisal at best: in fact, many of the hardest rocking bands in history — or at least those who reconciled artistic integrity with commercial success — have succeeded in putting a signature stamp on the larger body of music for which they collectively stand. With A Night at the Opera (1975), Queen made piano-pop and opera sound brutal; Rush infused 2112 (1976) with the sci-fi imagery and mathematical precision of prog; AC/DC brought boogie-woogie back to life on Powerage (1978). And while all these albums may feature long-haired dudes belting it in their upper registers and busting out flashy guitar solos every other verse, the aforementioned bands are anything but homogenous when it comes to style. Anyone who’s listened to classic-rock radio in the last 20 years should be able to appreciate the sizable difference between, say, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Riff Raff.”
Continue reading “DEEP CUTS: ’70s Hard Rock”