25
Feb
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Eight
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"For me to say that I was enthralled would be an understatement. I had never heard such magical sounds, so amazingly recorded. It undoubtedly changed the way that I, and countless others, approached recording. It is a timeless and amazing recording of incredible genius and beauty."-Sir Elton John, on Pet Sounds

"That ear"”I mean Jesus, he's got to will that to the Smithsonian."-Bob Dylan, on Brian Wilson

"Obscure upon release and obscure even now, for all the cult appeal, Underground is music at its most experimental and relentlessly uncommercial, using late-60's inspirations as a launching ground for what came to be described as Krautrock."-Ned Raggett, Allmusic.com on Psychedelic Underground

"Won't you please let me go? These words lie inside, they hurt me so"¦"-New Order, "Age of Consent"

What do the "˜60s sound like to you? At first glance, this may appear akin to me asking, "what does the color blue taste like?" but I believe there's more to it than that. Music can be connected inextricably to the age in which it was released, and perhaps more than any other period, the 1960's has a distinctive sound. It's the era that invented rock and roll, modern soul, psychedelic and experimental music. It's the era of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye. It's the era of Woodstock. Every decade, every era has a feel to it, and yes, each of them is often associated with a certain type of music, but I would say that isn't the case with the "˜60s, not really. While most eras have one sound, the "˜60s is a veritable cacophony of brilliance and innovation, filled to the brim with different genres and iconic bands, all operating at their apex.

This may not hold true to people who were alive and musically aware during the era, but to me (and I suspect to most people of my generation, born roughly 20 years after the "˜60s ended) there is an almost mythic vibe that emerges from the "˜60s. One might even call it (put your segue helmet on, boys and girls) a good vibration. And while picking the band that defined the "˜60s single-handedly is impossible, it is easy to look at the period and see certain bands coming to represent a culture and a feeling. To me, one of these bands has always been The Beach Boys. In their heyday the band were considered rivals for America's hearts and minds with The Beatles (and you need look no further than last week's installment of this column to see which side of that debate I land on), but I've never really seen them that way. To me, The Beach Boys define what it must have been like to be young in Southern California in the 1960's. Having grown up in the area, the carefree surf-culture that the band seems to embody is still present, yet it has always seemed to me at best a shadow of what it would have been like to go on an actual "Surfin' Safari" with The Beach Boys during their prime. In my youth I always associated the band with surf rock pretty much inextricably: to me, The Beach Boys were surf rock, and represented surfing culture. That meant I never really looked at the band as a potential rival to The Beatles, nor did I ever honestly see them as one of America's great bands. Whenever I was a kid and a Beach Boys song came on, I just thought of the summer.

In recent years I have admittedly began to see that view as naïve, but I don't think I'm the only one who ever held it. In fact, much of The Beach Boys fan base seems to have thought similarly, especially during the band's early years. Formed in 1961 in Hawthorne California, the band was initially composed of brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine. The band was initially famed for their surf rock, but they grew in style and complexity as Brian Wilson, the band's driving artistic and creative force, developed in ambition and ability. Pet Sounds, Collin's pick this week, is The Beach Boys eleventh album in just five years, showing them to be as shockingly prolific as they were willing to experiment with new sounds and styles as they grew to maturity. Pet Sounds, the band's first truly divergent album, is widely heralded as one of the best and most influential albums in the history of popular music, ranked #2 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list (behind The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Paul McCartney has called a response to Pet Sounds). Created after Brian Wilson had stopped touring with the band in order to focus on writing and recording, the album aimed to layer vocal harmonies, adding unconventional sound effects (including bicycle bells, dog whistles, Coca Cola cans and barking dogs) to give the album a unique sound.

Brian Wilson was inspired to create Pet Sounds after hearing the U.S. release of The Beatles' Rubber Soul, of which he said, "I really wasn't quite ready for the unity. It felt like it all belonged together. Rubber Soul was a collection of songs"¦that somehow went together like no album made before, and I was very impressed. I said, "˜That's it. I am challenged to do a great album." Let's pause for a moment to recognize that Rubber Soul inspired Pet Sounds, which in turn caused The Beatles to respond with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Perhaps The Beatles and The Beach Boys had a stronger rivalry than I had previously realized. Or maybe they just only listened to each other's music.

The album's opening track, "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is one of the band's best and most enduring songs. It follows a young couple who dream of being old enough to get married and live together. Breathlessly romantic in a youthful and, yes, naïve way, the song expresses the frustrations of youth and the innocent dream of what independence might be like. "That's Not Me," a lament by Wilson about his fears that he might find himself unrecognizably changed, is sung by Mike Love atop a percussive track. Unlike every other song on Pet Sounds, this track actually featured The Beach Boys playing the instruments (Brian Wilson had been using session musicians since Today! Note to self: Next time I'm engaged in a "Beatles vs. Beach Boys" debate, remember to point out they weren't usually playing the instruments)."Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)" is one of four tracks on the album in which no Beach Boys other than Brian appear (Second note to self: The Beach Boys are absent for a lot of The Beach Boys best album).





Two instrumental tracks, "Let's Go Away For Awhile," a wistful melody that originally included the parenthetical "(And Then We'll Have World Peace)" and the title track, a brass-heavy surf track that hearkens back to the band's roots, break up the album nicely. "Sloop John B," a rearranged cover of a West Indies folk song, was suggested by Al Jardine. Brian Wilson found the song too simple and didn't like folk music, so Jardine made it slightly more complex to sell him on it. The next day, Brian called him to the studio and played him the finished arrangement, which was far more complex and melodically satisfying.







Another of the band's all time classics, "God Only Knows" was composed by Brian with vocals by Carl Wilson. It was more technically sophisticated than any other song the band had tried to that point, with both a complicated melodic structure and complex vocal harmonies. "I Know There's An Answer" was originally written as "Hang on to Your Ego," a reference to the idea that your ego is smashed when you try LSD (which Brian was experimenting with heavily at the time), but the band found the idea too controversial so Brian changed it. Personally, I found "Hang on to Your Ego" (included on the 40th Anniversary reissue) much better than "I Know There's An Answer" without ever having done acid, but maybe that's just me.







The Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Paul McCartney has called "God Only Knows" his favorite song ever written, and admits that he bought Pet Sounds for his kids as part of their musical education. Many other musical titans, including Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan consider the album a masterpiece and admit that it influenced their subsequent work. The Beach Boys will never beat the Beatles in my mind, but that's not really the point. The Beach Boys captured the feeling of a certain culture at a certain time, and didn't let that hold them back from experimenting musically and changing the face of popular music.

While on this side of the Atlantic The Beach Boys had large sway, across the ocean in Germany it was the psychedelic sound of the "˜60s that started changing things permanently. Amon Düül began as a German political art commune formed out of the student movement of the 1960's, but became most well known for its free form musical improvisations. Psychedelic Underground came out of a mammoth jam session held by the band, which was treated heavily with studio effects to enhance the sound and the strangeness.

The opening track, "Ein Wunderhubsches Madchen Traumt von Sandosa" is a 17-minute long jam session with heavy percussion, a chugging guitar riff, and chanting vocals that mirror a call and response vocal structure. At one point the session fades out for a brief respite involving a piano melody and train noises (of course) before coming back just as strong.



"Kaskados Minnilied" mixes acoustic and electric guitars deftly and adds some string instruments for a melodic drone that balances the whole track. "Im Garten Sandosa" is a sparer song, focused more on a strummed guitar and with a heavier influence on vocals than the other tracks. Amon Düül is consideredwidely influential to the foundation of Krautrock and Psychedelic Underground is considered a free form response to American psychedelic rock. While Amon Düül never legitimately existed as a band (the entity known as Amon Düül refers to the entire collective, and every album they released is taken from one mammoth recording session in early 1969. The more musically inclined members had broken off to form Amon Düül II by the time of this album's release), the sound of their album and the political and artistic views they espoused became central to the fast emerging genre of Krautrock.





The "˜60s had a vibrant tapestry of divergent sounds. The sound of the 80's, on the other hand, is much easier to pin down, and much of it can be traced to New Order. Formed by Bernard Summer, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris, the remaining members of Joy Division after Ian Curtis' suicide, the band combined new wave and electronic dance and became one of the most critically acclaimed and highly influential bands of the 1980's. The band's first release, 1981's Movement, was stylistically and thematically a continuation of the work Joy Division had been doing prior to Curtis' suicide. The band considered the album a low point, as they were still reeling from Curtis' death, and Hook later claimed that the only positive thing to come out of the sessions was that producer Martin Hannet taught the band how to use a mixing board, which allowed the band to produce their own records from then on.

New Order's second album, and Ashley's pick this week, Power, Corruption, and Lies was a dramatic change in sound and is considered the point at which the band found their footing. "Age of Consent," the album's opening track, is a bold and powerful step forward for the band, shedding all of their Joy Division ties and emerging fully formed as a new wave synth band that would define the sound of the "˜80s. The song can be easily read as addressed to Curtis, whose suicide had angered and sidetracked the band for years. "Age of Consent" is the moment the band fully broke free of Curtis' artistic vision, the moment they reached their own artistic maturity and began to pursue their own vision. At the risk of being accused of bias, "Age of Consent" is a fucking fantastic song and colors the rest of the album with its splendor.



"The Village" is another upbeat dance song with rock undertones and an optimistic view of love and life in general. "586," meanwhile, is a much darker, synth heavy melody that picks up into a dance beat by its middle stretch, managing to avoid too many similarities to the sound of Joy Division by remaining beat-driven even in its darker moments. "Your Silent Face" is a synth-heavy melody that evokes romance and nostalgia in equal measures, opening quietly and building toward profound realizations about change.







It would be impossible to discuss New Order during this period without bringing up "Blue Monday," which was not included on the initial UK release of the album (instead becoming the biggest 12" single of all time), but was included on the album's American release. The song beings with a distinctive kick drum intro before leading into a throbbing synth bass line during the verses. "Blue Monday" is seen as one of the most important cross-over tracks of the 1980's pop scene, bringing the influence of the New York club scene to Britain. The band heartily influenced techno, rock, and pop, including Pet Shop Boys, The Killers, and Moby. In addition, they are largely considered one of the foundations of new wave, the genre that would dominate the alternative movement of the 1980s.



Music can define an era, influencing it as it occurs, and forever coloring it in hindsight. It can become indelibly attached to its era, but more importantly, the era can be permanently viewed through the lens of the music that defined and shaped it. Music can be timeless as easily as it can be timely, and the best music can manage to be both at the same time. Pet Sounds, Psychedelic Underground, and Power, Corruption, and Lies all define the music of their period, but still sound just as great now, even decades later.


Read more My Year in Lists here

Next time on My Year in Lists:

Jimi Hendrix wonders Are You Experienced?, we take a more in-depth look at the development of Krautrock with Can's Monster Movie and Soundtracks, and travel with Husker Du to a Zen Arcade.

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