My Year in Lists
Week Ten
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.

"Astral Weeks is about the power of the human voice"”ecstatic agony, agonizing ecstasy. Here is an Irish tenor"¦pleading and beseeching over a bed of dreamy folk-jazz instrumentation: acoustic brass, brushed drums, vibes and acoustic guitar, the odd string quartet"”and of course flute."-Barney Hoskyns, Mojo

"I listened to Let It Be endlessly. The record seemed to encapsulate perfectly all of the feelings that were churning inside me [...] Paul Westerberg's weary voice sounded from my boombox and I trembled to think that here I was, thirteen and the 'hardest age' was still three years in the making."-Colin Meloy, lead singer of The Decemberists, Let it Be 33 ½.

I've been doing a lot of driving this week, while traveling for spring break. And with hours and hour of driving comes, by necessity, hours and hours of listening to music. While I of course listened to the albums for this week many times, I did most of that listening prior to leaving for this trip or on the airplane en route to my destination. I really enjoy digging into a few albums each week and trying to "get" them, to put them in context and to figure out what they mean, but I wasn't going to force an Irish song cycle, a punk band's journey into alt rock territory, or four experimental krautrock opuses on my fellow travelers, and so, for the most part, we listened to other music. The question of what defines great road tripping music is a good one (and something I'll keep in mind for a future Random Pop Culture Question of the Week), but that's not what I aim to delve into here. Instead, what I think is interesting is the communal experience of road trip music, and really, group listening in general. Certain music plays better with a group, whether while stuck in a car for hours or while hanging out at a party. And this is partially because good music evokes a mood, sure, but also I think has something to do with music's status as a shared cultural experience.

When you read a book, you're almost always doing that alone. Even when you go to the movies with a group of friends, you're going there to sit in the dark and (unless you're incredibly rude) watch silently as the movie unfolds before you. We all enjoy talking about movies or books after we've experienced them, but music weaves its way into our lives more. When your favorite band releases a new album, you might listen to it in rapt silence the first time through. But more often than in other mediums, music becomes more of a background sound than an active activity. At a party, you're probably talking to people even if you're enjoying the music being played. And sure, in a car there is the classic sing-a-long when a favorite song comes on, but the music is often being played in the background while you're conversing.

Which is not really the place for any of the albums I looked at this week, each of which is at its best when allowed to shine as opposed to fade into the background. The first artist we're looking at this week, Van Morrison, got his start in the late "˜50s playing guitar, harmonica, keyboard and saxophone for a variety of Irish cover bands. He became well known as the lead singer of the band Them, which was named after the B-horror film Them! The band performed without a routine, leading to Morrison improvising most of his songs with them live. The band never managed to capture the spirit of their live performances on their records and shuffled almost constantly through members with Morrison and Alan Henderson as the only consistent members.

Them did a two month tour of America in mid-1966 to capitalize on the British Invasion. On the last leg of the tour, The Doors opened for Them, and Van Morrison is said to have greatly influenced the development of Jim Morrison. At the end of the tour, following a dispute with their record company, Them disbanded (though they would reform the next year without Morrison in their ranks).

Morrison was persuaded to fly to New York and sign a solo contract. In March of 1967, Morrison recorded 8 songs that would become his debut album, Blowin' Your Mind. Among these songs was "Brown Eyed Girl" which would become his breakthrough hit. Soon after, his producer Bert Burns died and he became involved in a contract dispute with the man's widow that prevented him from performing or recording in the New York area.

Morrison then moved to Boston (after marrying his girlfriend Janet Rigsbee to avoid deportation) and signed with Warner Bros. who bought out his previous contract. His first album for Warner Bros., and Collin's pick this week, Astral Weeks is a mystical "song cycle" widely considered one of the best albums of all time. Alan Light described the album as, "like nothing he had done previously"”and really nothing anyone had done previously. Morrison sings of lost love, death, and nostalgia for childhood in the Celtic soul that would become his signature."

Recorded in three sessions in September and October of 1968, the album employs a mixture of folk, blues, jazz, and classical influences into a unique and powerfully expressive sound. It received immediate critical acclaim (and was eventually ranked 19 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" List), but did not sell well upon initial release, finally achieving Gold in 2001. Many of the Melodies on Astral Weeks were improvised by Morrison's back up band after having heard Morrison play the intended melody on guitar. Astral Weeks has been compared to the Impressionist movement in painting for the way Morrison's bizarre, disconnected lyrics evoke emotions rather than coherent narratives.

Described as a "song cycle" rather than a concept album, the songs do seem to form a loose narrative when considered in totality. "Astral Weeks" opens the album and was captured in one take. Morrison has described the song as being "like transforming energy, or going from one source to another with it being born again like a rebirth. I remember reading about you having to die to be born. It's one of those songs where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that's basically what the song says." The song is named "Astral Weeks" because when Morrison composed it in Belfast in 1966, he visited painter Cezil McCartney who was doing pieces on astral projection at the time.

"Beside You" is a love song about feeling spiritually connected to someone. It also evokes the feeling of childhood and a sense of youthful adventure. The flute on "Beside You" and "Cyprus Avenue" was played by a session flautist while John Payne watched. The name of that flautist has been forgotten and he goes uncredited on the album. "Sweet Thing" is a love ballad Morrison wrote after meeting his future wife Janet. He has said it is the only song on the album that looks forward instead of backward. "Cyprus Avenue" is built around a basic blues structure, with strings and a harpsichord overdubbed a month later. The song was written about a wealthy neighborhood in Belfast that Morrison found mystical.

"The Way Young Lovers Do" is a song about growing up, becoming mature, and falling in love for the first time. "Madame George" is a song about leaving the past behind, and Morrison has called the titular character a sketch or a short story composed of several different people. "Ballerina" was also written when Morrison first met his future wife Janet, and Morrison said he wrote the song while in San Francisco, having fallen in love with the city. "Slim Slow Slider," the closing track on the album is a song about winter and death, closing out the cycle of rebirth at the album's center.

Morrison's influence on music is titanic, with masters including Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello citing him as an inspiration. Others who are influenced by Morrison include U2, John Mellencamp, Jim Morrison, Tom Petty, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Bob Seger, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Jeff Buckley, Glen Hansard and Counting Crowes. Morrison himself is still making music after over five decades, and recorded a live version of Astral Weeks from the Hollywood Bowl to celebrate the album's 40th anniversary.

Turning our attention back to the burgeoning genre of krautrock and to the evolving career of Can, which Tab has us examining in-depth, we find the band reverting to an extremely fluid improvisational style after their more structured early albums. Tago Mago, a double album, is widely considered the band's most extreme in terms of sound and structure. The album was recorded by bassist Holger Czukay while the band stayed in Schloss Norvenich, a castle near Cologne. This was the band's first album to be made from not just regularly recorded music, but "in-between recordings" in which Czukay secretly recorded the musicians jamming while waiting for technical problems to be resolved. These jams would then be edited into more structured songs. The album is named after the Isla de Tagomago off the coast of Ibiza.

"Paperhouse," the opening track, begins as a low key beat and escalates to a rumbling roll before calming down into the ending. "Halleluhwah" is an 18 minute long song that descends into a trance/funk beat, featuring a vast array of guitars, keyboards, tape editing, and a rhythm section. "Peking O," a nearly 12 minute exploration of sonic fluctuation, includes Chinese inspirations, organ rhythm boxes, and jazz-inflected breaks. It is one of the more free form compositions by the band, featuring gibberish ramblings from singer Damo Suzuki in the middle.

The band followed Tago Mago with Ege Bamyasi which is named after the Turkish phrase for "Aegean Okra" as a reflection of the band's interest in world music. "Spoon," the closing track on the album, was the first recorded and achieved enough success as a single on the German charts to allow the band to purchase a defunct movie theater to record in (though none of their recording there made it on the album). The song was the theme of the German television thriller Das Messer (The Knife), and later inspired the name of indie rock outfit Spoon. The album has also directly inspired Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Beck, and has even been sampled by Kanye West. "Vitamin C" was another successful track off the album, finding success as a single and later having its B-Side "I'm So Green" covered by Beck for a tribute album.

A year later, the band followed Ege Bamyasi with Future Days, which was the last album featuring vocals by Damo Suzuki (who left the band to get married and become a Jehovah's Witness). The band focused here on a more ambient sound, especially on the title track and on the closing track, "Bel Air" a free form, 20 minute composition of ambient sounds. "Moonshake" is a standout track on the album, briefly abandoning the ambient sound of the album for a short pop song. The band Moonshake derived their name from this song.

Soon Over Babaluma, the band's fifth album and first without a lead vocalist (duties were shared by guitarist Michael Karoli and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt) continues the ambient trend began on Future Days, pushing it even on "Quantum Physics." However, Can also experimented with their earlier sound again on more upbeat tracks like "Chain Reaction" and "Dizzy Dizzy."

Can had an enormous influence on subsequent music. Not only did they help the formation and popularization of krautrock, they are also cited as an influence by The Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Suicide, David Bowie, Talking Heads, The Stone Roses, Talk Talk, Primal Scream, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Brian Eno even made a short film in tribute to the band. And in addition to Spoon and Moonshake, three other bands, The Mooney Suzukis (named for the two lead singers), the electronic band Egebamyasi, and Hunters & Collectors have taken their names from the band.

The foundations of alternative rock were born out of punk rock. And I'll go even further: in many cases, it seems that alternative rock was born from people who dabbled in punk and found it didn't fit their musical sensibilities. The Replacements fit soundly into this latter category. Formed in Minneapolis in 1979, The Replacements began as a punk rock band and developed into pioneers of alternative rock. The band's first album, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash was well received locally, though it was not commercially successful. The album included the song "Somethin to Dü" an homage to fellow Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü, with whom the group shared a friendly rivalry. The band opened for R.E.M. on a tour before releasing their third album, and Ashley's pick this week, the critically acclaimed Let It Be.

By this time in the band's career they were distancing themselves from their punk roots, often playing cover sets intended to antagonize "punk" audiences. As singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg explained, the people in their audiences "thought that's what they were supposed to be standing for, like "˜Anybody does what they want,' and "˜There are no rules'"¦ But there were rules and you couldn't do that, and you had to be fast and you had to wear black, and you couldn't wear a plaid shirt with flares"¦ so we'd play the DeFranco Family, that kind of shit, just to piss "˜em off." In other words, The Replacements were perhaps the most "punk" band around, a feat they accomplished by refusing to conform to the standards required of a punk band.

Let It Be got its title from The Beatles last album, as Westerberg said it was, "our way of saying that nothing is sacred, that The Beatles were just a fine rock and roll band. We were seriously gonna call the next record Let It Bleed." The album's opening track, "I Will Dare," features guitar from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and is included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll" list. It is also a mission statement for the band, emphasizing their willingness to do anything to make waves.

"Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" harkens back to the band's punkish roots, directly before "Androgynous," my favorite song on the album, which signals a whole new direction for the band, sounding like softer, more melodic alternative rock. The song also includes the words "Jefferson's cock," which is appropriate as the band would occasionally play gigs in Minneapolis under this name with the band members wearing dresses. Make no mistake: that is punk rock.

"Seen Your Video" is a largely instrumental track that showcases the band's alternative rock capabilities, a melodic solo that is far too traditionally catchy to be considered a punk rock song. The Replacements never achieved commercial success (so many of the early alternative rock bands never made it big in their heyday), but have influenced myriad bands since their break up, including Green Day, The Goo Goo Dolls, They Might Be Giants, Indigo Girls, Art Brut, The Hold Steady, The Wildhearts and The Gaslight Anthem.

Music can serve as background, and it can serve as a rallying point for collective nostalgia, but in some cases, the work is best left alone to shine in its own way. These artists, and these albums, are best appreciated on their own merits. They are the type of music that is best appreciated alone. Even if you get lonely, these songs will be right there, reminding you of all that is beautiful, soulful, experimental, adventurous, and rebellious about music, and about life itself.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next on My Year in Lists:

The Rolling Stones just Let It Bleed, we continue to examine krautrock, looking at Faust's self titled and So Far, and Jesus and Mary Chain offer us some Psychocandy.

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