7
Apr
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Fourteen
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.

"Oh no love, you're not alone"¦"-David Bowie, "Rock n' Roll Suicide"

"I want you to show me the way."-Dinosaur Jr., "Show Me the Way."

After last week's epic treatise, I hope to keep this week's column fairly short. So you'll excuse me if I refrain from waxing rhapsodic on music in general and just stick to the nitty gritty. Feel free to voice your preferences about the style of the column in the comments (whether you like last week's "big ideas" approach or this week's "no frills needed" style), or to email me about it if you're so inclined. Otherwise, strap yourselves in kids, because we've got four albums to get through this week, and hopefully, this will be a shorter one.

I've mentioned before in this space my irrational love for the concept album. There's something about the idea of a continuing narrative built into an album that is very attractive to me. Perhaps it comes from my more prominent love of film and television, where story takes center stage, but the idea that an album sets out to communicate not just sounds, feelings, and ideas, but a coherent narrative will always be awesome to me. And while there are other concept albums that are more well known (like The Who's Tommy), there is one concept album that always comes to mind immediately when the topic arises: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

This is no mere concept album, mind you. Ziggy Stardust transcended the idea of the concept album to become a complete phenomenon. During the tour for the album, David Bowie actually became Ziggy Stardust, dying his hair and adopting elaborate costumes to portray the character full time. Released in 1972, Ziggy Stardust is Bowie's third effort, telling the story of an alien who comes to Earth in its last five years bringing a message of peace and love. Ziggy, like all rock stars, is sexually promiscuous and does a ton of drugs (Bowie announced his bisexuality directly prior to the album's release, and he was such a method actor he was doing truckloads of cocaine during the period) ultimately meeting his downfall due to his own excesses and the fans he's inspired. Contrary to popular belief (and to my own belief, prior to researching this column) Bowie has said in interviews that Ziggy is not in fact the alien in question, but rather his messenger on Earth.

The recording of the album began just weeks after the release of Hunky Dory, Bowie's previous album and my personal favorite of his early works. Ziggy Stardust was originally intended to serve as soundtrack to a stage show or television production telling Ziggy's story. Bowie originally wrote "All the Young Dudes," (made famous by Mott the Hoople), "Rebel Rebel," and "Rock "˜n' Roll with Me" (both of which he later recorded on Diamond Dogs) to be part of the Ziggy story.

The album opener "Five Years" tells of the announcement of the impending end of Earth and of the aftermath of the news. Bowie reportedly picked the amount of time based on a dream in which his deceased father told him never to fly again and that he would die in five years. "Starman," the album's only single, replaced a cover of Chuck Berry's "Round and Round" at the insistence of RCA's Dennis Katz who heard the demo and knew it would make a great single. The song describes Ziggy's efforts to spread the word about the coming alien and the salvation he will bring with him. The song is followed by "It Ain't Easy," a cover of Ron Davies' original that has completely surpassed that version in fame. "Hang On to Yourself" is considered representative of glam rock's position as the bridge between the rock and roll of the "˜60s and the punk that would become mainstream in the late "˜70s.









"Suffragette City" features piano heavily influenced by Little Richard, references to A Clockwork Orange, and the classic sing-a-long hook "Wham bam thank you ma'am!" Bowie originally offered the song to Mott the Hoople if they would forego their plan of breaking up. The band declined, though as previously mentioned they did record "All the Young Dudes" before their split. The album's final track, "Rock "˜n'n Roll Suicide," details the final collapse of the album's protagonist after all of his excesses catch up to him. According to Bowie, in the planned stage show the song would have been sung while the alien devoured Ziggy in order to make himself corporeal and bring salvation to the planet.







In my continuing effort to keep this short and sweet, I'll refrain from going too in-depth about the legacy of David Bowie, but honestly, I don't feel that much needs saying. Bowie is a titan of the musical landscape, a rock God who has hidden behind multiple personas (including Ziggy and his subsequent character The Thin White Duke) yet always manages to shine through, an inimitable legend who helped in the creation of glam rock and has influenced countless artists in the decades since his debut.

Following from last week's Meet The Residents, we turn our attention now to the band's second album, The Third Reich "˜N' Roll, a parody of pop music and commercialism in the 1960's. The album is made up of two side-long pastiches of songs from the period. The first side, "Swastikas on Parade," includes samples from 17 different pop songs (that I could identify), including "Let's Twist Again," "Monster Mash," "Land of a Thousand Dances," "A Horse with No Name," "Revolution 9," "Papa's Got a brand New Bag," "To Sir, With Love," and "Wipe Out."



Side two, entitled "Hitler Was a Vegetarian" includes "It's My Party," "Light My Fire," "Yummy Yummy Yummy," "Rock Around the Clock," "Good Lovin'" "Hey Jude," and "Sympathy for the Devil." The cover of the album features Dick Clark in a Nazi uniform holding a carrot and surrounded by swastikas and a picture of a dancing Adolf Hitler in drag. The Third Reich "˜N' Roll works more as a game of spot the reference than as an individual album (and the Nazi iconography seems to be present just for shock value), yet its cacophony of pop music references does say something about the way we consume pop music without ever really analyzing it.



The next album on Tab's list, Duck Stab, also known at Duck Stab!/Buster & Glen was released in 1978. Originally, Buster and Glen was intended to follow the band's previous release Duck Stab! and both were to be EPs. Instead the band released the two as an album, with one EP on each side. The album is composed of much shorter songs, with an eye to make a slightly more accessible release (though this is The Residents, so that's a relative term).

The opening track, "Constantinople," and the penultimate track "Hello Skinny" were instrumental to cementing the band's cult following. This album notably features the contributions of Philip "Snakefinger" Lithman, one of the few contributors to the band that hasn't remained anonymous. He also contributed vocals on "Constantinople."





"Bach is Dead" and "Elvis and His Boss" continue the trend the band began on The Third Reich "˜N' Roll, mocking previous musical styles while experimenting with the form. "Semolina" and "Birthday Boy" fit most comfortably into the band's oeuvre (at least as I have experienced it so far), continuing the band's established sonic tendencies while other tracks on the album spread out what the band tries to accomplish.









Last week we looked at The Smiths, which I argued could be representative of the iconic alternative band. This week, we turn our attention to a band that shaped the sound of alternative rock as the "˜90s approached. Formed by guitarist J. Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph in 1984, Dinosaur Jr. (originally called Dinosaur until legal challenges forced them to change their name) is known for their extensive use of feedback and distortion as well as Mascis' guitar solos.

Their first album, Dinosaur, was recorded for $500 and released in 1985. The band's second album, and Ashley's pick this week, You're Living All Over Me was released in 1987 and named after something Mascis said while on tour with the band. The opening track, "Little Fury Things," features the band's signature feedback, melodic guitar solos, and Mascis' nasally lead vocals. "The Lung" is perhaps the album's most melodic song, focuses largely on a guitar solo that takes up the first minute and a half of the track.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLIPTOUH51I



"Poledo," the penultimate track is a unique mixture of a lo-fi recording of Lou Barlow singing and playing ukulele (reminiscent of his own future group Sebadoh), while the other half is a sound collage of abstract noise pieces. The album closes with a cover of Peter Frampton's "Show Me The Way" that completely makes the song their own. The lyrics and basic melody stay the same, but the song is done so completely in the band's own style that it barely feels like a cover at all, instead coming across as the band itself showing the way forward into the emerging alternative rock sound.





David Bowie bridged the gap between rock and punk, The Residents continued to burn any and all musical bridges they could, and Dinosaur Jr. took all that had come before them and came away with something entirely new. The realm of music is ever in flux, progressing forward, tinkering with the past, and sometimes trying to just throw out everything and come out with something new. Each of these artists managed to contribute majorly to this flow, and to do so while retaining their own unique sound and sensibility in the process. All three experimented with what music could do, and in so doing, showed us the boundless potential of the medium.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next on My Year in Lists:

We conclude our examination of The Residents by looking at God in Three Persons, Diskomo/Goosebumps and Wormwood, travel with Pink Floyd to the Dark Side of the Moon, and go with Sonic Youth to a Daydream Nation.

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