29
Apr
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Seventeen
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.

"I saw the rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time."-Jon Landau

"Over their brilliant first three albums, Wire expanded the sonic boundaries of not just punk, but rock music in general."-Stewart Mason

I've always thought Frank Sinatra got kind of screwed in the nickname department. The man was a musical God and an American legend for the majority of the 20th century, and he gets to be called Ol' Blue Eyes. At his luckiest, he is known as The Chairman of the Board, a position which, in my opinion is extremely vague and at best not all that prestigious. Regardless of what Board he is chairing, it can't be an impressive enough position for a man of his stature and acclaim. He ran with the Rat Pack and the Kennedys, played Vegas when it was a mob town and Vegas when it was just a modern den of inequity. He recorded Only the Lonely and Come Fly With Me. He sang "Strangers in the Night," "My Way," and everyone's favorite version of "(Theme From) New York, New York" (with apologies to Liza Minelli). But somehow, in the nickname lexicon at the disposal of the American public, he never rose above an appointed position on some hazy organization, a fringe nickname for a man who spent his life center stage.

He couldn't be The King, I guess. By the time his career got its second wind when he won Best Supporting Actor for From Here to Eternity (yeah, the talented bastard could act too), a young guy named Elvis Presley was already on his way to nailing that nickname down. Johnny Cash got to be the badass sounding The Man in Black, not that Sinatra could really have laid claim to that. And though Sinatra really should have had a nickname by the 1970's that was something more prestigious (or at least more awesome) than The Chairman of the Board, it was at that time that Bruce Springsteen showed up and laid claim to the name The Boss.

I do think Sinatra got screwed out of a great nickname, but at the same time, I really do think Bruce Springsteen deserves to be The Boss. Somehow, it just feels right. His first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle were both released to huge critical acclaim but pretty much no commercial success. Springsteen was hailed as the new Bob Dylan and the future of rock and roll, a mantle that would eventually start to get to him but at the time just seemed sort of inaccurate. The man might be great (spoiler alert: he was), but if no one was listening to him, it was fairly unlikely that he would become the future of rock and roll.

When he began preparing his third album, he was handed a large budget and a subtle intimation by his label: make this one a hit or you're finished. That third album, and Collin's pick this week, Born to Run was the first commercial success of his career, becoming a smash hit while retaining the high critical praise of his previous albums, and eventually eclipsing those two entirely and gaining a reputation as the magnum opus of the man we now know as simply The Boss.

Born to Run is a wall to wall masterpiece of an album, with eight perfect songs pinging off each other and building in cumulative power like only the greatest of musical achievements can manage. The album took 14 months to record, with six months alone spent perfecting the title track, and it was worth every minute. Springsteen arranged the album with a "four corners" approach, beginning each side with uplifting odes to escape and ending each side with epics of loss, betrayal, and failure. The album opens with perhaps my favorite Springsteen song, "Thunder Road." The song opens with a piano and harmonica interlude meant to serve as an introduction to the album as a whole and give off the feeling that something very special is following. It tells of a young woman named Mary and her boyfriend, who have "one last chance to make it real" by escaping the small town that has imprisoned them. Over his next several albums, Springsteen would become known for capturing the spirit of the common man, and that reputation begins right here with "Thunder Road," which feels like someone snatching the opportunity that you might have let slip through your fingers and running with it to make their every dream come true.



"Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" tells the legend of the formation of the E Street Band. The song was one of only two singles released off the album, and never attained great success. It remains the most upbeat song on the album, however, and an important part of the myth behind Springsteen and the E Street Band. "Night" is about a blue collar worker who escapes dissatisfaction with his life by drag racing after dark. Side one closes with the phenomenal "Backstreets," a tour de force about the disintegration of a relationship and the death of a love.







Side two opens with the title track, which was written by Springsteen as his last ditch effort to land a big hit. His record company had given him that big budget and one last chance for a breakthrough, and Springsteen put most of his energy into making "Born to Run" that breakthrough. The song is ostensibly romantic, but at its core is to my mind less about the love between the protagonist and Wendy and more about his burning desire to get out of his hometown. That song is followed by "She's the One" about a woman who the narrator wants to be perfect, in spite of her obvious flaws.





"Meeting Across the River" is a pitch black character sketch with heavy jazz influences. The song forms a sonic bridge between "She's the One" and the album's closer, "Jungleland" and the river of the title is presumably the Hudson, signifying the album's journey from New Jersey to New York, the setting the closing track. "Jungleland" is an almost ten minute long epic telling of love amidst gang violence and despair. The song's protagonist Rat loses both his dreams and his Barefoot Girl because of the gang he is involved in, and finally loses his life to gang violence. The album closes on this down note, with dreams dashed and hopes lost, but fortunately for music fans everywhere, Springsteen's career did not have the bleak coda he might have imagined.





Born to Run became a smash success and cemented Springsteen's reputation as "the future of rock and roll," creating hype he would fight against for years after the album's success. Bruce feared that such high praise would inevitably create a backlash, and maybe it did. But he actually was the future of rock and roll, and while I guess it may be possible not to love Bruce Springsteen, it's pretty hard to deny that he's The Boss.

Just a few years after the release of Born to Run, a punk outfit formed in London of 1976, consisting of Colin Newman on vocals and guitar, Graham Lewis on vocals and bass, Bruce Gilbert on guitar and Robert Gotobed on drums. They called themselves Wire, and they too were about to change the face of music. They began as a punk rock band inspired by The Ramones, but would soon become instrumental to the development of post-punk.

Their debut album, and one of Tab's two picks this week, Pink Flag is a fairly straightforward punk album, but even from the start the band played punk music with a rock and roll irony that would be instrumental to their later push into post-punk. Over 21 songs and 35 minutes the band used their punk sound to comment on and twist rock music standards. Never going as far into experimentation as, say The Residents on The Third Reich N' Roll, Wire still managed to make punk rock that was simultaneously a commentary on the state of rock and roll and a statement of purpose from a new band with a bold sound.

The opening track "Reuters" sounds like a standard rock opening before the band's punk-y vocals come in. "Field Say for the Sundays" is a 28 second song that sounds simultaneously complete and like 30 seconds pulled from a pretty god damn great punk rock song. The band's shorter tracks, like the 41 second "Brazil," tend to sound more like straight punk rock, while their longer songs, like the title track, sound more like rock and roll with a decidedly punk bent.









"Strange" especially sounds like a song that could have been recorded just as easily by The Rolling Stones if not for the distinctive punk touches sprinkled throughout. "Feeling Called Love" has an almost surf rock feeling to it, showing Wire's diverse influences and ability to change up the routine. The song allows the melody to carry the song (which is fairly unique in early punk rock) more than the lyrics, which are done in a more speak-sing style.





The band's second album, and Tab's second pick this week, Chairs Missing has a much more developed song structure than its predecessor, taking some cues from prog-rock, psychedelia, and art rock. As fits with the band's general style, Chairs Missing's more developed sound leads to longer songs, with this album including 15 songs in 42 minutes. The opening track "Practice Makes Perfect" is heavily melodic, with a prog feel that almost overtakes the punk roots. "French Film Blurred" has a more experimental vibe than most of the tracks on their debut, but also a very melodic chorus.





"Heartbeat" is the band's self proclaimed first love song, with a building tempo that comes to its peak as Newman repeats the title at the song's conclusion. "Outdoor Miner," though only 1:44 was so loved by EMI, the band's label that they were asked to expand the song to turn it into a single. So melodic and even proto-New Wave it barely sounds like the band's previous work at all, the song is amazingly catchy and fun without sacrificing any of the band's complexity. "I am the Fly" is a perfect example of the band's evolving style, with a complex arrangement and a catchy melody to go along with the punk philosophy the band still focused on.







The album's closing track "Too Late" is nearly a straight rock song, with punk verses and a rock and roll chorus. We'll follow the band's continued development into post-punk next week, but for now, Wire developed in its first two albums from a heavily Ramones influenced punk band into something far more unique and original, while still managing to be just as fucking awesome (which is, I believe, a critical term).



We're going to do things a little backwards here, kids, and I hope you don't mind. We'll be digging into The Cure's formulation and early years with Boys Don't Cry in just a few weeks, but due to timing and my desire to leave each contributor's list intact as much as possible (my only alteration so far coming in Week Five's Talking Heads marathon), we're going to start in the middle with this band, looking at Ashley's pick this week, Disintegration, and later retreating back to Boys Don't Cry. Hope you don't mind, but as always, feel free to bitch at me on twitter, in the comments, or at reviewtobenamed@gmail.com about how I'm destroying the sanctity of music itself if you'd like.

The eighth studio album by The Cure, Disintegration was released on May 1, 1989 and aimed to be a return to the gloomy and introspective gothic rock that the band had established earlier in their careers. Lead vocalist Robert Smith hoped to follow up on the group's pop successes with more lasting musical contributions, and found himself dissatisfied with the group's popularity, which caused him to lapse into the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Following the group's growing success, keyboardist Lol Tolhurst was drinking heavily and Smith was taking large amounts of LSD. Smith decided something needed to change.

Smith wrote many of the songs himself before showing any of them to the band. He admitted that if the band didn't like them, he was willing to record them as a solo album. The band enjoyed them and began to record (though Tolhurst's drinking lead to him leaving the band before he contributed anything lasting to the album). The second track, "Pictures of You" is a nostalgic love song with a two minute long introduction before the song explodes into a wave of passion and sound. "Lovesong" is exactly what its title implies, a darker sounding love song that is still as full of emotion as any of the band's upbeat songs.





The album's longest song, the 9:19 "The Same Deep Water as You" is a dark examination that reflects Smith's current mental state at the time he recorded it. The title track is another very long journey deep into the mental state of Smith during the writing of the album, as he worried about the "Disintegration" of both the band and his own life.





The Cure was one of the first alternative bands to be widely commercially successful. They have heavily influenced modern goth-influenced bands, including Interpol and My Chemical Romance, in addition to lighting a path for alternative rock bands to follow into commercial success.

Each of the musicians we looked at today was part of the inception of a new musical direction. Springsteen was the beginning of a new era of rock and roll. Wire helped usher punk into post-punk. And The Cure showed bands that there was a path to success outside of the mainstream. A person's (or a band's) musical legacy is to a large extent completely outside of their control. All they can do is make great music and hope for the best. If they are completely understood, they may come to be known as The Boss, but even if they don't manage to land themselves a badass nickname, the important music will always be remembered, even if only through those it inspires to create.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:
We continue to look at Wire with 154 and The Ideal Copy, and take a look at self titled albums from Boston and The Stone Roses.

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