My Year in Lists
Week Twenty Two
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.

"The forward-looking sounds of this unique disc have positioned the band as one of the most influential and inspiring bands since The Velvet Underground."-Jim DeRogatis, Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock

"My Bloody Valentine was the first band I heard who quite literally pissed all over us, and their album Loveless is certainly one of my all time three favorite records. It's the sound of someone who is so driven that they're demented. And the fact that they spent so much money and time on it is so excellent."-Robert Smith of The Cure

Context is everything. This is as true in life as it is in music. Understanding the circumstances surrounding an event can be as crucial, if not more so, as understanding the event itself. To be topical for a moment, much of the reporting around the current Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal has been so slapshod (and were this a different blog or a different column, I would write a lot more on the journalistic failings surrounding this story) because it has completely lacked context, blurring the Congressman;s own words, ignoring several statements made by the woman he allegedly sent the picture to, and ignoring some of the actual reporting going on in the blogosphere. Earlier this week, Bill Moyer was on The Daily Show, discussing how he conducts interviews and emphasizing that in the editing of an interview, ensuring that everything remains in context is of the utmost importance.

This is why so much of this column every week is dedicated to illuminating the relevant portions of each artist's history. Of course I hope that My Year in Lists is educational as well as enlightening for any of you who read it every week, but I also feel that it is necessary to provide context to truly examine any of the artists or albums we look at. So this week, I want to look more specifically than usual at what the context surrounding the recordings we will examine says about these albums and how it likely affected their recordings.

Sham 69 was a punk band formed in Hersham, England in 1976, right at the birth of punk as a genre. While they never reached the commercial success or notoriety of their contemporaries, Sham 69 has been a musical and lyrical influence on the genre of streetpunk, and is widely and often regarded as one of the best bands of the golden age of punk rock. The band allegedly got their name from a piece of graffiti that founder Jimmy Pursey found on a wall, which originally said "Walton and Hersham "˜69" in reference to the football (soccer to us silly Americans) team's victory in the Athenian League in 1969, but had partially faded way in the ensuing years. Sham 69 lacked the art school background of many English punk bands, bringing in football chants and an inarticulate political populism to the scene. The band had a large skinhead following, and actually stopped performing live after a 1978 performance at Middlsesex Polytechnic was broken up by the white power segment of the skinhead population fighting and rushing the stage. The group released their first single, the John Cale (of The Velvet Underground ) produced "I Don't Wanna" in 1977 and released their debut album, and Tab's pick this week, Tell Us the Truth, in 1978.

The first side of the album is recorded live, while the second was done in a studio. The opening track on side one, "We Got a Fight" is an infectiously punkish call to arms, a sleek minute and a half of pure punk energy. The closing song on the live side, "Borstal Breakout" had already been a hit for the band as a single, and has an energy reminiscent of The Ramones "Blitzkrieg Bop," but with the added freneticism of the live performance comes across as a tour de force for the band.

The songs on the studio side are unsurprisingly more polished, though they lose almost none of their power without the presence of the audience. "Hey Little Rich Boy" is a condemnation of materialism and of the condescension of the rich. The title track, meanwhile, is a call for honesty and transparency by government officials.

Sham 69 eventually moved away from punk rock as the movement started to schism, embracing a sound heavily influenced by classic British rock groups like Mott the Hoople, The Who, and The Rolling Stones. The band broke up in the mid-1980s, only to reunite with a new lineup in 1987, which remained together until Jim Pursey left the group in 2006, and ultimately disbanded completely just last month. The band has enjoyed a long shelf life despite their relative anonymity in the annals of punk history, and their success is well earned. While nothing on Tell Us The Truth would have set the world on fire, either in 1978 nor in hindsight, it remains an excellent punk album from the golden age of the genre.

Out of context, Sham 69 sounds like great punk, to be sure, but the band gains power when considered as part of that golden age before punk rock started becoming derivative of itself and a great schism occurred dividing punk into hardcore and New Wave (with some other genres also arising). If Tell Us The Truth had been released just a few years later, it might have been passed over completely by history as one of the last vestiges of a dying genre, but coming as it did at the inception of punk rock, Sham 69 can be recognized as one of the first bands to make punk a form of populist music, taking the rage and speed inherent to the genre and bringing it to the working class masses and football fans of England.

Returning now, for a moment, to kraut rock, let's take a look at Kraftwerk, a band (and, as you will soon see, this album) for which context is everything. The name Kraftwerk is German for power plant and the band formed in Dusseldorf in 1970 by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider. The band combines propulsive, repetitive rhythms with catchy melodies and a minimalist electronic instrumentation, and are considered pioneers in the field of electronic music.

In 1981, the band released their eighth studio album, and Collin's pick this week, Computer World. Thematically, the album centers on the rise of computers in society and the potential effects of this development, and the album is often considered a creative peak for the band. As was the case with their previous two albums, Kraftwerk released Computer World in both English and German versions. This resulted in some lyrics being changed or omitted entirely in English versions.

The album was certainly fairly revolutionary at the time, using only electronic instrumentation and mostly vocoders to provide lyrics, yet it feels very dated today. Many of the tracks sound like the scores for incredibly old video games, and few of them have the melodic force or complexity to remain interesting upon multiple listens. The opening track, "Computer World," for example, omits the lyrics in the English version that refer to the collection of personal data by government agencies (a prescient notion in 1981). In fact, more than half of the song's lyrics are omitted in the English version, leaving behind only the fairly straightforward melody, which dampens the song's impact.

Perhaps my favorite song on the album is, not too coincidentally, the most melodically interesting by far. "Computer Love" has a lush melody, even if it retains the "'80s video game" vibe, and this melody keeps the song interesting on multiple listens. Also, for Coldplay fans out there, you may recognize the music, which was utilized in "Talk" off of X&Y. "It's More Fun To Compute," a play on the English slogan "It's More Fun To Compete" found on pinball machines t the time, has the darkest feel on the album, but still largely sounds like the boss battle from an early Super Mario Bros. game.

Ultimately, Computer World didn't work for me, not because I don't think it was at one time a very important album, but because unlike so much of the music we have covered in this space, it hasn't aged well. I can respect it as important to the development of electronic music, just as I can respect Birth of a Nation as important to the development of narrative on film, but that doesn't mean that I find the experience of either enjoyable. Out of context, I would dismiss Computer World entirely, and only by understanding the time and the circumstances surrounding its recording do I recognize its significance to electronic music (though I maintain that the album doesn't hold up well today). The band has influenced Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Joy Division, New Order, and Duran Duran, as well as being sampled by countless bands over the last several decades.

Jumping forward a bit, My Bloody Valentine was formed in Dublin, Ireland in 1983 by guitarist/singer Kevin Shields and drummer Colm O Ciosoig. The band added singer-guitarist Bilinda Butcher and bassist Debbie Googe after settling in London in the late "˜80s. The band released their second studio album, and Ashley's pick this week, Loveless in 1991. The album was recorded over a two-year period in a shocking nineteen different recording studios, mostly due to funding troubles. The recording of the album is rumored to have cost over $250,000 almost bankrupting the band's label, Creation Records, in the process. The band was removed from the label after the album's release. Loveless never achieved commercial success, but was critically lauded and is widely regarded as a landmark of the "shoegazing genre," a term derived from the fact that musicians stood relatively still during performances in a detached, non-confrontational, introspective state, hence the idea that they were gazing at their shoes, an idea that was not helped by the heavy use of effects pedals which actually made the musicians look down at their feet quite often while performing.

The recording of the album was hardly a collaborative process, with Shields having a vision for what he wanted and communicating very little to anyone else. The band went through countless sound engineers throughout the album, and bassist Debbie Googe doesn't actually play on it at all. All of the music, save one song by Ciosoig, was written by Shields, who also wrote two thirds of the lyrics (with the remainder being written by Butcher). Shields also developed a technique called "Glide guitar" in which he wavered his guitars tremolo bars while strumming, which makes it sound like multiple guitars are playing at the same time and contributes to the band's distinctive sound.

Much of the drumming on the album was actually collected from samples done by Ciosoig, who due to physical and personal problems only played live on "Only Shallow" and "Touched," the latter of which he had composed and performed entirely by himself. The former track, which opens the album, is a strong introduction to the heavily distorted, dreamy style the band was aiming for throughout the album, while the latter is a distorted and experimental instrumental track.

"To Here Knows When" practically buries Butcher's vocals in a sea of distorted guitar and instrumentation, turning her voice into another element in a cacophonous melody that carries the listener to an entirely different plane. "When You Sleep" layers the vocals to the point that they are almost indecipherable, because Shields was having trouble getting a perfect take, and so opted to put all 13 takes of the vocals into the song at the same time. The album's closing track "Soon" feels as much like a promise of what's to come as a completion of what the band aimed to do on Loveless.

Unfortunately, that promise was never fulfilled. As Shields himself explained, he threw out a subsequent album because, "it wasn't as good as Loveless. And I always promised myself I'd never do that, put out a worse record." I've previously discussed the idea of artistic death when I wrote about George Lucas over in Whose Film Is It Anyway?, and it's a topic we will discuss more in depth when we look at Neutral Milk Hotel later this year, but Shields reticence to record again is simultaneously tragic and completely understandable. When you have produced an album as strong as Loveless and have achieved both the artistic standard and the critical praise you hoped to for said achievement, it has to be difficult, if not impossible, to get back in the saddle.

Fortunately, Shields may yet have an artistic resurrection, as My Bloody Valentine reformed in 2007 and have been working on completing an album using some of their recordings from the "˜90s that Shield originally considered unfit for release, along with potential new material. Loveless is an absolutely stellar album, full of pathos, lush instrumentation and an experimental tone that makes it feel downright revolutionary at its best. Yet, as Robert Smith said in the quote that opened this piece, knowing how much time, money, and personal drive went into the album's creation makes it all the more special. If My Bloody Valentine never releases another album, it will always have the legacy of Loveless, which should keep it in the annals of musical history in and of itself.

This week, the context of each album was absolutely essential to my appreciation of them. When I first listened to Sham 69, unaware of when the music was made, exactly, I thought it was a damn good punk album, but it feels much more original and meaningful coming as it did at the dawn of punk rock's golden age. Computer World doesn't hold up today, and I would have given it a complete pan had I not looked closer and realized how prescient it was, both thematically and sonically. I still don't like the album, but at least now I understand better why it was important and why Collin might call it essential. And while Loveless would have been a masterpiece regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, knowing how much time, effort, and soul went into its creation, and knowing that Kevin Shields is still recovering from the creation of something that powerful, makes the experience that much more unique. Context is vital to true understanding, and if we are willing to look closely at music, as we should at all aspects of our life, we may find that the story surrounding our favorite music is as informative to the message the band is imparting as the music itself.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Note: I will be traveling outside the country for the next two weeks. As such, you can look for Week Twenty Three to be posted a few days early, on Wednesday, June 8th. Week Twenty Four will be posted a few days late, on Wednesday, June 22nd, and we will return to our regularly scheduled Friday posting for Week Twenty Five, which you can look for on Friday, June 24th. All other blog content will also be suspended or rescheduled during these weeks.

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We revisit The Cure, who let us know that Boys Don't Cry, watch the Cocteau Twins string some Garlands, and listen as a little band called Nirvana tells us Nevermind.

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