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.
"If Never Mind the Bollocks and London Calling are held up as punk masterpieces, then there's no question that Singles Going Steady belongs alongside them ["¦] As for the music, anybody who ever combined full-blast rock, catchy melodies, and romantic and social anxieties owes something to what the classic quartet did here."-Ned Ragget, Allmusic
"War seemed to be the motif for 1982."-Bono
Every song (at least every good one) has a theme. Some albums manage to carry a singular theme throughout their runtimes. Some of these are concept albums, which attempt to create a narrative that drives the entire album. Some of them, however, are just albums that display a singular focus and an idea that was operating behind the scenes during the creation of these albums. This week, we will examine three such albums, three works that, while not constructed as concept albums or purposefully developed around a single theme still manage to display one message consistently throughout. Whether that message is one of love, peace, or sex (as they are in our three albums this week), we will look at how that message becomes an essential part of the album.In early 1975, Howard Trafford placed a notice looking for other musicians who enjoyed The Velvet Underground's"Sister Ray" (it's a marvel how many bands came together, not only in the days following the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, when it is said that every person who bought the album formed a band, but in the ensuing years using the band as a touchstone to seek out other passionate and like-minded musicians). Peter McNeish, a fellow student at the Bolton Institute of Technology, responded to the notice, though he played mostly rock music and Trafford mostly electronic music. McNeish assumed the stage name Pete Shelley; Trafford became Howard Devoto, and along with Garth Davies on bass guitar and Mick Singleton on drums, they became the Buzzcocks, a name they selected after reading a review of the TV series Rock Follies in Time Out Magazine that said, "it's the buzz, cocks!" (to be clear, at the time, "cocks" was slang for friend in Manchester).
By the end of 1976, the Buzzcocks had formed their own label, New Hormones and self-released their debut EP Spiral Scratch (they were one of the first punk bands to form their own label, a practice that would be essential to the alternative movement in the 1980's when several underground bands were forced to form labels for themselves to get their music and that of other smaller bands released). The band's trademark sound is a marriage of catchy pop melodies with punkish energy and guitar riffs, backed by a tight and skilled rhythm section that sets them apart from their traditionally under-trained and ill-talented (at least in the traditional musical practice of properly "playing an instrument") brethren in the early punk movement. From the first, the Buzzcocks were a different kind of punk band: vocally and in their guitar patterns, they sounded punk, but compositionally, lyrically, and in presentation, they were a different beast entirely.
During their initial career (like many bands of the era, they have reunited for several more albums in the last two decades) the band released only three studio albums, and one compilation of their singles and B-sides. This compilation, released after their third album as they planned their (never to materialize in the original era) fourth, is Tab's pick this week, the aptly titled Singles Going Steady. Rather than feeling like a piecemeal collection of releases, the album is a near constant parade of excellence, running an impressive gamut of emotions and dealing with subjects both political and romantic.
The album's opening track "Orgasm Addict" is a tongue in cheek look at a sex crazed teenager that includes a fake orgasm vocal break, just in case the point would not have landed otherwise. "What Do I Get?" is a classic ode to teen angst, full of pained cries about lacking love, luck, and appreciation.
The most well known song on the album by far, and in fact the most famous song the band ever recorded is the justly touted and deservedly well known masterpiece "Ever Fallen in Love?" Written after the band watched Guys and Dolls, which includes the line "Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't have?" Shelley wrote the lyrics the next day while sitting in a van outside the post office; the music was soon to follow. This song stands out amongst even the sea of successes that makes up Singles Going Steady, not only because it is the band's best song (and I don't think I'm alone in holding that opinion) but because it so well illustrates the way in which the Buzzcocks stood out in the early day of punk rock.
While bands like Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Ramones were, at their essence, rebellions against popular music and musical conventions, the Buzzcocks had a clear respect for what had come before, and often integrated classic pop themes and melodies into their compositions. While played at punk speeds and sung in a punkish register (a sound that is hard to describe, but to my ear always sounds like a melodic howl of angst), "Ever Fallen in Love?" is basically a standard pop song, with a hooky melody and a focus on love that is more common in pop and rock than in punk. It isn't too hard to imagine "Ever Fallen in Love?" having been recorded a decade and a half before its release by The Beatles during their early days (hell, I think it would have fit very well on Help!), and I'm not sure there's a higher compliment I can pay to a song than saying The Beatles could have written it.
The theme behind Singles Going Steady is one of love, an uncommon message for a punk album. Not every track is explicitly about love, but the band makes every effort to sing about love and romance regularly throughout. This theme ties in perfectly to the band's tendencies to color outside the punk lines and to look back for influences both lyrically and musically.
The Buzzcocks are rarely heralded among the great punk bands of all time. To my mind this is because of their willingness to break the punk rules. It is conventional wisdom that punk began as a rebellion against what was seen as the strict and binding rules of popular music, but quickly devolved into sects as people tired of adhering to the quickly developed "rules of punk." Bands had to play a certain way, dress a certain way, act a certain way and write about certain things, lest they be ostracized from the punk community. Of course, true punk bands that cropped up later in the life of the genre broke these rules as a way of displaying just how punk rock they were, but the Buzzcocks were breaking them long before people had even realized what they were. Some might argue this renders the band outside of the punk genre; I would disagree. To my mind, the Buzzcocks are unheralded punk pioneers, taking the sound of the genre and melding it with melodies and themes that were decidedly un-punk to create something unique in the punk pantheon.U2 is the biggest rock band in the world. Whether or not that statement remains true today, that was certainly the case for a period in the late "˜80s and early "˜90s when the band went through a period of both critical and commercial success that ensures them a place in the rock canon (to my mind, this golden age stretches from The Joshua Tree, which we will discuss in a month, through Rattle and Hum and to Achtung Baby, though I know some who will argue that it continued all the way through 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind). While, as I just mentioned, we will get to The Joshua Tree in time, Collin's original pick for this week, New Order's Power, Corruption, Lies was already dealt with in this space back in Week Eight and so I requested that he furnish a replacement. In reply, he suggested we look at the album when the band was first getting its legs, their third studio album, 1983's War.
Widely regarded as the band's first overtly political album (but, as anyone who has ever heard Bono speak well knows, not their last), War focuses on both the physical aspects of war, and on its emotional after effects and is the time when, as Simon Reynolds put it, the band, "turned pacifism itself into a crusade."
The album's opening track, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is an ardent protest song detailing the Troubles in Northern Ireland and specifically focusing on Bloody Sunday, the incident in which British Troops shot and killed unarmed civil rights protesters and civilians. The song was an early classic for the band, and instrumental to their breakthrough into the mainstream in America. And while the mere mention of Bono tends to illicit eye rolls at this point, in no small part because of his outspoken activism and politicization of practically everything, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is a solid song, making a political point but not forgetting to be a rock song at the same time. It's never subtle by any stretch of the imagination, but it it's catchy enough that it doesn't leave a bad taste in my mouth like so much of the band's later work (especially their last two albums) tends to.
"New Year's Day" is also an overtly political song, this time about the Polish Solidarity Movement, but again puts the music before the message, at least enough to make it as interesting as a piece of music as it is when viewed as a political message. "Two Hearts Beat As One" is a more traditional love song that indicates some of the potential that the band would fulfill in their golden age, but fails to compel in the way a song like "With or Without You" does; it makes fine listening, but it also tends to slip out of my mind as soon as it's done. The album's closing track "˜"40"' is a modification of Psalm 40 from The Bible. The song was written, recorded and mixed in roughly half an hour, as the band was being kicked out of the studio and realized they needed a good closing song for the album. The song is fairly perfect as a coda to War, and has endured as a staple of the band's live performances, yet again, it doesn't hold the power of some of their later work.
The message that permeates War is one of peace. Throughout the album, even on the less political tracks, the band seems to be begging for the world to find peace and seeking it either within themselves or externally, in the love of another.
The U2 of War is a band just figuring out its own identity, a band that is learning it is going places, but is yet unsure what those places might be and how it might get there. The album has its starts and stops, but is ultimately a satisfying one. For my thoughts on U2 t its height, however, you gentle readers will have to hold your breath for Week Twenty Eight.
After toiling in relative obscurity (relative, in this case, to where the band was headed) for eight years, Red Hot Chili Peppers signed to Warner Bros. Records and released the album that would launch them to superstardom: their fifth studio album, and Ashley's pick this week, 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
In 1988, the band's guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose and drummer Jack Irons quit, leaving vocalist Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea to find a new guitarist and drummer. Fan of the band John Frusciante came on as guitarist and drummer Chad Smith rounded out the lineup. Blood Sugar Sex Magik integrates the band's typical punk-funk blend with more melodically driven songs, creating the sound that has carried the band to superstardom.
"If You Have To Ask" mixes Kiedis' standard rap-sing style with a funk beat and a taunting chorus. "Breaking The Girl," a classic Chili Peppers song, is a ballad (a rarity in the band's previous work) that refers to Kiedis turbulent relationship with Carmen Hawk, and more broadly, his fears that he was becoming a womanizer like his father before him. More traditionally melodic than any song the band had done before, the song is also, as most of the band's best songs are, a fascinating look into the conflicted inner world of Anthony Kiedis. "Breaking The Girl" is maybe the first great song the Chili Peppers ever recorded (though in fairness I am only passingly familiar with their previous work, so feel free to correct me on this point) and one of my favorites on the album.
"Suck My Kiss" is an unabashedly sexual song, an ode to fellatio and written about a kid Kiedis knew who talked endlessly about the blow jobs he was getting. "Give It Away" is focused on the idea of altruism and selflessness, a concept taught to Kiedis by his former girlfriend, punk rocker Nina Hagen, who once gave him a jacket he said he liked because she believed that giving things away made the world a better place.
Easily the most well known song on the album, and one of my favorite songs by the band to this day, "Under the Bridge" threw the band into the mainstream, becoming a smash hit. The lyrics of the song are taken from a poem Kiedis had written while contemplating the effects of narcotics on his life. Kiedis was feeling isolated from the rest of the band, as he had been sober for three years at the time of the album's recording, and Frusciante and Flea often smoked marijuana together. This lead to him contemplating said isolation and coming to the conclusion that Los Angeles was his only true and constant companion. The song gets its title, and its most notable verse, illustrates Kiedis attempt to enter a gang territory to score heroin. In order to get under the bridge where the drugs were being sold, Kiedis had to pretend his fiancÃ© was the sister of a gang member. Though he successfully scored the drugs, he considers the moment to be one of the worst of his life, as it showed him how far he would sink to feed his addiction. The song is a masterpiece of contemplation, isolation, regret and finally hope, as Kiedis pleas to be taken to the place he loves, where he could be among his band mates, friends, and family.
"Sir Psycho Sexy" is an eight-minute epic about an over-zealous, exaggerated version of Keidis, a man who can get any woman he wants and commit any depraved act he can imagine with her. The song is expansive, detailed, and illustrative, another enthralling journey into Keidis' headspace. The closing track is a cover of "They're Red Hot," by blue musician Robert Johnson. The band recorded the song on top of a hill outside the mansion where they recorded the rest of the album. The song is propulsive, a blues-infused rocket of sonic speed that closes the album off with a spurt of energy that could hardly be attained over any longer than the songs scant, one minute run time.
While John Frusciante left the band after the album's success (he had hoped to remain an underground group, and would later return for Californication, the band's next masterwork after the less successful One Hot Minute), the rest of the group acclimated well to their newfound success, and Red Hot Chili Peppers have continued to turn out great albums periodically since (their newest, I'm With You will drop this August).
Throughout Blood Sugar Sex Magik the band examines nothing short of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Looking into Kiedis' internal struggles with addiction and with romance, the album I, at its rawest and at its best, a look at the various things we do to ourselves to get by and the vices we rely on to keep us satisfied. Whether they are drugs, love, sex, or simply companionship, Blood Sugar Sex Magik tells us, they are an essential part of our lives, for we will forever be engaged in a struggle to tame, or be tamed by, our baser instincts.
Some albums, intentionally or not, center on a theme, an idea that becomes unavoidable as we listen to and absorb them. On Singles Going Steady the Buzzcocks examined pop music through a punk lens, centering on love as their main area of exploration. For War, U2 was looking at the causes and effects of conflict and searching both externally and internally for the peace they would need to excel as a band. And Red Hot Chili Peppers used Blood Sugar Sex Magick to examine sex, sure, but more deeply to look at the nature of vice and its place in our lives. Purposefully or not, each of these albums returned again and again to the same particular themes, and they colored them immensely. Whether released as a compilation as a career came to an end, as a tentative step forward for a band finding its sea legs in the ocean of rock and roll, or as the first masterpiece from a band entering its prime, these albums took one central idea, and ran with it until musical excellence was achieved.
Next week on My Year in Lists:
The Slits Cut, Prince weathers some Purple Rain, and Superchunk warns that there's No Pocky For Kitty.Want to keep tabs on all of our updates? follow us on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here).