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.
"Reznor writes full-fledged tunes; he knows his way around melodic hooks, not just riffs. And while purists accuse him of selling out their insular genres, he actually trumps them; the music is no less transgressive, and possibly more so, because it sticks in the ear."-Jon Pareles, The New York Times
"From the beginning of the first track "˜Dark and Long,' Underworld's focus on production is clear, with song writing coming in a distant second."-Allmusic.com review of Dubnobasswithmyheadman
Part of the purpose of undertaking My Year in Lists as a project was to force me to expand my musical horizons, to require me to examine my musical history and to look forward into my musical future. I aimed to transcend my previous knowledge of music and forge forward, taking at least tentative steps toward expertise. I knew walking into this feature that I would not like, nor would I understand every album that I encountered. Music is a vast and varied medium, and I hoped to taste from all genres and subgenres as widely as the confines of this feature would allow.
Walking into this week, I knew it would be a difficult one for me. Having experienced a good deal of German rock earlier in the year, I knew that it was really hit or miss whether Der Plan would connect with me in any meaningful way. I have never been a huge fan of industrial rock, and dipping into Nine Inch Nails didn't titillate me so much as terrify me. And the simple album title of Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman was offputting enough to give me pause. Yet the purpose of this column isn't to write about a bunch of music I already know that I like, nor did I ask the list contributors to cater to my taste. So it was with some trepidation that I dove into the albums for this week, but it was also with some hope that I might be about to find something entirely new that I loved.
Der Plan formed in Dusseldorf, Germany in the early months of 1979. Moritz Reichelt, Kai Horn and Frank Fenstermacher joined together to create a group originally known as Weltaufstandsplan (The World Rebellion Plan, in English), but quickly shortened the name to just Der Plan and began creating the sound that would characterize the German New Wave. Horn left before the band released anything, and Kurt Dahlke, who had been recording as Pyrolator joined up soon after. The group began recording strictly industrial sounds, but quickly became more musically inclines, reducing the noise of their early recordings by the time they released their debut, and Tab's first pick this week, Geri Reig in 1980.We have talked previously about several krautrock outfits from the "˜70s already in this space, including CAN, Faust, and Neu but Der Plan took very few sonic cues from their German predecessors. Instead, Der Plan was openly influenced by the work of The Residents and Throbbing Gristle, and the sounds of both bands are apparent on their debut album. The opening track "Adrenalin Lasst das Blut Kochen" has some of the rhythms of a song by The Residents, but is also clearly an attempt by the band to establish their own unique sound. While there are industrial noises in the background of the track, the synth heavy, repetitive melody sounds more like what would come out of the German New Wave (including Kraftwerk) than like anything that had come before. "Gefahliche Clowns," however, sounds exactly like a song by The Residents, except for the fact that it is sung in German (though, honestly it wouldn't have surprised me if The Residents had sang any of their songs in German). The word catchy doesn't apply to a song like this, but it is certainly interesting, even if it is a bit reductive of early Residents songs.
"Hans und Gabi" manages to sound original, but perhaps only because it sounds like the result of a collaboration between The Residents and Throbbing Gristle. This isn't to deprive Der Plan of any credit; in fact, quite the contrary. Combining these two sounds, and adding the synthesizers and German vocals creates a sound that is completely different than anything either of the band's biggest influences had ever produced. "Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental" is perhaps the most original composition, a synth-heavy electronic composition that is darkly melodic and, while not devoid of influences, an obvious attempt by the band to set their main inspirations aside and see what was left. It turns out what was left over was pretty solid all by itself.
The band's second album, Normalette Surprise displays a Der Plan much more assured of what they hope to be and much more confident in their sound. "Nessie," (which, if it isn't intended to be about the Loch Ness monster certainly sounds like it is) is all bubbling water and frantic breathing, with synthetic sounds and growls overlaying it. "Mein Freunde" is an electronic chant indicative of the band's growing style, though less interesting to me as a result. Where Geri Reig was interesting because of its apparent influences, Normalette Surprise almost suffers from its increased confidence. Der Plan developed a style over their first two albums, but that style isn't as good, nor as interesting as the influences they emulated. Der Plan heavily influenced the German New Wave, a genre that, from my limited experience with it does not seem to appeal to me. When they were working out their sound, their experimentations with some of the more interesting bands of the "˜70s were fascinating in their own way, yet what they developed ultimately leaves something to be desired when compared to two titans of other genres. Der Plan is a good band, and an influential one, but over their first two releases they never quite achieved greatness.In 1987, Trent Reznor played keyboards in a Cleveland band called Exotic Birds, where he met John Malm Jr. The two became close friends, and when Reznor left Exotic Birds to make his own music, Malm became his manager. At the time, he was employed as a janitor and assistance engineer at Right Track Studios, and asked the owner if he could record during unused studio time for free, a deal which the owner agreed to as it cost him only slight wear on the equipment. Reznor attempted to put a band together but could not find a group that could articulate the material as he desired. So, inspired by Prince, he decided to play all of the instruments except for drums by himself. He released his second album, and Ashley's pick this week, The Downward Spiral, in 1994.
Recorded in the house where Charles Manson murdered Sharon Tate, The Downward Spiral is a concept album about one man's descent through the titular downward spiral dealing with religion, degradation, violence, disease, social ills, sex, drugs and finally suicide. My bias in favor of concept albums has already been well established, and while my bias against Nine Inch Nails was established earlier in this very column, I've found that the cross section between the two was actually reasonably satisfying, even if I am not rushing to obtain the rest of NIN's discography.
"Piggy," which seems to have been at least partially inspired by Reznor's living in the house where Tate was murdered (seeing as the word was scrawled in blood at the site of many Manson Family murders, and that Reznor had named his recording space in the house "Le Pig" after the message left on Tate's front door). The song is masterfully melodic, a complex arrangement made all the more impressive by the fact that Reznor played everything but the drums himself. The song doesn't help his denial that he was living in Tate's house to exploit her death for his art (an idea that makes me at least a little squeamish but that doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility for Reznor), but it is a solid piece of songsmanship nevertheless. "March of the Pigs," which also hearkens to Manson in its title and frenetic, almost spooky speed, is an incredibly powerful song. Quick, forceful and just a bit scary, the song is three minutes of vented rage. I can't imagine ever singing along to this song (in spite of its relatively tame and even catchy piano outro), and I really hope I never feel the way the protagonist does during it, but the fact that the song is a bit off-putting is almost surely part of the point, and to that end it is successful.
"Closer" is an unabashedly profane song, with an explicit chorus and verses that are none too subtle themselves. The song details the protagonist's desire to engage in intercourse with a woman, mostly to escape himself for a time. The song could only be played if heavily censored, and Reznor's decision to title the single "Closer to God" did not ingratiate him with those who found the song controversial. The album's final song, and my favorite, "Hurt" details a suicide (or perhaps the protagonist's finding a reason to live while contemplating suicide, if you're the optimistic type). The album's most balladic entry, the song captures all of the anguish and depression Reznor was aiming for over the course of the album, either rendering everything before moot or acting as the perfect climax (or nadir) to Reznor's concept album. I tend to lean towards the latter, personally. While The Downward Spiral is unlikely to end up on any "favorite albums" list I make, I always find myself liking the whole album more in retrospect by the time "Hurt" comes on, which is a credit to Reznor's songwriting abilities. Whether "Hurt" actually makes me appreciate the rest of the album more or is just so good on its own merits that I retroactively give the rest of the songs more credit doesn't really seem to matter. Either way, "Hurt" is a great song. And the Johnny Cash cover is pretty awesome as well.
Listening to The Downward Spiral this week did not make me a convert to Nine Inch Nails superfandom, but it did help me to appreciate why so many people love the band. I didn't fall in love with Trent Reznor's ode to pain and depression, but I do respect it and I am certainly glad to have spent a week digging into it.
Karl Hyde and Rick Smith began their musical partnership in 1979, when the two met at a diner in Cardiff, where both were working while at school. They began working with others on a band called The Screen Gemz. That expanded into a band that was named after a graphic squiggle, pronounded Freur. In 1987 Hyde, Smith, and their bandmates Alfie Thomas, Bryn Burrows, and Baz Allen formed Underworld, with the hopes of creating a more guitar-oriented electropop sound. This version of the band disbanded in 1990 but Hyde and Smith recruited Essex DJ Darren Emerson and adopted the name once again. Their first album with this line-up, and Collin's pick this week, Dubnobasswithmyheadman was released in 1994 and considered the group's most accessible work to date.
The opening track "Dark and Long" is a nearly eight minute electronic-dance song about a mysterious encounter and a passionate kiss. The song displays the group's transition into trance, with a catchy melody repeating throughout and simple lyrics overlaying it. "Mmm"¦Skyscraper I Love You" is a 13 minute melodic ode to New York City, a song with an entrancing beat that nevertheless starts to get old long before the song is over.
"Dirty Epic" opens with heavily synthesized vocals before becoming a tranc-y dance beat with perhaps the strongest lyrics on the album. "River of Bass" is as bass-driven as the title implies without ever leaving the realm of electronic music. As is noted in the quote that opens this column, it is clear throughout that Underworld emphasized production over lyrics, which is not necessarily a bad decision. I tend to be a lyrics man, lending the lyrical content of an album equal, if not more importance than the melodies, but it seems like in the case of Underworld it was an artistic decision to focus on the melodies, which sound pretty fantastic throughout the album's epic 73 minute runtime. Dubnobasswithmyheadman is also unlikely to find its place atop a list of my all-time favorites, but it makes great music to drive to late at night, and if I ever found a club that played this kind of trance-y electronica, I would have found a club I'd be willing to set foot in.
None of the albums this week stunned me with their excellence, and none of them opened my eyes to a genre I might love but have been neglecting. Yet three out of the four of them are completely worthwhile albums (I could have done without Normalette Surprise) and each made me think a lot about their positive elements, perhaps more so than I do in a normal week where I automatically like or love all of the albums I am writing about (or inherently hate one or more of them). Der Plan was interesting because they provided a window into how important artistic influences can be to a band's sound. While this is an obvious statement (why else would we call them influences?), listening to a band that wore their influences on their sleeve like Der Plan did makes the point all the easier to grasp and all the more fun to truly dissect. Listening to The Downward Spiral definitely made me rethink Trent Reznor (who I previously enjoyed only for his stellar score for The Social Network) as an artist and made me truly respect his capabilities. And Underworld really did open my eyes, in a way. I am not all of a sudden obsessed with electronica (I still dislike it, as a rule), but at its best moments, Dubnobasswithmyheadman let me see through the eyes of people who spend their nights in dark clubs, lost in the beat. I doubt I'll become one of those people (unless someone can point me in the direction of a club that is as mellow and trance-y as the best songs on this album are), but I can grasp where they are coming from now much more than I could a week ago. I was not excited for this week of My Year in Lists, but I enjoyed myself much more than I expected nevertheless. I learned a lot, questioned a lot, and came away a bit more knowledgeable and a bit more worldly (if still pretty stuck in my ways) than I was when I started this week. And that is, honestly, what My Year in Lists is all about.Read more My Year in Lists here
Next week on My Year in Lists:
We begin a month-long examination of avant-garde savant Nurse With Wound, starting with Homotopy To Marie, Ladies Home Tickler and The Sylvie and Babs High-Thigh Companion, let Hole show us how to Live Through This, and help Radiohead weather The Bends.