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 that sounds disorienting, that's because it is. Nurse With Wound has always had a unique sound and vibe on their records, and Spiral Insana carries on in that tradition."-James Mason, Allmusic.comLast week I churned out by far the longest installment of My Year in Lists yet. As a reward for those of you who stuck through all of that, we're going to dive straight in this week and try to make this column one of the shortest I've ever written for this feature. Wish me luck!
Returning for week two of our Nurse With Wound month, we find our hero Steven Stapleton getting an advance of 3000 pounds to produce his next record, an amount of money that put a lot of pressure on the artist to create something truly great. Bringing in guests including David Jackman (who we will look at later this year), Robert Haigh, and Chris Wallis. The result of over a year's work and a massive amount of editing on Stapleton's part was Tab's first pick this week, 1986's Spiral Insana, my favorite Nurse With Wound Record yet.
One continuous piece of music, indexed over three tracks on its CD release and with 20 track titles listed on the cover, Spiral Insana is nothing if not epic. And while it leaves behind most of the surrealistic horror of the albums we addressed last week, it gains emotional power from the dissonance between it and his earlier work and also through Stapleton's willingness throughout to play with melody as a concept and as an emotional tool far more thoroughly than on anything we've yet examined. His collaborators on the album seem to fit perfectly into his oeuvre, but also appear to force him to stretch himself a bit more than we had seen previously, and this is a very good thing.
Years later, Stapleton had a dream that he was handing David Tibet of Current 93 a copy of the new NWW album, called Thunder Perfect Mind. Tibet was shocked, having already selected that same title for his band's upcoming release. He immediately agreed to share the title, and the two projects became "sister" albums, released around the same time in 1992 and sharing basic sounds and lyrics, while the overall mood of the records varied significantly. Stapleton's album revolves around two epic tracks, "Cold" and "Colder Still." The first is a driving industrial piece filled with relentlessly chaotic machinery noises. Unlike Stapleton's previous work in the genre of industrial music, "Cold" feels purposeful and manages to make melodic sense of a vast array of disparate noises. What comes together is cacophonic, to be sure, but not in the disorganized, lackluster way that subpar industrial can often come across. Stapleton may have been working in industrial sounds, but this time around, the machines were working for him. "Colder Still," on the other hand, is a sweeping, almost cinematic dark ambient piece that returns to Stapleton's examinations of fear and the unknown. The man hasn't lost his touch for prodding at what makes us sonically uncomfortable, but "Colder Still" feels more accomplished in many ways that its comparatively unfinished predecessors. If "Homotopy to Marie" was a haunted house put together in somebody's garage to scare neighborhood kids, "Colder Still" is a Stanley Kubrick level meditation on fear and the dark side of the human soul, in that its attention to detail, meticulous construction and detached analysis all feel as pristine as that director's finest work.
Last week I avoided drawing any conclusions about Nurse With Wound because I knew I had three weeks left to go and didn't want to eat my words. This policy remains true this week, but I can say that I've started to become at least a bit of a convert. I may not be rushing out to collect the Nurse With Wound list (a large number of bands cited as influences to the group on an early release that collectors attempt to obtain) quite yet, but Spiral Insana and Thunder Perfect Mind indicate that Stapleton is a more complex and accomplished artist than I may have initially given him credit for, and if anything I hear from him in the next two weeks can top these two albums, I will be all the more impressed.
Green Day is an interesting band for a lot of reasons. For one thing, they are a band that can be classified (at least in their early days) as punk rock in spite of the fact that they came along about a decade after the dawn of punk rock and at least five years after the genre was largely dead and dissected. The band signed to Reprise records in the early "˜90s however, and a major label defection generally means a loss of credibility in the punk community. I have no doubt that by now Green Day has lost any of its punk cred (they've won Best Rock Album Grammy's twice in the last decade, for American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, neither of which sounds like punk rock much at all), but I don't think it was the major label "defection" that did it to them. It seems to me that Green Day's transition from punk rockers to purveyors of Broadway friendly rock-operas is more of an evolution of style, the kind of thing that can be expected for a band who began playing punk more than 20 years ago and has managed to stay together.
Green Day was pretty melodic punk rock from the start, which is why it should surprise no one that they have delved further and further into melodic construction over the course of their careers. They released their major label debut, and Ashley's pick this week, Dookie, in 1994, and immediately achieved huge worldwide commercial success, even while the punk rock community claimed they had "sold out." Maybe Green Day did sell out; after all, they signed with a major label and got on the road toward vast financial success. But if selling out always sounded more like this (and less like, say, Lady Gaga's "Born This Way") I think fewer people would decry bands who try to actually make money off of their art.
"Longview," the band's first single, is about intense boredom, with the protagonist sitting around the house masturbating and smoking marijuana until both activities lose their luster. Its hard to call a song that sounds like this and with that subject matter anything other than punk rock, and as a fan of that genre, had I been around at the time I probably would have championed Green Day's rise to popularity. Sure, something is lost when your favorite band gets discovered by the unwashed masses, but only if you're the type of person who gets off on obscurity. In reality, a band you love gaining commercial popularity (provided they keep churning out good music) is an ideal situation; they get to make more money, you probably get to see them tour more, and they can get more ambitious with their artistic vision (this last part, though may be the exact reason a lot of early Green Day fans hate their newer stuff. While I can see American Idiot as an artistic progression for the band, that doesn't mean I like it better than Dookie, and I can see why some might argue the band's success drove them towards that. I maintain, however, that it simply opened up a path the band would have tried to take anyway).http://youtu.be/c87TKWgRyCE
"Welcome to Paradise" is a song about the band moving out of their parents houses and into an abandoned house in Oakland where they lived with a bunch of other punks rent free. Perhaps the first classic Green Day song, the track is an ode to freedom with an infectious punk sound that is more mainstream than classic punk rock in both good and bad ways. "Basket Case," arguably my all-time favorite Green Day song, is about frontman Billie Joe Armstrong's struggle with anxiety before he was diagnosed with a panic disorder. Again, the song manages to perfectly toe the line between punk rock and alternative rock, with a catchy alternative melody backing up the punk-ish vocals.
"When I Come Around" is probably the apotheosis of the band's efforts to combine punk and alternative rock in the early "˜90s. The song lapses further into the alternative rock template than anything else on the album with a catchy melody and a college rock sound, but maintains just enough of a punk edge to remain fascinating. Ultimately, it seems to me that Green Day didn't sell out with Dookie so much as discover itself as a band. Green Day were never going to be punks like Sex Pistols or The Ramones. Billie Joe Armstrong was always too much of a hopeless romantic for that to work out. Instead, they took their punk rock roots and combined them with their alternative rock sensibilities to create a new hybrid sound that happened to be simultaneously exactly what the band was best at and what the people wanted to hear. Green Day didn't sell out, in my mind; they stumbled onto a formula for vast artistic and commercial success simultaneously and have been riding that wave to differing results ever since. Dookie, however, remains perhaps the band's purest distillation of their sound and best attempt to combine their artistic aims with their commercial aspirations.
I often talk about how "assured" a band sounds, how confident they are in what they are trying to do and how well they manage to pull that off. I tend to think this is a good thing, but if there is an argument against being too assured of what you want to do at any time, that argument is Beck. Changing his sound from album to album and even track to track, Beck never seems quite sure what he's going for as an artist (or at least seems to change his mind roughly every three minutes on any album), which is both the best and worst thing about him. The unpredictability of his sound is certainly intriguing, and at its best leads to incredibly surprising choices that subvert or play into expectations and create musical masterpieces. At his worst, however, Beck can come across as unfocused or unfinished, sounding more like a failed sonic experiment he just decided to leave on an album to show what he was going through at the time. This wavering, hit-or-miss quality is why Beck will never be listed among my favorite artists, but its also why I will continue to return to him again and again, reevaluating previous opinions and checking in on new releases just to see whether he's hitting a grand slam or fouling off an album's worth of balls in a row.
Beck's 1996 opus, and Collin's pick this week, Odelay is definitely the former, one of those instances where Beck's experiments pay off an listeners are left with a collection of brilliant and fun songs that show the artist's potential range and potential for vast success. As Beck began recording Odelay, he aimed for a more acoustic, somber sound. Having just experienced a number of personal tragedies (including the death of his grandfather, influential Fluxus painter and Warhol collaborator Al Hansen), Beck was focused on more downbeat themes and sounds. Of the songs recorded in these sessions, only three have ever been released, and only one, the album's closing track "Ramshackle" made it onto Odelay.Beck eventually abandoned his downbeat sound (though he would return to it on 1998's Mutations and on my other favorite Beck album, 2002's Sea Change) in favor of a more upbeat, hip hop influenced sound. The opening track, "Devil's Haircut" is a condemnation of vanity and a rejection of the idea that growing up is about compromise (though the song's reliance on samples may contradict that latter theme, depending on your views on the use of sampling). "Jack-Ass," my favorite track off the album, is a slower, more contemplative track that hints at the direction Beck would try out on Sea Change (and the direction I most wish he had maintained out of all of the guises he has worn throughout his career). "Where It's At," perhaps the most well known song off the album, features many spoken samples, including some taken from the sex education album Sex for Teens: (Where It's At) and from Mantronix, as well as references to Gary Wilson and (in the video, at least) an homage to Captain Beefheart , whose constant experimentation must have served as an inspiration to Beck.
It can be hard to get a handle on Beck as an artist, but when he is working at the top of his game as he does throughout Odelay and Sea Change, he is a marvel to behold. Bold, clever, endlessly inventive and occasionally flat-out brilliant, Beck manages to be fascinating even when he fails, and is hard to top when he succeeds.
This may not be the shortest installment of My Year in Lists ever, but we made it close, folks, and we got to talk about four pretty awesome albums along the way. Nurse With Wound really hit his stride, Green Day found their style, and Beck churned out a beautiful sonic experiment that also manages to be catchy as hell. And we did it all in under 2300 words. I think we've all earned a cookie. Or at least another week's worth of music to digest.
Next week on My Year in Lists:
Nurse With Wound takes us to a Rock "˜N' Roll Station and shows us the Man with the Woman Face, Blur fills us in on Parklife, and Prodigy lets us see The Fat of the Land.