DrummerWorld offers a lot of terrific technical tips for drummers. But if that’s not enough of a peek inside the creative process for you, take a peek at this video of Jason McGerr in the studio with Death Cab for Cutie on one of their more evocative songs, Grapevine Fires.
For a Facebook meme, I was asked to name the 15 albums that had the biggest impact on me, with no more than one from each artist. I somehow came up with 15, but the final cuts were painful.
It’s especially tough for someone like me who has both a pretentious streak and a pop streak. A couple of my choices are artistic landmarks that changed the direction of music. Some are artistic triumphs that didn’t break through into public consciousness. Some are just cult favorites or personal favorites.
Some “albums” are coherent works that share a lyrical or musical theme. Some are just the best 8-10 songs a band had at the time. In making such lists, I veer toward the coherent works, but that’s not always a fair representation of what has been in heaviest rotation in my CD players and iPods over the years.
When music critics make these lists, they’re trying to impress other music critics or perhaps trying to make a bunch of people listen to some offbeat personal favorite. I’m not trying to do that. I’m trying to answer the question of which albums had the most impact on me. If they affected rock music as a whole and I enjoy listening to them, then they’re good nominees. But I’m not going back to dig up something that may have influenced music if it only interests me as an historical artifact.
Besides, some of my favorite bands never attempted a grand statement on one particular album. They went through peaks that may spread over 2-3 albums. How do you pick just one?
Some of the problems are evident in my list of nominees, which I’ll give chronologically here so the innovative works stand out. But I didn’t whittle it down to the 15 I listed on Facebook. This is the full picture.
In chronological order, my nominees were:
1966: Revolver – Beatles. Perhaps Sgt. Pepper would be the more common choice, but the sonic innovations on this one paved the way for Sgt. Pepper and everything that followed. And the songs are better.
1971: Fragile – Yes. This band had two peaks, the first spanning three albums in the early 70s (this is the middle one), the second one with the early 80s revival of 90125. The gimmick on Fragile is that each member did a “solo” piece — two of them literally solo performances, two of them featuring a band member, one of them taking a complex Bill Bruford drum part and assigning guitar, bass and keyboards to duplicate various parts of the drum kit. But the solo efforts, particularly the Bruford piece, aren’t the highlights. The full-band songs are all strong, with three of them practically required on every Yes set list for the next 39 years.
1971: Who’s Next – The Who. The ultimate salvage job. Pete Townshend was working on a project called Lifehouse that just didn’t work. But several of the songs or musical ideas worked their way into a powerful collection of songs, four of which became classic rock radio staples. None of the tracks is filler — even John Entwistle’s novelty My Wife somehow fits.
1973: The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd. Moreso than Sgt. Pepper, this one is a must-have on any list of classic albums. Unlike Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side is indisputably the band’s best — Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall and A Momentary Lapse of Reason are very good but not quite the genre-changer that Dark Side proved to be. It stayed on Billboard’s Top 200 for a decade and a half for a reason. The concept of meditating on modern stresses could’ve been a train wreck, but the melodies and jazz touches are gorgeous, and synthesizers took another step forward.
1975: Blood on the Tracks – Bob Dylan. Like Dark Side, this Dylan work transports listeners to another aural landscape and state of mind. While Dark Side called on a large sonic palette, Blood on the Tracks is mostly acoustic guitar and Dylan’s voice, giving understated dignity to broken and confused relationships.
1980: Making Movies – Dire Straits. Brothers in Arms was the band’s international smash, and justifiably so, with a handful of smart pop songs and the breathtaking antiwar titletrack. But Making Movies stands up better over time, with Mark Knopfler’s guitar and guest Roy Bittan’s keyboards providing the backdrop for Knopfler’s lyrical sketches.
1981: Exit … Stage Left – Rush. This is cheating. Rush hit a peak from Hemispheres to Moving Pictures, and this was the live album following those three.
1983: Synchronicity – The Police. Despite the two songs with the “Synchronicity” title, this one is more of a collection of great songs than an album built around a particular theme. With Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland always determined to sabotage Sting’s grand designs, the Police never could’ve managed a full concept album, anyway. They’ll settle for four big hits and a handful of intriguing songs.
1983: The Crossing – Big Country. Yes, this album was more than just In A Big Country and Fields of Fire. It’s a full collection of thoughtful songs with that Scottish sound.
1984: Learning to Crawl – The Pretenders. Not a coherent album by any stretch of the imagination, with a couple of stray songs with fill-in musicians (including Tony Butler, who soon wound up in Big Country). And I never need to hear Thin Line Between Love and Hate again. The rest of this is sheer brilliance and resilience, with Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers picking up the pieces after the deaths of two bandmates and coming back stronger.
1985: Fables of the Reconstruction – R.E.M. Surely my most controversial pick. When R.E.M. set about recording its third full album, the guys hit a massive identity crisis. They packed up for London, unsure about how and whether to be the big-time band the critics thought they could be. What resulted was a quirky mix of tunes that captured the myth and mystery of the South. I could’ve picked several R.E.M. albums, of course, but this one is the most interesting of an excellent catalog.
1986: Skylarking – XTC. Best known for Dear God, a track that almost didn’t make the cut, the cranky English band churned out a charming collection of post-Beatles whimsy.
1987: Warehouse: Songs and Stories – Husker Du. So prolific during their brief time together, the Minnesota trio simply had to finish up with a double album that rarely lagged.
1987: … Nothing Like the Sun – Sting. After exploring jazz-rock in Dream of the Blue Turtles, Sting kept a bit of that influence but also branched out into other realms with a diverse album that included everything from a tribute to an eccentric friend (Englishman in New York) to the definitive lament on violence (Fragile).
1987: Diesel and Dust – Midnight Oil. The Aussies entered their golden period with songs inspired by a trip around their country and their work with Aborigines.
1990: Time’s Up – Living Colour: Could just as easily go with Vivid, but I like the experiments here and the majestic self-assurance closer This Is the Life.
1991: The Reality of My Surroundings – Fishbone. Robert Christgau calls himself the dean of American rock critics. He declares that this inspired romp and rant through urban America is not worth comment. We can therefore declare that Christgau is no more the dean of anything than I am the dean of Norwegian ice fishing.
1991: The Real Ramona – Throwing Muses. Might not compete with others on this list for artistic depth, at least not to someone like me who can’t decipher Kristin Hersh’s lyrics, but you won’t find a collection of better hooks.
1991: Achtung Baby – U2. Perhaps a tough choice over The Joshua Tree, but I thought the introspection after years of musical activism was a nice change of pace that few bands could pull off so convincingly.
1992: Little Earthquakes – Tori Amos. Tori has come up with many intriguing songs since her debut, but she may never again come up with such a strong set of tunes ranging from the playful to the shocking, with a few moments of beauty throughout. (Just as pro wrestler Mick Foley.)
1992: Erotica – The Darling Buds. Like The Real Ramona, this is just a solid collection of guitar-pop-rock hooks. Perhaps it wouldn’t stand out so much if anyone knew how to write a bloody guitar hook these days.
1993: Siamese Dream – Smashing Pumpkins. The previous Pumpkins effort was Gish, which was brilliant in its own right. Siamese Dream explored much of the same territory but did it a little bit better. The album has no unifying theme or sound, but it all fits together as one intense Dream. Billy Corgan was a master of dynamics, taking listeners into a quiet trance that would lead to a loud, violent release. After one last thrash, the Pumpkins follow up with two sweeter, softer songs to end everything on a more peaceful note. When classical music fans speak of the possibilities of a symphony, this is what they’re talking about. Pity no classical composers ever did quite as well. And it’s a pity that Corgan meandered through his subsequent career.
1993: Star – Belly. Tanya Donelly left Throwing Muses and emerged with a creepy collection of songs with lyrics and guitar riffs that were equally haunting.
1995: Cockamamie – Jennifer Trynin. This one might just be a personal preference, but almost every song pops into my head at some point in a given month or two. That’s an accomplishment.
1999: Lost and Gone Forever – Guster. When they expanded to a full drum kit and more complex arrangements, they recorded some fantastic songs. But this is still their most consistent album, and it’s a neat capsule of their original sound.
2003: The Complex – Blue Man Group. With 60-minute CDs replacing 40-minute albums, bands took more of a scattershot approach to recording. Albums were more likely to feature half-baked experiments that might have been B-side curiosities or offbeat compilation fodder in the previous era. And when downloading came into vogue, the “album” started to die. The Complex is different because it’s more than an “album.” It’s the soundtrack to a live show that makes a grand artistic statement on isolation and the power of music to help people overcome it. Some of the songs don’t make sense out of context, and perhaps this is the first case of a DVD being a better “album” than the CD itself. But the songs are strong enough to merit repeated listening, and if you’ve seen the show, you’ll “get” the whole thing.
2008: Narrow Stairs – Death Cab for Cutie. Yes, I’ve raised a few complaints about this one in the past. But I was nit-picking. The album has four outstanding songs and three very good ones.
Unfortunately, DCFC might be the only band that can come up with a reason for me to revise and update this list.
I don’t read as many album reviews as I did in my late teens and early 20s, so I was pleased to see from this insightful Rolling Stone review that the art form isn’t dead.
The key sentence, repeated on the Wikipedia entry for the album, is this: “The result is a dark, strangely compelling record that trades the group’s bright melancholy for something nearer to despair.”
I’m not an expert on DCFC by any means, having just gotten past the name (had I known it came from Neil Innes, I would’ve made the leap sooner) and heard some wonderful songs on Pandora. But I can tell that they walk a very fine line in their exploration of melancholy places — sometimes brilliant, sometimes whiny. Aimee Mann walks that line as well, though when she falls short, her efforts just sound dreary. DCFC runs the risk of lapsing into a depressed 16-year-old’s journal entry.
Let’s make this clear first: Narrow Stairs is a very good album. Most of the album’s best offerings are uplifting in some way despite the subject matter. Cath … takes care not to judge too harshly when someone gives up a bit of passion to marry the “well-intentioned man.” Grapevine Fires captures the anxiety and impending sense of loss while watching wildfires sweep over neighborhoods while sounding a few notes of resilience. My favorite song that hasn’t had wide release is Your New Twin-Sized Bed, which is written in second person and gently prods the subject not to give up so easily.
Judging from the comments rounded up in the Wikipedia entry, the band was worried about releasing I Will Possess Your Heart, written from a stalker’s point of view. They needn’t have worried. It’s really no different in theme from Sarah McLachlan’s Possession, and it’s just as well-written.
For me, any controversy begins with No Sunlight. The bouncy melody and enthusiastic first verse disguises the fact that the rest of the lyrics are completely nihilistic. It’s a clever artistic technique to have lyrics and music so different in tone, but the lyrics are just too lazy for the song to work. Perhaps if it were a little more ironic, it would work as some sort of “Oh, they’ll be hanging me in the morning” death song you’d expect from the Irish, but it’s all too simple. When the protagonist was young, the sun was shining and he loved it. Then as he got older, clouds formed, and he didn’t like it. That’s disappointing.
The album closer, The Ice Is Getting Thinner, is just as disappointing. It’s entirely too hopeless and entirely too simple.
Also disappointing is the video for Grapevine Fires, which removes one interesting theme in the lyrics — a little girl dancing in a cemetery — and substitutes a storyline in which a main character’s girlfriend is devoured by the fire, either metaphorically or literally. Once again, the complexities are removed, and we’re left with something a little too heavy-handed, like those latter-day ER episodes in which they just tried to outdo themselves in tragedy.
The point here isn’t to pick on Death Cab for Cutie, not when they’re clearly a cut above their peers. This is constructive criticism. Musically, every song on this album is interesting. Most of the songs also have something to offer lyrically. They’re capable of greatness, and they achieve it on several songs here and a soundtrack offering called Meet Me On the Equinox, a breathless take on the old “carpe diem” sentiment. They just need to remember to pull back from the edge and take another look at the scenes they’re painting when they get too close to hopelessness.
Going back to my music-magazine-devouring days, I remember Husker Du sounding a bit of regret over their mope-rock album Candy Apple Grey, saying they had a few fans with dark circles under the eyes coming up and saying, “I really loved that album.” Like Candy Apple Grey, Narrow Stairs captures a band at the peak of its musical power. Husker Du added some musical savvy to a punk-rock foundation; Death Cab for Cutie has extraordinary melodic talent.
Husker Du’s Bob Mould broke into a pretty good solo career with a song called See a Little Light. Perhaps a little light would help the gifted Death Cab for Cutie reach the next level and produce a masterpiece with their next release.