The Stone Roses is perhaps the most influential and over-accoladed bands at whose altar you’ve never worshipped. Which is fine with me, but it shows a lack of initiative on the part of executives charged with doing shit about such things. I mean, you can’t with a straight face say that the Roses are not as accomplished as retrospectively financially viable acts such as Toad the Wet Sprocket and Barenaked Ladies.
I never personally rode the SR bandwagon, but I’m sure there were s’mores at the end. I skipped the whole overcooked post-Joy Division acid house (Ding Dong! the Wicked Witch is Dead!) dancefest that stormed Manchester in the mid-1980s, dubbed Madchester, and which would lead to the rise of overly soapy acts like Oasis in the 1990s.
But we’ll always have “I Wanna Be Adored,” from 1989, an airy bit of English soul, and also an early foray into blending rock and dance elements in a way that feels organic rather than Eno’d — something My Bloody Valentine would do in a more profound manner on its indie-world-shattering “Loveless” two years later.
In fact, that’s all we’ll have by SR. Seriously, you can skip every other entry on this or any other album. The reason you’ve never heard of the Stone Roses is because it was a one-trick pony.
Tom Waits has gone through various incarnations — from blues to vaudeville to experimental to opera — one of the few artists blessed enough to remain relevant each time he reinvents himself. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a fine actor as well, looks the part of the Troubadour, and genuinely seems to be as interesting a person as he an artist. Mr. Natural, indeed.
Coming at a time when Waits was still heavily steeped in jazz and booze, “Step Right Up” sits amid a handful of classics on the hazy and bittersweet “Small Change” (1976). The album was the first to find the besotted crooner in a foul mood, but the clever “Step Right Up” offers a brief respite from the gloom — at least in its jaunty rag tempo and Waits rapping like a barker at the mic.
Mr. Big Time manages to strip commercialism of its gloss by tossing all those empty promises back at the Machine (“The large print giveth/and the small print taketh away”). Really, Tommy boy was probably just upset at himself, having discovered how weak he was under the spell of The Road, a perverted form of consumerism all its own.
As Waits told Rolling Stone in 1976, “There’s a lifestyle that’s there before you arrive and you’re introduced to it. It’s unavoidable.” That’s why “Step Right Up” shares space with the likes of “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” and “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” with its lines: “I don’t have a drinking problem/except when I can’t get a drink.”
Ironically, “Small Change” was Waits’ biggest commercial success to that point and landed him for the first time in Billboard’s top 100 albums, taking him from his faithful cult following to a much wider audience. And these days? Well, you know you’ve made it when Pitchfork stalks you and you don’t even tour the country in which you were born and in which Pitchfork is based.
Thankfully, the Troubadour has never strayed from his own ideals, not one to compromise his creativity. Which is why he’s still relevant and somebody like, say, Madonna — as Elton John put it so eloquently — is a “fairground stripper.”
Hands down, “Pagan Poetry” is Bjork’s finest moment.
And Iceland’s sense-oozing elf brims with plateau-bumping outbursts: “Hidden Place,” also off “Vespertine” (2001); “It’s Oh So Quiet” off “Post” (1995); and “Joga” off “Homogenic” (1997) quickly spring to mind. (A disclaimer: I’m writing this as a former Bjork Fanatic, nine years clean.)
There is so much going on in this song that it’s hard to settle on a way to describe it. There are collisions of sound: the Plexiglas music box and surly electronic pulses, a backing chorus and Zeena Parkins’ haunting harp carried in as if by the wind, the percussive bass — and the tempo changes that seem to break the song into three parts.
Over it all, Bjork displays some of her dearest vocals as she sings, with a bruised heart, about finally finding her soul mate (Matthew Barney, no doubt):
the dark currents
an accurate copy
of the pleasure
Oh, and the video’s pretty hot, too. It was banned from the airwaves in these puritanical States.
Sonic Youth is about as wild as music can get, I thought during an earlier version of myself.
That crazy guitar being played like a saxophone. Elusive sexpot Kim Gordon’s voice leering out of the speakers. The fluidity of all that electricity. And just that whole pleasant, baboon-beating-on-a-trash-can vibe that went along with listening to early SY as loud as possible while crashing into things.
Then, of course, like all REAL love stories, Sonic Youth grew up and got introspective — and did trilogies, just like Peter Jackson. Which is fine for museum events or already-neutered 100-foot screens, but the latter part of SY’s career is hopelessly populated with works that lack passion.
No, I’m talking about the soul-bursting, sensual, violent energy displayed on songs such as “White Cross” off “Sister” (1987), so obviously a direct influence on “grunge” artists like Mudhoney and Nirvana.
Another gem, off SY’s second album, “Confusion is Sex” (1983), is the hyper-Suicide jangler, “The World Looks Red,” notable for its rare use of screwdrivers jammed into the guitars (an idea they got from Glenn Branca) and lyrics by Swans singer Michael Gira, which he had written but had no urge to put to music. Thurston, however, did.
They bear repeating:
THE WORLD LOOKS RED
Push it away
The world looks red
People with fish eyes
The ground sucks
Walk on my fingertips
Displacing the fog
The weight of my body
Is too mush to bear
The memory drained
The life from the dull
An ocean of insects
Worked like a sheet
The immovable fact
Buried my mind
In a horse-hair coat
In a pile
On the floor
(“The World Looks Red” as written by Kim Gordon, Lee M. Ranaldo, Thurston Joseph Moore, Jim Sclavunas, Mike Gira
Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group)
Before the Dream drowned in too much beer, hairspray and mascara (right around the time the band hired a roadie to be its keyboardist in 1990), The Cure was responsible for some of the — if not most inventive, then at least most downright delirious — music of the 1980s.
Think teetering, inebriated “The Caterpillar” off the band’s enduring 1984 brain-spinner, “The Top.” Or the zany, drug-fueled take on the big band era, “Why Can’t I Be You?” from the grossly overfat 1987 double-album, “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.” And then think of all that crap that was coming out in the mid-’80s. Here, I’ll help remind you: Huey Lewis and the News, Wham! and the “Miami Vice” soundtrack.
Some of The Cure’s most interesting experiments were never even intended for mass consumption. Take “New Day,” recorded in 1985. The song was originally released as part of a limited edition EP distributed only in the U.K. But it includes some of Robert Smith’s most interesting vocals, and it’s got this great dark jungle funk feel — like something Herbie Hancock might think up while coming down from a bad acid trip.
This is about as visual as sound ever gets. Forest Swords constructs undulating mindscapes from layers of deep-fried sound.
British sound collagist Matthew Barnes, sole Sword, must have dug somewhere deep to whip up his spectral tinkerings, as evidenced on “Hoylake Misst,” from 2010’s “Dagger Paths.” Somehow, Barnes is able to take disjointed, occasionally harsh sounds and give them a groove, like sandpaper smoothing splintery wood.
I don’t even know how you classify stuff like this: Psych-ambient? Hauntcore? Power trance?
The drums are primal on the nearly 8-minute-long “Misst,” and the guitars droning yet sharp-edged, like Sigur Ros’ bully older brother. This is a pulse-pounding meditation that feels a bit like slowly traversing a spent battlefield — perhaps one in a forest where swords were used.
Long before Carrie Brownstein became the queen of neo-ironic humor on “Portlandia,” she was in a band called Sleater-Kinney, a late-to-the-game and fairly-brainier-than-most riot grrrl affiliate formed in 1994, out of the ashes of less memorable riotous attempts.
Don’t let that scare you, though. S/K was a rock band, through and through. Some of the meatiest licks of the mid-1990s were wafting off the guitars of Brownstein and cohort Corin Tucker, nowhere better demonstrable than on the anti-sexual abuse (and very nearly anti-opposite sex) song “Little Mouth,” from the band’s 1996 release, “Call the Doctor.”
It’s heady stuff, and if Tucker wasn’t gifted with such workable pipes, it might come off like something squeezed out by Hole, Courtney Love imitating an angry badger confronting a microphone draped in meat.
Arias and philosophy are not your standard building blocks for pop music. But Zola Jesus is no ordinary pop singer.
For one thing, Nika Roza Danilova (Zola’s given name) suffered such intense stage fright as a child dreaming of becoming an opera singer, she never actually made it to an audition. For another, she harbors open disdain for the corn-fed wasteland of pop culture, so she’s probably not following Lady Gaga on Twitter (though you can be certain Gaga’s got an eye on ZJ).
It’s no surprise this Russian-American from Wisconsin gets slapped with the goth tag, given that when she discusses her music, Zola says things like “I have no control over anything,” and tosses out as influences names such as four-octave doom crooner Diamanda Galas, nihilist thinker Frederich Nietzsche and Guy Debord, an anti-capitalist writer whose first book was bound in a sandpaper jacket in the hopes that it would disfigure other books it touched.
Comparisons to Siouxie Sioux, however, are knee-jerk generalities. Sure, Zola sings in the same “style” as Siouxie — but that’s as brilliant as comparing Elton John with Cee-Lo just because they both dress up like interior decorators on bath salts at awards shows.
On Zola’s 2011 studio album, “Conatus,” she for the first time employed a co-producer and hired musicians on strings to help brighten the mood. “Hikikomori,” one of a handful of masterpieces of dark pop on “Conatus,” is a sprawling, piercing dirge carried on the wings of violins, violas and cellos — and, rising above, Zola’s sweetly despairing voice.
When she chirps, “All I know is I’m home / sicker in the daytime / sicker on the inside,” a violin weeping toward the end, it’s definitely coming from the same dark place as her previous output.
At just 23 years of age and three full-lengths and three EPs already under her belt, Zola is one to watch for potential superstardom.