Big Blood - Unlikely Mothers (2014)
This double-vinyl doomfolk blowout is my favorite band's crowning achievement. But it's so demanding that when I first heard it, I only liked two or three songs. It took me two years (and many weed sessions) to understand every song, and another two years before I was able to make it through without a break. Now I get to the end and want to start again. For much more about Big Blood, see my fan page, Ecstasy and Doom
Wireheads - Country Space Junk (2014)
Wireheads are a pretty good garage rock band from Adelaide, and on this EP, squeezed between their first and second LPs, they channeled something truly unearthly, with four brilliant raw-cut gems separated by three experiments. This is the best space rock since classic Hawkwind, but the physical release was only 100 copies on cassette.
Hawkwind - Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974)
Of their many, many albums, this is the one I keep coming back to, for its creative range and spotless quality. Next would be side one of Zones, and then Space Ritual and PXR5. Scroll down for my full section on Hawkwind
Camper Van Beethoven - Camper Van Beethoven (1986) and Key Lime Pie (1989)
Big Blood described their Sew Your Wild Days Tour vol I album as having "exploded out of us," and the same thing must have happened with CVB's self-titled third album, because it was recorded right on the heels of their second, and it's as alive as anything I've ever heard, wildly psychedelic and overflowing with styles.
Their fifth album, Key Lime Pie, sounds less like they're having fun and more like they're trying to create a serious masterpiece, and they succeed. It's focused, meticulously produced, epic, and luminous. Violin (by Don Lax) and electric guitar (by Greg Lisher) have never sounded so good together. My favorite CVB album is whichever one of these two I've listened to most recently.
Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
I don't even like blues rock, but this album is so great and so popular that I wonder why everyone else didn't just give up. The only way to top this sound is to go weirder. Stairway to Heaven is not among my favorites, but the cool thing is that if you make a chart of its musical intensity over time, it really does look like a stairway, with sudden rises to increasingly high plateaus.
Bob Dylan - Blood On The Tracks (1975)
Bob Dylan is my favorite male singer, and the most impressive thing about his voice is that almost anyone can imitate it and sound more interesting than with any vocal style they could come up with on their own. This album is a perfect conjunction of inspired songwriting, lyrical maturity, and edge of chaos performance. Not only does it have no duds, it doesn't even have any merely good songs. I also love Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Desire.
Orphans & Vandals - I Am Alive and You Are Dead (2009)
The best of these songs have complex, rambling structure like good prog rock, string arrangements like good chamber rock, and primal beats and chanting vocals like the Velvet Underground -- but nothing else that sounds like this can touch this.
R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
This is their best collection of songs and their best consistent sonic texture. Compared to their previous two albums, the sound is still jangly but with more layers and more depth, and the guitar has just enough fuzz to make this psychedelic folk.
Beat Happening - You Turn Me On (1992)
Their first two albums, Beat Happening and Jamboree, are the most alive and inspired, and their third, Black Candy, has the best songwriting. But this, their fifth, has by far the best sonic textures, and the most minutes of really top-notch stuff.
Life Without Buildings - Any Other City (2001)
Their only album, but it's hard to believe something this unusual and creative even happened once. Sue Tompkins' voice is not a melodic instrument, but a feral and bratty barrage, so impulsive that it sounds improvised, and yet so meticulously structured that it fits seamlessly with complex math-rock.
Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)
It's a lot like Bitches Brew by Miles Davis: loosely structured, mostly improvised, and heavily overdubbed, but this was seven years sooner and much more raw. There are bits that sound like proto-metal, and when I mentioned that to Leigh Ann she said, "Charles Mingus invented heavy metal; Bob Dylan invented rap."
Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
It rarely happens that a great lyricist is also a great singer. With no training, Newsom puts an edge in her voice that is either unbearably irritating or unbearably beautiful, depending on your ears. I was so overwhelmed by "En Gallop" that it took me several listens to even notice the words. This is the only album where she does it -- on two early demos her voice is clumsy, and on her next album (Ys) the magic is gone. The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
Big Star - first three albums (1972-1974)
There was a brief window in the late 1960's when popular audiences wanted to be challenged, and somebody like Jimi Hendrix could get his foot in the door. By 1972, people wanted to hear stuff like the Carpenters, who did have an undertone of sadness in songs like Superstar
, but smothered it with super-smooth production. Meanwhile Alex Chilton was going the other direction.
In 1967 he had a huge hit with the Box Tops, The Letter
, a perfect gem of songwriting, but in that video you can see him being intentionally sloppy with the lip sync, already pushing back against the bullshit that comes with fame.
Big Star's first album had great catchy songs, in a power pop style not far from what Badfinger
was already doing, but the music was too
good, too dense and raw and personal in its beauty, for casual listeners to go there.
So Alex Chilton doubled down. Compare this song from their first album, The Ballad of El Goodo
, with this song from their second, What's Going Ahn
. It's like the sound got drunk. The notes are more dissonant, the rhythms more sprawling, the sadness deeper.
When their second album also flopped, Chilton doubled down again. In Kangaroo
, it's like he set the Big Star sound on fire and watched it burn, with rising swirls of luminous noise, and drummer Jody Stephens not even keeping rhythm but slapping accents on Chilton's dissipated strumming.
The Muffs - first three albums (1993-1997)
After one of their shows I heard someone say, in awe, "She's angry and
happy!" On top of her rare emotional tone, I love Kim Shattuck's voice, and she's a great songwriter. Their self-titled first album is the most varied and inspired, Blonder and Blonder is the most dense and powerful, and Happy Birthday To Me has the most depth.
Rush - 2112 (1976)
Fly By Night has more light through the cracks, Caress of Steel has better solos, A Farewell To Kings is just as heavy and more complex, and Moving Pictures is more respectable. Side two of 2112 is mostly duds, and the twenty minute title track has an embarrassing Ayn Rand theme. But the sound! If this is prog rock, its raw power blows away all other prog rock (even if you count Queen II). And if it's metal, then this is as heavy as Black Sabbath and much more stylish and gothic. Never has so much energy been channeled with so much precision.
Tom Waits - Rain Dogs (1985)
If I were a real Tom Waits fan I'd like The Black Rider best, but Rain Dogs is his best blend of great songwriting and the style he developed on Swordfishtrombones. Bone Machine is not far behind, and most of his early albums have two or three great songs.
Exuma and Exuma II (1970)
Primal, creative, and hard to classify, but I like to tag Exuma as Voodoo gospel, even though he's technically Obeah.
Pink Floyd - Meddle (1971)
Unlike the more famous albums that followed it, this has no unifying theme or sound, but it's the best set of songs they ever put together. I even like "Seamus".
Bone Cellar - Now That It's All Over (1994)
Of all the Seattle bands of the early 90's, Bone Cellar was the most honest. They also had awesome guitar solos and played the best live show I ever saw. Their second album, Lost in the Light of Day, is almost as good.
Pasteboard - Glitter (2005)
My favorite super-chill album is this Japanese one-shot. Has anyone else noticed that they sound a lot like Carissa's Wierd?
Antenna - Sway (1991)
When Juliana Hatfield went solo, the other two members of the Blake Babies formed Antenna, and made this really solid album of heartland indie rock. It baffles me that it's been nearly forgotten.
Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997)
A great band's best album, with nice sounds and good songwriting all the way through. My favorites are the super-catchy "Little Honda" and the super-trippy "Spec Bebop".
Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade (1984) and New Day Rising (1985)
Zen Arcade has more good songs and more raw energy, and New Day Rising has more complexity and depth.
Gordon Lightfoot - Sit Down Young Stranger a.k.a. If You Could Read My Mind (1970)
Gordon Lightfoot is a decent lyricist and a great songwriter and singer, and this is his best collection of songs other than greatest hits albums. If you get this plus Gord's Gold and Summertime Dream, you have only a handful of duds and only two songs of overlap. The CD version of Gord's Gold is missing "Affair on 8th Avenue", but there are vinyl rips online.
Rex Holman - Here In The Land Of Victory (1970)
Holman was an actor who made only one album, and not one critic gets it: he's not aiming for an easy listening sound, and he's not just Gordon Lightfoot with more vibrato -- he's pioneering a subtle and very powerful weirdness. You have to go to Nicholas Talbot in the next century to find something this good in this direction. But with the exception of "Come On Down", the songwriting is only average.
Electric Moon - any live album (2010-present)
This German trio can improvise top-notch stoner/psych/space rock that rewards close listening and demands nothing.
Mono - You Are There (2006)
From Japan, my favorite post-rock band. All their albums are recorded live in studio, and the others are almost this good. Mono plays the most civilized great music I've ever heard.
Violent Femmes - Hallowed Ground (1984)
Their second album matches their famous debut in the catchiness of the rhythms and melodies, and exceeds it in creativity and darkness.
The Ramones - Leave Home (1977)
This is their second album, not as lyrically inspired as their debut, but musically better in every way. Appropriately, it was later repackaged to include "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker", the only other Ramones song that could hold its own here.
Red House Painters - (rollercoaster) (1993)
Red House Painters have two self-titled albums, and the great one has a rollercoaster on the cover. When I was 26 the vocal track sounded deep and mature, and now it sounds like a whiny teenager. But New Jersey still holds up, and I still love the music.
The Pogues - Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash (1985)
Easily the best Pogues album, but most Americans, even if they know the Pogues, have never heard it.
The Police - Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)
Considered the worst Police album by almost everyone, and I agree that it has the lowest peaks, but I love the dark, echoey sound that fills the corners.
Queen II (1973)
Queen's best album is an early and successful exercise in combining hard rock and prog rock.
[I was curious, so I did a count: Nine of the albums above are the artist's first album, eight are second, seven are third, four are fourth, five are fifth, zero are sixth or seventh, and five are eighth or higher.]
Hawkwind has been my favorite band on and off since I was 16. They formed in 1969 in west London, invented space rock, and over the years have had a ridiculous number of style changes, lineup changes, and album releases -- many of them unauthorized or barely authorized compilations. Dave Brock has always been the leader and the sole continuous member, but he doesn't like to take center stage, so this role has been filled by people as diverse as an exotic dancer, Lemmy, sci-fi author Michael Moorcock, and Arthur Brown Jr. ("I am the god of hellfire!") The BBC made a great Hawkwind documentary.
Everyone agrees that they peaked in the 1970's, but there is some disagreement about which albums are better. This is a list of important ones and personal favorites.
Two solid folk songs, "Hurry On Sundown" and "Mirror of Illusion", and some psychedelic rock with annoying vocals and great jams.
In Search Of Space, 1971
When I first heard this as a teenager it sounded like good songs with weird noise at the end. Now it sounds like great music with vocals to trick you into listening. Despite the title, the sound is merely cutting edge psych rock. Some fans like this album the best because of the more folky sound and complex drumming, but most people think the best was yet to come...
Doremi Fasol Latido, 1972
Hawkwind's revolution came from a synergy of two drugs: everyone else used LSD, and new member Ian Kilmister (Lemmy) used speed. His blistering bass lines drove long droning jams, and with Brock's increasing use of guitar phase effects, more skill by the two synth players, and consistent sci-fi lyrics, this was the birth of space rock. "Brainstorm" puts it all together, "Space is Deep" is their masterpiece, there's a nice Brock ballad (Down Through The Night) and a slow
Lemmy song (The Watcher).
Space Ritual, 1973
Double live album, featuring all four giants of Hawkwind: Brock, Lemmy, sax player and number two songwriter Nik Turner, and lyricist Robert Calvert, plus drummer Simon King, who would play on all their great 70's albums. It's easily their most powerful album, but it took me a long time to appreciate Calvert's sci-fi poetry and the album's overall rawness. "Space is Deep" is not nearly as good here as on Doremi, but "Lord of Light" is better. Two of my favorites, "Orgone Accumulator" and "Seven By Seven", are not on any Hawkwind studio albums.
Hall of the Mountain Grill, 1974
I don't know what happened in the studio, but the sonic layering on this album is way better than on their other albums. "Wind of Change" and "You'd Better Believe It" are highlights, but every song is good and different, and it even has their best cover art, with a back cover
by space artist David A. Hardy. The title track was copied, with some changed notes, in the 1975 film Picnic At Hanging Rock.
Warrior On The Edge Of Time, 1975
Lemmy was "well out of favour" in his own words, and would soon be fired after being caught with amphetamines at the USA/Canada border. This album is a hodge-podge of embarrassing Michael Moorcock spoken word bits, clumsy experiments, and three or four great songs that make it essential for serious fans.
Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music, 1976
Hawkwind switched labels from United Artists to Charisma, and totally changed their sound by installing longtime collaborator Robert Calvert as front man. Calvert was very smart and a great lyricist, with a singing style years ahead of his time. But he wasn't a good singer yet, and the band as a whole was stumbling. I only like one instrumental, "Chronoglide Skyway".
Quark, Strangeness, and Charm, 1977
Here the Brock/Calvert team hit its stride. Nik Turner and two other members were sacked, and the new tight lineup made a great album, featuring "Damnation Alley" and "Hassan I Sabha".
This was cobbled together from scraps in early 1978 and released more than a year later. Quark is good dweeb rock, but this is on another level, maybe because the chaos of the band falling apart led them to dig deeper musically. All five Calvert songs are brilliant, especially the dystopian crescendo of "High Rise". Brock's "Infinity" is luminous psych-drone, and the closest they've ever come to a love song.
Hawklords / 25 Years On, 1978
Recorded after PXR5 but released before it. Briefly, Hawkwind had to change their name to Hawklords for legal reasons. I only like one song, "The Only Ones".
Legendary drummer Ginger Baker replaced King, and the band went into the studio to make a decent album, but I'd say it's unnecessary because the best bits are done better on Zones and Independent Days.
Sonic Attack, Church of Hawkwind, Choose Your Masques, 1981-1982
Three albums on RCA, mediocre.
A collection of scraps from the early 1980's. This was the first Hawkwind album I heard and it's still one of my favorites. On vinyl, side 1 is clean and light, with Ginger Baker on drums, unique airy keyboards by Keith Hale, Huw Lloyd Langton's best guitar playing, and an exceptional live performance of "Motorway City". I love "Running Through The Back Brain", a challenging space jazz jam with vocals by Moorcock. Side 2 is dark and dirty live songs.
Independent Days volumes 1-2, 1995
Another solid compilation of stuff from the early 80's, including a tight new version of Lemmy's song "Motorhead". Also two songs from 1969 and an inspired remix of "Kings of Speed" from 1975.
Chronicle of the Black Sword, 1985
A concept album based on Moorcock's Elric novels, promising but not that good. I think "Zarozinia" was Hawkwind's last good song, and the CD version includes the entire Earth Ritual Preview EP, which was previously available only on vinyl, and contains the essential song "Green Finned Demon".
Nik Turner, Space Gypsy, 2013
Turner was a major contributor to the classic Hawkwind sound of 1972-74, and here he does a good job of bringing it back, but the songwriting is forgettable.
There are many, many more, but I haven't heard any others worth mentioning. For a more complete list, go to: