Album #566 – Planet Rock: The Album

Album #556

Album #566

I hesitate to write a review for this album. I don’t want to seem like I’m out of touch or that I don’t get hip hop. On the contrary, I do. But, my favorite rap and hip hop music is takes sampling from rock, jazz, funk & r&b not electropop. Rap and hip-hop are also the best, for my taste, when they have something to say. The hip hop of my childhood for the most part, lacked that element. It took a lot from this album and the sounds it created back in 1986. While I didn’t particularly like Planet Rock all that much as an album, what I do respect about this album is that Afrika Bambaataa tried something new for hip hop at the time. Most DJs were using samples from the genres I mentioned above. Afrika Bambaataa used electronic music from groups like Kraftwerk as his musical backdrop. It took a lot of guts to do that. It’s not always easy to be an innovator. The cool thing is that much of today’s hip hop fuses electronic dance music much in the way that it was done 30 years earlier on Planet Rock: The Album. In fact, Afrika Bambaataa’s use of electropop, lead to new genres of dance music being created in the late 80’s. Modern hip hop would not exist had it not been for the experimentation that is found on this album. DJ culture also owes a lot to the sounds found here. Now, even though I found it to be much of the same, the title track is a great jam. I was dancing along to it in my kitchen as I was doing the dishes. To me, that is the true test. Hopefully, we will see another artist like Afrika Bambaataa take hip hop and create a new, influential sound. It takes risk takers to make music interesting. It can’t be the same way forever.

Other highlights include: Looking for the Perfect Beat, Renegades of Funk and Go-Go Pop

Overall, I give Planet Rock: The Album, 2.5 out of 5

Next: Licenced to Ill by Beastie Boys

Album #565 – Blood & Chocolate

Album #565

Album #565

Blood and Chocolate has become one of my favorite Elvis Costello albums. It’s sound hearkens back to the sound of My Aim Is True and yet the songwriting is more dark and raw than almost anything that came before. Blood and Chocolate would be his last album with the Attractions for 8 years. By this point, Costello was happily married to the Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordon. She even sings backing vocals on Crimes of Paris. Yet I can’t think of better examples of Costello’s angry songwriting. Maybe tensions with the Attractions fueled the fire. I Want You is the most haunting, bitter break-up song I have ever heard. It goes for the jugular in a way that even Sting’s stalker anthem, “Every Breath You Take”, doesn’t. It’s angry, creepy and leaves you on the edge of your seat. It is uncomfortable to listen to. I have never been a relationship and gone through the bitter break-ups that sometimes come with them but, I Want You makes me feel those emotions in a very deep way. To me, it makes Costello one of the greatest songwriters of the last 50+ years. Nick Lowe’s return to producing the Attractions after a 5 year absence also makes this album have that familiar sound. A mixture of straight forward rock and introspective ballads, Blood & Chocolate marks a new sound for Costello that matches most of his early 90’s output. In fact, Blood & Chocolate is such a good sounding album that it holds up over 30 years later. There is no 80’s gloss or over production. Instead, it captures Elvis Costello in his finest form: a man who loves words and know how to use melody effectively.

Other highlights include: Uncomplicated, I Hope Your Happy Now, Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head, Blue Chair, Battered Old Bird and Poor Napoleon.

Overall, I give Blood & Chocolate, 5 out of 5.

Next: Planet Rock: The Album by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force

Album #564 – Atomizer

Album #562

Album #564

Note: For some unknown reason, Atomizer is listed in the book as being released in 1985. But, looking everywhere online including Spotify, Apple Music, and Discogs, the release date is listed as 1986. Therefore, it will be the first album on the list from 1986.

This album was a mighty big surprise. The only thing I knew about Big Black was that one of their members, Steve Albini, produced (or in his words “engineered”) several landmark alternative records including: Surfer Rosa by Pixies, Pod by The Breeders and In Utero by Nirvana. I knew that Big Black’s music was loud, noisy and dark. But, after listening to Atomizer, I realized why I loved hardcore so much: energy. It’s only three guys and a drum machine but, the energy that you get while listening to Atomizer pumps you up. You’re ready to go and face the day. It’s exciting and contagious. I loved Steve Albini’s style of singing. He is struggling to be heard but amidst the noise, you can hear his vocal frustrations. He is laying his life out in these songs for you to experience. So brilliant and it makes me wish I would have tapped into this album during my high school years. They would have been much more bearable if I had access to Atomizer. All the frustration would have gotten lost in that music. The album may be noisy but never droning. There is a melody there too and that doesn’t hurt their music at all. My first image of the band was to associate them with the trio in the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. They too were three guys and a drum machine. Although, they were much more pop-oriented than Big Black. Big Black are so much more than that. I also felt excited when I heard Atomizer because here I was discovering something that most do not know even exists. It was exhilarating. It was a new discovery and something only I  knew I would understand. I felt free listening to Atomizer. I could truly understand where this music was coming from. Somehow, it all works for me. Atomizer bridges the gap between the hardcore sounds of the early 80’s and the grungy sounds of the late 80’s/early 90’s. I can hear both influences on this album. It’s no secret that Steve Albini knows the value of sound on a record. Sure, he doesn’t want to take the credit. But, if Albini’s comments on the music industry are any indication, we need more Steve Albini’s and less calculated producers. Producers and engineers that aren’t afraid to take risks and trust a band and their instincts. Who knows what genius they will bring to the table? Only time will tell.

Highlights include: Jordan, Minnesota, Big Money, Kerosene, Fists of Love, Bazooka Joe, Strange Things and Cables.

Overall, I give Atomizer, 5 out of 5.

Next: Blood & Chocolate by Elvis Costello & The Attractions

Album #563 – Cupid & Psyche 85

Album #563

Album #563

Scritti Politti had a unique beginning. Much like New Order, the group began as a Post-Punk band except Scritti Politti had an Left-Wing political tone to their music. By the time Cupid & Psyche 85 was released, the sound of Scritti Politti was vastly different. Lead singer Green Gartside abandoned his political beliefs and wanted to go in a more commercial direction. Of course, his band mates didn’t agree and Gartside carried on the band by himself. Gartside also started to get into hip-hop music around this time and moved to New York City. It was there that this album came to fruition. Co-produced by the legendary Arif Mardin, Cupid & Psyche 85 reminds me of much of the music today. It is very electronic based in 2016 with the rise of EDM but within that synthy shine are some well written songs with hooks. The Chainsmokers’ song Closer immediately comes to mind. That is probably why I couldn’t relate to a lot of Prefab Sprout’s Steve McQueen. There didn’t seem to be any pop sensibilities on that album other than on When Love Breaks Down. Paddy McAloon rambled on and didn’t seem to use the chorus or hooks on many of that album’s tracks. On Cupid & Psyche 85, Gartside along with new band members David Gamson and Fred Maher, created a commercial friendly sound with some lyrical content from Gartside that was still more intellectual than pop music would allow. The best part was that they pulled it off successfully!! I was moving and dancing along with this album from the first note!! The parallels with current pop music are more than just the songs. Turns out that David Gamson has worked with Kesha, Kelly Clarkson, Jessie J and Adam Lambert. Their music has a similar quality to Scritti Politti’s tracks on Cupid and Psyche 85. Gamson also brought the funk influence and if you listen closely, you can hear a bit of Chic and Parliament-Funkadelic’s sounds throughout Cupid and Psyche 85. The album’s centerpiece is their biggest US hit, Perfect Way. In my opinion, it’s the quintessential mid 80’s synth track. Gartside’s vocals are smooth and yet Gamson’s synth work is miles above their contemporaries. It is what makes the band stand out. They knew how to make catchy, accessible songs and yet there is some mystery, some deeper element. It is brilliant and I can’t help but wonder why this group was never able to capture the magic again.

Other highlights include: The Word Girl, Small Talk, Absolute, A Little Knowledge, Lover to Fall and Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin).

Overall, I give Cupid & Psyche 85, 4.5 out of 5.

Next: Atomizer by Big Black

Album #562 – Don’t Stand Me Down

Album #562

Album #562

Because the 1001 Album list and book are a British list, there are some surprises and some albums that I feel have no place on a list of that caliber. Don’t Stand Me Down is an album that really has no place on the list. Having NOW listened to all three of Dexys Midnight Runners’ albums, I don’t get why the authors of this book made such a big deal about this band. They had one big hit in North America for a reason. Come On Eileen is a great song but beyond that, what do Dexys Midnight Runners really offer for musical inspiration? When they started recording, there was something unique there. But, by the time Don’t Stand Me Down was released, the band was filled with tension. In fact several members left the group during the recording of Don’t Stand Me Down. The four remaining members are in the cover photograph. In fact, you can hear the tension on many of the album’s tracks. The magic just isn’t there anymore. In fact, I can remember watching Pop-up Video as a kid and seeing the vid for Come on Eileen. The pop-ups went on to reveal that through the video’s day long shoot several members of the band were fired or left the group. It seems that lead singer Kevin Rowland couldn’t get along with ANYBODY. Its sad to see it carry over to the group’s next album. Probably the worst case of leadsingeritis that I’ve ever seen or heard about. The album’s sound mixes their original soul influence with country, folk and jazz. At times, the album sounds like a bad Broadway play (This Is What She’s Like is a 12:23 song, half of which contains a rambling dialogue). Maybe Tarantino got the idea to have lines from his films on the accompanying soundtrack album from Don’t Stand Me Down. At least Tarantino did a better job.

Overall, I give Don’t Stand Me Down, 2 out of 5.

Next: Cupid and Psyche 85 by Scritti Politti

Album #561 – Picture Book

Album #561

Simply Red may describe the hair color of the lead singer but, the music is more black and blue. Their first album is a combination of r&b, soul and pop. Mick Hucknall’s voice is one of my favorites in all of pop music. It’s full of color and emotion along with a raspiness and flavor that connects with his British roots. I’m beginning to realize that the singer’s voice plays a big role in my taste. If it is unique and full of emotion, I end up loving it. If it is an imitation, not so much. Working in radio for 3 years full time has also given this characteristic a more developed sense of importance. On the surface, Simply Red could be written off as just some other mid 80’s white r&b/sophisipop band, because of their lead singer. But, they are so much more. In fact over the years, Simply Red has had a diverse lineup of musicians, from different races and backgrounds. They are also more soulful than their contemporaries. Hucknall’s voice has as much soul as his influences do. As a result, they are not your typically cookie cutter sophistipop group. The best example of their talent is their version of the Talking Heads’ song Heaven. Mick and the boys slow down the tempo and make the tune like something Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett would have had in their repertoire. I can’t talk about Picture Book without mentioning the album’s big hit: Holding Back The Years. What a song!! If you want a tune about heartache, this is your song. Every time I need a pick-me-up, this is the song I go to. Hucknall’s performance on the track is haunting and captures the emotions of that time in someone’s life brilliantly. I really enjoyed listening to the album and it has inspired me to go deeper into their work.

Other highlights include: Come To My Aid, Sad Old Red, Jericho and Money’s Too Tight (To Mention). Overall, I give Picture Book, 4.5 out of 5.

Next: Don’t Stand Me Down by Dexys Midnight Runners

Album #560 – Low-Life

Album #560

New Order are one of those groups that are distinctly 80’s. There is no getting away from the decade for them. It’s probably because of how influential and ahead of their time they were. Low-Life is the group’s third album. They were well on their way. I really enjoyed listening to it because New Order evolves on this album from a group rooted in post-punk sounds to one that seemed to go in a dance-based direction. The songs become more melodic as well. New Order, like their contemporaries Depeche Mode, started out quite different as a band. New Order was originally Joy Division, fronted by Ian Curtis. After Curtis’ death in 1980, his band mates carried on in a new direction. Their early work sounds very similar to Joy Division: droning, industrial post-punk. But as the decade carries on, the band’s sound changed and became their own. Low-Life’s sounds are still around today by influencing many artists who are going in a synth-pop direction. But, I wonder if they could ever be as dark as New Order and writing meaningful songs within the synth-pop framework. The song Love Vigilantes has become one embraced by indie artists in numerous cover versions including the most famous: Iron and Wine’s version. The song talks about the travesties of war in a way we can all relate to. It is this type of accessible songwriting that New Order would continue to experiment with especially on their massive hit, Bizarre Love Triangle. The instrumentals are also great and show the evolution as well. From the moment I heard The Perfect Kiss in the film Pretty In Pink for the first time, I was mesmerized. The beautiful sounds coming together makes it one of the best tracks from the decade. There was not a dud on Low-Life and I will be adding it to my collection.

Overall, I give Low-Life, 5 out of 5.

Next: Picture Book by Simply Red